There were tears and cheers as the plane touched down before dawn in Zvartnots, the international airport of Yerevan, and the capital of Armenia. Most were Diaspora Armenians visiting their homeland, many for the first time. One can only attest to such emotion in very few countries, when an aircraft lands.
We did not have to fill out official forms. Customs and immigration formalities were quick and efficient as visas were obtained well in advance of arrival.
We had booked Hotel Armenia the biggest and most luxurious in the country, not by choice, but by recommendation. Upon arrival, the grandiose lobby was impressive, but the front desk, tucked in a corner looked drab and Soviet style. The hotel was planned and built in Soviet era, by Soviet trained architects. Rooms are standard Soviet issue bearing no relation to the price charged. The hotel was in the process of renovating, but according to the information obtained, will be as functional and luxurious as any in the world. There are, however, many small hotels in Yerevan that compete favourably with the Hotel Armenia, but the latter located at the Hanrapetutiun Square, has a big advantage over the others. It has very central location close to sights and major government buildings.
I had come to Armenia, (accompanied by my wife who is Guyanese) because I wanted to see the other side of the Mount Ararat. While living in Turkey, I visited the sacred mountain from that country to the east, from the balcony of our hotel room. Mount Ararat looked close enough to touch (on clear days), a pure and dream-like vision of heaven that humbles apartment blocks in Yerevan. But Ararat is unreachable from the east for Armenians with Armenian passports; it lies beyond the border with Armenia’s historic, and intractable enemy, Turkey. And yet, when two powerful earthquakes struck Turkey, Armenia was the first to offer help, which the Turkish minister of the interior rejected saying: “We do not accept help from our enemies”. The border between the two countries is sealed with barbed wire, yet you can see buses with Turkish licence plates in Yerevan and can buy merchandise clearly marked “ Made in Turkey”.
Yerevan sits under the spell of Mount Ararat’s soaring 16874’ (4162metres) over the plain; a giant pyramid capped eternally with snow. It is Armenia’s national symbol. Ararat is where Noah’s Ark supposedly came to rest in nearby Etchmiadzin, the seat of the catolicos of all Armenians, and the “MOTHER CHURCH”. A shard of stone is said to be petrified wood from the Ark; it is embedded in silver–plated icon in the museum of the Mother Church.
Armenians were the first people to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 A D, and when Mesrop Mashtots invented the alphabet in 405 AD, the clergy translated the Bible. The Armenian Apostolic Church broke with Rome in 524 A D. Soon after this remarkable event, the country became engulfed by the Roman and Byzantine empires. But in the 9th century under the Bagratid dynasty, with the capital Ani (in present day Turkey and devastated by wild hordes of locals who have plundered richly ornamented church walls) rose again to become a power to be reckoned with. In the 11th century, the Seldjuk Turk chieftain Alp Arslan overrun Ani, Kars and many other Armenian fortresses, destroying over 10,000 illuminated manuscripts, copied and painted lovingly in Armenian monasteries over several centuries. Ever since, Armenians and Turks have been fighting over land and personal rights, which the former lost most of the time with devastating effects and repercussions.
Now squeezed between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia, this newly independent small country of 3.0 million souls has few friendly countries to rely on. Turkey maintains no diplomatic relations and Azerbaijan is technically still at war.
Iran maintains both diplomatic and trade relations, and Georgia seems to be a good neighbour most of the time!
Politically, Armenian is a democracy and united on the surface. Internecine political fights continue as ever, but have been contained to the extent possible. There is no personality cult here like in Syria, or Azerbaijan. Politicians are united getting their way govern the country and getting rich in the process.
Like many former soviet republic capitals Yerevan’s focal point is a huge plaza – Hanrapetutiun Square, from which pseudo-Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings fan out.
Yerevan although relatively populous (1.1 million) has a landlocked provincial air about it. The obligatory Stalin monument overlooking the plaza was removed.
The National Museum on the other side of the plaza looks impressive and rich in artefacts, but poorly maintains due to practically non-existent state funding. Every tourist should visit this museum, but with a guide, readily available at the entrance at a reasonable cost if negotiated in advance.
Surprisingly, for a small population and country, Yerevan has at least 15 major museums which are definitely worth visiting for those interested in art, archaeology, history and literature.
Matenadaran, the national library, in Yerevan is an absolute must. Here you can admire religious books, lovingly illustrated by devoted monks. There are over 100,000 volumes about sciences, philosophy and religion, all well preserved for eternity. For a nation scattered all over the world and one that has lost most of the ancestral land, it is remarkable how so many priceless toms could be saved, accumulated and kept meticulously in extremely good condition.
The commanding location of the Matenadaran overlooking the city is beautiful to behold.
Yerevan is probably the only city in the world where facades of the houses are never painted. Nature itself has painted the stones as required. Architects helped preserve their natural beauty. The Armenian Genocide Memorial stands on a plateau overlooking Yerevan in splendid isolation, exactly where the Turks were resoundingly defeated in 1916. It consists of a 44 metres high dark granite needle and 12 inward-leaning basalt slabs forming an open tent over an eternal flame; museum and offices are located underground. It was designed and built by Armenian architects by order of Leonid Brezhnev in 1965 (the monument was finishes in record time by 1967). Weeds grow between cracks of poorly laid stones, and unfortunately the eternal flame had to be extinguished, due to fuel shortages plaguing the country.
This is a must-see for every tourist!
The museum depicts how Turks destroyed and annihilated 1996 Armenian schools, and 2925 churches after taking Trabezunt, Van, Erzincan, Diyarbekir, Bitlis, Sivas, Harput, Mus just to name a few formerly prosperous and thriving Armenian cities.
All these once beautiful churches and buildings are now languishing and deteriorating. Ignorant, savages inhabiting the region now have wilfully destroyed most.
Back in the city, the Opera House located in a park deserves the attention of anyone interested in architecture.
Armenia is one of the world’s most fascinating open-air museums with over 4000 monuments. Surprisingly, you can reach the vast majority of them on daily excursions from Yerevan, which can be arranged by a local travel agent or by negotiating with taxi drivers in advance. Most cars are soviet made (try to hire a Zil rather than a Lada)
First visit the Cathedral of Zvartnots built by Catolicos Nerses in 643 but was destroyed 300 years later by an earthquake and never rebuilt. Even the ruins of this once magnificent edifice are impressive.
Constantine II, the Byzantine emperor travelled to Armenia for the consecration ceremonies and was so impressed by the architecture that he decided to hire the architect to build a similar one in Constantinople, but unfortunately the elderly architect died on his way to the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Then travel to Garni, a classical still imposing Sun temple built with 24 ionic columns in 60 A D and destroyed in 1697 then partially rebuilt in 1978.
Tacitus, the great historian, mentioned it. This temple erected in honour of the sun was a complex complete with a spa and relaxing chambers. A short drive will take you to Geghard, a religious complex carved in a mountain. The church chiselled in the rock is simple and ascetic. Water trickles from candle soot- blackened walls, and which worshippers use to wash their faces. Here religion is reduced to earth, fire and water. No ornaments, no bombastic paintings, nor elaborate altars. Geghard was a monastery for devout priests and monks to live, study the Bible, and preach to the newly converted nation. It took its present shape in the 13th century with the help of Georgian Queen Tamara, after she defeated the armies of Seldjuk Turks.
A short drive from Geghard will get you to Etchmiadzin where the Mother Church of all apostolic Armenians is located. The complex houses the Mother Church, a seminary, the seat of the Catolicos and administrative buildings.
The Mother Church was built in 309 AD by Gregory the Illuminator and represents the true Armenian Church architecture that inspired European masters in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Hewing stone, carving stone, building in stone, are all Armenian trades that well befit a people, though, craggy crazy and enduring! Armenian church architecture reflects these traits well, and the country is full of small sturdy impressive churches ornately decorated outside but plain inside.
The Etchmiadzin complex contains the oldest still fully functioning church in the world and represents an absolute must-see sight.
If possible, attend a Sunday mass to experience a moving ceremony unlike any other you may have in the past.
The city of Etchmiadzin, has a few other churches; Gayana built 630 AD and St Hripsime in 618 A D, both of which are considered perfect examples of Armenian Church architecture.
Depending on your interest in religion, you can spend a full day in Etchmiadzin or a few hours.
Armenia is full of churches (soviets never opposed religion here, because it is the glue that binds Armenians everywhere), yet Yerevan has only a few as the city grew mostly under communism. Although the soviet regime was careful not to meddle in the affairs of the clergy, they never encouraged building new churches. Only recently, a second cathedral was consecrated in Yerevan.
The city is built in the form of an amphitheatre upon a plateau facing Mount Ararat. The upper town lies 1000 feet above the lower. The houses are made of local salmon-pink to copper coloured stone.
The town dates from 1924 and was designed by architect Toumanian after the great earthquake; it was progressively modified as the population increased.
Yerevan’s original site can be traced back 4000 years.
The Yerevan Brandy Factory, purchased in 1998 by Pernod-Ricard of France is of interest to those who like to enjoy sophisticated spirits.
Overlooking the city, the factory occupies several hectares, which include the still house, aging warehouses, and the bottling line.
Armenian brandy has been famous for centuries, especially in Russia, but today Pernod-Ricard is making concerted efforts to expand world markets. Presently Armenian brandy is exported to 50 countries but still the largest market is still Russia partly because over a million Armenians live in a number of cities in Russia.
After tasting brandies aged from three years to 18 and longer in the boutique, you can decide which one to buy.
For my taste the 18-year-old brandy is smoothest, most aromatic, with an excellent balance between alcohol and flavour.
For those who like opera and theatre, Yerevan offers many opportunities. As a non-Armenian speaking tourist you may not be able to understand everything, but the presentation and attention to detail will impress you.
If you like to gamble, Yerevan has many casinos! Jazz, of course! There are several bands performing regularly at the Hotel Armenia.
A few minutes walk form the Hotel Armenia you will find the open air market of Yerevan called Hermitage where antique cutlery, embroidery, carpets, books, souvenirs, and even auto parts are sold by ordinary citizens trying to make ends meet!
This is a market worth visiting, if for nothing else, to buy a few souvenirs (If you buy anything older than 25 years you must obtain an export certificate for the ministry of antiquities.
If you go: British Airways flies from London direct to Yerevan, as does Austrian Airlines from Vienna. Lufthansa, the German national airline, flies j from Munich to Yerevan.
Aeroflot, the Russian international airline flies direct from Moscow several times weekly.
Accommodation: There are several bed and breakfast operations, among with small well-furnished and managed hotels.
Hotel Armenia, now fully refurbished is western managed (Marriott) and offers all comforts expected from a first class hotel with correspondingly high prices.
There are now several first class hotels catering to well-to-do tourists.
There are several pizza outlets, fried chicken eateries, and other fast food operations. Hotel restaurants offer adequate food. Some Chinese restaurants can be found but quality is questionable.
With every passing week new restaurants are coming on stream and many are also folding. It is an adventure to eat in Yerevan.