A feast of early Christian architecture and stunning wild landscapes, Armenia may not be on everyone’s ‘bucket list’. But it should be, because there’s nowhere on Earth quite like this former Soviet republic that seems lost in its own history. Bay’s Nick Smith goes exploring.
Looking out of the aeroplane’s porthole down onto the Caucasus mountains, my first impression of Armenia was that of snow-capped mountains, great blueish-green lakes and endless expanses of burnished brass grasslands. The whole scene looked as though some-one had casually thrown a moth-eaten lionskin over a jumble of old broken furniture. I rather liked the image and jotted down a few phrases in my note-book, underlined them and wrote ‘use this in the intro’ to remind me of how to start my article for the Telegraph, whose editors would strike out my opening paragraph and replace it with one of their own. Normally these things don’t bother me too much providing they spell my name correctly on a cheque. But in this instance the whole incident stuck in my craw because I’m prepared to bet you the shirt on my back that they hadn’t seen Armenia for themselves. That’s because hardly anyone has.
In fact, listening to the test match on the radio as I write this provides me with the context that there are more people at Lord’s watching the cricket today than will visit Armenia this year. Most of the 30,000 people who will make the trip can hardly be described as tourists either. Many of them will be members of the global diaspora – descendants of the Turkish Armenia refugees who fled this part of Central Asia during the Ottoman persecution of 1915 – returning to their ancestral homeland, travelling in the hope of tracking down a few long-lost distant relatives. Then there will be the handful of pilgrims prepared to explore along the fabled Silk Road to gaze in wonder on the great churches and ancient monasteries that are set in some of the most exquisite landscapes anywhere on Earth. Some will be lured by the prospect of looking on Mount Ararat, a snow-capped, twin-peaked volcano that’s situated just over Armenia’s western border with Turkey, the mountain where, according to the book of Genesis, Noah’s Ark came to rest, “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.” Others will be content to reflect on their journey’s purpose over a glass of Ararat brandy straight from the factory in Armenia’s capital Yerevan.
My first port of call however placed me in a much more recent pocket of history, reminding me that I was in a former Soviet republic. Armenia was the smallest and, from what I could make out, almost certainly the most reluctant to say goodbye to its Communist chaperone when the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991.
My hotel had an encouragingly western name like the ‘Grand Imperial’ or something such, but was shabbily neither grand nor imperial. Nothing worked, everything was broken and the dingy atmosphere was haunted by a mildly unpleasant sweet smell of decomposing vegetation and old laundry, the whiff of which I’ve only ever encountered in hotels east of Istanbul. It was here, in the lobby bar where I met my guide Irena whose nostalgic pronouncements in favour of the old Soviet regime were as surprising as they were endless. “We used to have trains that ran on time” she practically wailed. “There was food in the shops. You could buy batteries. Cigarettes.” As if to press her point, she launched into a list of things that have either disappeared (‘all the nation’s youth has emigrated’), been abandoned (‘construction machinery was just left on the roadsides to rust’) or simply no longer work (‘the economy’).
As outspoken as she was, Irena turned out to be one of the best guides I’ve ever had the pleasure to travel with, and we lost no time in making our way to the Ararat brandy factory, an excursion that might have made more sense had it not been quite so early in the morning. Armenians, it turns out, are proud of their brandy, and so they should be. Its deep amber and smoky simplicity make the ten-year-old a fine match for any cognac. The late Russian president Boris Yeltsin liked it so much that he kept his own barrels in the factory’s cellars, as did the Armenian crooner Charles Aznavour. Irena tells me that recently the brandy has been getting better and better. But it may be the only thing: for Armenians, Communism was comparatively rosy while, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country has become one of the poorest in the developed world.
Still glowing from our breakfast brandy, we made our way to Yerevan’s Pantheon of Heroes, a municipal park from which you can see much of the city, its drab centre fading into an even more drab urban sprawl, designed by Soviet architects with an eye more on utility than aesthetics. But there are redeeming features: apart from Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square), there’s an impressive, if defunct, Ferris wheel on the skyline. At the Pantheon we visit the grave of Armenia’s most famous composer Aram Il’yich Khachaturian, whose sublime 20th century orchestral works have done so much to put Armenia on the cultural map. Not far from his granite slab is a statue of Komitas, a composer Armenians hold in even higher regard than Khachaturian, if that is possible. Komitas travelled the length and breadth of Armenia collecting traditional folk songs, which he then wove into the fabric of his own music that defines Armenia’s national character as much as the red, blue and gold of its flag. As Irena rather poetically explained: “He writes in the colours of the country, the gold of the hillsides, the blue of the lakes.” If you look closely at his bronze statue in the Pantheon, you’ll see it is covered with grime, apart from the right index finger, which shines brightly, polished by the countless Armenians who visit the cemetery to pay their respects by touching his hand. More respects are paid at the Genocide memorial at Tsitsernakaberd (‘Swallow Castle’), a 44-metre stele commemorating the million Armenians who died in the First World War at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Next to the stele is a ring of 12 huge basalt slabs – symbolically resembling Armenia’s khachkars, or engraved memorials – that encircle and lean towards an eternal flame. The steps down to the flame are steep, and you must look at your feet to avoid stumbling. This has the effect of making visitors appear to be in mourning. Why there is a need to create this illusion defeats me: most people I saw there were weeping.
From Yerevan I drove west towards Ararat to visit the ancient monastery of Khor Virap that is perched on a crag right on the border with Turkey. Although it was once a seminary and seat of the Armenian Catholicos, today it’s a venerated pilgrimage site and tourist attraction. This is where St Gregory the Illuminator was incarcerated in a pit at the command of King Tiridates III who, after recovering from a bout of madness, would in time become his friend. It can’t have been a pleasant experience. As I descended the metal ladder into the horribly claustrophobic cell, I wondered how Gregory could have endured such conditions for a fortnight, let alone the fourteen years he spent isolated from the world in prayer. Perhaps it takes a saint to forgive those that bury you alive: after his reprieve, Gregory baptized the king, who commissioned him to spread the light of Christianity throughout the land (hence ‘the illuminator’), in the process making third-century Armenia the first Christian nation.
As I emerged from Gregory’s dungeon a man approached me, carrying for all the world what looked like a wicker picnic basket. We talked to each other patiently in two wildly different languages with hardly a word in common, eventually agreeing on a contract that separated me from far too many US dollars in exchange for releasing the avian contents of his basket in memory of one of the greatest of our early saints. After shaking his hand, I set free a dozen doves which flew away over the barbed and razor-wire Turkish border and towards Mount Ararat. As I stood there thinking about the long years Gregory had spent in his subterranean dungeon, I wondered if this is what is meant by the expression ‘on a wing and a prayer’. A few moments later the birds returned, and the man put what were actually homing pigeons back into his hamper, before hoofing it with some precious hard currency in his pocket.
Over the next few days, Irena and I slowly picked our way to Armenia’s southernmost reaches, circum-navigating the massive central Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in this landlocked country. We visited mediaeval monastery after imposing mediaeval monastery: Tatev, Sevanavank, Sanahin, Haghpat, Makravank, Geghard, Vahanavank and my favourite Noravank. Built in the shadow of dramatic brick-red cliffs, this 13th-century complex is perhaps best known for its sandstone yellow Surb Astvatsatsin (‘Holy Mother of God’) Church façade with narrow cantilevered stone staircases rising on the outside to an upper entrance. It may look easy to get into the building this way, but it takes time, careful balance and a strong head for heights as there’s no handrail. Irena told me that this feature of the architecture was created to prevent anti-Christian attacks on the faithful. Considering that there’s a huge ceremonial double door at ground level, I wasn’t then and am still not convinced by her explanation. We pick up a few bottles of wine from a local vineyard and make our way further south to the vertiginous Selim Pass that overlooks Iran. Deep in Silk Road country – the old East-West system of trading routes that dates back two millennia – we wind our way up a sequence of frankly terrifying hairpin bends to a crest where we stop at Orbelian’s caravanserai, the mediaeval equivalent of a motorway service station for the camel trains loaded with silver, spices, indigo and of course silk. Dark and damp, despite its reputation for being the best preserved of its type, we don’t stay for long and are soon enjoying a downhill drive through mountain pastures that were emblazoned with wildflowers. It was sadly time to return to Yerevan.
On our way back from what was increasingly coming to seem like another world to me, an encounter brought home just how far removed these traditional old parts of the Caucasus are from the modern world. I needed some batteries for my camera and so I asked Irena if we could stop in the next village to get some. She looked a little blank, but not half so blank as the shopkeeper Tigran who scrutinised at me as though I’d asked him for nuclear missile launch codes. “I have some smoked fish,” he informed me, before elaborating that the only currency he’d accept from what he clearly thought to be a rich westerner would be petrol for his car that, to judge by the potted plants on its bonnet, hadn’t been driven for years. He asked me if I had cigarettes and offered me a plastic bag full of peaches in return. It was the barter economy and I doubted that even my American dollars would be of any use here. We sat and ate stuffed vine leaves with him – dolma is a speciality in this part of the world – and he asked me how long it would take to get back to the UK. “About five hours” I told him. He said something in Armenian to Irena. “Yes,” she replied to the old man: “in an aeroplane.”