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Entries in Armenia (8)


The Monastery of Haghpat

Even after an exhaustive tour of churches in Armenia, Haghpat was something special. The complex was founded by Saint Nishan in 966 CE, during the reign of King Abas I. The monastery includes several churches, a cathedral, a meeting hall and a mess hall for the monks. Everything is perfectly preserved after a thousand years without any restoration, as the complex survived each tragedy to befall the country. One of the most charming aspects of the complex is the large populations of Swifts that inhabit the otherwise empty building, swooping in and feeding their clutch of hungry chicks in the spherical nests the birds make out of spit and mud.


Armenian churches

We saw churches across Armenia today, from the Turkish border to the shores of Lake Sevan. We started with Khor Virab, the 7th century monastery where Saint Gregory the Illuminator (the patron-saint of Armenia) is said to have been imprisoned for 13 years by the Armenian King Trdat III, as Gregory was the son of Anak, the man who assassinated the previous king. We visited the deep dungeon underneath the monastery where Gregory is alleged to have been kept, until God turned the king mad, such that he started crawling around like a beast. According to local legend, the King’s sister had a dream that only Gregory could restore the King, so he was released and the King duly restored to humanity. In return, the King converted the entire country to Christianity, in 301 CE, making Armenia the first country to institute Christianity as a state religion. After his death, Saint Gregory must have been dismembered, as his head is claimed to be in Italy, his right hand in Lebanon, and we saw what was claimed to be his left hand at Echmiadzin a few days ago.

We followed up the monastic tour with a sampling of what is said to be the best wine in Armenia, at Areni village. The dry red was tolerable, the semi-dry was insufferably sweet and the rosé stripped the throat like turpentine. Perhaps a sign of the quality of the winery is that the bulk is purchased in reused coke bottles, especially as it is close to the Iranian border and the incongruous cover allows importation of a forbidden vice. Presumably the border guards are not overly strict, as a Sprite bottle filled with red wine and recapped with a Fanta lid hardly seems like James Bond-esqe subterfuge.

Noravank, an Armenian Apostolic monastery built in 1339, was notable for the unique entrance, with stepped ornamentation on the façade being used as a stairway to the main door, in order to prevent entry by animals, high up in the wild mountains. It was the final work of the famous sculptor Momik, who fell from the roof and died in the final stages of the construction. We drove over Selim Pass, with its perfectly preserved caravanasi from the medieval Silk Road, before finally reaching Lake Sevan. At Lake Sevan the partially completed shells of Intourist Hotels silently demonstrate the crippling effect that the dissolution of the USSR had on the Armenian economy.


A perfect day in the mountains of Armenia

Yerevan may be one of the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited cities, dating back to 782 BCE, but there is relatively little of historic interest there today, and I was very happy to be leaving the city behind and heading up into the mountains of western Armenia. We drove up through the high plains, with a striking resemblance to the plains of Iceland, too cold for trees, with just sparse grass and rock. In winter the plains are abandoned, but with the spring grasses Yezidi Kurds had set up tent villages and were grazing their sheep and cattle. Further up it was too mountainous for grasslands, and in the absence of grazing beautiful wildflowers covered the hills, with vibrant reds, yellows, blues and purples.

It was a perfect day for wandering around on the mountain tops, with the warm sun, the brilliant wildflowers and the stunning scenery of deep gorges and distant rivers. The addition of the ruins of Amberd Fortress was the icing of the cake, a shell of a castle, founded in ~800 CE by the House of Kamsarakan and upgraded 400 years later by the House of Pahlavuni. A small church, the Church of Surb Astvatsatsin, was added in 1026. The castle was used as a summer residence for the Kings of Armenia until it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1236. We topped off a delightful day with lunch in Oshakan village, an afternoon swimming in Yerevan and dinner accompanied by the unique sounds of the Duduk.


Geghard and Garnj

We visited two ancient temples today. The first was the monastery of Geghard, carved out of the rock in the mountains of Kotayk. The site was considered sacred since pre-Christian times, due to the trickle of a tiny stream within the inner caves, with the original temple demolished when St Gregory the Illuminator came in the 300s CE and started erecting Churches.

The second was Garnj Temple, a Classical temple built to the Roman God Mithras by King Tiridates I of Armenia after a visit to Rome (probably funded by Emperor Nero) and the declaration of Armenia as a province of Rome. The temple was nearly entire destroyed by Tamerlane’s army in 1386 and a major earthquake in 1679, with the reconstruction in the 1970s using 70% new basalt to reproduce the original classical design.


The Armenian Genocide

The Tsitsernakaberd Memorial is dedicated to the more than one million victims of the Armenian Genocide, during the last stages of the Ottoman Empire and during the Great War period. The most brutal government minister coordinating the systematic eradication of the Armenian population was Enver Pasha. A savage war-monger, Enver Pasha pushed the Ottoman Empire into the Great War, by allowing German warships through the Dardanelles, without the approval of his government. He followed this up by an ill-planned attack on the Russian Army in the Caucasus. His army nearly destroyed, he blamed his defeat on the local Armenian population, who had sympathies with the Russians, and started his eradication plans. Enver Pasha was so savage in his eradication that he recruited psychotic killers from prison to run his “Special Organisation”. The new Turkish government court-marshaled for “plunging the country into war without a legitimate reason, forced deportation of Armenians and leaving the country without permission”, and sentenced him to death, but he managed to escape.

Today the Turkish government has retreated somewhat from this position, acknowledging the wide-spread death of the Armenian people within the Ottoman Empire, but denying that it was part of a deliberate intent to eradicate and instead characterising it as part of the intra-ethnic violence of the Empire in its closing hours. This retreat from recognising the genocide is the overwhelming reason for the closed border between Armenia and Turkey. Unfortunately this issue does not appear to be dying down with time, instead the positions appear to be becoming more and more entrenched on both sides. The official tour guide of Tsitsernakaberd even went so far as to tell us that the 2002 conversion of an empty Armenian Church into a Mosque was part of the ongoing cultural genocide of Armenians being carried out by the current Turkish government.


Noah’s Ark, and other Just So Stories

The Etchmiadzin Cathedral lays claim to being the state-established oldest church in the world, being built by Saint Gregory the Illuminator in 301-303, when Armenia became the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion. It still remains the most holy site in the Armenian Church and is the seat of the Catholicos, the head of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church.


Among the holy collection of relics within Etchmiadzin Cathedral are a fragment of the “true cross”, the right arm of John the Baptist, and the spear head of the “holy lance”. Our guide informed us that while five other churches may claim to have the spear head of the “holy lance”, they are all fakes and only the Armenian version has been “scientifically proven” to be the actual holy lance (funny how religion tries to co-opt the credibility of science, when it isn’t busy trying to destroy it). She claimed that the spear had been brought to Armenia straight from the crucifixion in the first century, actually, a crusader, Peter Bartholomew, had a “vision” in 1098 that told him the spear head was buried in St Peter’s Cathedral in Antioch, when he then dug up and pawned to the Armenian Church.

My favourite, however, was the piece “Noah’s Ark” which they claimed to be preserved in the church. Incidentally, one of the myths of the name Yerevan comes from the Noah myth, with Noah landing on Mount Ararat and exclaiming “Yerevats!” (“it appeared!”, of course the Armenians know that Noah spoke Armenian). How can a slow corruption of the Urartian military fortress called Erebuni, founded in 782 BCE, compare to that story? The Noah’s Ark myth is such a wonderful illustration of the veracity of the Bible. Beyond claiming that Mount Ararat is the highest point of land on the globe (it is almost as if the writer was a stone-age chieftain using local knowledge and mores, poaching an older myth from the Epic of Gilgamesh, rather than receiving divine inspiration), the absurdities in the claims of the two-by-two animals on the ark are delightful. My favourite must be the design of the ark as described by Hippolytus, with three stories – the lowest for wild beasts, the middle for domestic animals and the top for humans. Best of all, Noah built a fence of sharp stakes down the middle of the ark to separate the male animals from the female animals – apparently, the ark meant to preserve all animals was not a place for mating!


Touring the Armenian Brandy factory

In Armenia, cognac refers to Ararat, the premium Armenia brandy developed in 1887. The developer of the brand was far-sighted not only in bringing French brandy making to Armenia, but also in making use of stealth marketing tactics, hiring handsome and rich men to travel around Europe and to try ordering Armenian brandy in all the most expensive restaurants. The tactic obviously worked, as Armenian brandy developed a following in the best circles. Winston Churchill was a famous proponent, ordering 360 bottles of aged brandy every year, which he attributed to his longevity. During Stalin’s reign, Churchill reportedly noticed a drop off in the quality of the brandy. On ringing the factory he found out that the chief distiller had been sent to the Siberian gulags, whereupon he promptly phoned Stalin and insisted on a reprieve. The chief distiller was not only released from the Gulags, he was granted a medal of “Socialist Hero”. He first task back in the job was to blend a “Siberian strength” brandy, smooth and 50% alcohol, to warm his colleagues left behind in the Gulags.

The Yerevan Brandy Factory has had some very notable tourists on its premises. One of the traditions of the factory is to reward any visiting Presidents with their own personal barrel and their own weight in bottled brandy. According to our guide, when Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, visited, the President’s bodyguards used their feet to weigh down the scales of the President, to ensure a little bit of extra brandy. The owner wisely decided to treat it as a complement to the brandy. Boris Yeltsin took a great interest in the personal brandy barrel reserved for him (the tradition is to preserve a full barrel, from which the President or any of their future descendents can request bottles at any time), asking about its age. When informed of the tradition to start a fresh barrel, he mournfully complained that he’d die before it was worth drinking – and he was right. A final barrel is the “Peace Barrel”, reserved for opening on the day that a peace treaty is finally signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

We finished up with a brandy tasting session. Unfortunately, I think I agree with Tsar Nicolas of Russia, who started the Russian tradition of drinking brandy with a slice of lemon – not to accentuate the flavour, but rather so that everyone would assume the sour face he was pulling was due to biting into the lemon, rather than distaste for the decadent drink.


The dusty inferno

The sun is hammering the colour out of the sky, parching the dirt which rises into the sky, further bleaching the landscape. The earth itself looks like the sun has beaten it into submission, so dry and compacted that even the shreds of dead grass pushing up through it seem remarkably improbable. The heat is not unfamiliar to Australians, but the ramshackle houses don’t fit the climate. The hard Soviet concrete and stone stand like the exposed cliffs of a desert mountain, but inbetween the stone blocks stand wooden houses that look like they belong to the tropics of South-East Asia, where poverty and climate combine to rot away the timbers, before being baked to preservation under the harsh Caucasian sun.

In the hard light of summer, Yerevan struck me as being the twin of developing cities across North Africa and the Middle East. In winter, when the biting cold grips the country, I’m sure the contrast could not be greater, but today Armenia could have passed for Morocco, Egypt or Jordan. The contrast within the position of the people must be even greater, between those baking in the heat of run-down hovels and those wearing designer clothes and ordering frosted fruit juices in the shaded cafes that seem to line every street. Fortunately, while the country is hard, Armenians have been soft and generous to us.