My first taste of Armenia was a marshrutka ride from Tbilisi to Yerevan, from capital to capital, across snowy mountain passes, through deep gorges, and across snowy highlands with small towns, hay piled next to homes to last the long winter.
Story by Lraleigh, from TravelPod.com
Dropped at an unmarked, closed avtovokzal, I walked to a nearby gas station to reconnoiter and soon was passing the Yerevan Brandy Factory, crossing the Hrazdan River, and walking through downtown Yerevan, as the sun set behind the hazy pink volcanic cone of Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark landed after the flood thousands of years ago. This would be the last I saw of Mt. Ararat, who stayed hidden behind the white winter hazy horizon or clouds from then on.
After Noah landed in the land of Mt. Ararat, legend says that he first tasted wine here, in the Armenian homeland . Greek historians and Syrian rulers admired the wines from the hundreds of grape varieties grown in the dry highland valleys of Armenia. Later, Stalin gave Churchill Armenian brandy made from the highland grapes, seen as a contender to French cognac. So much so, Pernod Ricard bought the Yerevan Brandy Factory and all its Ararat brandy from the newly-democratized Armenian government.
A couple hours later, I was settled into the apartment-cum-homestay of Anahit Stepanyan, right near the Opera House in the center of Yerevan, and ate a late-night dinner of at the Caucasus Restaurant. For a first course, I had Pkhali, balls of greens and minced nuts topped with pomegranate seeds. For the main course, I ate khashlama, a lamb and potato stew. A small plate of homemade halva finished the tasty night.
This was the first day. All-in-all I would stay in Armenia eight days, and would acquaint myself with the Armenian definition of Jesus, khatchkars, Armenia’s presidential election, the Celtic connection, an Iraqi refugee, a music video and the modern Armenia, historical genocide, and a dozen or so Armenian monasteries and churches.
For six of these days, I stayed in Yerevan with Anahit and her two sons, who came and went with their jobs, one a fashion designer, another a soldier.
We watched a television show on Versace’s murder and a music video created by Mr. Stepanyan the designer himself, complete with computerized special effects and MTV makeover. Undoubtedly talented, he represented the new Armenia, now recovering from recession and war with neighboring Azerbaijan.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, these two neighbors began fighting, partly because the Soviets created boundaries irrespective of who lived where. Armenia now effectively controls 18 percent of Azerbaijan, with thousands of refugees on both sides. This is where the other son comes in, representing this other aspect of Armenia, a Christian people surrounded by Muslims with whom they have recently fought bitterly, with hundreds of thousands dead and mined and fortified borders.
In Yerevan, churches are hidden behind large Soviet apartment buildings. Many others were destroyed, as poignantly shown at Katoghike. The old church was dashed with Soviet bullet wounds and the basilica that surrounded it was destroyed during revolutionary urban renewal times. In small Katoghike, I lit a few candles and the church lady gave me a bag of apples, insisting. Outside, an aluminum wall surrounds the church, as Yerevan plans to revitalize Katoghike and its now muddy lot. A clarinetist played outside: “I love Jesus…I like jazz,” the street musician said.
Anahit, some Georgian-Armenians, an Iraqi refugee and I chatted on various occasions, sitting on her couches, surrounded by contemporary Armenian art bought from the Saturday Vernissage market near her house, surrounding the Martiros Sarian statue in an icy park.
The saturated oil-on-canvas art–reds, yellows, oranges, greens–was in brilliant contrast to the snow-covered artist and brown trees of the surrounding park.
“The color should sing. It should express the perception of the essence of life which is in every human being. By using color, I can even further enhance what I see so that the light could be more brilliant in my works.” ~ Martiros Sarian.
Back on the couches surrounded by this art: Anahit’s mother–Anahit was describing–was born on the roadside, as her family fled from the Biblical Ararat to Yerevan. They left behind their homeland as the Turkish army razed entire villages around World War I. Many in her family were killed. Overlooking Yerevan is the Museum of the Armenian Genocide and a symbolic grey monument of stone slabs with an eternal flame in the center, which acutely describes the deaths and exodus of well over one million people.
I visited the museum to get a better idea of her past as well as the past of the Armenian people, who no longer live in their historical homeland of over three thousand years, in Western Turkey, beginning with the Bronze Age people and land called the Nairi, predecessors of the Urartu, considered the original Armenians.
Ararat Brandy names its finest 20-year old oak cask aged bottles after this land, located around present-day Van. Two photographs in the museum show the Armenian city of Van before and after the genocide: it was gone.
But the museum has a vivid reason for existing in the present, as the U.S. House of Representatives debates whether or not to label these events as genocide, the Turkish government fights the P.K.K. Kurds in Northern Iraq, and Turkey waits for EU status. Letters from Rudi Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, leaders of places with large Armenian diaspora, show that many already support such recognition.
Looking at it further, it’s clear that the Armenians weren’t just victims but were also fighters, with some 150,000 soldiers fighting alongside Russia of the Triple Entente against the Ottomans. The Turkish government thus labeled them as terrorists, with most casualties described as soldiers, though the museum showed that women and children were starved and thrown into the Syrian deserts without food or water. But even after the war, the Turkish government was strong enough to convince the Soviet Union to give them Western Armenia, which included Biblical Ararat and Van. Yet somehow the Armenians survived, despite these past events, wave after wave of Turkish armies and settlers from Central Asia and the Mongols and Tamerlane’s slaughters. It is something that lives deep within the heart of the people, to be remembered.
So now Armenia is small narrow highland state, landlocked between two Turkish nations. But though it is small, it is full of treasures.