A Weekend of Armenian Culture
I am deposited by my taxi driver on a cold corner of Sayat-Nova Poghota at 5am. The lack of numbers above doors does not help me in my search for the correct entrance to my ‘homestay’ apartment, but I eventually find the right one and am greeted by my bleary-eyed host, Anahit Stepanyan. She shows me to my room and I flop into bed, exhausted.
After a brief five-hour sleep, I sit eating breakfast and chatting with Anahit, sipping delicious soorch (traditional Armenian coffee). For $10 per night, I get a bed, breakfast and as much information, history and conversation in English as I can handle with both Anahit and her two sons, in this home away from home.
Having become the first nation to accept Christianity as its official religion in AD 301, Armenia and its people have suffered ever since. Their history is one of continually being conquered: by Arabs, Turkmen, Mongols, Tamerlane, Seljuks, Ottomans and Soviets. In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives at the hands of the Ottomans: the first modern genocide. It comes as no surprise that the majority of Armenians live outside of Armenia.
I extricate myself from the kitchen and go for my first walk in Yerevan, to the 12th century Katoghike chapel. It is tiny; so small that the congregation has to gather outside under a marquee. The chapel is tucked away in a small courtyard, surrounded and dwarfed by 20th century Soviet apartment blocks. The chapel was due to be demolished during the Soviet era but was saved due to the extent of the public outcry. Two old ladies light candles and a dog barks as I inspect the shattered remnants of Katoghike’s unsaved neighbour. Pieces of broken stone with carvings and inscriptions lie in the snow all around the chapel. Sad and ancient carved faces gaze mournfully upward.
At Opera Square I stop to marvel at The Opera House while two dogs gnaw on bones, oblivious to my presence. The Opera House is one giant and monstrous concrete breezeblock, dark grey and with an unfinished look to it. At the southern end of the square seven cranes perform a slow industrial ballet over the skeletons of new buildings rising from the earth. This construction site is larger than Red Square and I am informed that a new street is being built which will have modern and luxurious apartments on it.
The Opera House
Hanrapetutyan Hraparak, formerly Lenin Square, is home to some of the finer architecture to be found in Yerevan. The colonnades and arches of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Armenian Marriott Hotel, the Finance and Economy Ministry, the National Gallery and State Museum all impressively face out onto the tree and lamp lined streets, as Ladas, Volgas and the occasional Mercedes swing around the corners of the square.
At the Vernissage Market there are only twenty or so occupied stalls, the majority of the people buying and selling antique and new jewellery, predominantly crucifixes. Each has a wooden display cabinet with a glass lid. Traders play cards animatedly with each other, drink coffee and help the occasional customer. After a few minutes of haggling, I pay $10 for a 1970s watch before sharing a coffee and some peanuts with the stallholder.
I stop for lunch at Marco Polo, on fashionable Abovyan Poghots. It is one of Yerevan’s many café restaurants that, like the city, has a very Mediterranean feel. I sit under a glass conservatory, looking out onto the street. Next to me, three fashionably dressed girls with designer shopping bags piled up on a spare chair eat ice cream from brightly coloured cocktail glasses. Chic and expensive-looking handbags are slung over the backs of their owners’ chairs. The sun streams through the glass roof, while smoke hangs in the air. A procession of cars with silver streamers attached to their aerials pass down the road, honking their horns. My Solyanka arrives. It is greeny-yellow, rich and meaty, well spiced with chives and coriander floating on the surface. A Russian dish with an eastern twist, it is served in a large earthenware bowl.
At the Matenadaran, I look out over Yerevan. It is a magnificent stone building housing much of Armenia’s written and illuminated history. At the foot of the building is a statue of Mashtots, the inventor of the 36-letter Armenian alphabet. The sounds of the city are now distant up here – vague honks and the hum of far-off traffic. I seem to be the only living being here apart from a couple of stray dogs.
I make my way across to the Cascades, a giant concrete staircase bordering on brutalist in design, which is set into the side of a hill. At the top there is some kind of obelisk with a gold leaf sticking out of the top that looks like an African spear. It is, in fact, a monument commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Work stopped when independence arrived, and only re-commenced in 2001. Either side of the concrete is a rock and rubble-strewn wasteland. As I climb, I pass little lines of shrubs, carvings, plinths, fountains and post-modern sculptures. Two young lovers playfully embrace and laugh. A handful of other people stand, looking down over their city, a city of monuments. Wherever one goes, the many parks and squares are filled with all manner of sculptures and strange abstract blocks of concrete.
The following morning I head for the ‘Shuka’ market. A bus, belching smoke, with “Ville de Lyon” written on the back passes by, a physical symbol of the foreign aid this country receives. No other country (apart from Israel) receives more American aid. The economy has grown rapidly, but fifteen years ago unemployment stood at a staggering 80%.
The market is housed in what looks like a concrete airplane hanger. Vendors stand behind intricate rows of piled vegetables of all descriptions, fresh and dried fruit, spices and honey. I try some shuguch, a long thin stick of walnuts covered in solidified grape juice. “Armenian snickers!”, the man says with delight. I buy four sticks.
The Vernissage Market is humming with activity now that it is the weekend. Every stall is occupied. There are delicate and intricately decorated plates and porcelain, clocks, statues and sculptures, fur hats and coats, a man playing and selling traditional duduk flutes, abstract and figurative paintings, pets and dog leashes, old cameras, stamps, coins and medals, and in one corner, bizarrely, chemistry test tubes and a filtration apparatus.
I buy some commemorative sets of Armenian stamps before making my way to Surp Grigor Lusavorich Cathedral, the largest church in the Caucasus. Consecrated in 2001, it is predictably is not of classical design. It is cold and cavernous inside. A wedding is taking place at the far end by the altar while another wedding party waits patiently for their turn to walk down the red carpet.
After a kebab lunch at the suave Poplovok Jazz Café, I take a taxi to the Sergei Paradjanov Museum. Paradjanov was an avant-garde filmmaker who was imprisoned twice by the Soviet authorities and banned from making more films. He turned his artistic attention to making collages and sculptures, many of which were made from pieces of junk. The creativity and humour of his works is incredible, as is the political dimension of pieces such as “The Last Supper”, where cut out figures from the Kremlin have been added to the table of diners, along with items such as Faberge eggs. The intimacy of the museum and the breathtaking work send me out into Yerevan uplifted and inspired.
While most other residents of Yerevan are still sleeping, Ara is waiting at the arranged time next to a brand new Lada Niva. The Sunday morning streets are virtually deserted. On the outskirts there are people selling sheep at the side of the road. Makeshift pens of blue tarpaulin have been erected on the pavements. One sheep has been removed and is pinned upside down on the pavement for inspection by a prospective buyer.
We are on our way to Echmiadzin, the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340 AD. It is, religiously, the most important city and is known as ‘The Vatican of Armenia’. We stop first at Surp Gayane, a simple but elegant church. By the entrance, two ancient Katchkars (carved stone crosses) lean against the wall, either side of the intricately carved wooden door. An old woman in a black headscarf goes from one to the other, awkwardly bending and kissing each one while crossing herself.
The bells are ringing as we get to Mayr Tachan, Armenian for ‘Mother Church of Armenia’, which is the main cathedral at Echmiadzin. Snow is falling as the first of the congregation arrive at the gates. Two women brush the snow from the path, synchronised in their movements. We walk around the walls of the church’s compound looking at the collection of Katchkars assembled from every corner of Armenia. Many have witnessed more than a millennium of history.
Ara tells me a story of typical Armenian resilience. During the Soviet occupation, the importing of gold was banned. Armenians wanted to produce a new gold crucifix for the church, and so they imported gold by wearing it as jewellery. Over a period of years, enough gold was donated to finally be smelted down and made into the crucifix.
Bearded priests in hooded black gowns glide past, heading towards the church. We follow and go in through the richly carved bell tower at the main entrance. On entering, members of the congregation walk to an elaborately carved silver crucifix that stands in the middle of the church, cross themselves, kneel and kiss it. To the right they light candles and place them in large troughs of sand as a church employee snuffs out the old and sputtering ones. On the walls are religious paintings under which the more pious stand, arms outstretched in supplication, occasionally kissing the frames.
In the middle of the church, directly behind the silver crucifix, stands the place where St. Gregory the Illuminator saw a beam of light fall to earth in a divine vision, and where he built the first Mayr Tachar. It is enclosed in purple velvet curtains and priests line either side of it, facing the altar at the front of the church where the service is conducted. A male choir sings Gregorian style chants with an eastern flavour. Three large chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the smell of incense increases as the service continues. Priests appear from behind a huge and ornate tapestry hanging behind the altar carrying staffs and large religious texts which are sung and read from by priests in elaborate dark blue gowns, braided with gold.
We leave the service after thirty minutes and drive the short distance to Surp Hripsime. The entrance from the street is through an iron gate. Hripsime is significantly smaller and less elaborate than Mayr Tachar, and consequently more intimate. The service is in progress and we stand at the back. There are four rows of simple pews and a small female choir are singing, all dressed in blue robes and wearing white headscarves. A single shaft of light pours in through the tower, illuminating most of the small congregation, leaving the rest of the church in secretive darkness. A young priest in red and white robes appears from behind a curtain and walks to the rear of the church. He unhooks two wires with wooden handles from either side of the entrance. He begins to pull on one and then the other, and two bells above us begin to toll. He smiles a smile of pure and simple happiness.
On the road back to Yerevan we stop at Zvartnots Cathedral, set in a plain and surrounded by orchards. An earthquake in 930 AD destroyed it and it has recently been partially re-built. The style is completely different from the other churches. It is more like a Greek or Roman temple; a circle of carved pillars surround a baptism pool. Scattered all around the temple is an archaeological jigsaw puzzle of fragments from a medieval winery and a palace. Many of the pieces have been numbered and several carved leaves and stone bunches of grapes lie amidst the other indecipherable pieces.
As the Lada starts to climb into the mountains surrounding Yerevan, so the mist descends and cloaks us. As we reach the summit, the mist disperses and the sun shines weakly. Steam rises from the asphalt as we pass a deserted picnic spot. Three forlorn metal parasols protect tables and chairs, overlooking the valley that cannot be seen. We pass tobacco fields and a group of young men hunched in leather coats, standing by a gate made from an old blue car door. Rugged mountains bear down from all sides.
Garni Temple is something of an oddity. It is a Hellenic temple that was totally rebuilt during the Soviet era, and for the most part seems entirely new. It was originally built in the first century and dedicated to Helios, the Roman god of sun. It stands on a promontory, surrounded by steep gorges and mountains. The sound of the Azat River rises up eerily from the valley floor, far below. Garni became a summer residence for the Armenian royalty after the country’s conversion to Christianity. To the right of the temple is a Roman bathhouse, complete with a mosaic.
Much more impressive and genuine is Geghard Monastery, which sits in a canyon 8 kms from Garni. The ancient cave churches and chapels of this monastery date back to the fourth century and were joined by two more churches in the thirteenth century. The footsteps of ages can be felt here as one plunges in to the semi-darkness of the chapels hewn from the side of the canyon, footsteps and voices echoing around the cavernous interiors.
Returning to Yerevan, we stop at the Genocide Memorial. Standing on top of a hill overlooking the city, an eternal flame burns, enclosed by twelve basalt slabs that represent the twelve Armenian provinces that are now part of Turkey. A 40-metre obelisk stands alone, cracked, representing the divided state of the nation. A one hundred metre wall commemorates the names of the communities that were lost. The silence here speaks volumes.
At Old Yerevan, I eat a farewell feast with one of Anahit’s sons, Zevan. We devour delicious Lamb Khashlam, Pork Khorovats, Dolma and Lavash, while a traditional folk band play. The female singer sings tragic songs of loss, but in true Armenian style, with a beautiful smile on her face.