Armenian Architecture - Virtual Ani - Travellers Accounts: G. I. Gurdjieff
"Meetings With Remarkable Men"

The exact truth of the early life of the "mystic philosopher" G. I. Gurdjieff is uncertain. Some books say that he was born around 1866 in the town of Alexandropol (Gyumri) and had an Armenian mother and a Greek father. His family later migrated to Kars where he grew up, was educated, and was a chorister in the choir of the Russian 'fortress cathedral' (the medieval Church of the Apostles). In 1883 he left Kars to live in Tiflis, and the visit to Ani reproduced below probably happened in 1886. Other books put the date of his birth forward to around 1877 - which would mean that this visit to Ani occured in the mid 1890s (if it occured at all). He died in 1949 in Paris, France.

His book "Meetings With Remarkable Men" was written in Russian in the 1920s. An English edition was published in 1963. This extract is from pages 87 to 91 from the 1986 Penguin/Arkana edition.

When I returned to Tiflis I had collected, including what remained from my previous earnings, quite a substantial sum, so I did not look for work again but devoted myself entirely to the study of the phenomena which interested me.

Pogossian had meanwhile become a locksmith and also found time to read a great many books. He had recently become especially interested in ancient Armenian literature, of which he procured a large quantity from the same booksellers as I.

By this time Pogossian and I had come to the definite conclusion that there really was "a certain something" which people formerly knew, but that now this knowledge was quite forgotten. We had lost all hope of finding any guiding clue to this knowledge in contemporary exact science, in contemporary books or from people in general, and so we directed all our attention to ancient literature. Having chanced to come across a whole collection of ancient Armenian books, Pogossian and I became intensely interested in them and decided to go to Alexandropol to look for a quiet place where we could give ourselves up entirely to study.

Arriving in Alexandropol, we chose as such a place the isolated ruins of the ancient Armenian capital, Ani, which is thirty miles from Alexandropol, and having built a hut among the ruins we settled there, getting our food from the neighbouring villages and from shepherds. Ani became the capital of the Bagratid kings of Armenia in the year 962. It was taken by the Byzantine Emperor in 1046, and at that time was already called the "City of a Thousand Churches". Later it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks; between 1125 and 1209 it was taken five times by the Georgians; in 1239 it was taken by the Mongols, and in 1313 it was completely destroyed by earthquake.

Among the ruins there are, by the way, the remains of the Patriarchs' Church, finished in the year 1010, the remains of two churches also of the eleventh century, and of a church which was completed about 1215.

At this point in my writings I cannot pass by in silence a fact which, in my opinion, may be of interest to certain readers, namely, that these historical data which I have just cited concerning the ancient Armenian capital Ani are the first, and I hope the last, that I have taken from information officially recognized on earth; that is to say, it is the first instance since the beginning of my writing activities in which I have had recourse to an encyclopedia.

About the city Ani there still exists one very interesting legend, explaining why, after being called the "City of a Thousand Churches" for a long time, it came to be called the "City of a Thousand and One Churches".

This legend is as follows:

Once the wife of a certain shepherd complained to her husband about the shocking misbehavior in the churches. She said that there was no place for quiet prayer and, wherever one went, the churches were as crowded and noisy as beehives. And the shepherd, heeding her just indignation, began building a church especially for his wife.

In former times the word "shepherd" did not have the same meaning as it has now. Formerly a shepherd himself was the owner of the flocks he grazed; and shepherds were considered. among the richest people of the country, some of them even possessed several flocks and herds.

When be had finished building the church, this shepherd called it the "Church of the Shepherd's Pious Wife", and from then on the city of Ani was called the "City of a Thousand and One Churches". Other historical data assert that, even before the shepherd built this church, there were many more than a thousand churches in the city, but it is said that during recent excavations a stone was found confirming the legend of the shepherd and his pious wife.

Living among the ruins of this city and spending our days reading and studying, we sometimes, for a rest, made excavations in the hope of finding something, as there are many underground passages in the ruins of Ani.

Once, Pogossian and I, while digging in one of these underground passages, noticed a place where the consistency of the ground had changed, and on digging further we discovered a new passage, which turned out to be a narrow one, blocked at the end with fallen stones. We cleared the stones away and before us appeared a small room with arches crumbling with age. Everything indicated that it had been a monastic cell. There was nothing left in this cell but broken pottery and pieces of rotten wood, doubtless the remains of furniture; but in a kind of niche in the corner lay a pile of parchments.

Some of the parchments were turning to dust, others were more or less preserved. With the utmost care we took them to our hut, and tried to decipher them. They were written in a language which appeared to be Armenian but was unknown to us. I knew Armenian well, to say nothing of Pogossian; nevertheless we could not understand any of this writing, as it was a very ancient Armenian, very different from that of today.

This discovery interested us so much that we left everything else and returned that same day to Alexandropol, where we spent many days and nights trying to decipher at least a few words. Finally, after a great deal of difficulty and much questioning of experts, it became clear that these parchments were simply letters written by one monk to another monk - a certain Father Arem.

We were especially interested in one letter in which the writer referred to information he had received concerning certain mysteries. This parchment, however, was one of those which had been most damaged by time, and there were a number of words that we could only guess at but we nevertheless succeeded in reconstructing the letter.

What interested us most was not the beginning but the end of this letter. It began with a long greeting, and went on about the ordinary small happenings in the life of a certain monastery where, as could be inferred, this Father Arem had formerly lived. Towards the end one passage particularly attracted our attention. It said:

"Our worthy Father Telvant has at last succeeded in learning the truth about the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Their organisation actually did exist near the town of Siranoush, and fifty years ago, soon after the migration of peoples, they also migrated and settled in the valley of Izrumin, three days journey from Nivssi...." Then the letter went on about other matters.

What struck us most was the word "Sarmoung", which we had come across several times in the book called "Merkhavat". This word is the name of a famous esoteric school which, according to tradition, was founded in Babylon as far back as 2500 BC, and which was known to have existed somewhere in Mesopotamia up to the sixth or seventh century AD; but about its further existence one could not obtain anywhere the least information.

This school was said to have possessed great knowledge, containing the key to many secret mysteries

Many times had Pogossian and I talked of this school and dreamed of finding out something authentic about it, and now suddenly we found it mentioned in this parchment! We were greatly excited.

But apart from its name being mentioned, we discovered nothing else from this letter. We knew no more than before when and how this school arose, where it had existed or whether it might even still exist.

After several days of laborious research, we were able to establish only the following: About the sixth or seventh century the descendants of the Assyrians, the Aisors, were driven by the Byzantines out of Mesopotamia into Persia, and probably it was in this period that these letters were written.

And when we were able to verify that the present city of Mosul, the former capital of the country of Nievi, had once been called Nivssi, the city mentioned in the parchment, and that at the present time the population round about this city consisted chiefly of Aisors, we concluded that in all probability the letter referred precisely to these Aisors.

If such a school had really existed and had moved somewhere during that period, then it could only have been an Aisorian school, and if it should still exist, then it must be among the Aisors and, taking into consideration the indicated three days' journey from Mosul, it must now be situated somewhere between Urmia and Kurdistan, and it should not be too difficult to find out where it was. We therefore decided to go there and try at any cost to find out where the school was situated and then enter it.