Travels in Armenia
/ By Josh
If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ve probably noticed that I have a particularly strong interest in ancient Armenian history, having made trips to the Medieval Armenian capital of Ani, and a couple trips to the Kingdom of Vaspurakan, to name a few. So when it came time for me to do an exit (one of the oddities of expat life) I knew that this time I wanted to visit Armenia.
Now, there are many ways to experience a country depending on your interests, or personal tastes. Armenia, Turkey’s neighbour to the east, has lots to offer any visitor: stunning natural landscapes, Medieval history, Soviet history, food tourism, and so much more. Personally, my hope was to see the living versions of the abandoned sites I’ve been exploring in Turkey. More than food and culture in general, I wanted to see the connection between the places I’ve been and the culture that gave rise to these now forlorn churches.
Having learned my lesson from a trip to Georgia (the country) a couple of years ago, I attempted to learn a bit of Armenian. I started with the alphabet (harder than expected thanks), then moved on to some practical things like Շնորհակալություն (thank you) and some rather less practical things like Աստվածածին (Theotokos, or “God Bearer”, a common church name), as well as numbers up to 1000.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a language, you’ll probably know that this amount of language is pretty much useless and so we began our trip by getting ripped off by our taxi driver.
Aaah yes, we were proper tourists again.
We started out in the capital city of Yerevan, with its core of modern and historic buildings blended together. Many of the old buildings were being renovated with only the facades preserved to serve as a classic face for new buildings while many of the new were designed to pay homage to classic Armenian design with nested Romanesque arches set atop clusters of narrow pillars made of pale pink and orange coloured tuff.
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As the worlds first ‘Christian Nation’, Christianity has been a major part of the Armenian cultural identity for centuries. So coming across churches as we wandered the city came as no surprise. What was surprising however, was the fact that just about all of these churches seemed to be new. Under the Soviets, many of Yerevan’s historic churches were demolished to make way for new streets and buildings as a part of the Soviet Union’s push for secularization. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that Armenia had recovered enough to begin a campaign of rebuilding churches in the city.
While most of the new churches were built as almost exact copies of historic ones, Yerevan’s largest church, the Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, was distinctly modern. Its architects chose a modern structure dressed in traditional Armenian elements. The church was completed in 2001, on the 1700th anniversary of Christianity being made the state religion of Armenia.
While I’ve been inside dozens of Armenian churches, they’ve all been abandoned or turned into museums (the exception being Surp Giragos in Diyarbakır). On a Sunday morning, The Church of St Gregory the Illuminator was full of life. Rather than looters pits and manure, the sacred space was filled with the smell of incense, the voices of a choir, and a steady flow of people coming to worship. Experiencing this sense of life in contrast to the ruin we were used to was genuinely moving.
As none of the churches we had visited were active, we were a bit surprised by some of the practices. We noticed people exiting through the doors backwards, crossing themselves as they faced the altar. This turned out to be a struggle for us. The first problem is that if you go through a door backwards you can’t see what (or who) is behind you. Even worse, your hands are occupied in crossing yourself and holding the door. Add to this the fact that the doors were usually too small for someone my height with camera gear on and we ended up looking rather ungainly more often than not.
As we toured the city we noticed something interesting. Whether it was the name of a neighbourhood, local beer brands, or paintings displayed in the museums, we were constantly finding things that were tied back to places that are now in Turkey. The early 20th century was a time of shifting borders and violent policies with new borders being drawn in the remains of shattered empires. Along with the loss of life millions also lost their homes. Those who fled named businesses, streets, and neighbourhoods after lost homelands.
In an art gallery we came across a sketch by Martiros Saryan made for a book of folktales. We immediately recognized one as the Surp Khtzkonk Monastery we had visited a few years ago in Kars.
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There was one particular tie between Armenian culture and its ancient homeland that I was looking to take home with me. I was looking for the Book of Lamentations by Grigor Narekatsi, one of the Armenian Church’s most prominent saints and writers. St Grigor lived as a monk in Narek monastery (from which he gets his name Narekatsi, meaning “of Narek”) where he wrote his Book of Lamentations: a prayer book that became of the most influential works ever written in the Armenian language. The book is often simply referred to as Narek, after the monastery it was composed in. The great monastery of Narek sat close to the shores of Lake Van in modern Turkey but has now been completely destroyed. When we visited roughly a year ago we couldn’t find a single trace of the ancient Narekavank complex.
In the heart of old Yerevan we visited a workshop where local craftsmen were busy carrying on a local tradition. In the shop we met Hambik Hambardzumyan, the master carver and founder of the Khatchkar Culture Development Fund, a group looking to preserve the craft of the Khatchkar making. Meaning “cross-stone” these memorial stones are usually carved with crosses and detailed knotwork patterns and can be found all over the world. From his shop where he teaches students and runs his foundation, Hambardzumyan looks to breathe new life into the ancient art. He hopes that by adding new forms to the tradition, the craft will be better suited to stand the test of time.
Leaving Yerevan to see how much of Armenia we could manage to see in a couple days, we descended into the Ararat Plain. This wide valley is usually lush with vineyards and orchards but, as it was still winter, the trees and vines were all bare and the air full of smoke from burning stubble in fields and ditches. Through the thick haze we occasionally caught sight of Mount Ararat, the most dominant symbol of Armenian cultural identity, lying just across the border.
While I’m tempted describe every single church we visited, going into detail about the architecture and the legends that are interwoven with them, I’ll spare you the details. What I will share however, is how these places relate to the churches we’ve visited in Turkey.
During our few days in Armenia we visited 24 churches. Some were restored historical churches, some were newly built copies of historic churches, others were completely modern, and some were dilapidated historic churches. It was interesting that even here there were churches in such bad condition. It attests to the fact that restoring ancient buildings like these is simply too expensive. On top of this Turkey is home to thousands of ancient sites, how do you choose which ones to restore? Of course, this doesn’t excuse the problem of intentional vandalism and looting that has seen the erasure of some historic churches in Turkey, but that’s another subject.
While the architecture was familiar the main difference was that there was sense of reverence to each place. Even the ruined or semi ruined churches were tidy and as well kept as could be expected. The spaces were arranged so that they could still be used for worship with an altar in the apse and tables of sand and candles available. At no point did we have to stumble through rubble to find a difficult to reach niche with the cold stumps of candles serving as the only sign that anyone had come to pray.
One of the most striking and unique of these sites was Geghardavank, or the Monastery of the Spear, which for a time held a relic believed to be the spear head that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross. The complex dates back to the 4th century where it began as a small cave chapel with a spring in it. The complex grew over the centuries with the addition of a church and monastic buildings as well as a number of stunning narthex and chapels carved into the cliffs. The vaults and walls are decorated with some of the finest and strangest carvings I’ve seen making for an incredibly dramatic setting.
Visiting Armenia I was surprised by how different it felt compared to Turkey. While I expected active churches and an absence of minarets, there was something else. The Armenian people often found themselves split, with each side ruled over by an opposing power. From the Romans and the Persians down to the modern era this has been the case. Most recently this divide has been between the Soviet Union and NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
While we saw something of the Soviet impact in Yerevan with the missing churches, it became much more obvious the moment we left the city. In the larger towns Soviet-style apartment blocks, and abandoned factories were everywhere. In the northern city of Gyumri (formerly known as Alexandrapol and Leninakan) galleries and museums were dedicated to famous Soviet artists, Russian Orthodox churches, and even a monument to “Science and Technological Progress” with a great hammer and sickle topped by a model of Sputnik. Architecture, the many abandoned places, the ever present above-ground pipes all made the the countryside feel surprisingly alien to the villages that were just a few hundred meters away on the Turkish side of the Aras River.
While we mostly focussed on churches and museums, we also attempted to eat local as often as possible. This turned out to be harder than expected. The issue was trying to figure out what food was really Armenian. Armenians have lived with Turks, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Georgians, and Russians for so long that its difficult to know which food comes from where. Food and national dishes can be a touchy subject, so I’ll just say now I have no idea who invented these dishes, but Lahmacun, pide, lavash, kebab, and dolma (tolma) were dishes we knew well in Turkey. Khinkali we had tried in Georgia. It was interesting that the food, like so many other things in Armenia, was also tied to its neighbours.
In Gyumri we saw a poster for a dish we had never seen before so we tracked it down and ordered having basically no idea what we were getting. The dish was called Panrkhash, and it was made of torn flatbread, caramelized onions, and a cheese known as Yeghegnadzor, all doused in an unhealthy amount of boiled butter. Now this cheese is also popular in Turkey and is usually produced in regions near Armenia and it’s one that I would normally avoid as it’s a string cheese covered in patches of green mold resembling unwashed wool. The Panrkhash was actually quite good, though, if we had known it would come in a salad bowl sized portion we may have shared one bowl instead. We chose an interesting looking side dish based on the picture in the menu. It turned out to baked potatoes mashed, though the name ‘chamur’, which is Turkish for mud, was rather amusing.
One of the places I was most excited to visit was the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church which, alongside the cathedral, numerous chapels, and the Gevorkian Seminary, is home to the treasury museum. I had heard rumours that the cathedral was closed for renovation, though, after visiting two dozen churches around the country it was really the museum that I was looking forward to. After visiting a hundred or so other museums over the past years in Turkey they don’t capture my interest like they used to. The Etchmiadzin treasury however was different. This museum is home to many of the Armenian Churches most sacred artefacts, including many that were once kept in churches and monasteries we had visited in Turkey.
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Having been warned we weren’t surprised to find the cathedral closed for restorations, but we were shocked to find out that the museum was also closed! While the conversation was a little confusing (as I don’t speak Armenian) we ended up buying tickets to some other sort of gallery having no idea what it was going to be.
Thankfully this gallery was actually a collection of the highlight objects of the treasury museum though, as the tour was in Russian (and my Russian is even worse than my Armenian), I had to wait patiently to figure out what we were actually looking at. Once the tour was over, I spoke to the guide and discovered that she spoke excellent English!
She showed me the relic of the Cross of Varag, believed to be a piece of the True Cross, brought to Varag by St Hrispime, one of the first to bring Christianity to the Armenians. She hid the relic on Mount Varag where the Varagavank monastery was later built. St Hrispime went on to be martyred just a kilometer away from where we stood in the museum. In Turkey the Varagavank Monastery is now in an incredibly dilapidated state with its domes collapsed. It made for a striking contrast to compare the old and current home of this relic; one a ruin full of dirt and soot, and the other museum in a manicured complex of churches and tidy buildings.
After four days of sightseeing there were still a thousand other sights and experiences to be had. And even limited by the lack of language we did manage to get a glimpse of the thing we were really looking for: a sense of the relationship between the living Armenian culture and the places left behind. Its interesting to think that the descendants of the people who built the forlorn church of Van or Kars now live in cities like Kars and Gyumri. Hopefully they’ll forgive me if I forget to stumble backwards out of the church door.