Armenian pictures, 1977

We do not have to present Gábor Illés to our readers. Those who travel with us, know him well from the trips of río Wang, and those who only read us, from his fantastic photos regularly published in the reports “Together in…”, following our trips (collected here). This is his first independent post here in río Wang, which proves that thirty-eight years ago he was just as good photographer. Historical pictures from a former province of a vanished empire.

In a 2013 post (Armenia – stops, movement, colors), Catherine painted a rather depressing picture of the current state of affairs in Armenia. Above all, of the “cities of the valleys”, sacrificed to 19th-century industrialization, and definitively marginalized by Communism and Stalinism of the 20th century. She contrasts them with the “hills overlooking the valleys”, where villages and churches lived back then, and “opened doors to the passer-by, the traveler, the wanderer.”

And, in spite of this, to have a positive final word, she closes her post with the photo (from around 1910) of a young Armenian woman in festive dress, standing in fresh springtime surroundings, with this phrase: ”Spring will certainly come soon.”

I cannot argue with her.

Either with the diagnosis, or with the fact that there is always hope.

I am grateful to fate, that in 1977 I could spend a long month in Armenia. The occasion was offered by a youth exchange camp, common among the countries of the Socialist block. By now I have managed to digitize most of the three hundred color slides taken then, and it is with great pleasure that I entrust to the host of this blog the composition of them into a photo post.

I feel like my photos, taken 38 years ago, support Catherine’s article. The vast majority of them represent the monasteries standing for centuries, or more than a thousand of years in the highlands, the incredibly elaborate cross-stones, and the beautiful Armenian scenery. And it’s no accident that almost no city (no modern city) pops up among them. If it does, it is rather for the sake of contrast (a deterrent example).

None of us had any plan for what to see in this country. At that time, you know, there was no internet, no Lonely Planet. To tell the truth, we should have not even expected to travel. We were young, we had almost no money, and in terms of the Soviet laws of those times we should have not even go into the countryside without a special permit. It turned out that there, hitchhiking worked very well, and that there was virtually no control. From Sevan (our town) and Yerevan we could reach any point of the country, and even Tbilisi, in Georgia!

Regarding the targets, we relied – apart of our instincts and, of course, good luck – on the postcards bought there, in which fantastic historic churches lured us on to more and more adventures. Over time, a poster entitled “Illustrated Guide-Map of Historical Architectural Monuments of Soviet Armenia”, became our Bible, which roughly showed the approximate location of the most important monuments.

As for the photos, I only had a 50 mm kit lense to my Practica Super TL, and the raw material was limited to 7 or 8 rolls of Orwo (East Germany) slide film.

Many photos would of course require a story, but now let the pictures speak for themselves.


Hasmik Harutyunyan: Nazani. From the album Armenia Anthology.

The peaks of the Caucasus from the plane Kiev-Yerevan

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Across the mountains, to the north of Sevan

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Hovhannavank (see also here and here)

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Landscape near Geghard

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Map of Armenian monasteries with Armenian and English text
Below: The photographed monasteries on the modern map

3 comentarios:

Catherine dijo...

A thought-provoking post.
First of all, for the deepness of the colors, the qualities of the shadows, the textures and contrasts of the photos which remind us how much more beautiful the good old color slides were, compared with the homogeneity of digital photography. I was particularly impressed by the picnic image in the first mosaic which really looks like a painting (certainly a socialist realist painting of course…).

But from all these colors and lights and shadows, a second thought. You can not set apart your description of a journey from the place where you stand when you come to write it: it isn't only that you traveled so many years ago when the country was different, not only that you traveled in summer, that there was that gorgeous sun everywhere, that people wore those colorful clothes — it's also that your own photos were taken by somebody who is still and isn't anymore — you. So, we look at them and in the same movement, we're seeing you, the photographer as a young man. And as youth and past are often linked to spring and summer and opening and hope, you watch your color slides and, oh, that was so great, that journey and that youth of mine — and we watch them and, oh, I wish I could have been there, too, at that time, too.

But I was not. I remembered that while watching the old color slides. Even if I traveled in Armenia some years ago, it's still a part of my present — it was still a part of present when I wrote the post. I traveled in April, coming from Georgia, Georgia all blooming with spring, and it was still winter in Armenia. The road passed mountains all covered with snow, it passed desolate towns with dejected men in lines along the road, stooping figures in black jackets. I came from Tbilissi to Yerevan and you can't imagine two more different cities — from happy, exuberant, proud, crowded, dirty, beautiful Tbilissi to red, stony, orthogonal, mournful Yerevan.
But what stays intact in my mind is that surprising, unintelligible fact that people gathered in these terrible valleys, in those unbelievable industrial towns, while up the montains the villages, the monasteries, the churches were empty. Of course, there was nothing to do do up there — but no less than in the valleys as all the inhabitants, here and there, seemed to be just waiting. So why not wait where you have, at least, something beautiful to admire ?

Gabor dijo...

Catherine, first, thank you for your comment, I was really glad to read it. If you thought that my post was thought-provoking, what could I say about yours? In fact, it's even more of that, at least for me.

Yes, I can't set apart my view of that journey from the fact that it was so long ago, when we were young and boundlessly happy for being able to see something that was unique, exotic and wonderful.

We admired the ancient monuments, the mysterious monasteries and the gorgeous landscapes, as this can hopefully be seen from the themes of my photos. But this range is a bit incomplete. The full spectrum of what we loved in the country would definitely include more Armenian people. It was just a more difficult photo theme, and/or I was not skilled enough to capture those moments that proved the hospitality and friendliness of everybody who we met, without exception. The "picnic" photo somewhat indicated this, but let me add just one story to confirm my statement. Our eyes were glittering when a man, who gave us a lift, went into ecstasies (after realizing we were Hungarian) over the "great composer Liszt". You can imagine how deeply affected we were when he started to hum Hungarian rapsodies, there, beyond the Caucasus. I could continue with similar great moments of that journey endlessly.

And this experience may be something totally different for you and me. I'm sure it's not because we as travelers were different, or the seasons or our comparison bases were different. It should be the years passed between our journeys. These years must have changed the world, as well as Armenia, a lot.

This difference is not a good sign. My adoration to Armenian people came mainly from the personal experience I gained 38 years ago (besides from reading The Fourty Days of Musa Dagh). While I'd love to return once, at the same time I'm afraid of being disappointed. Not in the monasteries, nor in the landscapes. They are the same, I hope. The "valleys" (=cities) were already declining at that time, so I'm prepared to see those things got worse since then. I'm only afraid of being disappointed in the people.

See you soon,

Catherine dijo...

Another book, a great one, Philip Marsden's The Crossing Place, A Journey among Armenians. It was written in 1991, so you get in one book the Lebanon (with civil war), Syria (without one), Turkey from Mussah Dag and Ani to Istanbul, gloomy post-socialist Romania and then, crowning everything, collapsing USSR from Odessa to Georgia (with civil war) and Armenia (with civil war, pogroms, Karabagh…). And everywhere, a lot of Armenians, some of them dead, but some very alive and pleasant and talkative and interesting…
A great travel book, the kind of book you like to read when you travel — I'll take it in Georgia.

And see, I believe in people, it's more or less the only thing I believe in. People in the Caucasus are incredible.