Sunday, 21 June 2015

Among Armenians: Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

world-map yerevan


Apologies first of all for the fact that this post is somewhat later than usual; the excuse is the normal summertime one: we were off camping. We tried a different site this week, Tyllwyd near to Devil’s Bridge in Central Wales and I have to say that I was rather impressive: remote, spectacular scenery and the chance to start fires, all what I look for in a campfire.

We’re been camping for a couple of years now, ever since Tom was five and I have to say it’s a great way to see more expensive countries whilst also relaxing. I suppose I should really do a V-log on it all. Where’s my camera gone…?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

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

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!



Day 6 – Stepanakert and Aghdam

We were woken around ten and neither of us felt too great which was hardly surprising given the excesses of the night before. Nonetheless, we had sights to see and, what is more, to photograph. Unfortunately though, my camera had run out of juice and its charger I had stupidly left with our luggage in Yerevan. And so there was only one thing for it: a short detour to obtain either a new charger or disposable camera before we set off.

Which was easier said than done and, despite scouring Stepanakert's finest electrical emporiums, we failed to locate what we needed. On the verge of giving up, Ashot's son tried out one last place, a tiny one-man electrical shop on Azatamartikneri Avenue and thankfully we were in luck: he could both charge the camera and flog me a multi-purpose charger. The only snag was that it would take around thirty minutes to juice it up, so I suggested that we use the time wisely by eating. We popped into a supermarket across the road, bought some lavash, sausage, sour cream and tomato paste and embarked upon a veritable feast sat on the pavement. Seeing us, the owner of an adjacent fruit and veg store came out with a little table, a knife and a complimentary tomato and cucumber, and for once we became the tourist attraction: two foreigners enjoying a picnic in the middle of the city! Afterwards, full and content, we returned the table and knife, bought some fruit to thank him for his kindness, picked up the juiced-up camera and charger and then finally set off for the place in Nagorno-Karabagh that I wanted to see more than anywhere else: Aghdam.

We headed out on the same road that we had travelled along the previous day, passing Granny and Granddad and then, several miles further on, Stepanakert's airport. This was the focus of one of the earliest battles in the war when the Armenians were still cut-off from the world and desperately needed the airport to bring in supplies. It resulted in the Khojali[1] Massacre on 25th-26th February 1992, the worst atrocity of the war. 485 people died, a good proportion of them unarmed Azeri women and children and the Armenians must bear the brunt of the blame for this although there was also criticism inside Azerbaijan that their military did not evacuate civilians – and indeed even encouraged them to stay – due to fears that such an action would help the Armenians in their claims.[2] Nowadays, there is little evidence of the fighting and the airport boasts a brand-new terminal, completed in 2011. However, no planes fly from it. Turkey's threat to ban Armenian planes from its airspace if the airport ever opens for traffic may have something to do with it.[3]

Several kilometres on from the airport we stopped in Askeran where there were some impressive military relics to be seen although these dated back two centuries, not two decades. Mayraberd (literally “Head Fortress”) was an impressive castle built in the 18th century to guard the valley leading up into Nagorno-Karabagh with fortifications on both sides of the river. Unfortunately, there are no explanatory boards detailing what was what back then so our imaginations had to take over, but it was fun scrambling over the ruins and munching fruit in the overgrown courtyard Famous Five style. More interesting for me though was seeing how wide the valley is and how near Stepanakert was to the original border, (which before the war lay at Askeran, a mere 20km from Stepanakert although these days the Nagorno-Karabaghi Army occupies a further 15km or so of Azerbaijani territory). It makes one wonder how Azerbaijan, a country with a greater population than Armenia proper, let alone Nagorno-Karabagh, ever managed to lose. Surely they could have just marched up the wide flat valley to Stepanakert and once the capital had fallen the struggle would have been largely over, especially considering that the second city, Shusha, was largely Azeri anyhow? Yet no, and whilst not wishing to belittle the efforts and sacrifices of the Armenians, surely Azerbaijani infighting and incompetence must be the main reasons behind their crushing military defeat.

14162196727_c2b0494fc7_z Mayraberd

But whether losing the entire conflict can be blamed on Azerbaijani internal weaknesses or not, the startling landscape that we were to witness next can squarely be blamed on nothing else. Several miles on from Askeran is Aghdam, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, a thriving city of forty-thousand souls. Never in Nagorno-Karabagh territory, the war should never have even reached it, let alone should it have fallen. Yet in July 1993, whilst Azerbaijan's political elite bickered, the Armenians attacked. The civilians fled, the military put up no resistance and within hours the entire city was in Armenian hands.

Today no one lives there, not a single soul. No one can, for every building, every single building from thousands, stands completely destroyed, a pile of rubble only. Well, almost every building; one structure still stands: the city's mosque. After capturing it the Armenians meticulously blew up every home so as to prevent future pressure from the international community to allow citizens to return. And they spared the mosque so as not to be accused of religious intolerance, (the Azerbaijanis had a habit of blowing up Armenian churches).

Few sights have I seen have scorched themselves onto my mind's eye more than that of Aghdam, few vistas are as harrowing. For as far as the eye could see, across a wide and fertile plain, lay destruction, complete and utter destruction. A sea of rubble heaps that were once buildings whilst dotted around the outskirts of the town, the burnt-out, battle-scarred, rusting hulks of tanks. It was as if we had just awoken after the apocalypse or were real-life participants in some Playstation game. No one spoke.

14368857233_cc3df86e1f_z Aghdam

But our destination that day was not Aghadam – not officially a tourist destination for obvious reasons – but instead Tigranakert, a mediaeval fortress sat amidst the ruins of an ancient city founded by King Tigran the Great (95-55BC), bang against the ceasefire line with Azerbaijan. Here, as at Khor Virap, one looked out from this tiny finger of Christianity poking into the heart of the Muslim world to a richer and more prosperous Islamic neighbour. However, unlike that sad view of Ararat, rather than thinking of lands lost, here the Christian Armenians were the aggressor who had unlawfully seized enemy territory.

Tigranakert, I am afraid to say, was a disappointment, the first of our trip. Ashot's son took us to see the ruins of an ancient church “destroyed by Azerbaijani bombs”. He lied. The fact that it was set well below ground level revealed that it had been excavated by archaeologists, not blown up. And to be honest, the lies continued from there on, the whole complex having the feel of a propaganda exercise. The fort had been renovated too much, (which made me suspect that it had a double purpose as a front-line stronghold should the Azerbaijanis ever decide to attack again), whilst the exhibitions within its walls talked endlessly about how the presence of the ruins demonstrated that this had always been Armenian territory, the inference being that, despite international pressure to do so, it should never be relinquished. I found it all sad. Archaeology should not become political but when nationalists are involved, it often is.

14162084580_67daf7fbf8_z The church “blown up” by the Azerbaijanis

We drove straight back to Stepanakert, stopping only to photograph the ruins of Aghdam, and were dropped off in the heart of the Nagorno-Karabaghi capital. We checked out Veratsnound (Renaissance) Square where the old Supreme Soviet building and new Parliament, (bizarrely attached to a hotel – imagine the Palace of Westminster with a Holiday Inn stuck on the side!), stand. It was spruce, clean and the city looked like a true capital, albeit a rather small one.

14162145847_3cbb4474c7_z In front of the former Supreme Soviet

14162045210_89ca029509_z The Parliament with attached hotel

We walked up to where the new cathedral is being built – despite its population being very religious, there are no churches in Stepanakert at present – and then down past tawdry apartment buildings with washing hung between them, to a souvenir shop (shut), and thence the Parliament again. It was clear that the city was being done up from the centre outwards and clear too that we had seen what there was to see, so we retreated to the Armenia Hotel affixed to the Parliament and there in the terrace cafe, read books and sipped tea in a most genteel fashion. That's one of the great things about these little statelets you know: there we were, in the poshest hotel in the land, brushing shoulders with the foremost figures of the country and yet our four leisurely drinks cost only 1,000 dram (under £2).

We walked back to our apartment through a rather surreal park area which I later learnt is referred to as Lovers' Alley. A new development of nouveau riche tack, it begins with a terrace following one side of the square along which were a series of photographs showing the very best that Nagorno-Karabagh has to offer. And in amongst the predictable shots of ancient monasteries, mountains, Granny and Granddad and pretty girls in traditional costume, were a few rather bizarre ones. Some featured a number of college-age kids all dressed in Nagorno-Karabagh flag costumes dancing on stage – what was it, Nagorno-Karabagh the Musical? - but the weirdest were of two mass weddings, one at Shushi Cathedral and the other at Gandazar Monastery where we had been the day before. Hundreds of brides in white and grooms in dark suits, what was all that about? Had the Moonies suddenly become big here?

14162030250_93cd2d25d2_z Nagorno-Karabagh the Musical?

14162027630_073c8e15e0_z14161971868_5435598012_z  Mass weddings at Gandazar (left) and Shushi (right)

But below the gallery of peculiar propaganda pictures led the cheesiest processional way I've ever seen, Lovers' Alley itself. There were pseudo-Classical columns and the path itself was flanked by statues of people posing except that instead of heads, they had lampshades. “Like some kind of bad Andy Warhol,” commented Paul. Indeed.

14162140737_48847d4b2b_z Lovers’ Alley

At the bottom was the smart new national stadium where Nagorno-Karabagh's national team (unrecognised by FIFA) recently beat Abkhazia 2-0 in the great clash of nations that aren't, whilst to our right stood a Graeco-Roman pile of horrendous taste looking like a gangster's wet dream but which turned out to be Stepanakert's premier hotel, the Vallex Garden.

Strolling back to our apartment we met Ashot who arranged a car for us back to Yerevan the next day for 5,000 dram each, cheaper, quicker and more comfortable than another bloody marshrutka. He even showed us the car, a Lada no less, and we were happy. And so we relaxed, our cares removed, playing backgammon and then returning to the internet cafe of the night before to witness Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-2 to move to the top of the league. I also used the opportunity to do a bit of research and solved two mysteries.

Firstly, there was that of the mass weddings. They weren't connected to the Moonies but instead had been arranged and sponsored by Levon Hayrapetian, a local entrepreneur. On the 16th October 2008 678 couples tied the knot at Gandazar and Shushi simultaneously before attending a grand reception at the national stadium with fireworks and pop stars in attendance. Each couple was paid $2,500 each in addition to the wedding expenses. It was part of a nationwide drive to boost the population, presumably to replace those who had been killed in the conflict as well as the Azeris who had run away. In addition to private initiatives like Hayrapetian's, the government pays couples 100,000 dram for their first and second children, 500,00 for their third and 300,000 to get married, (for Armenian society is still rather conservative and the idea of supporting unmarried couples is too much for most to stomach). I just wonder where they find all the money from. Wherever it is, the mass weddings and other initiatives seem to have worked, with there being a baby boom following the weddings, the birth-rate soaring by 16% and 1,306 new Nagorno-Karabaghis entering the world in the first half of 2009.[4] But why would, money aside, anyone actually want to get married at the same time as hundreds of others? The reasons it seems, are varied. Eric Dravyan, a 25-year-old man from Stepanakert who married Karine Hayrapetyan, 20, stated that they would be holding a separate, more personal ceremony with family and friends later, whilst Vladimir Hakobjanyan, a 24-year-old from Askeran, was happy to marry his wife Noyem, 19, in that way since her parents had not agreed to the match and so they couldn’t have afforded to wed otherwise.[5]

And the second mystery that I solved involved a little round symbol with a swirl inside that we had seen absolutely everywhere in Armenia. On khachkars, at the start of every chapter of 'The Crossing Place' and by the door of our apartment, there was no escaping them, but what were they exactly and what do they symbolise? My research revealed those omnipresent swirly circles to be the Arevakhach, a name which literally means “solar cross”, an ancient motif Pagan and Christian, (and I suspect also Zoroastrian), which symbolises eternity and light.

And so both wiser and, I suppose, a little older, we turned in for the night.

arevakhach An Arevakhach

Next part: Stepanakert to Yerevan

[1] Khojali was the name of the adjacent village. Today the Armenians refer to it as Ivanian.

[2] The Caucasus, p.119

[3] Wikipedia: Stepanakert Airport

[4] Mass Wedding in Karabakh Results in Baby Boom

[5] Nagorno-Karabakh: Mass Wedding Hopes to Spark Baby Boom in Separatist Territory

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