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Peace and disquiet in Armenia

It was brutally repressed and subjected to one of the worst genocides in history, yet this small country radiates deep spirituality and calm

brunch Updated: Dec 08, 2018 21:14 IST
Madhu Jain
Madhu Jain
Hindustan Times
Armenia,The Promise,Ottoman Empire
Aerial view of the Unesco World Heritage Site of The Geghard Monastery, which is partially carved out of a mountain(Ajit Pal Singh)

The first time Armenia entered my consciousness was when I watched The Promise (1979), a love story set in Armenia during the final throes of the Ottoman Empire just before World War I. The film opened my eyes to the horrific genocide of Armenians by the Ottomans. India used to be home to a large Armenian population, and I’d always wondered what had led to this diaspora – another reason the film impacted me so deeply.

The first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion (late 3rd or early 4th century AD), the Armenians have been repeatedly prosecuted for their faith. For two relentless years from 1894, the Ottoman King Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordered the slaughter of an estimated 80,000 to 3,00,000 Armenians because they asked for more rights. This was followed by more massacres in April 1909, where up to 30,000 Armenians were killed. And when WWI broke out, the Turkish government viewed the Armenians with distrust because of the Armenian volunteers in the Russian army. In 1915, a massive number of Armenians living in Turkey’s Anatolia region were liquidated. The killings continued until 1917.

A year after seeing the film, when a five-day trip to Armenia as part of a visit to the Caucasus was proposed by the Women’s International Club, of which I am a member, I just had to sign up.

The Tatev Monastery Complex is also a Unesco World Heritage Site ( Dhruv Jain )

Simply spiritual

Before touching down at Yerevan airport, we flew over the volcanic Mount Ararat, the highest mountain range in Turkey. Prepping for this trip, I had read Genesis 8:4 of the Bible, which said Noah’s Ark landed on the “mountains of Ararat”. Excitement raced through me as I sighted the mountain. My trip to Armenia had started on a high!

At the airport, tour director Ajit Pal Singh greeted us with chocolates and fine Armenian champagne, which we popped open at the airport itself before settling into our luxury coach. A short drive later we were at our centrally located hotel.

Churches and monasteries in Armenia were simplicity personified: unadorned, pristine, signifying a religion of the masses

Soon we headed to the city of Vagharshapat, half an hour’s drive from Yerevan, to see the iconic fourth Century AD Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Armenia’s first cathedral, considered to be the oldest in the world. Built by Armenia’s patron saint Gregory the Illuminator following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III, it replaced a pre-existing temple, thereby symbolising the conversion of Armenians from paganism to Christianity. The cathedral is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and its significance as the main shrine of religious Christian Armenians worldwide makes it an important religious, political, and cultural site. It was given Unesco World Heritage status in 2000.

The fourth century Etchmiadzin Cathedral at Vagharshapat ( Dhruv Jain )

As our trip unfolded, we visited several churches and monasteries, all of which were simplicity personified: unadorned, pristine, signifying a religion of the masses. In some, the main chapel was an empty, cavernous chamber with a single, unembellished cross. There is nothing to distract the devotee from prayer. For anyone on a spiritual quest, I would recommend the churches of Armenia hands down – the very structure of the architecture echoes people’s faith in an almost palpable manner, and it is impossible to come away untouched.

The author in Khor Virap monastery in the Ararat Plains near the border with Turkey ( Dhruv Jain )

As the late afternoon sun dipped, we began our city tour of Yerevan, taking in the Victory Park with the giant statue of Mother Armenia guarding the city. A Soviet rocket launcher and an S-75 surface-to-air missile at the bottom of the park served as a reminder of Armenia’s history as a former Soviet republic. Indeed, architecturally, the capital city seems caught in a Soviet-era time warp. However, the severity and starkness of the buildings softened magically as night fell on Republic Square, the city’s core. And when the colonnaded government buildings around the park were infused by diffused illumination, the area took on a wholly new character. The musical and dancing fountains sprung into life at 9pm and, much like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, I could’ve danced all night!

Man’s inhumanity to man

The Genocide Memorial in Yerevan ( Dhruv Jain )

Day two proved to be disturbing, leaving me reflecting on man’s brutality and barbarism. Built in 1967 atop Tsitsernakaberd hill in Yerevan, the genocide museum complex is the country’s official memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and Museum of Armenian History are exceptionally well-documented with first-person accounts and rich research, films, and other memorabilia. Visiting both requires nerves of steel.

The Genocide Monument was haunting, with slanting pillars going up to the sky in an open pyramid. A flame burnt in the central well of the pyramid and opera-like haunting music played in the background.

A Soviet Era cruise boat on Lake Sevan ( Dhruv Jain )

I could feel the pain of an entire civilisation. But I also felt the strength of the people who have overcome such adversity and reclaimed their nation. The Armenian diaspora has, like the Jews, been a prosperous community of merchants, traders, scholars, and professionals, and I believe that the Genocide Monument pays tribute to their achievements too.

Built in 1967 in Yerevan, the genocide museum complex is the country’s memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide

The rest of the day was split between a visit to the Temple of Garni and the Geghard Monastery. The Temple of Garni is the only standing Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia and, indeed, the former Soviet Union. The original structure, completed in 77 AD, is considered to be the best-known symbol of pre-Christian Armenia serving as a central shrine to it. The Geghard Monastery complex is high on a hill, surrounded by just cliffs. A Unesco World Heritage site, the monastery has been partially carved into and out of the mountain, and seems to merge into the rocky outcrops. The rock-cut chambers and wall carvings of crosses are of especial interest.

Outside, village women were selling souvenirs and local produce including what looked like aam-papad! Later, I was told that these were a sort of fruit lavash.

The action-packed day ended at The Cascade, a cultural melting pot. This massive limestone stairway connects downtown Yerevan with the Monument neighbourhood, and houses art museums, exhibit halls and contemporary sculptures. Not to mention, trendy cafés. This was modern-day Armenia at its best!

Hand to the divine

An ancient church inside Geghard Monastery ( Dhruv Jain )

Day three was devoted wholly to another Unesco Heritage site, the 9th Century Tatev Monastery – among the most remote monasteries in Armenia – which we reached on the Wings of Tatev, one of the longest cableways in the world, which connects the monastery to the town of Halidzor. Our cable ride over the Vorotan river gorge was breathtaking.

The Tatev Monastery, among the most remote monasteries in Armenia, radiates a spirituality that draws one in

The monastery has some fascinating features, such as a millstone-driven oil press, the crypt of the last saint of the Armenian Church, Grigor Tatevatsi, and the Gavazan pillar, standing tall as an ancient celestial compass. We were also told that because it was built on a swivelling foundation, the pillar apparently swung from the tramping march of enemy troops! The pillar is the only structure in Armenia that wasn’t destroyed by either humans or nature.

The monastery radiates a spirituality that draws one in. I could feel divinity all around me. As I wandered on my own, a priest appeared out of the blue and blessed me. It was a sublime moment.

Local bread being made at a bakery near the Temple of Garni ( Ajit Pal Singh )

The next day we took a long cruise on the crystal clear, untouched waters of Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater alpine lakes in Eurasia. An unadorned rough-hewn brick church silhouetted against the azure sky on the promontory of an island took me back in time yet again. Vibrant flea markets surround the lake, selling moonstone bracelets and iron ore knick knacks, among other things.

The last day was spent in the 6,000-year-old Areni -1 Winery, believed to be the oldest winery in the world, which was discovered just about a decade ago. Today, it’s the centre of Armenian wine making.

Local fruit-based produce being sold at a roadside market outside Geghard Monastery ( Dhruv Jain )

Which bring us to an essential for every traveller: local cuisine! Armenian food has strong Russian and Mediterranean influences with liberal use of aubergine, walnuts, and a variety of beans. Happily for me, a lot of the dishes use yogurt, a favourite of mine! Since I am a vegetarian, I can vouch for the Armenian dolma or tolma (vine leaves stuffed with cabbage and sometimes with beans), okroksha (chilled buttermilk soup with veggies), the porridge-like vegetarian harissa made with wheat, onions and walnuts, and fresh salads.

I left Armenia with a deep sense of peace, feeling touched by a divine hand.

The author is a veteran designer whose exclusive textile innovation, the bamboo silk ikat, has won her international acclaim. She is also an avid traveller who loves exploring unique destinations

From HT Brunch, December 9, 2018

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First Published: Dec 08, 2018 21:13 IST