A Woman Called ‘Mayrig’ at Etchmiadzin

Her name was Mayrig, that’s all I knew about the woman. She was leaning up against the back of the Mother Cathedral in Etchmiadzin one bright September day in Armenia’s Holy Land.

Mayrig (Photo by Tom Vartabedian)

People were coming and going. Seminarians were meandering about with a priest or two in their midst. A trio of costumed children was off to one side by a bench, practicing a dance. They couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, oblivious to the laggard woman.

Judging by the way she was dressed, she appeared no mercenary. The woman wore a long blue coat, slippers instead of shoes, and a kerchief. She appeared forlorn with her head pointed to the ground when I stumbled upon her presence.

Perhaps I was overstepping my bounds a little when I pointed a camera at her. She twitched a little when she noticed the intrusion but remained poised for a photograph. I was working on a piece about poverty in Armenia and figured it would fit.

She had a look about her that was hard to resist. A couple frames later, I approached her with some coins, thinking she could use some assistance. On the contrary, she refused my generosity.

“I don’t want your money,” she said, without lifting her head. “If you wish to help me, take the money and light a candle for me. Perhaps God will hear your prayer and make me well. I am ill and come to Etchmiadzin so I may be healed. I remain in God’s care.”

I asked her name and she replied with homage, “I am Mayrig (Mother). You can call me Mayrig.”

I took her calloused hand and patted it. They were the hands of time, though I couldn’t be sure of her age. Women in Armenia tend to look older than their actual years.

These hands showed a lifeline with the woman. No doubt, they had changed diapers, washed clothes, prepared food, and even drove a nail into a baseboard when necessary. They were the hands of love, not money.

I honored her request. A prayer inside the sanctuary with a plethora of lighted candles would be my pleasure. One other time, I answered a similar request at Alaverdi. A street comber had asked for money and I posed a question.

“What do you plan to do with this money?” I asked, thinking it would catch him off guard.

Instead, his answer threw me for a loop.

“I want to buy a candle and pray for my wife,” he uttered. “She died last month.”

He had that look of veracity on his face. I handed him a dollar and off he went. Ten minutes later, our paths crossed inside a nearby church as he hovered over a sandbox filled with burning candles, his hands folded in prayer.

It turned out to be the best dollar I ever spent in Armenia. Panhandling can become a ritual in the Motherland, especially if you’re a soft touch. Others more experienced had other impressions.

“Don’t pay any attention to beggars, especially children,” they would tell me. “Let them learn to suffice on their own and become responsible for their actions. By feeding them money, you’re taking away their integrity.”

I understood the inference. This woman at Etchmiadzin had integrity, if nothing else. The sanctuary at Etchmiadzin was laden with tourists and insiders this particular day. The Mother Cathedral was resplendent with history as 1,700 years of Christianity might attest.

To honor it with a candle and a prayer would take a matter of minutes.

I lit one candle for the wellbeing of my 95-year-old mother, a genocide survivor; another for my wife and children; a third for the welfare of Armenia; and the last one for the woman outside this very cathedral who went by the name Mayrig.

The candles were burning brightly that day. It was as close to heaven on earth as you could get. Just being there gave you the feeling of piety.

I went back outside to look for the woman and she had disappeared. My eyes followed a path in every direction with no Mayrig. No woman in a blue coat slouched over. No woman who had her shoulders to Etchmiadzin as if she were carrying the weight of an entire cathedral on her back.

Was she an apparition? Did God place her there to test my own sanctity? My photograph was all the testament I would need at this sacred moment.

In the days and weeks that followed, my visit to Armenia took on special meaning. Beside observing the buildings and the sites, the glamour, I enjoyed meeting the people—especially those you never expect to meet.

I had endeared myself to a modern-day “Mayr Haiastan” and became all the more enamored by it.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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  1. Tom , your words are as a picture… of all our Mayrigs who have borne the pains of living in our Haiastan – too, been the steadfast backbone of our homeland.  The day leaderships of our Haiastan are patriots who will know to seek out such Mayrigs.  As opposed to all the inept leaderships of these 20 years – self centered, who steal from our own Haiastansi citizens.. and too, our Mayrigs… Her picture should be a symbol of the need for honesty in government of Haiastan!!

  2. This article made me cry.. It was soo touching and beautiful…As I was reading the words, I transformed myself to Armenia, to Echmiadzin.. I felt like i was the one holding tatik’s hands… it was very real for me..so real that it made me cry because my heart ached for her and all those who can’t take care of themselves…Tatik is the epitomy of “survival, test of time, history, love, greatness”

    I love my country, my people and will do so until I die…  May God, Our Lord watch over our people in Armenia.. to protect them…

    Thank you Tom for sharing such a heart touching  

  3. It was a vey touching story Tom.  I was there 9 months ago, I didn’t meet such a Mayrig at Etchmiadsin, but I met them on other streets of Yerevan.  I met another wonderful Mayrig who was selling herbs and greenery in a small corner.  I have brought with me a brand new sweater and I put it over her, it took her a moment and then right away she wanted to repay me with her parsleys and some more greenery that she was selling; I told her that it wasn’t necessary because we are always going out to eat.  She then thanked me twice then I parted.  She was very much like the Mayrig you met, a lady with dignity.  At her advanced age she was still working for her livelihood and with her dignity.  I can’t get that beautiful Mayrig out of my mind.

    You know, it would be nice for the government to take better care of the elderly.  They lived all their lives working hard and tending for their spouses, their children and themselves, they refuse to live their golden years begging and without dignity.  It’s sheer shame that the government and the oligarchs don’t create good size old homes for these fine elderly people and provide them with medical help.  They are after all, our wonderful mayrigs and hayrigs.  They should be our pride and joy and they do belong to us all.  How I wish I had a few millions now.    

  4. Seervart jan… i echo your sentiments.. I wish for millions as well just to go back to Armenia and just do everything I dream of doing for my country and people… dreaming for that day…

    You are absolutely right .. our govt should take better care of our elderly… even more so because they can’t work anymore and need additional and extra help… but overall our govt should care about the well being of all her citizens sooner or later…


  5. Gayane jan, We both seem to say the same things every now and then when the subject arise about our govt and the oligarchs.  Of course I am in agreement with you, the govt should be able to create more jobs for everyone to go around and especially for the younger generation that are coming out of schools and universities, they must be rewarded with the appropriate good jobs.  We hope and pray for this, otherwise they will all start looking for other greener pastures.  One more thing; I know that because of corruption a good deal of Armenian Americans and possibly others too, especially the wealthy ones are trying to stay away, but it shouldn’t be this way, they should find a way to get into the heart of the people and support Armenia regardless.  Every
    Armenian who is patriotic enough should think this way, that is if they want to see Armenia on the maps.  They must support her.  After all we survived this far, we can overcome this corruption too, we should all support her in every which way we possibly can, rich and poor alike.

  6. I agree Seervart jan.. absolutely… i hear so many Armenians giving up on our country.. because of all the corruption, all the mishandling of funds ect.. however, that did not stop me from continuing helping or finding ways to support…. our wealthy Armenians should absolutely do everything to create means to better our country.. i wish i had the means… i would not stop at any cost.. even with something small like funding a school will help our country a great deal.. all it takes is money… the money i wish i had… however, not having it does not mean i don’t do anything else… we can support with our time and with out creativity…

    Very soon, I will be volunteering for SOAR (Society for Orphans of Armenia) in December.. I am also going to do everything to collect funds to take with me to Armenia myself… I have been a supporter for this organization for a while and I want to do something small for the Orphanage of Kharbert where my family is from… there are always ways to help out country.. you just have to have it in your heart and soul to continue the effort and the fight… and I will have that until I die…


  7. ‘ I am also going to do everything to collect funds to take with me to Armenia myself…’

    Let us know where to send monetary donations.

  8. You are a true friend Avery jan.. thank you so much… I will absolutely let you all know.. I am going to speak with the director of the local chapter very soon.. once I do, I will then notify all of you of my next step of action .. which hopefully will help me accomplish one of many goals…to be able to set foot in ARmenia and personally deliver our collective token of love…

    Yours truly,


  9. You can count me in Gayane jan.  I also support the orphanages.  I send the clothing through the Church in here; but if you are going yourself then I’ll give you the monetary fund.

  10. Hello Antoine, Thanks for your post, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to contact the link you provided, can you verify then resend it again?  Thanks.

    By the way I made an error above as I forgot that time passes so quickly.  I actually went to Armenia about 11-12 mos. ago.  How time flies….  Nevertheless as I said above, everyone of us has work to do, by contributing to these sites and being knowledgeable about what’s going on in and around Armenia vs. the world, as well as making our contributions to Armenia and visiting whenever we can.  Some people are actually going back and yet others own houses and live 6 mos. outside and 6 mos. in Armenia.

  11. Dear Seervard:
    Thank you for your interest. You are correct, I tried clicking on the link and it did not work, but when I copied the link (http://www.gitelik.org/) and pasted it in internet explorer, it did open.
    I apologize to Gayane for appearing to be so opportunistic. I certainly do not wish to take anything away from the SOAR orphans, who are very deserving and in need for our help. I believe universities are also very much in need, especially a provincial one such as Gitelik, because, unlike other States, Armenia has no alternative to the building of a knowledge-based economy: Moreover, our society should be based on knowledge. This means that education must be a priority in the 21st century, if we are to survive as a nation. 
    I have also been spending almost 6 months per year in Armenia and have built a house on top of the mountain in Yeghegnadzor (where Gitelik University is located). Please look me up if you want to visit the University.

  12. No worries Antoine…i understand..:)

    I am just too excited to have this opportunity to do something I always dreamed of doing..I have decided to take this upon myself and make it happen..even though I personally do not have major connections, or own businesses, or any other avenues to do more than what I can do now but i am looking forward to it… because I finally have the opportunity to go to Armenia after 12 years, and personally be there myself …to see the funds get into the right hands… i know it may not great deal of money as we all struggle but anything that gets collected is better than nothing..and it will be me who will take it there…an ordinary human being..:)

    I will check out the link provided… thank you for sharing….


    P.S.  thank you Seervart jan… :)

  13. i too was touched by your story about myrig,by not donating money to these people,it is not their integrity we shoul think of,but to their health,i’m sick and tired of all the negative comments about Armenia and all the coruption,thats just an excuse,i go to spend some monry enjoy and give to people who can use it,if you don’t want to go there,at least don’t bad mouth the people who live there try to work and take care of future generations.

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