At the Kutaisi airport, just like at this time last year, we each receive a bottle of Georgian wine along with our stamped passports. We say thanks with madlobt, the passport controller accepts it with a grateful smile. They start to distribute the Saperavi at Christmas, by the tourist season it runs out, so it serves as a reward for the courageous, who set out to discover the Caucasus during wintertime. Which, for the time being, does not seem foolhardy, as in Kutaisi we are received by a warm spring night, and the daytime temperature rises above twenty degrees. We go into the city by marshrutka, a young father sits next to us with his little daughter, they have also come to discover the country, the mother with the two other children will arrive on the next flight. He is for the first time in Georgia, but he is surprisingly well acquainted with the sights. They want to follow more or less the same route as we with the fellow travelers of río Wang. He asks for help, how to get to different places, what to see. I give him advice, I recommend the blog for more details. “I know it”, he looks at me in surprise, “I picked up there what I know of Georgia.”
In the Soviet republics, the post-modern style which denies the past arrived together with the collapse of the system, so a good part of their contemporary public sculpture come across as infantile gags conceived as a rejection of the heroic monuments of socialism. No pathos, no lofty message. However, their sculptors also need some model, and where else could have they turned for inspiration but to the heritage of socialism. The care-free dancing and singing girls and boys, who used to proclaim from the friezes of Soviet schools and cultural centers that it is day by day better to live here, have now descended to the squares. And although they are conceived as art without message, nevertheless they apparently bring with them their original meaning, the unbearable lightness of being.
The level of Rioni falls a lot in the winter months, when no new supplies come from the mountains. The river reveals the white bones of its rocky bed. We walk along it. Its bank was once lined by wealthy merchant houses with balconies overlooking the river, the palace row was the pride of the city. After the disappearance of their former inhabitants, the city also turned away from the river, the theater of representation became the main square rebuilt in Stalin Baroque style. The merchant houses have not been maintained for almost a hundred years, their existence will soon come to an end. And through the increasing gaps-in-the-teeth, you can glimpse sights that were buried and preserved for a hundred years in the bourgeois quarter which became the backyard of the city, the archaeology of fin-de-siècle Kutaisi.
The architectural focus of the hill rising above the city is the 12th-century Bagrati Cathedral, but the center of its everyday life is the small anonymous triangular square with three old horbeam trees that developed at the intersection of Debi Ishkhnelebi Street, named after the four singing sisters of Kutaisi, and the Kazbegi Street which bends up from the river bank, and on the hilltop leads to the cathedral. During the settlement of Kazbegi Street, its level has sunk by about a meter, but the triangle between the trees has remained at its original level. It has become a raised podium, on which the locals have installed benches and an umbrella. All day long you can see four or five people sitting here, taking Nescafé in plastic cups from the adjacent small shop, chatting with each other, and, like the cats, watching from this high-up observation point the traffic in the streets, and the panorama of the city opening up to the Lesser Caucasus.
By public demand, a recording from the Ishkhneli sisters of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko. The recording was made in the 1950s, probably during the life of Stalin
The weather in Kutaisi is mediterranean, while towards Tbilisi it is already raining, and the Khashuri Pass is covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. As we are heading to the Armenian border in the dawn twilight, it starts snowing, first hesitantly, and then with more and more resolve. In the next two days, about a meter of snow falls upon Armenia, which deletes access roads from the map, blocks the roads leading to the monasteries in the highest mountains, and transforms our car into a train-car running between tire ruts in the ice. However, it also changes the mountain landscape into a dreamlike scenery which is never seen in the summer photos. “Armenia receives its dear guests with freshly fallen snow”, consoles us courteously the taxi driver in the shop at the border, where we enter for an Armenian phone card.
The monastery fortress of Akhtala was built in the 13th century by Ivane Zakaryan, the powerful general of Tamar, Queen of Georgia. Its Orthodox church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, is not used by the Armenians, who follow a different – Gregorian – confession. Nevertheless, over the past five years, the locals have repaired the crumbling buildings, had the beautiful medieval frescoes restored, and they apparently hold worship services in the church. “Who uses the church?” I ask Volodya, the Armenian taxi driver living in the neighborhood, who with his wife takes care of the church, has the key, and runs a coffee shop and grocery store for the tourists in the ground floor of their home. “The Greeks.” In the 18th century, several skilled Greek workers were recruited to work in the local copper mines from the Black Sea, whose descendants still speak the archaic Pontic dialect. “They are also Orthodox, like the Georgians. They are several hundred, they fill the church on Sunday. They even had a priest brought in, he lives down in the town, next to the cable car of the mine.”
A curious modern sculpture stands next to the gate of the monastery fortress, which looks like two bicycle tires leaning to each other. “What is this?” “Two wedding rings,” explains Volodya. “The newly wed couples go through it. It is believed that the couples who went through it, will never divorce. When Russian couples visit the monastery, I often encourage them to go through it. They laugh, but they don’t go. Among them it is not usual to get married for a long time.”
In the canyon all along the river Debed, copper mines operate, once a quarter of Soviet copper production came from here. The town of Alaverdi had been founded in the 1780s for their exploitation by the Argutinsky-Dolgoruky family, the descendants of the Zakaryans, and the town was developed into a huge industrial city by the Soviet system. The literature deduces its name from the Turkish term Allah-verdi, “given by Allah”, but Armenian pride traces it back to the Armenian term Ալ-վերտ, Al-verd, “red stone”. Although its cliffs are not red, the river once flowed red from here, one of the most polluting of Soviet industrial cities, toward the Kura and the Caspian Sea. After the disappearance of Soviet industry, the river became clean, but the city dead. We approach it on the road clinging to the wall of the canyon, high above the river, we look down upon it from the edge of the road. The city is lying beneath us, like the decomposing corpse of a huge dragon fallen in the riverbed, with bizarre cliffs towering above it like protruding ribs, the empty eyeholes of its factory buildings have been blackened, many parts of the former industrial city fabric are dissolved in ruins. In some places, a patch of life has remained, a dilapidated Soviet housing estate where people still live, those who have managed to keep some work at the here and there still fuming factory chimneys, or those who simply had nowhere else to go.
The only surviving monument of the old Alaverdi is the stone bridge built in 1196 over the Debed river, on whose side rails four lazy stone cats bathe in the February sunshine. On the hill above the town stands the royal monastery of Sanahin, built in 996, its columns are also flanked by stern-looking cats. Alaverdi apparently used to be the city of cats. Whether they left the city because of the downturn, or on the contrary, their departure caused the end of the city’s prosperity, we will never know. In Alaverdi today there are no cats. Hungry stray dogs roam the abandoned squares of the city.
The monastery of Haghpat was a center of medieval Armenian church. The monastery, founded in the 10th century by the kings of Armenia, was the burial place of the Northern Armenian branch of the Bagratuni dynasty, a famous monastic school and library, as well as a singing school, where Sayat Nova, the legendary 18th-century Armenian poet and bard served as a priest. The monastic community survived the Khorezmian, Mongolian, Uzbek, Turkish and Persian invasions, they only disappeared in Soviet times. A friendly young man comes up from the village with the key, he saw the car stopping in front of the monastery. He happily explains how they managed to organize a community for the restoration of the church and the monastic buildings over the past ten years. They have done a huge labor indeed, more or less professionally. “What time is there worship in the church?” “Every day at ten a.m. and at five p.m.” “So often?” I say in surprise. “Will you have it today at five p.m. as well?” “I do not know. It always depends on whether the priest comes up from the village. I am here every afternoon at five o’clock, I open the church, ring the bells, and wait. If he does not come, I close the doors, and go home.”
From the valley of the Debed river a steep serpentine takes you up to a plateau overlooking the gorge, to Odzun, the Village of Snakes. At the pass, an old khachkhar stands on top of the vertical cliff, from here you can see the whole valley, from the bend of Sanahin to the monastery of Kobayr. On the riverbank, small buildings, a railway station, blocks of flats. They were already there in Gábor Illés’ photo of forty years ago, but then they were much more orderly, now you can see the signs of disintegration even from this height. Huge birds circle above us. Griffon vultures, the dwellers of lonely cliffs, we will meet with them many more times in the Armenian mountains. At first only the male appears, he describes broad circles above the gorge. Then, when I photograph him using zoom, suddenly his mate appears as well, and as if they felt that a recording is going on, they perform a superb, precisely coordinated dance in the air. In the end, the female flies to the south, towards Odzun, and the male comes toward me, passing quite low, exactly over my head, as if winking at me, to find out whether I loved the show.
The church of Odzun was founded in the 7th century by Catholicos Yovhannes, about whom the historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi recounts six centuries later with the deepest respect, how he sold Armenia to the Arab Caliph, just to avoid having to endure the presence of the heretic Byzantines in the country. Next to the church stands one of the most interesting monuments of early Armenian art, two 7th-century stone steles under a double stone arch, carved with scenes. According to the 10th-century chronicle of Zenobi Glak, these were erected above the tomb of two Hindu princes, Gissaneh and Demeter, who, fleeing their father, founded here a prosperous Hindu kingdom. After the conversion of the Armenians to Christianity, they unleashed a civil war for the survival of their Hindu religion, but they were defeated. According to the chronicle, their party was also supported by several thousand Armenians from India, who adopted the Hindu faith. All this, of course, is a compilation full of fantasy. The scenes on the two columns actually represent the twelve apostles, and depict how Saint Gregory the Illuminator converted the bear-headed King Tvrdat, and with him the whole of Armenia, in 301, which of course is at least as much of a miracle as the existence of a wealthy Hindu empire among the barren mountains of Northern Armenia. However, a significant Armenian merchant diaspora really did exist – and has survived to this day – in India, so the erudite monk was able to combine them with a reason into his legend. Just as Tsaddik Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, was defended by his Hassidic followers after his vision of Krakow in flames proved to be false: Even if there was no fire in Krakow, thanks to the Eternal One, but the rabbi indeed sees that far!
Kobayr is one of the most significant monasteries in the northern part of Armenia. Yet we drive by it, because no road sign points the way. When a few kilometers later we discover that we have passed it and turn back, there it stands majestically, with its huge tower, a hundred meters above the valley. We turn on the unmarked road next to the railway. A gray-bearded man is unloading from a motorcycle sidecar, certainly captured from the Germans, an endless amount of food for the pigs which are freely roaming there along the tracks, and also in an endless number among the few houses of the tiny village. “Where is the road to the monastery?” “Which monastery?” “The local one, the monastery of Kobayr.” From the fish-like facial expression I see that I must begin from a distance. “I am looking for an old church here.” He is enlightened, he beckons with a lordly gesture towards the streets of the village covered with pig shit, as if he offered the big Koh-i-Noor diamond to me. “That way.” The steep path leads through private courtyards up to the forest. Most of the monastery and its church may have been ruined by an earthquake before 1868, since this is the date of the earliest graffiti on the wall of the sanctuary. The surviving beautiful Georgian-style frescoes and Georgian-language inscriptions attest that this monastery was also founded by the Orthodox Zakaryan family. We catch sight of a young man standing in front of the bell tower, he slowly turns towards us. “Do you live here?” “No, in Tumanyan,” he points to the town lying some three kilometers further down in the valley. “But I come up here to pray. It is more quiet here.”
Up to the 7th-century monastery of Hnevank a five-kilometer road leads from the main road after Tumanyan, but as soon as we turn up onto it, we stop. If we ourselves had not seen how deep the trenches were, dug out by water running down the steep road, which in happier times had asphalt, then from the desperately flashing headlamps and horn honks of the cars coming on the main road, we would have clearly grasped that it was not advisable to set out on it. We study the map, and we decide to take a forty-kilometer detour to the monastery through Vanadzor and Stepanavank. When we look up from the map, we see we are not alone. An old man waiting in front of the tiny house on the other side of the road. He has placed a table at the roadside with some two-liter plastic bottles on it, together with a grand inscription in Armenian and Russian reading: GASOLINE. Apparently this is the most common problem of those who usually get stuck here.
At the side of the road between Kobayr and Vanadzor, we come to a shack advertising food, a steamy one-room eatery smelling of ash, smoke, mutton and cabbage. We step inside and find the only available table next to a wood-burning stove, and we sit down in the sphere of its heat. Two pots sit on the stove, one with a block of butter melting into some peas, the other covered. Three men are playing cards at the only other table, grumbling out their bids and arguing over each other’s playing, while a woman prepares their food. We order coffee and discuss tomorrow’s itinerary.
Recording by Lloyd Dunn
Between 1935 and 1992, Vanadzor was named Kirovakan after Sergey Kirov, the secretary of the Leningrad organization of the Communist Party, murdered and then mourned by Stalin. The main square, also named after Kirov, is an exemplary case of the so-called Stalin Baroque. A veritable parade square, with a council house built of red stones in the middle of it, with characteristic multi-level arches on its facade, and with two high-rise buildings on the two corners of the square, the provincial versions of Moscow’s Seven Sisters. One of the two is the Gugark Hotel. We go in. Downstairs, in the doorman’s room with musty air, two soldiers sit together with the old concierge at a table that has been exploited by several generations. “We are looking for the hotel.” “Fourth floor, go by lift, I will inform them by phone.” In the door of the elevator, which moans and rattles with an archaic machine voice, a fifty-year-old Russian barishnya with bleached hair awaits us. “Do you want a room with cold water or with hot water?” “With hot water, if you have it.” “Of course we have, why else would I ask?” she boasts. She shows us the room, which seems also unchanged from Kirov’s time. It is amazing that it has hot water, even water at all. “And is there wifi?” “Pardon?” “Internet.” “I’m sorry, we do not have such a thing. Our guests do not use it.” For a short while, I even have the sense that we could be placed under arrest. If not, I will definitely include this location in a retro-tour, something like “The atmosphere of the Soviet Union”.
The Ukrainian hotel scene from the film Everything is illuminated (2005)
The Armenian phone card purchased at the border does not work, we have to go to Beeline’s Vanadzor office to have it replaced. I park the car facing the agency, in a no-parking spot, I guess, so from time to time I look out what’s going on with it. Suddenly, I see a big man going curiously around it, peeping through every window, trying to open the doors. I run out. “What do you want with the car?” “Where did you buy the Borjomi?” We had loaded the rear seat back in Georgia with a two-week allotment of the mineral water, legendary all over the Soviet Union. “Will you give me one?” He is street vendor of vegetables, and we parked in his place. “Yes, I will. But wait a moment with unloading, we will soon finish our business, then we will go away.” He sorts through the contents of his box, he gives us two apples for the bottle of water. Both are wrinkled and old, and one of them later proves to be rotten.
Until 1935, Vanadzor was called Gharakilisa, Black Church in Turkish, after its church built in the 13th century of the nearby black stone mined here. In the churchyard, a small hill rises, with tombstones, sarcophagi and tablet shaped khachkars on it. And in the secret recesses among the centuries-old stones, as if they had retreated there to defend a history from times hostile to it, there stand two small busts. If someone had slept through the past century, and therefore was not able to recognize him immediately, the bust offers a clue in the form of a hammer and anvil, which refers both the steely name of the man, and the role he played in the forging of a new society.
How did these two statues come here? Were they originally intended for this place, or were they evacuated from somewhere else in response to the turns of history? Who might have needed two garden dwarves like these, and which priest of the Armenian church, persecuted by Stalin, allowed them to find shelter in the churchyard? I recall the urban legend, to which every Armenian swears, that Stalin’s real father was an Armenian, just as every big personality must have some drops of Armenian blood. Might this be the reason for permitting the two statues to rest in the churchyard, the objects of the cult of Armenian blood in the religious cult place?
While driving on one of the most beautiful roads of Armenia towards Dilijan, the sun finally comes out. We pass by Lermontovo. The town, named after the great poet of the Caucasus, was founded by the Molokans in 1825. This Russian religious sect of 16th-century origins moved to the edges of the empire due to the persecution of the Orthodox Church, and became exemplary colonists with the support of the Russian state. Their descendants still live here in a tight, closed community.
Mists from the snow, heated by the strong mountain sun, rise in dense formations. The road and the entire landscape is steaming. Behind the village, a white cloud of steam rises from the valley, behind the mountains another, higher mountain range emerges, white as snow.
For us, first-semester students of art history, the Sevanavank and Hayravank monasteries were the first Armenian churches we had to study for the exams of medieval history of architecture. We had to know five hundred medieval churches in detail, and had to be able to tell what we see when we enter them, when we go through them, when we stop at the second pillar. Now, after thirty years, I am doing the exam again. The pillar is here, but I do not see what I had imagined. But something much more impressive. At the time, we did not count on the sight the archaic irregularities of the regular forms, the red discolorations of the blocks of the dome, the hundreds of tiny khachkars carved into the columns, the various blues and grays of the lake and of the clouds descending very low over it.
I am enriched with valuable art historical insights. I conclude that the khachkar, which is always reproduced in the literature as if it stood alone on an island, just like the last Armenian tombstone in Aghtamar, with the infinite lake and sky behind it, is in fact the outermost piece of a group of khachkars, an entire medieval cemetery along the monastery of Hayravank. And it is not bad like this, merely different. Like when the Little Prince sees for the first time an entire rose garden.
When I thoroughly explore a site, I often take a picture of the same things going into it as I do coming out. The two images are often markedly different. The first one is dominated by a fresh impression, by what grabbed me at the first sight. The second is more nuanced with an understanding of the structure and its relation to the whole during the slow walk. It is often difficult to say which is the better.
In the city of Sevan, the roads have not been cleared of snow. Not only now, but for a whole week, since the beginning of the heavy snowfall. The meter-high snow has since been compacted by the cars into an icy road surface, the whole city is slowly sliding forward on it, like penguins. We are looking for a hotel, but after an hour we come to realize that the structure of hospitality in Sevan is like in Odessa. In the town itself, founded only in the 19th century, nobody stays for the night, because there is no reason to do so. The big hotels are on the beach, but they are closed in winter. We are searching for options in the internet. The leading one is a family pension seven kilometers away, in the village of Tshighkanq, which is praised to the skies and scores 93 of 100. What can be so good here, in this homeland of eternal ice? The sun is setting by the time we arrive through the snowfields to the village. The house stands in the street below the medieval church on a hill. At first sight, it appears to be an ordinary two-story building, but on entering, you are received into the refined comfort of Italian pensions. Stylish décor, a blazing fireplace, set tables. The question of whether they have a free room in February, far out of season, is intended as merely poetic, but it immediately turns out that it is not, because the hotel is almost full. At one of the big tables, a young French group, at the other, a company well-off Armenian gentlemen. The hostess and the cook speak in French to the French guests, almost without an accent. From the sophisticated menu we choose the endemic Sevan trout. The preparation and serving is in line with the standards of the hotel, an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
Bjni is in Armenia what Borjomi is in Georgia, the source of the widely sold and top-rated national mineral water. It is located along the old Sevan-Yerevan road, which has been overshadowed since the construction of the highway, we do not know how clean it is. It is worth a try, we agree, that at the first bad patch we will turn back. But no bad patches appear. The road has been cleaned to the width of a car, the problem being that when two oncoming cars meet, one must give way. So we must maneuver a while. But this happens only once. In the golden hour we are alone on the road, which gradually rises as the valley next to it gradually descends. We are in the canyon of Razdan river, flanked by fantastic towering rock formations on each side. Twenty minutes later, at the edge of the village another steep eagle’s nest receives us, with the 7th-century church of St. Sarkis on the top. The tiny village also has the monastery of the Mother of God, built in 1031, with beautiful khachkars in the garden, as well as the 13th-century church of St. George and three further medieval churches, and the 9th or 10th-century fortress of the Pahlavuni family. Already Jean Chardin had marveled at this richness, when, in the winter of 1673, he stayed a night in the local monastery. His detailed description will be quoted in my post dedicated to Bjni.
We speed along at ninety-five km per hour on the Yerevan highway, according to a policeman’s measurement, and he also tells us that somewhere before this, there was a speed limit sign showing seventy. “Our dear guests!” he starts his recitativo, which immediately makes me understand, that this amusement will be expensive indeed. He is registering my data, he asks about our route. “At Lake Sevan, have you seen the monastery?” “Of course, we have also visited both of them, the church of the Mother of God and that of the Holy Apostles in Sevanavank, as well as the monastery of Hayravank, and the cemetery of Noratus.” He puts down the pen, his bear face is filled with obvious pleasure. “Are you that interested in Armenian monuments?” “Of course, that’s why we came. Armenia is beautiful, and its monuments are very special.” “Yes, the first Christian country in the world,” he boasts. “That’s right, since 301, a thousand and seven hundred years ago,” I reply. We have a casual chat about history, roads, our common Soviet past. I interview him in detail about the condition of the roads wherever we intend to go. His information subsequently proves correct. “Look, how about if…” he says at the end, and lowers the punishment to a few euros. I hand it over. “No paper is needed about it,” I say the formula proven in the Ukraine, but he whistles. “It’s not like this, jigeryan, my heart and soul,” and he fills out the official form. I take it. “This good impression on the Armenian police was worth this money,” I tell him. We shake hands.
The statue of Mother Armenia in Victory Hill is towering over Yerevan on a gigantic pedestal, with threatening scale, it can be seen from all parts of the city. The pedestal and size are telling. For the first time Stalin approved such a plan in 1931, that of Boris Iofan for the Palace of Soviets to be built in the place of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was also intended as the 425-meter-high pedestal of a gigantic statue of Lenin. The palace was never built, but after the victory in World War II, they started to build statues of this scale in all the capitals of the enlarged empire – to Stalin. In some places the whole statue has since disappeared, like in Budapest. In some places at least the pedestal has been preserved, because it would have been a terrible job to break it down, like in Prague, where it still pays tribute with its sheer size to the greatness of the invisible Generalissimus. And in some places it has been reused, according to Soviet customs, like in Yerevan, where they set the Mother of the Nation in the place of the Father of Nations.
The (Lady) Prisoner of the Caucasus is one of the most successful all-Russian restaurant chain in recent years. Its restaurants, which offer Caucasian cuisine and feeling, received their name from one of the most popular Soviet comedies, Leonid Gaidai’s 1967 film, which in turn paraphrases the title of Pushkin’s and Tolstoy’s Prisoner of the Caucasus. Accordingly, the decoration of the restaurants is a mixture of trivia from the film and the Caucasus. The walls are decorated with Ermakov photos, Pirosmani paintings, panduris, Georgian drinking horns and kitchen tools, wax figures of the actors of the film are sitting at a table set for them. At the entrance, there are also the bronze-imitating statues of some characters of the film, paying tribute at the same time to the monumental sculpture of the Soviet Union, and the gag sculptures of the present. The name is the more all-Soviet, since the film was shot not in the Caucasus, but in the mountains of the Crimea, easier to access and with better infrastructure, where during our Crimean tour we also saw the small theme park dedicated to the film shooting under the basalt pipe-organs Demerji Mountain. Starting from Moscow, the restaurant chain has already conquered also the Caucasus, they are present at every tourist location, from the ski resort of Tsaghkadzor to Yerevan. However, they not only attract tourists, but locals as well, as their cooking, representing the whole Caucasus, is excellent and not expensive, and where else could an Armenian eat Georgian or Abkhaz cuisine, or vice versa? Also, on nostalgia for the Soviet Union you can nowadays build a secure business throughout all the former empire.
At the end of the avenue named after Mesrop Mastots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, next to the Ararat cognac factory, down in the subway, a home-printed advertisement offers a flat to rent in three languages, in Armenian, Russian and – Persian. “How many Persians live in Yerevan, so that it is worth the bother of translating it for them as well?” we ask. A few blocks later, we find a pointed gate, the stairs leading down to a courtyard lying a meter below street level. A well-kept formal rose garden, its rosebuds already preparing for spring. On the four sides, ogival arcades, facing us, a mosaic-domed main hall, next to it, a minaret similar to that of Tbilisi. A small Shiite mosque in the heart of Yerevan. Built in 1765 by Hussein Ali Khan, the Persian governor of Yerevan, this is the only one of the eight Persian mosques of the city to survive the urban planning of the 1920s. In the 1990s, due to the Armenian community in Iran, and a common Azerbaijani enemy, Armenian-Iranian relations were renewed, and Armenia allowed Tehran to renovate the last Persian mosque in Yerevan. A small, dark man is watching us from the far corner of the courtyard. “Zdravstvujte,” we greet him, “salâm aleykum,” he replies. “Did you come from Iran?” the questions slips of my mouth in Persian from surprise. “From Tehran,” he replies in Persian. He guides us through the beautifully restored prayer halls, the library, the madrasah. “How many Persians are in Yerevan?” “We are about a thousand, many working for the embassy, and a lot of businessmen.” “In May I come back with a group, can we visit the mosque?” “We are pleased at the honor, everyone is welcome.”
Yerevan was the first Soviet city for which a comprehensive urban development plan was elaborated, already in 1924. Architect-academician Alexander Tamanian planned an idealised circular city, with the gigantic Republic Square in the middle, and with a rectilinear avenue network. The buildings were designed in a monumental neo-classical style, with facade elements drawn from old Armenian architecture, such as the huge arches embracing all the floors. This is how the Caucasian version of Soviet neo-classicism, later called Stalin Baroque, was born, and then spread from Georgia through Chechnya to Azerbaijan. The new Yerevan was built so exclusively in this style, that the present city administration would sense a break in style to permit any other kind of modern or postmodern building in the city center. Yerevan is the only city where they continue to build in Stalin Baroque to this day. In the northernmost point of the city, at the stairs leading down from Victory Hill, from where the entire city can be seen, there stands the statue of Alexander Tamanian, who, leaning over his drawing table, delights with a dreamy smile at his plan. However, he does not dare to raise his head.
The old Yerevan, the Oriental city which had been organically developing since ancient Erebuni, was almost completely destroyed by the 1930s. Only one quarter was left of it, the Kond, an old Armenian district in the northeastern part of the city. The labyrinth of curving streets, alleyways and gateways on the outstanding hilltop is sharply separated from the planned regular city. The quarter turns inward, it lives its own life. They have been planning to break it down for a hundred years, but so far it has escaped destruction. At the entrances of the mousepaths leading through the maze of courtyards, men dressed in black, old Bosha Gypsy women in colorful dress are talking, while following with careful gaze the strangers who penetrate the quarter. Four girls drag behind them large bunches of thin branches. “What do you collect the branches for?” “Today is the day of the fire jump.” “What?” “Come with us, we show you.” In a small square, a little fire is already burning in a circle of stones, potatoes placed there are baking in it, they also offer a carbonized half-potato to each of us. They cut an apple to as many slices as the number of children plus us two. Then everyone jumps over the fire, back and forth three times, so the best he or she can desire here in Kond may be fulfilled.
Do you know where the old gas pumps, like old wild animals, retire to die? In between the inaccessible mountains of Armenia. In Tegh, at the Karabagh border, an old Danish gas pump has devoted its old age to the cause of Armenian unity. It measures the liter in crowns, and thus represents the most reliable standard in this uncertain no man’s land. However, along the road leading from Yerevan towards Ararat, they price the fuel in Austrian schillings. Embarrassed, I am rummaging in my pocket. I think I spent the last of those some fifteen years ago in the Mariahilfer Strasse.
Heading to south from Yerevan, in the outskirts of Artashat they hold a livestock fair. It is Sunday morning eight o’clock, just start of daylight, the sellers are just drifting in, leading a calf on a rope or a full Zil. There are hardly any customers yet, the men are warming themselves around fires, they are preparing sashliks. “How old are the small calves?” “Seven months.” “And how much do they cost?” “Why, do you want to buy?” “No, I just would like to know what they cost here in Armenia.” “Eighty thousand dram,” about one hundred forty euros. “And in your country?” “Well, at least double the amount.” His eyes light up, I see that in the imagination he is already driving the Zil towards Hungary.
At the border of Khor Virap Monastery we stop on the roadway, we get ready to take the obligatory photo in which you can see the two Ararats behind the monastery. I mean you could have seen, had the morning not been so hazy. On this side of the monastery, a huge necroplis, tombs, kachkhars all over the hills. No man lives here, but every Armenian who can afford it has himself buried here, in the shadow of Mount Ararat. On the hill above the necropolis, a text is composed in white stones: “Eastern Turkey = Western Armenia”. Not in Armenian, for those who already know this, not even in Turkish, for whom it is of no use, but in English, in the language of the rare visitor to be won over for the case. On the walls of the monastery, lots of graffiti, much from 1918, the time of the Anatolian offensive or anabase of the Armenian army. Looking down from the walls of the monastery on the other side, the border runs barely two hundred meters away, wire fences, sentry boxes. From the Turkish side, only one thing comes through apart from the birds. A wire providing electricity to the monastery which lies far from every inhabited Armenian place. A thin umbilicus to Ararat.
After Tigranashen, the road starts to rise up toward the mountains of Syunik. The sun comes up, the mist is dispersing. As the serpentine meanders higher and higher for long kilometers, at every turn we see Ararat appearing in a panoramic view of the valley, always a different face of it, like a fashion model making a different pose before each click. It will completely disappear from sight only at Lanjar Pass.
The church of Areni stands on a high plateau above the village, the river is roaring beneath it at a dizzying depth. From the church’s doorstep one can see far away into Armenia’s best wine region, enclosed by high mountains. The vineyards are still barren, the landscape under snow. So quiet up here, which is rare even among the lonely Armenian monasteries. Around the church, sarcophagus-shaped gravestones, decorated, exceptionally, not only with a cross or braid ornaments, but figurative scenes. Horses, chariots, walking pilgrims. Everyone traveling somewhere. Areni is far away from everywhere.
Every far away has an even further. After Areni, a narrow road branches off to the south, it runs within a red canyon for kilometers, always higher. Where it ends, it would take only a short footpath to the other side of the mountain, to Azerbaijan, had there been any way. Here was built, up in the red mountainside, right under the border ridge, Noravank, the New Monastery, which was founded by the Bishops of Syunik as their new seat in the 13th century. However, the monastery is made unique not only by its breathtaking location and its historic role. Here lived the greatest medieval Armenian artist, Momik, who started as a manuscript painter, but then, in a way exceptional in Armenian art, he transposed the figures of the manuscripts into stone. In Noravank, all is decorated with the figures of Momik, from the khachkars of the cemetery through the portals to the window lintels. On the main facade of St. Karapet church, we see one of the most extraordinary representations of the Holy Trinity. God the Father has just created the head of Adam, and He breathes from His mouth into Adam’s the Holy Spirit, while with His right hand He blesses the scene of Christ’s crucifixion. As if to reveal that the death of the Son of Man necessarily follows from the creation of man. The tympanum is especially deeply carved, which local tradition attributes to the old Momik’s deteriorating eyesight. This was what the last thing he saw.
The village of Yeghegis was in the Middle Ages the seat of the Syunik princes. They erected, above the village, Smbataberd, the Saturday Fortress, the princely monastery of Tsaghats Kar, and Zorats, that is, the Soldier’s church, in front of which, uniquely in Armenia, they created a huge space for the blessing of the cavalry going to war. The village, however, has also more hidden memories. When we head upwards, towards the monastery of Arates, to the right of the street we see some unusually shaped tombstones. These are not Armenian tombs. If we stop, and we are willing to walk down to the stream in the knee-deep snow, on the other side, as if separated by the river Styx from the village, we see a cemetery with sixty tombstones. The inscriptions of the stones are partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic. Biblical quotations, personal names, farewell formulas, with dates given in letters. The earliest date is 1266, the latest 1346. If we also think about how many gravestones were taken away to build the foundations of the houses and the nearby mill, then the community, the only known Jewish community of medieval Armenia, had to be very large. However, apart from the graves, no written document was left about them. Neither how they arrived here, nor how they disappeared.
Heading towards the monastery of Tatev, we again and again come upon flocks of sheep in the valley. A lonely cliff towers over the depth of the canyon, with a lookout on top, built in the last century. We stop to photograph the monastery from there, built on the rocky edge of the gorge. Two shepherds are grazing sheep next to the lookout. It is not yet lunchtime, but nevertheless they set the table, so we may eat together. With the lavash, the thin Armenian bread, they offer soft cheese, apples and walnuts, and they make many toasts with the fruit brandy. I can of course only raise the empty glass, I am the driver. The younger one asks us to take him to the village three kilometers away, but he is already so carried away with exhilaration, that at every farm he insists that we should stop and visit his relatives for a drink. The unwritten law of hospitality makes him aggressive, in front of his house he refuses to get out of the car, until we come in with him for one or more glasses of wine. We must shout at him, then start rolling, so that he eventually jumps out of the slowly moving car.
Before Tatev monastery, the small lightweight Hyundai is stuck in the snow for the umpteenth time. We already have our technology, we break branches and put them under the tires, with them we lead it out to the good way, like the young goat with fresh hay. However, then we cannot pull the right window up or down, it stands firmly half-way down. The sunshine is warm, we can live with this, but if we stop somewhere, we will have to pull it up, with all our belongings in the car. The longest ropeway of the world leads up from the way to the monastery, at a 15-kilometer distance. We ask the managers, where we can find a mechanic. “Go to the village, look for Sarkis, he will repair it.” The village of Tatev is very small, but people either do not know Sarkis, or they know more than one. They direct us back and forth, we tour the whole town. Finally we find him, fixing a cab. He looks into the car, he laughs. “Blokirovano. There’s a button, when you press it, only the driver’s window can be moved, the other three are blocked.” We are are annoyed with our own ignorance. “This story is too simple like this”, Lloyd says, as we drive away. “If you write about it, dress it up, add a vodka party and stuff.” I do not.
We arrive in the evening in Goris, before the Karabagh border, the lights of the town lying in the deep canyon seem to glow from the bottom of a dizzying well. We are the only guests in the hotel said to be the best, the receptionist also cooks dinner for us. Later the owner arrives to speak about the accommodation of the groups in May and June. Originally an engineer, he had a hotel in Yerevan, but the competition was too much there, so he came here at the border, here he is the king. We will be amazed at the amount of traffic that goes across the border in the summer, he says. He holds a demonstration of Armenian cognac from his stock, he explains about them in detail, he offers generously. We get into bed long after midnight, at dawn we start through the mountains to Karabagh.
In Tegh, before the border we make gas from the old Danish gas station. It would be the most expensive gasoline of my life, fifty euros per liter, if I really were to pay in Danish crowns the price displayed. Enthusiastic at our fortune, we want to drink a last Armenian coffee. In the grocery store you will find everything that might be needed to outfit a traveler to Karabagh, but they make no coffee. A young blonde woman is talking to the shopkeeper, she offers to make one for us. She directs the neighboring beauty salon; it seems that Armenian women also tidy themselves up before crossing the border. Sitting on the barber chairs, we are waiting for the coffee to be made. Her Russian pronunciation is excellent, no wonder, she came here from Krasnodar. She is particularly excited to hear Lloyd, an American, speaking Russian, she long interrogates him. “Did they say so many bad things about the Soviet Union in your TV as we did about America?”
Shushi, in Azeri Şuşa, the first town where we stop, really suffered from the war. Much of it is uninhabited, mostly the former Azeri quarter. The beautiful old stone houses, high-rise blocks yawn, burned out. But the mosques have not been destroyed, their minarets are standing, the tombs in their garden are intact. A plaque in Armenian and English warns that they are monuments, vandalism is prohibited. Two little boys play in the garden of the lower mosque. They ferret out weapon parts from under the ruins. “The whole place is filled with them, the Azeri defenders left them here.” “And where are they now?” “They went to Azerbaijan.” “And you, you came from there?” “No, we were born in Shushi. We are no bezhentsy!” They show us a secret way up to the minaret, atop of the domes of the mosque, which are slowly being taken possession by the vegetation for lack of a roof, to the prison established in the basement of the Soviet cultural center. They are very sorry, when, after an hour, we have to leave. “Come back later, we can show so much more.”
In Stepanakert, foreigners must register at the ministry. A polite young department head receives us, with excellent English. We must give him a planned route, and they verify it, so we do not go to still mined zones. He becomes really enthusiastic at the sight of the heritage route we have planned, he himself adds four or five places to it. When I tell him that I would come with groups in May and June, he is almost in ecstasy, he hands over his business card and personal phone number. Let us send him everything in advance, let us call him from the border, he will help with everything.
In the morning, when we come out from the hotel parking lot, we see that a police car has blocked the street. School is starting on the other side of the road, so until every child has crossed the street safely and entered the school, no car can enter the street, only the children and their parents are coming in large numbers are allowed. There are a lot of kids in this little town, and this is only one of the many schools. They are beautiful, well-dressed, and above all cheerful. Many little boys and girls come in pairs, the boy proudly holding the hand of his little sister, aware of the man’s responsibility. We study them for twenty minutes, before the police opens the street again. A really refreshing morning program.
After the monastery of Gandzasar, next to Kichan, we find a 12th-century Armenian cemetery along the road. We stop, we take photos of the khachkars, of the large view opening up behind the cemetery hill. A Lada stops by, an elderly Armenian gets out, he walks toward us. He might have been twenty at the time of the war, like the driver who gets out together with him is now, perhaps he fought in these mountains. “What are you photographing?” “The cemetery, nature.” “No buildings?” “Only if what falls in the scenery.” He makes us show him the images, he is not familiar with reading them, he lets us identify each of them with the real view. After some twenty nature photos he gets bored. “Do you want me to show you something really beautiful?” “Of course.” “Along this road, some fifteen or twenty kilometers further, there is a beautiful lake in the mountains. There you can take really good pictures. Go now, here you have already taken enough photos.”
The monastery of Dadivank is the most beautiful among those of Karabagh. It is located in a beautiful place, in the highest mountains of Karabagh, in the canyon of the river running down from Selim Pass. It is visited only by the most determined travelers, because there is no paved road to it for more than fifty kilometers. Its buildings are clustered high at the head of the valley with an intricate floor plan, different from other Armenian monasteries. At the entrance to the church, there is a long porch with thick columns, like the Renaissance village churches in Europe. In Armenia this is also unusual, as are the Byzantine-style frescoes with rare iconographic scenes. In the archaic inner room of the church, under the altar, there is a large open pit holding the tomb of the 4th-century monastery monk Dadi, the founder of the monastery. The faithful make pilgrimages to it from afar, even now there are candles burning in front of it in the deserted monastery. His portrait appears on the external apse, he holds a model of the church together with the prince co-founder. On a photo from 1988 their full figure can be seen, but now only their busts remain.
In Stepanakert they say that the snow has melted on the Selim Pass, so the northern road is also free from Karabagh to Armenia. We go higher and higher through narrow canyons, breathtaking passes, we do the forty kilometers on the unpaved road in two hours, of course we stop many times to take pictures. The first snow on the road appears two kilometers before the pass, first slushy, then compact, then packed down to ice. The wheels of the car rotate freely on it, it cannot go any higher, then it slides back into the roadside snow, unable to go up or down. We have been captured by the eternal winter, nine hundred meters before the pass. Young Armenian excursionists come up in two cars from Karabagh, they stop and push us, but then the car stops again a few hundred meters before the pass. Now fishermen come from Sevan, they just sold yesterday’s catch in Karabagh. Their two cars also stop. The six of us push the three cars uphill for an hour over the last few hundred meters to the pass, from there on gravity works for us.
In every Armenian town there is a place, somewhere along the main road, where Armenian men stand all day in large groups, dressed in black, negotiating and watching the road. Usually one or two taxis are also there, which is not surprising, as all Armenian men have been or will be taxi drivers at some point of their lives, this is a job of initiation for them. But this is secondary, the main thing is the standing and the watching. Armenian men look at the stranger without any inhibition and discretion, all together, until he disappears from their visual field. Georgian men also stand in black groups, however not like vultures, but rather like crows, always busy in something, mostly playing dominoes for stakes of life or death. If you stand next to them, they look up and greet you with a smile. Armenian men do not greet you. They do not want to get in personal with you. Their hard gaze focuses only on you like some strange foreign object.
The Hellenistic temple of Garni with its white Greek columns is a bizarre sight here, among the Armenian mountains, where we expect small compact churches with domes in the stage shaped by the dotted ridges. It contradicts our preconceptions. Nature itself might have thought so, too, because the building was ruined by an earthquake in 1679. Its puzzle was put together with painstaking work by the academician Alexander Sahinyan and his team between 1968 and 1976, since then it continues, after a pause, its two millennia of existence. The information boards delicately tiptoe around this inconvenient fact, just like that one, that the temple was built by the Arshakuni dynasty of Persian origin, with Greek masters. Instead, the boards deduce the genesis of the temple from the spirit of the Armenian people, deeply rooted in nature. The melodies of the great Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, dressed up with electronic synthetizers, which resound from the loudspeakers, just enhance the absurdity of the situation. However, when you walk around the monument, you will suddenly see something really authentic. In the basis of the left-hand colonnade someone has carved in an old-style Arabic Kufi hand, which suggests the 7th-century Muslim invaders, the following text: In the name of the almighty and merciful God, here was… This facet of the history of the temple is not touched upon by the information board.
Ashtarak was an important princely center during the flowering of the 12th and 13th century. As many as four of its medieval churches have been preserved, the foundation of which folk tradition attributes to Prince Sargis and the three princesses in love with him. Instead of the long main road, the GPS proposes a shortcut to reach them. The shortcut, as so often in Armenia, proves to be much longer, as the GPS does not take into account the great differences in the quality of roads. We descend on a water-washed rocky street to the city, along the cemetery, we have time to observe the specific sepulchral monuments. After the cemetery comes a surprise. We can already see the church towers, but the field there is covered by a lot of khachkars. A complete medieval cemetery, mentioned in no guide whatsoever. Hens are pecking for food among the gravestones. The field is still bare, but the plastic stork next to Karmravor Church announces that spring will surely come.
We cannot come to the church of Mughni so early in the morning without finding there already four or five Armenian men dressed in black standing in front of it. Soon the priest arrives too, in a black Mercedes, in funereal vestments. When we are about to leave, a black Volga stops behind us, five tough boys get out it, with stern faces they go into the nearest pub. An hour later, as we are on our way back from Hovhannavank, we already have to slalom between the illegally parked large and expensive black cars. It must be the funeral of an important mobster.
In Karbi, in front of the 13th-century church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, we are witnessing a miracle. Just as in the apron of St. Elizabeth roses were produced during wintertime, so the rose beds before the church of Karbi went in full bloom amid the greatest snow. And not just any bloom: in addition to a variety of roses, also pansies and irises are opening, from the finest nylon. In Karbi, it appears, they are very much looking forward to the spring.
In the early 20th century, Josef Strzygowski taught in the art history department of Vienna, that the Romanesque architecture of Western Europe was created by Armenian masters arriving through the Mediterranean Sea. Strzygowski knew what he was talking about. He visited Armenia several times, he was the initiator of the archaeological excavations of the monumental 7th-century Armenian cathedral of Zvartnots, and with his two-volume work published in 1918 he first introduced the European public to Armenian architecture. Then time went beyond his conclusions, and posterity beyond his oeuvre, which was sympathetic with the Nazi racial theory. Nevertheless, when you enter the foyer of the 7th-century church of Hovhannavank, you understand what caught his imagination. The structure of the pilasters and arches bearing the vault of the church would fit in any French Romanesque cathedral, it could be a trick question in an exam of medieval history of architecture. And the relief above the gate of the church, in which Christ blesses the righteous and rejects the wicked, could even stand in an 11th-century monastery somewhere in Northern Spain, on the way to Compostela.
Aparan is the Armenian Palookaville. The Armenians living elsewhere attribute to those in Aparan every piece of nonsense which comes to their mind, but which they themselves do not want to be associated with. According to the typical joke, the Aparani man goes home and asks his wife: “Did a friend with thick glasses call me on the phone?” We, unfortunately, encountered no such amusing story. The medieval church, which we came to see, stands in a modern housing estate, strewn around it is a characteristic jungle of garages and lean-to buildings spontaneously propagating behind the blocks of flats. In its ruined state it might have been nice, but now it is restored to death. I cannot give you one single reason why you should go to Aparan.
The Armenian national shrine is in the village of Aghdzk, on one side of the street, in a vacant lot wedged between two peasant houses. The ruins themselves would not be striking, had a big statue of the Armenian kings not been standing in front of them on the sidewalk. In the 4th century, when Byzantium and Persia competed for supremacy over Armenia, the Persian king Shapuh II invaded the former capital Ani, and exhumed the bodies of the Armenian kings, to bring them to Persia and thus deprive the Armenians from their otherworldly patrons. However, the Armenian military leader Vasak Mamikonian stood in their way under Ararat, defeated them, and he had the bones of the kings buried in an inaccessible valley of the Aragats mountains, the pagan kings separate from the Christian ones. The two reliefs still to be seen in the funeral chambre – a hunting scene and Daniel in the lions’ den – are the first known stone carvings in Armenian art. Opposite the funeral chambre, the ruins of a 4th-century basilica, with many fragments of stone carvings. A deep canyon opens up behind the ruins, strong winds blow down from the mountains to the plains, beyond which Ararat emerges. It is very moving to stand here, in one of the holiest places of the three-thousand-year history of a people, which, seen from outside, is just as remote and insignificant as this history and this people. But it has been here, for a thousand and seven hundred years.
The dome of the 7th-century basilica of Aruch has long collapsed, the church can finally freely communicate with the sky through the ring of the drum. Its mediation, however, is not enjoyed by many people. It is, in fact, hard to understand how such a huge church comes in the center of a village of only a few houses. Behind it, however, still there are the ruins of the former fortress of the Mamikonians, which served as the winter accommodation of the whole army of the Armenian kings until the Mongol conquest. Under the ring of the drum, the middle of the church is littered with empty nutshells. We look up. Crows are sitting on the edge of the drum. From there they throw down the stolen nuts, so that it breaks apart with a big crack on the stone floor. Their heavenly father feeds them directly in the church.
The neighboring village of Talin also belonged to the Mamikonians, but its basilica, very similar to that of Aruch, was built not by them, but by the Byzantine governor Nerseh, Lord of Shirak and Asharunik, a generation later, in the late 7th century. The church stands on the edge of the village, in the middle of a large medieval cemetery. We would think it abandoned, but it is not so. Just as long as we are there, several people appear one after the other. Lovers sit down for a while on the steps, young boys retire to the sanctuary to smoke a joint, a long-haired biker girl has herself photographed for a portfolio. Even if the village has moved away from it, the church remains the center some form of social life.
The future started toward Gyumri, but then veered in another direction. On our way to the Georgian border, we pass through a wide field, on which the ruins of lonely houses tower here and there, the firstlings of a just-started huge socialist housing estate, nipped in the bud by the cold of the change of regime. Structures of panel houses, half-begun and half-ruined, a ready-made setting for a disaster movie. The real disaster, however, is that here and there a window is meticulously glassed in, clothes are drying on the balcony, a tin cabin stands next to the block, perhaps for firewood, perhaps for the animals, in the middle of nowhere.
The architectural faculty of Milan has collaborated with the Academy of Yerevan since the 1970s on the survey and publication of Armenian architectural monuments. After their series of thin but thorough monographs written about twenty monasteries, Paolo Cuneo edited in 1988 the great catalogue of medieval Armenian architecture, which documents in detail every monastery, church and ruin with floor plans, photos and descriptions, two hundred and five from today’s Armenia, a hundred and ten from the former Western Armenian provinces in Turkey, sixty from Azerbaijan, fourteen from Iran. A specific value of the book is that it summarizes the state of the monuments immediately before the change of regime. Since then, a lot of churches have been restored, most of them quite badly, others have even more dilapidated, those in Nahichevan were destroyed to the last one, those in Azerbaijan were turned into so-called “Albanian churches”. A copy of the book can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Institut of Berlin, I have also prepared from it to the journey. Now I borrow it again, to scan the floor plans to the churches, about which I am going to write in detail. The book has changed a lot in three weeks. Every monument got a face, their place and significance has become clear. As I browse it through, I nod at all of them, in my imagination all the provinces are filled with little red pins. I have seen it all.
Hasmik Harutyunyan: Nazani. From the album Armenia Anthology.