“It used to be ours,” lamented my guide, Kristine.
Towering against the horizon and history was the magnificent snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat at 5,137 metres high. It was just across the border in Turkey. I was in Armenia.
Armenians call themselves Hayastan, the land of the Hyak, the great great grandson of Noah who grounded his Ark on Mount Ararat. Their association with the mountain is both age-old and visceral.
Few nations have histories as ancient, complex and laced with historical sites as Armenia. Its long and varied history contains periods of independence but these have been separated by much longer spells of foreign rule – the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians.
From the time of the Persians to the Soviets, Armenia’s history has been one of conquest and renewal. It is a beguiling mix of tradition and transformation. The velvet revolution of the Spring of 2018 saw civil society oust an old, dysfunctional and corrupt regime from power. Armenians, after a month of entirely peaceful protest, unseated their prime minister and replaced him with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan. This heady mix of the past and the present is luring the curious in a tourism boom that is rising by 15 per cent per year over the last couple of years.
Eager not to miss out, I crossed into Armenia by its land border with its northern neighbour, Georgia, to find an entirely different language that has 39 letters and is perhaps more similar to Amarhic in Ethiopia than to Georgia. It was just the beginning of the differences.
We drove through villages that were littered with the evidence of Armenia’s recent Soviet past – abandoned and decaying factories. With unemployment currently at 18 and a GDP per capita of just under $4,000 per person, Armenia’s wealth is in its culture, history and landscapes. The country is bejewelled with a simply extraordinary collection of medieval monasteries and churches that are its number-one attraction.
Near to the Georgian border is Haghpat monastery, one of Armenia’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites. The largest building in the complex is the Cathedral of Surb Nishan. Built in the 10th century after Arab rule – Arab influences were still strong as evidenced by the headdress of some of the men in the reliefs – it is a typical example of a tenth-century Armenian church. Its conical dome (said to be representative of Mount Ararat) rests on four imposing pillars of the lateral walls.
Inside, beautiful frescoes faintly adorn the apse, sunlight soars through the high windows and the melismatic monophonic chant of prayer fills the walls. A priest, draped in rich and heavy robes, faces away from the small congregation conducting the first part of the service. He turns around to deliver his sermon and I slip away.
Outside, I wander through the quiet and cool refectory and scriptorium. Haghpat was a major centre of learning in the Middle Ages – in the 11th century the great library housed 11,000 manuscripts before being ransacked by invaders and converted into a storeroom. The intricate detail and beauty of a khachkhar (cross stone) of the Holy Redeemer dating from1273, is a hint at this former glory.
As with its history, Christianity in Armenia is both long, involved and unique. The first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, the fabric and iconography of the Armenian church is entwined with the past. Throughout Haghpat, I see the tree of life, a pagan symbol. Kristine points out the crosses or rather flourishing crosses. Each arm of the cross has three points, hence flourishing, because “the cross is not a symbol of death in Armenia but rather a resurrection.”
Three hours south – being only 30,000 square kilometres, only fifty per cent bigger than Wales, everything is reasonably accessible in Armenia – and jutting out into a bend in the Azat River, Garni Temple is fabulously located and the only Graeco-Roman surviving building in Armenia. It was built in the second century AD of basalt rock. Its twenty-four columns are crowned with Ionic capitals and adorned with Russian tourists wrapped around the columns in various inappropriate poses for the camera.
Approximately 1.5 million tourists visit Armenia each year – less than half the visitors to the Italian site of Pompeii. At least a third of these will be returning Armenian diaspora. The vast majority will visit Garni and Geghard as they are within easy striking distance of Yerevan. Thankfully they can easily be avoided.
The nearby Geghard Monastery seems less crowded and, not just due to the reduced numbers, more magical. Geghard means lance and it is reputedly named after the fact of a portion of the lance that pierced Jesus’s side being in the church. What is for certain is that the construction and characteristics of this church make it a truly special place and a worthy recipient of UNESCO World Heritage status. Its key feature being that part of it is carved into the rock, not dissimilar to Lalibela in Ethiopia.
The main cathedral was built in the early thirteenth century and is a typical cross-dome style and topped by a conical cupola. On the walls, portals and cornices are adorned with a variety of decorations from floral patterns to birds and animals such as a lion attacking an ox.
I spy on a baptism of two young children, a young girl of about five in a smart white party dress and a boy a few years younger in a neatly pressed shirt and trousers. Uncertainty plagues the face of the young girl. A scowl crosses the face of the priest as he spots me, an interloper to the proceedings.
In the first cave church is a spring whose waters are believed to be holy and then splashed upon oneself as purification. Of more interest are the relief carvings on the walls in the mausoleum of the second cave church, which is dedicated to the Mother of God. Two lions between whom is an eagle with a lamb in its talons particularly stand out. The carvings are masculine, heavy and brooding, almost masonic.
On the floor above is the burial chamber of Prince Prosh and his wife Ruzukan. The chamber has four pillars and a dome which are attractive but it is its acoustics that are particularly striking. The choral singing of a quartet floats in the air imbuing its darkened recesses with a spirituality.
It is driving between the sites that I revel at the dramatic beauty of the landscape. Sevanavak, the Monastery of Sevan (vank means monastery in Armenian), is on a peninsula surrounded by the glittering waters of Lake Sevan. Khor Virap Monastery sitting splendidly on a small hilltop with Mt Ararat as its impressive backdrop.
Noravank belies its prosaic name – it literally means new monastery – with a stunning drive through a seven-kilometre gorge. Surrounded by sheer brick-red cliffs, its churches contain hidden gems: the relief and the depiction of God in human form. It is also interesting to note that the shape of his eyes are almond, an attempt to make him look Mongolian and thus prevent the Mongols from destroying the church and relief.
Few nations have histories as ancient, convoluted and laced with tragedy as Armenia, from the Mongol hordes to the tragedy of the Armenian genocide. The excellent genocide museum in Yerevan, chillingly relates the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I by the Ottoman government. In spite of its past, Armenia has good diplomatic ties with almost everyone but its two direct border neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
It is easy to see why there are no diplomatic relations with Turkey; with Azerbaijan it is due to the ongoing Nagorno Karabagh conflict. The origins of the conflict may well stretch back to the 5th century when it was divided between Byzantium and Persia but more recently are due to decisions made by Stalin in the Sovietisation of Transcaucasia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno Karabagh re-emerged as a source of dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan and is still ongoing.
“Our soldiers are good but they lack the equipment and firepower of Azerbaijan and thus it is in our interest not to pursue full scale war but make concessions and seek peace,” explains Kristine.
30% of Armenia’s annual budget is spent on defence but this pales in comparison to the expenditure of Azerbaijan. With the discovery of oil, Azerbaijan is ten times wealthier than Armenia. Its history with Russia adds a layer of complication; though they are close, Russia likes its former states to need it. Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan and Armenia at the same time.
Such gridlock resulted in the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. This landlocked breakaway state is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by Armenians and Armenian is its language. The flag is essentially the Armenian flag with a white stepped pattern that symbolizes the current separation of Artsakh from Armenia proper and its aspiration for eventual union.
This remote hillside state is intriguing, curious and contradictory, as is Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. One of the region’s most exuberant and endearing cities, Yerevan is an unexpected delight. Its population of 1.1 million – as opposed to the country’s population of three million – range from babushka to hipster. Soviet buildings have been usurped by modern facades, supercars are parked alongside rusting Ladas, traditional food stalls vie for space with chic brasseries. With tree-lined boulevards, outdoor cafes, hip bars and subterranean dives, few traces of the ancient past remain in this cosmopolitan city.
In a smart Armenian restaurant – the cuisine is a delicious combination of Persian and Levantine – I ask Kristine to reflect on her country, its history and geography.
“A Christian country sandwiched between predominantly Muslim Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan, that likes its alcohol,” was her surprisingly flippant reply.
But maybe she is right? Wine is ever-present at every meal. Armenia also produces what they say is the best brandy in the world – Winston Churchill was a fan of Ararat. Back to that mountain.