Yerevan, Armenia’s Capital
Text Tristan Ken
Closing my eyes as I inhaled the rich fragrance of the cognac I held in my hand, I listened to the voice of our guide as she explained the merits of this particular 16-year-old brandy in perfect, softly accented English. Feeling the warmth of the sun on the back of my neck, I thought to myself, “There are few places in the world where holidays get as good as this.”
You might imagine the scene I’m describing took place in the south of France. In fact, I was over 2,000 miles to the east of the French town of Cognac, and just a short flight away from Moscow, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. But while Yerevan is not nearly as touristy as many French towns, there is not much to separate the well-run, professionally guided cognactasting tour I had just finished from a similar one in France.
Famous Ararat mountain
The distillery is a large, old, imposing- looking building that was once a fort. It comes complete with musty underground cellars where the goldenbrown liquid matured slowly in rows of huge oak barrels. It is only when you come to the history section of the tour that the differences become apparent. While the French trace the origins of cognac to the 3rd century, when the Roman Emperor Probus allowed the Gauls to plant their own vineyards, Yerevan’s Noi distillery claims ancestry that is far older. Armenians say that Noah (Noi in Armenian) brought grapes down with him after his ark landed on Mount Ararat. After the flood he apparently began producing cognac in earnest – production that continues to this day in the distillery named after him.
Whether or not one chooses to believe in that particular tale, it is easy to imagine how looking at Mount Ararat might have given the old man cause to celebrate by creating a new drink. At over 5,000 meters high, the mountain rises out of the fertile plains south of Yerevan to provide a stunning, snow-capped backdrop to the city. But while it may have been cause for celebration thousands of years ago, today the mountain, which sits 20 miles inside the Turkish border, also serves as a constant reminder of the most painful episode in Armenian history.
Until World War I, the majority of Armenians were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, living in the area around Ararat in what is now eastern Turkey. As the war dragged on and it became obvious that the Ottomans had backed the losing side, the Young Turks in charge of the country decided that Armenians were the enemies within and apparently did their level best to wipe them out. The ensuing genocide killed around 1.5 million Armenians and set a precedent that Hitler allegedly admired a quarter-century later.
Small church in the outskirts of Yerevan
While the Turkish government to this day denies that any systematic extermination took place, the documents and photographs on display in Yerevan’s Museum of the Armenian Genocide appear to offer pretty damning evidence. Although visiting the museum is a harrowing experience, it is a must for anyone who wishes to understand Yerevan and its people.
Those who live closest to the experience of this tragedy, however, have long since come to terms with it, and I encountered very little of the self-pitying, victim attitude among the people of Yerevan. In fact, the guard at the genocide museum was positively cheerful. He got talking to us as we admired the imposing monument to the tragedy, and he invited us back to his office for a cup of viscous, viciously strong Armenian black coffee.
As we chatted, the guard told us in matter-of-fact terms not only about the historic tragedy we had come there to learn about, but about the tragedies he had witnessed in his own lifetime. He had seen action in the bitter war between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan, which tore the region apart following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ongoing rancor caused by the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh still poisons the relationship between the two countries to this day. I found myself amazed at how, in the face of post-Soviet poverty and this horrendous border war, the people of Yerevan could remain so stoical. Spotting the icon on the office wall, I reflected that it may have something to do with their deeply held religious faith.
Like their cognac, Armenian Christianity is the oldest in the world. During a brief period of self-rule, Armenia became the first state to declare Christianity its official religion – beating the Roman Emperor Constantine to it by 36 years. This faith managed to remain strong in the face of successive invasions by pretty much every empire going. The Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, Russians, and finally the Soviets have all ruled Armenia at one stage or another, yet none of them have managed to stamp out the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In the post-Soviet era, the Church has enjoyed something of a renaissance, bouncing back healthier than ever after 80-odd years of atheistic oppression. Beautiful ancient churches can still be found in Yerevan, and many of these have been restored recently as development money pours in from the Armenian diaspora. There are also some domestic donations, but while Armenians are cheerful and charming in the face of tragedy, theirs is still a relatively poor country.
The Azeris and their Turkish allies have not let Armenians across their borders since they lost the Nagorno- Karabakh war, meaning Armenia’s only open land frontier is that with Georgia – where one imagines trade may have become more difficult of late.
Yet Yerevan is still a city that feels like it’s on the up. The contributions of rich Armenians living overseas have helped renovate some of the old European-style buildings as well as the more exotic looking churches. Possibly the best indication of where this city is headed is the cascades, another must for tourists.
Yerevan City View
Begun by the Soviets, these large, steep steps running up to Haghtanak Park [Victory Park] were abandoned when the union collapsed. But rather than let them rot as a hulking horrible concrete mess, the Yerevan civic authorities, helped by a rich Armenian-American, have transformed them into a terraced sculpture gallery. Riding up the shiny new escalators inside you could be forgiven for thinking you’d reached Moscow’s Park Pobedy [also, Victory Park] metro station. As you emerge to admire the sculptures on each successive level, the view over the rooftops of Yerevan – with the ever-present peak of Ararat behind them – becomes better and better.
Several Airlines fly to Yerevan direct from Moscow including Armavia from 450 Euros return, Aeroflot from 350 Euros return and S7 from 260 Euros return.
British and American nationals require visas to visit Armenia, but don’t need a letter of invitation. These can be issued by the Armenian consulate in Moscow:
Embassy of the Republic of Armenia in Moscow, Russia
2, Armyansky Per., Moscow 101000, Russia
Phone: +7 (495) 924-1269
Fax: +7 (495) 924-5030
Armenian is the official language. It uses its own unique alphabet. It’s probably worth learning a couple of letters of this to read station names on the Yerevan metro, but otherwise Russian is pretty widely used. Thanks to the influence of the diaspora many Armenians also speak excellent English.
WHERE TO GO:
Armenian genocide museum and monument Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex
Phone: +374 (10) 390981
Fax: +374 (10) 391041
Cascades. Haghtanak Park
For information about the Cafesjian museum inside the cascades:
Cafesjian Museum Foundation
Tamanian Street 2, Suite 48
0009 Yerevan, Republic of Armenia
Phone: +374 (10) 541932 / +374 (10) 541934
Fax: +374 (10) 568550
Tours and tasting can be arranged at either the Ararat or the Noi distilleries in Yerevan.
Check out www.visitarm.com or www.welcomearmenia.com which provide further details about all these attractions, as well as hotel bookings.