A genuine culture is a zoo, undiscovered and untouched a million times over, each photograph of an authentic icon of the Caucasus the first, each picture of an old, veiled woman praying next to candles unique and never done before. Western explorers and adventurers, every day and every year, recalim the late of this undiscovered country, taking their unique-and-never-seen-before-using-Google perspectives and posting them for all of the Facebook world to see.
On one Sunday morning, my friends and I decided to visit the services at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic faith, built to its current standard in the seventh century, though tradition dates the presence of a cathedral there from the fourth century, where Gregory the Illuminator had a vision of Jesus or Thor throwing down a golden hammer, marking the site of the Holy See of Armenia.
The service itself is beautiful and almost Latin in feel, with the high, painted vaults that arch towards Heaven. The priest, in gilded vestment, led a mass with the assistance of 12 other black clothed priests, somberly chanting the mass, and responded by a mutli-gendered choir that was stationed on the side of the cathedral. Other priests attended mass with their black, pointed hoods drawn up, hanging over their eyes, giving them an appearance of Zoroastrian magi at a fire temple. At one point, the celebrating priest, came down from the altar - which looked like a stage with a circular table that holds the bread - and walked through the crowd, blessing them with a golden cross, which people rushed in to kiss. One tourist, speedily taking dozens of pictures with a camera, the lens protruding like it was a 50 caliber cannon coming from the base of an Abrams, stood right in front of the priest and barely even moved to allow him to pass. He kept clicking away pictures, nearly knocking the priest directly in the face. The priest, tempered by years of patience dealing with the tourists, had to work his way around the photographer, as though the photographer were a paying customer to this cultural zoopark. He was the worst one, though not the only one. I think there were more people taking pictures of the service than there were actually attendees receiving sacraments.
Then there was that Armenian man who was both an attendee and a tourist. As the Catholicos came in from the back an hour into the services, people parted as though he were Moses parting the sea. He was an old man with kind eyes and a long white beard, he slowly made his way down the crowd, giving blessing to each person within his reach. The Armenian man in question held his video camera at arms length, filming himself receiving a blessing from the antediluvian priest.
|Svetitskhoveli, Mtskheta, Georgia|
We were later at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. I've long taken the habit of lighting a couple of candles and praying at Orthodox Churches, even though I'm Catholic. I can still respect and admire the austerity and mystique of the Eastern paths. Joseph, who is Orthodox himself, was lighting a candle and praying before one shrine to the Virgin Mother. Meanwhile, an obviously genius and all original photographer, whose optical mission was far beyond the person who was using the church for what it was built, nearly elbowed Joseph out of the way so he could get a better shot of the shrine. Then he crowded in front of Joseph, swinging his Canon this way and that way, so he could have the perfect shot that couldn't already be found on Google.
There comes a point when tourism - and especially the inappropriate use of cameras - destroys and degrades cultural conventions. Instead of respectfully observing and perhaps even taking part in an otherwise magical experience, many tourists have turned it into some form of circus, giving priests, monks and other functionaries of traditional culture the same status as mere clowns - not to say that clowns can't be cultural functionaries as well, like in the case of Canada and the Cirque du Soleil.
I can understand that religion might be strange to some people, especially to the modern evangelists of atheism and enlightenment that many Westerners feel themselves to be. I can understand that perhaps they can't understand spiritual revelation. That's not a big deal to me, as one's religion is generally under the auspices of one's experience and decision - and I'm including atheism in that. However, what is a big deal to me is that when someone can't afford the respect of another's religion. I'm not Armenian Apostolic, but I in every sense tried to respect the service and be as much a part of it as a complete outsider can be. To observe a religion, you shouldn't be swinging your camera lens in the face of the leading cleric, but rather you must be quiet and stand to the side, out of the way. Save your picture taking for when the church is no longer conducting services, if even then, for I think it's still something disrespectful to the perceived holiness of a place of worship, especially to people trying to quietly observe their own beliefs. In the Eastern Churches and religions moreso, you rarely see anyone disturbing anyone. No one attacks you with their religion, even though you came to their place of conduct and they would have the perfect right to proselytize. But here it seems that the religious tend to be even more respectful to the tourist than the tourist is to them. You're getting a free show, at least show some respect.