The Caucuses aren’t on most people’s bucket lists – it wasn’t in ours either but sandstorms in the Gansu Silk Road at this time of year caused us to consider another destination. We’re so glad we made this trip and perhaps you might decide to visit the Caucuses after reading this blog? We (my best friend Shyam and I) are going to spend the next 11 days exploring Armenia and Georgia – both old nations steeped in so much history and culture.
I discovered that most folks generally have a rough idea where Armenia and Georgia are but not everyone has a fix on their exact location and almost everyone reached for their phones to google it. So let me start with geography.
Armenia, which is actually in the Transcaususes, is landlocked by Iran to its south, Georgia to its north, Turkey to its west, Azerbaijan to its east. It lies in what can best be described as ‘Eurasia’ – the cross-roads between Asia and Europe. I have helpfully included a map:-)
Yerevan is not a city that you go ‘wow’ at immediately. It has a quiet buzz about it that grows on you. It is vibrant but not like a Paris vibrant, it is alive but not like a London alive … it bustles nonetheless with good restaurants, loads of cafes, friendly people and it has amazing museums. In this understated city, we landed at 1am having finally cleared immigration where our Singapore passports were scrutinised very closely. The officer took my passport away and consulted his senior, came back and examined it closely again before finally stamping it. S had a similar experience at the other counter. I guess not too many Singaporeans visit Armenia? Hey, the Armenian diaspora reached our shores too and we even have an Armenian Church which is on the list of places to visit in Singapore.
We were met by a sweet and pleasant young lady, Katar, our guide for the duration of our stay. Despite the hour she greeted us with such a welcoming smile and a fresh face! She was like that throughout our days here and we got on so well together. She was a fountain of knowledge and we were to learn so much from her. Our driver, Mello, didn’t speak English and so he was quiet most of the time greeting us with nods and smiles. We were driven to our hotel which was smack in the centre of the city. Our flight was a long one, made even longer by the 7 hour transit in Doha (sorry Doha, I don’t know how you thought you could even compete with Singapore’s Changi), so we were quite ready for a shower and bed.
We were up early and after breakfast, went walkabout. Yerevan, we were told is very safe – and we felt safe too. We walked a fair bit, sticking out as the camera-toting tourists that we were but no one paid much heed. Folks were busily setting off for work.
We stopped at the 12th century Saint Astvatsatsin Church. It would be the first of the many ancient churches and monasteries we would visit. As I have a particular interest in street art/graffiti we walked on in search of and found the Edgar Allan Poe street art I’d read about. Poe made his appearance in a couple of places but we weren’t able to find out why he was popular with street artists in Yerevan. It just seemed a little odd. We also went looking for a particular door (another interest) but weren’t successful in finding it. We did all this and got back to the hotel by 9am which was the time we agreed to meet Katar. By this time, it started pouring – just as well that today was going to be a museum day.
The History Museum was huge and impressive. We could not possibly have covered every hall, so we requested that the docent take us through the most important halls. The Bronze Age artefacts were amazing. Two items stood out for me – a wooden chariot that was excavated from a partially drained Lake Sevan. How could a chariot made of wood have kept so well preserved lying in the bottom of a lake? The second item that piqued my interest was the world’s oldest shoe – dating back to 3500 B.C.! It seemed in remarkably good shape, and was apparently found stuffed with grass so it would keep its shape. The hours in the museum were truly well spent.
Our next stop was equally captivating – the Matenadaran (meaning ‘book depository’). It is a manuscript library housing ancient parchments and manuscripts not only from Armenia but ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, Arabia, India. It was a stunning collection.
We learned that St Mesrop Mashtots’ was responsible for inventing and systematizing the Armenian alphabet. The alphabet also had a numeric function as well. Letters and numbers were the same! It has gone through several iterations since then and numbers and letters are separate now.
Lunch was at a restaurant called ‘The Club’ – our first proper Armenian fare. It didn’t disappoint. The food everywhere we visited was excellent but the portions were enormous. We sometimes had it packed and had it for dinner.
The Armenian Question
The rain had stopped by this time and we were able to walk around the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum. The memorial consists of a 40m spire and 12 basalt towers surrounding the eternal flame.
Armenia has a tragic past. She faced centuries of conquests and occupation – by the Mongols, the Persians, the Turks, the Russians and with each the borders and territories kept shifting as well. But none is so tragic as the Armenian Genocide which some refer to as the world’s first holocaust. The persecution of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire came to the world’s attention in the 19th century as the Armenians fought for their rights under Ottoman rule, the response from Sultan Hamid II (aka “Red Hamid”) was to massacre almost 300,000 Armenians. Later, in 1915, the party known as the ‘Young Turks’ ordered the deportation of all Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and mass murder was committed at the time.
It remains a matter of contention as to whether there was a systematic pogrom of extermination. Turkey, till today denies it and contests the term ‘genocide’. Whatever the label, between 1915 and 1922, 1.5million Armenians were murdered or forced into the desert without food or water where they died. This is not in dispute.
The museum holds vivid photographs and documents that tell the story of this tragedy. Despite centuries of strife, conflict, oppression and loss, the Armenians have emerged resilient and strong.
It was late evening by the time we finished at the memorial and we still had one more stop. This one not as sombre or depressing – the Ararat distillery. We joined the group tour a little late and were taken through the brandy-making process. I never knew that Armenian brandy was so sought after. The story goes that Churchill was partial to it and Stalin had crates sent to him regularly.
There was one special barrel in the distillery called the “Peace Barrel” that has been left to age and which will only be opened when the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. I sincerely hope the barrel will be opened in my lifetime.
At the end of the tour the group was treated to a sampling of the Ararat 3 year old and 10 year old ‘Akhtamar’ (more of the legend of Akhtamar later). I wasn’t quite sure if 40% alcohol before dinner was a good thing but I was pleasantly surprised at how smooth the brandy was, especially the 10 year old. And may I add that there were no ill-effects whatsoever.
It had been a full day and after we were dropped off at our hotel, we set out in search of the restaurants that were recommended to us. One of these had the door that I was searching for! Unfortunately the door was wide open and I couldn’t photograph it. We settled on a restaurant and enjoyed yet another good meal. Once again the portions were a tad too much for us.
We took a stroll around Republic Square which was was lit up and the place abuzz. After some photography, we decided to head back and call it a day.
Our itinerary would give us a good glimpse of the country – we would drive south-west, then east and then north to Georgia stopping at various places along the way. Tomorrow we would be heading south-west to the Ararat Plains.
The Ararat Plains
As we drove out of the city this morning, we got the inescapable view of the biblical Mt Ararat. There was much cloud cover over the peak but the majesty of it was still awesome. It hovered over the city like a grand guardian watching over the plains. Mt Ararat is inextricably linked with the Armenian culture, even their coat of arms has it in its centre with a small boat-like structure on top of it, signifying the Ark.
According to the Book of Genesis, Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mt Ararat. Armenians themselves believe they are descendants of Hayk, the grandson of Noah. (Armenia was previously called ‘Hayastan’). So it is a wistful irony indeed that Mt Ararat is not in Armenia but in Turkey. The Soviets made an agreement which gave away that part of the country to Turkey. (Similar story with Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan). Our drive today took us close to the Turkish border and from this side of the plains we stood and admired the majesty of nature. (No, we couldn’t see the Ark:-) … Satellite pictures have apparently picked up a boat-shaped structure but despite attempts to prove it, no one has been able to provide conclusive evidence of the Ark.)
We were headed to the Khor Virap monastery. Before we got to it – we stopped the car and jumped out to get the ubiquitous photo of Khor Virap against the backdrop of the beautiful Mt Ararat.
This is where St Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by King Trydat III for preaching Christianity. He was put into a deep pit with snakes and was imprisoned there for 12 years. The King was to suffer an illness that made him go mad and he was told that St Gregory would be able to cure him. And so it was that St Gregory was released and cure the King he did. The grateful King converted to Christianity and that is how Armenia became the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in AD 301. St Gregory became the first Catholicos (Head) of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The pit was deep (about 6 metres) and we decided it was enough to imagine what it was like and did not descend the steep stairs into it.
Geghard Monastery (The Monastery of the Lance)
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was pierced in his side by a lance while hanging from the cross. Although we weren’t told that the lance was in this monastery I had read one claim that it was being guarded within the Geghard monastery. Over the centuries, a number of churches have claimed to possess this sacred object so it is still a question mark as to where the lance really is. Part of this ancient church is carved in the rock face of a mountain.
The monastery was built in the 4th century and the oldest surviving chapel in the complex was build in the 12th century. As we explored the monastery, we came upon a burial vault which we were told had the most beautiful acoustics. No sooner than we were told this, a young girl, who looked like a tourist, began to sing a most melodious song. The effect, standing inside this ancient structure, listening to this beautiful song as it rose and reverberated, was simply electrifying. I had goose bumps. We told her how magnificent her singing was and she smiled shyly and walked away. So we can now vouch for the fact that the acoustics is indeed amazing.
In another part of the complex was a natural spring. It was so dark inside and we needed a torchlight to light our way. We found the spring. It is said that if you pray and drink from the spring, your prayers will be answered. So we did:-)
A word about the Armenian cross-stones or kachkars. Every church in Armenia has them. They are meant to act as a focal point for worship, ‘facilitating communication between the secular and the divine.’ The entrance to one of the caves had these cross-stones carved into the wall. In other places, the stones were in the ground. These are unique to Armenia and there are more than 50,000 kachkars in Armenia.
Symphony of Stones
From there we drove to a village where we transferred to a 4×4 vehicle for the drive down to the Garni Gorge. There we got off and walked along the Azat and Goght rivers (the two rivers meet at a point in this canyon) and were completely gobsmacked as we came upon the absolutely incredible ‘Symphony of Stones’. The entire canyon is formed by regular hexagonal cylinders of varying lengths. It is almost impossible to describe it, I’ll leave my photos to do the explaining. We lingered here a long while, taking gazillion photos.
It was time for lunch and as there were no restaurants in the village, arrangements were made to have lunch at ‘Sergei’s house’. Sergei and his family are clearly very enterprising seeing the need to feed hungry tourists who come to their village in droves. So we turned up at Sergei’s house and not only were we treated to the most delicious meal of soup, fish and rice, we were also able to see how they made lavash – a thin flatbread made in an earthen oven like a ‘tandoor’. The meal was most satisfying especially the soup.
Temple of Garni
We continued with our exploration of the area, this time to the Garni Temple, the only surviving ‘pagan’ structure in Armenia. Once Christianity was adopted, St Gregory set about destroying all pagan temples and building churches on top of it. A pity. Otherwise we would have even older structures.
The temple of Garni survived only because the King’s sister converted it as a summer house. We caught a glimpse of this parthenon-like structure from the gorge earlier and it looked positively Greek. But it was built in 1 A.D by Armenians and was dedicated to the sun god Mihr.
As we were walking up the hill, it came “alive with the sound of music”. Two men, one playing the violin and the other singing with gusto, against the background of mountains, provided us some entertainment. They were being filmed and we joined in with our cameras.
It was evening by the time we got back to Yerevan and we stopped at the famous Cascades. For want of a better description, it is a huge stairway built into the side of a hill with fountains and waterfalls and thus its name. The fountains and waterfalls were not on when we went. We took escalators to go up and viewed the many art displays along the way up and from the top walked all the way down. It is a popular meeting place with cafes and outdoor seats for a nice evening.
What a day. Only our second day and already we had taken in so much.
What do you do on Easter in the county that first adopted Christianity? You attend mass in the world’s oldest cathedral of course.
On the way to Echmiadzin where the cathedral is, we stopped at the St Hripsime church. Hripsime was apparently an attractive Roman nun who fled Rome (with her companion nuns, Gayana and Nune) to escape marriage to the Roman emperor Diocletian, only to attract the attention of King Trydat III (he was not yet a Christian convert at this point you see). She refused his hand in marriage, staunch in her faith and to her vows as a nun. Thus spurned, the King had her stoned to death. The story has many versions and this is the least horrific.
The Echmiadzin Cathedral is considered the ‘Vatican’ of the Armenian Apostolic Church and purportedly the world’s oldest cathedral. There were devout worshippers and among them curious tourists. What was particularly annoying were the tourists who used their selfie-sticks inside the crowded cathedral! It’s a wonder that no one got poked in the eye or hit on the head!
As in all the active churches, women have to have their heads covered. So with our heads covered, we entered this grand and beautiful cathedral. There were no pews. Standing only. We had to jostle a bit with secret servicemen (their ear piece being the dead giveaway) and we realised there were also dignitaries in the front row – possibly the President. But when the mass began, led by the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, there was a hush and it was as solemn as it was grand. Although we did not understand a word of what was being chanted, the solemnity and piety in the atmosphere was palpable. The choir was mesmerising. We must have stayed for about an hour, joining in with our own prayers and supplication. What an experience.
On our way back to Yerevan, we stopped at the ruins of Zvartnots – a 7th century ‘Celestial Angels Cathedral’. With Mt Ararat in the background, it made for a stunning image.
Easter lunch was an interesting affair at the Taverna Yerevan. Traditional red eggs were served and we also learnt the tradition of ‘the egg fight’. One picks an egg and hits the other person’s egg with it and the one with the egg unbroken wins and gets to keep it. Of course we had to observe tradition! But then we also had our eggs and ate them.
The rest of our day was free and we were glad as that would allow Katar and Mello to spend the rest of Easter with their families.
We walked back to our hotel and spent a couple of hours editing our photos from the last few days and making notes of all that we had seen and learnt and there was a lot!
In the evening we decided to check out the Vernissage Market – a veritable hub of all things Armenian – jewellery, carpets, art, t-shirts, bags, books … and as we approached the book stall, the friendly elderly gentleman minding the stall, stood up and asked where we were from. He then went on to recite something which was supposedly ‘Singaporean’ and asked if we knew it. We hardly understood what he had recited or even the language! He said someone had taught him that and had told him it was ‘Singaporean’. We were sorry to disappoint him. He continued reciting poems in Armenian and English. What impressed us was his recital of the poem ‘Mother’ which S said she had learnt in school but had forgotten.
He was very proud of the fact that he was 75 and could still remember his poetry and recite them by heart. His friend sitting nearby clearly thought he was talking too much and kept muttering and grumbling to him. S bought a book and we could only get away when another customer came along and asked him something. He wished us well and we said our goodbyes. He said he liked us because we were “warm and simple” and he thought we may have met in a previous life! He is a lovely man. If you’re ever in Yerevan, do go by the bookstalls and ask for Frunzik.
To the North
Our last morning in Yerevan. We were picked up after breakfast and we set off to Lake Sevan. As we drove away, ours eyes were pulled by the sight of Mt Ararat, this time not under any cloud cover and her full majesty could be seen. What a lovely way to depart.
Lake Sevan is the largest lake in the Caucuses and one of the world’s highest freshwater lakes at 1900m above sea level. We stopped to take in the view and visit the ruins of the Sevanavank monastery and two churches that were built in the 9th century. Apparently the monastery was a place to reform errant monks. Strictly no women allowed in the 9th century. They would be horrified had they known that in the 21st century there would be women traipsing all over the complex.
Our journey north took us alongside the beautiful Pambak Mountain Range and many stops were made along the way for us to make our photos. This slowed us down considerably.
We finally pulled into Dilijian, often referred to as ‘The Switzerland of Armenia’. We took a short walk around and came across a wood carver’s workshop. The wood carver was in and did not mind our poking around and watching him carve.
We proceeded on to the Lori region in the far north and stopped at Alaverdi for lunch. As we drove into Alaverdi, we were greeted by the ghastly sight of a copper mining factory which really had an other-worldly appearance. A real blight on an otherwise pristine landscape. It was belching out thick smoke into the air and causing an incredible haze that covered the mountainside. As Katar explained, this was created by the Soviets and the copper mine provides much needed jobs to the locals. There were drab Soviet-style blocks of flats that truly was inconsistent with its beautiful and dramatic natural setting.
We stopped for lunch. Everywhere we ate, the food has been consistently good. We had another excellent meal and this time tried Armenian beer as well. Thus fortified, we drove up a mountain to visit the Haghphat Monastery and later we drove down the mountain and up another mountain to get to the Sanahin Monastery.
The story is that a father and son were building the Haghphat Monastery and the son then decided to strike out on his own and went on to build the Sanahin Monastery. He built it in record time which is why it was named ‘sanahin’ which means ‘this one is older than that one’. We spent a considerable amount of time in these monasteries especially Sanahin as the evening light was perfect.
Our many long drives were never boring. Either there was mesmerising scenery to gape at or great conversation to be had. Katar was full of stories – legends and historical tales. We spoke of the Armenian Diaspora and of the many famous Armenians – we had a quiz to see how many we knew – there are a fair few I tell you! (and noooo the Kadarshians didn’t count!). Our contribution was that the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (and E&O in Penang) was owned by two Armenian brothers, the Sarkies (rather embarrassingly we couldn’t quite remember their names just then).
At one point as we drove past a statue of “Akhtamar”, Katar pulled out the English translation of a poem called “Akhtamar” by a famous Armenian poet, Toumanian. Her recitation was replete with pain and emotion. We applauded in appreciation. Here’s the link, if you’re interested in reading it: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/akhtamar/
Another poem she read to us was the delightful “TheDog and the Cat” also by Toumanian: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-dog-and-the-cat-3/. Driving with good company is such a great way to see a country. You stop where you want, wander around, get a feel of the place and carry on.
With all our stopping for photos, we tended to be slightly behind on our schedule but it didn’t matter. We weren’t in any hurry. Our last stop for the night was Dzoraget, surrounded by mountains. Our hotel was located by a gushing river which was very relaxing.
Tomorrow we drive to the Georgian border.
Our last drive out in Armenia. This time to the border town of Bagratashen which was about an hour and half from where we were. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here and are so grateful to Katar and Mello for their hospitality and care and to Katar especially for sharing so much of her knowledge with us.
It is truly a place of great heritage, history, culture and wonderful people.
Shnorhagalem! (Thank you!)
If you’d like to see more photos of this trip, please click on the following link: https://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2018-Armenia/
After hugs and farewells to Katar at the Armenian checkpoint, Mello drove us to the Georgian checkpoint where we were met by the vivacious Nino and gentle Georgita for the second half of our Caucuses journey.
To be continued …