Friday, 22 May 2015

Among Armenians: Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

world-map yerevan
I’ve been busy this week formatting some of the many videos that I’ve been taking over the last year or so and the result is that the V-logs will probably begin again in earnest, particularly those from my DPRK trip which are amongst the most surreal I’ve ever taken. In the meantime, here’s the videos from my recent trip to Paris. I won’t be posting them as separate V-logs since they don’t fit the usual UTM format and are just pictures basically, but you may find them of interest.
Keep travelling!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

Day 2 – Echmiadzin and Yerevan
There were several places that I knew I had to see whilst in Armenia and the first of them was only ten miles or so away. Perhaps the Armenian nation's greatest claim to fame is that they were the first in entire world to accept Christianity when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III and his nation to the new faith in 301. As an idea of just how early that was, two years afterwards in Rome, the Emperor Diocletian was unleashing his most terrible persecution of the Christians and Emperor Constantine did not receive his vision of a cross bearing the inscription “By this sign you will conquer” until 312.[1] The second-oldest Christian nation incidentally, is neighbouring Georgia, that land being converted by St. Nino in 337.
Due to this early start, Armenia has always had a strong faith and an impact upon the Christian world far in excess of its numbers. Most notable is the naming of one of the four quarters of the Holy City for the Armenians. In 2009 during my pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I explored the Armenian Quarter somewhat and attended Mass at St. James' Cathedral, an otherworldly place, dark with incense, the rituals performed in costumes befitting some occult sect in a Gothic horror film. It was fascinating stuff and made me long to visit Armenia all the more.[2]
But the Armenian Church, whilst old, is also quite unique and isolated in Christendom. Unlike its slightly younger neighbour to the north, it is not an Orthodox church, but instead referred to as non-Chalcedonian or Monophysite. The Monophysite churches were those who maintained against the definition arrived at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that in Christ there was but one nature, that is to say that most churches speak of Christ as having both human and divine natures, whereas the Monophysites maintain only the divine. This might seem to be an issue not really worth getting hot and bothered about, but bother about it they did and greatly so, the debates raging across the entire Christian world for about a century and when a decision was finally arrived at in the Council of Chalcedon, a number of churches left the fold, the first major schism in the faith, the main ones being the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac and Armenian churches.[3] The distinction and debate was not new to me after having visited several Coptic and Ethiopian chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and an amazing 3rd century Syriac church in Diyarbakır in Turkey where the priest kindly read out a passage from the Gospels in Aramaic, the same tongue that Christ Himself had originally preached them in.[4] Nonetheless, I have always struggled to get my head around the debate; I mean, so what if He is only divine and not human? The best argument that I have heard against it is that if Christ is divine only, then how could He have suffered and died on the Cross and, if there was no suffering and no death, then what was the point of it all? That sounds pretty convincing to me though I should love to hear a Monophysite rebuttal.
But why, you may be thinking, have I launched into this lengthy, (and possibly somewhat dull), examination of the finer points of theology concerning the Armenian Church? Well, it is simple, for that next morning Paul and I hopped on a bus and headed for Echmiadzin.
The legends state that St. Gregory the Illuminator had a vision in which the heavens opened and light shone down to earth. Then, following a procession of angels, (who are always apt to appear in such visions), Christ Himself descended to earth and with a golden hammer, struck the ground three times whereupon a column rose up with a base of gold, a capital of cloud and a cross of light. Similar visions appeared on the sites where three Christian virgins had been martyred, and that then these four columns transformed themselves into cruciform churches with cupolas. After the vision faded, Gregory built four churches on the sites shown to him by Christ and the first he named Echmiadzin (literally “The Descent of the Only Begotten”), Armenia's Vatican, both the spiritual and administrative heart of its church.
Not that it looked all that inspired as we drove in. the countryside between it and the capital was being consumed by messy urban sprawl and although the 7th century Church of St. Hripsime, (one of the other sites indicated by Christ to St. Gregory), was impressive, the town of Echmiadzin itself looked like a rather dull provincial Soviet town.
Once in the Holy See complex though, we knew that we were somewhere special. We first stepped into the brand-new (2013) Church of the Holy Archangels which immediately made me reassess my preconceived ideas about the Armenian Apostolic Church. Being the oldest national church in the world, I'd expected its temples to be like those of the Orthodox: dark and dusty, ornate and icon-filled. Yet this striking modern structure of grey stone, (which I was not sure if I liked or hated), was stark and minimalistic and, dare I say it, almost Protestant in its feel. Absent were the statues of Roman Catholicism and icons of Orthodoxy and like with Protestant churches and chapels, the space was not filled with much else.
The main cathedral however, the church built upon the site that Christ had shown to St. Gregory in his vision, conformed more to my expectation, or at least, it did externally, although since the structure dates largely from the 5th century, then that is perhaps unsurprising. Inside though, and the Protestant minimalism was again evident with the main altar, rather than being ostentatious like in a Roman Catholic church or shielded by an ornate iconostasis such as in an Orthodox church, was instead simply curtained off by a large velvet curtain which, although beautifully embroidered, was still simple in comparison to the Catholic and Orthodox alternatives. By the end of the trip I had discovered that this was de rigeur although the normal decoration for the altar curtains was simply an embroidered cross. The reason for this I never discovered but in Archbishop Ormanian's 'The Church of Armenia' I learnt that “What particularly arrests the notice of the stranger who visits these churches is their aspect of austere simplicity, which is in direct contrast with the profusion of ironwork and gilding to be found in Greek Orthodox churches. In these Armenian churches pictures are unusual, except over the altars, although they are never quite absent.”[5] And in this I must agree with the Archbishop for in all the churches that we visited, there were no icons and the few imagines of saints and Christ that were on show were, generally, of a poor quality.
14346716312_367a49dff8_zThe altar in the cathedral
What was not lacking in quality, beauty and ostentation were the contents of the Cathedral Museum behind the altar. There, in amongst the usual collection of bishop's hats and crooks, were some quite remarkable relics and artefacts, pride of which were two fragments of the True Cross, the spear that pierced Christ's side, (brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus who is buried in Nagorno-Karabagh), and a piece of wood from Noah's Ark which, legends state, came to rest on Mt. Ararat after the Deluge. And before one gets too sceptical about these wonders, (several spears exist, after all), the wood from the Ark has been carbon-dated to 6,000 years old whilst the spear is a genuine 1st century Roman spear. And besides, the girl who explained it all to us was so hauntingly beautiful that it is not inconceivable that she could actually have been an angel and thus it would have been mightily rude to doubt the claims that she made.
14325170596_526960992c_zThe spear that pierced Christ’s side
Claims that were on rockier ground however, were those concerning the legendary beginnings of the cathedral, for underneath the main altar is a pre-Christian Pagan altar which was, unfortunately for us, shut. However, its existence does mean that, rather than being shown the spot by the Son fo God, it is far more likely that St. Gregory merely built his new church on a pre-existing holy site, thus starting a tradition that was copied throughout the entire Christian world. More evidence in favour of this more mundane explanation comes with the building itself which is cruciform in shape and topped by a cupola as per Gregory's vision. However archaeological excavations have revealed that the original 4th century church which the saint erected was rectangular in shape, not cruciform at all and possessed no cupola.[6]
14161790357_98ba688fb9_zOutside the cathedral
Outside the cathedral we had a look at the new (2010) baptismal chapel where a ceremony was taking place. It wasn't a baptism but involved a priest blessing two young men. I wondered if they might be heading off for national service or perhaps emigrating but mischievously thought that it looked more like a gay wedding than anything else. How very heretical!
The final point of interest in the Holy See complex (aside from the shop) was a collection of some of the finest khachkars from across the land. Khachkars are carved memorial stones for which Armenia is justly renowned. The name means “cross stones” and they generally depict a cross surrounded by ornate decorative carving which can be figures, crosses, foliage or geometric patterns. They are incredibly beautiful but what struck both Paul and I was their similarity to ancient Celtic crosses both in design and purpose. Many historians have hypothesised about links between Celtic Britain and Ireland and the Byzantine East in the early Christian centuries and these similarities may be a product of that.[7]
14344968471_576e9eafdf_zKhachkar at Echmiadzin
Just outside the Holy See we spied a museum of art and sculpture which we decided to check out. Everything inside was by a single artist whose name I annoyingly failed to record. He was an ex-pat and a survivor of the 1915 Genocide, something which came across in the contorted horror of many of his sculptures. Whilst much of what was on display didn't do a lot for me, some of his drawings were very good and I liked greatly his 'Christ's Descent from the Cross'.
We went into the centre of the little town which was, a few murals aside, rather nondescript and had little to keep us there. The Mother of God Church, humble beside its illustrious neighbours, was pleasant though and it serves as the parish place of worship. Dating largely from the 18th and 19th centuries though with a 1982 bell tower, it was, like Echmiadzin's original church, rectangular and simple. It had a nice atmosphere though and we were both surprised at the high percentage of young worshippers praying there.
We had an awful coffee back in the centre, easily the worst of our entire trip, and then took a bus back to Yerevan, looking out for the ruins of the enormous Zvarnots Cathedral on the way. We failed to see them but instead spied a strange building sat away from all the others topped with a plethora of satellite dishes and aerials and flying a large American flag. Was it an extension of the US Embassy, or perhaps an international school or perhaps something far more sinister? Alas, despite research on the internet, I have so far been unable to find out the answer.
Back in the capital we hailed a taxi to escort us to the Nagorno-Karabagh diplomatic mission. Nagorno-Karabagh is, like Transdniestra which I visited two years before,[8] not a normal country with normal embassies in the sense that no one recognises its independence. However, despite this international isolation, like Transdniestra – which incidentally, along with the other non-recognised entities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, does recognise Nagorno-Karabagh – has managed to win a war against its enemies, govern itself quite well and develop national institutions better than many recognised countries since it declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991.
But if there is one thing that we learnt from our visit to Nagorno-Karabagh's “embassy” in Yerevan, then it is that being unrecognised by other countries may not necessarily be such a bad thing after all. My experience of foreign embassies and consulates does not encourage me to visit such places unless I really have to use their services. They are uniformly dour, serious and singularly unhelpful, as if angry that someone should actually wish to enter their precious country. And the worst of the lot, I am ashamed to say, are the british, who are so unbelievably snooty that every time I enter one I immediately feel the urge to rouse the proletariat and attempt to overthrow the established order violently. The experience that most angered me with them was when I came to use the British Embassy in Sofia once only to be told, (after I had made a three-hour drive specifically), that they were shut for the Queen's Birthday. The Queen's Birthday! Since when have I ever been given a day off work for that?!
But the Nagorno-Karabagh mission was quite a different experience entirely. It was friendly, simple as that. Everyone smiled and went out of their way to help, and whilst things were being processed, the lady behind the desk – who was reason enough to want to visit Nagorno-Karabagh and stay there for the rest of your life – even suggested some possible itineraries, warned us of scams and pulled out a few illustrated maps. For the first time in my entire life, I came out of an embassy feeling better than when I entered and so if that is what being unrecognised does for you, then let's de-recognise a few more countries, starting with the UK.
We decided, the embassy being located in the northern suburb of Nor Arabkir,[9] to walk into the city centre. The area around the mission was nothing special, built on one of the many steep hills which surround the Armenian capital. Paul and I called into a shop to buy a drink and Paul, unable to stomach the ayran that I enjoy, opted for a strange drink of luminous green liquid. It had a picture of the plant that it was made from on the front, but neither of us recognised what it was. The only Latin word on the label was 'estragon'; later research revealed this to be the French for “tarragon”.
14161600839_0d0e4f8395_zPaul on estragon!
Weird herbal concoctions aside, there were two other points of interest in Nor Arabkir. The first was an enormous church under construction on a hillside[10] and a pair of strange skyscrapers that hung over the road. We walked on through the streets till we came to the monument that we had seen the day previously standing on the hill crest above the Cascade. This commemorates fifty years of Soviet rule and by it is a memorial to Stalin's victims, though neither was kept up like the Cascade below. What was more surprising however, was the enormous chasm between the Cascade and the monument which was a construction site. So, this was where Cafesjian's museum was to be, although judging by the state of the building site and lack of activity thereabout, it wouldn't be finished until the 22nd century at the earliest.
We moved on into the adjacent Victory Park, a classic Soviet public park now looking more than a little tatty around the edges. It had a boating lake, some statues and fine views across the city, but the highlight was the War Memorial topped by the 34m-high copper statue of Mother Armenia – not quite up to the awesome standards of the Mother Ukraine statue in Kiev[11] but still a mightily impressive lady as she looked down over the tanks, planes and other paraphernalia of the USSR's various conflicts.[12]
14348247235_d7a9014437_zMother Armenia
Rather footsore by this time, we hailed a taxi to take us down into the centre where we dined on Lebanese shwarma and then retired to a coffee shop near the opera house where we watched the girls go by, two teenage Iranian female tourists roller-skating in headscarves and a bin catch fire when someone threw a cigarette butt into it. Then, strolling to Republic Square, we met two local lads who, impressed by my Stoke City top (who isn't?) wanted to befriend us and meet up another time. So, we were getting to know the locals, not bad at all for only the second day. However, time and energy were lacking now and so we retreated to our dungeon hotel to map out the days ahead and catch up on some much needed sleep.

[1] In Latin, “In hoc signo vinces”. Many refer to this event as his conversion but in fact Constantine was not baptised until on his deathbed in 337 by which time Armenian Christianity was well-established.
[2] See my travelogue 'Holy Land'.
[3] In the case of the Armenians, apparently the translation provided of the Council's decision, (Armenian delegates could not attend due to strife at home), was so bad that they got the wrong idea entirely of what it was that they were rejecting.
[4] See my travelogue 'Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010'.
[5] The Church of Armenia, p.152-3
[6] Incidentally, the legend is the reason why virtually all Armenian churches have a cupola and most are cruciform in shape. What's good enough for Echmiadzin is evidently good enough for everywhere else.
[7] In his travelogue 'The Crossing Place' Philip Marsden comments:
“There are thousands of these stone crosses all over the highlands; their intricate woven patterns reminiscent of the Celtic crosses of north-western Europe. Scholars have toyed about with the idea of possible links, citing Armenian bishops who reached Ireland in the 11th century. But I suspect that the similarity stems more from a common impulse – the impulse to forge patterns from the shapeless rock – than a common historical root.”
The Crossing Place, p.182-3
[8] See my travelogue 'The Missing Link'.
[9] All of Yerevan's new suburbs are named after lost provinces of Armenia. Nor Arabkir means “New Arabkir”, Arabkir being an area in central Turkey now named Arapgir and situated in Malatya Province. Many refugees from that area settled in Nor Arabkir after the genocide.
[10] Nor Arabkir Church, set to become the second-largest church in Yerevan.
[11] See my travelogue 'The Missing Link'.
[12] She was not part of the original design of the War Memorial. Initially a similar-sized statue of Stalin stood surveying the city from that spot until he was demolished in 1962.

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