Yerevan and Churches in Armenia

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.

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.

 

Beautiful stone figure on the side walk
Beautiful stone figure on the side walk

Yerevan

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.

 

Yerevan residential complex
Yerevan residential complex

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.

Ararat

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.

 

Dusty yellow Lada
Dusty yellow Lada

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.

Tour d’Armenie

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.

 

Candles for praying
Candles for praying
Lake Sevan

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.

 

Sign at Lake Sevan
Sign at Lake Sevan
Goshavank

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.

 

Stone work details at Goshavank Monestary
Stone work details at Goshavank Monestary
Haghartsin Monastery

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.

 

Candles in Haghartsin Monastery
Candles in Haghartsin Monastery

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.

 

Kecharis Monastery
Kecharis Monastery

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.

Zofka

Tbilisi Owns My Heart

I am in love with Georgia and already hoping to return one day. I have been here a little more than a week, yet I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating and absolutely stunning country.

Before leaving for this trip to the Caucasus region, the idea of Georgia and Tbilisi somehow scared me a tiny bit and I’d read a few horror stories of people who were robbed. I was so terrified that I’d loose all my pictures if someone stole my camera that I decided to bring along my pocket version rather than my larger SLR.

 

Selling baloons in Tbilisi
Selling baloons in Tbilisi

After arriving in Tbilisi I am so very frustrated that I didn’t bring the best of the best of cameras in order to capture this amazing capital. My trips around Georgia have only cemented this irritation with myself. Not only do I find myself completely at ease here with friendly and open-hearted people. I also think this might just be the most beautiful country I have ever visited. Everything from the lush green mountains of the Southern Caucasus to the romantic Orthodox churches. Add to this a very charming capital which brings to mind the atmosphere of a Southern French town. I absolutely adore Tbilisi.

I am lodging in a homestay which seems the only way to do it in Tbilisi. She has a massive flat where she rents out countless beds to hapless backpackers who have had the odd idea of exploring Georgia. This is definitely not a touristy country.

 

Old balconies in Tbilisi
Old balconies in Tbilisi

Most of my fellow backpackers however agree with me that Georgia is the most beautiful country they have ever seen. Only those who have been to Syria argue that Georgia only manages second place. But I guess I’ll have to see Syria in order to dispute that.

While in Georgia, I have taken three trips outside of Tbilisi. First a day trip to Mtskheta, then a few days in Kazbegi and finally a day trip to the monastery complex David Gareja. But in between I’ve had the fortune to wonder the streets of Tbilisi absorbing the atmosphere and meeting the charming Georgian culture.

 

Kiosk in the wall
Kiosk in the wall

I never really figured out Tbilisi since everything was in Georgian script, and though I attempted to reach different neighbourhoods each day I simply walked though the streets absorbing both the old and the new. Old wooden and ornamented houses with old Ladas in front. New modern buildings and modern sculptures.

 

Green Lada in the shade
Green Lada in the shade

My favourite part was reaching Sololaki Hill with the massive statue Kartlis Deda. As The Statue of Liberty or the Jesus statue keeping watch over Rio de Janeiro, Kartlis Deda stands 20 metres tall keeping watch over Tbilisi. Kartlis Deda is Mother Georgia and is a symbol of the Georgian people. She has a goblet of wine in one hand representing the Georgian hospitality and a sword in the other telling the world that she will fight if need be.

 

Kartlis Deda
Kartlis Deda

I am in love with Georgia and already hoping to return one day. I have been here a little more than a week, yet I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating and absolutely stunning country.

Zofka

Rock Sliding in David Gareja

After some amazing days in both Kazbegi and in Tbilisi, I went with a few other backpackers on a day trip to the Kakheti region in the eastern part of Georgia. We wanted to visit the famous David Gareja Monastery, one of Georgia’s religious and cultural institutions.

The monastery was built back in the 6th century by St. David Garejeli, who was one of the thirteen Assyrian monks, who according to Georgian Christian tradition were a group of monks from Mesopotamia who arrived in Georgia in the 6th century to strengthen the integration of Christianity. Many early Christian churches and monasteries are believed to have been founded by these monks. Amongst these the David Gareja Monastery.

 

The gate to David Gareja Monastery Complex
The gate to David Gareja Monastery Complex

It is truly fascinating for several reasons. Far out in the semi-desert between Georgia and Azerbaijan, the monastery seems to grow out of the rock, which in fact does. It is a massive complex with large parts hollowed out of the rock as caves, which are being used as cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed.

 

David Gareja main building
David Gareja main building

It is really beautiful and after a short introduction of the complex by an in-house priest we were given free range to discover the place. Though I don’t think they had in mind that we would be crashing in on their living quarters. However, along with another girl I got lost somewhere midway attempting to reach the top of some rocks and before we knew it we were standing in front of a long line of caves. Happening upon one of them we found a Georgian priest reading at a desk before another came hurrying towards us indicating that we were not allowed here.

 

Eastern Georgia
Eastern Georgia
Sliding down the rock

The problem, however, was that since we had no idea how we got this far, we had no idea of how to get back. We ended up deciding on the shortest distance to the plateau where we entered, which meant that we zigzagged and nearly slid down the gravel covered mountain side, getting caught in the tons of dessert bushes. I can easily say that we saw parts of the David Gareja Monestary that tourists are not usually privy to.

 

Looking to the top in David Gareja
Looking to the top in David Gareja

Perhaps we even managed to cross over to Azerbaijan. The Monastery Complex is the cause of a territorial dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan because it is divided by the border and parts of the ground are on Azeri soil. Georgia has offered other territories in return for the Azeri part of the complex, but Azerbaijan has refused claiming that no other border area has the same strategic position. And I go: What???

Furthermore, some historians from Azerbaijan have begun arguing that the place is in fact the very birth of the predecessor state to Azerbaijan, why it is culturally significant to the country. The very fact that there are no historic proof of this whatsoever makes me wonder if the word historian is perhaps used to widely these days.

 

Standing at the top of David Gareja
Standing at the top of David Gareja

David Gareja should be Georgian and Azerbaijan should concur simply because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes an act of kindness is worth much more even in international relations than anything else. And considering their ongoing dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh they might consider let good neighbourly relations thrive with Georgia. But that is just my simple and naive opinion.

Zofka

Kazbegi – In the Heart of the Caucasus Mountains

I sit at Tsminda Sameba, the church that represents Georgia in every tourist brochure. Mt Kazbeg is on the West site of the church and the village at the East, – right under my feet. 14 kilometers to the north lies Russia. I am in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains – on the border between Europe and Asia.

The old man tries to speak to me in Russian – I try to respond. My minimal Slovene glossary come in handy now. He asks me where I am from. I answer Daniya. He says something about Daniya and gori (mountain). I laugh and make the motion of flat. He gives up and leaves me to my own thoughts. I sit quietly and rest while looking down upon the village of Kazbegi. I sit at Tsminda Sameba, the church that represents Georgia in every tourist brochure. Mt Kazbeg is on the West site of the church and the village at the East, – right under my feet. 14 kilometres to the north lies Russia. I am in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. On the border between Europe and Asia.

The church tower of Tsminda Sameba
The church tower of Tsminda Sameba
The drive to Kazbegi

As I arrived to Didube bus station the day before, a Georgian soldier looked curiously at me and asked in Russian if I was going to Kazbegi alone. I told him da. From then on he took it upon himself to act as my protector in much the same way as he was for his own children. He gave me candy, he explained the time of departure, he gave me more candy. At 11 o’clock, just as the soldier had said the marshrutka left Didube station heading for Kazbegi.

Except from a young Latvian couple I found myself the only tourist in a minibus cramped with Georgians. Women with children, middle-aged men and a very old woman who complained a lot. All of them had bags and sacks full of tomatoes, onions and corn, and even a large old television was squeezed in to the back seat. How there came to be room for all of us, I still don’t know.

View of the Caucasus
View of the Caucasus

I had hoped to sleep on the way, but quickly discovered that the trip itself was an unforgettable experience. The Georgian Military Highway runs through mountains and valleys and passes the beautiful setting of Ananuri out to the Zhinvali Reservoir, an extraordinarily beautiful greyish-blue lake. If I could I would have stopped there for an hour or two or even a day, relaxing at the side of the lake. But the marshrutka went on, further into the depths of the Caucasus mountains. After stopping in many of the small villages on the way, leaving behind people with onions, tomatoes and even the television, we finally arrived in Kazbegi.

The mountains here are as a wall surrounding the eastern side, standing majestically over the village. To the west is Mount Kazbek with its 5047m peak and in the streets stand a lonely cow, dashing its tail lazily in an attempt to fight off the flies.

Day 1: Tsminda Sameba

I live at Nasi’s place, mostly sitting on the veranda enjoying the view. She is a wonderful person who cooks and takes prodigiously good care of the many people who come here to stay a night or two. It therefore often happens that many decide to hang on and stay for a week or more. I would love to do that too, but unfortunately my time is limited and I still hope to get a glimpse of the summer back home.

Overlooking Tsminda Sameba
Overlooking Tsminda Sameba

This morning, bright and early at 7.30 while the morning sky was still clear and as the first light of sun hit the walls of the valley I started on a hiking trip to the famously situated church Tsminda Sameba. I was so fortunate as to be accompanied by a Polish guy who knew the way well. He had come to Kazbegi to climb the peak of Mount Kazbek but had had to give up because of the altitude. Now he had decided to join the rest of the group as they were descending, helping them with their bags and gear.

As we walked upwards the weather got hot and the road seemed to be steeper. Half way up and while taking pictures of Mount Kazbeg from afar, a horseman came along on the path behind us. It happened to be Robert, the hired help for the mountain climbers. He was on his way with two extra horses in order to meet the climbers and help them carry their backpacks for the last part of their descending Mt Kazbek. After a bit of greetings in Russian between the Polish mountain climber and the Georgian horseman, I was placed on one of the horses and we began the last part of our trip towards the church on horseback.

Me, myself and horses

I am not a rider and it has been 10 years since I was last time mounted on the back of a horse. To be quite frank it always comes as a shock to me that horses are so big and in particular that there is such a long way down. While holding the tongue straight in my mouth (as we say where I come from) I tried to focus on getting the horse to do just a bit of what I wanted it to do. It was a golden and rather social horse and far from comparable to any of the horses from the riding school I had once attended when I was still in my pre-teens. While they had all been old and grey and barely moving, this one was extremely lively, pretty annoyed with its terrified rider and constantly turning around. When we lacked behind which most often occurred due to my terrible riding skills the horse started to gallop so it could once again have its head closely linked to the bottom of the horse ahead. I’ve never galloped before in my life and could do nothing but hold on tightly and pray that the horse knew what it was doing, because the scenery as well was quite different from that of an indoor riding school.

on a horse08
on a horse09
on a horse10
on a horse0
on a horse01
on a horse02
on a horse03
on a horse04
on a horse05
on a horse06

While I was holding on tightly to the saddle of the golden horse, we came within view of Tsminda Sameba. The sky was still blue and Mount Kazbek was majestically rising to our right, while the view to our left was that of the valley and the mountain wall behind it. As Robert had no problems with my lack of controlling the golden horse, we continued further than the church, moving towards the glacier and Mt Kazbek, riding on a small pass on the side of the mountain.

Horses at Tsminda Sameba
Horses at Tsminda Sameba

After a while and as I could feel that our party of three was slowing down because of me, I chose to get off and thank Robert for the “lift”. Then I slowly went back down, enjoying the view of a single church on a mountain top with snow covered mountains as the backdrop. Now I sit at the church next to the old Georgian man who is spying on the village of Kazbegi down below with a pair of binoculars. I suppose it is time for me to descend to Nasi’s for a good Georgian lunch.

View from Tsminda Sameba
View from Tsminda Sameba

Day two: The Russian border

Nasi’s is peaceful and the people who have come all the way to this outpost are of such different yet fascinating nature. While the Polish guy was reunited with his group, I spent the following day walking alongside a young American guy all the way to the border.

We were greeted at the beginning with a stunning view of Mount Kazbek, before our journey took us through what seemed a canyon or valley. Following the road for ages, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of this place. I can honestly admit that I have never seen anything like it.

Road to the Russian border
Road to the Russian border

We hitched a hike for the last part of the journey and managed to reach the Georgian side of the border where a lonely Georgian soldier stood. Such a strange feeling to know that on the other side only a few kilometres north lay Mother Russia. Big and looming. I could almost feel the pressure from that old superpower and the entire place felt so very dark and dramatic.

While the soldier was not pleased with the idea of appearing in our pictures, he was willing to step aside so we could take pictures in front of the border post. Looking at these pictures, I cannot help seeing myself as some silly tourist standing there laughing at a place so ominous.

At the border to Russia
At the border to Russia

We were fortunately also able to catch a ride back to Kazbegi, or my feet would have given up.

Day Three: Back to Tbilisi

I was planning to take the marshrutka back to Tbilisi when a German couple who’d hired a driver to return offered me the extra seat. Happy for the chance to stop on the way and see some more of the Georgian Military Highway I gratefully accepted.

On our way back we stopped at several beautiful stops such as an old ruin which the local sheep had taken a liking to thanks to the shade it offered. We also stopped at Jvari pass where the minerals in the water which springs from the earth colours the rock red. Thus, in the middle of the lush green of the Caucasus mountains are splotches of an intense red.

Ironised earth at Jvari pass
Ironised earth at Jvari pass

Finally we made it to Ananuri, which I’d fancied seeing since driving by on the way to Kazbegi. Ananuri is an old castle complex which lies in all its glory at the Aragvi River and out to the Zhinvali Reservoir. It used to be the seat of the Dukes of Aragvi who ruled the area from the 13th century onwards. The castle was built in the 17th century.

Ananuri
Ananuri

However, it was immensely hot and terrible to walk around sightseeing. I was wet with sweat when we finally got into the car. Not that the car offered any reprieve from the baking sun, since there was no air-con available. In fact it was quite the metal bucket we were driving around in. For most of the journey one of us had to hold the door of the right side passenger seat closed with our hands, because otherwise it would open up.

Fortunately, the car made it back to Tbilisi in one piece and I returned to my former lodgings for a well deserved rest.

Zofka

A Religious Journey of Mtskheta

Only 20 kilometres from Tbilisi lies Mtskheta, which is unpronounceable and one of the eldest cities of Georgia. It is also the birthplace of the Georgian Orthodox Christianity and therefore strongly connected to the Georgian identity.

Georgia was beat by Armenia by only a mere 36 years, when Christianity was declared the state religion of Kartli – an early Georgian kingdom – in 337. As the second country in the world to adopt Christianity, Georgia is not only immensely proud, but also has a long tradition of Orthodox Christianity.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church of the Byzantine rite Eastern Churches, meaning that it is self-governing and in full communion with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy. But the church has also suffered from the often tension filled relationship to Russia. When Russia in 1811 occupied Georgia, the church was forced into the Russian Orthodox Church.

With the Georgian regaining of independence in 1918, the church once again proclaimed itself an autocephalous – meaning that it broke free of Russia – something the Russian Orthodox Church only recognised in 1943 after orders by none other than Josef Stalin.

 

Churchyard at Samtavro Church
Churchyard at Samtavro Church

However with the 1921 Red Army invasion in Georgia, the church suffered decades of pressure from the Communist government and Soviet policy. It wasn’t until the break-up of the Soviet Union that the Georgian Orthodox Church truly regained its position as the leading national church of Georgia. This post-Soviet period has however seen a strong revival of the church which seems intricately entwined with the Georgian national identity.

As the birthplace of Georgian Christianity Mtskheta is revered amongst Georgians and definitely worth a visit.

Thus, together with Eva and her boyfriend who planned to stop over in Mtskheta on their way to the Georgian coast, I went on a day trip to explore some of the central churches of Georgian Orthodoxy.

 

Dressed properly at Samtavro Church
Dressed properly at Samtavro Church
Samtavro Church

We began the day at the stunning Samtavro Church, which is the burial place of King Mirian III of Kartli and Queen Nana. The reason that this is a noteworthy piece of information is because they introduced Christianity to the later Georgia in 337.

It is a gorgeous building with lots of old women milling around. As we wanted to enter the church Eva and I were requested to wear something to cover our hair making us look like cleaning ladies. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is a rule for women to cover their head when praying be it in church or at home. Fortunately, Georgian churches keep a basket of head coverings for forgetful women or Western tourists to borrow while entering. The fact that neither Eva nor I intended to pray in this house of God was not relevant.

 

Samtavro Church
Samtavro Church
Jvari Monastery

After relieving ourselves of the head coverings we had a driver take us up the hills to the magnificent Jvari Monastery which lies on the top of a hill overlooking where the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi meet. The dramatic position of the monastery overlooking the river junction was even on this cloudy day breathtakingly beautiful.

Our driver was kind enough to first stop a little distance from the monastery for us to see just how well it looked from the distance. I can easily imagine how pilgrims must have felt nearing to this place of worship.

 

Jvari Monastery
Jvari Monastery

Before the christening of Kartli, the place was a pagan temple and legend tells that it was St. Nino who in the 4th century erected a wooden cross at the temple. The cross created miracles, curing disease and soon the place became a spot for pilgrimage. Around 545 a small church was built on the spot, but not a sixty years later, a larger church was built. It is this church which stands today looking over Mtskheta.

I can’t really comprehend that it is so old. That is almost three hundred years before the Danes carved some runes in a rock declaring Denmark Christian.

While the monastery alongside other iconic religious buildings in Mtskheta came on the UNESCO World Heritage List and was renovated after the end of the Soviet regime, it looks in disarray. It doesn’t help that while walking through the buildings you’ll find a sheep taking a nap in one of the niches.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

We ended at the largest and most famous church in Mtskheta. The beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. One of the main reasons for the importance and fame of the cathedral is that it is the burial site Christ’s mantle at least according to the tradition of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is told that a Georgian Jew named Elioz was present at the crucifixion of Christ, and bought the the mantle from a Roman soldier.

 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

In my opinion this is probably, if one is to choose between the countless legends of the mantle, the most likely. Unlike other versions this connects all the way back to the crucifixion. However, the story gets a bit unbelievable after Elioz return to Mtskheta. Here it seems his sister Sidonia died from the overwhelming emotions caused by this sacred mantle. Furthermore, they could not retrieve it from her cold dead hands and she had to be buried with the mantle. From the spot she was buried grew a cedar tree.

It was on this spot that St. Nino chose to built the first church in the 4th century and the original Svetitskhoveli Cathedral with the sacred mantle of Christ is also the place from where Christianity began in Georgia.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral as it stands today was built in 1029, which in itself is impressive. It is by all means the perfect ending to this day of church hopping.

Zofka

A Baku Celebrity

I chose to buy two pairs of large sunglasses today, so that I can really look like a celebrity! And I need it. Our two weeks language course has been quite a lot in AZTV.

15 minutes of fame

Firstly, we appeared at a press conference, where all of us had to tell why we had chosen Azerbaijan and how we liked it so far! Later on, a television crew came to our language course to film us while having class, and afterwards I was chosen for an interview. Some of the other participants have been interviewed for the radio or been at the live morning show on tv.

This has resulted in most of Azerbaijan knowing that we are here by now! At that means that we have been recognised on the street. The most amazing experience was in the small refugee village south of Ganja where a lot of young men and boys were sitting outside a house. Suddenly they started pointing, laughing and trying to make conversation with us, because they had seen us on television!

 

Celebrity style
Celebrity style

Today, a Hungarian girl and I went to the pharmacy to get antibiotics for her cold. By complete coincidence a camera crew was also visiting the pharmacy and whatever they had been doing they soon forgot as they started filming our visit. My poor co-traveller with her blotchy red nose was not given much choice.

But the camera crew also proved helpful as we were at a loss understanding the way it worked at the pharmacy. The girl holding the microphone was kind enough to explain to us where to go, what counter and so on. I have no idea whether our pharmacy visit ended up being the evening entertainment on the telly, but as we were about to leave, they asked me if I was really the girl from Denmark.

Men Azerbaycanda mehsuram

 

View of oil fields
View of oil fields

Gobustan and the mud volcanoes

Today we’ve been on an excursion to Gobustan south-west of Baku to check out the famous rock carvings as well as the immensely strange mud volcanoes. Gobustan has been settled since the 8th millennium BC and the more than 6000 rock petroglyphs which are dated as far back as the 12th millennium BC and show life and nature through little stick men and women as well as animals. The carvings are beautiful and we saw both bulls, pregnant women and ships.

The carvings were discovered in the 1930’s but made famous with the writings of Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl, who argued that the area used to be the home of an ancient civilization. So far so good, but here is where I find his theories a bit far-fetched. According to Heyerdahl, the ship carvings are similar to Norwegian carvings and the fact that they point north indicates that the people from Gobustan immigrated north to settle in Scandinavia. Thus, his conclusion was that Scandinavians originally came from Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly the theory has been heavily critiqued.

What I found fascinating was how these rock carvings were dated all the way up to when Azerbaijan became Muslim. Amongst the carvings is the inscription by a Roman soldier. It is the easternmost recognised Roman graffiti to date. The idea that a Roman soldier once wrote a message here probably because he himself knew of the carvings which at his time were still ancient.

 

Viking ships?
Viking ships?

It also makes me wonder if the Vikings ever made it to the Caspian Sea. While I don’t buy in to Heyerdahl’s theory it is not preposterous to think that the Vikings made it here. They travelled on the Volga and the extensive system of rivers in Central and Eastern Europe and through the Black Sea to Constantinople. So could they have made it all the way to the Caspian Sea?

After our guided tour of the area with the many rock carvings, we went to see the much spoken of mud volcanoes not far from Gobustan. I don’t think many of us re-entered the bus after our meeting with these volcanoes without having stains of mud all over. At the same time I discovered that the mud was actually an excellent cure against the itching of my thousand mosquito bites.

The mud volcanoes are a definite must! They might not seem of much from far away, but this strange phenomenon is rather intriguing and quite fun to watch! Plus the surrounding area with the Caspian Sea in the background is absolutely stunning.

 

Mud Volcano in Qobustan
Mud Volcano in Qobustan

Stories From Azerbaijan

Hanging around locals is a fountain of fun and interesting anecdotes and stories about those things which connect the Azeri people and help create a common identity. Here follows three of my favourite stories from Azerbaijan

The first Azeri Quran

The first Quran in Azeri was sponsored by a rich business man in the oil industry in the beginning of the 20th century. I believe his name was Ilham. There is a story that during the translation there was one line in the Quran that Ilham tried to delete. It is the sentence that you can loose all your possessions, all that you own in an instant. But after speaking to the wise men who carries knowledge of Islam, he chose to translate it anyhow, as you cannot choose among the prophets words.

Then entered the Soviet Union and Communism. And the Soviet leaders went to Ilham to confiscate all that he owned. When he didn’t want to give it up, they placed the Quran translated into Azeri under his nose and pointed at the sentence. He then had to give up everything he owned, losing it all in an instant.

 

Parking on the beach
Parking on the beach
Valentine’s Day

Another story vivid from the Soviet era is the story of Valentine’s day. In difference to most other countries who celebrate in the month of Interflora – also known as February – the Azeri celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 30th of June.

The reason behind this date is the story of a young couple in love who got married on this day in 1989. Half a year after their marriage, on the 20th of January 1990, the young man was amongst the 189 people (unofficial numbers claim 300) who got gunned down by the Soviet Army during Black January.

The woman, afterwards, committed suicide. This is usually a sin according to Islam, as you are not allowed to take away the life that Allah has given you. But in this case the anger towards the Soviet and the sadness of the story overshadowed the holy words, and to this day the wedding day of the couple is celebrated as a day of love.

Martyr's Lane in Baku
Martyr’s Lane in Baku

 

Ali and Nino

Another love story from Azerbaijan is the story of Ali and Nino. Anyone travelling to Azerbaijan with an interest in culture, religion, tradition and the differences between the Caucasian people should read the book Ali and Nino. It is a truly beautiful story about the love between the Muslim boy Ali and the Christian girl Nino. While he is from Azerbaijan, she is from Georgia.

The plot takes place during WWI and focuses on the historic events and massive changes in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus region during the war.

Reading it will gain you an appreciation of Azeri culture and history and several brownie points with the locals. They all know and love Ali and Nino. It is their classical love story, the same as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice is for England, yet with more similarity to Moby Dick – or so I’ve heard.

According to the book: “a woman has as much sense as an egg has hair”. For some reason I can’t get this sentence out of my head. I find the comparison between eggs and women to be rather bad, but still I love the saying and, trust me, when I come home I will use this phrase as often as I can – though probably switching woman to man.

 

Water lily in Baku Botanical Garden
Water lily in Baku Botanical Garden

Well this was all from Azerbaijan

Next time I write will be from Tiflis, the home of Nino.

Zofka

Ganja – Going Rural

Today we ventured out of Baku on our first trip to other parts of Azerbaijan. We were headed to Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan and situated approximately 320 km to the East of Baku and close to the Nagorno-Karabakh border.

Today we ventured out of Baku on our first trip to other parts of Azerbaijan. We were headed to Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan and situated approximately 320 km to the East of Baku and close to the Nagorno-Karabakh border.

Prior to my travels, I had read that pictures of the current president as well as his father, the former president, are hanging everywhere. I had not seen much of this in Baku and figured that people had been exaggerating the number of pictures hanging around. But in Ganja they are everywhere. On every corner, on every official building are large pictures sometimes more than three meters in height of Heydar Alijev and his son Ilham shaking hands looking prestigious and important.

 

Heads of State Heydar Alijev and his son Ilham
Heads of State Heydar Alijev and his son Ilham

Except from the tremendous amounts of colourful pictures of presidents, Ganja is a rural town with the population being a bit more conservative than in Baku. Two of the participants in our group were told off because they were non-Muslims who dared touching a copy of the Quran, which was sold alongside other religious items in a street souvenir shop.

In addition, it seems the women do not venture in to the many street cafés. I have been told that it is frowned upon if a woman should enter a café enjoying a çay or a kafe. Instead, women walk in the park with their children and sit on the benches there enjoying the outdoor life. The café is the domain of the man – a place where they seem to spend countless hours playing Nard, talking and enjoying the shadow.

Nard

Nard is a board game being closely related to Backgammon. At first glance it might even look like Backgammon, but in Nard there are different initial positions and rules. According to the vast resources on the web, Nard originated in southwest Asia or Persia before 800AD. The game has for centuries been extremely popular in Persia (Nardshir). After Russia and the Soviet Union for long periods of time occupied the Caucasus countries, it has also grown into a popular game in Russia and other former Soviet republics (Narde).

An ancient and unnamed source describes Nard as follows:

The board represents a year; each side contains 12 points for months of the year; the twenty-four points represent the hours in a day; the 30 checkers represent days of the month; the sum of opposing sides of the die represent the 7 days of the week; the contrasting colors of each set of checkers represent day and night.

Backgammon History

In Azerbaijan it seems that the game is hugely popular among men and everywhere you go people are playing it.

Playing nard in Ganja
Playing nard in Ganja

 

A day of family

It is no coincidence that we visited Ganja. One of the organisers is originally from here and I am at the moment sitting in his parents’ yard writing my blog on a sheet of paper.

We came early this morning after a night on the train and as tired travellers we were welcomed by the mother and aunt who had organised the most amazing breakfast. We were stuffed with cake, Turkish yoghurt, white cow cheese, homemade bread and sweet bread, coffee, tea and baklava from Ganja. But the best part was the loving and caring hospitality of this family. What a treat!

 

Table of delicacies
Table of delicacies

After finishing breakfast and having a light nap, we went for a tour of Ganja centre, which included a visit to the Scientific Academy, where we had to suffer through two long and tiring speeches about how Ganja was a centre of civilization. I am not sure how I kept myself sitting straight, but I now know that it in truth was a man from Ganja who invented the communication software Skype. I know they meant well, but considering that we had little sleep on the train and a large breakfast with so much to still see in Ganja it seem tedious to sit through such speeches of puffed up importance.

But while I was sitting listening to all the talks of Ganja being the very epicenter of civilization, the family which had prepared us the amazing breakfast was spending their precious time setting up a fantastic picnic for us. When the speech was finally finished we drove out to the most beautiful mountain area near Ganja. Here we were welcomed by a table booming with kebab and other delicious Azeri treats. For the next many hours, we ate and ate while listening to local music, enjoying the atmosphere and using every last space on the memory cards of our cameras. The only part to dent this perfect imagery was the lack of any garbage cans. When asking where to get rid of the garbage I was shown in the direction of a massive ditch where it seemed that generations of Azeri had left their garbage. Right there in this beautiful nature area. Like an open wound that would never heal.

 

Locals in Ganja
Locals in Ganja
Rural life

After dinner, we set out on a small walk. Further up the mountain side, we passed a village of somewhat destroyed shacks and with underweight chickens running around on the single mountain road leading through the village. The parked cars were old and crippled Ladas, while many of the houses were repaired in creative fashion from everyday utensils. Every now and again a large Mercedes or BMW would speed through the village with music blasting making an obnoxious contrast to the humble life of these villagers.

 

Ramshackled house in refugee villages
Ramshackled house in refugee villages

I was later informed that this area to the South of Ganja used to be inhabited by a large German minority, but after they left the villages had been left empty. Today, it had been revived by Azeri refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, who had crossed the mountains as war broke out. This explained the ramshackled look of the village. Not only were these people displaced and poor after moving from everything they ever knew, but highly likely they were also biding their time to one day return to their home.

 

Red Lada in refugee village
Red Lada in refugee village
Leaving Ganja on the Titanic

We are heading home to Baku, and I can’t help noticing how both in this bus and on all the local buses in Ganja the seats are covered with a white piece of fabric depicting a drawing of a boat and with the name Titanic written underneath. I really hope we arrive to Baku safely!

Waking up halfway to Baku. Tired. Plastic palm trees in various blinking colours. Glittering. All the Azeri guys smoking their slim cigarettes, looking at us strange and foreign people. One bus driver in particular is staring from his window in the bus, satisfyingly smiling at the view. The toilets off course are Turkish and no one is there to clean them, no toilet paper either, but that is normal. It smells and the night time butterflies gather in thousands on the white bathroom wall, while an Azeri woman helps her daughter to wash the hands with the one piece of hand soap which is shared by all. I am so tired.

Zofka

Baku – Culture Shock

Baku, where East meets West, where Islam co-exists with capitalism and where Ladas and Mercedes fill the street. A place of contrast.

I have arrived in Baku and am currently participating in an AEGEE-summer university, where I get to learn Azeri, which is related to Turkish. We are approximately 13 participants and at least as many organisers from the universities in Baku.

 

Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Cars

The first thing I noticed as I arrived in Baku was the noise. The streets are full of honking cars and police indicating through speakers that they want a car to pull over. It seems that car drivers will honk at anything; when they are about to turn a corner, when they stand still for red light, when they have to slow down – all the time, honk honk. The very first night all the honking had me going crazy, but after a little while I have become so used to it that I hardly notice it anymore.

A pale yellow Lada
A pale yellow Lada

 

Even with all the honking and all the making-sure-that-everyone-knows-your-here, accidents still happen. On our way home from the beach one day, after having had a marvellous swim in the oils of The Caspian Sea our bus hit a blue Lada which was parked around a corner.

Don’t worry mum, no one was hurt – except the Lada off course, which was severely smashed in on the side. As sorry as I feel for the proud Lada owner, it was the way the incident was handled by those involved which fascinated me.

They fled the scene! Together!

They rendezvoused in a back alley to handle the finer details. All the way through, in the back of the truck sat 13 or so young westerners with a very surprised look on their face. All of us wondering: why did they flee?

It seems that very often there is no such thing as a car insurance in case of an accident like this. Instead the norm is to handle this at the scene and for the driver, who’s fault it is, to pay up or offer to have someone he knows repair the damage.

The reason that this is handled quietly and not turned into a great deal is that no one is interesting in the long arm of the law to get involved. The police is corrupt and if they catch you out it will cost. Police means bribery or court or something else much more expensive than a visit to the cousin’s auto shop. Therefore, the matters on hand are handled as soon as possible and preferably down a back alley. And with the scare of police involvement they also seem to be handled relatively unproblematic.

 

Conflicting norms of behaviour
Baku rooftops
Baku rooftops

In Azerbaijan the culture of gentlemen persists. The man holds the door, carries the bag, pays for the drink. Though this is not completely uncommon in Western Europe, it is nonetheless seen as a real treat. In Azerbaijan it is custom. Personally, I have always prided myself that I could pay for myself, carry my own stuff and even open the door for a guy once in a while.

Therefore, I wont be late to admit that it took some time getting used to. However, letting go of my own feminist independence, it felt nice to be surrounded by observant and considerate guys.

However, I never came past the discomfort of physical helpfulness as I have chosen to call it. It is not an unknown fact that in the North where I come from we tend to be less physical in for example our greetings. We do not kiss and hold hands, but instead hold an invisible line of respect for each other’s personal space.

In the South and also in Azerbaijan people are much more physical in the platonic sense of the word. Though I attempted to be open to the difference in culture, I felt incredibly uncomfortable when each time I went into a store to buy water (which is basically every half an hour due to the heat) or every time I got a little behind from the group, someone would grab my shoulder and lead me as if I was a child.

This shoulder grabbing was particularly terrifying when I had to cross a street. I know they mean well and only want to protect me from the wild driving of the Baku streets, but it only lessened my possibility of reacting to a car.

Fortunately for me, the Azeri guys have also been taught that one shall be open to other cultural norms of behaviour, and after a talk or two, I have been given a bit more space around me.

local07-min
local01-min
local06-bus driver-min
local04-min
local05-min
local03-min
local02-min

Another difference which I observed is in communication. I often asked questions out of curiosity or in order to get some basic ‘just in case’ information. But it took me a world war to get them to tell me the name of our closest metro station. The first answer I got to the question was: “but you have our number, you don’t need the name!”

It seemed a personal insult to them that we didn’t trust that they would take care of everything and find us and bring us home in case we got lost. In this way, I often find myself insulting them without even knowing that I do so. On the other hand, I find it ridiculous that if I get lost they imagine that I will be able to call them on my mobile and if that succeeds then to explain where I am. It seems so silly.

But time is the best friend with such cultural differences, and as the days go by we seem to adapt to the circumstances and each others understandings of the given context. The accident with our bus is a perfect example of this. The situation to me was extremely odd and asking what happened I got the standard reply of not to worry. But after a bit of fancy communicative action à la Habermas; they came to understand that I was only curious and I came to understand why the bus driver acted as he did. We have now agreed that I should start all my questions with a “I find this culturally interesting, so please explain…”.

 

Friends in Baku
Friends in Baku
Young people in love

It is rather common to see men kiss and hug each other as greetings in the streets. But you rarely see a man touching a woman for other reasons than to protect and guide her.

Question: “What about all the young couples in love?”

Answer: “They seek out the dark corners of Russian cafés!”
At least that is where I met them. Walking around for a coffee one day, I and some other girls from the language course happened upon a small and dim Kafe in the basement of a larger building.

The Kafe, it seemed, was run single-handedly by a grand babuska, speaking Russian and looking very authoritative. The room had red lamps and hearts in various sizes all around. It was in every way a place which screamed “secrets”, and around at the tables and behind large Soviet-style curtains couples were having their little piece of privacy. Here they could hold hands, sneak a kiss and just be together for a little while.

I have a feeling that these two weeks are going to be a clash of cultures.

 

Greetings from friendly locals
Greetings from friendly locals

Zofka