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ROCK AND SOUL: MAN WITH A MISSION CREATES AN UNDERGROUND MONUMENT
By Gayane Abrahamyan ArmeniaNow Reporter
Every single man here old or young will willingly accompany you to this handmade unique cave of the 21st Century that has attracted already the attentions of 40,000 visitors, not only from Armenia, but also from the US, Poland, Germany, Iran, Japan, Israel and many other countries.
Wonders lie on the other side of the gates to Arakelyan's simple and nondescript house. The gentle 64-year-old cave- maker with smiling eyes opens the heavy iron handled door of his `temple' and leads you into an underground world of his own creation.
Stairs carved in the grey basalt lead down from our surface life to a depth of 21 meters (equal to a 7-story building) and an underground world. After 80 stairs you find yourself in a round hall with decorated alcoves, then on to another room with columns, before entering a hall that calls to mind the interior of a church.
Further and further into the cave the labyrinth of stairs carries you, into six halls of this rocky engraved museum, each with its own unique carvings.
Arakelyan, a construction worker by trade, never intended to dig under his own house to create a cave church. He had been building homes for 25 years, when one day 20 years ago while in Russia, he says a phantom came to him and said: `You have an important job to do, you will live 96 years and images will appear in your eyes during those years that you need to repeat exactly.'
Then, in 1985, Arakelyan went down to the basement of his house to dig a store for potatoes, as his wife Tosya Gharibyan had asked. It was a request that radically changed their lives.
>From that moment, he became a zealous digger as if on some mission in search of the Holy Grail. His fight is with rock that neighbors say is impenetrable.
Arakelyan had dug just half a meter when he met the hard basalt on which the whole village rests. Neighbors who reached it stopped digging, but Arakelyan took the sound of the spade on stone as a call to arms.
He took his sharpest cutter and a five kilogram hammer and, for reasons perhaps unknown even to him, lunged at the rock. His aim was to carve an underground museum.
`The stone was so hard that each time I hit it sparks lit my eyes,' he says. `Even working 17 hours a day I would hardly dig a hole more than 20cm in diameter and 7cm deep. But while working I got unnatural strength, I do not know where from.'
Arakelyan dug for 10 years until he reached a layer of tufa that obeyed his hammer more readily.
A spade, a cutter...a unique passion and the lonely zeal of a human. A place for potatoes turned into a tourist attraction. This is Lyova Arakelyan's world.
`The most interesting thing is that Arakelyan works without any electric instrument and he does it alone,' says Ziggi Hanor, a BBC reporter.
Arakelyan insists he doesn't work alone, that a spirit helps him. He says: `Almighty God helps me, I couldn't do all this alone, I am just realizing His work.'
As well as digging and cutting, he also craves on stone and makes sculptures. Now the 21 meter deep and 300 square meter rocky pit has 6 rooms connected to each other by narrow stairs. In the small alcoves at the sides of the stairs are lamps and sculptures by Arakelyan, one like a Greek column, another like an Armenian capital, later a candle holder carved in the wall like an open shell.
`I see everything in my dreams, the images come and I know even in centimeters which part to carve, how I should decorate everything. Then I go to work in the morning,' says Arakelyan.
The atmosphere of mysterious silence underground and the coolness of the carved stone gives an unusual sense of peace. You feel as if you have ascended rather than descended from the surface of the earth.
Arakelyan hasn't put down his cutter and hammer for 20 years. He says: `I do not want to go out from here; this seems to be like my space, my spiritual life that is fully separate from the secular world and its problems.'
He has removed 450 trucks of soil and stones from here, used more than 20 cutters and hammers, and gone through innumerous pairs of shoes and clothes that Arakelyan's wife now preserves to show in the museum in the future.
But her husband is not going to finish his work, insisting that he will continue for 30 more years and dig 74 more rooms complete with decoration.
`That is the order,' he says simply.
Arakelyan has been granted the title of `Honored Cave Explorer' by the Center for Cave Studies for his work. Its president Samvel Shahinyan says with admiration: `I have studied more than a thousand caves and seen rocky structures in Europe, Africa and Asia.
`I am still shocked by the one created by Arakelyan. It is a miracle.'