Yerevan

If Yerevan was the only place you visited in Armenia you would find it hard to believe that 30% of the Armenian population still live in poverty. 

Although the city was peaceful when we were there it has acted as the stage for a lot of recent civil unrest. Mass protests and marches broke out in the city in 2014 and 2015, demanding an end to corruption. Anger at the divide between the top 1% against the rest of the country also plays a big part in the protests as does the government’s current dependance on Russia despite the hypocrisy that Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan. The most recent protests in July were disbanded by the government using tear gas and evidence of excessive force, journalist arrests and detention beatings have caused widespread criticism and distrust towards the police.

In retaliation a small band of armed protesters who call themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun (after the Armenian heroic epic poem of the same name) stormed a police station and took a number of hostages on 17th July. Three policemen were killed in the crossfire and the standoff lasted two weeks.

Despite the deaths, support for the Sassoun Daredevils remains strong, particularly among young activists who are disenfranchised by the governments failure to listen to their earlier peaceful protests in the summers of 2014 and 2015. 

The prime minister recently stepped down paving the way for his cabinet to also disband so the deed certainly created a shock in the political system. Only time will tell to see if the current president Sarkisyan can appoint a new cabinet which can muster popular support.


On the face of it Yerevan appears to be a thriving modern metropolis which spans across a collection of green hills, the Hrazdan river running through the centre via a deep gorge. 

The city has a very lively arts and culture scene and everywhere you look there are trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and basement bars. The first thing we did on arrival was to compile a list of music venues and make a visit to the opera house which sits in the centre of the city. A production of Tosca was scheduled for Saturday evening and thanks to the low price of the tickets we were able to get top stall seats for only £16 each. 

Here we are clutching our opera glasses before the start of the performance

We were both looking forward to spending some time in a city. Our couch surfing host fell through but we managed to find a hostel where we could cook cheap dinners and meet other travellers. We spent two really nice evenings with Jelena who was from Serbia but now lives in Moscow. 

We also visited the Cascade, a very cool 1980s building which acts both as a public outdoor garden and an interior art exhibition space. Its built into the bank of one of the city’s hills creating a giant stairway on the exterior and collection of art galleries within. It’s possible to climb up the full length of the front of the building via its many white, stone steps and pleasant sculpture courtyards provide nice places to catch your breath and enjoy the views across the city. Alternatively you can take the 8 floor escalator inside.
We also visited the museum of the Armenian surrealist film maker Sergei Parajanov who’s unusual cinematography and controversial lifestyle meant he was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities. He spent nearly five years in a work camp in the late 1970s. Later he moved and later died in Yerevan. 

The highlight and most poignant visit was our afternoon in the Armenian genocide museum. Ancient Armenia was once much bigger than the current Armenian region and by the 1600s a large section of western Armenia had come under Ottoman rule. The large Armenian population living in these provinces have a very sad and long history of suffering which climaxed in 1.5 million Christian Armenians being systematically killed between 1910-23.


The genocide officially started in the early 20th century, (1915) with the round up of many prominent Armenian intellectuals. Later it moved onto the slaughter and forced army conscripts of all able bodied men and ended with the mass deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of women and children. Many other children were taken away from their families and converted to Islam. To date only 29 countries have officially recognised the mass killings as genocide and Turkey continues to deny the word genocide as an accurate term. The museum is excellent but harrowing.


We also visited the state museum which had a brilliant exhibition documenting Armenian history from as early as 4500BC through the Middle Bronze period, Uratrian kingdom, Persian and Roman conquests all the way up to 400 AD when the region adopted Christianity. 

After these culturally gluttonous days it was time to head over into Georgia. We would really have liked to cycled the full length of Armenia but the weather promised more rain and cold temperatures and in the end we decided to take a shared taxi across the border. It’s gloomy taking public transport when you have time to cycle instead but we definitely made the right decision. As soon as we left the city the rain we had had in the centre soon turned to thick snow and as we drove over the mountains towards the border via Lake Sevan the road got very very treacherous and there was a lot of waiting for trucks stuck in the drifts.


Very suddenly we were leaving Armenia and crossing into Georgia, heading to the capital Tbilisi. And so concluded our trip through country number 11! 

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Nora-Vank and Khor Virap

Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in the early 4th century and so it’s Apostolic Church is the oldest Christian community on earth. It claims that the two Apostles Bartholemew and Thaddeus were its founders. As Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on mount Ararat (now in Turkey but was once part of the ancient kingdom of Armenia) Armenians also claim they are direct descendants from Japheth, one of Noah’s grandsons. Consequently there are many ancient orthodox churches, monasteries and cathedrals across the country.

Noravank monastery was funded by the Orbelian dynasty who were an important noble family who ruled over Armenia’s southern most province Syunik. 
There are two structures, the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) and the smaller Surb Karapet. The larger structure was designed and built by the famous architect, sculptor and painter Momik in 1339. Some very narrow steps lead up to the upper done level which is supported by carved pillars.  


We were lucky enough to see a mass in progress while we were there. The ceremony was characterised with two priest dressed in rich blue embroidered robes and pointed hat and two women lay readers who were also dressed in blue. Women cover their heads with a scarf during church services. There was lots of incense and harmonised chanting. We both enjoyed walking around, after the countless temples and mosques there was something strangely familiar about all the symbology and architecture!! 


The weather cleared and we had another warm sunny day. We were heading towards another important religious site, Khor Virap. We turned off the main road as the bad weather started to roll in Again.

Fortunately we found this empty store house 5km from the church so we set up camp inside and escaped the overnight downpours.


Khor Virap is the pilgrimage site where Gregory the Illuminator was said to have been imprisoned for 14 years in a snake infested pit. The site sits on the border with Turkey with the impressive Mount Ararat as a backdrop. Unfortunately we never got to see mount Ararat because the clouds never lifted high enough for us to see its impressive snowy peaks…

Our view of Khor Virap
What it can look like on a clear day… 😦

As the story goes, Gregory (a Christian missionary) was imprisoned by the Armenian King Tiridates III. Tiridates threw Gregory into the jail of the Ancient city of Artashat and for many years he was assumed to have perished in the pit. However, an old devout woman kept Gregory alive by lowering provisions down to him.

A church and monastery was built over the site of Gregory’s 14 year jail. Pilgrims descend the 6m vertical stairs down to the pit…

Meanwhile Tiridates continued his persecution of Christians across his realm; in the end these acts were said to have made him go mad. In a dream, God appears to Tiridates’ sister and tells her to release Gregory for he has the power to cure the King of his madness. Gregory is discovered and released, cures the King who then converts to Christianity and declares Armenia the first Christian state. The end!

White doves kept at the entrance. Pilgrims believe they can be released and they will fly to the site where the ark landed on mount Ararat.

Onwards to Yerevan!