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xEurasia Odyssey

Armenian Impressions

ARMENIA | Wednesday, 9 September 2015 | Views [1066]

Armenian Impressions

 As we came closer to the Georgian-Armenian border the houses and structures changed; they became less updated and clean and more run-down old Eastern Block Soviet. Armenians inhabit in this part of Georgia and the tensions between the two countries were apparent from the way the Georgian Armenians lived, namely as less than full-fledged citizens. The border crossing, however, went smoothly even though the stations for the two countries lie a good mile apart.

 According to legend, the founder King of Armenia, Hyk, was Hyastan who lived 2,500 years ago. Others, however, (& this is what I heard the most) say they are the descendants of Noah’s son, and therefore they are the most ancient human ethnic group. Today there are 10 provinces in Armenia. Gymri is the second largest city and still has Russian forces as it shares an uneasy border with Turkey.  The border is closed and is overseen by Russian forces due to a 1993 Treaty between Armenia and Russia.  The Armenia-Azerbaijan border is also closed, except for one location because of other territorial issues dealing with two autonomous regions which Azerbaijan claims are theirs. Armenia does have good relations with Iran and 10% of tourists to Armenia come from the south.  Today more Armenians live outside than inside the country and the economy and many economic development initiatives are funded from Armenians in the diaspora.  Armenia, like the other former Soviet states, became independent in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it has been in an economic crisis since then. Whereas Georgia and many of the Central Asian countries have been able to reinvigorate their economies, this has not sufficiently happened in Armenia, which remains reliant on Russia not only for protection but for fuel.  Of the former Soviet states I have visited, Armenia is the country that has had the greatest difficulty in establishing its own economic identity.

It has, however, a distinct Christian heritage, and unique traditions of sacred art. Where Georgia glories in fresco painting, Armenian churches abound with high relief sculpture and katchkars, which are similar to Irish menhirs.  Both use icons, but Armenians are quick to point out that they use them for decoration only, not for worship.  Armenian churches are mostly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Bartholomew, St. Taddeus, John the Baptist, St. Stephan, St. George (but not nearly to the extent as in Georgia) and Gregory the Illuminator.

 Not far from the border was our first stop, the city of Gymri. As with Georgia, Armenia is an Apostolic Christian country. The Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus preached here in the 1st C.  The main church has a museum with a number of relics, some of which are encased in arms where the hands make a ‘mudra’ with the thumb touching the ring finger with the other fingers outstretched to indicate the one nature (both fully human and fully God) that is the basis for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Also as in Georgia, there is an emphasis on martyrs with depictions of forty martyred nuns, a King and Gregory the Illuminator.  This latter is a key figure in Armenian art, similar to St. George in Georgia.

 The right hand of Gregory the Illuminator is in the Catholicos' (Archbishop's) House in Ejmaitsin, which is the Vatican of the Armenian Church. This relic and the Relic of the Speer/Lance of Christ are used by the Archbishop (which equates to the Pope of this Church) when he blesses Holy Myron (the Holy Myrrh oil from which all flames are lit) every seven years. The Church Museum in Ejmaitsin is filled with relics, including the head of the lance that pierced Jesus’s side.

According to tradition, Armenia became the first official Christian country in 301 under Tiridates III. The first cathedral was built on the site where St. Gregory the illuminator had a vision of Christ descending from heaven and hitting the ground with a golden hammer indicate where the cathedral, Ejmaitsin, should be built. The name means ‘the descent of the Only-Begotten”.

 Conquerors came and went as they trod over Armenian territory and in order to protect some of the sacred buildings, including the Cathedral, images of the Shah or other Muslim protective figure, were placed in strategic locations, like above the entrance way.  The Cathedral, as most of the houses in Armenia, is constructed of red and black tufa stones, so there are few painted structures. Many Armenian churches also have a place for sacrifice, much the way Hindu temples do. I was told that for special occasions (requests or thanksgiving) a family purchases a male sheep or rooster, the animal is then brought to the church along with table salt. The beast stays outside, while the salt is blessed inside the church, then it is taken back outside and placed in the animal’s mouth before it is slaughtered/sacrificed on a special place within the church grounds.  The meat is then shared with the poor.

 This form of sacrifice has something very old Testament about it and it seems to relate back to the Armenian belief in their heritage as sons of Noah’s lineage.  Mt. Ararat towers over the capital city, Yerevan, and it is a sore point that “their” mountain is now in Turkish territory.  Much more so than in Georgia, I felt the angst of a people surrounded by hostile neighbors who wanted to take over their land and destroy their religion.  The friendly relations with Russia are out of necessity as Russia is at least a Christian country.  When I asked what the problems with Georgia were, I was told that Georgia controls Armenian land too.  The Georgians, on the other hand, not surprisingly don’t see it that way.

 The borders to this region have always been porous.  In the National Museum, there is a sculpture of a Bronze Age tufa idol that is reminiscent of those from Sanliurfa in Turkey. The region was always caught between the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Urartians, which are considered Armenians in this country, but as an indigenous group in Turkey, the Persians and the Romans and later Byzantines. Today the people still talk of two Armenias, the Eastern one that is labeled “Armenia,” and the Western one that is now part of Turkey.  The Turkish Genocide at the beginning of the 20th C is as acutely felt today as at anytime since it happened.  While the Mother of Georgia offers wine to her guests along with presenting a sword to her enemies, Mother Armenia on a hill overlooking Yerevan and pointed towards Mt. Ararat, only holds a sword. She stands on a pedestal where once the image of Lenin stood and is surrounded by tanks and rockets.

 Despite the military presence and the coming and going of various conquerors, churches and monasteries abound throughout the country and in most there are katchkars.  These stones tell stories of local sacred traditions as well as those of the Bible.  Not a few also include pagan elements, which demonstrate the continuity of thought from pre-Christian times. In the National Museum there is a bust of  Anahita, the goddess of water and there are artifacts which indicate an ancient Cult of the Bear and the importance of frogs for symbols of fertility. Iron Age solar systems from around Lake Sevan are also on display. These elements are also visible in the katchkars of various churches.

 One of the most beautiful areas of Armenia that I visited was Lake Sevan.  This large, 940 sq. km. freshwater lake, is surrounded by hills dotted with old churches.  The Sevanavank Monastery lies on one of the hills on a peninsula and is heavily visited by local tourists on nice summer days.  The way up the hill is lined with vendors selling rosaries, paintings, and trinkets.  The view from the top is delightful. The inside of the churches on the plateau are dark with only a few reliefs, but the exterior architecture is quite interesting.  Not the least of which, was perhaps the link between the Romanesque and Gothic arches which perhaps, given the Silk Road, led to some of the developments in the medieval arches further East.

 The best Armenian church I’ve visited was, unfortunately, not in Armenia, but in Turkey.  The Akdamar Church in Lake Van has the most impressive Armenian high reliefs of any I have seen. Again, this along with the entire former city of Ani, is a point of frustration for the Armenians.

 The Armenians, however, have incredible legends and each place has its own.  Luckily, a travel guide, Anush Gasparyan, has compiled some of them into a small book entitled “A Journey in Armenia Through Myths and Legends.” The book is an excellent introduction to the topic and I sincerely wish someone in Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc. would develop the same for their cultural sites.

 Where Georgia has wine, the Armenians have cognac and I would be remise in not mentioning this.  They also have wine, but what I tasted couldn’t compete with that of their northern neighbor.  The cognac, though, is mellow and packs quite a bunch in just a few sips.

 My time in Armenia was short; I was only there for six days, so I couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of the issues facing the country.  What I have written here are my personal impressions based on what I experienced. & given what I experienced, I sensed a country that is grieving and hurt and bruised. I can only hope it can recover from its longstanding wounds soon.



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