Friday, 29 May 2015

Among Armenians: Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan


The sun’s been shining here and we’ve been taking advantage by doing a bit of travelling within our own country’s borders. Although it features in only a few of my travelogues, Britain is one of the most fascinating countries that I’ve ever travelled with something over every hill (literally). For example, whilst we were camping near to Didcot earlier in the week, I noticed a strange hill about a mile from our campsite which seemed to have terraced sides. So, the next day we went to investigate and, lo and behold, it was nothing less than a genuine Iron Age hillfort with impressive fortifications. Not in any guidebook, not even a noted local site but incredible nonetheless.

The main impetus for our recent trip however, was not hillforts but instead my son’s homework for school. He was ordered by the teacher-who-must-be-obeyed to research and then give a presentation on an adventurer or explorer. After a chat we decided on Marco Polo, apt since he was one of the first Europeans to visit the Far East, suitable for a child who is half European and half Asian. Anyway, we headed down to London where we checked out Chinatown and some of the fantastic exhibits in the British Museum. And that is where I really must sing my country’s praises for whilst it lags behind in many fields, nowhere does museums as well and nowhere has as many free ones. We are lucky indeed.

And so, if you are ever in the UK and unsure of what to do, head to a museum whilst they are still free and immerse yourself in a whole new world.

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 3 – Khor Virap and Yerevan

Say the word Armenia to most people, Armenian or otherwise, and for those who have heard of the place, there is usually one vision that is conjured up. It is of a near-perfect conical volcano, a mountain often covered by clouds but always surrounded by legends, some of which go back to the dawn of human history. That mountain is Ararat.

I know of no other nation on earth that identifies itself so strongly with a mountain. The Geogrians have Kazbek, the Nepalese Everest and the North Koreans Paektu, but it is not the same. Armenian devotion to Ararat is total and Ararat is more than just any old mountain. For starters, it is big, a whopping 5,156m high, (Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps is a piffling 4,810m whilst Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in North America barely registers at 4,410m), and it is beautiful, but more than that, if you believe the Bible and legends – and the Armenians definitely do both – then it gave birth to the Armenian people. Genesis 6-9 tells the story of Noah, a righteous man, who God decided to save whilst punishing the rest of the wicked earth. He commanded Noah to build a ship, an ark, which he then proceeded to fill with two of every kind of animal. Then the Lord sent down rain for forty days and nights continually, the deluge persisted, after which the entire world was flooded and only Noah and the contents of his ark survived. Then the rains ceased and the waters began to recede and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on a mountain, on Ararat. Noah and his sons had been saved and the world could be repopulated. One of those sons was called Japeth and he had a son named Gomer who in turn begat Togarmah who himself begat Haik. And whilst the world refers to that little land in the shadow of Ararat as Armenia, its inhabitants call it Hayarstan, “The Land of Haik” for it is he that the legends say all its people are descended from.

But the story does not finish there, for descended from Noah, devoted to God they are too, but a very cruel twist of fate has been played on the Armenians for whilst they may love Ararat like no other race on earth, it is not in their country, but instead just over the border in Turkey. And as the border between those two ancient neighbours is closed due to Turkey refusing to admit that the events of 1915 were a genocide – and because of Armenia's involvement in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict – then the sad fact is that whilst all Armenians may look at Ararat, it is almost impossible for them to visit it.

We had tried to see the sacred mountain twice. On a clear day it is visible from Yerevan, but neither of the past two days had been clear and all we'd seen were the lower slopes before a blanket of cloud took over. However, the view from Yerevan is not the one that all Armenians treasure, instead it is another which graces a thousand postcards and posters and even the cover of the book that I was reading. The view of Ararat, the image of Armenia is of the sacred peak looming in the distance and the monastery of Khor Virap standing in the foreground.

Khor Virap and Ararat on the cover of ‘The Crossing Place
Khor Virap stands some 43km south of Yerevan in the (appropriately named) Ararat Province. It was founded back in the 5th century but architecturally it is of no great interest, the present structure dating from the 17th century. Its main obvious attraction is how stunning it looks with Ararat as a backdrop, but there is more to it than that, for it is also one of Armenia's holiest sites, being built over the snake-infested pit where St. Gregory the Illuminator, (yes, he of Echmiadzin fame), was imprisoned for thirteen years in the 3rd to 4th centuries by King Tiridates II before finally being hauled out because the king had gone mad and his followers thought that it might have been imprisoning a holy man that did it. Gregory then went ahead and cured the crazy king and in doing so converted his former tormentor – and by extension, his people – to the Christian faith.

We journeyed out in the taxi that we had taken the previous evening back to our hotel as he'd offered us a decent price and using public transport would have been extremely time consuming. I was beginning to learn some of the advantages of travelling with another. Alone, the asking price would have been unthinkable, but shared between two it was quite reasonable.

The short journey to the monastery was unremarkable, across a narrow strip of flat land sandwiched in-between the cloud-shrouded slopes of Ararat to the right and the Lesser Caucasus to the left. Arriving at the monastery we had climb up a few steps before entering the small, fortified compound. The church itself was a disappointment. It was dark, damp and dull, the large curtain across the altar emblazoned with a gold cross being the only decoration. Both Paul and I felt little there but, unlike most monasteries, the church was not why we had come here. Instead we stood on the ramparts and looked out over the magnificent view of Armenia's holy mountain.

Ararat was, annoyingly, covered in cloud the whole time, although the peak did appear briefly at one point. Even so, it was still an awe-inspiring sight but, more than that, for me, it was also unexpected.
As I've said before, I've long been fascinated with Armenia and used the country as the setting for several of my novels. In two of them – 'The Bukhara Affair' and 'Into the Belly of the Beast' the heroes visit a secret underground complex run by the Sacred Twelve located in caverns inside Mount Ararat. Which is all well and good except that, stood on the ramparts of the monastery, I realised that it isn't built on the foothills of Ararat as it appears in the pictures, but is instead a good few miles from the mighty mountain with several Turkish villages, all boasting mosques with their tell-tale pencil minarets, in the way. And the border between the two countries runs right by the monastery, literally a field away, where a barbed wire fence with watchtowers scars the landscape. To my dismay I discovered that a whole section of my novel was totally infeasible and would have to be rewritten.

Our taxi driver beckoned us to a small side chapel and then pointed to a hole in the floor with a ladder attached. Momentarily I was confused, but then I realised: it led down to the pit in which St. Gregory the Illuminator had suffered for thirteen long years.

Descending in a fashion clearly contravening UK Health and Safety legislation, I entered the bell-shaped chamber where the saint had once languished. This was far more moving than the church above for although not unpleasant for a few minutes, I am sure that I would go stir crazy if I spent more than a day in such a place. Yet from this prison Gregory had evangelised an entire nation. I knelt before his image and prayed.

Praying in St. Gregory’s Prison

After the pit, our driver took us out of the monastery compound and up a small hillock nearby. On the top there were a couple of bedraggled-looking thorn bushes to which the devout had tied scraps of material. This practice I have witnessed at both Christian and Pagan sites across Georgia, Turkey and Bulgaria and it is undoubtedly a Pagan practice preceding all the modern religions. Then he showed us the view: Yerevan to the north, Ararat to the west and, in-between the mountain and the monastery, the thin silver ribbon of the Arax River which forms the border between modern-day Turkey and Armenia, (and before that the Russian and Ottoman empires). I smiled for when I had first learnt about this land and its people all those years ago in a classroom in Bulgaria, I had asked Araksia what her unusual name meant and she had replied, “It is the name of a river in Armenia.”

Khor Virap with the Turkish border behind

Back in Yerevan we headed first to the Nagorno-Karabagh diplomatic mission to pick up our passports now freshly-stamped with colourful Nagorno-Karabagh visas. Then we had our taxi drop us off at the nearby Genocide Memorial.

Prior to the First World War, the Armenians had not had a state of their own, instead being scattered across the Russian and Ottoman Empires, (and to a lesser extent, Persia), as well as there being a significant diaspora beyond.

In each of the two empire, around two millions Armenians lived. Theirs was not a privileged position in either since they did not subscribe to the state religion: Sunni Islam for the Ottomans and Orthodox Christianity for the Russians, but their position in Russia was slightly better and in both they had done well economically which, as the Jews can attest only too well, can be both a blessing and a curse. The Ottoman Empire had such a strong Armenian heritage because, in addition to occupying some provinces of Eastern Armenia, it also included within its lands, the old Western Armenia, Cilicia, a word which one encounters all the time in modern-day Armenia, be it in the name of Yerevan's largest bus station to the most popular brand of beer. These Armenians had lived beside their Muslim neighbours as separate dhimmi[1] for centuries, but the nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had begun to sour relations and pogroms began to occur with increasing regularity. Then, as World War I began with the Ottomans on the German side fighting the British at Gallipoli and in Arabia and the Russians in the east, matters began to get serious. The empire had been in decline for years, losing 33% of its territory between 1908 and 1912 and, significantly, that had almost all been to the Christians in the Balkans and their departure from the empire meant that the Armenians remained as the only major Christian group left within its borders. In 1915 the Russians, despite being driven back on all other fronts, were inflicting defeat after defeat on the poorly led, organised and equipped Ottomans and many of those fighting in the Russian ranks were Armenian volunteers from Russian Armenia eager to liberate their homeland from the Muslims. Paranoia about “the enemy within” was whipped up and the sixty thousand Armenians in the Ottoman armed forces were transferred to labour battalions and stripped of their weapons. Within three months all had been massacred. Orders were also given to move the Armenians living near to the front into the Syrian Desert. Forced marches, massacres and the unforgiving terrain killed almost all of them and many more too, for virtually all Armenians, whether close to the front or not, were deported. By the end of the war one and a half million Armenians had died.

That is fact and is undisputed. The rest though, is, even today, the cause of the bitterest debate. Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire will neither accept any responsibility nor admit that there was a genocide. They cite, correctly, that around 600,000 Turks also died, (largely slaughtered by Armenians who had captured the depopulated lands), and that the new state was not the old and so should not bear its guilt. More controversially, they insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that the deportations and murders were not organised or planned from the centre and instead local militias did the killing of their own volition. More interestingly, there are the arguments put forward in Taner Akçam's 'A Shameful Act', (which I was reading on the trip), that Atatürk had not pressed the issue of Turkish guilt because many of those responsible were the very same nationalists who had helped him to overthrown the old Ottoman order and establish his Turkish Republic. Whatever the case, even to this day, many countries including, I am deeply ashamed to say, my own, refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and no reparations of either land or money or even an apology have ever been made. But what does this matter you may ask? Well, when outlining his own murderous ambitions, a certain Adolf Hitler reassured his generals that all would be alright with the words, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” Ignoring or forgetting one genocide merely encourages another.

The memorial, built to ensure that the Armenians who survived will never ignore or forget it, is set on a hillside across the Hrazdan River from the city centre. It consists of a 100m long memorial wall with all the names of the towns and villages in Turkey where the massacres took place engraved upon it. Then there is a tall spike which symbolises the rebirth of the Armenian people – but is riven in two to symbolise the separation of Western and Eastern Armenia, (the effect of which was somewhat ruined during our visit as the spike was covered in scaffolding) – and then finally there is a ring of twelve, inward-leaning basalt slabs, reminiscent of khachkars, which represent the twelve lost provinces of Western Armenia, their bowed position suggesting figures in mourning. And in the middle of them, 1.5m below, is the eternal flame where roses are laid by those wishing to pay their respects. We both found it extremely moving and stayed there for some time as mournful traditional tunes played over loudspeakers and the wind flickered the flame.

The Genocide Memorial

Away from the memorial itself, there are two other parts to the complex. Annoyingly, the museum was closed for renovations, but we wandered among the trees planted by visiting dignitaries such as the Pope, Vladimir Putin and Georgi Purvanov, the Bulgarian President.

We dined at a nearby restaurant on excellent traditional fayre and then took a taxi into the centre, getting out on Mesrop Mashtots Avenue as there were two places that I very much wanted to check out there. The first was the gorgeous covered market, built in the 1940s and boasting an amazing frontage covered with traditional Armenian decorations. I was dismayed when we entered though, to discover that it had been transformed into an upmarket shopping centre with large plastic butterflies hanging from the roof. Progress, eh?

The Covered Market

The second site of interest proved to be far more rewarding. The city's mosque, reached through an ornate blue-tiled gateway, is a little piece of Iran in Armenia. Built in 1765, it is a tranquil oasis of calm in the midst of the city which reminded me of some of the great mosques that I visited in Uzbekistan. Also of interest was a display in its precincts, (provided by the Iranian government), or Persian artefacts, the favourite of which for me was a paper-thin porcelain plate.

Yerevan Mosque

Our last stop of the day was the State History Museum in Republic Square. Paul was not overly interested in museums, but we both thought that this one might give us a good overview that we were setting off through the following day and so it proved. We saw artefacts and exhibitions from all ages of Armenia's history, (and there were a lot of them), with my personal highlights including a preserved Bronze Age wooden cart and an incredible scale model of the ruins of Ani, several metres across. Having explored the site on foot during my journey through Eastern Turkey in 2010[2] it was great to get an overview and revisit all those incredible ruins, like Ararat another of the symbols of Armenia that can now only be gazed at from over a border fence.

By this time we had had all the culture – and walking – that we could manage so we retired to the Café of the Burning Bin where we'd sipped coffee before to indulge in a new passion. Paul is a passionate chess player and had repeatedly pestered me to play the game with him, but the problem is that most matches last far too long for anything less than a trip on the Trans Siberian, so instead I had introduced him to backgammon the previous evening, the staple of my lengthy Trans-Asian Expedition with the Lowlander in 2002.[3] To my delight, my new travelling companion found the game as much to his taste as my old one had, but, inexplicably, the owners of the coffee shop did not and so, losing our custom for all eternity, we decamped across the square to another establishment overlooking the small ornamental lake and, on the table next to a local mafia heavy and his lithe young lady, we played a couple of games and gave these more deserving proprietors our business before returning back to our dungeon hotel to turn in early in anticipation of the early start on the morrow.

[1] The dhimmi system was one of the foundation stones upon which the Ottoman Empire had been built. The term is often translated as “nation” or “minority” and under the system recognised dhimmi had certain rights and obligations different to those of the ruling Muslims. Recognised dhimmi were religious rather than nations in the modern sense of the word. Therefore, Jews, Greeks (i.e. Orthodox Christians), and Armenians were three of the most significant dhimmi in the Ottoman Empire. I discuss the system in some length in my travelogue ‘Balkania’.
[2] See my travelogue 'Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010'.
[3] See my travelogue 'Across Asia With A Lowlander'.

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