The problem with doing a three country tour is that once you get to the third country, you feel like you’ve seen it all before and the prospect of visiting yet another medieval church or seeing another stunning mountain scenery becomes more of a chore 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 as Armenia had plenty of novel and interesting attractions.
To be sure, our tour stopped at quite a few churches, not surprising as Armenia was 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, set against the Caucasus mountains:
We also visited the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and often considered the first Cathedral in Europe, dating to 301. Unfortunately it was under construction 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 beautiful hues. In the second city of Gyumri, most of the center’s building are tufa, including the main church:
Gyumri was close to the epicentre of the massive 1988 earthquake which devastated Armenia, killing 25,000, leaving 500,000 homeless and levelling 60% of Gyumri. Most of the buildings destroyed were of the bland, Soviet era style, and the replacements are the modern, Armenia tufa style:
In the capital city of Yerevan, we visited the Genocide Memorial, commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians living in nearby Turkey killed between 1885 and 1925:
An archeological museum contains treasures from Armenia’s golden period between the 9th and 4th century BC when the kingdom stretched 400,000 kilometres, bordering the Roman Empire and comprising some of modern Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The 20th century nationalist movement seeking to regain part of Greater Armenia was exploited by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet era 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.
The Matenadaren, or Manuscripts Museum is the largest repository of Armenian manuscripts, with many dating to the 4th century. The western world has these manuscripts to thank for many of the Greek and Latin classics. The originals were housed in the great library in Alexandria but purged in the 4th century. Only the Armenian translations survived. Photos weren’t allowed inside, so no pictures.
Like Georgia, Armenia is a grape growing region with delicious wines. However, it is its brandy ( or cognac) which we focused on at the Ararat Brandy facility. We toured the museum there before indulging in a tasting. My favourite? A seven year old vintage sipped after eating a piece of dark chocolate
Although located in Turkey, Mount Ararat, of Noah’s Ark fame, is visible on a good day from Georgia’s capital of Yerevan. It’s only 40 kilometres away. So important is the mountain to the Armenian psyche that all of Yerevan was designed so the mountain would be visible from every vantage point. Unfortunately we had mostly cloudy days throughout our stay, but we were able to clearly see it early in the morning:
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the current political climate. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, so pro-Ukrainian flags were not visible. Of more importance to many Armenians was the signing of a Russian brokered treaty with Azerbaijan in which 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 were peaceful and the protesters’ tent city almost had a carnival atmosphere
After 4 days, we left Armenia. A short visit but one which gave us a taste of the country. Next stop, something a bit more romantic.