Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, rests in a valley with the Hrazdan River winding through it. It is known as the pink city for the many prominent buildings in locally mined stone called “tuff” in mostly pinkish shades. Others are rich taupe and a few sport soft orange hues; the latter locals claim is rarest and therefore most valued. Republic Square is particularly tuff-rich; the edifices built between 1926 and 1977 are stunningly beautiful and seemingly take on a different persona with the rising sun, in mid-day’s bold light, and during evening shadows.
On one side of the square is the State Museum of Armenian History with its colossal archeological finds. A prized artifact is a 5,500 year-old leather shoe, the oldest known leather shoe in the world. Found in an Armenia cave in 2008, the exceptional preservation was due to the shoe being stuffed with dry grass and encased in several layers of sheep dung. I envision the wearer tightening the leather laces crossing along on top of their foot, and stepping out for some purpose during life in the Copper Age.
Our Armenia Photos
Other show-stoppers are Bronze Age chariots, carts and wagons excavated at Lchahen (pronounced Lashashen) after the water level of Lake Sevan was reduced, thus revealing an extensive cemetery. The largest wagon on display has four solid oak wheels, and flexible branches bent in a semicircular roof, amazingly preserved by the water that for so long covered the burial mounds. My love of archeology is well satiated.
To market – to market…or to “shuka” in local lingo! The humungous warehouse-type building has people spilling out carrying bulging bags. I can’t wait to get inside… and it does not disappoint! Big – bountiful – boisterous! Vendors call out their bargains. Racks of meat, heaps of fishes, fields of flowers, mountains of produce, bins of spices, sky-high sweets, pyramids of cheese, and mounds of Armenia flatbread…and that’s just the first floor! The second level overflows with every type of footwear, body garb, head gear, accessories imaginable. My shopper-rating-gauge clicks in at 9-out-of-10.
“This could only be a Fernando Botero!” I exclaim as we near the cheerful fat cat sculpture …and it is! More of this Colombian’s work, along with works of other internationally and locally renowned sculptors’ dot gardens that front the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, also known as the Cascade for the 572 outside steps of the building. Gerard L. Cafesjian is the philanthropist who in 2001 took over this massive project begun during Soviet times, coming to a halt with fall of the USSR in 199l, and remained neglected for a decade.
We begin our climb up the steps that are interspersed by platform levels with fountains and more impressive sculptures. A ferocious lion fashioned from used vehicle tires is exceptional. These levels give access to the museum’s inner contemporary art collection of more than 5,000 unique works.
This landmark edifice is comprised of a Concert Hall and the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. We find wandering in the surrounding parks with lovely fountains, cafes, and shops most enjoyable.
Holy Echmiadzin is the Vatican of the Armenia Apostolic Church. We zero in on the main Mayr Tachar Cathedral, first completed in 303, followed by an arm-long list of rebuilding and expansions. Other important buildings on this huge expanse are a seminary and treasury with1700 years of collected church artifacts (including what is believed to be the Holy Lance, the weapon used by the Roman soldier to pierce the side of Christ while still nailed to the cross).
More city sites are on hold as Mount Ararat beckons, the traditional landing place of Noah’s Arc after the flood. A taxi swifts us 30km south of Yerevan where we summon stamina to climb the steps to the 7th century Khor Virap Monastery. From this viewpoint our eyes affix on the 5,137m (16,854 ft) snow-capped Ararat across the Turkish border. Once located in Armenia, this mount came under Turkish control during the 1920 Turkish-Armenian War and formally became part of Turkey according to the 1921 Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars. Expeditions for ark relics have gone on for centuries, and although discoveries of petrified wood have not been validated as arc remnants, it is surreal to gaze upon this biblical mount.
The monastery of Khor Virap means “deep well”,
the name derived from legends of the pagan King Trdat III imprisoning Gregory the Illuminator in a well for 12 years, and of how Christian women kept him alive by smuggling food to him. The legend’s versions of how and why the King later converted to Christianity are many. Going down into the 7m-deep well is a shivery experience.
Yerevan City Tour
Miriam, our tour guide, is ready to show us some city gems. She begins where Yerevan began, the ancient Erebuni Fortress. Miriam keeps up a steady flow of facts as we climb, “Excavations began in 1959 after a farmer unearthed an inscribed stone tablet which brought in a swoop of archeologists who determined the cuneiform characters were those of Argishti I, ruler of the Urartu Kingdom, setting the date of the fortress at 782BC.” The view of the city from the top is excellent as we mill around the ruins of replicated frescos on the palace wall, storerooms for wheat/wine/oil, and stone walls that were topped with concrete slabs, which Miriam says, “is preservation Soviet-style”.
Our next site is an upward drive to the 23m-high statue of Mother Armenia,
with a massive sword held defensively in front of her. She replaced a Stalin statue in 1967, yet this plaza appears Soviet-classic with a few old tanks and fighter jets set on pedestals.
From here we take in the Genocide Memorial for the over one million Armenians who were massacred by the Turks in 1915, and the mostly underground Genocide Museum displaying the horrors that took place.
Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery
Miriam is a great guide, and we keep her busy with a day trip to two historical sites.
“Are we still in Armenia?” I find myself exclaiming at the sight of Greco-Roman colonnades of Garni Temple.
As we climb the steps to the temple’s inner sanctum, Miriam explains, “Garni was dedicated to the pagan sun god during Hellenistic times. Later it became a summer home for the country’s royalty, until destroyed in a 1679 earthquake. Reconstruction took place mid-20th century.”
A Roman bathhouse features mosaics of natural stones.
A notable find in the ruins of a church was cuneiform writing from King Argishti, saying he moved his people from Garni to Erebuni (the original site of Yerevan). It was written in the centre of a vishap (carved dragon stone), which some believe to be markers to show the location of water.
We next arrive at the canyon setting of Geghard Monastery.
My heart thumps in the shadowy cave church where pilgrims fill vessels with holy water from the same spring as Gregory the Illuminator when he founded the monastery in the 4th century. Some churches within the complex are entirely dug into the cliff rocks, from small sizes to large elaborate structures. The main free-standing church was built in 1215.
“Listen! Come quickly,” says Miriam. We climb the stairs lined by khatchkar (stone crosses) on the left side of the church and enter a hewn stone chamber with unsurpassed acoustics and where a quartet of singers raises their voices to the heavens.
On the monastery grounds tantalizing scents waft from tables where ladies sell baked goods side-by-side with religious items.
“My husband would never forgive me if I left without “gata”,” Miriam chuckles while purchasing two rounds of Armenia sweet bread with walnut filling. To our delight on the drive back to Yerevan she divvies up one for us! Delicious!
Perched 1900m above sea level, Lake Sevan, is the perfect place to escape the summer heat. Its freshwater is fish-rich. The bustling town of Sevan is where we dip our toes into the lakes deep blue waters, then climb the long flight of steps passing souvenir vendors along the way to a monastery for a view showing the scope of the lake. After catching our breath it is upward again to the ruins of a church at the highest point of the peninsula. On the way down a seller cleverly holds a moonstone necklace so it picks up the light just so – and of course it comes away with me.
Back in Yerevan we take in a few more sites and no matter what fills our day we make our way back to Republic Square during the evening to join the flood of people perched on ledges and benches around the lit-up fountains.
Our visit to Armenia was a whirlwind of historical and cultural riches, friendly encounters with locals, and many fine feasts of traditional foods…all now tucked in our memories.
If, like us, you are leaving from Georgia to visit Armenia, overland by hired car and driver is the way to go!
Spectacular mountains and deep canyons are along the western route, passing abandoned factories from the old USSR days,
nary a sliver of smoke escaping the once belching chimneys. The terrain levels with field of swaying sunflowers, miles of corn and other crops as far as the eye can see until nearing Yerevan.