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From Kalashnikovs back to Christ

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  • From Kalashnikovs back to Christ

    Daily Telegraph, UK
    March 20 2004

    >From Kalashnikovs back to Christ

    Juliet Clough finds tragedy, beauty and a warm welcome in a country
    that has been dealt more than its fair share of blows.

    Armenia basics


    The old woman thumped a thin chest, decorated with Soviet badges. "I
    worked on road construction," she said. She wandered away, muttering
    to herself, among the potholes that pass for streets in Yeghegnadzor.

    Nostalgia for the Soviet past, with its pensions, paid holidays and
    free health care, crops up all the time in encounters with the
    elderly in modern Armenia. "Poverty seems like an upgrade here," said
    one of the many "diaspora men" I met during my travels round the
    country in October, a Californian taxman.

    The expressions of the diaspora men - typically, wealthy
    second-generation Armenian North Americans - betray the complexity of
    the emigre baggage they carry. "We need to know we have this history,
    this feeling of grandeur," John Hovagimian from Toronto told me as we
    explored the sumptuous medieval monastery complex of Noravank. "But
    sometimes we cry inside for the tragedy we have passed through - and
    the beauty of the land."

    Tragedy and beauty: the operatic theme ran counterpoint to all my
    attempts to understand something of Armenia, an effort considerably
    helped by a comprehensive new guidebook from Bradt. I got my quickest
    fix standing in the courtyard of the monastery of Khor Virap, half an
    hour south of Yerevan. Beyond, detached by a light scarf of cloud as
    well as by a line of Turkish border checkposts, floated the luminous
    cone of Mount Ararat.

    A salesman handed me a pigeon to set free - a dollar for a wing and a
    prayer. Like Noah's olive-branch-bearing dove, my bird, he assured
    me, would head straight for Mount Ararat. In practice, of course, it
    flew straight back to base. I recognised my chap tucking into his
    feed tray as we departed.

    Ararat is one of the world's sacred mountains. The pain of its loss
    to Turkey, following the 1915 massacre of a locally estimated 1.5
    million Armenians in Anatolia, was written, momentarily, on almost
    every face turned towards it from this site.

    The resulting emigration haemorrhage continued after independence in
    1991, when the economy of what had been the USSR's most successful
    industrialised state went into freefall, a state of affairs witnessed
    by the ghost factories that ring the capital and by the half-built
    holiday complexes for the comrades, decaying in resorts around
    Dilijan and Lake Sevan.

    "Armenia is rich in stones," reflected Nouneh, as we left the fertile
    Ararat valley for the province of Vayots Dzor. This sounded sad until
    I learnt to read it as a massive understatement.

    Armenia adopted Christianity in 301 AD, the first nation to do so, 10
    years ahead of Rome. The result is indeed a wealth of stone:
    ecclesiastical buildings of mind-blowing antiquity. Hunkered down on
    their mountain ridges, Armenia's high-shouldered churches defy the
    winds of change.

    Christianity's 17 centuries have not been enough to erase the older
    beliefs that still break surface at almost every site: wishing trees
    hung with votive rags; sacred springs; floor drains for the animal
    sacrifices still carried out at special occasions.

    Five days, 11 churches and a profusion of richly carved stone later,
    I was hooked: God the Father presides at Noravank with a dove
    apparently nesting in his beard; sirens and lions with dragons for
    tails guard the rock-cut churches of Geghard.

    The latter's acoustics, which I heard tested by the State Capella
    Choir, would make angels weep with envy. Medieval khachkars,
    stone-cross slabs whose points take off into a maze of Celtic-style
    flourishes, abound at Echmiadzin, since 303 AD the Vatican eqivalent
    in a country still devoutly Orthodox Christian.

    Heading for the 13th-century Selim caravanserai, which once offered
    shelter to travellers on an Armenian spur of the Silk Route, we
    followed a procession of steamrollers, a sight to cheer the old lady
    in Yeghegnadzor. Everywhere apparent, the healing hand of diaspora
    man - building roads, hotels and airports and restoring historic
    sites - can only benefit Armenia's fledgling tourism business.

    The upbeat feel starts in Yerevan, whose grand 1950s main square,
    recently reopened after a major facelift, is part of an estimated
    $200 million spend by the American media tycoon Kirk Kerkorian.

    The US-based Tufenkian carpet empire employs 1,200 people in Armenia
    to weave the motifs of their grandmothers into covetable carpets;
    prices at the Yerevan store start at $230 per square metre. Tufenkian
    knitters also supply bedcovers for the same company's four heritage
    hotels.

    Away from decaying Soviet technology, Armenia looked beautiful: the
    plunging gorges of Garni and Noravank spread, in autumn, with all the
    colours of a weaver's loom; the apple-tree branches in south-western
    villages such as Yeghegis bowed to the ground under their weight of
    fruit.

    Tree-climbing children, shaking down walnuts; willow-lined streams;
    little hayricks and biblical flocks of goats: Armenia's country idyll
    goes hand in hand with mud-paved streets, outdoor taps, and with
    Azeri refugees from the ongoing dispute over Nagorno Karabagh having
    to find homes in redundant oil tanks.

    Diaspora generosity must be an inherited trait. The hospitality of
    Armenians towards strangers, by comparison unimaginably well-heeled,
    remains my most special memory. In the village of Hamon alone, an old
    woman parted the strings of dried apples hanging from her cottage
    eaves to implore us to come in for coffee; another pressed a handful
    of walnuts into my hand and a passerby insisted on giving us a dried
    fish.

    Vahram and Hranoush Khlagatsayan spread a feast for us in their
    orchard in Artabouink: wheat soup made with yogurt and coriander;
    spinach with sour cream; home-made curd cheese, flat bread or lavash,
    made by their teenage daughters in a fiery pit.

    Vahram and Hranoush, too poor to have any income beyond the produce
    they barter with their neighbours, are participants in a
    British-financed rural development project that exchanges house
    improvements, including installing indoor lavatories, for village
    hospitality within striking distance of potential tourist sites.

    In tough times, and with a restaurant and cafe culture only now
    taking off in the capital, a few professional families have taken up
    the idea. In private homes in Dilijan and Garni, genial hosts served
    up waist-expanding introductions to a local cuisine which, like the
    robust Armenian wines accompanying it, has survived the drab Soviet
    years with gusto. Invariably our hosts' home-produced vodkas sent us
    on our way rejoicing.

    I could not call Yerevan, a resolutely Soviet creation of the 1950s,
    picturesque. But time spent in the capital fills essential gaps.
    While the unemployed young loafing round the Genocide Museum, let
    alone the unemployed graduates selling fruit on street corners, say
    something about 21st-century Armenia, the key to the early past lies
    miniaturised in the Matenadaran, one of the world's great manuscript
    museums.

    Pride of place goes to Ptolemy's map, a 1482 copy, showing Armenia's
    borders stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian. A prize fought
    over by all the neighbours ever since, landlocked Armenia would today
    fit comfortably inside the borders of Belgium. Here too, explained in
    lively fashion, are exquisite fragments of 5th-century gospels;
    medieval herbals and theatrical treatises; classical Greek texts that
    have survived only because of early translations in the beautiful,
    looping, Armenian script.

    Mother Armenia, ankle-deep in rusty armaments, brandishes her sword
    over a city today more given to karaoke than Kalashnikovs. The
    Yerevan Brandy Company factory hangs a festive aroma over the centre.
    Ever after the 1945 Yalta Conference, when Stalin introduced him to
    the company's Diplomat blend, Winston Churchill, so goes the PR
    story, ascribed his long life partly to Armenian brandy.

    Shnoragalutsyun. Shatlaveh. Thank you. It was excellent.

    Armenia basics
    Juliet Clough travelled with Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711,
    www.regent-holidays.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9 850,
    www.ba.com). An eight-day individual trip costs from 1,295 per
    person, sharing (single supplement 375) including return BA flights,
    b & b in a three-star Yerevan hotel and in guesthouses in Dilijan and
    Sissian; all transfers by private car; English-speaking guide.
    Three-night weekend breaks in Yerevan are also available, from 499
    per person, sharing. A 12-day group tour of the highlights of Armenia
    and Georgia departs in August: from 1,390, sharing.

    Guidebook The Bradt Travel Guide: Armenia with Nagorno Karabagh
    (13.95).
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