Saturday, August 25, 2012

So many churches, so little time

Church overlooking Lake Sevan
Armenia reminds me of Israel--as I imagine it.  While Azerbaijan is technically richer, their oil wealth hasn't trickled down very far yet, and they seem more intent on imitating Dubai--huge hotels, gleaming plazas, vast boulevards--than catering to tourists.  And Georgia is too poor, and too broken from war, to engage in any grand plans.  But Armenia seems almost quivering with anticipation not simply to welcome tourists, but to make sure they see the whole picture, and the correct picture.  After a big, tired tour bus in Azerbaijan, and a new but spartan minibus in Georgia, our Armenian guide pulled up in a sparkling new Mercedes van kitted out to within an inch of its life with raised roof, fold-down video screens, wireless PA, even a custom-fitted pen that matched the wood finish of the dashboard.  When it broke down a few miles away from the border pickup, another one was dispatched straight from Yerevan to meet us within a couple hours (while we shared a gleaming full-size bus with a group of Spaniards).

Photos of survivors, Genocide Museum
Much of Armenia's wealth comes from diaspora remissions (like Israel).  And a fair amount of it gets spent reconstructing churches destroyed by Turks or Soviets, or erecting museums about the genocide and other cultural cornerstones.  And many of those American, French, and other ex-pats return to Armenia for vacation, bringing with them high expectations for luxurious hotels, bilingual guides, and so on.  Simply put, tourism works in Armenia, to Western standards, in a way it doesn't in Georgia or Azerbaijan.

Our guide, David, was the picture of attentiveness, asking if we'd like to hear Armenian music on the bus, pushing wait staff to bring our food more quickly, and manipulating the itinerary down to the minute to squeeze in every possible site and preference.  This was especially lucky given that the tour only allowed three days in Armenia.  It's a small country, but there's a lot to see.

Better than stained glass?

As in Georgia, churches were a big focus.  Though a bit less ancient--and in many cases reconstructed--they're much plainer here, stripped of iconostasis or most any other decoration on the inside.  Outside, though, there's a tradition of carving crosses and lettering into the stone: while not quite as flowery as Georgian script, Armenian letters are very picturesque.  There's also a tradition of kachkars, granite blocks carved into ornate crosses trussed up with remarkably Celtic-looking ornamentation and writing. 
Pair of kachkars
Supposedly many of these were destroyed in the various invasions and purges to which Armenia has fallen victim.  We were able to see one vast cemetery of them, as well as many scattered examples in various churchyards. 

Armenian scripture or Elvin runes?

Pedestrian mall, Yerevan
Yerevan seems a different world from the darkened stone sanctuaries dotting the countryside.  People pay a lot of attention to fashion, and they have the means to pursue it.  Gleaming Mercedes are at least as common as tired Ladas.  Swank shops line the streets, which are clean and orderly.  Elegant cafes spill onto the sidewalks, drawing in passersby with everything from "Armenian" (Turkish) coffee to vodka to ice cream.  Thanks both to Soviet and ex-pat influence, the arts enjoy high status: orchestra hall anchors the central square, and the opera house dominates the end of the main pedestrian boulevard. 

Armenians are much more open than Georgians, energetic almost to the point of being pushy.  In a little convenience store, an old lady and a young man were dancing enthusiastically to the radio, and invited anyone in our group to join in.  Nearly every restaurant featured a small band, and recorded music filled many other spaces.  Russian and French are more common than English, yet people are not easily intimidated by language barriers.  The Iranian influence can be seen in the food, which is much more elaborately prepared than Georgian food--yet to me it lacks that certain handmade charm; even in a restaurant, Georgian food feels like what Mom made, while in Armenia it suggests the practiced hand of a chef.

Roadside "soda" fountain

We went to a winery and sampled several reds, plus an array of fruit brandies.  The roadsides are peppered with people selling wine in Coke bottles mostly to Iranian truckers, who can't get alcohol at home and don't want anyone to know what they're drinking.  Armenia exports wine to Russia--presumably taking over the market share given up by Georgia--but "cognac" gets a lot more attention in-country.  Like a comical quantity of other things, its major brand is "Ararat," after the mountain where Noah's ark supposedly landed, which now lies in Turkey.  It's very fine; the same can't be said of the beer.

Like the rest of the Caucasus, Armenia is a study in contradictions and complications.  The very modern meets the most traditional; urban blends with rural; East meets West; Christianity almost converges with Islam.  Each of the three countries has its own character that's no less distinct for being difficult to summarize.  After nearly a month in the region, surprises still await at every turn.

High-fashion shepherd


  1. Amazing photos! Love the white-collar shepherd! I guess the celtic Armenian crosses fit in with the theory that the Celts migrated all the way across Europe from east to west.

  2. Thanks. Good point about the Celts, but I thought they came from closer to Bulgaria. Further investigation may be needed.

  3. I agree about the photos--nice variety, which gives more of a sense of different parts of Armenia.
    Iranian trucker with a Coke bottle of wine--that's a great detail. I often find it a miracle that cultures come back from traumatic episodes like Armenia's. "Resilience" might be an over-used word, but I'm always impressed when I see or hear about it. For some reason, I'm more suspicious of "the human spirit," though the two terms often go hand in hand.