When my wife and I boarded the plane in Toronto en route to Armenia, I was more than a little prepared for the delights and disappointments that awaited us in Armenia, the land of my ancestors.
After some 20 hours and a long wait in Paris-Orly airport, we finally arrived in Yerevan-the capital of Armenia. Local time was four o’clock in the morning, but the hectic life suggested peak time.
After the luggage was delivered and customs formalities completed, we finally boarded a bus for downtown. The trip at this time of the day took about 20 minutes.
Hotel Armenia is the best and the largest in the country. It is situated on the Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square, which functions as the focal point of this ancient city. Armenia today is small (30,000 square km.) with a population of three-and-a-half million (No one knows exactly have many people live in Armenia. The last census was taken in 1988, and since then more than a few things have changed, including the influx of refugees from Azerbaijan and mass migration of families to western European countries and the U.S.A.).
Armenia at one time covered approximately 50 percent of what is today Turkey, a good part of Syria, and northern Iraq. The government declared independence in 1991 when the U. S. S. R. disintegrated and since then the country has been struggling economically. This small mountainous, resource-poor country has two adversarial neighbours (Azerbaijan and Turkey). Georgia and Iran to the north and south maintain good relations. (The border with Turkey is officially closed although trucks with Turkish licence plates can be seen in Yerevan. (They travel through Georgia). The border with Azerbaijan is hermetically closed due to previous hostilities).
Land-locked Armenia historically has had a difficult time trading with other nations, as it must rely on Georgia ad Iran to reach world markets.
The following day, I woke up early despite my restless sleep due to jetlag.
The first day in Yerevan passed quickly between exchanging money, visiting the Central Food Hall and the National History and Art Museum just opposite the hotel.
Between the museum and Central food Hall my preference would be for the latter as it displays oriental characteristics with a semblance of order. Framers were offering their produce and literally shouting at the top of the their lungs to attract attention, especially that of tourists. The multitude of vegetables, fruits and other comestibles was staggering, and their freshness unsurpassed. Produce on display was picked barely a few hours earlier, and not only looked superb but tasted delicious. Pesticides and/or fungicides are not used simply because farmers have practically no access to them. Armenian farmers use seeds of heirloom species. Produce is harvested when mature, tastes ripe, is juicy, full of flavour and leaves one satisfied.
Armenians, wherever they are, always look for tasty food, including fruits and vegetables. They have always been gourmets. A visit to the Central Food Hall is highly recommended.
The following day was reserved for an audience with his Holiness Karekin I in Etchmiadzin approximately 30 Kms. northwest of Yerevan.
Etchmiadzin is the seat of the Armenian Mother Church, and His Holiness, the spiritual leader of all “orthodox” Armenians. After the audience, we had an opportunity to visit the museum of Etchmiadzin displaying priceless treasures.
The Mother Church is relatively small in comparison to St Peter’s in Vatican and many other European cathedrals, but architecturally it is unique.
Traditional Armenian churches are pew less, worshipers stand during mass (New churches both in Armenia and elsewhere in the world do have pews).
Armenians as a nation adopted Christianity in 301 A. D. and have been instrumental in developing a distinct church design using stones locally available.
The country was prosperous up until the 14th century and kings built several remarkable churches throughout the large kingdom. Armenian architects have also designed and built many Byzantine churches throughout the Byzantine Empire.
During the Soviet era from 1920 – 1991 communists were careful to preserve religious buildings, but discouraged new construction.
Yerevan with a population of 1.2 million, has fewer than 10 churches the most important of which is Saint Sarkis.
His Holiness consecrated the Cathedral of Yerevan in 2001 for the 1700th anniversary of the nation’s acceptance of Christianity as its official religion.
Armenian poets and scientists contributed proportionately far more than their small numbers might suggest. (There are approximately 8.1 million Armenians scattered all over the world). Practically all spoke more than two languages and translated many important books from Greek and Persian. In modern times Russian translations dominated, but today French, German, and particularly English publications are being translated when warranted, and pending on the availability of funds. Armenian poets and researchers contributed immensely to the body of literature and all their works and more are housed in a purpose-built book repository called Matenadaran. It functions as a library and repository of Armenian literature and scientific research. Here you can admire the world’s smallest book that fits into the palm of a small hand; and the largest book weighing 32 Kgs. is also housed here.
Another day took us to Lake Sevan largest and most beautiful in the country. The tranquil shores prompter authorities to develop many resorts for government employees and tourists. At one time hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists used to visit the country for sightseeing and relaxation.
Our trip continued through “ rainforests” to Hradzin religious complex housing a seminary, abbey, and church. It is so well hidden that one can only see it from a distance of less than 50 metres.
Armenian architects have always selected sites to protect religious buildings from marauding armies and have been able to blend their plans flawlessly into the landscape.
We also visited Sardarapat, an impressive monument in concept and execution dedicated to the defeat of Turkish armies close to Yerevan.
Attached to the monument through an impressive boulevard is the Museum of Armenian History and Culture depicting the torturous and convoluted history of the nation. The development of arts, sciences and evolution of the Armenian lifestyle occupies a large section.
Yerevan boasts many museums dedicated to artists and writers, but the one focusing on modern art impresses visitors most. It displays the paintings and sculptures of artists from 1960’s onward. Armenian artists have always taken liberties of which other soviet artists could only dream.
Of the many parks of Yerevan, the most impressive and which overlooks the city contains the Statue of Mother Armenia, a huge monument dedicated to the hard working women of the nation. There you can also admire, among other things, a row of highly intricate “khatchcars”, which are unique to the culture. Each is conceived designed and produced by artists to commemorate an event or personality. It is estimated that there are over 40,000 of them in the country.
The final day of our sojourn was reserved for the famous Yerevan Brandy factory, which over the past 125 years has been producing superb brandies from ancient vineyards on the plains of Ararat.
The best and smoothest of all is 18 years old.
All too soon it was time to depart and we did so with heavy hearts at the ungodly hour of 4.30 in the morning.