By Liana Aghajanian
Originally posted on ianyan magazine
Eaten in England, Germany, the U.S., Romania and more Nordic countries than you can remember – the humble gingerbread has been a winter holiday favorite, accompanying other delicacies on tables for centuries, but always standing out thanks to a delicious combination of ginger, molasses or honey.
So deeply rooted in Europe, it is perhaps odd, yet also delightful, that it was actually an Armenian monk who introduced the sweet, dark confection to the continent over one thousand years ago.
It was the year 991, when archbishop Gregory Markar traveled from Nicopolis, a city in the ancient kingdom of Pontus now located in modern day Anatolia, Turkey, after being chased out by the Persian Army. Tired and weary, he made his way across Europe, arriving in the Gâtinais, part of the Loire Valley region in France. With permission from local officials, Gregory became a hermit, choosing to live close to the Saint Martin-le-Seul church in Baudrevilliers, which was previously abandoned by Vertou monks.
According to the Logis hotel chain, which details the region’s gastronomic delights like gingerbread on their site, Gregory’s “tiny, natural cell, no larger than his body, enabled him to lead a hermit’s existence of penitence and reclusion," as he took refuge in a cave. Gregory lived like this for seven years, “spending his time in long contemplations, living off edible roots and wild honey,” which the region was known for.
According to the 1901 book, “A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic and Dogmatic” by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, “Gregor of Armenia” fasted entirely every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. “On Tuesday and Thursday, he ate three ounces of food after sunset. On Sunday he did did not fast but ate very sparingly. He never ate meat or butter but his chief food was lentils, steeped in water and exposed to the heat of the sun. His rule was to eat as many as he could take up in his left hand.”
Gregory became a bit of a popular holy man in the French countryside, attracting “bourgeois and peasants alike” whom he would offer his Eastern hospitality to, “finishing the meal with a cake that he made himself, according to a recipe from his country, and comprising of honey and spices, in the fashion of his far away homeland in Armenia.”
This is recorded, according to several sources, in a 10th century manuscript from the Micy Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the region in which it is recounted that Gregory made, by hand, cake with honey and spices, “just like in his homeland.”
Thanks to Gregory, Pithiviers retained its rich gingerbread making tradition until this day – a “Saint Gregory of Nicopolis Gingerbread Brotherhood” or Brotherhood “du Pain d’Epices” if you’re French and fancy exists in the region, making gingerbread “according to the recipe passed down by Saint Gregory the Armenian.”
After teaching gingerbread making to the French, they in turn taught the Germans who brought it to Swedish monasteries, according to the 2010 book, “FoodFest 365!: The Officially Fun Food Holiday Cookbook” by Yvan Lemoine, who also adds that it was the “court of Queen Elizabeth responsible for creating the iconic man.” How very dainty, and also very British.
In the 13th century, a Flemish explorer named William of Rubruck wrote about Mount Ararat, the rumored resting place of Noah’s Ark, in his travel journal to the “Eastern Parts of the World.”
“Many have tried to climb it, but none has been able,” he wrote.
“This mountain did not seem to me so high that men could not ascend it,” he continued.
But an old man he met advised him not to even try:
“No one ought to climb up Massis. It is the mother of the world.”
This line of thinking was common - the Armenian Apostolic Church was reportedly opposed to ascending the mountain because of religious reasons (in a bid to preserve Noah’s Ark).
William of Rubruck wasn’t the only one who was fascinated with Mount Ararat. The famed Marco Polo was too.
Encountering Mount Ararat on his way to Asia in the 13th century, Marco Polo wrote:
"In the heart of Greater Armenia is a very high mountain, shaped cube-like … It is so broad and long that it takes more than two days to go round it. On the summit the snow lies so deep all the year round that no one can ever climb it."
Many might have tried, but it wasn’t until October 9, 1829 that anyone succeeded, when the German naturalist Friedrich Parrot and Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian made the trek to the top of the peak, at close to 17,000 feet. It’s a date considered to be the beginning of scientific mountaineering.
Nicknamed the “holy mountain,” Ararat became accessible to Western scientists after the Russo-Persian War ended. It was soon after that Parrot, a professor at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia) made his way to Armenia with a singular mission in mind: climbing the snow-capped mountain.
It was in his travels to Etchmiadzin where he met Abovian, who accompanied him as a guide.
Abovian’s services, Parrot wrote in his book “Journey to Ararat,” were “kindly placed at our disposal by the community for the period of our visit to Ararat.” Abovian also served as an interpreter, having indispensable knowledge of not just Armenian, but Russian, Persian and Tatar.
The two headed to the Armenian village of Akhury, located on the northern slope of Ararat and set up a base camp at the Armenian monastery of St. Hakob. The monastery, founded in 341 A.D. was destroyed in an earthquake at the mountain in 1840, making Parrot and Abovian some of the last visitors who visited there.
Parrot was as obsessed with the mountain as Armenians continue to be.
“For me, my eyes and all my thoughts were ever directed to the mountain reposing in brightness and majesty before us,” he wrote. “My mind was filled with its presence, its splendor, and its magnitude.”
Page 15 of Friedrich Parrot's book: Journey to Ararat
Parrot made necessary arrangements for food, “beasts of burden” and attendants. They brought with them a cross to be erected on the mountain. Made of the fir tree, the cross was constructed at Etchmiadzin, was 10 feet long and painted black.
They began from the east, and reached 13,000 feet above sea level, but the strong downward incline of the mountain made the trek impossible. After speaking to residents in the village of Akhury, they tried starting from the west. Reaching a flat rock, Parrot took notes and studied the mountain, but their trip wasn’t meant to be once again. By the time they would have reached the top, coming back down would be impossible because of the dark. They dug a hole in the ice and left the cross there.
Almost a week later, they attempted the ascent once again and this time, succeeded. They reached the top at 3:15 p.m. on October 9, stopping at a height of 16,254 feet.
“I pressed forward round a projecting mound of snow and behold! Before my eyes, now intoxicated with joy, lay the extreme cone, the highest pinnacle of Ararat,” Parrot wrote.
By the time Parrot gathered himself, Abovian had gone, “influenced by his pious zeal,” to find an appropriate place to put another cross they had brought with them on their third and final attempt.
He also picked up a chunk of ice and carried it down the mountain with him. He kept the water in a bottle, considering it holy. They stayed on the summit for about 45 minutes, ate a morsel of bread each and having brought wine with them, made a toast to Noah.
Two years after their climb, Parrot organized a scholarship for Abovian to study at the University of Dorpat in 1830, but the writer, who is considered to be the father of modern Armenian literature, mysteriously vanished in 1848 after leaving his home for a morning walk. He was never seen again. Parrot also didn’t fare well - he died in 1841 after falling ill, which could have been from side effects of expeditions he constantly endured.
Despite their tragic ends, Parrot and Abovian made history, not only becoming part of the first recorded ascent of the mountain, but also managing to climb a peak over 5,000 m - the first to be reached at that point.
Ararat, in all of its majestic glory, was finally conquered.