Anchoring in the soil

Seeing symbols sustaining the Armenian nation


Anchoring in the soil
by Keyvan Tabari

abstract: How does a group maintain its identity as a distinct people while wandering the world? For the Armenians who for centuries have been away from their original homeland by force or volition the answer is complex. They have been united by their language. Their distinct writing script, however, had itself been invented to serve their unique brand of Christianity, not only against Christian Byzantine but also against Zoroastrian Iranians with whom they had most in common both in language and political history. Resorting to their own national myths and metaphysics did not suffice for their differentiation. These had to be anchored in turf, a national homeland. As it has been in their history, it is true now for the Armenians. The two-thirds of them who are in the diaspora look to the domain of the recently independent Republic of Armenia for relics of the roots that sustain their identity. This is, of course, no less so for the three million who actually live on that land. I went to see those potent symbols of the sustaining elements of the Armenian nation.


I rolled my luggage behind me as I walked the several hundred yards on the narrow bridge that connected the State of Georgia to Armenia at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border. Deep underneath the bridge was the Debed River. The river was wide. With the trees on its banks, it looked picturesque. The view was spoiled with empty cigarette packs and broken liquor bottles strewn on my path. The mud that covered parts of the ground on the bridge stuck to the wheels of my luggage.

“Buongiorno,” the Armenian guard greeted me, in Italian for some unexplained reason, as he took my passport. In an old Soviet-style uniform, he was sitting at a desk in a small office on the other side of the bridge. The prominent feature in his face was a jet-black moustache of thick bristles. He picked up his cup of dark demitasse coffee, took a sip, and dragged a puff on his cigarette before he began thumbing through my passport. He stamped it without hassle about the visa that indicated I had recently been to Azerbaijan, unlike the Azeri passport officer who had voiced strong displeasure about my visa to Armenia.

It would not be long, however, before I heard from the Armenians about their problems with Azerbaijan and their other neighbor, Turkey. When we boarded the bus that would take us eventually to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, our guide said “We are in Eastern Armenia, which is now the territory of independent Armenia. Western Armenia is in eastern Turkey.” The Turkish treatment of the large Armenian population that lived in the eastern part of Turkey in the late 19th century and early 20th century has been called genocide by the Armenians. This grievance is the main reason Armenia’s border with Turkey is now closed. Our guide was brief regarding what was needed to solve that problem. “Turkey has to recognize the Genocide and help our people to forget it.” She had a ready-made model: “We have forgiven the Kurdish residents of Turkey their role in the Genocide because in 1938 their community’s representatives formally apologized and promised to give all Armenians their properties back.”

Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan, on the other hand, was focused on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly mountainous 1,700 square-mile area inside the Republic of Azerbaijan, constituting 14% of its territory. At the closest point Armenia is over two miles away from that enclave. Under the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Autonomous Oblast (Region) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic; it is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. That country, however, has not exercised power over it since 1991. This is because as the Soviet Union fell apart the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, who at the time constituted more than 75% of its population, took control of the area. Supported by the newly independent state of Armenia, they held a referendum on December 10, 1991 to approve the creation of an independent state of their own. The referendum was boycotted by the local Azerbaijanis (Azeris) who had comprised a minority of about 20%, and the Republic of Azerbaijan did not recognize the new state.

Clashes between the Armenians and Azeris of Nagorno-Karabakh were made even more violent because of the respective support each side received, respectively, from Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most of the Azeris have since been forced to leave so that the current population of Nagorno-Karabakh, estimated to be about 140,000, is about 95% Armenian.

Our guide explained Armenia’s position by pointing out that from the 9th century to the early 19th century Nagorno-Karabakh had been ruled by the Armenian Khachen princes. Thereafter, under Russian Imperial rule Armenians were favored as local administrators and when the Tsarist regime collapsed the Armenians gained control, declaring self-rule. Soon afterward, however, “when the Bolsheviks came, things changed,” our guide said. “Lenin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan so as to keep it a part of the new Soviet Union, and to please Ataturk.” In fact, the Soviet Union had a far-reaching hope that by thus placating the new government of Turkey after World War One, “it might help move it to develop along Communist lines.”


It was also the combination of pressures from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Turkish nationalist government and Soviet Russia that overwhelmed the last attempt by Armenians to establish sovereignty over their traditional homeland through the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (May 1918– Dec.1920). This attempt, in turn, had to wait almost a millennium after Catholicos Petros Getadarts -who governed the capital city Ani in the incumbent Armenian king's absence- surrendered Ani to the Byzantines in 1045, thus ending the reign of the Bagratuni kingdom which had begun in 885. The nearly 160 year’s domination of Armenia by the Bagratuni dynasty is remarkable not only for its length but also because its founder, Ashot I, had been the land’s first Armenian king since 428.

This history only magnified the significance of the Haghpat Monastery complex which we were about to see. Haghpat was crucial for preserving the threatened culture of a nation with so tenuous a hold on its land. Before the Bagratuni kingdom emerged, the Arab invasion of Armenia, followed by the devastation caused during the Arab-Byzantine wars, had stifled expressions of Armenian culture. The Bagratuni kings largely eliminated such restrictions by ushering in an unusual period of stability and prosperity. With the patronage of the kings and nobles, monasteries became centers of learning throughout the kingdom, where literature flourished and historical studies were undertaken to document events of the past centuries and Armenia’s relations with neighboring countries. In thus reviving Armenian culture the two Monasteries of Haghpat and nearby Sanahin, we were told, were especially effective because their location, the Lori region, had been more immune to strong Arab presence.

As we drove up the deep canyon that the Debed River had carved in northern Lori, we could appreciate the choice of the site for the fortress Monasteries. Not easily accessible, the hills afforded both protection against hostile forces and concealment from prying eyes cherished in a monastic life [1]. Monks lived in the caves here for generations, our guide said. As well, “pagan Armenian temples” once had stood in the area where Haghpat is today [2].

When Haghpat came into our view on the top of a promontory, we noted that this Monastery, “unlike most in Armenia’s arid region,” as our guide said, was not isolated. It had been built in a village environment surrounded by many hamlets [3]. The smaller Sanahin Monastery a little further up is older than Haghpat. Its inner sanctum of Surp (Saint) Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church dates to 928, during the reign of Bagratuni King Ashot II who earned the title of Iron for his efforts to preserve and defend the kingdom. It was under his brother and successor Abas I (929-953), however, that Armenia enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity unprecedented for decades. The construction of Haghpat began in this later period.

The monastery at Haghpat was founded by Saint Nishan. The small church of Saint Nishan (“Sign” of the Cross), built in 966-967, is the oldest surviving building in the Haghpat Monastery. The Monastery’s principle church is the larger Cathedral of Saint Nishan, built between 967 and 991. It is valued as a surviving example of the 10th century Armenian architecture: four pillars uphold its central dome and triangular recesses mark the outside walls. We walked inside the Cathedral’s spacious hall. There were frescoes on the walls [4] and the ceiling [5]. They depicted Christ Pantocrator (Almighty), among others. Our guide said that there was also a bas-relief of Queen Khosrovanoosh, who founded this Cathedral, and of her two sons.

Exiting the Cathedral we stepped over flat tombstones laid in the Monastery. “They are flat because those buried here wanted to make a statement: ‘We are humble and have sinned’,” our guide explained. There were several khachkars standing around us. These are intricately carved stone-crosses, distinctly Armenian in design. They originated in the pagan era; the Christian versions which were modeled after wooden crosses began to appear around the 4th century, we were told.

We now entered a room that had served as the library when the Haghpat Monastery was an active center of learning. Originally called the scriptorium, it had been more particularly a place where old manuscripts were copied. Outside these closely connected structures of the Monastery, we saw the free-standing three-story tall Belltower that was added in 1245, and a stone Refectory.

Architecture is an important part of the Bagratuni era’s contribution to Armenian arts. Most of the surviving old churches in Armenia are from that period. As the literal meaning of haghpat “strong walls” indicates, they were built with stone or tuff. The Armenian builders combined the architectural style of Byzantine churches with the local Caucasian architecture of the time to produce a distinct art form.

Aspet’s flock

In the centuries since it was finished, the Haghpat Monastery has suffered damages by earthquakes and invading armies. Yet, many of its buildings have remained intact. It is the monks that it has lost. Our guide said that at one time this thriving center of Armenian religion had 500 monks. “It now has one priest,” she said. Indeed, there is a shortage of clergy in all of Armenia now that “about 500 churches” have come into being after the end of Communist rule. In Haghpat we met its sole clergy, Father Aspet. He impressed me as urbane, with a twinkle in his eyes and a worldly sense of humor [6]. “In the Soviet time, Haghpat was used as storage,” Father Aspet told us. “It had long been replaced as a center of learning by seminaries in Echmiadzin, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and a few other places.” Some Armenian priests are sent abroad, especially to the United States and Europe. “Not a few of them leave their positions and stay in those countries,” Father Aspet continued. Hearing that I was from California, he said he had served in Sacramento and Los Angeles for three years. He was now in Haghpat “taking care of the villagers.” He had “services every day.” He had “about 20 weddings and 100 baptisms a year.” Some of these are for people “who come from Europe and the U.S.” Father Aspet also “visited local schools, aiming at bringing the youth to the church.”

Prompted by our interest, Father Aspet gave us glimpses of his monastic life at Haghpat. The Diocese gave him the equivalent of 1,000 dollars a year. “That is all” his income. He had a housekeeper who also cooked for him. He told her many times to “go low in salt and oil.” But “She does not listen and so I cook for myself.”

After we left Father Aspet, in the parking lot of Haghpat we saw three of the villagers he ministered to. They were sitting on stools patiently hoping that visitors might buy some of the few items of hand-made merchandise they had spread before them. These were mostly woven socks and hats. One of the women was busy finishing a hat [7]. I wondered how their religious beliefs were affected by years of secular Soviet rule. My guide’s response was categorical. “Their practices are not so much religious as based on superstition.”

Folk traditions, it seemed, was what survived long periods of foreign intervention. “In daily life they are Christian. They show gratitude for God. Criminality is low.” The guide continued: “They sacrifice lamb and rooster. Salt is blessed together with the animal. Priests put some salt in the mouth of the animal. Then the animal is slaughtered and they eat some of the meat and distribute the rest to 7 other people, preferably poor, or 7 neighbors. Seven is a sacred number. There are a lot of wish trees here. They tie a piece of cloth, ribbon, or handkerchief to the branches and beseech the almighty with their wish.”

The guide talked about some of their other practices: “On the hot days of summer they spray water on each other. This was an ancient pagan practice as archeological discoveries show. Another pagan tradition is for the newly-wed to come to church on the 13th of February, jump over the bonfire to purify their marriage.” The guide added: “The occasion when a child loses his first tooth is celebrated. He is made to sit in the middle of the room on the carpet and water is poured over him. Tools of various professions are set around him and what he touches is taken to indicate his future profession. On national religious occasions they just light candles and listen to music.”

The guide said that “In the cities they are different; they are mostly very European in their practices.” But even there old customs persist: “When my son got married we had 150 guests. We broke plates over the newly-weds.” She added: “The neighbors would want to know that the bride is a virgin. Only women go to the celebration of virginity. Once even a Ukranian bride of an Armenian invited me too. A blanket red with blood was spread over the carpet in the bedroom. The Ukrainian’s Armenian friends did that for her.”


On the way from Haghpat to the town of Alaverdi down the valley, we stopped at a café for lunch where we were treated to live music. A man who played the synthesizer was accompanied by a clarinet player who also served as a vocalist. He snapped his fingers as he sang. They played a couple of favorite Armenian songs and followed with a medley of popular international songs from the 1950s, including the Hava Nagila. They finished the set with a forceful rendition of “Moscow Nights,” which was the anthem of the Soviet Communist Youth [8].

The nostalgia for the Soviet times lingered in Armenia. “Under the Communists people lived longer because pensions gave them security,” the café owner said. Her smile showed the sturdy gold tooth work she had acquired in those days.

In Alaverdi a factory with an active smoke stack brought back still more old memories [9]. This town had been the industrial center of Armenia since the 18th century, our guide said. Its main business still seemed to be metallurgy. The factory “melted iron ore,” we were told. “It was built by Greek owners but the Soviets nationalized it. Now two Armenian brothers own it. They also mine copper here. The mines are behind the mountains [10]. The long white line you see is the stack to make the smoke go up and away. But much is left, causing pollution [11].” A funicular built in Soviet times brought the villagers to the factory to work. There was not enough work here, however, our guide said. “And the Russians have been successfully recruiting many Armenian villagers to work in Siberia.”

Alaverdi also has the distinction of having been on the medieval trading highway, the Silk Road. The guide took us to a pleasant small park and showed us a stone bridge [12] that had been built for the “Chinese road.” It was from the 12th century but now, erosion having eliminated the road on other side of the Debed river gorge, this was a bridge to nowhere [13].

Lesser Caucasus

Snow came almost two months too early in September of 2011, dusting the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus in Armenia [14]. The scenery in these highlands were heavenly [15] as we drove behind the only other vehicle on the road, a yellow mini-bus full of passengers that dangerously carried a large capsule of butane gas on its roof [16]. Green pastures hugged the foothills.

Here we saw the encampment [17] of the Molokane, Russian “Old Believers” who had left Russia in the early 19th century because they were considered heretics for rejecting the Russian Orthodox Church’s edict regarding some 200 annual fasting days. They have been called "milk-drinkers" (molokane) to describe their heresy of eating dairy products on those days. “They have a simple way of life, like the American Amish,” our guide said. “They are in the milk and dairy business. They live in their own villages, and do not mingle with others. They have their own language.” The guide said the Molokane constituted “one percent of the population of Armenia.” She contrasted this Christian minority with Armenia’s largest ethnic and religious minority, the Muslim Yazidis who were “well integrated into the Armenian society.” She said “The Yazidis showed patriotism in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, by sacrificing many men in fighting against the Muslim Azeris.” She said the “Yazidis are Kurds who converted to Islam in the 9th century, but they are also considered sun-worshipers.”

Soon we were at the shore of Lake Sevan which at 1,900 meters above sea level is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world. The views [18] of the “volcanic lake,” as our guide called it, were appropriately breathtaking [19]. A fresh water lake, the Sevan is a popular resort with many beaches and different classes of accommodations. Alas this was not the right season. The cabins we saw were empty [20]. No one was attending the police outpost [21]. Even the aging Russian-made taxis emitted an air of melancholy [22].

Lake Sevan has a special place in Armenian history. It is the only one of the three great lakes of ancient Armenian, collectively referred to as the Seas of Armenia, which is within the borders of the Republic of Armenia. Lake Urmia is now in Iran and the third one, Lake Van, is in Turkey. It is said that when Armenians came from the areas around Lake Van to Lake Sevan, they found that this lake was dark, almost black [23], yet it reminded them of Van. Therefore they called it called Sevan (Black Van). Centuries later, Bagratuni King Ashot I built the Sevanavank Monastery [24] , on an island in this lake and made it his residence. That island has now become a peninsula as the water of the Lake receded due to a controversial project to use the water for irrigation.

Poor country

Armenia has not just lost territory from the “ancient country;” it has lost most of its people. Twice as many Armenians are now living in diaspora than in the Republic of Armenia. Many of those were forced out of their homes in the region that had been Western Armenia in Turkey as the result of the Genocide. Additionally, a considerable number left immediately after Independence when the collapse of the Soviet Union created 70% unemployment, as it ended the Soviet centralized economy which had employed many Armenians. The approximately 3.2 Million who are left in Armenia consider themselves “the survivors,” in the words of our guide. “This is a harsh environment of mostly mountains and gorges,” she said, referring to her land. “There is only one good valley, the Ararat Valley in the south.” She quoted a popular Armenian saying: “God said nothing was left for you because you came late.” She concluded “We do our best in this poor country. Armenians work very hard.”

We were now driving south form Lake Sevan, having passed through a tunnel that seemed to demarcate the landscape. The mountainous forest of oak, sycamore and wild fruit trees we had seen on the other side gave way to volcanic stone. “We use these stones in our construction, as you will see on the surface of the buildings, because wood is rare and expensive” our guide said.

The construction of the half-a-kilometer long Sevan-Dilijan tunnel was financed by an Armenian in the American diaspora: Kirk Kerkorian. According to our guide, the billionaire Kerkorian had also paid to repair roads and build apartments for displaced Armenians, and provided loans to businesses in Armenia. These contributions have exceeded 200 million dollars. Like other Armenians in diaspora, Kerkorian’s interest is fueled by his focus on the Genocide. On the other hand, an American expert told me, the political stalemate on the issues of relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan has prevented adequate foreign investments in Armenia. In his opinion “things have improved very little since Independence, only Yerevan has been booming in real estate.” Yerevan, of course, has been not only the seat of the national government but also Armenia’s cultural and industrial center. It has absorbed about 35% of all the people living in the country to reach a population of 1,122,000.


The extensive reshaping of a part of the old Abovian District at the heart of downtown Yerevan which I saw upon arrival in the city was a sign that its real estate boom was still alive and well. So was the construction of the big indoor shopping mall that was slated to open soon. The latter was thoughtfully located sufficiently outside the sphere of the focal point of the city, the Republic Square, to keep the integrity of that sphere as a graceful urban setting. The beauty of this urban area belies the cliché about drab Soviet cities. It was indeed the product of the 1960s, with its Republic Square debuting as Lenin Square, and the monumentality of its statutory work shouting heroic socialist realism. All the same, the sphere exuded the distinct charm of Armenian architecture.

Much is owed to Alexander Tamanyan who got his own monument in Yerevan as “the greatest Armenian architect who incorporated national traditions with contemporary urban construction.” The spacious squares and wide avenues of central Yerevan are said to have been inspired by his dreams. It is equally true, however, that unlike many other cities in the Caucasus, before him Yerevan had not changed in appearance for a long time; it was ripe for a makeover. The Russian tsarist officers visiting Yerevan at the end of the 19th century famously dubbed it a hovel of mud houses.

Once the “hovel” was cleared, the space was freed for a fusion of Armenian and Russian designs which created its best in the large Republic Square itself. In the middle I saw some massive fountains and all around the Square was a group of fine buildings mostly in pink and orange color stones with colonnade and arches. They included the city’s venerable grand hotel, now renamed Armenia Marriott, the National Art Gallery, and the State History Museum of Armenia. Broad shaded boulevards radiated from the Square.

The boulevards had wide sidewalks. One, V. Sargsian, also had a wide island in the middle with leafy green trees. Here and in front of the Marriott were outdoor cafes. At night in this early October, the fountains in the Square were ablaze with lights and loudspeakers broadcasting music that ranged from classic to popular Armenian attracted large crowds. Young Armenian women, one holding the other’s arm, promenaded.

The grand Avenue of Yerevan was Mashtots [25], a few blocks away. The longest street, it was also where the real city life went on. This was the street where the residents shopped in its many diverse stores. At its south-western end was the town’s huge covered food market [26]. Vendors proffered flowers and fruit [27] and cheese and meat.

Mashtots virtually connected two of Yerevan’s landmark buildings at the extremes of town, the Matenadaran Museum and the Brandy Factory. The latter has the distinction of incorporating some of the original walls of the seven-hectare fortress built by the local Persian Governor Husayn Ali Khan in the middle of the 18th century [28] That fortress was destroyed in the 1880s. The Blue (Kabud) Mosque, with its brightly tiled turquoise dome, which the same Governor built in the1760s, has survived. It was the only major building of the old Yerevan which I could find. It was also the only one remaining of the eight working mosques that existed in Yerevan as late as in 1900.

Even the Blue Mosque had been turned into the Yerevan City Museum by the Soviets. As a gesture of good relations with Iran, the independent Republic of Armenia allowed the Iranian government to repair the Blue Mosque in the 1990s [29] It was now also called the Iranian Cultural Center. I thought it was remarkable that from all the different times the Persians ruled Armenia throughout it long history this monument was today celebrated: it dates from the period when Iran was ruled by Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779), who singularly never styled himself as shah (king), choosing instead the title of Vakil e-Ra'aayaa (Representative of the People).

The Blue Mosque was located on Mashtots Avenue on the other side from the covered food market. On the day of my visit there were only two other tourists with their guide. Nor did I see many other people. The Mosque was much bigger inside than it appeared from the outside [30]. It has a 24 meter high minaret. Around its large central garden were rooms, a common plan of mosques in Iran. Unlike those mosques where these rooms housed religious students, however, here the rooms were used as offices for physicians, a school for young students, a bread store with signs extolling the benefit of the Persian flat bread sangag, a gallery of a permanent exhibit of Persian handicrafts, and the offices of the Iranian student organization at Armenian universities. On a bulletin board in the Mosque were posters for cultural events. At one end was the spacious prayer room under the big blue dome.

History Museum

When the Yerevan City Museum was moved out of the Blue Mosque it had to endure a period of homelessness and a decade of obscurity in another building before reemerging with the prestigious name of the State History Museum of Armenia in a commensurately impressive building at Republic Square. It now receives over 30,000 visitors a year. It is there that I learned about the history of settlement in Yerevan. There were cave dwellers as early as the Stone Age right here in the gorge of the River Hrazdan, just a few blocks away. The stone writing on a tablet found in 1959 has led the archeologists to a large cuneiform slab in which the King of Urartu, Argishti I, inscribed the date of building the Fortress of Erebuni in Yerevan. It was 782 B.C. Erebuni, which was built at the western extreme of the Ararat plain, means victory in the Urartian language. That word was blended with Armenian to evolve into “Yerevan.”

Some two hundred years later various groups of the Hayk tribe gathered together, founding a nation. As our Armenian guide explained, the roots of the Hayk tribe have been traced to the people who lived in the area ruled by the Urartu (Assyrian for Ararat) Kingdom (1000–600 BC), and the rulers before them in the bronze age, namely the Hayasa-Azzi, Mitanni , and Hittite. Armenians began to call their country Hayastan (the land of Hayk) after Hayk Nahapet, the legendary patriarch of the Hayk tribe. Their neighboring countries called it Armenia which is from Aram who was the great, great, grandson of Hayk Nahapet, and is considered to be the ancestor of all Armenians.

Yerevan was not always under Armenian rule. Far from it. The History Museum which is said to have 10,000 pictures chronicling Armenia’s history, tells us about the rulers who followed the Urartu. From the sixth century to the second century B.C. the Orontid Dynasty, of probable Iranian origin, who had been satraps (client kings) of the Iranian Median and Achaemenid Empires, established an independent kingdom here after the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire. The Museum’s story is then taken “through Hellenistic Armenia, the arrival of Christianity and long wars against Persia, the Arab conquest and subsequent flowering at Ani, and then the long centuries under Muslim Turkish and Persian rule.” All this before the Russian Empire absorbed Yerevan and the rest of Eastern Armenia in the 19th century. In the years of the Ottoman-Persian wars (1513- 1737) alone, Yerevan changed hands fourteen times.

The excavations that discovered the objects in the Museum began in 1930 and most of the discovered have been done under the Soviets. They also established schools to train Armenian archeologists. Our guide was an Armenian archeologist who manifested the pedagogical discipline of Russian scholars. She showed us the tusk of an elephant from 100,000 years ago, found in the north of Armenia, and obsidian tools from 6,000 B.C. But her favorite was a 5,500 years old shoe discovered, among other objects, in a cave in the southern part of Armenia. Its significance to her was not just that it was thus 2000 years older than the famous Alpine shoes. More important was that the Armenia shoe was made of cowhide: “This means that even then they had farm animals in Armenia.” There was grass added inside the shoe because the leather was too thin.


Where other cities have built cathedrals, Yerevan has erected a monument to Armenian culture on the hill-top overlooking the city with the statues of the great Armenian scholars adorning its entrance. The secular temple was completed in 1959 to be “the first scientific center of Soviet Armenia.” Now called “The Matenadaran Museum,” it declares itself “the center of Armenian culture.” As the word’s plain meaning says, Matenadaran is a “repository of manuscripts.” Nearly one-half of the world’s 30,000 manuscripts in Armenian are collected here.

The task of collection began a long time ago. The first mention of it was in the 5th century A.D. Soon after Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian letters, thus establishing the foundation of a literature in Armenian language, a depository was founded at the Echmiadzin Patriarchate in Vagharshapat, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom. In it newly written Armenian manuscripts were collected together with books in other languages. Throughout following centuries Echmiadzin Matenadaran and other depositories and libraries in monasteries became centers of learning where works in various branches of art and science were created and kept even when Armenia was under foreign rule. The restoration of the Echmiadzin Matenadaran began in the 19th century. Its collection of 1809 manuscripts increased to 4660 by the eve of World War One. The work was resumed in 1920-1950 by gathering the Armenian manuscripts not only in Armenia but also in Russia and Ukraine.

In 1939 the collection was moved from Echmiadzin to Yerevan. A special research institute for the preservation and study of manuscript was added in the new Matenadaran building. The building itself was renamed Mesrop Mashtots in 1962. It is Mashtots’ huge statue that sits in front and middle of the standing, smaller statues of the six other Armenian scholars and writers [31]. Above Mashtots’ head, there is an inscription of the first sentences he translated into his new Armenian script: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.”

The first books which were translated into the Armenian alphabet were about Christian doctrines and ancient philosophers. In the Exhibition Hall of Matenadaran we saw an old Armenian translation of Aristotle. Our Museum guide extolled the value of such manuscripts: “Some Greek originals of these translations no longer exist; scholars know of these works only through their Armenian translations.” Many of the more rare manuscript are behind closed doors and not on display. Scholars, however, are allowed access to them.

According to a Matenadaran Museum’s publication the oldest written document of the Armenian people are parchment relics of the 5-6 A.D. in fragments found in caves. The oldest surviving complete Armenian manuscript, on parchment, is form the 7th century. The most rare parchment manuscript in the Matenadaran is the Lazarian Gospel of 887. The oldest Armenian paper manuscript was written in 981.

The 36 letters of the alphabet that Mashtots created so thoroughly expresses all the phonemes of the Armenian language that they are still in use today without any significant changes.

Based on the Matenadaran’s collection, its publication reports that the first philosophical work by Armenians was the 5th century Refutation of Sects, in which Armenian and Greek polytheism, and Persian Zoroastrianism were criticized from a Christian viewpoint. Secular works soon followed. They covered philosophy, the history of Armenia -such as the 5th century History of Vardan and the Armenian War about the struggle against the Sassanid Persia in 451- as well as law, exact sciences, musical notes, and poetry.

Many Armenian manuscripts have been completely destroyed. The Matenadaran Museum especially noted that thousands were lost during the Genocide. The largest manuscript in the Matenadaran, however, was the one heroically saved in the Genocide: the Homilies of Mush which was written in 1200-1202 and kept in the Monastery of the Saint-Apostles of Mush till 1915. As our guide related “it was so heavy that it was cut into two halves and was carried out of Turkey by two women. It was then put together again.” We also saw the smallest manuscript in Matenadaran which was Calendar dating to 1434.

Several of the works on display in the Matenadaran Museum were beautifully decorated “illuminated” manuscripts. “Miniatures tell more than the text in these,” our guide commented. The guide was proud of her Matenadaran: “Along with Ararat it is the pride of all Armenians.” She noted that Persian manuscripts also used miniatures. She said that, however, “Persians never used parchment; they used papyrus in their manuscripts.” Full of enthusiasm, our guide now added, “By the way, Armenians were the first Eastern people to print books. That was in Venice in 1509. Although the first printing house in the Middle East was founded in Iran 1638, let’s not forget that it was established by the Armenians of the town of New Julfa in that country.” She finished by showing us a copy of the works by the Iranian “Ebn Sina” (Avicennia) and by Copernicus and, finally, a map by Ptolemy which depicted such ancient lands of this part of the world as “Colchis, Iberia, Media, Albania, and Armenian.”


If the Matenadaran Museum preserves the works of many Armenian authors of the past, the Sergei Parajanov Museum showcases the many talents of one contemporary Armenian artist. An ethnic Armenian, Sarkis Parajanian was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1924; he later added the Russian “ov” suffix to his name. Working in Tbilisi and Kiev, Parajanov won international fame for his films, such as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Italian film-makers of the time, especially, lavished praise on his works. Michelangelo Antonioni, expressing the opinion shared by Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci, called Parajanov “one of best film directors in the world,” upon viewing The Color of Pomegranates. That very same movie, however, was banned in the Soviet Union where Parajanov’s discord with the aesthetics of social realism eventually landed him in prison on charges of immorality arising from homosexual liaisons. Some five years later, Parajanov emerged to make still two more films, The Legend of Suramskoy Fortress in 1985 and Ashough Gharib in 1988. He also moved to Yerevan.

It was now the age of perestroika, and Yerevan claimed Parajanov as its own. It proceeded to build him a house overlooking the Hrazdan gorge with a great view of Mount Ararat [32]. Alas, Parajanov died before the construction was completed, but that house has since become a memorial museum [33] where over 600 of his works are on display.

I went in. In the street level lobby there were many posters of the showings of Parajanov’s films in friendly venues, including a retrospective in the Tehran City Hall. The exhibits were in the three rooms upstairs. They included impressively diverse works by Parajanov catalogued as “installations, collages, assemblages, drawings, dolls, hats,... unpublished screenplays, librettos and various artworks which Parajanov created while in prison.” The last category included figurines from prison-issue toilet brushes, proof that a totalitarian bureaucracy could not fully suppress a free spirit. The wit and flair which I saw in Parajanov’s colorful and amusing works perfectly fit their appropriately homey venue in the Museum.


Not far from the Parajanov Museum is another institution that Armenia counts on for international fame, the Ararat Factory where its brandy is made. Armenians prefer it if you call it cognac. Our tour guide said that the French allowed the use of the word cognac, otherwise reserved only for the wine from the French region by that name, after they were surprised at how remarkable the Armenian brandy was in a blind tasting. The Ararat Factory, founded in 1887, is in fact now owned by the French Pernot-Richard group.

Our tour of the Ararat Factory was memorable by the great number of massive oak barrels of brandy we saw in its cavernous cellar. Many were marked with the dates when they were tasted, as they must be periodically. Some barrels were several decades old. I asked when they would be opened for consumption. The surprising response was that some would never be opened in the foreseeable future. “These are like national treasures,” the guide said. One barrel in particular contained a 1994 vintage. “This one we will open when a peace agreement is signed regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” our guide said.

She then invited us to sit a table where we were served the house brandy in elegant glasses. When we said it tasted quite smooth and tasty, the guide said this brandy was Winston Churchill’s favorite. “Stalin sent him 400 bottles a year.” Even now Russia is the biggest consumer of the Armenian brandy, followed by Belarus and Ukraine. Together they take some 92% of Ararat’s production, and they indeed call it “cognac.”

Genocide Memorial

A trip to Yerevan would be incomplete without a pilgrimage to the Genocide Memorial. It sits on the high grounds of what was a fortress in the Iron Age with a commanding view of Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, some 50 miles away in Turkey. The Memorial was established in response to an unprecedentedly large demonstration by the people of Yerevan on April 24, 1965, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the genocide of Western Armenians in Turkey. At the Memorial’s entrance we saw a small forest of trees planted by dignitaries from countries that had recognized the Genocide, despite denial by Turkey. The United States is not among them, but 43 of its constituent states have recognized the Genocide, including Kansas. The former Senator from that state, Robert Dole has planted a tree here, in memory of Dr. Hampar Kelikian, the Armenian who helped in his rehabilitation from wounds suffered in World War Two.

We walked on a wide path along a simple wall to our left which was engraved with the names of communities in Turkey where Armenians were massacred in the Genocide. “The number of those Armenians exceeds 300, 000,” our guide said. Facing us on the right was a 44 meter high, arrow-shaped stele of granite with a line dividing it [34]. “This Obelisk that represents Mount Ararat reaches to the heaven, symbolizing the spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people,” the guide said. “The line you see is symbolic of the separation of the Western from Eastern Armenia. The smaller section represents Western Armenia.”

Next to this spire that was a group of 12 tilting basalt slabs [35] guarding an eternal flame inside. Our guide said “This is to symbolize the refugees who were forced out of Turkey into the Syrian Desert, huddling around a fire.” The 12 slabs represent the 12 lost provinces of Western Armenia.

On one side of the eternal flame, underground lay the Genocide Museum in a grey stone hall. It told the Armenian story of the Genocide in photographs. As our guide summarized, the problems began in Turkey with the massacres of Armenians in 1896 and 1909. In 1914-1915 Armenian labor conscripts in the Ottoman army were murdered. Intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and killed on 24 of April 1915. Soon thereafter, all over eastern Turkey Armenian men were arrested and shot and their women and children were forced to march into the Syrian Desert. Those Armenians who were able to eventually reach the safety of other countries have become what is now called the Armenian Diaspora. “The first country that opened its door to them was Iran,” our guide said. (Turkey, of course, has its own narrative for these events. It includes arguments that alternatively amount to total denial, or that the evidence is fake, or that the deportation of Armenians was for their own safety, or that the Armenian Dashnak terrorists were to blame.)

Lest one forgets Armenia’s other grievance, in the Genocide Memorial area there are tombs of 5 Diaspora Armenians who took part in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nearby is a khatchkar commemorating the 1988 massacre of Armenians in the town of Sumqayit, Azerbaijan, which was an early result of that conflict.


As we drove through the southern part of Yerevan, our guide pointed out several abandoned buildings. “There used to be 200 factories in this area in the Soviet time,” she said, “only some are functioning now.” Armenia was one of the most industrialized of the Soviet Republics. The end of the Soviet centralized economy has meant the loss of both domestic market for Armenian products and easy sources of raw material for its industry. For its synthetic rubber factory, one of the few which have survived, the guide said “we now import raw materials from China instead of Ukraine.” Industrial agricultural has become prominent. According to our guide: “47% of the population of Armenia is in agriculture.” Much of that agriculture is in the uniquely fertile Ararat Valley which we were now driving through [36].

The landscape consisted of green fields embroidered by narrow water channels. This is where the finest grapes for Armenian brandy are grown, and the famously sweet apricots have been cultivated for so long that the fruit probably originated here. On this autumn day I saw watermelons, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers sold on the side of the road by farmers who grew them. The bounty of the valley’s soil is owed to the two volcanic mountain ranges of Ararat [37] and Aragats which bracket it. Its plentiful water comes from Lake Sevan as well as local rivers.

The 13,419 feet high Aragats is the highest mountain in Armenia. “Aragats means the Throne of King Ara,” our guide said. There are two Ararats: the Greater which at 16,854 is the tallest peak in Turkey, and next to it, the Lesser Ararat at 12,782 feet, also in Turkey. These two mountains were named after the Valley. According to the medieval Armenian historian Moses of Khoren the Valley (as a province) was called Ayrarat in honor of King Ara the Handsome. Ara was the great grandson of Amasya who, in turn, was the great-grandson of the Armenian patriarch Hayk. Amasya, on the other hand, called the Ararat mountains Masis after his own name.

Our guide who was telling us this history now pointed to a small town some 8 miles southwest of Yerevan as we passed it. That town is called Masis. From the windows of our bus I could see a group of school children in neat uniform walking on the sidewalk in the early morning. “The locals in this valley still refer to the Ararat mountains as Masis, not Ararat,” our guide said.

In Judeo-Christian legends Mount Ararat has been associated with the "Mountains of Ararat" where according to the Book of Genesis Noah's ark came to rest “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month.” The Bible does not specify any mountain or peak but just a mountain range in the region of Ararat. Armenians have identified that mountain as Mount Masis, which is now also called Mount Ararat.

Some ten more miles down the road we came to the city of Artashat which is the capital of the Ararat Province, the administrative name of the Valley in modern Armenia. Artashat is located next to the historical Artashat. That was one of the oldest cities of Armenia. Artashat, meaning joy of Arta in ancient Iranian languages, was founded by the Armenian King Artashes I in 176 B.C., and served as the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia from 185 B.C. until 120 A.D. Just a few miles north in the Valley was where the city of Dvin had been built by Arshakouni King Khosrov III in 335. Thereafter it was the primary residence of other Armenian Kings of the Arshakouni Dynasty (54-428). After the fall of that Armenian Kingdom, Dvin became the residence of marzpans (governors) of the province of Ararat appointed by the Persian Sassanid Kings.

To Dvin and Artashat, our guide added still other capitals of Armenia that had been established in the Ararat Valley: Armavir, Yervandashat, Vagharshapat, Bagran and Yerevan. According to her, the history of the Valley was the main story of Armenian history. “The Sassanids’ rule was replaced by the Arab domination from the 7th century for some 250 years. In the 13th century the Mongols came who were at first tolerant but after becoming Muslims became brutal. In the 14th century Timur arrived who was awful. Then came the Iranian Safavids. They fought with the Ottomans and finally, in 17th century, those two divided Armenia between themselves. Since the 18th century Russia has been with us.”

Khor Virap

The road we were driving on was historic. Although hardly busy today [38] this was a strategic highway. It connected Yerevan to Goris, close to the border of Nagorno-Karabakh and on the way to the Iranian border. “This highway goes to Iran which is about 400 kilometers from Yerevan,” the guide said. Much closer was the Turkish border. The border village of Pokr Vedi was only 5 miles south of Artashat. Here we climbed a small hill to the compound of the Khor Virap Monastery. From there we could see the houses of Turkish villages on the other side of the border [39]. This was also the closest to Mount Ararat, in Turkey, that one could get in Armenia [40]. We could see the Aras River which separated the two countries. On the Armenian side there was a Russian military base facing us. “The Russians are here to protect our border with Turkey,” our guide said.

We also noticed here a man offering us the use of his doves [41]. These were not the traditional peace doves. They were the likes of the birds which Armenian legends tell you Noah used when he landed on Mount Ararat. Noah released them from the top of the mountain so that they might find dry land. They kept coming back until they did not. It was then that Noah concluded there was land down below. From this legend the Armenians conclude that they are the descendants of Noah. They concede, however, that the Georgians have the same claim. “So we are cousins,” as our Armenian guide put it.

The doves which the man at Khor Virap was offering to us were domesticated to come back to him. We also saw the sculpture of another dove inside the Monastery compound. This had nothing to do with Noah. It was the image of “the Holy Ghost” [42]. The Monastery is a Christian shrine now. “It is a religious site that gets perhaps the most pilgrims in Armenia,” our guide said. It was not like that around the year 288. Those days, this was in fact the “deep pit (Khor Virap)” prison near the former capital city of Artashat where the Armenian Arshakouni King Trdat (Tiridates) III banished one Grigor Lusavorich because of his Christian faith. Grigor languished there for thirteen years, miraculously surviving the threat from the “poisonous snakes and scorpions,” and feeding only on “bread which was secretly carried to the dungeons by a widow everyday,” according to Armenian tradition. He emerged from the pit one day in June of 301 as the King’s own religious mentor. Thereupon, as Saint Gregory the Illuminator, he proceeded, with the help of Trdat III, to proselytize, thus making Armenia the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation.

It was not until 642, however, that a chapel was built at Khor Virap as a mark of veneration to Saint Gregory, by the leader of the Armenian Christians, Catholicos Nerses III, who was himself later buried in Khor Virap in 661. After a major Armenian victory over the invading Arab army in the 930s and the defeat of the Emir of Dvin a century later by the Byzantine army, both at this site, Khor Virap became known as an important strategic military point, with high walls, as well a religious center.

In the 13th century a Cathedral was built in Khor Virap and the monastery became an educational center as well, with students in both theology and other branches of knowledge. A library of manuscripts existed at Khor Virap until the 18th century. Its collection is now in Yerevan’s Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran.

On the ruins of the old church in Khor Virap, the larger church known as the "Saint Astvatsatsin" (Holy Mother of God) was constructed in 1662, and reconstructed again later when the earthquakes destroyed it [43]. From the opening on the right of this church I could see the iron stairs of what was said to be the original old vaulted pit of Virap. It was 6.5 meters deep and 4.5 meters in diameter, and built with rough rocks. It is now the oldest surviving vaulted construction in Armenia. I was shown an opening on the eastern side of the pit through which, it was said, the widow fed Grigor Lusavorich.

The exterior of the church is lively with a belt of yellow and white on the facade of white stones. Above its alter is a bas-relief depicting Saint Gregory holding the Bible in one hand and blessing and curing king Trdat from devil possessions with his other hand. To the Saint’s right is the image of a twisting snake. The high walls that surround the Khor Virap were fortified with seven high circular towers. This protective shield still surviving makes Khor Virap the best extant example of the fortified monasteries which became common in Armenia in the 17th century.


No sooner was Saint Gregory the Illuminator out of he pit in Khor Virap than he had a divine vision. He saw a beam of light falling on the earth in Vagharshapat, the capital of King Trdat III. At his urging the newly converted King built on that very spot the first Mayr Tachar (Mother Church) of Armenia in 301-303. The city which remained the capital for the rest of the century gradually came to be known as Echmiadzin (Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God) after the Mother Church. It has been the spiritual center of Apostolic Christian Armenians as the seat of the Catholicos (patriarch of all Apostolic Armenians), except for a period between 485 and 1441.

Christianity has long played a critical role in Armenia. Like most pre-modern societies Armenians have defended their identity by religion more than ethnicity. This was also the common practice for diverse groups in the polyglot empires which were Armenia’s often dominating neighbors, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Today, especially after the purging of Muslim Azeris, the number of non-Christians in Armenia is minute. Over 90% of population of the country belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and another 5% are Armenian Catholics who follow the Pope. Much smaller numbers are followers of other -Russian, Greek, or Assyrian- Orthodox- Churches.

The Armenian Apostolic Church’s split from the churches in the West (which in 1054 themselves split between the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox) began in 451 when the then worldwide Christian church’s Council met in Chalcedon near Constantinople. Ever since, the Armenians have disagreed with those churches over the nature of Christ. The Armenians are Monophysites: they consider the human and divine nature of Christ as combined in one body, while the churches in the West see each nature as separate.

The Armenian Church is sometimes referred to as Gregorian Church after Saint Gregory, but as the word Apostolic in the proper name of their church makes clear, the Armenians believe that Christianity was brought here by two of Christ’s Apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who are therefore referred to as “the First Illuminators.” According to our guide “They came to Armenia in the year 45, traveled through this country to preach, and converted many people. Bartholomew was martyred in Albanapolis, Armenia. Thaddeus was killed in Beirut but his relics are now in the Mother Church in Echmiadzin.” She added that “many secret Christian groups were established before Saint Gregory as a result of those Apostles presence in Armenia.”

The Armenian Church was assimilated into the Communist regime by Stalin, but in the Brezhnev years the church began to regain some independence. The Armenians who were in Diaspora, in the meantime, were divided. Some stayed with the Catholicos of Echmiadzin, while others followed the anti-Communist Catholicos of Cilicia in Lebanon. That fracture has been mostly reconciled, especially since Armenia’s independence. Our guide gave credit to “the last Catholicos, Vazgen I (1955 to 1994), under the Soviets because he was a very decent and humble person. He was such a good diplomat that the capitalists called him a Soviet spy, and the Communists called him an American spy!”

The streets of the city of Echmiadzin looked almost festive with many flags of both the church and the state of Armenia on the day we arrived. We entered the compound that is called Armenia’s Vatican from the southern entrance next to the large Papal Visit Museum built for the Catholic Pope Paul II’s visit and mass in 2001. (The Armenian Church has historically steered closer to Rome than the Orthodoxes of Constantinople.) On our right stood the 19th century building of the Gevorgian Seminary which had been closed under the Communists. Now bearded seminarians in black robes were strolling on paths in a quadrangle of hedges and lawns, with many khatchkars [44] which surrounded the Mother Church. In front of the Church was the Palace of the Catholicos, the residence of Garegin (Karekin) II who was elected in October 1999 as the Catholicos of All Armenians at the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. (The town of Antelias, near Beirut in Lebanon, however, still houses another Armenian Catholicos, the prelate of the Great House of Cilicia which, while recognizing the “primacy of honor” of the Catholicosate of Echmiadzin, has not been united with it since the latter’s re-establishment in 1441. The Catholicosate of Cilicia dates back to the migration of the Armenians to Cilicia, a region in the south of Anatolia, after the fall of the Armenian Bagratuni kingdom in 1045. In Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, they established a Catholicosate which centuries later had to move because of the Genocide; it then settled in Lebanon. The difference between the two Catholicos is said to be “purely, simply, and only a jurisdictional split”: one group believes that it moved the Holy See back to Echmiadzin.)

The Mother Church in Echmiadzin [45] was last reconstructed with plaster under Persian influence, our guide said. “Look at the frescoes of its ceiling [46] she said. The church’s carved bell tower was from 1648. The Mother Church was modest in size. The guide pointed to an altar [47] and said: “That is where the beam of light in Saint Gregory’s vision hit the ground.” A moment later I saw a woman worshiper take her child to the altar. She seemed to cross herself and then she kissed the holy book that was on display [48]. At the back of the church was its treasury. The guide told us that it contained the Holy Lance. “That is the geghard or weapon used by the Roman soldiers to wound Jesus on the day of his crucifixion,” she said. “It was brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus. He used it to cure sick people here.”

According to our guide, under the treasury was a passageway to a “pagan shrine” which had a fire altar. Not unlike other temples, this Christian church had been built over a shrine of King Trdat III’s previous religion, more specifically, the sacred site of his favored cult of Anahita, the old Iranian goddess. According to some Armenian tradition, ironically, what had led Trdat III to imprison Gregory in Khor Virap was his refusal to lay a wreath at the statue of Anahita in her shrine because of his Christian religion.


In his rounding up of the Christians that followed, the Armenian King learned about a group of virgin Roman Christian women secretly living in his Capital. They had escaped the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Among them was the beautiful Hripsimé. “King Trdat decided to take her as his concubine,” our guide said, but “Hripsimé refused him.” Thereupon, the King ordered that all of those women who totaled 32 be killed. The only one who survived “was Saint Nino who escaped to Georgia” and preached Christianity in that land. “The spurning by Hripsimé, however, threw the King into melancholy and finally made him insane,” our guide continued. Then one day, the King’s sister “in a dream saw Gregory coming out of Khor Virap and healing her brother.” They brought Gregory out of the dungeon. He healed the King and, after converting him to Christianity, immediately collected and buried the remains of “the virgin martyrs.”

According to Armenian traditions, Saint Gregory now had “an inspired vision of chapels honoring Saint Hripsimé and her sisters in Christ” which he proceeded to build at the site of their martyrdom. These were replaced in 618 by a church called Hripsimeh Martyria . We went to visit it [49]. It claimed, in its brochure, to be “a jewel of intricate design” [50]. A big portrait of Hripsimé was embedded in the wall facing the door[51]. Next to it a khachkar stood guard [52]. Hripsimé’s tomb is underneath the building. Some of her relics also are reportedly kept here.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Unlike Hripsimeh Martyria that has remained virtually intact, the much grander contemporaneous Zvartnots (Celestial Angels) Cathedral laid in ruin nearby [53]. Built in 642-661, it collapsed in the earthquake of 930. Its location on the edge of the old capital city Vagharshapat was where “a memorable meeting took place between Saint Gregory and king Trdat III,” our guide said. The Cathedral was dedicated to Saint Gregory and it “held the relics of that Catholicos.”

In its time Zvartnots was one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the world. What is left still evoked awe. Steps led to many pillars [54] that once held up the dome of a hall 45 meters high [55]. The finely carved pillars [56] depicted “pomegranates and grapes from the tree of life [57]. The guide said: “The interior of this Cathedral was a tetraconch, the shape of a Greek cross.”

The pillars in Zvartnots showed the influence of Greek and Roman architecture, a reminder that the Cathedral was constructed when this part of Armenia was under Byzantine control. The Arabs were not far away. Their occupation of Dvin forced Catholicos Nerses III who had ordered the construction of the Cathedral to move his patriarchal palace from Dvin to Zvartnots. The ruins of the Catholicos’ palace are visible around the Cathedral [58].


Earthquake also destroyed the 1st century Temple of Garni in 1679. It has since been partially restored to stand as “the only pagan temple in the Caucasus,” as our guide put it. Garni is indeed one of the oldest inhabited places in Armenia. The official sign at the site of the Temple told us that: “Excavations have uncovered artifacts dating to the Paleolithic era, while the original walls date to the Bronze and Iron Ages [59]. A look around the site showed why it was so attractive. As the sign described it “a triangular plot of land jutting out over the Azat River Gorge,” it was “naturally protected on two sides by sheer cliffs that drop 100 meters to the valley floor.” A 180-meter long wall, the remnants of which we were now seeing, closed the remaining opening between the cliffs. A temple was erected here as early as in the Urartian period (8th -6th centuries B.C.). That became the footprint for the current structure [60].

This Temple was built in the year 66 by the Armenian Arshakouni King Trdat I. Having defeated the invading Roman troops in 62, Trdat then sued for peace as he feared the Iranian Parthians who were threatening his rule from the East. He went to Rome and received the confirmation of his crown from Emperor Nero as he kneeled before him and pledged fealty: “‘I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mythras (Mythra).” Pliny the Elder credits this Armenian king with initiating Nero into certain magician rites, thus introducing the cult of Mythra (the Parthians’ Zoroastrian divinity Mithra or Mehr) into Roman pantheon. The Garni Temple, in turn, shows the influence of Roman architecture [61].

We entered the Temple to see “the hole in the middle of the floor of the temple and the opening in the ceiling which allowed the burning of fire as the ritual for worshiping Mythra,” as our guide said. She had also organized a special treat for us to enjoy the great acoustics of the place. An accomplished a capella group of five young Armenian women regaled us with Armenian folk songs, which are mostly about love. These they followed with Armenian religious music choir singing of complex harmonies [62]. When they finished a solo player tested his skills at the traditional Armenian instrument of doumbak (goblet drum).

Garni was later the site of the summer palaces of the Armenian Kings. From that period a 3rd century Roman Bath survives on one side of the Temple. The Bath’s mosaics which we saw are signs of its once artistic opulence.

The fire we observed in Garni was not from the Temple; it was related to another Armenian institution, the outdoor feeding on khoravats, barbequed food prepared in a special way. In the gardens of Garni Village, eateries run by families hospitably catered to us and many other tourists just off their buses which had parked haphazardly on the narrow side streets. Men kebabbed skewered pieces of lamb, beef, and pork over flames of woods burning in huge open tandoori ovens [63]. Women then wrapped the kebabs in lavash breads, adding onions, before serving them to us. The spread over our wooden table, shaded by trestled vines, included other delicacies which completed the alfresco feast.


Nine kilometers from Garni, in a scenic canyon dug by Azat River [64] we saw the structures, mostly rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century, which had been at times used as a summer residence by the Catholicoses [65]. Called Geghardavank (Monastery of Spear) [66], this used to be where the Holy Lance (Surp Geghard) was stored before it was moved to the Treasury at Echmiadzin. That reliquary, and the fragments of wood believed to have been from Noah’s Ark, made the Geghard Monastery a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. What structures existed then, before the devastating earthquakes of 1679 and 1840, had been mostly built in the 13th century when the Orbelian Princes came to occupy this part of Armenia which had been under control of the Muslim Seljuks of Persia. The Orbelians’ generals who made their conquest possible, called the Zakarian brothers, have left their mark. We saw their coat of arms with a lion symbolizing might on the door above the large vestibule with nine arches [67] which connected the two reconstructed churches of the monastery. In the present form the original main church had been built under the auspices of the Zakarians.

In the chapel to the right of the vestibule is a burial chamber of another Armenian lord, associated with the Zakarians, Prince Papag Proshian. We also saw his family’s coat of arms which included an eagle with a lamb in its claws. The Proshian family built most of the rock-carved cave structures for which Geghard is now famous. The carving of these and the many khachkars which one sees in Geghard was done on hills mostly made of tuff, which is consolidated volcanic ash. The most impressive which we saw was a two-room combination “carved from one rock beginning from the top down,” as our guide noted. One major carver had left his name on a corner here by inscribing it: Galdzak. He is said to have spent 40 years carving the huge piece in Geghard. “But he had helpers,” the guide said.

In the chapel on the left of the vestibule was a basin with spring water. We were told that pre-Christian inhabitants worshiped at this spring, considering its water holy. Legends say that a monastery was founded here in the 4th century. We could see many caves inside and surrounding the site. Monks once lived in them, some accessible only by ladder or rope. Geghard was in the past called Ayrivank (Cave Monastery). Saint Gregory is said to have been among those who resided here for some time. Geghard’s oldest church is called after him. Saint Gregory’s Church was originally built in the 7th century.

After its heyday in medieval times, Geghard began a period of decline. Its main church came to be used to shelter the flocks of nomads. The Monastery ceased to exist. A few monks from Echmiadzin resettled here after the Russian Power arrived in the 19th century. Then came the atheistic Soviet regime. No monk lives in Geghard now. There is, however, a small church presence there, “with three active priests,” our guide said. Right next to the main church on the site, we also noticed a wishing tree with ribbons and strips of cloth attached, a sign that folk-ways to beseech god had survived [68]. We could not determine when a tree stump needed for slaughtering sacrificial animals to the same divine end, standing nearby, was last used. [69]

Occupy Freedom Square

Metaphysics was not in the thoughts of the people who were pleading their grievances that day in Yerevan. They were exercising their modern right to democracy. In the afternoon, as I approached the wide plaza that fronts the Opera House, I was surprised to see some twenty-five tents pitched there in a group. Amidst many “Armenian Tricolors,” the bands of red, blue, and orange colors which since 1990 have been the flag of new Armenia, there was a banner on the back of a tent facing the newcomers. It said “OLIGARCHY OUT, DEMOCRACY IN” [70]. I walked in.

On the steps of the statue of Alexander Spendiaryan, the great Armenian composer of operas, two men were playing chess while a few others hovered over their game. Soon one player said shakhmat (checkmate). The word was close to its original version shah mat connoting the primacy of the king in ancient times whose being “confounded” meant the loss of the game. Armenia that claims the world-famous player Garry Kasparov as one of its own thinks of itself as having been since those ancient times “an epicenter in the chess world.” The claim is supported by the fact that even before Kasparov, the Armenian Tigran Petrossian had reigned as the world chess champion from 1963 to 1969.

With their slogan posted nearby, the “pro-Democracy” chess players of the tents were today after Armenia’s alleged new rulers, the Oligarchs. As in the neighboring Georgia which I had just visited, in Armenia the Oligarchs are blamed for the corruption of its politics so as to maintain their hold over the economy. They are considered the villainous beneficiaries of the privatization which followed the collapse of the Communist system. This was the view voiced not only by our guide but also privately by high-ranking Western diplomats we met in Armenia. Our guide believed that “Corruption was widespread among police, judges and lawyers. Also in education: consider that a university professor gets a salary of just $150 per month!”

The tents all around me were in Freedom (Azatut'yan) Square, which used to be called Theatre Square in the Soviet time. It has indeed become a place for political theater. I was attracted to a tent with the sign in English “Press Office.” Alas, nobody was there who spoke English. Instead, I was pointed to a young woman standing a few yards away. She became my guide here. She said “These tents hold the congress of the opposition. We have been here six nights. We have three main demands, all related to the corrupt elections of 2008: full investigation of the killing of eight of the protesters in March of that year; release of all opposition political prisoners; and an immediate new election.” She said there were several opposition groups represented in the Square, all united in “the Armenian National Congress, or HAK, its acronym in Armenian.” She continued, “The Government has tried to force us out of Square by closing public toilets and the cafes nearby. The first night we were here it rained hard. But we are doing O.K. Tonight we will decide how to proceed. At 6:30 the leaders will come and speak to us.” She said “The president of the Congress is Ter-Petrossian.”

We now discussed Levon Ter-Petrossian who, I remembered, was the Republic’s first President from 1991 until 1998 when he resigned as even his own key ministers, led by the Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, refused to accept a plan the President had negotiated to settle Armenia’s major international disputes. The plan called for returning most of the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh but, in return, lifting the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.

“President Ter-Petrossian knew that Armenia could not be a normal state until it had good relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey,” was how an American expert, I heard in Yerevan, had admiringly referred to that peace plan by Ter-Petrossian. My guide in Freedom Square brought me up to date. Robert Kocharyan succeeded Ter-Petrossian who then spent most of the next 10 years out of public eyes, writing a two-volume history book, The Crusaders and Armenians. “In October of 2007, Ter-Petrossian announced his candidacy in the 2008 presidential election,” she said. “He accused Kocharyan's government of huge corruption which involved the stealing of four billion dollars.” He also argued that Kocharyan and his Prime Minister, Serge Sargsyan, had come to accept a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problems very similar to his own old plan.” Ter-Petrossian placed second in the official results of the election, but he protested that the government rigged it and claimed victory. “The demonstrations of March 2008 were to support Ter-Petrossian’s claim,” my guide said. Now she abruptly pointed to a corner of the Square, a hundred yards from where we were standing, and said excitedly: “There he is, President Ter-Petrossian himself!”

I saw a man in a trench coat holding a cigarette holder in one hand, surrounded by six bodyguards, walking among the tents in the Square [71]. He shook hands with his deferential supporters, talked to them, and listened attentively. He moved regally, kissing the cheeks of women, including the one who had been my guide. A man came up to him and kissed his stretched hand. For Ter-Petrossian this seemed normal. For the other man this was a pleasure which he savored as he withdrew from the circle of people around the great leader. He was elated, smiling broadly. Was this a type of “asymmetric relationship” between a political patron and clients that political theorists have called “clientelism”?

Historians point out that the nobility always played a major role in Armenian society. I had noted the impacts of several medieval noble families: the Bagratunis, Orbelians, Zakarians, and Proshians. The number of such families has been recorded to be different at various times in the history of Armenia, from ninety to three hundred. As distinguished from the rest of the population which consisted of peasants, the nobles were called azats (freemen). That Persian word indicated the origin of the appellation: the first Armenian royal dynasty, the Orontids, ruled this land as a satrapy of the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C. In the centuries to come, however, foreign invaders decimated the Armenian nobility because they concluded that the Armenian state was based on the national aristocracy. The last noble families were the Meliks (Princes) of the Khamsa (Five) Principalities of Karabakh-Artsakh. In the 19th century, they were incorporated in the Russian Empire as the prominent representatives of Armenian origin in an effort to use their potential for acceptable governance. During the Communist regime, however, the aristocratic tradition in Armenia suffered a fatal attack. As the noblemen faced systematic oppression they disappeared as a social class.

The Soviet Union established its own Armenian elite for locally “representative” governance. The difference was that this small elite was not related by kinship. Their connection was more likely through the schools they attended and the work they did for the Soviet system. Both Ter-Petrossian and Kocharyan were deputies in the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR. Serzh Sargsyan served as the head of his hometown Stepanakert’s City Communist Party Youth Association Committee. They are all graduates of Communist Armenia’s elite schools.

At the edge of the Freedom Square as I was leaving I met a skeptical Armenian woman who was observing the tent demonstration. “Our problem is that all our senior politicians still have Soviet mentality,” she said. “That generation must pass before we have true democracy.” She said her name was Svetlana and chuckled “My parents named me after Stalin’s daughter.” She then mused: “God was good to the Jews. He kept them in the desert after Egypt for many years because he wanted to get rid of the generation that was of old mentality.”

My guide in the Freedom Square had said that Ter-Petrossian was different from the other politicians in Armenia because he had protested against the Communist regime and had gone to jail for it. Ter-Petrossian was in a Moscow prison for six months from December of 1988 because of his activity as a member of Armenian Karabakh Committee. He was there, however, along with several other members of the Committee. What especially interested me about Ter-Petrossian was his detention for a week in 1966 for active participation in the April 24 demonstration of that year which marked the anniversary of the Turkish Genocide. He had started his political career that early as a student activist in Yerevan State University, from which he would graduate in 1968. I was curious to see if the campus was still a hotbed of political activity.


The statue that greeted you at the entrance to the campus of Yerevan State University made a political statement about the role of religion in Armenian culture and national unity. Like the one in Matenadaran it depicted Mesrop Mashtots, but here he was paired with Sahak Partev: the two men were seen sharing the credit for the invention of the Armenian alphabet. The difference is indicative of the political times: the Matenadaran statue was erected in 1967 by the Communist regime, the other statue in the post independence days of 2002. Sahak Partev was the Catholicos of Armenia (338–439) who gave crucial support to Mashtots for his invention, in order thus to save the ancient culture of Armenia from disappearing under the onslaught of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. Those two Powers had divided Armenia and in their territories, respectively, forbad the use of the Syriac language in one territory and, conversely, the Greek in the other. With the new Armenian alphabet, Catholicos Sahak Partev sought to save not only the Armenians’ culture but their national unity. He proceeded to use Mashtots’ alphabet for translating into Armenian the Christian Bible, the Church liturgy, and the principal works of Greek and Syrian Christian literature.

Not surprisingly, the faculty of philology has always been prominent at Yerevan State University. The current President of Armenia was one of its many illustrious students. Ter-Petrossian attended one of its principle subdivisions, the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Yet it was not easy for me to find those faculties in the University’s sprawling campus. The University boasts of having recently integrated elements from the “Armenian Educational Institutions,” but there were no directional signs in English. The broad passageway that led from the entrance took me to a building with a massive lobby. Nobody from the crowd of students and staff inside seemed to be able to guide me. After wandering through several quadrangles I stumbled onto the modest plaza fronting the building of the Oriental Studies. I was early for appointments with two members of the Faculty which I had made through Armenian friends in Glendale, California. I sat on the steps in the plaza.

From the student body of 13,000 at the University, I had already seen several. The ones I now had the opportunity to observe more were typical. There was no visible sign of political activity. The conversations seemed to be about other subjects. The young men were in comfortable informal clothes and the women, in contrast, were mostly in high heels. Occasionally the young women came in pairs holding onto each other, not to balance on their heels but simply because that was customary. They were fashionably slim. Their main weapons of flirtation were their penetrating deep dark eyes, with which they only glanced at the men since being demure was also an expected part of their charm.

Inside, the building of the school showed the fatigue of its age after some 60 years. The functional standard design of the time, with a wide stairway dominating the lobby, did not inspire imagination. The walls were bare except for the no-smoking signs. These seemed to be observed, until I entered the room of the professor I came to meet.

The room was large enough to be a big classroom. It had a separate entry area in front and was connected to a backroom where an assistant prepared tea for the professor’s guests. The professor’s massive desk occupied most of the opposite narrower side, but the professor received me sitting at the larger conference table. He was emptying the smoked tobacco from his pipe directly onto the surface of the table. A colleague sat next to him, looking at the monitor of a laptop while smoking a cigarette. There were also two other younger men at the table.

After briefly greeting me, the professor, now with his pipe in mouth, turned his attention to one of those men who was facing him. He was a student pleading with him about the problems of an assignment in his doctorate program. “You have already flunked once,” the professor said. Then he turned to the other man who had been a former student since graduated. He was there to lend support to his friend. The professor asked him rhetorically: “How many times did you flunk?” The response was “Twice.” The professor motioned to the pleading student: “See, I cannot change the grade.” All this was apparently meant to convey that the assignment could be done again. The student fidgeted with the notebook which was open in front of him. The friend asked if was alright for the student to get “the file” on the assignment from the office. There was no resolution. As they got up to leave, the professor told them that a metal brazier he had bought when he last visited their hometown needed repair. He asked them if they could find out “What could be done.”

In the meantime the professor had ordered tea for me. He called the tea-server again, annoyed that it had not yet been served. Before the professor could talk to me about my visit, two women entered the room. One sat on a chair in the row behind the conference table, the older one at the table next to the professor. The younger woman was the daughter of the other and was now an actress, as the professor announced them to his colleague. The women both smiled. The mother who had bleached her hair blonde smiled a lot, almost flirtatiously. At this time an older lady came out of the backroom and walked with some difficulty to the other end of the conference table. She stood there for a few minutes and exchanged words in Armenian with the professor before leaving.

Now a wiry man came in and joined us at the professor’s table. He asked me if I spoke Arabic. He said he was the professor of Arabic at the Faculty of Oriental Studies. “You know, of course, that Ter-Petrossian specialized in Arabic language and literature when he was a student here.” I knew Ter-Petrossian had been born in Aleppo to an Armenian-Syrian family, but they had migrated to Soviet Armenia the year after he was born. The professor of Arabic continued: “Ter-Petrossian is fluent not only in Arabic and Armenian, but also in Assyrian, Russian, French, German, English.” Unknowingly, he was drawing a contrast with the students who had left just before his arrival. “Ter-Petrossian is amazing: he even knows some extinct languages.”

This conversation caught the attention of our host. Finally, he had a brief conversation with me. He mentioned that the Faculty of Oriental Studies had extensive courses also in Turkish and Iranian languages. Indeed the logo of the Faculty on the University’s website is an old hand-written document in Persian.

The professor was equally interested, however, in telling me about the Caucasus Institute which was founded in 2002 as a think tank. Independent of the University, the Institute sees itself as “a neutral platform for non-politicized debate on acute policy issues.” The professor gave me a June 2011 “research paper” published by the Institute on Nagorno-Karabakh. The academic nature of the publication was endorsed by the support not only from the European Union but also the Open Society Think Tank Nagorno-Karabakh Fund. As the professor called it, however, the subject of this publication was ‘political.”

It was that subject which I took up with the next professor at the Faculty of Oriental Studies I visited that day. He had the same type of room. He also chose the conference table over his enormous desk to work at. His work also included hosting people who did not have direct business with his tasks at the school. At one time both the professor whom I had just visited, and the professor of Arabic, came by to say hello to him and his guests.

Our host was standing when I arrived. He did not know me but the earlier introduction by our mutual acquaintance from Glendale was enough for him to give me a hug and warmly receive me among his other guests. He offered me coffee and cookies from a plate on the conference table. Then he resumed his discussion with a decorate student in the department of Archeology who had come with her faculty advisor for help in deciphering an inscription on an Armenian building from the era which our host happened to know well. He told them he would be happy to go to the site of the inscription with them sometime soon. Now the professor turned to chat with a former student who had migrated to the U.S. and was visiting Yerevan with her husband, an Armenian physicist originally from Lebanon who worked at the Californian Institute of Technology. A box of chocolate was soon opened and passed around.

When everyone else left, we were able to engage in a conversation. We were of the same age, and I told the professor that I admired his actively continuing his teaching work. It turned out that he had equally heavy “social public obligations” as the head of a charitable foundation for “large families” in dire need, who had been displaced because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In sorrow, he said “There are as many as 12 in some of these households.” I told him about my having seen the camp of Ter-Petrossian supporters earlier. He reminded me that in the 2008 election Ter-Petrossian received only 21.5% of the votes. He said the present Armenian government “will stay because of Nagorno-Karabakh.” He did not say he favored it. The implication was that public sentiment regarding Nagorno-Karabakh favored the tougher position of Serzh Sargsyan -who was a prominent leader in the battles of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and helped found both the Nagorno-Karabakh's and Armenia's armed forces- and Robert Kocharyan who had been President of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994 to 1997. My host said “I am a colonel of the Nagorno-Karabakh army, but I am for peace.”

The professor got up and opened a bottle of red wine which was from Chile. It was past five in the afternoon. Pouring me a glass, he said with a smile “We drink at this time.” He said “ Of all countries, Iran helped Armenia a lot during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and still does.” He added “Iran should be the great power of the region, not Turkey which is supported by the U.S. for its own reasons.” This last comment reflected the professor’s long-term historical perspective. He said “Relations between the Armenians and Iranians went back to the ancient times, especially during the Ashkanis, when the royal families of the two lands intermarried.” The Armenian Arshakouni (Arsacid) ruling family (54 -428) is considered a branch of the Iranian Ashkanis who ruled from 250 B.C. to 226 A.D. My host went even further back in history. He talked about the valuable services of Armenian soldiers under the previous Iranian Achaemenid Dynasty (559-330 B.C.). He was of the opinion that the last Achaemenid King, Darius III, would not have lost to the Greeks under Alexander at the decisive battle of Issus in 333 B.C. if he had deployed his division of Armenian soldiers “on the correct flank.” He said “Those Armenians were good cavalry with zereh (armor) both on man and horse.”

He paused to smile after using the Persian word for armor. “You have seen the statue of Sahak Partev at the entrance to the campus. The name Partev (Parthev) tells his origin as a Parthian. There are many words we share with the Persians from the time of the Parthians, otherwise know as the Ashkanian (Ashkanis).” He said Armenian, which is an Indo-European language unlike the languages in the neighboring Azerbaijan (Turkish) and Georgia (Georgian), shares more than 1,100 roots of words with the Persian. He exclaimed “Some languages do not have more than 800 roots in total!”


In between the courses he served me, the waiter at the restaurant in Yerevan’s Marriott Hotel took time to belt out a Charles Aznavour oldie. His voice was operatic and he also sang some arias. But who could best Aznavour? The audience, in fact, adored Aznavour as one of their own. The Marriott was where many Armenians in Diaspora stayed when they came for a visit to the old country. The ones I saw were not the richest but they seemed well off. They are, indeed, the closest to an Armenian middle class, the proverbial lynchpin for a democracy. The problem is they do not want to live in Armenia. About eight million of them are scattered all over the world. The population of Armenia is only a little more than three million and declining. Of these, few are rich and far too many are poor.

The Armenians who started living abroad centuries ago established a reputation as a merchant class. Their numbers increased sharply as an eventual result of Turkish Genocide of 1915-1923. There are now big groups of them in France, the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Russia. Their size continues to grow by new immigrants from Armenia as well as from such old Armenian habitats as Iran. They predominantly speak Western Armenian which differs somewhat in grammar and pronunciation from Eastern Armenian spoken in Armenia and Iran. They have done well everywhere they have settled. In Yerevan, an eyewitness told me a story about when the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, the Armenian Anastas Mikoyan came to Washington to help diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In a large meeting room at the State Department, an American Armenian shouted welcome to the visiting Mikoyan in Armenian. The Prime Minister showed great interest, immediately asking who that person was. When the man introduced himself as a U.S. diplomat, Mikoyan quipped: “You see, we are not doing too badly in Russia either.” Neither, in fact, did Mikoyan’s brother, Artem, the co-designer of the Mig military aircraft.

The glossy magazine for guests at the Marriott was full of articles about the likes of Charles Aznavour, Cher, Andre Agassi, and Garry Kasparov. Armenia basks in the fame of “its” luminaries living abroad. Those in Diaspora, in turn, seek connection to their roots in the turf now ruled by an independent Armenian state. I was struck at how location-specific were the legends that connected Noah’s doves to the Ararat Valley and Saint Gregory’s vision to the Mother Church in Echmiadzin. My friends from California and Michigan who chose to hold their wedding ceremony in Garni were not atypical, as Father Aspet also told us about his weddings of Armenians from abroad at Haghpat.

When an independent state of Armenia did not exist for them to be called the homeland, many of those in Diaspora came to refer to themselves as “citizens of the world.” Retrospectively, that brave face might appear to have been an existential denial, a euphemism. It is no wonder that the Armenians in Diaspora now spend so generously for Armenia. The Armenian government that has established a Ministry of Diaspora wants to make sure that their money is appreciated. As my taxi approached the Yerevan airport I noticed a big sign addressed, I assumed, mainly to the departing Diaspora passengers. It said “Enjoy your journey. Your money is safe.” One may conclude that both sides were at last able to enjoy the safety of their precious common legacy.


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