Armenia has a lot of monasteries. Within 18 km of the Georgian border, we visited the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin founded between the 10th and 13th centuries. They are set on a mountain surrounded by rolling hills, very green grass, numerous varieties of colourful wildflowers, with views into the Debed gorge.
The serenity and beauty could only have encouraged the monks to eat, pray and love (the beauty of the landscape) and create a library.
The stone bas reliefs in the Armenian churches and monasteries seduced me from the moment I set eyes on the first ones at Haghpat. I have always regretted not buying a book I found in Yerevan, which contained a huge collection of images of bas reliefs in Armenia.
Even the services of Mrs Sour, a sullen, angry, anti Turkish and pro-Soviet Armenian guide, did not spoil Yerevan – although it certainly meant that her choice of restaurant and entertainment provided me with a prejudiced view of both. One meal, which was particularly disgusting, consisted of a lump of white stuff, optimistically called meat, and a mess of stuff called wheat. The entertainment that evening was dreadful. Singing so bad that it could not distract me from the food.
Hilary Clinton made my brandy tasting experience less than optimum. I had been looking forward to my late afternoon visit to the Yerevan Brandy company which produces Ararat, a cognac style brandy. A tasting had been arranged before dinner. Brandy tasting in the morning it not quite the same, but that is what we did.
Clinton was in Yerevan expressing concern over border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan – and to taste brandy apparently. Hers was the morning slot we ended up with, and she got our spot. Perhaps her concerns would have been less concerned after brandy. I hope she enjoyed her pre dinner brandy.
Mrs Sour donned her anti Turkish hat for a visit to Sardarapat, a war memorial commemorating the place where the Armenians turned back the invading Turkish troops. Mrs Sour also provided commentary on the “genocide” of Armenians in Eastern Turkey. In fairness to Mrs Sour, on a later visit to Eastern Turkey the Turkish guide, though not sour, completely denied that a genocide had occurred. She said the Armenians had all started moving back to Armenia, and had died of illness on the way.
Mrs Sour had a bit to say about Mt Ararat. She stated that Ararat has always been considered by Armenians as their spiritual home, and that it should not be in Turkey. Mt Ararat loomed large on the horizon, and I had a perfect view of it from my hotel room.
Enjoying a glass of wine on my balcony that night looking out to Mt Ararat, I did a quick search and discovered that over the centuries Mt Ararat had been contained within many countries borders. It seemed that during the Bagratuni Dynasty around 9th century CE, Ararat was in Armenia, but was annexed by the Byzantines, and various others in the late 12th century for a century or so. The Ottoman Empire claimed it in the 1400’s. It wasn’t part of Armenia again until 1918 until 1923. The area had become part of the Soviet Union, and following the Treaty of Kars in 1923 which carved up the area, Ararat was placed in Turkey.
There is obviously something I have missed, because Ararat has only been part of Armenia for a very small period in the scheme of things. The passion seemed misplaced. On a later vist to eastern Turkey, I visited Dogubayazit, which is close to Mt Ararat. I discerned no passion about the mountain at all from the Turkish guide. Maybe the mountain should go to the passionate.
This medieval monastery is sited in a canyon, and was carved out of rock from the top down. There are a number of churches, bas reliefs and tombs in the complex. The monastery no doubt attracted a lot of pilgrims as it was said to contain the spear used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus and a part of Noah’s Ark. Lucrative indeed to have 2 relics. The hole in the centre of a dome allows a ray of light to shine into a church, which at certain times of the day would no doubt shine onto something significent would also have encouraged pilgrims.
Lunching in a garden near Lake Sevan, shaded by huge mulberry, apricot and fully laden cherry trees, I watched 2 women making bread in a floor oven heated by a fire. One woman rolled out the dough, threw it to the other woman who tossed it around until it was very thin. The dough was then slapped onto what looked like a large pillow, which was then placed against the side of the oven, leaving the dough to cook. The bread was delicious.
Lake Sevan is spectacular, perched 1900m above sea level and surrounded by stark volcanic highlands and plains. On its only island – now a peninsula – sits the medieval Sevanavank monastery, which is reached by climbing a long flight of steps, with wonderful views of the lake and snow topped mountains in the distance.
Yerevan boasts a singing and dancing fountain. I ventured out into Republic square in front of our hotel to view this one evening. I kid you not, the fountains really do dance. The music that night was from Aida, and the fountains did justice to the music.
Temple of Garni
This hellenic temple, dedicated to Helios was once a pagan temple. It was built in the 1st century CE, and collapsed in an earthquake the 17th century CE. It rose from the dead, being reconstructed in the mid 20th century.
St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral Yerevan.
St Gregory, also called Yerevan Cathedral is modern cathedral, which was completed in 2001. It celebrates the 1700th anniversary of christianity in Armenia, and has beautifully decorated ceilings. This was the only church we visited which was a functioning place of worship.
Traditional Armenian hand made dolls.
Miss Sour became a little less sour, and ever so slightly animated when we visited the creator of these beautiful traditional dolls, in her home. Her home was in one of the Soviet style apartment blocks, one less than pleasant legacy the Soviets seem to have left everywhere they occupied.
The doll creator is a nuclear physicist, but now creates and exports dolls. She has won many prizes for her creations, and the dolls range in size from these small examples to almost baby sized.
The reason for Miss Sour’s slight animation became apparent while we were being shown the dolls. She had a platform and an example for her pro-Soviet views. She treated us to a tirade about how much better off Armenians were under Soviet rule. They had homes provided, education was free, as was medicine. There was full employment. The doll creator was an example. Educated and then employed as a nuclear physicist. No such roles were available without the Soviets, so in order to support herself the nuclear physicist created and exported dolls.
The Ruins of Zvartnots Temple
This temple, was constructed in the 7th century CE, destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century CE, and partially reconstructed in the mid 20th century. While exploring these ruins we were captivated by the voices of opera singers from the Yerevan opera. They were singing among the ruins without accompaniment, other than birdsong from the numerous birds darting and soaring above us. A joyful encounter, listening to beautiful voices and looking across to Mt Ararat.
It would have been most interesting to talk to a larger cross section of the populations of each of the countries visited. Conclusions based on such very limited encounters are impossible to come to. Azerbaijan, a muslim country, felt quite different to Georgia, which is chistian. Georgia and Armenia are both christian countries, but Georgia seemed a great deal more joyful than Armenia. If Miss Sour is indicative, perhaps the Armenians mourn the break up of the Soviet Union and the Georgians do not.
There are so many examples of Mt Ararat and Noah’s Arc in Armenia from ornaments such as these to the coat of arms which incorporates a silhouette of Mt Ararat. I saw few such symbols in Eastern Turkey. Maybe the mountain should go to Armenia. The people may then compete with Georgia for joyfulness.