Armenia: The Third Caucasus Country

The problem with doing a 3 country tour is that once you get to the last one, you feel like you’ve seen it all before and the prospect of visiting yet another medieval church or seeing another stunning mountain vista becomes more of a chore rather than something to look forward to.

Thus, I entered Armenia after visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia a little tired, a little jaded, planning to go through the motions rather than truly embracing it. Of course, I was wrong. Armenia has plenty of novel attractions to satisfy my quest for unique and interesting.

To be sure, my tour stopped at quite a few churches, not surprising as Armenia had been the first country to adopt Christianity in 301. The man responsible, St. Grigor the Illuminator, is remembered in a monastery partially carved out of a cave and set against the Caucasus mountains:

I also visited the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and generally considered the first Cathedral in Europe, dating to 301. Unfortunately it was under renovation and scaffolding so we could not enter.

But Armenia offered plenty else. Many of its buildings are constructed from tufa, a limestone formed by lava with lovely hues. In the second city of Gyumri, most of the center’s buildings are tufa, including the still under construction main church:

Gyumri was close to the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake which devastated the country, killing 25,000, leaving 500,000 homeless and levelling 60% of Gyumri. Most of the buildings destroyed were of the bland, Soviet era variety, while the replacements are the Armenian tufa style:

In the capital city of Yerevan, I visited the Genocide Memorial, commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians living in nearby Turkey who were killed between 1895 and 1925.

The archeological museum contains treasures from Armenia’s golden period, from the 9th to the 4th century BC when it stretched 400,000 kilometres, covering parts of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. A 20th century nationalistic movement seeking to regain part of Greater Armenia was exploited by Stalin and his mass relocation of different ethnic groups and is the root of the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region which has seen three wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991.

To satisfy the need to visit something quirky, I went to the Temple of Garni, a Soviet era reconstruction of the Greco-Roman temple to the sun king Mihr. It’s a sign of pre-Christian pagan Armenia, which might explain why the Soviets rebuilt it, the original having been destroyed in an earthquake in 1679.

The Matenadaren, or Manuscripts Museum, is the largest depository of Armenian manuscripts, many dating to the 4th century. Painstakingly translated and drawn by Armenian monks, the western world has these translations to thank for preserving many famous works by the ancient Greeks and Latins after the originals were destroyed at the Great Library at Alexandria in one of its purges. Alas, no photos were allowed inside.

Like Georgia, Armenia is a grape growing region with delicious wines. However, it was its brandy (or cognac) which our tour focused on at the Ararat Brandy facility. A brandy tasting followed the facility tour. My favourite? A 7 year old vintage sipped after slowly eating a piece of dark chocolate:

Although located in Turkey, Mount Ararat, of Noah’s Ark fame, is visible on a good day from the capital. It’s only 40 kilometres away. So important is it to the psyche of the Armenians that all of Yerevan was designed so the mountain would be visible from everywhere in the city. We had mostly cloudy days, but managed one clear early morning sighting:

Mention must be made of the current political climate. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, so I didn’t see any Ukrainian flags. Of more importance to many Armenians was the signing of the Russian brokered treaty with Azerbaijan whereby Armenia was giving up its rights to the Nagorno-Kharabakh region. Protests in opposition to this treaty erupted everyday in Yerevan, snarling traffic and making access to some points difficult. But, so far, the protests have been peaceful and the protesters’ tent city almost had a carnival atmosphere:

After 4 days I left Armenia. A short visit but one which gave me a taste of the country. Next up, something more romantic.

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