Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A ‘heaven-guided’ underground maze is Armenian tourist draw




A ‘heaven-guided’ underground maze is Armenian tourist draw

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Visitors look at an altar, part of a network of subterranean caves and tunnels, in the village of Arinj, outside the Armenian capital Yerevan. AFP

A ‘heaven-guided’ underground maze is Armenian tourist draw

When Tosya Gharibyan asked her husband to dig a basement under their house to store potatoes, she had little idea the underground labyrinth he would eventually produce would prove to be one of Armenia’s major tourist draws.

Their one-storey house in the village of Arinj outside the capital Yerevan may not look like much but today it brings in visitors from all over the globe after a 23-year labour of love by Tosya’s late husband, Levon Arakelyan.

They come to see a twisting network of subterranean caves and tunnels known as “Levon’s divine underground”.

In the cold and quiet, Tosya leads tourists through corridors that connect seven chambers adorned with Romanesque columns and ornaments like those on the facades of mediaeval Armenian churches.

“Once he started digging, it was impossible to stop him,” she said of the project that began in 1995. “I wrangled with him a lot, but he became obsessed with his plan.”

A builder by training, Levon would toil for 18 hours a day – only pausing to take a quick nap and then rush back to the cave, confident that he was being guided “by heaven”.

“He never drew up plans and used to tell us that he sees in his dreams what to do next,” his widow said.

Over more than two decades he hammered out the 280-square-metre (3,000 square-foot) space, 21 metres deep into strata of volcanic rocks – only using hand tools.

“My primary childhood recollection is the loud knock of my father’s hammer heard at night from the cave,” said his 44-year-old daughter Araksya.

‘Amazing place’

At the start he had to break through a surface layer of black basalt, but at the depth of a few metres Levon reached much softer tufa stone and the work progressed. He pulled out 600 truckloads of rocks and earth, using only hand-held buckets.

Levon died in 2008 at the age of 67 from a heart attack after destroying the last wall that separated two tunnels.

A decade on from the project’s completion, Tosya also runs a small museum commemorating her husband’s work in the village of some 6,000 people.

The underground complex has several analogues in the world.

An eccentric man named William Henry “Burro” Schmidt spent more than three decades digging a half a mile tunnel to transport gold through a granite mountain in California, beginning his work in the early 1900s during the state’s gold rush.

In Ethiopia a man named Aba Defar began carving churches on a mountainside after claiming divine inspiration from years of dreams.

Today the Armenian cave features prominently in travel brochures, regularly drawing busloads of visitors.

Milad, a 29-year-old Iranian tourist, called the maze an “amazing place”.

He said it made him realise just “how boundless the spiritual and physical capabilities of a person can be”.

MOST VIEWED

  • ADB says Kingdom to lose 390,000 jobs

    The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts Cambodia will suffer 390,000 job losses this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But it congratulated the government for its response to the crisis and its cash transfer programme for the poor and vulnerable. Last Wednesday, the ADB approved a $250

  • Fish with human-like teeth makes splash

    An image of a fish of the family Balistidae with human-like features made its rounds on social media after a Twitter user snapped a photo of his catch in Malaysia. The original post has received 675 comments, 8,200 retweets and more than 14,000 likes as of Tuesday. Astonishing

  • Gov’t not using EU aid for poor

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday refuted as “baseless”, claims that the government had used financial aid from the EU to implement the programme to identify and support poor and vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic. The prime minister was responding to Roth Sothy, a

  • Royal Group inks $35 million road deal on Koh Rong

    Royal Group Koh Rong Development Company and Sinohydro Corporation Limited reached a $35 million deal on Tuesday to build a 70km road on Koh Rong Island. The road will be 8m wide and is expected to take 16 months to complete, according to the plan approved by

  • Thai fence said to prevent illegal crossing

    Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provincial police say Thailand is not invading Cambodia after a series of social media posts about fences being built on the border raised alarms. Banteay Meanchey police chief Ath Khem said on Tuesday the information on social media on Sunday and

  • Nine more students from Saudi Covid-19 positive

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said preventing the spread of Covid-19 depends on each citizen. He expressed concern that the pandemic will continue for longer. Hun Sen said this after nine Cambodian students who recently returned to the Kingdom from Saudi Arabia were found to be

  • PM to vet NY holiday dates

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance submitted a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to formally set a five-day national holiday from August 17-21 to make up for the Khmer New Year holiday in April that was postponed. Finance minister Aun Pornmoniroth sent

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post