Armenia – Yerevan & Vagharshapat

Another country that wasn’t on my original list, I’m quite happy to have made it to Armenia. It’s a pretty unique place.

I had a week to explore, but quickly found that time cut short. In this picture is my prime suspect in my attempted murder by food poisoning.

The only time I left my bed in 30 hours was to get some paracetamol from the front desk. They told me to take it with food because I hadn’t eaten, so I walked down the street in Yerevan that night to a corner store in my pyjamas and a hoodie for anything that looked like bread and some juice. 

The next day I managed to get out of bed, but it was another lost day of missing out on exploration, so my first days in Armenia were spent thinking “I want to go home,” “I can’t do 4 more months of this,” and “huh, I never expected to die in Armenia.”

I recovered faster than I expected, and was able to go on some tours through the hostel where I was staying. The first tour started with Lake Sevan and Sevanavank. (Names with the suffix ‘avank’ are all monasteries I believe.)

Lake Sevan is Armenia’s largest body of water, and extremely important since Armenia is landlocked. The monastery was built on an island that became a peninsula when the lake was drained in Soviet times. Armenia is my first former Soviet country!

Sevanavank was my first encounter with the unique Armenian architecture style. The churches are deliberately simple inside as a sign of humility. 

Armenia has had to deal with many invasions throughout their history, and there are some clever examples of ways they dealt with it. On this stone depicting Jesus, he is carved with “almond eyes” so that invading Mongols would believe to be a tribute to them and wouldn’t destroy it.

One thing I was already loving about Armenia was how distinct the culture is. At a time when I was missing home it was reassuring to see things that I can’t see anywhere else, which is a major reason I left in the first place.

The next stop was Noratus cemetery, which is now the largest cemetery of khachkars since the Azeri government destroyed the largest one. Khachkars, also known as cross-stones, are memorial stones and examples of medieval Armenian art.

Afterwards the tour group stopped for lunch at an Armenian home nearby where traditional food had been prepared for us. We had lavash, which is an Armenian flat bread on the UNESCO list of intangible culture, and finished with Armenian coffee which I’m told is different from Turkish coffee by not being as strong.

The tour continued on to Geghardavank, a monastery partly carved out of a mountain. Geghard means spear in Armenian, and this place was so named because for a while it held the supposed spear that pierced Jesus on the cross until it was moved to a treasury in the city of Armenia’s mother cathedral. If you’re noticing a heavy Christian theme here, there’s a good reason for it since Armenia is the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.

I really like the unique Armenian alphabet and was able to learn most of it by the time I had left. After visiting Georgia as well, I have a feeling that having a unique alphabet is important in cultivating a distinct culture.

There were two weddings going on while we visited, and one was the marriage of an Armenian actor that our guide had seen on some shows.

The final stop of the day was at the last remaining Pagan Temple in Armenia, in Garni.

Armenia’s landscape was a lot drier than I expected, though people did warn me beforehand that it was a hot country. Despite that it was still beautiful, and the sweeping view of the area from Garni Temple was excellent.

Before leaving, our guide went to the nearby stalls to buy some Armenian desserts for us to try on the way back. The colourful ones taste like fruit, and there was a bread with what I think she said was just a filling of butter and sugar.

I was still feeling sick the next day, and only managed to get out in the morning before giving in and staying at my hostel. I did manage to find a great coffee place though that specialises in Colombian coffee. It is called Haldi.Co Showroom and the coffee is quality. I spent a morning talking with the two people working since they were really nice, and eager to practice their English and answer my many questions about Armenia.

Determined to stop being sick, and as much as I really wanted to stay in bed all day again, I forced myself out to properly explore Yerevan the next day.

One important thing I wanted to mention that has done much to shape the current nation of Armenia is the Armenian Genocide from 1915-1917. It is considered to be one of the first modern genocides, and was carried out by the Ottoman Empire on Western Armenians and other Christian minorities in the empire. Western Armenia is in modern day Turkey, while Eastern Armenia is Armenia.

Eastern and western Armenians speak different dialects of Armenian, and if you have an Armenian community where you live they likely speak Western Armenia as most of the world’s Armenian diaspora began as people fleeing the genocide.

To this day, the Turkish government does not recognise the genocide. I was told that now that it has been 100 years, the importance of campaigning for recognition is not as much to benefit the victims, as very few survivors remain, but because it is important to prevent such things from happening again. There is a quote attributed to Hitler speaking of his decision to sentence all people of Polish origin to death: “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” There is speculation on what impact the world’s weak response to the Armenian genocide had on Hitler’s decisions, but the precedent is important regardless.

Canada officially recognised the genocide in 2004, and the last Canadian survivor passed away in January of this year.

Walking through Yerevan, I realised something I like about Canada – its diversity. As I was walking a young Armenian guy asked me if I needed directions, which was very friendly and consistent with my experiences with Armenians. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to do that the same way in Canada. In Armenia I am clearly a tourist with my blonde hair and blue eyes and he was safe in assuming I was a tourist, but in Canada anybody could be a Canadian, so while it may not be as easy to meet and help out a tourist I like the reason why.

I went to Republic Square to visit the national museum, which was a great museum detailing Armenia’s history up to its independence from the Soviet Union.

I finished my tour around Yerevan at the Blue Mosque, which is the only mosque left in the city.

On my final day I did another tour through the hostel to see the rest of the sights on my list. We began by driving to the city of Vagharshapat, which is very close to Yerevan. The first stop was at the Church of St. Hripsime, a nun who was martyred in Armenia and buried in this church.

As another example of cleverness in the face of invaders, it was a common practice to bury the person 6 feet away from their supposed coffin so that when invaders destroyed it to dishonour them they wouldn’t find the actual body.

We then visited the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Etchmiadzin Cathedral. While it isn’t the oldest church in the world, it is considered to be the world’s oldest cathedral.

The two people pictured on the entranceway are the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, who are believed to be the ones responsible for bringing Christianity to Armenia. The person responsible for converting the nation successfully however, is St. Gregory the Illuminator.

There is some debate amongst the locals about the decoration of the cathedral. It is unique as far as Armenian churches go in that the interior is beautifully decorated. On one hand, this is not representative of the rest of the country and faith, but on the other hand it is the most important church. Anyways, the dark spot to the upper left of the angel in this picture is where a scorpion was accidentally painted over.

Before leaving Vagharshapat, we were also able to see the church of St. Gayane.

After a bit of driving we arrived at a very important monastery known as Khor Virap. The monastery is very close to the Turkish border, with a view of Mount Ararat. Mount Ararat is just on the other side of the border in Turkey, and is a national symbol for Armenia. Traditionally the mountain is where Noah’s Ark landed after the great flood.

Inside there is also a small prison you can climb down to where Gregory the Illuminator was held for 12-14 years before he was released and went on to illuminate everyone about Christianity.

After more driving through the striking Armenian countryside we arrived at our penultimate stop, Noravank.

The roof had collapsed but was repaired, resulting in the removal of the monastery from UNESCO’s list. It’s well worth the visit despite that. The main room of the church is on the second floor, accessible by the stairs on either side of the lower door. 

The tour was great, and it turned out I had something in common with our tour guide. I asked her what she was studying in university and she replied that she was entering her final year in applied mathematics. Somehow my visit to Armenia included talks about complex analysis and calculus of variations – quite unexpected.

Finally, since we were in the Areni region, we were brought to a local winery for wine tasting. I got talking with a lady from France on the other tour and learned that she was a sommelier of French wines. She remarked that Armenian wine was strange for her because it tastes completely different from how she expects it to from the smell. I could only tell that it had a distinct taste from what I’m used to, but I liked it!

Thus ended my eventful stay in Armenia. I took a shared taxi the next day to Georgia, grateful that despite illness I managed to see a lot of what Armenia had to offer.