I only have a few days in Armenia and again I already hope to one day return to see more. I really want to go to Nagorno-Karabakh after having visited both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Especially after experiencing the derelict refugee village near Ganja. I want to see what they had to escape and what is there now after so many years of cold conflict.
It doesn’t help that I arrived alongside a Danish guy who is planning a long journey, which will take him both to Nagorno-Karabakh and on to Iran. I might have proclaimed this May that I plan to explore Copenhagen this summer, but right now I’d wish that I got to spend more time in the Caucasus region.
But for the short amount of time which I have to explore the first Christian country in the world I believe I have done good. I have managed a few days in the capital and it is fun at this point in my travels to compare it with Tbilisi and Baku. All are so distinctly different. Baku is a capital on the rise, a place where the old culture mingles with new high rises. It is a capital which has been earning a heavy amount of money on the oil industry and where it is not uncommon to see Mercedes or BMWs in the street.
Tbilisi has an old time charm. In many ways it can compare with the best of European capitals. Yerevan, however, brings my thought to the grandiose architecture of the Soviet era. In my view, it is by far the least attractive of the three capitals and I have a hard time capturing its warmth.
But what makes Yerevan stand out is the looming Mount Ararat which dominates everything both in the view of the city and in the very essence of what it means to be Armenian.
According to the bible, Noah’s ark embarked at the Mountains of Ararat. Though it is disputed whether Ararat is what is referred to, the mountain is nonetheless revered in connection to this biblical tale.
It lies at the very centre of Armenian identity and as a symbol of the country in its very literal meaning, since it graces the Armenian coat of arms. To Armenians the mountain is holy and vividly spoken of in literature and cultural contexts.
However, Mount Ararat lies in Turkey. Moreover, with 32 kilometres to the Armenian border, the Armenians are in fact further away from their mountain than the Iranians and not much closer than the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, if at all.
Mount Ararat can be seen from four countries and acts as the border between these. It is the highest peak in Turkey. But in spirit it belongs to Armenia and has through history been the literal centre of ancient Armenian kingdoms as well as the symbolic centre for those long periods of time when the Armenian state ceased to exist as empires split the state between them annexing parts under their own rule. By 1915, Eastern Armenia was under the Russian Empire while the new Turkish successor state to the Ottoman Empire held control of Western Armenia and Ararat. Because of the Armenian genocide in 1915 much of Western Armenia was left uninhabited and with the Treaty of Kars of 1921 Western Armenia was lost to Turkey. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia has denied ratifying the treaty claiming it to be invalid, which arguably could be true.
Nonetheless it seems unlikely that Mount Ararat ever again becomes a part of Armenia, and they will have to watch it from afar since the borders to Turkey have been permanently closed due to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the hostel where I stayed, they advertised with a day trip to see some of the surrounding area, and wanting to explore more of Armenia I spent one of my last days in the Caucasus on an excursion to some of the iconic churches and monasteries of Armenia.
We began at Lake Sevan. As Mount Ararat, Lake Sevan is central to the Armenian identity and considered a national treasure. It is a gigantic lake and one of the largest high-altitude freshwater lakes throughout Europe and Asia.
The name is thought to derive from the name of lake Van in Turkey. According to general believe, Armenians migrated from the area around Van to this magnificent lake. Darker in colour, they decided to call it Sevan – The Black Van.
I would have loved to see the lake in better weather, but unfortunately the greyish sky from Mtskheta and Tibilisi seems to have been following me to Armenia.
We continued north to the Goshavank Monastery which lies nestled on a hilltop and surrounded by the Lesser Caucasus. It is a beautiful place, and one could stand for ages gazing towards the monastery as it nestles on its hill-top with small trotted path leading towards it.
It lies in the village Gosh and was built at some point during the 12th or 13th century after the original monastery on the spot was ruined during an earthquake in 1188.
Not far from Goshavank and also within the Tavush Province lies Haghartsin Monastery. It is built roughly around the same time as Goshavank, but instead of a hilltop, the monastery is hidden in the mountain forest, which I’ve later learned is in fact a temperate rainforest. I absolutely loved the freshness of the place and how lush green trees stood all around it. The monastery itself is undergoing renovation, which means that it is somewhat a mixture of a peaceful place and a construction ground. But I found that the work and attitude of those working there only added to the pleasantness of the place. Inside the church was dark, yet warm and women old and young were lighting long thin candles as offerings.
If I could I would have spent the day in this spot, relaxing and soaking in the quiet activities of the churchgoers. But alas, we were on a schedule and headed back to Yerevan with one final stop.
Tsaghkadzor, Kecharis Monastery
Unlike the previous visits Kecharis monastery is situated in a ski resort town with the unpronounceable name Tsaghkadzor. It lies out into the road and seems much more hidden as it integrates with the modern life around it. Yet, it is still beautiful. It was built between the 11th and 13th century and restored to its full glory in 2000 after it had been damaged by an earthquake in 1927 followed by years of Soviet rule and conflict.
Having seen several churches in both Georgia and Armenia, one should think that I a hard-headed atheist would have had enough. But, I find myself enthralled with the beauty of Georgian and Armenian church buildings. Deriving from the byzantine architectural tradition and built so many hundreds of years ago, I find it a true blessing, if ever there was one, that these churches have survived empires and earthquakes, war and chaos, and are still such a massive part of the Georgian and Armenian identities.