Armenia: A landlocked historical wonder

Armenia: A landlocked historical wonder
Photo Credit: Alamy

Yerevan, the capital city, holds attractions that are steeped in history and traditions

Srinath Perur
March 01 , 2016
11 Min Read

They say the first tourist in Armenia was Noah. A deluge of the sort you might find in a Mumbai monsoon had wiped out life on earth, and the only survivors, human and animal, were on Noah’s zoo-boat, which came to rest on mountains known as Ararat. That Ararat, the Armenians are sure, is the gently sloping, twin-peaked, snow-topped mountain that forms the stately backdrop to their low-rise capital city Yerevan, and is the geographical totem around which the nation pulls together.

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Except, except—what the tourist guides call “Biblical Mount Ararat” is not even in Armenia anymore. It’s some forty kilometres across the border in neighbouring Turkey, a constant reminder that the Armenia that was once a grand empire stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean is now whittled down to a tiny land-locked country in the Caucasus. When this group of a half-dozen junketing journalists lands in Yerevan to experience its tourist prospects, Ararat isn’t visible because the day isn’t clear enough, and when guides continue to wave in the direction of nothing at all for the next couple of days, the more investigative-minded among us begin to wonder if some elaborate geological conspiracy is afoot.

In turn, our Armenian hosts begin to suspect that the Indians foisted upon them may not be the real deal. As with the other former USSR republics, Hindi cinema is hugely popular in Armenia. Even the Indian ambassador tells us, “It is Raj Kapoor and Nargis who put India on the international map.” On an evening walk through Yerevan we hear what sounds like a familiar Hindi film song, but sung with made up words: street musicians with guitar and accordion, imitating the frolicking of a hero with exaggerated nods and expressions alternating rapidly between joy and coy. Our solicitous hosts provide us opportunities to dance, starting from the mid-afternoon welcome at the airport with a shot of brandy and a troupe of traditional musicians. But the iconic Indian dance film in Armenia is Disco Dancer—we’re told every teenager can go ‘Jimi Jimi Jimi’—and no matter how spiritedly we shuffle about there’s no matching a youthful Mithun. Finally, it’s a journalist from Calcutta who upholds our national honour on the last dinner of the trip. Well fortified, he unleashes moves of such vigorous abandon that local diners will not let him rest, continually dragging him out for selfies and affectionate dance-offs.(For keen watchers of Indo-CIS relations, it bears mentioning that the USSR might have collapsed, but Mithun C is still going strong in the region, and even passing on the mantle, with his son Mimoh starring in Ishqedarriyaan, shot in neighbouring Georgia.)

All this is to say that while Yerevan might look and feel like Europe, there’s a welcoming cultural affinity between Armenia and India. This affinity is not that we’ve seen some of the same films—no, it’s deeper than that, something to do perhaps with sharing a sensibility that allows us both to enjoy those films. Historically too, Armenian traders had been familiar with India since the beginning of the common era, and since Akbar’s reign had settlements in India. They were in the area of Kolkata before the British arrived and it seems properly symbolic that while the day’s urban planning divided the city into Black and White zones, the Armenians occupied an area in-between, a grey zone.

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There is something of a grey zone about Yerevan too, a certain softness. It’s a warm, pleasant, compact city, not overly burdened by historical architecture—the result of frequent sackings of the prosperous Silk Road city and by being in an area prone to powerful earthquakes. Its present urban character is due to Alexander Tamanian, the architect who laid out the city’s plans in the 1920s. His vision of Armenia’s capital led to buildings made of tuff—locally available volcanic rock—in muted pinks and oranges. Blocks of stone in a building often come in slightly different shades, giving the city a pixellated glow.

We enjoy walking through the city— its boulevards are dense with trees, the footpaths broad. There’s a sense of communion in the public spaces—perhaps a national necessity in a city with a third of the country’s three million people. The Cascade is a giant staircase with art alongside. At night in the city’s central Republic Square, the martial music of Tchaikovsky and Khachatourian coexists with the soundtrack of The Lion King (in French), as an array of fountains goes off in the illuminated night. The city is flat, as befits its seismic zone, which means it would look very pretty with Mount Ararat in the background. If only, that is, the mountain was visible.

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Even as we walk through the airport on arrival, we see lit advertisement boards in the corridors informing us about the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks: 1.5 million people killed in 1915; 241 Armenian leaders and intellectuals rounded up on April 24, 1915 and killed (and the reason that 1915 is considered the zero year for a persecution that occurred over years). 2015 is the symbolic centenary and an all-out PR campaign is on to remind the world of a painful chapter of history it has chosen to forget. (“191.5 million”, hoardings on the street pithily say.) The episode remains at the emotional core of the Armenian identity. Even hardened tourist guides who speak of it daily grow agitated when they come to the subject, and a visit to the stark, haunting Genocide Memorial and Museum is enough to see why.

Not unrelated to its persecution is the fact that Armenia is a staunchly Christian country. In fact, it’s the first officially Christian state in the world, and many of its tourist attractions tend to be associated with the religion. It can all be said to have begun at Khor Virap, a seminary right at the Turkish border, set magnificently against the invisible Mount Ararat. Here, a descent down a ladder takes you to a claustrophobic cellar where the man who would become Saint Gregory the Illuminator was held for fourteen years. When he was brought out, he managed to convert the king and the state to Christianity, in 301 CE. Then he tirelessly went about having churches and monasteries built all over the land. These and subsequent structures are austere stone for the most part, dark inside save for the candles lit by the devout.

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For a taste of what was replaced, there’s a ‘pagan’ temple at Garni, built in Roman style (1st c.) before Christianity took over. There’s the 9th century Sevanavank seminary and church, overlooking the placid blue of Sevan lake with mountains in the distance. There’s Geghard monastery (13th c.), set in the craggy mountainside. Of particular interest is Echmiadzin (4th c.), the grand seat of the Armenian Church, and the cultural and religious hub for the Armenian community worldwide. The museum there displays, among other things, the Roman lance they say was used to probe Jesus’ side while he was on the cross, and a chunk of wood said to be from Noah’s ark.

Understandably for a man who’s survived a deluge and faces the prospect of repopulating the planet from scratch, Noah’s supposed to have planted a vineyard, made wine and got drunk. (And in that strange way that myth and history have of being mutually responsive, archaeologists discovered the world’s earliest known winery—6,000 years old—in a cave in Armenia in 2010.) Clearly the old man knew a thing or two about what to plant where when he was told: “Be fruitful.” The grapes in Armenia—and most other fruits—are quite exceptional. Apricots, peaches, plums, cherries, all outdo each other. Even as apparently uncomplicated a fruit as watermelon gets its act together quite spectacularly. And what to say of the preserves, jams, murabbas and fruit leather. For all the country’s many charms, I’d happily return for the fruit alone.

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The other thing I’d want to go back for—and as someone who panics at the prospect of shopping, something I never thought I’d say—is the Vernissage art market. Its silver ornaments, leather bags and knitted garments all seem wonderful, but for me it’s the second hand stalls that hold an emotional charge I can’t walk away from. On display here are bewilderingly diverse things—lenses and old cameras that have clearly seen a lot, used dentistry and surgical equipment (of all things), a barrel of acid from perhaps a factory sitting next to equipment from what has to be a shut down school lab, chess sets, boxy obsolete electronics from the Soviet era, old records. Taken together, these thousands of stray objects say something powerful about the last century in these parts, something I can sense but not quite grasp. The wind-up watch I buy—solid, USSR-made, with clean and simple digits—is well-used, well cared for. I wonder whose wrist it marked time on before making its way to mine.

There’s also an ocean of tourist souvenirs with the image of Mount Ararat on them. It would have been appropriately mystifying to never actually see the mountain, to leave with memories of the city without its most prominent feature. But it shows itself on the trip for the first time on the morning we leave for the airport. It really pulls the city together, it does. Yerevan at last begins to look like photographs of itself.

The information

Getting there: I flew Air Arabia from Bangalore to Yerevan via Sharjah. The Economy return from Delhi was going for around Rs 68,000 in March 2016. A tourist visa is required and can be applied for in India through the embassy of Armenia in New Delhi (www.india.mfa.am). The processing time for a tourist visa is seven to ten days.

Where to stay: At Yerevan, I stayed at the just-opened DoubleTree by Hilton ($111 onwards; www.doubletree3.hilton.com) and at the Golden Palace at the ski resort of Tsakhkadzor ($130 onwards; www.goldenpalace.am). Other options in Yerevan are the stately Armenia Marriott at the city centre ($127 onwards; www.marriott.com/hotels), and for backpackers, the Envoy Hostel ($11 onwards; www.envoyhostel.com).

What to see & do: In Yerevan: the city centre, Republic Square, comes alive at night with coloured lights, people and an expanse of musical fountains; the Vernissage is an open-air arts and craft market that also sells a bewildering variety of odds and ends; the Yerevan Brandy factory, maker of the iconic Ararat brandy, offers a guided tour followed by a tasting session (www.araratbrandy.com); the Cascade is a wide, (almost) endless staircase punctuated with art installations; and the Genocide Memorial and Musuem documents the grim events of a century ago. Outside the capital, there’s Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church and believed to be the oldest cathedral in the world; scenic Sevan, the ski resort of Tzakhatzhor, the Geghard monastery set in craggy mountainside, and the 2,000-year-old pagan temple at Garni.

What to eat and drink: In Yerevan, the restaurants Tumanyan Pandok (5, Amiryan Street, $15 per person), Pandok Yerevan (www.pandokyerevan.am) and Yerevan Nights (www.yerevan-nights.com) serve Armenian and Mediterranean food. Fruits in Armenia are consistently delightful, as are the dried fruits. By extension, Armenia has excellent jams and murabbas.


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