Armenia

When we English Education volunteers learned that the Minister of Education and Science created a spring break, there was a sense of elation. We G15s had a chance to take one last quick vacation out of the country. That is, until we realized that our Close of Service conference was at the same time. Still, a group of us snagged the days we could and road tripped to Armenia. As far as I know, May and Stan were the key instigators, but Dan (G16 of Egypt fame), Donnie, Grace, Sarah, and I went along too.

Going in, the only thing I knew about Armenia was that it was south of Georgia and that it was the first Christian nation. I learned a couple of more things while there.

As usual, rather than any in-depth play by play, here’s a collection of observations, quips, and ruminations. These come from our guide, my cohorts, and myself.


Armenian surnames all end with -yan or -ian.

The Armenian flag is, from top to bottom, red, blue, and orange. Red is the blood sacrificed. Blue is for the peaceful sky. Orange is for apricots, symbolizing the hard working nature of Armenians and their claim to the best apricots in the world. There’s also a lion and eagle flanking Mt. Ararat in the middle.

Turkey complained that Armenia had Mt. Ararat on its flag, saying that they should not have something not in their country on their flag and that Armenia should take Mt Ararat off. Armenia responded that they will if turkey removed the moon and star from its.

The Georgian side of the border crossing has nicer toilets, and apparently the Armenian metal detector "always does that."

Like Georgians, Armenians see themselves as European.

The Council of Europe also thinks of Armenia as part of Europe.

Also favorable towards Russia.

Serj vs. Serj - Apparently the lead singer for System of a Down and the Armenian President get all up in each other’s business.

Armenians suffered pretty astoundingly at the hands of the Turks and their answer to the “Armenian Question.” This was the Armenian Genocide. More on this later, but for now it’s worth mentioning that Turkey does not recognize that any Armenian Genocide took place, and, despite its roll in saving many Armenians, the USA no longer admits to it either.

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Akhtala monastery was the first site we hit in Armenia. It was Armenian, then Greek. It was sacked in 1800s by the Lezgi, who shot the face off the Virgin Mary to drive people out who were hiding in the church. They also tore down its dome.

The black exterior of the church by the entrance is because the Soviets forbade worship inside the church. So people lit candles and prayed outside. The smoke from these candles blacked the stones.

Bejezus, it’s cold.

The flower swirl motif commonly seen around Armenia is representative of the peacock’s tail, the bird which symbolizes eternity in Christianity.

Armenia churches have an entry hall called a gavit before you get to the chapel. Together they form a simple cross shape when seen from above.

The rings outside of Akhtala symbolize friendship with Georgia. One the base of the monument are carved a scorpion and a snake. Married couples passing through the rings and stepping on these are blessed.

Haghpat was another church. Normally, they build the chapel first and then the gavit. Here they got frisky and experimented with fancy gavits and built the largest gavit in Armenia. Then they realized they needed a chapel and made a tiny one at the back of the Gavit.

Some Caucasus folk singer was exiled here after getting a bit too close with the king’s daughter. Great acoustics.

Cross stones are unique to Armenia. They are former gravestones stood up and turned to face west. When Jesus comes again he will come from the west.

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Crosses in Armenia routinely “bloom”. The corners curl or blossom into the previously mentioned symbol of eternity. A design only found here.

It is acceptable to be buried in the church, and you can have a church whose entire floor is made of gravestones. Yes, you are allowed to walk on them.

The entrance to a chapel faces east, where the sun rises.

Armenia’s is an apostolic church. It was founded by the teachings of apostles and not modified by some later conclave who knew better. The main difference between them and Catholics, other than that pope guy, is that they say Jesus as God is an unexplainable combination of divine and human.

Also, they don’t pray to saints as intermediaries.

The apostles that came to Armenia were Bartholomew and Thaddeus.

Simple is better, closer to the divine. So churches in Armenia usually have very few decorations.

St. Cross church claims to have part of the original cross. Our guide admitted that if you took all the pieces of the cross from all of these churches that they’d combine to make one really big cross.

On the other hand, Jesus did feed a giant crowd with three loaves and fish. So it’s within the realm of possibility for scripture.

 Can you see any differences?

Can you see any differences?

Getting married in a church in Armenia is more important than getting married on paper. You’re only considered really married if it happened in a church.

“Can you see any differences?” - Dan, as we look at a plaque with several versions of braille script.

Armenians say that the man who made the Armenian alphabet also made the Georgian alphabet. He did such a good job the first time that Georgian’s kept badgering him. The last straw came when we was eating noodles with matsoni. In frustration and rage he threw his dinner at the wall and said, “There’s your letters.”

There’s 39 letters in the Armenian alphabet.

The bull is a symbol of fertility, the lamb represents Jesus, and the lion is from the coat of arms of the last royal house.

Grace found her spirit animal: the squibbit, a poorly sculpted squirrel with rabbit ears. Its best spoken like you're singing death metal. 

Mongolians cut off the tops of many crosses to cut Armenians off from God.

There’s a giant cross along one of the main roads that was made to celebrate the anniversary of Armenia becomes a Christian nation (301 CE). It is constructed entirely of smaller crosses, one for each year Armenia has been Christian, and each year another cross is added.

After Armenia gained independence, they renamed all the streets in Yerevan (the capital) from their Russian names. Except Leningrad Street.

The outskirts of Yerevan look like a modern dystopia, but the two center is all shiny. Yup, post-Soviet dystopia.

There's gorges everywhere, even in the city.

  • “I hope they don’t come bumbling in at four in the morning.”
  • “I’ll come bumbling in at four in the morning.”
  • “I’ll shank you if you come bumbling in at four in the morning.”
 The monument to the Armenian Genocide.

The monument to the Armenian Genocide.

Some crosswalks beep to let you know how much time is left. They start slow, letting you stroll, but ramp up to RUN!

The Genocide Museum is a good museum, but also sobering. It is a solemn monument to the evils humanity does in the name of faith, and humanity’s constant willingness to allow such in the name of political convenience.

Listening to and reading about the Armenian Genocide made me think of children. Children hide their failures, they lie about misdeeds. We expect better from adults, and we hold them accountable for their actions (when we can). The Armenian Genocide reminds us that some people, and even countries, never grow up as Turkey denies the genocide ever happened. At the time, so did their ally, Germany. Today, so does Turkey’s current ally: the US.

Rather than writing about the Armenian Genocide, I would instead urge you to research it for yourself.

There's a series of steps still under construction called the cascade complex. Nice hike. Good view of the city. The park in front has some funky art in it.

"Nerds." - Grace to the rest of us whenever we made some reference to a movie, game, cartoon, or similar.

The History Museum of Armenia starts on the 3rd floor, and they’re pretty insistent that you start there and then wind your way back down to the exit.

 Model of the Solar System. Image taken from A Glance from the Bronze Age - Yerevan, History Museum of Armenia, 2016, page 72.

Model of the Solar System. Image taken from A Glance from the Bronze Age - Yerevan, History Museum of Armenia, 2016, page 72.

Armenians depicted the universe with the Earth at the center. The first layer surrounding the Earth is water, then the atmosphere. Beyond this is the Sun, and between the Sun and the Earth lie Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon. The model looks like a funky key.

Yup, ancient sun worshipers.

The dragon (vishap) is the unity of the snake and eagle, which typically try to kill each other. The snake was associated with water (rivers) and the bird the sky. Hence the dragon unifies the earth and the heavens and symbolizes longevity. It is also the custodian of water, wealth, and the tree of life, which some “hero” gets in his head to kill so as to set these things free.

Lots of other animal mashups in the mix too. So you can have a vishap that’s part camel, serpent, ass, bull, cow, or whatnot.

Also, animal worshipers, if that wasn’t obvious. Animals sacrificed during a burial were thought to become guardians for the dead guy, and putting bronze statues of animals was the same as sacrificing animals.

 Woman shaped pitcher. Image taken from A Glance from the Bronze Age - Yerevan, History Museum of Armenia, 2016, page 70.

Woman shaped pitcher. Image taken from A Glance from the Bronze Age - Yerevan, History Museum of Armenia, 2016, page 70.

The Necropolis of Lchashen was excavated in 1956. It’s a series of burial mounds, stone tombs, and cromlechs along with a ruined settlement and fortress found on the bottom of Lake Sevan.

 “So are we going to talk about the penises?” - Sarah

Yes, there were a series of stone phalluses in the museum. There were also several female idols and vessels (e.g. pitchers) patterned after the female form and celebrating fertility. Not that anyone in the group remarked about them.

Zvartnot’s cathedral would have been a site to see. Sadly its only ruins now, but the model in the museum was pretty nifty.

Armenia was definitely more of a cultural crossroads than Georgia was. Coins from a dozen countries, Greek temples, and even cuneiform writing was found here.

“The Georgian asked us, ‘Why would you go to Armenia? They only have one lake.’” - Kiara, an Italian with us on our second tour.

That lake accounts for 10% of Armenia’s surface area. Its also quite frozen.

How Christianity came to Armenia: The king fell in love with a nun, but she would not marry him because he was a pagan. In retaliation he ordered all the nuns killed. For this, the king was cursed with a pig face. Over 10 years later a priest offered to cure the king, and, after he did so, the king converted.

Many carvings in the churches from the 14th century make Jesus look Arab or Mongolian. This was to dissuade those invaders from destroying the churches and decorations.

Georgia is green. Armenia is brown.

Hairavank monastery - When Tamerlain / Timur Lenk invaded, he got sick. A priest promised to cure him if he spared as many people as could fit in the church. People kept going in and the church never filled. Legend said that the priest had a magic stick and was using it to transform people into pigeons, which would then fly out. In actually, there was a hidden tunnel and people were escaping into the forest.

Cross stone cemetery is the oldest, largest cross stone cemetery in the world with ~900 stones. It used to be the second largest. The largest was ~2500, but it is now in Azerbaijan, and they destroyed the stones.  All of the cross stones are facing west (see above for why).

One grave at the cemetery is littered with broken bottles. This is a bishop’s grave, and people break a bottle on it as they make a wish.

Geghard monastery - Geghard means spear, and legend tells that this church housed the spear used on Christ while he was on the cross (aka Spear of Longinus). The spear head is now in the museum.

Geghard is the cave church of Armenia. About half of it is dug into the mountain. The royal family of the time sponsored the monastery and have their own chapel and mausoleum here. The dome of this private chapel has 12 different carvings to symbolize the 12 apostles.

The domes in Geghard’s davits have holes in the center. Snow and rain would come in and then out a drain directly underneath.

History claims that the four monks of Geghard never slept, only meditated.

Geghard has a spring, which is, of course, holy. Toss a coin in for good luck.

Chickens and other animals are still sacrificed (Georgia does the same). The meat from the dead animals is distributed among seven different poor families.

Red beetles got ground up for the red color used on stones.

In Armenia it is a horrible disaster if two brides see each other.

Garni is a Greek temple to Mitra and UNESCO site from 66 BC. It had baths and was used as a summer home for royals. It was destroyed by earthquakes; though, the Soviets renovated it.

Apparently the standard bribe to get out of a driving ticket is 5000 AMD.

The Tbilisi zoo was the best zoo in the Caucuses, but after the Tbilisi flood of 2015 Armenians say Yerevan’s is the best.

Donnie was denied entry to the Mexican restaurant for wearing basketball shorts.

"Nerd." - BJ to Grace when she mentioned how the caves looked like a place the 'Sand People from Star Wars' could live.

The PCVs cheered when the police pulled over a guy for reckless driving in Georgia.

Insert everything I forgot to add.