Armenia is one of those countries that really should get a bit more attention. It has a substantial history and long-standing culture, and some impressive scenery to boot. And great wine!
My stay in Armenia was mostly just a break in my travels, and a visa stop. I visited a family friend who happened to be staying there at the same time, and just relaxed. Yerevan was the perfect city to do that in, full to the brim with parks and outdoor cafes and restaurants. Perhaps more importantly, there are plenty of new wine bars cropping up, a great place to sample some local Armenian wine. At night, especially on weekends, people are out and about after dark, walking around the many parks, and enjoying the fountains in Republic Square. It’s a great city to stroll around in, and just enjoy the view of Mt Ararat with a cup of coffee made in a jazzve – and yes, I did love the fact that the coffee pots have the word jazz in their name!
There’s a kind of mix of Soviet and Western European culture in Armenia, particularly in the capital. Most of the locals are trilingual, speaking Armenian, Russian and English. This was the first country I visited where I realised just how useful learning Russian is, and it only became more useful as I went on! There are streets near the centre which have an almost Parisian fell to them, with window-boxed apartments and wide tree lined streets. Then, just around the corner, there’ll be a Soviet truck that’s come on a delivery run from the country, waiting to off-load goods. The friends I was with, an American-Armenian couple, pointed out to me the signs that had photos of dissenters and current political prisoners, warning the public not to go against the current (and rather unpopular) government. This kind of ferocity in a piazza with their gorgeous Opera House, while kids were playing on bikes and scooters around the propaganda.
What really struck me though, was just how different the capital is from the rest of the country. Just a little way out of Yerevan, and you’re in a different world. The land opens out into fields and mountains, with small villages dotting the landscape. Add to that some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries, and you’ve got the Armenian countryside.
I never really knew what a meadow was until I went to Armenia. I’d heard the word used in songs, and novels, and knew it was some kind of summery field often filled with flowers, and something that sounded fun to run through. It was something of a fictional word, used to romanticise summer in the countryside. But Armenia taught me just how wonderfully real they were. There were blankets of wild flowers, full of bees buzzing around them. I had to resist the urge to lay down in them, spread eagled, or to run through them singing The Sound of Music.
Sevanavank monastery complex is located in one such flower filled hillside. Overlooking Lake Sevan, it’s location is certainly something that would be affected by seasons. When I visited, there were still a few snow capped mountains in the distance, and the greenery and wild flowers only last a few weeks before drying out in the summer heat. There are two monasteries on this site, built at differing time periods. One of these, Hayravank monastery, has a famous legend. Hayravank translates to ‘human dove,’ owing to the legend of a monk saving hundreds of locals hiding from invaders by turning them into doves. The locals then all flew to safety on their brand new wings, courtesy of God’s blessing and the power of a relic the monastery had. (Interestingly, no mention was made about them turning back to humans.) Sadly, historians say that this is of course not true, and they would have just used the tunnel instead – but still the name for the monastery stuck.
As early as the first century, Armenia converted to Christianity, making it to the first state to do so. They managed to retain this religion throughout the centuries, despite numerous invasions and occupations by predominantly Muslim nations and empires. Echmiadzin became the Holy City of Armenian Apostolic Church, and the centre of the religion in the kingdom. As is my usual luck, Echmiadzin was actually under reconstruction when I visited. The below picture is the main one on site, and is in fact one of the more ornate churches in Armenia. Several times I was told by Armenians that the Pope would be visiting soon, and he would be coming here to speak to the people. I found it very interesting, since Armenians aren’t Catholic, but they all seemed to revere him regardless, and were very proud he would be speaking in their country.
Khachkars are uniquely Armenian, and are mostly used as a kind of headstone. However, they also came to be used for other purposes, and can be seen anywhere from churches to backyards. I visited a graveyard, which is well known for it’s large collection of khachkars, some dating back as early as the 9th century AD, and as late as the 20th century. It was very interesting to note how the decoration styles changed over time, a sort of snapshot into the development of khachkars and Armenian culture. The best part was the random herd of about 20 sheep that meandered in, who all decided that the grass was juiciest right at the base of several khachkars. I’m not sure what the normal policy is regarding that!
The most I learned about though, was the political history of Armenia. Before arriving in Armenia, I knew about the Armenian genocide, or at least knew that it had happened. What I didn’t know, was the extent of the Turkish-Armenian-Azeri-Russian debacle which has plagued much of the nation’s modern history, and is still an issue. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Soviets were in control of parts of the country, lands that up until that point had been Armenian were gifted to Turkey and Azerbaijan. This is why so much of eastern Turkey had Armenians living there.The old capital of the Armenian kingdom, Ani, is still located in Turkey – but you have to know your Armenian history to even be aware of it, let alone find a way to visit it; it’s certainly not on the well-advertised tourist trail. So too with Armenians’ beloved Mt Ararat, which overlooks Yerevan as it always has, but is now just across the Turkish border. Of course, there are always two sides to every story, and borders have fluctuated throughout history – but the genocide cannot be negated for that reason. The genocide museum is a very harrowing and somber experience, as it should be, but highlights the extents of the atrocities committed in an attempt to prove that Turkey was in fact ethnically Turkish, and that more recently acquired territories could have no question about ownership.
Then comes the much lesser known issue of Nagorno Karabakh, the still disputed territory. In April, not long before I arrived, they had a 4 day war in the area, when the cease-fire agreement was breached. I had no idea that Azerbaijan and Armenia had such a bad relationship, just that the borders weren’t open. I soon learned that if I ventured south and visited the self-governing province, I’d need a stamp in my passport, and I’d never be let into Azerbaijan for the rest of my life! I also quickly edited my trip itinerary when discussing it with locals, not mentioning Azerbaijan if I could avoid it. They didn’t like the Turks, and are very keen to educate foreigners on the genocide, but they can at least cross the border now, and have much less fear about its stability. The Azeris are the current issue, and it’s likely to continue that way. Now, Armenia is one of the only countries to hold good relations with Russia, the US, and their southern neighbours Iran, all of whom they depend upon for the security of their nation.
A lot of the tourists I met had come down for a few days after visiting Georgia, a convenient side trip to add to the itinerary. I seemed to be the only person travelling north! There’s a long train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, or a shorter marshrutka half day trip. I took the cheaper marshrutka as advised by someone at my hostel (and it was quite a lot cheaper), and then spent the afternoon fearing for my life as the Georgian driver took hairpin bends at full speed, whilst overtaking another car. But more about Georgian driving in my next post! Safe to say it was an experience, and some beautiful countryside, but I would’ve paid extra had I known I’d be next to a man with some serious B.O. issues for 5 hours whilst hurtling along.
I hope Armenia gets more tourists visiting soon, because it really is an incredible country. It can be a little trickier to fly to from some destinations (such as Iran), but it was definitely worth my time, and I was very thankful for the time to myself. I’d go back to Yerevan any day!