By Darius Roby
Darius Roby is a travel writer based out of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He regularly contributes to Cluj.com and Moldova.org. He is also a member of the American Geographical Society. Below is a short account of a recent trip to Armenia.
Arrival in ArmeniaOn a late June morning, I found myself sheepishly dragging myself through the airport in Chișinău, Moldova. As I checked in at the UIA (Ukrainian International Airlines) ticketing booth, the representative curiously looked through my American passport. “You do not need a visa to enter Armenia?” she incredulously asked me in Romanian. “Nope.” I replied curtly. Of course, I had done my research before deciding to visit Armenia, particularly studying the visa requirements. At the same time, I felt a slight chill in my heart— maybe she knew something that I was not aware of? Not believing me, the lady left her desk, took my passport to consult with a colleague. Returning a minute later, she smiled, handed me my boarding passes, and wished me drum bun (bon voyage in Romanian). As the sun began to rise from the East, I smiled to myself inside the plane, excited at the thought of a new adventure, a new country—literally stepping into the unknown.
Half a day later, after a layover in Kiev, and a very scenic flight with incredible views of the Black Sea and the arid mountains and deep valleys of eastern Anatolia, I saw a very large peak in the distance. It was easily the largest mountain I had ever laid eyes upon. There was a large peak, with a smaller peak next to it—both snowcapped, even during the early summer. In Russian, I asked an Armenian lady sitting next to me if I were staring at Mount Ararat. She nodded with a smile, and welcomed me to Armenia.
The country lies in the Southern Caucasus, at an important historical and cultural crossroads between East and West. I knew that the country would be mountainous, so my expectation was that the weather would be somewhat chilly. As a result, I had brought a small jacket with me. I regretted that decision (and the wasted backpack space) as soon as I stepped out of the plane. To my surprise, the weather was very hot, with a temperature in the upper 90s. The terrain was an arid mosaic of yellows and oranges, occasionally dotted with green, and the air felt rather dry, serving to remind me that I was in Asia.
I had slept well during the flight, and felt eager to get my first taste of a new country. I had a reservation for a room at Rafael Guest House, a cozy little hostel located on no. 3 Teryan St., right in the center of Yerevan. A representative from the hostel, Azat, had arrived at the airport to give me a lift to the hostel (It costs 5000 dram, should one ever feel interested). My first impression of the city was the number of advertisements for alcoholic products. Living in Romania, this was nothing out of the ordinary for me, but my fascination was drawn to the products themselves—whiskey, wine, and even wine made from fruits such as pomegranates. A former university friend of mine, Valya, who is also Armenian, had assured me that should I ever decide to visit Armenia that I would eat and drink well. I was beginning to establish a clearer picture as to what she was referring to.
Wandering on Teryan Street that evening, I encountered a restaurant with a name in Russian. “КАВКАЗСКАЯ ПЛЕННИЦА,” I slowly read to myself wondering if it meant what my heart was hoping. My suspicions were confirmed when I rounded the corner, and beheld statues of three famous Soviet actors, whose nicknames would translate to something akin to “Coward,” “Fool,” and “Pro.” They were dressed in a mock Georgian style, silently promising a somewhat commercialized, but hilarious touristic Caucasian experience for anyone willing to enter.
The restaurant is designed after the 1960s Soviet film, “Kавказская Пленница” (Kidnapping, Caucasian Style). It is a bit of a comedy and love story that takes place in nearby Georgia. The film itself was playing on a television in the main dining area and there were photos of the actors and scenes from the film on the walls and even on the menu. After filling myself with khachapuri, lamb shashlik, adjika (a spicy Georgian sauce), and red Armenian wine, I felt relaxed and watched traditional Armenian dancers perform in the restaurant’s main lobby. The only other guests were families speaking Russian amongst themselves. The entire experience was so cliché, so touristic, yet so perfect.
Yerevan itself is a very interesting city. The majority of the buildings are made of an oxidized form of ignimbrite. The stone is volcanic in origin, and is somewhat rare in the world, being found only in Armenia, parts of Anatolia, and the American Southwest. The stones are presented in various shades of pink, leading to Yerevan becoming known as the Pink City. To see the buildings during the sunrise or sunset, when the hues exhibited by the stones are more pronounced, is a real treat.
The city is very old, even older than Rome itself, having being established during the days of the Urartian kingdom. On the southern outskirts of the city, on the top of the hill called Arin Berd, it is possible to visit the Erebuni Fortress. Cuneiform inscriptions attest that it was built by King Argishti of Urartu and served as an early regional center. The fortress is triangular in shape, and is surrounded by large walls. As a lover of history and archaeology, sitting in the ruins of the temple of Khaldi was somewhat overwhelming for me. On the walls, there was graffiti written, mostly in Armenian and in Russian, but above them, there were wall paintings of Urartian gods, riding what appeared to be lions. Having lived in Europe for the past 7 years, I have always been impressed by the relics of Greek and Roman cities, but this stuff is far older. I was seeing the ruins of a world that was once contemporary with and had relations with civilizations such as Assyria and Babylon. Of course, Erebuni dates from a period of when civilization had reached a sophisticated state and was recorded through writing. Armenian history is far older and still holding many secrets waiting to be discovered. More recent finds can be seen in the Yerevan National Museum, including the earliest evidence of leather shoes and winemaking in the world, dating from the Neolithic period.
Valya suggested that I try a restaurant called Zhinglyanov Hats. The name applies to the dish that is served there—zhinglyanov hats. As she explained, the dish originates from Artsakh, an Armenian inhabited region that separated from Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union. It consists of a thin flatbread called lavash that is completely filled with aromatic herbs, rolled up and eaten as a sandwich—It is a vegetarian’s delight! On a hot day, it goes very well with a sour yoghurt drink called tan, which does wonders for thirst. The restaurant itself is small, very cozy, and appears to be frequented by locals.
I also visited the Yerevan Cascade. For the fans of epic buildings, it is a giant limestone stairway in the center of the city that ultimately leads to the giant Mother Armenia statue in a nearby park. The top of the stairway provides an amazing panorama of the Kentron (city center) of Yerevan, as well as of Mount Ararat in the background. Near the landing, there is a courtyard with modernist and somewhat bizarre sculptures. The courtyard is flanked by cafes and restaurants, providing a well-deserved respite should one dare to walk the stairs. Along the stairway, various doors provide an entrance to the Cafesjian Art Galleries located underneath the stairway. The galleries contain both permanent shows and temporary exhibitions, where modernist glass themes prevail.
Concerning Garni and Gegherd
While I knew that I could not visit all of the interesting places in Armenia in only a week, it is said that unless one makes a trip to Garni and Gegherd, one cannot say that they have ever truly visited Armenia at all. On my last full day in Armenia, I decided to rectify that. Garni is a village that lies approximately 20 miles from Yerevan, a rather slow trip over arid mountains, the Azat River, and glimpses of the Khosrov Forest. Garni is home to churches, impressive panoramas, and most impressively—a 1st century Hellenistic Temple in its full glory.
A Greek inscription found in Garni identified the builder as King Tiridates I, who built it. It is said that after a visit to Rome, the emperor Nero provided the king with 50 million drachmas with which he launched major reconstruction efforts throughout the Armenian Kingdom, Garni being among them. The temple was originally dedicated to the sun god, Mihr, but owes its modern survival to having been converted to a Church after the Christianization of Armenia during the 4th century. It was destroyed by an earthquake during the 17th century, but its ruins were left lying there—to the curiosity of Russian and Armenian archaeologists, until the entire complex was rebuilt using the original stones during the 1970s.
The temple is colonnaded on all sides, showing clear Hellenistic influences. The steps are surprisingly high, feeling twice as high as normal stairs, and the interior cella is rather small. It is a true work of art, and its modern survival is emblematic of the tough spirit of the Armenian people.
Leaving Garni, continuing along the Azat River valley, I passed over hills and villages, with the mountains and trees to the right becoming closer. Finally, we entered a wooded area that appeared to have been an invisible bridge into another universe. The road ended, with the River Azat continuing its mysterious course into the woodlands before me. To my left, perched on a tall cliff, I saw Geghard Monastery. It appeared to have been carved directly into the mountainside and was part of the topography itself.
Along monastery’s cliffside, I saw rock-cut khachkars, Armenian cross-stones—memorial stele bearing a cross (Armenian: khach) that can be found all over in places where Armenians inhabit or once inhabited. I have seen them at churches, monuments, in parks, and cemeteries in the country. It is said that many more once existed in Azerbaijan and in Turkey, but have been destroyed. The monastery is home to many churches and smaller chapels, carved into the caves themselves. For this reason, the complex is also referred to as Ayrivank, the Monastery in the Cave. The main chapel, the Kathoghike, was built during the 13th century, in a classic Armenian style. Inside the chapel, there is a sacred spring which inspired Gregory the Illuminator to found a monastic complex during the 4th century.
The monastery’s name, derives from the legendary spear (geghard) which was used at Christ’s crucifixion. It is the only historical piece of applied art that has survived throughout the ages and is now kept in the museum of the Echmiadzin monastery. The area, like Garni, is full of tourists, and those who cater to them. Before arriving at the monastery, it is possible to see people selling souvenirs, bread, sheets of dried fruits referred to as fruit lavash, and other Armenian sweets.
Standing on the bridge east of the monastery, my journey ended. Taking a sip of water, and resting under the cool shade of the forest, I took the time to contemplate. For having explored only a small part of a small country, Armenia proved rich in culture, history, natural beauty, and cuisine. The country has always fascinated me in a strange way. Historically speaking, this remote outpost of the former Soviet Union and Christian world has been connected enough to European history that its name is familiar, yet far away and exotic enough to the point where few Westerners have managed to visit. Certainly, this would not be the last time I would see this country. If I needed any further convincing, I managed to clear enough room in my backpack for a bottle of pomegranate wine.
About the Author
Darius Roby is a freelance travel writer and translator. Originally from Mississippi, he has since settled in Cluj-Napoca, Romania where he focuses his writings on Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. He holds a BA in International Studies from the University of Mississippi and a MA in European Studies from Babeș-Bolyai University. An avid lover of history, ethnography, and geography, he is also a member of the American Geographical Society.