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Travels in Turkey’s northeast neighbor: Armenia

Travels in Turkey’s northeast neighbor: Armenia

A photograph of Mt. Ararat taken from the north became a part of the mystique which grew up around the notorious British double-agent and “Cambridge spy” Kim Philby. During the Cold War decades the north face of “Noah’s mountain,” which stands on Turkish territory, could be seen only from behind the closed (to Westerners) border of the Soviet Union, suggesting that the framed photograph hanging proudly on a wall in Philby’s Beirut home must have been taken while he was working for the communist regime.

Whatever the truth behind the origins of the enigmatic Philby’s photograph of Ararat (Ağrı Dağı in Turkish), having seen the south face of the 5,165-meter peak many times from Doğubayazıt in eastern Turkey, I had always wanted to view it from the north — and finally got my chance last week when I flew from İstanbul to the Armenian capital of Yerevan (Erivan). Mountains being fickle, however, I had to wait until the very end of my one-week stay before the shy and retiring behemoth cast aside a shroud of persistent gray cloud to reveal itself in all its shimmering, ice-sheathed glory — but more on that later.

Exploring Yerevan

I spent my first couple of nights in central Yerevan, in the apartment of a university lecturer who had moved out in order to supplement her income. Wages are low in Armenia, with junior doctors netting a paltry $130 per month, experienced university lecturers only $300, so it’s hardly surprising that there are plenty of people willing to rent out their apartments for foreign currency (I paid $40 a night for the two-bed, downtown apartment) and more who offer cheaper homestay accommodation for visitors happy to share with a local family.

Central Yerevan, laid out on a “grid within a circle” plan in the early 1920s, is a smart place with broad streets lined with stylish period apartment blocks and offices punctuated by grand squares. The focal point of the city is Republic Square, home to the very impressive National History Museum and National Gallery of Arts, both housed in a magnificent 1920s building. North of it is an area of parks, cafes and restaurants around the stunning, circular Opera House, which opened in 1933 and outside boasts a statue of Armenia’s most famous composer, Aram Khachaturian.

Beyond the Opera House, running up a hillside crowned by a monumental statue to Mother Armenia (the female personification of the nation), is the flamboyant Cascade, several flights of stylishly laid out steps incorporating the trendy Cafesjian Arts complex. The Cafesjian has a great collection of art spread around several different rooms, in one of which I saw an exhibition devoted to Hungarian Op-art master Viktor Vasarely. At the foot of the Cascade (very impressive considering it’s essentially a waterless “water feature”) are some fabulous modern bronze sculptures, including a couple by famed Colombian artist Botero.

Russian and Turkish influences

Armenia shrugged off communist rule when the Soviet Union imploded in 1990, and achieved official independence in 1991. Russian influence is still strong here, however, and visitors to Yerevan cannot fail to notice that the city’s metal street signs are written in both the distinctive Armenian script and Russian Cyrillic, and that markets stock a wide range of Russian-produced goods. The soldiers manning the Turkish frontier are Russian, too, a throw-back to the Cold War era when Armenia was a Soviet republic and Turkey (as it still is) a member of NATO. Today the Armenians see Russia as a guarantor of security in the stand-off with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of diplomatic relations and closed land border between the two countries, Turkish influence is nowhere near as visible here as in neighboring Georgia, though I did spot several stores sporting the ubiquitous Beko logo. More poignantly, many districts of Yerevan are named after regions of the former Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, from which Armenians were expelled during the horrors of World War I — Nor (New) Zeitun (Zeytun), Nor Malatia (Malatya) and Nor Marash (Kahramanmaraş), to name just a few. The fact that the devoutly Christian Armenians lived side-by-side with their Muslim Turkish and Kurdish neighbors for many centuries is also evident in the food eaten here. Watching a group of dark-haired young Yerevan men tuck into rolled-up lahmacun (minced meat on flat bread) washed down with ayran, I could have been anywhere in Turkey, not to mention the village women selling the walnut-stuffed, fruit-molasses dessert known in Turkey as cevizli sucuk, or those knocking out Armenia’s staple bread, lavaş, from a tandoor oven.

A little-known civilization

On my second day in the city I took a cab out to the Urartian site of Erebuni (Urartu was an ancient kingdom), on the edge of the city. I know the sites of this little-known civilization well from my explorations of eastern Turkey, for the ancient capital of this early first millennia B.C. empire was in Van. Situated on a ridge, as all Urartian fortified palace complexes were, Erebuni was established by King Argishti I in 782 B.C. Not only was the site and its attached museum fascinating, the view of the outskirts of Yerevan was illuminating, for here the less appealing side of the Soviet era was all too apparent, with great swathes of crumbling concrete apartment blocks, asbestos-roofed shanty dwellings and decrepit factories the order of the day.

I was actually in Armenia at the behest of a specialist UK-based travel company for whom I help design and plan history and archaeology tours in Turkey. They had been invited to take part in a FAM (familiarization) tour of Armenia by a Yerevan-based travel agency keen to encourage special interest tourism in their country. So after a couple of days exploring on my own, I joined up with a miscellaneous group of representatives from tour agencies in Israel, Germany, Poland and Italy to get a three-day snapshot of what Armenia had to offer the visitor. So I packed my bag, exited the apartment (of which I’d become rather fond) and checked into a massive Soviet-era block, today the Ani Plaza hotel.

First up was a city tour. We were whisked up the hilltop park beneath the colossal Mother Armenia statue (the plinth supporting it had previously held a statue of Stalin), a symbol of the nation flanked incongruously by rusting Soviet-era tanks and a missile astride its launcher. Inevitably, a visit to the Genocide Memorial and Museum was a part of the package. A travel feature is no place to start a debate over what happened in 1915 and its aftermath, but as my Bradt guide to Armenia writes, “Visiting…is strongly recommended for anyone wishing to understand Armenia and its people.”

Monasteries, a temple and a lake

The next couple of days saw us whisked into the countryside to see the real reason why most people would want to visit Armenia — its splendid medieval church and monastery complexes, each invariably set in some gorgeous upland terrain. Having seen many untended and crumbling Armenian churches dotted across eastern Turkey, to see them here lovingly cared for and active is quite a different experience. The Geghard monastery, tucked away at the end of a lovely valley an hour’s drive east of the capital, lay under a soft white mantle of newly fallen snow. Despite the chill, honey bees buzzed around the monastery’s gaily colored hives, and from inside the church came the soft lilt of a Palm Sunday service. Nearby Garni, where an impressively reconstructed Greek-style Roman temple perches on the very lip of a spectacular gorge, was a vivid reminder of just how far north and east Rome’s influence stretched in the first century A.D.

Later we saw the spiritual heart of the Apostolic Armenian Church at Echmiatsin, a half-hour west of Yerevan. The Armenians are fiercely proud to be the first nation to officially adopt Christianity, back in A.D. 301, and their individual brand of the faith (the Armenians split from the Orthodox Church following the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451), along with the distinctive alphabet devised by the monk Mesrop Mashtots early in the fifth century, form the heart of the Armenian identity. South of Yerevan we admired the northern skirts of the elusive Mt. Ararat from the vantage point of Khor Virap, a monastery in the Ararat valley, before continuing to the beautiful monastic complex of Noravank, one of the highlights of the trip.

Lake Sevan, even higher than Turkey’s Lake Van, was still partially iced-over in early April. Although nowhere near so pretty as the sympathetically restored Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Aktamar in Lake Van, the Sevanavank monastery boasts a similar setting. More impressive, however, was the fascinating Khackar (elaborate crosses carved on steles) field at Noratus on the west shore of the lake, reminiscent of the Muslim cemetery at Ahlat on the shores of Lake Van.

My last day in Yerevan dawned bright and clear, so I rushed to the Cascade and clambered up to look back across to the city to see, finally, Mt. Ararat and its more diminutive accomplice, Little Ararat, looming splendidly on the horizon. My trip was complete. Getting there: Armavia (www.armavia.com.tr) flies twice weekly from İstanbul to Yerevan for a steep $500 return, and from Antalya mid-September to mid-June for a more reasonable 250 euros. A cheaper option is to fly to Tiflis (Tbilisi) in Georgia (THY or Pegasus), then take the overnight train to Yerevan (around 12 euros).

General info: Visas cost 3,000 DAM (about 6 euros) available on arrival at Zvartnots airport. Travel by local bus is tricky (though not impossible) because everything is in the Armenian script — but plenty of agencies in Yerevan do daily tours to the main sites at decent prices (around 10 euros per person),and all the sites I visited outside Yerevan were done as day trips from the capital. Prices are generally low by Turkish standards, with petrol around a euro a liter, a cross-city taxi ride a couple of euros, a 50cl beer a euro, wine as cheap as half a euro a glass and a main course in an average restaurant between one-and-a-half and five euros. Museum entries are two euros.

Vis-a-vis is a friendly, female-owned, entirely female-staffed travel agency in Yerevan: www.visavistour.com.

Andante Travels organizes specialized archaeology and history tours in Turkey and worldwide: www.andantetravels.co.uk.