Filled with stairways, grottoes and secret rooms, Levon Arkelyan’s underground museum is one of Armenia’s biggest tourist attractions .
Filled with stairways, grottoes and secret rooms, Levon Arkelyan’s underground museum is one of Armenia’s biggest tourist attractions .

Armenia’s Divine Underground Museum is a legacy of love

Near the capital of Yerevan, lies an underground labyrinth built by one man. They’ve nicknamed it Armenia’s Taj Mahal.
By Raul Dias | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 01, 2019 08:28 AM IST

The Armenian village of Arinj isn’t particularly easy on the eye. Dreary-looking Soviet-era apartment blocks dominate the landscape. Gnarly, winter-ready trees poke lethargically up at the sky.

KHOR VIRAP MONASTERY: ANOTHER SECRET TREASURE

Perched atop a small hill in Armenia’s Ararat plain, close to the Turkish-Armenian border, is the Khor Virap monastery, literally ‘deep dungeon’ in Armenian.

It derives its name from a dungeon accessed by climbing through a narrow hole in the now-chapel’s stone floor, down a steep iron ladder (it is not for the faint-hearted or even mildly claustrophobic).

It was in this dungeon that the saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years by the pagan King Tiridates III.

In 301 CE, the story goes, the king was cured of dementia by Gregory, who claimed to have been aided by divine forces. He was finally set free, Armenia was declared a Christian country (the world’s first), and Gregory became the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

But then, they’re not the reason most people make the 20-minute drive here from Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. The reason any tourists come here is to see a labyrinth nicknamed ‘Armenia’s Taj Mahal’, officially, Levon’s Divine Underground Museum.

Hidden beneath an ordinary-looking home, at the end of a meandering alley, is a series of underground chambers, all carved out by one man — Levon Arkelyan. It started when his wife Tosya asked for a potato storage cellar for winter. Levon started digging in 1985, and didn’t stop till his death in 2008. Today, the caves, stairways, grottoes and secret rooms he created are one of Armenia’s biggest tourist attractions.

Over 23 years — using only rudimentary tools like a chisel and hammer — Levon (who was a builder by training), created a 3,000-sq-ft space, 21 metres deep.

Working alone, sometimes for 20 hours a day, he managed to dig through the tough basalt layer and reach the softer, easy-to-carve tuff, recognised by its delicate pink hue.

Levon was a builder by training. Using only rudimentary tools like a chisel and hammer , he created a 3,000-sq-ft space, 21 metres deep, and also carved out decorative pillars in the walls.
Levon was a builder by training. Using only rudimentary tools like a chisel and hammer , he created a 3,000-sq-ft space, 21 metres deep, and also carved out decorative pillars in the walls.

It was from the tuff that Levon’s creations started to take shape. These included the main stepped pathway leading down to six small chambers and ribbed-roofed vestibules, all elaborately decorated with Doric columns, traditional Armenian carved crosses called khachkars and stunning bas-reliefs.

The original plan was for an underground maze of 74 rooms. Levon said he saw the plans in his dreams, and believed he was being guided by the divine.

Since his sudden death at age 67, Tosya has run the facility as a ‘pay-as-you-please’ private museum where she and her daughters take turns to act as guides.

The caves are now part of government brochures too. And everywhere you look in Arinj, signs point to this unique attraction.

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