Friday, 25 April 2014

Book Review: The Crossing Place


I’m back now from my travels around Armenia and Georgia and I have to say, what a fantastic part of the world, I recommend it to anyone. After my last update, Paul and I headed out to the desolately beautiful Lake Sevan, the Cave Monastery of Geghard and the Roman temple at Garni. When in Georgia we split and whilst Paul went to check out the delights of Stalin’s hometown Gori, (which I visited in 2010), I headed for Borjomi, a mountain spa resort where the best spring water in the Soviet Union was produced and Stalin once bathed. We then rejoined one another in a Tbilisi that has been much beautified since my last visit before jetting off home.

DSCF3341 Garni

DSCF3354 Geghard

borjomi Borjomi

Photo0188 Tbilisi

Now, I know that it is about time for me to start posting ‘The Missing Link’ again, but before I do I wish to introduce a new feature to Uncle Travelling Matt. Over the years I have read many works of travel literature, both about places that I have visited and those that I probably never will. Therefore, I have decided that, every so often, I shall post a review of a particular travel book that I have read and, since the last few updates have had an Armenian flavour then I thought it timely to continue our break from Romania for another week and instead provide you with this offering, a review of Philip Marsden’s work ‘The Crossing Place’, a journey, not just to Armenia, but more importantly, a journey among the Armenians.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians

Philip Marsden

The Crossing Place

I reread ‘The Crossing Place’ on my recent trip to Armenia finishing it off on the long bus journey from Nagorno-Karabakh to Yerevan. I’d originally read it over a decade before whilst I was living in Japan and from what I can recall it hadn’t left much of an impression then, but on this second attempt, with my knowledge of both the Armenians and the areas that they live/have lived much increased, I found it difficult to put down.

The Armenians don’t seem to be too fashionable a nation in the eyes of the world today; few people I know knew anything about them when I asked. Yet they should do, for as Marsden himself points out, their influence on the world has always far exceeded their numbers. Traders and travellers, their diaspora is scattered across the globe and they are responsible for things as disparate as introducing chess to Europe, (and still winning at it – Kasparov is half-Armenian), the green ink on the US banknotes, the MiG jet, perestroika and the first yoghurts in the USA. To that long and respectable list of notables, one can also add the more dubious merits of America’s most famous Armenian families, the Kardashians, who have taught girls globally that one does not need to have done anything to be famous and that you don’t have to be either blonde or pencil thin to be incredibly attractive.

But it is not success, but tragedy that Marsden starts his book with. The Armenian Holocaust of 1915 saw around a million perish at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Sadly, the world did not learn the history lesson that it should have done. To this day Turkey denies the genocide and Hitler, whilst planning his ‘Final Solution for the Jewish Problem’, when asked if he thought they could get away with it, replied, “After all, who remembers the Armenians?” If only they had.

the crossing place ani Ani

But ‘The Crossing Place’ is not all doom and gloom despite the number of massacre sights that its author visits as well as ongoing war zones. What struck me as most remarkable about the book was how he, a non-Armenian, managed to penetrate and gain the trust of the Armenian community across the diaspora and into Armenia itself. He travels through Israel, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and then finally Armenia itself, meeting priests and poets, hoteliers and housewives, policemen and peasants, traders, politicians, bishops, historians, artists, guerrilla fighters and a whole host more, the entire eclectic ensemble being held together by fine prose and Marsden’s own determined character.

I am familiar with many of the places that he visited: the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, the ruined city of Ani in Eastern Turkey, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, the Armenian han in Bucharest, Iasi’s Armenian church, Van, Istanbul and now Armenia itself. But the world that I know and the one described in ‘The Crossing Place’ are two different places entirely, despite the fact that only two decades separate them. Marsden has immense difficulties getting a visa for Armenia, nowadays you don’t even need one; Bulgaria and Romania are dour and drab places in the book, today they are both exuberant EU members; in ‘The Crossing Place’ Lebanon is at war and Syria at peace, now the opposite is the case. All the remains as a constant are the tensions in Jerusalem and the eerie emptiness of Eastern Turkey where millions of Armenians should be found yet instead there is only silence and the crumbling remains of their churches.

For anyone interested in Armenia and the Armenians, ‘The Crossing Place’ is a must read. But beware! This is no longer contemporary travel writing; it is as much a work of history as the tomes of the great Victorian travel writers, for the world that it describes has, like so many Armenians, simply disappeared without a trace.

14th April, 2014

Yerevan, Armenia


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