If you are someone who has lived a long time in the West or in Russia, it is likely that you count one or more Armenians among your acquaintances. If a person’s last name ends in –oyan (William Saroyan) or –ian (Aram Khachaturian), it is likely he or she is of Armenian descent. The worldwide Armenian diaspora numbers more than five million (One source claims ten million.) America alone accounts for nearly half a million, while the population of Armenia itself is barely three million.
I’ll say more about Armenia’s diaspora below, but first, here a are a few facts: The country is located in what are known as the Southern or Trans-Caucases. It is about the size of the State of Maryland and is seventy-five percent mountainous. Its capital is Yerevan, a city of a little more than a million. It is a land-locked, Christian country surrounded by Muslim neighbors and on bad terms with two of them. Its long border with Turkey has been closed for decades while in the early 1990s Armenia fought a war with Azerbaijan over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh, a war that ended in a ceasefire but with no further resolution.
So, to repeat the question, why visit Armenia? The country may be small, and hard-pressed today, but Armenia has a long, interesting past when Armenians distinguished themselves in significant ways. In medieval times Greater Armenia was several times its current size.
The ruins of Ani, one of its ancient capitals, lies within northeast Turkey and the surrounding region still contains abandoned Armenian churches some of which Kay and I sought out a year ago when we toured the area. Lake Van, Turkey’s largest was once well within Armenia’s domain as was Mount Ararat, the legendary landing place of Noah’s Ark, today also in Turkey, but visible to the Armenians from across the border where it is greatly revered.
In the days of the sultans, the Ottoman Empire was home to a large, thriving Armenian population. Like the Greeks and the Jews, many Armenians were successful businessmen and financiers. In the field of architecture a single family, the Balyans, built several of the palaces and imperial mosques that adorn Istanbul during the second half of the 19th century. Nikoğos Balyan was the chief architect of Abdül Mecit’s Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus. But like the empire itself, beginning in the early years of the 20th century, the lives of Anatolia’s Armenians came to an end.
Rising nationalism and its defeat in the Balkan Wars (1912 – 1914) cost the Ottomans nearly all of their European possessions. Ethnic Turks and other refugees, escaping wartime death and destruction, swarmed into Anatolia. In their misery, many resented the Armenians who seemed to have so much more than they did. Then there was the tragedy of the First World War when the unprepared and ill-equipped Ottoman army allied itself with Germany. The empire, bankrupt and unable to reform itself was collapsing quickly. Throughout Anatolia, wartime requisitions, plundering, violence and poverty made for instability and unrest. It was against this background that the Three Paşas who headed the group known as the Young Turks, having deposed the sultan, began an organized initiative to eliminate Anatolia’s Armenian population.
First, the Armenian men were either slaughtered or conscripted and used as forced labor by the army. Then, beginning in 1915 all the Armenian women, children and elderly that could be rounded up were marched from their homeland west across Anatolia into the Syrian desert. Along the way, they were starved, shot, stabbed, raped, buried alive, and otherwise systematically murdered. As a result, between one and one-and-half million Armenian civilians lost their lives. Survivors of what is known around the world, except in Turkey, as the Armenian Genocide escaped to swell the diaspora.
One can’t live long as an expatriate in today’s Turkey without being aware of what happened to the Armenians a century ago. It’s the elephant in the room, the shadow over the land. Even though the atrocities were committed by the Ottoman state before the Republic of Turkey existed, today’s government will not acknowledge that genocide occurred. It does admit that many Armenians died but it disputes the numbers and claims that many others died as well during a period of widespread chaos. In Turkey, out of fear, the genocide is rarely commented on publicly, for individuals have been prosecuted for doing so, most notably Orhan Pamuk, the country’s most well-known author. However, around the world the issue is kept alive by activist groups among the diaspora. In Armenia and among Armenians elsewhere in the world, April 24th is Genocide Remembrance Day. Like the Holocaust for the Jews, the Genocide for the Armenians will not be forgotten.
So much for the background; now let me get to the experience of visiting Armenia. Before hand I had wondered and wanted to know what life is like in this neighboring country that is near and yet so far from Turkey. I was to learn this and much more during a whirlwind, three-day guided tour sponsored by the Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey or FARIT. Let me say at the onset that Armenia will probably never be a mass-tourism destination. It has no beaches or theme parks. Madam Tussaud has yet to open an Armenian wax museum. Yet, for the cultural tourist there is much to learn and admire.
Part of the adventure of visiting Armenia is just getting there. There used to be regularly scheduled flights between Istanbul and Yerevan, but these ceased to operate some time ago. Now, the most direct way is through the country of Georgia that shares a border with Armenia. Our little group of nine that included a FARIT representative met early one recent morning at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport for a two-hour flight to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Kay and I had been there eight years before on another FARIT-sponsored, Georgia-specific tour. On this occasion, we would spend only the remainder of that first day and the evening in the city before traveling to Armenia the following morning.
Tbilisi has a pretty center spread along both sides of the Mikvari River. As most of the old city lies on the river’s south bank, that is where we spent several hours led by a voluble guide named Nick.
Since I thought I knew the city, I hadn’t expected any surprises, so I was pleased to discover that there were changes in the form of several modernistic commercial buildings and a new pedestrian bridge covered with a graceful, translucent, wing-shaped structure that could have been designed by Norman Foster. There was also a cable car that I didn’t remember. It took us up to a mountaintop where are the ruins of an ancient fortress and a shiny, aluminum statue of Mother Georgia, twenty meters tall, holding a sword in one hand and a wine cup in the other. From that hilltop eerie we looked down on the district of sulfur baths, one of which is housed in a building with a façade of exotic Persian tiles.
One memory of Georgia was of its excellent cuisine, and that, fortunately, had not changed. The meals served to us for both lunch and dinner on that first day were delicious, and I wondered how Armenian meals would compare.
Crossing the boarder on foot into Armenia was easy enough. Nick and our mini-bus driver left us on the Georgian side and a woman guide named Rosa met us on the Armenian side with an identical mini-bus. In between, we bought Armenian visas for $10.00 apiece from a friendly agent seated at a kind of ticket window.
Armenian roads are what we have come to expect in poorer, less developed countries. They are two-lane blacktops that have been patched many times until they are no longer smooth. As we bumped along, Rosa kept up a non-stop commentary from the front seat of the bus next to the driver. She seemed extraordinarily well informed about every aspect of her country, so that there was no question she could not answer. My only problem was that she gave so much information so quickly that I couldn’t take in most of it. From time to time I would jot down a note on the pad I carried with me. Later, I would use these notes to add to my journal entries. Otherwise, I would depend on my own observations, the entries in my guidebook, and some printed material distilled from the Internet and supplied by FARIT.
Most of our Armenian tour centered on visits to the historic churches and monasteries of the Armenian Apostolic Church said to be the oldest in Christendom. The Middle Ages seems to have been a brilliant era for the Church’s monastic life. We entered Armenia from the north and we weren’t long on the road before stopping to visit the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries, both UNESCO sites. They stand fairly close together in the Debed River Canyon. Both were built of hard volcanic stone between the 10th and 13th centuries. They represent the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture with a unique style developed from the blending of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and the traditional vernacular architecture of the Caucasian region. Today, what remains of the monasteries are their several churches and vestibules.
Although from the exterior, both resemble the Georgian and Armenian churches we’ve seen elsewhere and are relatively plain except for the many Khatchkars or crosses, carved into the masonry, the interiors are different from anything I’d seen before.
Four massive, round columns with bulbous bases and basket-like capitals support a conical dome. Arches connect the columns. There are only traces of frescoes left within these buildings. Mostly the walls are decorated with carved inscriptions in the Armenian alphabet and beautiful patterns and symbols sculpted in relief. Some are not churches per se but vestibules that served as schools and scriptoria.
The only daylight entering Haghpat’s vestibule was from an oculus at the apex of its domed roof. The room is square and the dome is joined to the walls by triangular squinches. Another room had served as a library. This was apparent from the alcoves and niches in the walls made for storing manuscripts. Haghpat also has an iconic, freestanding bell tower that is an architectural triumph in itself.
We had seen Armenian stone carving elsewhere in Turkey, so the beauty of what I saw here was not surprising. There was just much more of it. What was a revelation was the overall impression made by these monastic churches. Their plan was cruciform with each arm of the cross of equal length, architecture in the shape of the original Armenian cross. The four columns represent the evangelists while the twelve-faceted drum of the dome symbolize the apostles.
At Sanahin Monastery we met a young Russian woman, who had studied in England and spoke very good English. She became our guide for part of the visit, taking us into what she called the book depository or library and speaking quite knowledgeably about what the monks were doing there in the 13th century. She showed us reproductions of the illuminated manuscripts they produced and explained how the creators were chosen for their talent and patient dedication.
After Sanahin it was a long, three-hour road trip to Yerevan. We passed by the plain of Aragats that takes its name from its nearby mountain, Armenia’s highest at over 4,000 meters. The plain is large and bare of trees so that gives the appearance of steppe. Rosa told us that it was an area scoured by strong winds that would not let trees grow. Nearer to Yerevan we could see snow-covered Mount Ararat dimly in the distance.
The Airtrans Hotel where we stayed in Yerevan was conveniently located in the city center just off fashionable Abovyan Avenue, only a short distance from elegant Republic Square. In the evenings hundreds of people gathered at the square to watch scores of synchronized water jets spray the air in time to classical music coming from a loud speaker high atop one of the square’s stately buildings. The district offers fine shopping and dining together with many outdoor cafes terraces. Yerevan is called the “city of open cafes.”
On our second day in Armenia, we were driven to Etchmiadzin, a complex of monuments and religious buildings known as the “Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church” where Gregory the Illuminator had a divine vision and where he built the first Mayr Tachar, the Mother Church of Armenia. The walls of the existing cathedral date from the 7th century and the bell towers from the 17th. The whole structure is in urgent need of repair and restoration. Scaffolding covers the exterior while inside the walls and ceiling are so blackened by centuries of candle soot that their designs are hardly visible.
What interested us most was in the small museum attached to the cathedral. There, we looked at a tiny fragment of ancient wood framed in silver and said to have come from Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat. We also saw the metal end of the lance that a Roman soldier used to pierce Jesus’ side at the crucifixion. Other cases held the relics of saints and a sliver of the True Cross.
Etchmiadzin, which means “Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God” contains the palace of the Patriarch who is known as the Catholicos. As luck would have it, our group came across the Catholicos himself, walking towards us in the company of a cowled monk. He is an elderly man with a white beard. He was dressed in a black cassock with a silver medallion suspended on his chest by a chain. On his head he wore a purple velvet skullcap decorated with a simple silver cross. In his left hand he carried a wooden staff topped with a silver ornament. He was kind enough to pose for a group photo with us.
From Etchmiadzin we drove a short distance to the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, once one of largest and most distinctive structures in Armenia. It was a tall, cruciform church resembling a wedding cake and enclosed in a circular wall of carved columns connected by arches. Some of these still stand, although the church itself has disappeared, probably as the result of an earthquake like the famous one of 931. The cathedral dome had thirty-six sides and was fifty meters tall at its peak. Rosa showed us a drawing of what the cathedral probably looked like. It must have been very impressive.
As arranged by the company who planned our tour, our arrival at Zvartnots coincided with that of four singers, conservatory-trained musicians who performed several spiritual and folk songs for us acappella. The females were a soprano and an alto, while the males were a tenor and a bass. They were excellent and entertained us splendidly. I was inspired to buy a sleeve containing both a DVD and CD of their performances.
I needn’t have worried about the quality of our meals on this tour. For lunch this day, we were served a plate of local cheeses, slices of smoked and dried meat, a tomato and cucumber salad, a cooked spinach dish served cold, and a platter of beef kabobs and roasted potatoes that were so tasty I couldn’t keep from helping my self to seconds and thirds.
Yerevan has a number of museums that we wouldn’t have time to visit on our quick tour; however, one, given its gravity, was not to be missed. Most of the large Genocide Museum is still being constructed. What we were able to see was a single large room with displays of books, magazines, photos, and postcards, most dating from 1915 and many in the French and German languages. All of them were evidence of the genocide and were published at the time it was happening.
On a hill behind the museum, overlooking the city is a solemn memorial made of concrete monoliths surrounding an eternal flame and leaning inward towards each other.
Curiously enough, Armenia is famous for its brandy, an industry that began in the 19th century. The last stop on the day’s tour was the Ararat Brandy Factory where we learned how the product was made from endemic white grapes distilled twice to yield a clear liquid containing 70% alcohol. We each paid a small amount to taste samples of it, including an especially strong variety that Stalin sent cases of to Churchill during the war years.
Perhaps this is a good place to mention Armenia’s relations with Russia and the Soviet Union. The country became part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. Immediately after the revolution it enjoyed a short period of independence before being incorporated into the U.S.S.R. The collapse of the Soviet Union was calamitous for the country. Factories closed. At one time, according to my guidebook, unemployment reached 80%. Armenia had had an extensive copper mining and smelting industry. We drove past a huge, largely abandoned industrial complex spread across a steep hillside. It could have been a scene from a rust-belt community in Pennsylvania. Things are better today, but the country relies heavily on aid from the United States and remittances from Armenians abroad.
For the rest of our tour we visited other remote churches and monasteries, some surrounded by very rugged landscapes. I won’t go into much detail about these except for a rock church, part of Geghard Monastery, which is extraordinary and uniquely interesting. With Kay, I had seen rock churches before in Cappadocia and other parts of Turkey. Some are beautifully formed but small. What struck us about this one was its size, twelve meters square with the apex of its dome many meters above the floor. It is perfectly formed on the traditional plan and hollowed out of a single enormous rock. Its four enormous columns are carved with Khatchkars, and its only natural light enters from an oculus in its dome. Rosa explained that it had been carved from the top down, but how its measurements were calculated to achieve such an amazing result I have no idea.
Once again, the tour company provided our group with a mini-concert, this time given by five singers. For twenty minutes they held us spellbound as they performed folk and spiritual numbers. The acoustics in the cave were splendid. It was not hard to imagine a choir of medieval monks chanting their prayers on the spots where we stood.
On our last evening in Yerevan we were given a veritable feast at a restaurant near our hotel. There were four starters: lamb tartar rolled in bright green lettuce leaves and dressed with oil, thin slices of smoked trout laid over balls of mozzarella and chopped mixed herbs, strips of fried eggplant rolled around some kind of filling that contained ground meat, and tomato slices topped with a kind of crumbly cheese.
The mains consisted of grape leaves with a spicy filling that was the best I’d ever tasted, roasted lamb that was falling off the bone, and veal cheeks of a different consistency entirely. Our potables were Armenian red wine and sparkling water. This was Armenian haute cuisine, a surprise we didn’t expect, and a celebratory conclusion to our Armenian tour.
I may never have the opportunity to return to Armenia, thus I’m pleased to have seized this one. I went in spite of my physical condition, which so soon after my surgery made me uncomfortable much of the time. Of the several reasons to visit Armenia, I’ll add one more. It’s not inconceivable that the country may rejoin Russia, for protection if for no other reason. Russian is Armenia’s second language, and there are still Russian military units stationed in the country. I’m glad to have gone while it is enjoying a period of independence.