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Online Extra
March 2004

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Report from Armenia, 1926: A Holy Spectacle at Etchmiadzin
By Maynard Owen Williams

Armenia Online Extra
Photographs by Maynard Owen Williams

Witnessing the struggles Armenians faced during a desperate and war-ravaged time, Maynard Owen Williams took control of the relief efforts in the Lake Van area between December 1917 and February 1918. He embraced the country and fell in love with the people. Williams joined the staff of National Geographic as its first foreign correspondent after writing a piece highlighting the plight of the Armenian children. Williams lived abroad from 1922 to 1930, sending in a wealth of photographs and articles. In 1926 he submitted over 500 photos of Armenia with a manuscript, a broad look at the land he had grown to love. But Williams's Armenia was never published—a fate not uncommon in the magazine's early days.

The following is an excerpt from the original piece, documenting the blessing of the holy oil of the Armenian Church, a festive and sacred ceremony that takes place every seven years.

—Melanie Wemple

I SPENT THREE hours on Sunday morning waiting for the catholicos to appear among his gorgeously gowned acolytes. Then, falling into line with others, I made my way into the church. Here were thousands of pilgrims who had come from the four corners of the Caucasus to see the holy oil touched with the mummy hand of Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of Armenia.

It was no paradise inside. More an inferno, with candle flames distorting frenzied, sweaty faces of the few thousands who had gained entrance to this mad but mighty spectacle. The song of the choir mingled with the unending throb of the tom-toms.

Peasant folk, themselves resigned to poor places, urged, aided, pushed me to a better point of vantage. Separating the choir from the nave was a bronze rail. Over that railing, sturdy peasants tossed me like a squirming sack of meal. When the ministrations of my unknown friends were over, I found myself one of 15 standing atop a grand piano. Thus privileged, I was still a part of the mob. One after another tried to claw his way onto the piano which formed our grandstand. Each was repulsed by those who feared that our support would collapse. And I was on the one-leg end.

Soaked with perspiration, I stood there taking notes while a woman beside me insisted on holding my hat.

Imagine that you can hear the clear voice of the tenor soloist, the sweet songs of the girls' choir, the unceasing surge of the close-packed crowd, the dull undertone of tom-toms filtering in through narrow windows from outside.

Standing above the frenzied crowd, the frail catholicos, propped up by gold-stiff robes, seems not the spiritual leader of a scattered race, but the chief actor in a spectacle so mighty and so imponderable.

Behind every word is the growing rumble of the populace.  We are in the central church of the Armenian faith on the day of its great septennial festival.  Ahead of our left shoulder is the urn in which the oil is awaiting the sanctifying miracle.

Listen to that tenor! He dominates the scene. But behind it all is dull, unending throb of tom-toms.

If that one leg goes now, this piano will need repairs. So will we.

The silvering, the silken robes. The jeweled mitres are on fire.  The shaft of light is touching the urn. The crescent of robes is closing in.

Listen to that tenor!  Something is surely going to happen now.

The catholicos is reaching toward the pot of oil. Something glistens in his hand and dips below the rim.

Listen to those booming bells! Smaller ones jangle like a three-alarm fire. The people are cheering wildly. A crashing surf of clapping hands has piled up above that sea of heads. What a sight! And sound!

Here comes the woman who held my hat. She invites me to help eat their sacrificial lamb. The people are kind. But two days of this holy show is enough.


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