Years ago, associates told me about Armenia’s famous manuscripts, illustrations, architecture and the cuisine as well. I also learned about the genocide of 1.5 million people in 1915 by the Ottomans (today’s Turks), a fact that’s never been forgotten by those of Armenian descent.
Still, there’s no comparison between learning about a place and experiencing it. When the opportunity arose to go with a colleague from Panorama Travel, I packed a bag and flew on Aeroflot to Moscow and then changed planes, landing at the newly developed International Airport in Armenia.
Bordering Turkey and the Middle East, Armenia’s geographical position for almost two millennia as a trade route between Eastern Europe and Western Asia and its wealth of mineral resources made it a pivotal country for invasion by the Romans, then the Persians, Mongols, Arabs, Turks and finally in 1922, the Soviets.
Despite centuries of religious convergence from neighboring empires, this small country developed the Armenian Apostolic sect, which became a state religion in 301 A.C.E. Today, one need only visit a Sunday service in the restored, fourth century Echmiadzin Cathedral, the oldest Christian church in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, to witness the devotion many Armenians have to their religion, to their heritage and traditions since their independence from the USSR in 1991.
After the dissolution of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Armenia moved from a heavily industrialized country toward a free market, embarking on policies of privatization, economic and finance reconstructing, social reform and tourism.
Holidays and festivals, important segments of Armenian life, were rekindled with enthusiasm. Popular today with nationals and visitors alike are food, wine and costume festivals. Farm-raised meat, harvested vegetables, fruit and wheat products are proudly displayed during the yearly Food Festival, which is held in different areas of the country. Our group consumed quantities of juicy kababs, tangy yogurt, stuffed peppers or cabbage, fresh salads and mouthwatering cheese pies among other dishes everywhere we went.
According to archaeologists, the art of winemaking in Armenia has never been lost. Remains of centuries-old grape seeds and wine production paraphernalia have been found in the Ararat Valley.
Today, the vineyards are located at high altitudes, between nearly 2,000 and 5,000 feet, where the climate is dry. Daily high temperatures, little rainfall and efficient irrigation methods have made viniculture in Armenia commercially viable, although it’s not unusual to see roadside vendors selling homemade wine to tourists on their way to visit the iconic monastery and church at Noravank. Fermented in plastic jugs, these wines have a strong nose and rustic flavor and make good aperitifs.
In May Areni also holds an annual costume festival, which includes traditional Armenian music played on doudouks (indigenous wind instruments), Kanons and Ouds (string instruments), while male dancers perform passionately, and women dance more sedately. Whether at a festival or a family gathering, dance is part of the culture. We were welcome to join in the gaiety.
Still, perhaps the greatest cultural treasures Armenians have are the centuries-old manuscripts, old monasteries and churches, unmistakable for their angular shapes and conical domes.
A short distance to the south of Areni, one of the locations to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site is the 13th century Noravank monastery, the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) and Surb Karapet (St. John the Baptist) churches. Elaborately filigreed etched khachkars (Orthodox crosses) decorate the sides of the church, while free-standing khachkars mark the graves of the designers and bishops who founded the complex and who played a major role in shaping the Armenian religion and culture.
The most distinguishing feature of the Astvatsatsin church is the cantilevered stairs jutting out on the face of the building and the ornately decorated upper level topped with a semi-open conical dome. Hugging the side of the building, many in our group climbed the steep steps, however, the descent proved challenging. Sitting and inching down became the favored method of reaching the ground.
Following a route back to Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, we stopped at the Khor Virap monastery and theological seminary, located on the boarder of Turkey in the Ararat province. (The famed mountain where some believe Noah’s Arc was found is now in Turkish territory.) In the latter portion of the 2nd Century, Grigor Lusavorich (later St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned at Khor Virap for 14 years and, when released, became the champion of the Apostolic faith. To today, pilgrims and visitors venture down into the wide, sparse pit where he’d been held. Nearby, a chapel was built in the 7th century in his honor.
Carved into a maze of caves and cavities hewn from the mountainsides is the exceptionally beautiful 13th century Geghard Monastery, located 25 miles northeast of Yerevan. The rocky walls bear low bas-reliefs of Armenian khatchkar. Dozens of the ornamental reliefs adorn narrow niches high on the hillside as well. They’re said to be contributions for favors received, in honor or in memory of loved ones. A path deep inside a narrow cave revealed four massive columns supporting a stunning wide-domed vestry with an opening in the center to admit light. A quartet of men and women chanted Armenian hymns; their voices creating an other worldliness. At the bottom of the monastery in contrast, women hawked souvenirs, sweet lavash and sweet sujukh (grape molasses and walnuts). Buying a tasty treat from one vendor caused irate arguments from her competitors. Purchasing wedges or small lavash from each appeased all.
We spent a brief afternoon in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. The guide at the Matenadaran Museum informed us people come to read about the beauty of nature from the book of love, which they believe will bring them health and happiness. Here, exquisite renderings of every form of plant, human and animal life accompany 7th century texts in several languages. Historical documents, manuscripts and illustrations, many of which are encrusted in precious and semi-precious jewels and embellished with ivory, gold and silver are among the myriad subjects on display. The museum is considered the world’s richest repository of written and illustrated works.
The Vernisaj covered market is a treasury for those looking for souvenirs, handmade lace items, hand-painted silk scarves, leather goods, rugs and furniture, while nearby, every fresh edible is found at the indoor market. Rounds of sweetened dried fruit and nuts and jars of jams are the only packaged or jared exceptions. Next door, rows of lovely old jewelry occupy a large second-floor building. After browsing and buying we regrouped to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial, where I said a prayer for those who suffered (and continue to do so) at the hands of oppressors.
I left having learned a great deal about Armenia’s history and architecture. I’d have liked the opportunity to know more Armenians, not an easy task for those of us who speak only English. Those who I did speak with – the younger generation who learned English in school – were helpful with directions. A trio of police I walked with in Yerevan knew English and were genuinely curious about my home in the states. I’d already witnessed the Armenians love of song and dance. These men seemed fun-loving and very much like tourist police everywhere — eager to enjoy chatting with visitors. I was curious about what Armenian’s think the future of their country will be. I didn’t find out on this trip. Hopefully I’ll find out next time.
Panorama Travel (www.Panorama.com, 212-741-0033, 800-240-7130) made the travel arrangements. Our group flew Comfort Class from New York’s JFK in a Boeing B777 operated by Aeroflot, a global SkyTeam Alliance member, to Moscow’s Sheremet International Airport where we embarked a three-hour, business-class Aeroflot flight to the Zvartnots International Airport in the capital, Yerevan.
Located minutes from the center of Yerevan, the Panorama Luxury Suite Resort (www.thepanoramaresort.com) offers stunning views of the historic city and the biblical Mt. Ararat from affordable, fully furnished, luxury suites. The Panorama’s president, Artak Daldumyan, Genera Manager, Tigran Sinanian and staff welcomes guests not as tourists but with the warm, gracious hospitality shown to family.
All images © Denise Mattia