The usual response when people learned that we were planning to go to Armenia was, “Why Armenia?”, followed by “Where exactly is that?”. The reason for coming here was precisely that….to find out what and where Armenia is after all! Geography, it is a confluence of Eastern Europe, Asia, Middle East, and Russia. It was part of the old silk road, the trade route of goods and spices (and of course silk) from China to the Middle East.
Armenia was the first stop of our Transcaucasus travels in Armenia/Georgia/Azerbaijan. The description from the Lonely Planet reads “It is not an easy place to explore - roads are rough, transport is often hard to navigate and those who don’t speak Armenia or Russian may find communication difficult - but traveling here is as rewarding as it is revelatory.” I would say this sums up our own experiences here…. rewarding and revelatory definitely! But the actual travelling was easier than expected, in spite of the poor condition of some of the roads. This was largely because we hired private taxis to take us from place to place, which made traveling so much easier than taking the minibuses. With the 5 of us, the cost was not significantly more and the convenience was well worth it. All our guesthouses were able to organize intercity transport for us, taking us directly to our next destination.
Armenia is a small country which shares a border with Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Two of these countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey, are sworn enemies and continue to have conflict along its borders. It has a complex, ancient and very tragic history. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Russians all had a hand in influencing or conquering the country. But the people are proud and resilient and most definitely identify as Armenian through and through.
Without dwelling on its long and complex history, there are a few notable things worth mentioning. It was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD. It continues to be a fairly conservative catholic society. Because of its lasting presence, there is an abundance of beautiful medieval monasteries that have been erected throughout the country. Many of them were built from the 10th to 13th centuries.
Perhaps the darkest chapter in Armenian history was the Armenian genocide that took place from 1915 - 1922. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. To this day, Turkey does not recognize the label of genocide. Thus, relations are poor between the two countries and the border is closed. The Genocide museum in Yerevan presents a sombering and graphic account of the event.
From 1921, Armenia was under Soviet rule and gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR. To this day, the Soviet legacy remains, with its many derelict concrete buildings seen throughout the country, and the old Ladas and Soviet trucks still constituting most of the vehicles on the road. Due to its turbulent history, there was a mass exodus of Armenians who fled to other parts of the world. We were told that there are 10 million Armenians in the world but only 3 million actually live in the country.
Armenia today suffers from a relatively low standard of living and a weak economy with an estimated 32% of the population living below the poverty line in 2014. While the capital, Yerevan, is relatively prosperous with some streets resembling European streets, much of the rural areas look bleak and unchanged from 100 years ago.The residents try to etch out a living from small scale agriculture, masonry, and mining. We saw so many abandoned buildings in our travels. Private residences and large scale factories alike are run down and boarded up. However, only 4 months ago, they had a “velvet revolution” in which the government which was mired with corruption, was ousted by the people. Speaking to some of the locals, there is a renewed sense of trust and optimism in the newly elected government and they hope for better days to come.
We started our tour of Armenia in Yerevan. We checked out the impressive History Museum of Armenia which housed a huge arrangement of ancient artifacts, including the world’s oldest leather shoe which dates back to 3500 BC. That’s over 5000 years old! And it was in good shape. We later visited the actual cave in which it was excavated in Vayots Dzor. The Art Museum, housed in the same building on Republic Square, showcased a good collection of works by Armenian artists. Another fun thing that happened nightly on Republic Square was the dancing fountains. The fountains were timed to music and light, and the show lasted 2 hours! The Cafesjian Centre for the Arts was housed in a cool structure of an extensive flight of stairs built up on the hillside, known as the Cascades. It was definitely one of the main attractions in Yerevan. Life in Yerevan is lived on the streets well into the wee hours of the night. Subsequently, not much happens in the morning before 10am.
After our big city fix, we started travelling around the country to more rural areas. We visited Yeghegnadzor, Dilijan, and Alaverdi. We stayed in guesthouses and were very warmly received by our hosts. We did a combination of hiking and visiting the various famous monasteries in each area. Much of the country was dry and mountainous but there were a few areas which were more lush and green. Most of the monasteries were built strategically on steep mountaintops for its easy defense and stunning views. Our favourites include Geghard, Noravank, Khor Virap, Haghpat, Sanahin, and Akhtala. Many of these are Unesco Heritage Sites. Another impressive show of worship and art is the Armenia khachkar, or cross stone. It is a slab of stone, some reaching up to 1.5m in height which is carved using chisel and hammers with intricate designs of the cross, the sun, or wheel of eternity. They are erected in graveyards and monasteries. We visited the old graveyard at Noratus which had over 800 of them!
Now onto the good stuff….the food! It was delicious! There is certainly a middle eastern influence with dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), tabouli salad, shawarmas, eggplant cooked in all manners, kebabs, baklava found on many menus. Spices and herbs such as zatar, sumac, cilantro, and dill are widely used. The salty yogurt drink, tah, is also a staple but we haven’t quite acquired a taste for that yet. Khinkalis, an oversized meat dumpling is a favourite of our kids. Lavash bread, a very thin paper-like bread is served with every meal and cooked in clay ovens. And the khoravat, BBQ, is very popular and delicious. The pomegranate is a much revered fruit and is depicted in art and jewelry. They even make a pomegranate wine which resembles port and is very drinkable. Speaking of pomegranates…I was lured by a juice stand displaying beautiful pomegranates and ordered a fresh juice. My math skills evidently were non existent and I ended up paying $15 CAD for a cup of pomegranate juice!! Ooops! I guess we all know who homeschools the boys in math. The other celebrated fruit is the apricot and the orange on their flag represents its colour.
So……revelatory and rewarding, Armenia certainly was. We enjoyed our travels through this country. We tasted delicious food, were warmly received by our guesthouse hosts, visited MANY beautiful monasteries, hiked some spectacular trails, and most importantly, learned about a place and people we didn’t know much about.