- Mission 1: Learn about the disputed region of Artsakh from today’s Armenian standpoint (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Pay my respects at the Armenian Genocide Museum (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Gain access to ROT54, a giant disused Soviet radio-telescope built on the slopes of Mount Aragats (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Get as close as possible to the Metsamor nuclear power plant (said to be the world’s most dangerous) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Guzzle pomegranate wine until it courses through my veins (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 6: Visit the city of Gyumri, devastatingly struck by the Spitak earthquake of 1988, with its distinctive iron fountain (DEFERRED).
Highlight: Peering into the gargantuan Soviet telescope dish from the edge, feeling like I was in a scene of some Soviet sci-fi film.
Lowlight: A misadventure and narrow escape with couple of stalkers who had some sinister plans in mind.
The full stalker story here…
Travelling solo, I do occasionally find myself in a pickle-or-three but this one was could have gone awry. I don’t want to paint a tainted picture of Armenians in any way, but I did learn some important differences about culture. This is a short story that serves as a cautionary tale on presenting a friendly disposition.
I was mid-flight when I bumped into a stocky young gentleman as I emerged from the lavatory. His foot was practically in the door before I could squeeze myself out past him. “Hi, shall we drink a vodka?”, he asked (in Russian). I went borscht-red, taken back by his audacity and scampered back to my seat, hoping he wouldn’t find me on a packed plane. Minutes later he marched over, commanded the gentleman next to me to stand-up and sit somewhere else (which he did without question, perhaps due to this fellow’s burly stature) and he plonked himself down beside me, cornering me into the window before summoning for two whiskies (not vodka as it turned out).
As he tried to make conversation, I made it clear that my Russian was very limited so there was really no point. I did, however, understand enough to infer that he was a soldier. He asked where I was staying and I showed him the hotel on Google maps and asked if he knew where it was (just to offer some level of conversation out of politeness). He didn’t seem to know, but was keen to know my plans for the evening. I told him I had prior arrangements and a busy trip itinerary planned, but he wasn’t even listening to my response. By this stage he’d had several whiskies and the crew refused to serve him any more. As soon as we landed, he reached over, grabbed my phone and saved his number before calling himself to ensure he had mine. I was rather lost for words in both Russian and English and figured it was futile to protest.
My only plan was to make a break for it, as soon as the airplane doors opened. Alas, it wasn’t to be, for he grabbed my bag and insisted I walk out with him and his friend who was sitting several rows behind. The next 20 mins were both confusing and daunting and I had no real choice but to go with the flow as he still had my bag in hand, and then grabbed my passport too in the immigration queue! Too impatient to wait in the long line, he approached a guard with the three passports who opened-up the barriers and led us to what I surmised was the interrogation room. I repeatedly asked what was going on and insisted that I needed to go because someone was collecting me (which was true), but his friend just said, “Don’t worry” and smiled wryly.
Somehow, we fast-tracked immigration via the interrogation room. I can only assume that because they were soldiers, they had some special privilege. As soon as we entered the arrivals hall, I spotted my pen-pal (Arsen) who was meeting me. I snatched my bag from the soldier’s clutches and made a beeline towards him, who was already prepared to deal with “a situation” as I had texted him “HELP – I HAVE A STALKER” just minutes ago. Surprisingly, as soon as they exchanged glances, the soldier bid me farewell and went on his merry way. Praise be, I thought. What happened next, I could never have predicted by any stretch of imagination…
After a 20 minute journey by car to the centre of Yerevan, we turned into the hotel car park from a side road, and to my horror, the two soldiers were standing at the entrance to my hotel! a) How on earth did they get there before us? b) What did they want? c) Some bad words. Now it was time to panic. Arsen didn’t seem intimidated in the slightest, despite being half the size of the big fellow. He parked, and calmly told me to go inside the hotel and wait for him while he dealt with this. I caught a glimpse of the three exchanging dialogue while thinking, “Arsen is a goner”. Yet, a few minutes later, Arsen strolled into the reception unscathed. “Well? Where are they now?”, I asked him. “Gone. And they won’t be back.”
As it transpired, Arsen happened to be a police officer. To this day, I still don’t know what exactly he said to them, but I am pretty sure he at least flashed his badge, and more to the point, it worked.
After he spoke with the hotel manager on my behalf (imploring him to keep a special eye on me), I learned something truly horrifying. So what exactly had the soldiers planned to do? They had already tried to check-into my room, claiming that they were paying for my stay and I was to receive a second key upon my arrival. Had their sick plan worked (thank God it didn’t because the receptionist smelt a rat), I would have gone up to my room to find them both there waiting for me.
If there was ever a lesson to be learned about the dangers of coming across as coy and too polite, this was it. To a hot-blooded male that can seem like an open invitation…
Feat of Architecture: Hrazdan bus station. Even the grouchy taxi driver stepped out of his car to admire its splendour.
Recce Fact: Winston Churchill became a huge fan of Armenian brandy after Stalin gifted him a bottle of Dvin during the Yalta Conference of 1945.
As much as I dislike being a Serious Sally all the time, to speak of Armenia and avert all topics regarding the plight of Armenian people would be doing them a great disservice; especially during this nadir of the 21st century with the recent concessions of Artsakh. Even still, I managed to fulfill a typical bizarre checklist of activities in parallel, like standing on top of a giant abandoned Soviet telescope and shopping for AK-47 branded fashion.
My impression of Armenian people (Hayq of Hayastan) is that they are hot-blooded (a thoroughly Caucasian trait, that), patriotic, proud, devoutly Christian, hospitable, value education and are not afraid of hard work. Yet, they also have a chip on their shoulder and it’s no wonder really. I don’t think I’ve ever held a conversation with an Armenian, where they didn’t at some point reference their struggles with their own country, Turkey or Azerbaijan. I am always willing to listen and try to learn something, as I know it’s not an attempt to inculcate others but it is freely flowing from their hearts and minds.
Even from my limited interactions with Armenians, I have observed sufficient commonalities and differences with those living inside the country, transnationals and those from the diaspora, e.g. whose families fled to the Levant as refugees generations ago. Their perceptions and realities may differ, but they always maintain a strong sense of ethnicity and cultural identity.
Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, there is also a sizeable Armenian population living in modern day Turkey, many of whom do not consider themselves diaspora but rather have “never left the homeland”.
Owed to mountainous dwelling, the famous hallmark of Armenians is their prominent nose which is a source of pride and even humour, as evidenced by the collection of novelty nose “hooks” on sale at the open air market. They sport their noses very well; from Gucci’s new model Armine Harutyunyan to actor Frunzik Mkrtchyan.
If not identifiable by their snouts, the -yan surname suffix gives their nationality away.
Yerevan – the Pink City
For once, it was refreshing to visit a capital city that isn’t overly touristic so I didn’t have to battle my way through a phalanx of people just like myself loitering around all the landmarks. Yet, if Armenia really put their minds to it they could undoubtedly generate more tourism-GDP. In 2019, for example, neighbouring Georgia received nearly five-fold as many tourists as Armenia. Yet, both capital cities are impressive and they have so many of the same fundamental building blocks to reel-in tourists, e.g. fine wine, music and rich, green landscapes peppered with quaint monasteries. The only thing missing in Armenia’s case is a coastline since it’s completely landlocked.
There is a grand fountain show every evening in Liberty Square (Ազատության հրապարակ) that draws a large local gathering both within the square itself and on the adjacent rooftop terraces. The surrounding government building facades aren’t merely grey concrete but instead are skillfully crafted from tessellated rose-coloured tufa limestone blocks that gives the city its nickname – the Pink City.
There are many pleasant outdoor areas in the city centre for dining and drinking al fresco, e.g. Shahumyan Park and Swan Lake (in Summer only I suppose!). The only dedicated tourist attraction I found in the city was the Vernissage outdoor market that sells all sorts of traditional Armenian souvenirs; pomegranate ornaments, chess sets, Armenian alphabet jewellery (another impossible noodle script like Georgian), traditional instruments and Armenian-themed clothing. Ironically, I picked up a pomegranate-shaped jewellery box only to see the printed words “Made in Turkey”.
During my foray, I bagged a t-shirt I saw with an Armenian flag embroidered on the sleeve and an AK-47 printed on the front, not that there is any appropriate place to wear it whatsoever lest I look like a militant, but it’s definitely a collector’s item I had to have for the top drawer.
One of the unique landmarks in Yerevan is the Cascade Complex (Կասկադ). I haven’t been able to establish what its original intended purposes was when constructed in the 70s, but today it serves as an important arts venue. Shame on me that I couldn’t muster enough energy to go hiking up the staircases to see what was at the top. I can barely run the length of myself these days.
Whoever conjured-up the statues at the foot of the complex had the sense of humour of a naughty schoolboy. I spotted a big fat cat, a fat naked lady lying down smoking a cigarette and a fat centurion type guard with a little cocktail sausage (aww). Grotesque things in truth, but good that Yerevan urban designers aren’t taking themselves too seriously as it is otherwise a serious-sort-of-city.
Not all of Yerevan was so pristine, with many of the former USSR housing blocks still in use and in a state of dilapidation. I have a real penchant for such blocks and “ugly architecture” but the unfortunate reality is that Armenia’s national housing crisis was exacerbated due to a combination of the thousands of families rendered homeless by the 1988 Spitak Earthquake and those displaced during the conflict with Azerbaijan. Many of the temporary dwellings still haven’t been replaced by more sustainable and dignified permanent solutions.
Some residential blocks are really quite original looking and relatively new. For example, these two that caught my eye from a distance that looked like two symmetric Lego structures.
The Sacred “Stolen” Mount Ararat
As if a mirage, Mount Ararat can be seen clearly from Yerevan on a clear-sky day, serving as a constant and painful reminder to the people that their beloved mountain remains beyond their reach, now situated in Eastern Turkey. It is written in Genesis that the “mountains of Ararat” were the eventual resting place of Noah’s ark, hence it is of sacred biblical importance.
“Why do you show Mount Ararat, which lies in Turkey, on the flag of Soviet Armenia? Do you lay claim to our territory?”
“No. Why do you have a crescent on your flag? Do you lay claim to the moon?”An exchange between Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister, and his Turkish counterpart.
It was only after my trip to Yerevan that I came to understand just how important Ararat is to Armenians. It is a national symbol and features on their coat of arms.
The double-peaked dormant stratovolcano is situated in a pivotal location where Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Azerbaijan territories converge. It was lost officially to the Turks in 1921 and due to being under military control, requires a special Ararat visa these days to visit/climb.
The Wake of the 2020 War in Artsakh
Mother Armenia stands proudly on a hilltop in Victory Park, looking out, as if pining for, Mount Ararat. Without a doubt she offers more comfort to the people than Stalin did when his statue stood on the very same pedestal until he was replaced in 1962.
Inside her pedestal building is a military museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War and the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Mother Armenia has quite an impressive set of arsenal at her feet, including a MiG 19 (so-called after the Armenian aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan), a T-34 tank, a BMP infantry fighting vehicle and a Katyusha rocket launcher.
The situation in the disputed regions were still relatively peaceful during my visit in July 2019, besides the occasional intermittent flare-up. I crossed paths with an acquaintance who happened to be visiting Yerevan at the same time and was proceeding onwards to Artsakh once he finally figured out how to obtain a visa.
As intrigued as I was to visit Artsakh, I didn’t want to compromise my ability to visit my beloved Azerbaijan again. I have no horse in that race whatsoever and genuinely wish peace and prosperity to both nations.
At the time of writing (November 2020), a fait accompli peace treaty has just been signed after over one month of intense fighting in-and-around the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh, brokered by Russia. Rather than recounting the history of how things came to be or trying to counterbalance the arguments from an Azerbaijani perspective, I simply aim to take stock of the situation from a personal standpoint. As events are so recent and Armenians are still reeling from what seemed like a snap decision by their Prime Minister (Nikol Pashinyan) to make a U-turn and capitulate, many important details have yet to come to light.
One fact at the forefront is that this 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been a vicious war of disparaging information (or disinformation, rather). Fake or exaggerated viral news circulating globally on social media attempting to incriminate and highlight moral relativism has been damaging on both sides. France have been very vocal in their support for Armenia, although reports of criminal activities by Armenian gangs in France and elsewhere (whether provoked or not) have not helped matters. Ostensible evidence of the participation of foreign combatants (namely hired mercenaries from Syria sent to fight for Azerbaijan; the same who would fight on behalf of Turkey in Khalifa Haftar‘s Libyan front) also remains a highly disputed topic. Azerbaijan accuse Armenia of the same with direct Kurdish support, but doesn’t seem to be substantiated by the same compelling evidence in a neutral arena so far. Furthermore, allegations of foreign Iraqi Yazidi fighters can be explained by the fact that ethnic Armenian-Yazidi volunteers have rallied to the cause as volunteers; by no means a secret.
Ceding conquered Artsakh territory to Azerbaijan in addition to the adjacent occupied buffer districts (which had been taken, at least in part, with the intention of bartering) after a defeat in a battle for the mountainous stronghold Shushi/a (depending if you are ARM or AZE) has come as a major blow to the Armenians who were living there. Despite the fact that Russia intend to step-in for a minimum of five years as peacekeepers in the remaining Armenian populated areas and extended connective Lachin corridor, many now fear that Azerbaijan’s endgame is to squeeze them out all together as they have no de jure rights. Turkey must be delighted that they will now have a single uninterrupted corridor all the way to Baku without the need to pass through Armenian or Iranian territory, and, more importantly, beyond to other Turkic nations via the Caspian. This is the real golden egg that could not have been as easily gained, had they gone to full-throttle war with Armenia.
This seemingly “snap” decision has sparked a crisis in Armenia. The people are divided in opinion about the actions of their PM. Is he a traitor who sold them prematurely down the river? I personally believe that positive messages and constant reassurance from the front lines in conjunction with false reports that were intended to instill hope and strength (e.g. attempts to debunk Azerbaijan’s claims of successful advance) led many Armenians into a false sense of security, that things were going much better than they actually were. It’s also a seismic change from the government’s narrative so far.
The opposing camp have rushed to the defence of their PM who even sent his wife and son to the front lines, imploring would-be lynch mobs to stand down for he had actually saved them from a far worse fate. Over a thousand Armenians died in fewer than six weeks, and had Azerbaijan continued to press-on backed by Turkey with their drones and superior military technology, the casualties could have been magnitudes more and all territory and dwelling rights completely lost. I watched an interview with a young soldier of the Artsakh Defence Army a few days after the treaty was signed. He was very candid in his confession that if it hadn’t been signed, he and thousands more would all have died. Not everyone believes the same of course.
Conspiracists speculate that Pashinyan was backed into a corner by Russia who plotted to give him a rope to hang himself, feeling he had no choice and thereby removing this problematic pro-Western leader. There is also a camp who remain in disbelief that it is really over and they will find a way to bounce back and re-take what they have lost; an expected part of any grieving process.
Armenians will have since come to some realisations in the wake of this painful loss.
- Russia is no longer seen as the trusted protector they once were and were never a true guarantor of Armenian interests, thus dispelling any notion of favouritism when it comes to the crunch. It was always going to be a delicate situation for Russia, who maintain strong relations with both ARM and AZE, supply both with defence technology/weaponry and also had to closely monitor the role of powerhouse-Turkey.
- They have become sitting ducks during the past decade or so, letting the grass grow under their feet while Azerbaijan has continued to militarise by virtue of their prospering economy. Despite the bravery and defiance of their heroic defence forces, the war was lost ultimately lost due to lack of finance and to some extent, complacency. Of course the same tactics and outdated resources would not prevail this time against a much more advanced and professional army than seen in the 1990s. The volunteers who went to the frontlines to help Armenians had their hearts in the right place, but unfortunately lacked sufficient organisation and leadership.
- The trial and success of drones in this recent conflict has been quite a game-changer for future warfare. The technology has been around for some time but hadn’t been adequately battle-tested. Loitering drones can easily reveal enemy positions and, despite being expensive, are disposable. Could the the implications of expending drones in the place of humans make the decision to go to war more tempting in future?
- Among onlookers and empathisers around the globe, any tangible support that would have aided Armenian victory was lacking this time around, except perhaps from France. Iranian and Greek support never really amounted to much other than the vocal, implicit sort. It’s clear that no other nation truly wanted to risk getting involved or sucked into a proxy war, especially during a global pandemic. With both Russia and Turkey heavily involved, there was no power vacuum for anyone else to step into.
I truly do feel for Armenians today, regardless of the rights and wrongs or true legitimacy in all of this. As genuinely empathetic as I am for Azeris who have also suffered greatly at the hands of Armenians (e.g. Khojaly and Kalbajar tragedies and merciless evictions and killings of the past) and as happy as I am to see them out dancing on the streets and waving banners in celebration of their deserved victory, I have shed tears for Armenians. It was impossible not to get upset while watching BBC coverage of them being killed while taking refuge in a cathedral as it was attacked and the roof caved-in, or as they stood and watched their homes burn down because they would rather destroy what they had built than hand it over to the enemy for their future generations to enjoy (as part of their scorched earth policy for which Azerbaijan are now demanding massive reparations). I sincerely hope that Armenia will soon take steps to rebuild itself once again, that the global community will reach out to support them and the people worst-affected will be granted peace.
The World’s First Christian State
Like neighbouring Georgia, churches are quintessential features of the Armenian landscape and the two countries continue to debate whose churches are older (when they aren’t busy arguing about who first produced wine). Indeed, I encountered many of them incidentally in my travels despite not visiting the most famous two – Tatev Monastery and Khor Virab. Unfortunately, I visited Armenia’s oldest church (the 4th century Etchmiadzin Cathedral / Էջմիածնի մայր տաճար) only to find that it was closed for renovations, although I did enjoy a very pleasant walk in the grounds admiring the gardens and khachkars (cross stones).
I even ventured inside Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral (Սուրբ Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ մայր եկեղեցի) for some quiet prayer and reflection. As it so happens, it was Saint Gregory the Illuminator who convinced the king of Armenia to adopt state Christianity in 301 AD. Armenia has its own branch of Orthodoxy, the Armenian Apostolic Church.
I couldn’t divert my eyes from the demure young lady wearing the beautiful blue vale sat several rows in front of me. She was around my age, and the fact that she had shopping bags on the pew next to her made me wonder if popping into the church is more of an integral part of everyday life than it is for religious people in my own country. Attending church is always a preconceived and organised event for us Presbyterians and we don’t tend to just pop-in while out grocery shopping if the congregation aren’t gathering for a service. Our way seems somehow more fickle, in truth.
I wondered what she was praying about. What do Armenians say when they speak to God? Could she have been praying for political stability, for the health and happiness of her family and friends, or perhaps for a strong apricot yield this year?
The search for a scenic monastery not too far from Yerevan brought me to Savanavank at Lake Sevan with its cyan blue waters. It wasn’t even a sunny day and the colour in these photos is not the result of Photoshop fakery; the water really was that hue.
I wish one day to understand the key differences between the Orthodox faith and other Christian faiths. One thing I do know is that Armenians place significant emphasis on commemorating the deceased, not only immediately after they pass away but in a recurring manner. In 2015, the Church decided to canonise all the victims of the Armenian Genocide; the people who the entire nation will never forget.
The Armenian Genocide
The genocide is such a sensitive and painful topic for Armenians. The dedicated museum in Yerevan is a great way to learn about it without asking local people upsetting questions. At the heart of the outdoor monument on Tsitsernakaberd Hill an eternal flame burns in memory of the victims and people gather around as solemnly as if it happened just yesterday.
Surrounding the complex is an alley of young fir trees; each with a plaque mentioning the name of the country and individual who donated it on an official visit as a respectful tribute. I did note though, that not every country who planted a tree at the memorial complex officially recognises the events as a genocide (Georgia, for one, do not).
The Turkish government firmly rejects that the atrocities that occurred during Ottoman constitute a genocide. The struggle of Armenians continues today in this respect, as only 32 countries officially recognise the events as a genocide. Some of these countries even go so far as to criminalise its denial. That means that most countries (83%) in the world do not officially recognise it as a genocide. That is not to say they deem that it is not so, but the truth is that many of them fear political backlash and don’t feel there is anything tangible to be gained but could risk damaging their international relations. Others either haven’t given it enough consideration or are not content that there is sufficient evidence to corroborate it (e.g. the UK – although Scotland and Wales disagree; the UK also claims that the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide is “not retrospective in application”). Several nations (naturally-Azerbaijan) stand with Turkey and call for genocide claims to be dismissed for good-and-all.
The compelling facts are that massacres were carried out between 1914-1917 by Ottoman Turks and Kurds with an estimated total of anywhere between 300,000 (Turkey’s figure) and 1.5 million Armenians having died. Not only were they killed, but died as a result of their forced deportations to the Syrian desert due to hunger or disease.
I learned that when it comes to massacre vs. genocide, the semantics differences are of vital importance and can only be deemed as war crimes if the events can be described by the definition as per the 1948 Geneva Convention, i.e. carrying out acts intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
There are two main aspects of contention from Turkey today; the numbers and the nature, insisting that it the killings of ethnic Armenians were not systematic, state-orchestrated killings; this being the fundamental difference when it comes to being classified as a genocide or not for which the state (albeit now Turkey and not the Ottomans) is to be held accountable.
So what is the Turkish viewpoint? By-and-large that Armenians (Dashnaktsuyun) at that time were assisting Russia to invade Eastern Turkey and were sabotaging critical supply routes, constituting a rebellion and putting them at further risk against the invader, hence communities and settlements were displaced (deported) south and to the Middle East where they could not compromise their position. They have presented reciprocal evidence of Ottoman Turks being massacred at the hands of Armenians at the time, including civilians.
Turkey argue that Armenia have not opened up their military archives, whereas they have. I maintain that any state can be capable of cooking their books so it’s not exactly comprehensive proof, but even impartial international researchers are still divided in the matter. Turkey feel that Armenia are not only seeking an apology but ultimately want reparations and to claim territory from Turkey. They threaten Armenia with counter-genocide claims (i.e. during WWI or the Khojaly massacre in Nagorno-Karabakh). Assyrians and Pontic Greeks could also seek reparations for the same, and they don’t want to ignite further disputes with the Kurds over allegations of mistreatment; in other words, every once-persecuted minority may find an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. Armenian terrorists have certainly not helped their cause by attacking civilians, supporting the PKK or ASALA in assassinating Turkish diplomats. The Turkish people are weary of the continuous smear campaign against them that seems to be resonating around the world.
What most surprised me about the museum was the emotive, strongly-worded narrative that described the timeline and events as part of the exhibition. It certainly didn’t hold back.
To quote verbatim, I read about the “Ottoman culture of violence” and how it “fed on violence (mass murder, forced Islamisation, human taxation and looting) among its Christian subjects” who it treated with “particular cruelty”.
The fundamental issue was painted as one of religious discrimination and intolerance against “infidels”, i.e. non-Muslims. The accusations of exterminations and deportation to concentration camps in the deserts are directed to very specific military units (e.g. Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa) and named individuals (e.g. commanders of Ottoman army units), but all the while maintained the reference to “it”, i.e. the Ottoman government as an entity.
The graphic photographs in the exhibition were extremely shocking and disturbing, especially the ones depicting torture of women and children.
Regardless of any whataboutism, there is no doubt in my mind that vast numbers of innocent and blameless Armenians suffered and died at the hands of their perpetrators.
I also find it hard to believe that there was no awareness and consensus among influential Young Turk members about what was going on and what should happen, as a contingent were also part of the ultranationalist and xenophobic Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Even if there was evidence of some orchestration at state level, does it constitute a genocide strictly according to the UN definition and should modern day Turkey be held accountable? These are such difficult and subjective questions to answer, hence why the world remains divided today.
The Legacy of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic
It is clear that Armenians have maintained positive relations with Russia and Russian people, and Russian is widely spoken in Yerevan. No real efforts have been made to eliminate traces of a Soviet-dominated past, with the hammer & sickle still on display above the entrance to the bank on Republic Square.
Fortunately for me, this means that there are many treasures from the Soviet era to be found throughout the country, for example, Zvartnots (Զվարթնոց միջազգային օդանավակայան) former airport control tower, a number of elaborate metro station entrances, Rossiya Cinema (like a brutalist interpretation of Mt. Ararat), Yerevan TV Tower and a disused central bus station in Hrazdan (Հրազդան), built in 1978 by Armenian architect Henrik Arakelyan. The taxi driver thought I was bringing him on a wild goose chase as he had to pull-over several times to ask locals for directions, but when we finally tracked it down even he stepped out of the car to marvel at it as well.
I do regret that I didn’t make it to Gyumri (Գյումրի) on this occasion. It is a city in the region that was badly hit by the Spitak earthquake of 1988 that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale and tragically killed 25,000 Armenian people. It may be easy for outsiders to forget that Armenia experiences regular seismic activity (thankfully, this activity tends to be minor). But it is the main reason why the Metsamor Nuclear Plant is regarded as one of the highest risk reactors in the world today. In fact, it was closed for six years immediately after the major earthquake as a precaution then eventually re-opened as the population depended on it to solve the problematic power outages. It is often coined as a “Chernobyl type reactor”, not because of its early Soviet design characteristics, but for the fact that it is absent of any containment structure. I would have so loved to spend time in Metsamor to see how the workers lived and are still living, but to even get close to the power plant and take a photograph is strictly forbidden (understandable due to national security reasons), hence why this one photo I managed to get is poor zoomed-in quality.
Having taken notes from fellow expeditionaries, I made the trip to the remote town of Orgov (Օրգով) to see the former radio-optical observatory (ROT-54), making a quick photo stop by the Byurakan Observatory enroute.
It wasn’t so easy. ROT-54 wasn’t as accessible as claimed, as the elderly caretaker adamantly guarded the gate and insisted that governmental permission was required to enter. Once again, my police officer pen-pal came to the rescue and negotiated, not only to grant us access, but for me to take photos (albeit with my phone only). He accompanied us in the car, I assumed for security reasons, but it seemed he actually enjoyed the company and was happy to show us around. The two of them talked so much while I was busy snooping and snapping away that they even embraced when we departed. Armenians can be very warm too.
Standing on the platform on the edge of the giant dish, I haven’t felt so small since I was gazing up at the Duga radar in Ukraine. I have to admit, it did feel a little less exclusive when I learned that a local band had been allowed to perform a live concert inside it.
Through translation, I learned that it was conceived by Armenian scientist Paris Herouni, who fought for almost two decades to coax the Soviet Union into granting the radio-optical telescope to be constructed in Armenia, as he determined that the slopes of Mount Aragats was ideal. Commissioned in 1987, several scientific achievements were reported but despite its huge potential, its financing dried-up in the 1990s and it was gradually abandoned.
Our “guide” insisted that it can still work just perfectly if needed and according to online sources upgrades were being installed as recently as 2010. I suppose that opening-up the facility officially for visitors for some small revenue would be further dimming the light on the hope that scientific research activity will once again resume, perhaps as an integral part of an international project or network, rejuvenating the life and livelihood of the townsfolk once again. I am confident, however, that it will take a bit more effort than merely blowing the dust-off the array if that day should come.
Pomegranate wine is reason enough for me to hasten back to Armenia at any time; not widely found anywhere else except Azerbaijan. Identifiable by its deep pinkish hue, the sweet nectar goes down all too easily.
ArArAt brandy is probably Armenia’s most famous alcoholic export and who can argue with Winston Churchill’s taste? (Cough)
Apricots are the heralded pride of Armenia. Well I wish somebody had jolly-well told me that so I could have tried them while I was there, but I was too busy with my pomegranate pursuits. I even picked myself up a cute set of pomegranate earrings in the market although from a distance they look more like earlobe cysts. Anyway, regarding apricots, I would have known intuitively about the Armenian link had I ever bothered to learn any Latin, as their scientific name is prunus armeniaca Armenian plums then is it? I’d call them furry plums myself.
To be truthful, Armenian cuisine was not very memorable for me and there was barely anything more exciting than a kebab on the menu besides some borrowed cuisine. My dishes were not the best examples to showcase in terms of appearance. The khashlama lamb stew resembled prison food but tasted much better than it looked.
Then there were jingalov hats! Not for the head, but an Armenian specialty from Arsakh. I couldn’t resist the temptation to compare it to the Azeri qutab. If they can’t agree about anything else, I think both nations can at least share their appreciation for pakhlava. Perhaps I was unlucky, but the Armenian pakhlava that I tried was very thick and dense. Like the Azeri kind but as if it had been made with someone more heavy-handed and too impatient to be faffing about with delicate pastry sheets.
As a porridge fanatic, I had to try Armenia’s national dish – harisa (հարիսա); essentially a meat porridge. Looks unappealing and honestly, it is a bit strange but at least it sticks to the ribs. I do love a good plate of some stodge-or-other.
Sounds of Armenia
See My greatest takeaway gift from Armenia is music. Sevak Khanagyan is probably my favourite male pop singer ever, who I first discovered when I came across his live cover of “Hin Fayton” where he completely transformed the original song. When I was in Yerevan, I would fall asleep every night listening to “Пустота” and wake up in the mornings with it still playing on loop, never tiring of it.
I also enjoy listening to music maestro Vigen Hovsepyan who is very talented at playing everything from the duduk to the doumbek and has what I can best describe as that type of voice that you can listen to in the bathtub.
Many of the folk songs he covers are about the trials of Armenians during Ottoman rule. The song “Gulo” is actually a folk song about an Armenian girl of the same name who was captured by Kurdish bandits and forcibly Islamicised. As far as Armenian folk songs go, I rather like this energetic rendition of “Gini Lic” by Armenian metal band the Adana Project – a song about the assassination of a pasha held responsible for genocide and translates as “Pour Wine”. Don’t mind if I do.
The haunting sound of the duduk, for me is synonymous with Armenia whenever I hear it. Sure, it’s not unique to Armenia alone, but that’s like saying the bagpipes aren’t Scottish but are in fact from Persia…sacrilege! I’ve also noticed that Gulf Arabs are obsessed with the song “Mi Gna” for some reason and it’s become something of a desert drifting theme track. I liked it too until I discovered it was a whole genre by itself that quickly became monotonous.
I’ll just leave this fabulously patriotic video here that I came across of soldiers dancing traditional kochari to the sounds of the magnificent Armenian parkapzuk (bagpipe) in Shushi (during better times).
See Reconnaissance Jukebox for all my personal favourite Armenian songs.
Mission Armenia Summary
I sign-off Mission Armenia with my recollection of that lovely walk through the Etchmiadzin Cathedral gardens. My memories of Armenia will always be bittersweet as I sensed the enduring pain of a nation, even during that short trip. It may not have been the rosiest mission to date, but it was definitely an insightful one, and the noble Armenian people have truly earned my admiration and respect.
P.S. Send more pomegranate wine, please-and-thank-you.