From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Empire, this ancient Christian nation has seen it all. Join us as we discover the beauty and the tragedy of Armenia, locked away in the forbidding mountains of the South Caucasus.
By Alex Osipovich
As our plane touches down in Yerevan, I peer out the window trying to catch a glimpse of Mount Ararat, the biblical resting place of Noahís Ark. What strikes me instead is the architecture of Zvartnots International Airport. The control tower, jutting upwards from the grassy plain, looks like a melting UFO planted on top of a grain silo; the style is a mix of 1970s Soviet modernism, traditional Armenian stonemasonry, and the X-Files.
Aeroflot Flight 193 taxis to a halt, and we step outside into the warm, dusty air. After a long, chilly winter in Moscow, it feels like I have returned to California; I can close my eyes and picture that I am at San Jose International Airport.
But the resemblance to San Jose is short-lived. We pay $30 for our visas and step into a horde of eager taxi drivers falling over each other to give us a lift. Determined to save cash and mingle with real Armenians, we march past the crowd, shaking off the last few drivers, and climb into a minibus with the locals. On the road to Yerevan, we gaze at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. In front of us, the view is somewhat bleaker; the road is lined with sleazy casinos and outdoor furniture markets offering row after row of armchairs. At one point, the minibus stops, and a gorgeous girl dressed elegantly in black takes a seat. The girlís outfit illustrates a fact of life in this ancient land: Armenians may not have much money, but they take dressing well very seriously. Itís not unusual to see school-age boys dressed in suits, complete with jackets and ties.
What is unusual, however, is the foreign visitor. Al-though tourism was a huge industry before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., it was left in ruins when Armenia fought a bloody war with Azerbaijan over the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The shooting ended with a cease-fire in 1994, but Armenia still found itself in a profound economic crisis. Water, electricity, and heating oil were in critically short supply. During the winters of 1996 and 1997, the residents of Yerevan scavenged the streets for firewood; many park benches are still missing their wooden slats, after being ripped out by desperately cold city residents. Today, Armenia boasts a growing economy and a stable currency. But living standards are nonetheless lower than they were in the 1980s. Hot water is considered a luxury, even in Yerevan. In the countryside, itís almost nonexistent.
Khachkars near Lake Sevan.
Yet despite these hardships, more and more visitors are coming to Armenia. Last year, the number of foreign tourists was greater than any other year since independence. Visitors are attracted by the stunning natural scenery, the medieval monuments, and the rock-bottom prices. Arriving in Armenia, they discover an ancient country that has passed through the dark days of war and economic catastrophe, and is now standing on the threshold of a long-awaited revival.
Artists And Oligarchs
You can catch a glimpse of Armeniaís revival at Gevorgyan Gallery in Yerevan. This sleek new gallery on Tumanian Street offers nightly concerts, attended by members of the growing Armenian middle class. On the night that we arrive, an artsy contingent of Yerevan professionals, including a handful of artists and musicians, is sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor sipping red wine. They are transfixed by the songs of Vahan Artsruni, an Armenian musician who sings nostalgically about love and his long-suffering homeland. The white walls around us are lined with abstract paintings. There is a well-established tradition of modern art in Armenia - this was the first republic of the U.S.S.R. to open a modern art museum, back in 1972.
Albert Hagopian is one of the artists whose paintings hang in the Gevorgyan Gallery. Albert is a quiet, intensely private man who lives in Echmiadzin, 30 minutes away from Yerevan, a small, sleepy town, but an important one because it is the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. He tells us that his only regret about the crisis of the 1990s is that it became much more difficult to travel to Moscow and see major art exhibitions. Today, most of his buyers are well-off members of the Armenian Diaspora who live in places like the US and France. He has few buyers in Armenia itself. "There are a lot of rich people in Yerevan, but they have a fourth-grade education," he complains, referring to the powerful local oligarchs who cruise around town in their black Humvees.
The father of the Gevorgyan Gallery is Sergei Gevorgyan, a smiling, generous host with an easygoing demeanor and a Cartier cigarette permanently lodged in his mouth. Between bursts of violent coughing, he says that he opened the gallery in May more for his "soul" than for profit. Sergei takes us to Melody Cafe, an outdoor restaurant at Opera Square, one of Yerevanís central squares. We sip pomegranate wine and eat Iranian watermelon as Sergei answers our questions about Yerevanís art scene.
The dome of the main church at Gosh Monastery.
There are some themes that are inescapable in Armenian art, and one of them is the nationís troubled history. We meet Tigran Mangasarian, a Yerevan painter and illustrator, in a basement cafe. Over a cup of gritty coffee, he shows us his current, unpublished project. Entitled "Silence," it is a graphic novel about the darkest chapter of Armeniaís past - the genocide of 1915. Over two million Armenians were massacred in the genocide, at the hands of the Turkish army. "Silence" tells the true story of Arutiun Partamian, a genocide survivor who lived in Yerevan until the mid-1980s. In 1915, Partamian escaped from a massacre and fled on foot for hundreds of miles, crossing what is now the eastern half of Turkey. When he finally came to Yerevan, in the safe zone of the Russian Empire, he was miraculously reunited with his fiancee. Both lovers had thought that the other one was dead.
Mangasarian created "Silence" to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide. But when he told his friends he was creating a graphic novel about the tragic event, many of them were skeptical. They thought it was bad taste to create a "comic book" about the genocide. Mangasarian shuns the comic book label, and sees himself as an artist in the mold of Art Spiegelman, the New York-based creator of "Maus" - the groundbreaking, bestselling graphic novel about the Nazi Holocaust. In the U.S., "Maus" established the respectability of graphic novels as a literary genre. But in the former Soviet Union, graphic novels are still uncommon, and their authors earn little respect. Mangasarian, in this sense, is a trailblazer.
Artist Tigran Mangasarian.
We ask Mangasarian about the title of his book. "Itís so emotional to talk about the genocide, that we often prefer to stay quiet," he replies. "But in my book, I take the opposite approach. I wonít be silent." There is also another reason behind the title "Silence." It refers to the silence of the Turkish authorities who covered up the massacres. Even today the government of Turkey refuses to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide happened.
Stop And Migrate
The genocide cleaved the Armenian nation in half. While some survivors fled to Russian-held territory, which became present-day Armenia, others fled to Syria, Lebanon, and numerous other countries. The US is home to about a million Armenians, concentrated in southern California - there are over 300,000 in greater Los Angeles County.
Members of the Armenian Diaspora can often be seen on the streets of Yerevan. One of these is Sam Samuelian, a 28-year-old entrepreneur. Born in Lebanon, where his grandparents fled during the genocide, Sam moved to his ancestral homeland in 2001. He is now building a restaurant in the center of Yerevan. "My cousin keeps telling me that my name should stand for Stop And Migrate," says Sam, "because Iím always telling people to move to Armenia. Iím really happy here. I feel like a branch thatís been reattached to the tree."
Nimbly hopping about the construction site, Sam shows off his restaurant-to-be. All we can see now are bare concrete walls, but when it opens this summer, it will be a trendy European bistro called Square One. Of course, opening a business in the former Soviet Union is never an easy task, but Sam is optimistic. "The people who start a business today are going to be the people who are well-off tomorrow," he says. "I definitely think the glass is half-full."
Armenia has many entrepreneurs, and not all of them have been airlifted in from the Diaspora. When we decide to take a break from Yerevan and head into the countryside, we meet Arayik Hakobian, a one-man tourist agency complete with business cards. As Arayik drives us into the mountains, we learn about his unusual career - at different stages in his life, he has been a champion water polo player, a police detective, and a soldier in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. This tough ex-soldier has no fear of the treacherous mountain roads. He cheerfully navigates his white Niva around hairpin turns with heart-stopping precipices just meters away.
The Sevan Monastery on Lake Sevan.
Two hours from Yerevan, we stop at the shores at Lake Sevan. Before us lies an awe-inspiring sight - a vast freshwater lake, over a mile above sea level, and colored a rich shade of blue. People have lived here since the third millennium BC; caravans from the legendary Silk Road used to pass by these shores. We start the trek up to Sevan Monastery. Located on a craggy peninsula overlooking the lake, the monastery was consecrated in 874, and pilgrims still come here to light candles in the crumbling stone church. Stepping into the church is like entering another world. Beams of sunlight poke through the narrow windows, offering the only hint of warmth amid the frigid, dungeon-like temperatures. Outside, the churchyard is populated with medieval khachkars, the carved stone crosses which are Armeniaís most traditional art form. In the distance, at the tip of the peninsula, there is a metal fence; beyond the fence there is a secret dacha. The dacha was once used by General Secretaries of the Communist Party, and today it is used by Armenian President Robert Kocharian.
Arayik claims he has another talent besides high-altitude driving - he says he is also a master shashlyk chef. On the last day before we leave Armenia, he makes us a feast to prove his assertion. We have thick cuts of pork, plump tomatoes, and almost a kilo of freshly baked lavash bread. Driving into a scenic mountain gorge, we stop at a campsite near the river and make a fire. Arayik reveals the secrets of seasoning the meat with salt and pepper and putting it on skewers (so it cooks evenly). Once the shashlyk is grilled to perfection, we attack it like a pack of hungry raptors. Despite a cold drizzle, it is the most enjoyable meal I have had for a long time; Arayik has indeed proved his mastery.
In the car, the conversation turns to Mount Ararat. Recently, an American satellite spotted an ark-like formation near the summit; an expedition is now being planned to investigate it. "Soon they will find the remains of Noahís Ark," says Arayik. "And then everyone will have to believe in God."
I donít know whether theyíll find Noahís Ark. But I do know that after a week of exploring Armenia, and with my stomach full of shashlyk, it feels like Iím in heaven.
Donít Call It Cognac.
It is the crown jewel of Armeniaís economy. It is a unique liquor that was once the favorite drink of Winston Churchill. It is a potent, amber-colored beverage best served with a dessert of fruit or chocolate. It is - of course - Ararat cognac.
Oops - did we say cognac? We meant to say brandy. You see, the French have decided that only they have the right to make "cognac." Everyone else is actually making "brandy," even though the words refer to the same thing - distilled wine aged in oak barrels for at least three years, preferably longer.
The history of Ararat brandy goes back to 1887, when an industrialist named Nerses Tairiants opened a factory for the production of wine and spirits in Yerevan. Tairiants relied on French expertise to create high-quality brandy; he used a distillation technique developed in France, and appointed a general manager who had studied wine-making in Montpellier. The investment paid off. In 1899, his factory was acquired by Shustov and Sons, a large Russian alcohol distributor. Shustov marketed Armenian brandy throughout the Russian Empire. The result was a love affair between the Russian people and Armenian brandy that has lasted for more than a century - even today, some 85% of Ararat brandy is exported to Russia.
In Soviet times, the factory was nationalized. With the chronic shortages of the centrally planned economy, Ararat became a hard-to-get item, coveted by Party officials and rarely tasted by ordinary folk. At the Yalta summit in 1945, Stalin offered Churchill some Armenian brandy; the gift was greatly appreciated by the hard-drinking British leader. In the 1950s, the brandy factory moved to its current location, perched on a hilltop overlooking the sun-drenched streets of Yerevan.
You can now take a guided tour of the factory, in English, for 3500 drams (about $6.50). As you listen to the story of how brandy is made you can inhale the pungent aroma and examine barrels that have been aging for decades - several of which go back to the days of Shustov. Make sure you catch sight of the symbolic Peace Barrel, which will only be opened when Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty ending the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. (Cynics say this barrel is destined to hold the oldest brandy in the world.) Naturally, the tour ends in a tasting room. Three types of brandy, ranging in age from three to 20 years, are included in the ticket price. But thereís one thing to keep in mind while touring Armeniaís most famous factory: technically speaking, itís not Armenian anymore. In 1999, the facility was bought by French spirits manufacturer Pernod Ricard. The purchase was highly controversial. Accusations of corruption swirled around the deal and many Armenians are still angry that the nationís best-known trademark was handed over to foreigners. But on the other hand, Pernod brought badly needed investment to Ararat. The new owners replaced aging equipment, launched an aggressive new marketing campaign, and introduced measures to discourage piracy. (A bottle of Ararat is genuine if its label contains a holographic seal and the word "Ararat" appears in raised glass along the bottom.) The result is that Ararat brandy is flourishing once again. And like in the early days, itís all thanks to the French connection.
Yerevan Brandy Company, 2 Admiral Isakov Ave., 3741 54 00 00, Mon.-Fri. 9am-6pm.