All the Way to Yerevan, Armenia
How far can you travel for $99 in Russia?
By Piers Gladstone
Photos by the author and Oleg Gourov
At 5am I am deposited by the taxi driver on a cold corner somewhere in Yerevan. The lack of numbers above the doors does not help me in my search for the correct entrance to my ‘homestay’ apartment; but I eventually find the right one and am greeted by my bleary-eyed host, Anahit Stepanyan. She shows me to my room and I flop into bed, exhausted.
Two months earlier, having queued for two hours, I finally found myself face to face with an unsmiling Aeroflot sales assistant. It was the penultimate day of Aeroflot’s special offer period, and judging by her surliness, the end could not come quick enough. I wanted to go to Beirut, but there were no seats left. I was determined to leave the office with a cheap ticket to somewhere… anywhere! Ten minutes and $99 later (plus taxes and a criminal exchange rate) I left the office with a ticket for a long weekend in Yerevan, a place I knew nothing about.
After a brief five-hour sleep, I sit eating breakfast and chatting with Anahit, sipping delicious soorch (traditional Armenian coffee). For $10 per night, I get a bed, breakfast, and as much information, history and conversation in English with both Anahit and her two sons as I can handle, in this home from home.
Having become the first nation to accept Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, Armenia and its people have suffered ever since. Their history is a story of being continually conquered, by Arabs, Turkmen, Mongols, Ottomans and the Soviets. In 1915, one and a half million Armenians lost their lives at the hands of the Ottomans – the first modern genocide. It comes as no surprise that the majority of Armenians live outside of Armenia.
I politely extricate myself from the kitchen and go for my first walk in Yerevan, to the 12th century Katoghike chapel. It is tiny; so small that the congregation has to gather outside under a marquee. The chapel is tucked away in a small courtyard, surrounded and dwarfed by 20th century Soviet apartment blocks. The chapel was to be demolished by the Soviets, but was saved after a public outcry. A church nearby wasn’t so lucky; two old ladies light candles and a dog barks as I inspect pieces of broken stone with carvings and inscriptions lying in the snow all around the chapel.
At Opera Square I stop to ‘marvel’ at the Opera House. It looks like a monstrous concrete breezeblock. At the southern end of the square seven cranes perform a slow industrial ballet over the skeletons of new buildings rising from the earth. This construction site is larger than Red Square, and I am informed that a new street is being built which will have modern and luxurious apartments on it.
Hanrapetutyan Hraparak, formerly Lenin Square, is home to some of the best architecture to be found in Yerevan. The colonnades and arches of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Armenian Marriott Hotel, the Finance and Economy Ministry, the National Gallery and the State Museum all impressively face out onto the tree- and lamp-lined streets.
At the Vernisazh Market there are only around twenty occupied stalls, the majority of people are buying and selling antique and new jewellery, predominantly crucifixes. Traders animatedly play cards with each other, drink coffee, and help the occasional customer. After a few minutes of haggling, I pay $10 for a 1970s watch, and then share a coffee and some peanuts with the stallholder.
I stop for lunch at Marco Polo on fashionable Abovyan Poghots. It is one of Yerevan’s many café restaurants that, like the city, has a very Mediterranean feel. I sit under a glass conservatory, looking out onto the street. Next to me, three fashionably-dressed girls with designer shopping bags piled up on a spare chair, and eat ice cream from brightly coloured cocktail glasses. Chic and expensive-looking handbags are slung over the backs of their chairs. The sun streams through the glass roof, smoke hangs in the air.
My Solyanka soup arrives. It is a greeny-yellow, rich and meaty; well spiced with chives and coriander floating on the surface. A Russian dish with an Eastern twist, served in a large earthenware bowl.
The Opera House, Yerevan
I continue my walking tour. At the Matenadaran I look out over Yerevan. It is a magnificent stone building housing much of Armenia’s written and illuminated history. At the foot of the building is a statue of Mashtots, the inventor of the 36-letter Armenian alphabet. The sounds of the city are now distant up here – vague honks and the hum of far-off traffic. I seem to be the only living being here apart from the obligatory couple of stray dogs.
I make my way across to the Cascades, a giant concrete staircase bordering on “Brutalist” in design, which is set into the side of a hill. At the top, there is some kind of obelisk with a gold leaf sticking out of the top that looks like an African spear, a monument commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Work stopped when independence arrived for Armenia in 1991.
On either side of the concrete is a rock and rubble-strewn wasteland. As I climb, I pass little lines of shrubs, carvings, plinths, fountains and post-modern sculptures. Two young lovers, playfully, embrace and laugh. A handful of other people stand, looking down over their city.
The top section is completely unfinished. Rusting hulks of machinery lie discarded amid piles of rusting spikes. Palm trees of re-enforced iron wait for yet more concrete to complete this monument. This is a monument in progress, in a city of monuments. Wherever one goes, many parks and squares are filled with all kinds of sculptures and strange abstract blocks of concrete.
The following morning I head for the ‘Shuka’, the market. A bus, belching smoke, with ‘Ville de Lyon’ written on the back passes by, a physical symbol of the foreign aid this country receives. No other country apart from Israel receives more aid from the United States. The economy is growing rapidly, but only ten years ago unemployment stood at a staggering 80 percent.
The market is housed in what looks like a concrete airplane hanger. Vendors stand behind intricate rows of piled vegetables of all descriptions, fresh and dried fruit, spices and honey. I try some shuguch, a long, thin stick of walnuts covered in solidified grape juice. “Armenian Snickers!” the man says with delight. I buy four sticks.
The Vernisazh Market when I go back is humming with activity, now that it is the weekend. Every stall is occupied. There are delicate and intricately-decorated plates and porcelain, clocks, statues and sculptures, fur hats and coats, a man playing and selling traditional duduk flutes, abstract and figurative paintings, pets, old cameras, stamps, coins and medals, and in one corner, bizarrely, chemistry tubes and filtration apparatus.
I buy some commemorative sets of Armenian stamps before making my way to Surp Grigor Lusavorich Cathedral, the largest church in the Caucasus. Consecrated in 2001, it is cold and cavernous inside. A wedding is taking place at the far end by the altar while another wedding party waits patiently for their turn to walk down the red carpet.
After a kebab lunch at the suave ‘Poplovok Jazz Cafe’, I take a taxi to the ‘Sergei Paradjanov Museum’. Paradjanov was an avant-garde filmmaker who was imprisoned twice by the Soviet authorities and banned from making more films. He turned his artistic attention to making collages and sculptures, many of which were made from pieces of junk. The creativity and humour of his works is exciting, as is the political dimension of pieces such as “The Last Supper”, where cut-out images of Kremlin residents have been added to the table of diners, along with items such as ‘Faberge’ eggs.
With the help of Anahit, my homestay hostess, I arrange to go out of the city the next day. While most other residents of Yerevan are still sleeping, Ara is waiting at the arranged time next to a sparkling new ‘Lada Niva’. The Sunday morning streets are virtually deserted. On the outskirts there are people selling sheep at the side of the road. Makeshift pens of blue tarpaulin have been erected on the pavements. One sheep has been removed and pinned upside down on the pavement while a prospective buyer inspects.
We are on our way to Ezchmiadzin, the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340 AD.
It is, religiously, the most important city, and is known as ‘The Vatican of Armenia’. Catholicos is the name for the religion in Armenia started by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted King Tiridates III of Armenia in 301. Christianity became Armenia’s official religion a decade before the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The first Christian church was built here before St Peter’s in Rome.
We stop first at Surp Gayane, a simple but elegant church. By the entrance, two ancient katchkars (carved stone crosses) lean against the wall, both sides of the intricately-carved wooden door. An old woman in a black headscarf goes from one katchkar to the other, awkwardly bending and kissing each one while crossing herself.
The bells are ringing as we get to Mayr Tachan, Armenian for ‘Mother Church of Armenia’, which is the main Cathedral at Echmiadzin. Snow is falling as the first of the congregation arrive at the gates. Two women brush the snow from the path, synchronised in their movements. We walk around the walls of the church compound looking at the collection of katchkars assembled from every corner of Armenia. Many have witnessed more than a millennium of history.
Ara tells me a story of typical Armenian resilience. During the Soviet occupation, the importing of gold was banned. Armenians wanted to produce a new gold crucifix for the church, and so they imported gold by wearing it as jewellery. Over a period of some years enough gold was donated to finally be smelted down and made into the crucifix.
Bearded priests in hooded black gowns glide past, heading towards the church. We follow and go in through the richly carved bell tower at the main entrance. On entering, members of the congregation walk to an elaborately carved silver crucifix that stands in the middle of the church, cross themselves, kneel and kiss it. To the right, they light candles and place them in large troughs of sand as a church employee snuffs out the old and sputtering ones. On the walls are religious paintings under which the more pious stand, arms outstretched in supplication, occasionally kissing the frames.
In the middle of the church, directly behind the silver crucifix, stands the place where St Gregory the Illuminator saw a beam of light fall to earth in a divine vision, and where he built the first Mayr Tachar. It is enclosed in purple velvet curtains and priests line both sides of it, facing the altar at the front of the church where the service is conducted. A male choir sings Gregorian-style chants. Three large chandeliers hang from the roof and the smell of incense intensifies as the service continues. Priests appear from behind a huge and ornate tapestry hanging behind the altar, carrying staffs and large religious texts which are sung and read from by priests in elaborate dark blue gowns, braided with gold.
We leave the service after thirty minutes and drive the short distance to another church, Surp Hripsime. Hripsime is significantly smaller and less elaborate than Mayr Tachar, and consequently more intimate. The service is in progress and we stand at the back. There are four rows of simple pews and a small female choir is singing, with all the women dressed in blue robes and wearing white headscarves. A single shaft of light pours in through the tower, illuminating most of the small congregation, leaving the rest of the church in secretive darkness.
A young priest in red and white robes appears from behind a curtain and walks to the rear of the church. He unhooks two wires with wooden handles from both sides of the entrance. He begins to pull on one and then the other, and two bells above us begin to toll.
A katchkar at Echmiadzin
On the road back to Yerevan we stop at Zvartnots cathedral, set in a plain and surrounded by orchards. An earthquake in 930 AD destroyed it but it has recently been partially re-built. The style is completely different to the other churches. It is more like a Greek or a Roman temple; a circle of carved pillars surround a baptismal pool. Scattered all around the temple is an archaeological jigsaw puzzle of fragments from a medieval winery and a palace. Many of the pieces have been numbered and several carved leaves and stone bunches of grapes lie amidst the other indecipherable pieces.
As the Lada starts to climb into the mountains surrounding Yerevan, the mist descends and cloaks us. As we reach the summit, the mist disperses and the sun shines weakly. Steam rises from the asphalt as we pass a deserted picnic spot. Three forlorn metal parasols protect tables and chairs, overlooking the valley that cannot be seen. We pass tobacco fields and a group of young men hunched in leather coats, standing by a gate made from an old blue car door. Rugged mountains bear down from all sides.
Garni Temple is something of an oddity. It is an Hellenic temple that was totally rebuilt during the Soviet era, and for the most part seems entirely new. It was originally built in the first century and dedicated to Helios, the Roman god of the sun. It stands on a promontory, surrounded by steep gorges and mountains. The sound of the Azat River rises up eerily from the valley floor, far below. Garni became a summer residence for the Armenian Royal Family after the country’s conversion to Christianity. To the right of the temple is a Roman bathhouse, complete with a mosaic.
Much more impressive and genuine is the Geghard Monastery, which sits in a canyon eight kilometres from Garni. The ancient cave churches and chapels of this monastery date back to the fourth century and were later joined by two more churches in the thirteenth century. The footsteps of ages can be felt here as one plunges into the semi-darkness of the chapels hewn from the side of the canyon; footsteps and voices echoing around the cavernous interiors.
Returning to Yerevan, we stop at the Genocide Memorial. Standing on top of a hill overlooking the city, an eternal flame burns, enclosed by twelve basalt slabs that represent the twelve Armenian provinces that are now part of Turkey. A 40-metre obelisk stands alone, cracked, representing the divided state of the nation. A one-hundred-metre wall commemorates the names of the communities that were lost.
In old Yerevan, on my last evening, I eat a farewell feast with one of Anahit’s sons, Zevan. We devour delicious lamb hashlam, pork khorovats, dolma and lavash bread, while a traditional folk band plays. The female singer sings tragic songs of loss, but in true Armenian style, with a beautiful smile on her face.
The next day, on the way back to the airport, I am thinking that I would come back to Yerevan, even if it costs much more than $99.