David Rich 1300 Words
300 Armenian Arm=$1 US
Armenia: Like Armani & Ararat
Like many inveterate travelers I read continuously, fortuitously entering Armenia clutching The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Booker Prize 2000-something). The heroine was continually admonished to eat her supper because children in Armenia are starving. Now children in Armenia wear Armani, which they’ve apparently confused with the country name because few can afford a fake mess of pottage. The name-dropping cadre of these impoverished profligates excludes a tiny minority of robber-baron families wallowing in affluence.
Many Armenians survive on remittances from rich relatives abroad, the locals’ economic health barely sustained by expatriates forced to migrate during periods of an accordion economy rendered ruinous by Turkey’s sporadic final solution that squeezed out waves of Armenian Diasporas. Entire communities were forced to leave the Armenian homelands beginning in 1896 and continuing almost unabated through 27 years of Turkish genocide. This killing field obliterated up to two million Armenians while ejecting them from their homeland around Mt. Ararat and Lake Van in present-day far-eastern Turkey, finally winding down in 1923. This brutal rebuke by Turkey targeted the first country on the planet to declare Christianity a state religion, fears proved valid to Turkey by Armenia’s alliance with Russian Orthodox Christians against the Ottoman Empire. Armenia’s borders with Turkey remain closed in 2008, 65 years later, though the Turkish president attended an October 2008 football (soccer) match with the Armenian president in Yerevan: Turkey won the game, one-nil.
Like most resilient homo sapiens the Armenians, though sometimes taking it on the chin, have also successfully duked it out, which they did against the Azerbaijani Muslims in the early 1990s, slicing Azerbaijan in half, isolating its southwest corner so the only access to the Naxcivan portion of Azerbaijan is by flight from the capital of Baku or overland via Iran. This unheralded war created what may be the world’s least visited country: Nagorno-Karabakh, which is why Azerbaijani customs routinely tear out the Armenian section from the guidebooks of unsuspecting tourists. Apparently everyone must choose sides.
This Caucasus mish-mash was created by the blunderings of the Soviet Union in 1918, a peace deal entered into between Lenin and Ataturk, allocating an ancient portion of then-Armenia around Lake Van and Mt. Ararat to the Soviets, who parceled the remainder between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Literally hundreds of thousands of Caucasians have died from off-the-cuff politics snarled by prosaic religion.
Nagorno-Karabakh is like a miniature Ecuador with precipitous valleys and steep hills, periodically bedecked with startling Armenian monasteries on towering cliffs, overseeing local progress or lack thereof. The capital of Stepanakert sits a mere ten miles from the still existing front lines of the 1990s war, drawn through the eastern outskirts of Agdam, formerly a city of 100,000 reduced to a ghost town, a shell, where most taxis refused to ferry me and the police said I was forbidden. Dang, that would have been a sight, which the world’s most popular guidebook describes:
…sacked and looted [in 1994]. Tall shattered tower blocks stand in the distance, past a sprawling street centre of one-and two-story buildings. Shredded playgrounds sprout with shrubs, the streets are cracking open with trees, and ponds fill in bomb craters…this city is as dead as Pompeii.
Actually a taxi offered to drive me to the outskirts of Agdam for $35, which I rejected out of hand as too pricey for a mere ten miles. I now regret this missed opportunity notwithstanding the fact the police, immigration registration officials and home-stay landlord guaranteed this trip would result in my immediate arrest. But I hadn’t yet been arrested in this portion of the world, a situation related to boredom.
By resisting arrest I was stuck with the backside of Mt. Ararat, which I never saw because of inclement weather, a common proclivity in northern hemisphere’s November. I was forced to settle for photos of monasteries perched on sheer cliffs overlooking precipitous ravines, canyons and caves, a situation that did not begin with the Armenian Vatican, the Holy See of Echmiadzin, which sits on the flat ten kilometers (six miles) west of the capital of Yerevan. The architecture is classic Armenian, uniformly gray and austere, cold, blocky and drab, a scene partially relieved by monks who seem to float across the terrain wearing basic black, presumably by Armani. The austerity was partially relieved by vividly colored ancient manuscripts in the Echmiadzin treasury next to a disembodied silver arm bestowing an a-ok blessing and penultimately, the brutal rusty head of the holy lance that punctured the side of their lord, fortuitously engraved with the shape of a cross; canny those prescient Romans, foreshadowing the centerpiece of a new religion.
Most notable Armenian monasteries and pilgrimage churches are perched on the stuttering lips’ edge of precipitous canyons, cliffs and promontories. Tatev Monastery, featured on many Armenian tourist brochures, sits on the bare edge of a sheer 1000 foot (300 meter) cliff, unfortunately flanked by three strident squadrons of electrical pylons marching across the landscape, erected by the esthetically-challenged Soviets, accented by copious offerings of garbage. The tagline of this story continues unabated throughout Armenia, refuse and rusty pylons flanking each and every national treasure except for a couple too remote for the sophistication of garbage and electricity
These lucky few include Gandazsar in remote Nagorno-Karabakh, a country of which few on the planet have heard, much less obtained a visa for, a colorful piece of passport debris available for a mere $45 in Yerevan. Another fortunately pristine monastery is Haghpat, popular for weddings, go figure at a monastery, on the knife’s edge of Debed Canyon, and Khor Virap on a high ridge in the shadow of Mt. Ararat, assuming it’s sufficiently sunny to throw a shadow on the Armenian side of the Turkish border.
A sign at Tatev Monastery laid the monk’s position on the line: It is not appropriate to enter the church in attractive clothing. But attractive clothing, if well covered, may be worn in my favorite pile of architecture: a seemingly derelict Russian Orthodox Church a few kilometers east of Stepanavan (not to be confused with the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, aka Stepanakert) in the far northwest of Armenia. This church would have shivered the timbers of the Addams Family, a moldering wreck with tulip-tops barely extant, a likely haven of witches and old crones with exceedingly interesting incantations and without a piece of attractive clothing among them.
The epitome of Armenian culture is wrought by the headstones of the deceased, an expensive undertaking rendering finely etched portraits in stone. I’ve debated whether my favorite is the guy who died with a machinegun in his hands, exquisitely engraved on his headstone, probably as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, or the gentleman whose car was flattened by a Russian truck, depicted on a widescreen version of his headstone showing the exact position of the vehicles at the point of impact, or the ubiquitous Armenian slouched with a cigarette between his artistic fingers: wonder what killed him. The national male addiction to tobacco is evident in every public space in Armenia; another craving akin to Armani in the shadow of Ararat.
When you go to Armenia: Go in August or September, the lovely months in mountainous Armenia, and take advantage of cut-rate airlines flying into Yerevan, from Air Arabia to Air Baltic, peanuts from most anywhere in Western Europe, from $300 and up, roundtrip. Hotels are pricey, from $100 a decent room, but alternative home-stays and en-suite hostels are ubiquitous, hosted by some of the warmest caring people I’ve met in years of travel: specifically Goris B&B in Goris near the Nagorno-Karabakh border and kind Armine at the Stepavan Information Center: rooms with a flair, which in November means heat, from $17 a person including sumptuous breakfasts. Getting around is easy by Marshrutka, shared mini-van, inexpensive to any destination in the country, including around Nagorno-Karabakh.