What immediately comes to mind when Westerners think of Armenia? “The Kardashians!” Inseparable association with an indomitable, but utterly useless, family brand is an egregious affront to the Armenian people, custodians of one of the world’s most remarkable civilisations. Armenians laugh openly at this inevitable connection, but surely weep internally at the lack of awareness and respect for their society. To most, the modern Republic of Armenia is nothing more than a blip on the global map, sandwiched between nations of greater geopolitical significance. Yet the Armenian nation, at least conceptually if not independently, predates almost every other, with a unique assemblage of historic achievements its people are rightly proud of. And it’s the people of Armenia that are today the country’s best assets; warm, welcoming, inquisitive and humorous (all characteristics often lacking in neighbouring Georgia), desperate to be acknowledged and engaged by the outside world. They speak passionately about the history of their people: from the existence of an Armenian Empire in antiquity, to surviving the Armenian Genocide and continued hostile relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. While beautiful vestiges of the country’s heritage have been preserved, it’s discovering the story of the Armenian people that is the constituent appeal of travelling to Armenia, reminding me somewhat of Israel / Palestine and Bosnia in that way.
Armenia was a late addition to my itinerary, as I realised I would be highly unlikely to ever be in the vicinity again due to the isolation and obscurity of the South Caucasus region. I was very pleased with my decision to reduce my allocated time in Azerbaijan to accommodate 6 days in Armenia – and I’m sure the Armenians would be pleased too considering the economic victim. I opted to travel from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia on one of the much vaunted tours of Envoy Hostels, my accommodation of choice in both cities. I don’t typically engage in sightseeing tours, but I was so impressed by the affordability, convenience and professionalism that I opted to partake in an additional three tours with Envoy. Since Armenia’s primary attractions are Yerevan (the capital) and a collection of historical sites (monasteries) scattered throughout the countryside, I decided the tours would be the easiest method for me to sample Armenia. The guides are a particularly appealing attribute of the tours: young (usually university students), jocular (typically at the expense of Georgians) and passionate about sharing the culture and history of their people. I was intrigued by how relatable they were, even though the circumstances of their homeland are so different to placid realities of the West; they don’t exactly boast neighbourly relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, who would prefer to erase the existence of Armenia (and its people) from the face of the Earth.
The history of the Armenian people stretches back thousands of years, biblically to the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. Mount Ararat thus defines the identity of the Armenian people, and every second business in the country seems to be named after the sacred landscape. The mountain, easily visible from the hills of Yerevan on a clear day, is truly a stunning sight, with twin, snow-capped massifs (5,165m and 3,925m) of the dormant volcano rising from a flat, arid environment. Mount Ararat is the centre of the traditional lands of the Armenian people, but it is today controlled by the Republic of Turkey, agonisingly just a couple dozen kilometres from the Armenian border. The Republic of Armenia’s contemporary extent, just a slither of the South Caucasuses, belies the historic scale of Armenian society. The modern nation is claimed to represent just Eastern Armenia; the highlands of Western Armenia (including key sites and cities such as Mount Ararat, Lake Van, Ani, Erzurum and Diyarbakir) are now within Turkey and referred to as Eastern Anatolia. The Armenian Empire in the 1st century BC actually extended from the Mediterranean to the Black and Caspian Seas. The subsequent millennia though saw the gradual diminishing of Armenia’s lands and eventual independence with invasions by the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians. Similar to the Jews, the Armenian people thus spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and even India to establish communities wherever they could survive. Again like the Jews, the tragic events of the 20th century resulted in mass migration to Russia and North America. The diaspora is almost twice as large the Republic’s population of 3 million, although the overall number of Armenians (9 million) would probably have been closer to 15 million if not for the Armenian Genocide.
Aside from Mount Ararat, the three other characteristics fundamental to Armenian identity are language, Christianity and wine; similar to its “friendly” rival Georgia. Armenian is an ancient branch of the Indo-European language family, completely unrelated to other regional languages including Georgian, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Russian. The script is also unique and incomparable to any other major language. Armenians and Georgians equally venerate their mother tongues, though differentiate on their approaches to second languages. While the younger generations of Georgians shun Russian for English due to their disdain for their former communist overlords, Armenians still learn Russian alongside English due to the pragmatic acknowledgement that their country’s continual existence depends very much on the heavy Russian garrisons stationed on the Turkish border. Identical to the Georgians, the Armenians recognise their independent branch of Christianity as essentially analogous to Armenian culture. The Armenian Apostolic Church was established in 301 when the contemporaneous kingdom of Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion (beating the Georgians by 2 decades). The church is separate to Eastern Orthodoxy and part of the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity, along with the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches (due to some disagreement over whether Jesus’ divine and natural qualities were one and the same or not… so trivial semantics). While a major post-Soviet religious revival has certainly occurred, I did not develop the impression that spiritual motivations caused this (as with the Georgians) as religion doesn’t seem pervasive in the modern lifestyle. I think instead the inferred synonymity of Church and Armenian nationhood is purely to reassert identity. While Armenians do not consume wine as abundantly as Georgians, it still represents an important pillar of Armenian culture. This is especially true since the Armenians contend they invited viticulture, with the oldest traces of wine anywhere in the world found near the wine producing village of Areni. Armenians produce wine from a variety of fruits including pomegranates, which is delicious and recommended (quince wine, however, is not!).
Almost all historic sites in Armenia are Christian churches, monasteries and cemeteries. Christian architecture in Armenia was heavily influenced by the Byzantine traditions. However, the interiors of Armenian churches are notably austere compared to the gaudily colourful churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. They are also characterised by the prevalence of “umbrella” style domes, rather than onion-shaped domes. The most distinctive element of Armenian Christian architecture are khachkars, listed as intangible cultural heritage by Unesco. Khachkars are stele carved from stone that depict the cross and various decorative motifs (flowers, saints, animals). They are used as gravestones and thus no two khachkars are the same. I visited a field of khachkars in Noratus, near the shores of Lake Sevan. The eerie, windswept cemetery was certainly impressive with hundreds of medieval, metre high khachkars, but too creepy for me to loiter.
Monasteries are to Armenia what Buddhist temples are to Thailand. Needless to say, one very quickly develops “monastery fatigue” in Armenia (similar to “reading Liam’s blog fatigue”). Nevertheless, the medieval Armenians had a penchant to construct monasteries in spectacular natural settings, so visiting them is an opportunity to admire the country’s landscapes. All up, I visited eight monasteries in six days, most between 800 and 1,100 years old: Haghpat, Sanahin, Geghard, Echmiadzin, Khor Virap, Noravank, Sevanavank and Hayravank. Haghpat and Sanahin are both compounds of pretty stone buildings perched at the top of Debed Canyon with magnificent views of the lush green landscape. Geghard Monastery, the most famous in Armenia, is entirely carved out of rock within a gorge and features astonishing detail considering the required effort. Echmiadzin, a sprawling compound located on the outskirts of Yerevan, is the only still fully functioning monastery I visited and has been the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church (equivalent of the pope) for six centuries. Khor Virap is a petite monastery occupying a hillock within starkly arid plains. The view of Khor Virap with Mount Ararat 25km in the background is probably the most iconic scene in Armenia. Noravank is constructed of a reddish material and surrounded by dramatic ochre red cliffs that create tremendous effects in the late afternoon shadow, similar to the landscapes of Central Australia. Noravank was my favourite monastery in Armenia, despite my visit coinciding with the impending repercussions of food poisoning (regretfully I still participated in the wine and cognac tastings immediately after Noravank). Sevanavank and Hayravank, situated on narrow peninsulas, were the least interesting monasteries I visited (though also the last), but they did provide pleasant views of Lake Sevan.
Yerevan is one of the oldest capital cities in the world and home to nearly half of Armenia’s population. Since almost the entire country can be accessed on long day-trips from Yerevan, most tourists opt for the simplicity of basing themselves in the city for the duration of their stay. And Yerevan is certainly an amiable city to loiter in, easily my favourite of the three Caucasian capitals. While Yerevan lacks the charming historic architecture of Tbilisi and the modern comforts of Baku, it is also absent of the traffic and general disorderliness of the former and the phoney glitziness of the later. The city isn’t particularly beautiful, as the grid-like urban layout and architecture of the central area predominately date to the Soviet era (few vestiges survive of the 27 centuries of existence prior to the communist dictatorship). Yet Yerevan is a green city of parks, treelined boulevards and spacious civic squares that provide respite from the hustle and bustle. The city feels very much Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, rather than Eastern European, with teahouses, outdoor dining areas and shisha bars ubiquitous.
Scant “must-see” attractions exist in Yerevan, yet the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum is absolutely unmissable. The site, similar to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, commemorates the victims of the Ottoman atrocities and details the horrific story of the Western Armenians. In the 19th century, the Armenian provinces were split between the empires of Tsarist Russia (east) and Ottoman Turkey (west), bitter adversaries. Armenians accounted for approximately 20% of the Ottoman population of 17 million in 1900. While most lived in the Armenian highlands, a sizeable community of 300,000 resided in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. Ottoman Armenians were a particularly educated demographic of society and successful at business, and as such constituted a significant portion of the Ottoman bureaucracy. However, the Ottomans became increasingly paranoid of collaboration between their Armenian subjects and the Russians because of their shared Christianity, and gradually eroded their status and rights.
The authorities responded to protests in 1896 by massacring 300,000 Armenians. During World War One, the “Young Turks”, a political party that had seized power in the Ottoman Empire, utilised the Armenians as scapegoats for a failing war effort. Between 1915 – 1922, at least 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or deported to the Syrian desert to die, in an effort to rid the empire of Armenians. Western observers reported the most heinous of crimes being committed by the Ottomans. Many military officers of the German Empire, allies of the Ottoman Empire, visited Armenian concentration camps and later became leading Nazis that instituted the Holocaust. Even with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the consequent security of their eastern front, the Ottomans maliciously pursued the annihilation of the Armenian race. The newly independent Republic of Armenia, formed from the provinces controlled by the Russian Empire, was the next target. After utterly decimating towns and villages of Western Armenia, the Ottomans surged towards Yerevan. Miraculously, the Armenians defended their new capital. US President Woodrow Wilson was responsible for establishing the final demarcation lines, yet failed to provide international military support. Ataturk, leader of post-imperial Turkey, offered peace to Lenin in exchange for the Soviet Union to allow the seizure of half the Republic of Armenia’s lands. Western Armenia was thus lost: the permanent tragedy for the Armenian people.
What happened to the Armenians undoubtedly constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. Yet the term “Armenian Genocide” is controversial as the Turkish strenuously deny that Ottoman authorities issued official decrees for extermination, with some even suggesting the massacres did not occur. Due to the geopolitical significance of the Republic of Turkey, only a couple dozen countries recognise the term Armenian Genocide; the United States, Russia, United Kingdom and Australia have failed to do so. Political leaders who have used the term Armenian Genocide are honoured with a pine tree planted in front of the Memorial. Quite rightfully, the Holocaust is remembered internationally as one of the most barbarous acts ever perpetrated in human history. But how can the suffering of the Armenian people be swept under the (Turkish) carpet? The lamentably inadequate awareness and knowledge for the Armenian Genocide, particularly in the West, is a gross miscarriage of justice. Even today, Armenians live with the fear that if the prevailing international order collapsed, the Turkish would unflinchingly eviscerate their people and country.
The hard-fought independence of Armenia in 1918 lasted only 3 years as the Bolsheviks rolled in, established the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and commenced 7 decades of oppressive rule. Armenia became a key research, technology and manufacturing centre of the Soviet empire, which is evident in the innumerable derelict industrial sites scattered throughout the countryside. On my journey from Tbilisi to Yerevan through the Debed Canyon, we passed by a particularly offensive visual site of a partially decommissioned copper smelting plant dominating one side of the valley. Aside from a few operating smelters that exhaust vile smoke into the canyon, the precinct is mostly abandoned, crumbling and emanating a post-apocalyptic appearance. It reminded me somewhat of a location used in the film Skyfall, when James Bond travels to an abandoned industrial island in the ocean to confront the baddies. While life under the communist regime was harsh and restrictive, the enormous distance from Moscow perhaps allowed the Armenians to maintain a sense of independent identity and freedom of expression. During the latter decades of Soviet rule, an anonymous radio broadcast would poke fun at the communist regime, to the immense delight of Armenian listeners.
The best tour conducted by Envoy Hostel is the Soviet Tour of Yerevan, notably not offered by the more commercialised travel agencies. Our enthusiastic guide channelled the comrade spirit as we were transported around the city in a Lada, a classic Soviet-era van of questionable quality. We commenced the tour in Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square), perhaps one of the few aesthetically pleasing contributions the Soviets made to the urban fabric of Yerevan. The square is surrounded by pink stone Stalinist-style (neoclassical and monumental) buildings, decorated with Armenian motifs. The most grandiose of the Stalinist-era structures is the Yerevan Train Station, which features a beautiful marble interior and and a huge spire, replete with the communist sickle and hammer (apparently too high to dismantle). We travelled from central Yerevan to the outer areas via the Yerevan Metro. In the Soviet Union, when the populations of cities reached 1 million, they were granted funding by central government to construct metro systems. In the 1970s, Caucasian rivals Tbilisi and Baku achieved the criteria, instilling jealousy in the Armenians. The leader of Soviet Armenia decided to play a trick on Leonid Brezhnov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, when he visited the city. He secretly arranged for Armenians in the countryside to drive into Yerevan for the day to create artificially appalling traffic congestion. Brezhnov, disgusted by the traffic, immediately authorised the construction of a metro system. Or at least that’s how Armenians like to recount it, out-fooling the Soviets. The outer suburbs of Yerevan are littered with abandoned Soviet industrial installations and dilapidated block towers, that reek of a general disregard for human liveability. However, the locals have converted a disused warehouse into a thriving produce market, trading staples of Armenian agriculture out of the trunks of their cars and vans including pomegranates, plums, walnuts, grapes and dried fruits– especially beloved apricots (the Republic’s flag is red, blue and orange: red for the enormous bloodshed suffered by the Armenian people; blue for the perpetually clear skies they live under; and orange for the apricots). We visited a cluster of apartment buildings that were designed to read as “CCCP” (equivalent acronym for the USSR in Cyrillic) from the air. However, the Soviets failed to complete their project, with one “C” missing and another unfinished; representative perhaps of the shoddiness of the communist system.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) resulted in Armenians demanding independence, which achieved in 1991. While liberation and freedom for the Armenian people had finally been obtained, the new republic faced immediate threats in the early 1990s. The Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought a bitter war for Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that had been within Soviet Azerbaijan but with a majority ethnic Armenian population. Borders and relations with neighbouring Turkey were closed, Georgia remained neutral and without direct geographical contact with Russia, Armenia was essentially isolated and facing dwindling resources ( gas shortages were frequent throughout the decade). Furthermore, the economy was in free-fall. Yet despite numerical and financial disadvantages, the Armenians successfully pushed the Azerbaijanis out of the region and formed a de facto independent state, the Republic of Artsakh. Armenia obtained the critical support of Iran, who were threatened by their fellow Shia Islam republic’s suspected aspirations to create a “Greater Azerbaijan” and cleave away the north-western Iranian provinces. The modern-day Republic of Armenia thus enjoys the rare diplomatic distinction of excellent relations with Iran, Russia (their traditional protectors against the Turks) and the United States, keen to assist countries with transitions from command to market oriented economies in strategic regions. The war never officially concluded (like Korea), so animosity with the Azerbaijanis and Turks still define the national psyche. Yet Armenia’s most troublesome days seem to be over, as the country rebuilds and embraces the cosmopolitanism (particularly Yerevan) of the twenty-first century.
The modern-day Republic of Armenia essentially consists of two cuisines: Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian (due to immigration). Their unfortunate commonality is the ruination of all dishes with coriander garnishes. Eastern Armenian is influenced by Russian, Georgian and Central Asian kitchens. Khoravats is venerated as undoubtedly the national dish and speciality of Eastern Armenian, forming the cornerstone of all gatherings and celebrations. Khorovats is essentially a unique form of barbecuing copious amounts of meat, which is typically pork. Soups are an integral component of Eastern Armenian, with borsht and bozbash especially popular. Armenian borscht is served hot and cooked with beef stock, cabbage, vegetables and occasionally beetroots. Bozbash is a thick, fatty and sour soup of lamb lard, chickpeas, potatoes and dried fruits - surprisingly very tasty! On the countryside tours with Envoy Hostels, we were privileged to enjoy traditional Armenian feasts at local households, rather than the cavernous restaurants catering for tourist buses. We enjoyed enormous spreads of salads (oily eggplant salads were notably delicious), grilled vegetables (eggplant!), Armenian cheeses, khorovats, harissa and lavash. Harissa is basically a savoury porridge consisting of korkot (cracked wheat) and a fatty meat such as chicken, which takes an enormous amount if time to cook but is a cherished component of an Armenian spread. Lavash is the traditional bread of Armenia, a thin unleavened bread cooked in an oven similar to a tandoor. Western Armenian cuisine delightfully resembles the food of Anatolia and the Levant. Think hummus (!), babaganouj, tabbouleh, dolma (stuffed vine leaves, usually with meat), grilled meats (kebabs), lahmajoon (thin pizzas with mince meat and spices) and baklava. Particular specialties of Western Armenian cuisine include a spiced kofta known as lule kebab and mante, which are small dumplings topped in a rich tomato sauce and garlic yoghurt - belissimo!
Travelling to Armenia was a stark reminder of the incredible privilege of being born white Australian. In just the past century, the Armenian people have suffered through ethnic Genocide, unsolicited incorporation into a regressive communist empire, severe economic stagnation, warfare to liberate historical territories and hostile neighbourly relations; none of which Australians of Anglo heritage can have any appreciation of. Yet despite their somber past, the Armenians are genuinely bubbly and hospitable people, making any trip to the country highly educational and enjoyable.
That’s all for now,