Thursday, October 19, 2006

Caucasus: Stone in the Ashes

Those who love to travel in Europe should consider adding Yerevan to their itinerary. Armenia's capital is a planned city, meant as the capital of the new republic after the genocide, is almost like the average of a European city, as if the distinctive highlights of each were removed, leaving only a wealth of cafes, museums, and pigeons. The heart of the city is the huge opera house, where you can see performances for under $5. To its north is the Cascade, gorgeous when lit up at night, leading up to a monument of the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. On the other side is a vast park filled with cafes and bars open until the wee hours of the morning and where the beverage known in the rest of the world as Turkish coffee is called anything but, as well as a large fountain-pond with benches.

Both here and other areas around the city, about 20% of the people you see are making out, but unlike in Georgia, they are making out with other people rather than religious objects; Armenian spirituality, while probably as deep as Georgian, is not as physically demonstrative. In fact, when not locked in passionate embraces with each other, Armenians seem to be easily the most subdued people in the region. This is not to say they are unfriendly, however, for they have much the same sense of hospitality as the Georgians and Azeris, they simply don't talk as much, and when they do, the tone is much less loud and jovial.

Yerevan does have its attractions. At the other end of a main street from the Opera House is Republic Square, formerly Lenin Square, but the name changed with the fall of the statue of its former eponym. Its centerpiece is a huge fountain, and along it are attractive buildings such as the Economy and Finance Ministry with its clocktower and the Marriott Armenia with its outdoor cafe. The key one for most visitors, however, will be that which houses both the State Museum of Armenian History and the National Art Gallery. The former features displays of Armenian history going back to ancient times and the kingdom of the early first millennium BC known as Urartu, while the latter includes not only great Armenian artists, but the works of European masters such as Botticelli, Van Dyck, and Rubens. When I was there they also had an exchange with a French museum, and so two of the seven floors were filled with the works of French artists, including an entire gallery dedicated to the cubist Georges Braques.

Another interesting museum is found at the Matenadaran, Armenia's national library, whih outside features a statue of St. Mesrop Mashtots teaching someone his new invention: the Armenian alphabet, which is still used today. Inside is a gallery of Armenian manuscripts through the ages, and the collection demonstrates the vibrancy of medieval Armenia's intellectual culture, including as it does several medical texts the concontions from which you can buy at the gift shop, a seventh century geography, and a 15th century account of Tamerlane, as well as the predictable copies of the gospels and Psalms.

What people come to Armenia to see, however, is not Yerevan, but rather the surrounding area, where you find the great bulk of Armenian heritage sites still inside Armenian territory. Most of these are churches and monasteries, and one person we talked to found great significance in the fact that those structures happened to survive when so much was destroyed over the centuries. Armenian churches have a unique aesthetic. They are usually cross-shaped, with polygon-shaped domes and the altar in one branch of the cross while the others feature side chapels and the entrance. They have a few icons, but the theology of them is not at all like that of the Eastern Orthodox churches. They are also sparsely decorated, as Armenians believe that artwork in churches serves as unnecessary opulence that distracts the believer from worship, something in which they are akin to many Protestant denominations.

The center of the Armenian Apostolic Church is at Echmiadzin, home to Catholicos Grigarin II, and the place where according to tradition, St. Gregory the Illuminator saw fall to earth a beam of light in the vision which led to his conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the early 4th century. The entrance today features a giant outdoor chapel and a monument to Pope John Paul II, who visited in 2001 to help celebrate the church's 1700th anniversary. The main church is unusual in that it has pews and large religious paintings, perhaps a sign of the Catholic influence in Armenia over the years. There is also a small gallery where relics are dislayed. These inlude some from Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholemew, credited with being the first to evangelize in Armenia, the obligatory piece of the True Cross, vestments from previous Armenian prelates, and a presumed piece of Noah's Ark found on Mt. Ararat.

Another relic on display was originally brought from a monastery to which it lent its name, the Surp Geghard, or the holy lance used to pierce Christ's side during the Crucifixion. This lance was allegedly brought to the mountains near modern Yerevan, where today Geghard Monastery sits nestled on the slopes of a mountain affording brilliant views of the surrounding countryside. Inside is a network of chapels mostly not built, but rather carved out of the rocks as expansions of the original caves inhabited by Christian hermits in ancient times. The ecoustics are amazing - when we were there, a choir was singing in one of the chapels above, and could be heard throughout the complex as clear, beautiful voices coming from heaven.

From the outside, some of the oldest chapels are hidden, with only a row of khatchkars, the Armenian crosses carved into rectangular pieces of stone with decorated borders, tipping people off to the fact something might lie within. This was so that outsiders wouldn't know there was a church there, and those inclined to either rob or persecute would pass on by. This heritage of hiding churches was continued into the Soviet period, for the USSR sought to eliminate the Armenian church completely, and one catholicos even died in a Siberian gulag. Many churches were destroyed, so the Armenians began building apartment complexes and other buildings to cover them, making it challenging even today for visitors to find churches like the 12th-century Katoghike, which hidden in an apartment complex's back courtyard is so small that the congregation has to stand outside during services.

In all of this, one notes that Armenia has entered the 21st century with a strong sense of nationalism. I only saw one map of Armenia posted on a wall that did not include Karabakh a part of the country, and many also claimed all of "historic Armenia," including much of eastern Turkey and a chunk of northwestwern Iran, the totality of which was part of Armenia only for a few decades in the 1st century BCE. Nonetheless tour guides (the organized tours were so affordable even I went on a few) routinely referred to the territory of the modern country as "eastern Armenia" and to eastern Turkey as "the lost provinces of western Armenia." The historiography of a long-persecuted nation finally free and asserting itself is very strong in museum exhibits, as well, particularly those dealing with the Ottoman period.

This really only scratches the country's surface, and you shouldn't be surprised if I put in another appearance some day. In addition to the above we saw the Garni Temple, the only pagan temple in Armenia which is still standing, and on its outside were carved the names of medieval Islamic conquerors who had occupied the site. It was interesting to see the development in Arabic script over the centuries, and since such inscriptions are apparently common in Armenia I wondered if any epigraphy specialists had catalogued them. There was also a lot of great scenery, such as in the north in the Debed River valley through which I entered the country, as well as reportedly on the eastern bottom slopes of Mt. Ararat where there is an Armenian monastery. I had also originally thought of going to the ruins of Ani, the historical Armenian capital now in Turkey which has only an "Ani Viewpoint" in Armenia where people go to contemplate what was lost, but was running low on time, and decided to take a couple of days in Istanbul instead. Thus, I bid farewell to Armenia and headed back to Tbilisi to begin my road west.



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