2012 - Armenia

 16th to 21st August 2012


This was another Jules Verne small group tour, in this case comprising twelve people:

Alan and Sue, Peter and Isobel (both accountants) Rod and Sherril, Eric and Aline, Tony (another accountant), Pramila and the two of us.


We flew with BMI (now an unimpressive part of B.A.)  from Heathrow to Yerevan, Armenia, met our 34 year old guide Laura (pronounced Lowra as in “crowd” and transferred to the 4-star Best Western Congress Hotel for three nights.  Laura was a very fast talker with an extensive vocabulary and bank of knowledge.  On the down side she had a heavy accent making it sometimes difficult to understand her.  In addition she either lacked much sense of humour or felt she should not use it.


We started with a journey in our full size coach to the pagan temple of Garni , a first century building in good repair (or “fully restored”). This is in the Hellenistic style.  Most pagan temples were destroyed with the coming of Christianity.  The area was occupied by the Romans in the 2nd century.  It is very hilly/mountainous with scrub grass and a few scrubby bushes. But the landscape varies considerably from region to region.  The average elevation of Armenia is 5,000 ft.

 A special treat had been promised, and so it proved to be – a group of 4 (one missing from their quintet) were to sing to us.  When they opened their mouths we were taken aback with the range and beauty of the sounds they made unaccompanied.  So good was it, we even forked out £16 on their CD!

From Garni, we travelled on to the nearby Geghard Monastery. Armenia was Christian from 301 A.D. The religion is Eastern Orthodox, the same as Syria and Egypt The church at Geghard dates from the 4th century and became a monastery in the 10th.  There were Arab invasions from the 10th – 13th centuries.  The current structure dates to the 13th century and shows the characteristic abundance of carving. 

We returned to Yerevan for lunch selecting a local pizza restaurant that offered a good buffet for about £5.00 for the two of us including our drinks.  This was followed by a city tour including the History Museum of Armenia and Matenadaran, an ancient manuscript repository.  Most people seemed to find our tour by a museum guide to be pretty boring but Adrian found the illuminated manuscripts quite interesting having recently read a little about our own medieval ones.

The main square is built of volcanic stone and is attractive.   In Soviet years Yerevan underwent massive reconstruction, following Alexander Tamanyan's (the architect) new plans to make a perfect city - a Neo-Classical wide-avenues-based town resembling Paris, Vienna and St. Petersburg.


Downtown Yerevan from the Cascade

Central Yerevan is a true jewel of early Soviet architecture. The city is also home to some large scale Modern and Post-Modern marvels which are mostly the result of Soviet-Armenian architectural megalomania. In Soviet days Yerevan had already become known as the Pink City as much due to the colour of the stone used for building as for the flamboyant spirit of her young population.


We travelled to Etchmiadzin to visit its UNESCO World Heritage 7th century cathedral with 17th century bell tower.  The houses we passed when in the countryside were mainly single storey properties with corrugated iron roofs.  Laura told us that people owned their own houses having bought them at a low figure following the collapse of communism.  Adrian noticed that whilst there were a fair number of cars, they fell mainly into 2 categories – 30 year old Ladas and slightly more modern Mercedes. 

The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by St Gregory the Illuminator when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world. Gregory had converted King Tiridates III and members of his court. 

In 480, Vahan Mamikonian, the Sassanian governor (marzban) of Armenia, ordered the dilapidated basilica to be replaced with a new cruciform church.

In 618, the wooden dome was replaced with a stone one, resting on four massive pillars linked to exterior walls by arcades. This was the church much as it is today.

Murals in the interior and extravagant rotundas surmounting the apses appeared in the early 18th century. A three-tier belfry was constructed half a century earlier.  Over the coming days we would visit many churches – far too many for a number of our group!

We then visited the Ashtarak region, home to the monastery complex of Hovhannavank -  a 13th century building but with predecessors going back to the 5th century.  It is situated on the edge of a gorge that provided some good photos! The building was undergoing works and our visit was a bit limited in consequence.  However, we saw more of the carved stone and the decorated pediments.  In a side chapel we were introduced to an artist who was preparing a painting of the Last Supper which was to be transported as a gift to the Patriarch.

We were quite high as we travelled on and Adrian noticed a number of caravans and tents.  Laura explained that these belonged to Yessides, nomads from Iran who form 1.5% of the Armenian population and who mainly tend sheep.  They are Zoroastrians.  They live simply and do not plan much as they consider the next life to be the more important.

Our next stop was the ruined Amberd Fortress, elevated at 2,300 metres on the slopes of Mount Aragats and aptly named ‘a fortress in the clouds’.  Just a couple of hundred yards from it is St. Astvatsatsin Church. 

Heading back to Yerevan we stopped at a rather odd mountainside celebration of the creation of the Armenian alphabet!!  Large letters represent the 39 (originally 36) letters of the alphabet created by Saint Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian linguist and ecclesiastical leader. The alphabet is unique to Armenia and the population seem very proud of it!

Returning to the hotel at 5.25 p.m. we arranged with Pramila to go out again 20 minutes later as we all wanted to go to the Cascade which Tony had visited the night before.  Pramila was going out for a meal with Eric and Aline at 7 p.m. (the 3 having in common that they had spent their early years in Mauritius. There they had spoken in French, which they did some of the time when together on this trip.)  Therefore we had just an hour and a quarter to complete our mission! We took a taxi and returned in the same manner but via a different route and at a higher price!!

The Cascade was built at the expense of Armenians resident in the U.S. and dates back to the 1970s.  However, it has undergone some recent changes. It is a significant landmark on the hillside in the city and gives great views over it.  It comprises a series of platforms ascending the hillside and having statues and water features at each level.  There was an external staircase and internal escalators.  We took the latter for speed – and ease!!  The top is the site of construction for the Cafesjian Museum of Contemporary Art. Some statues by various artists have already been brought in and placed all along the monument, including works by Lynn Chadwick, Barry Flanagan, Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, and Paul Cox. There are two statues by Fernando Botero: a black cat at the bottom and a Roman Warrior at the top platform.


Our first visit was to one of the holiest sites in Armenia, Khor-Virap (Deep Dungeon), where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned before converting King Tiridat III to Christianity.  To be honest we found it quite hot and not so interesting as to fully occupy us for the free time we were given.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the gradual (and incomplete) emergence from the clouds of Mount Ararat situated over the border in neighbouring Turkey).  Laura pointed out the border only a few hundred yards from us in the valley.  There was a man with a most amazing moustache who had some sort of custodial role there.

We continued to Noravank to visit the monastery and on to the Selim Pass to view one of the best preserved caravanserais in the country, located on the Silk Road. Sited high in the pass it was a low, un-ostentatious building which was built in the 13th century and offered shelter for animals as well as their drivers.  We also passed 13th century bridges on the old Silk Road route.

Arriving at Lake Sevan, we spent some time exploring Noraduz with its 900 khachkars (carved cross-stones).  Such stones were created in the 7th – 16th centuries and were a carved, memorial stele bearing a cross, and often with additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, and botanical motifs. Khachkars are characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art.   Otherwise they were intended to commemorate a military victory, the construction of a church, or as a form of protection from natural disasters.

The most common location for early khachkars was in a graveyard. However, Armenian gravestones take many other forms, and only a minority are khachkars.

From here we moved on to crowds of holiday makers or possibly people on Sunday outings with many people on the beach by the lake and visiting the market stalls and cafes.  We walked up a fairly steep hill to visit the Sevanavank complex.  This was founded in 874 and we visited the one open church. Unusually on this trip, we had to queue for entry to this small building.  It was becoming “normal” for us to visit churches dating back as far as the 4th century on this trip – indeed, churches formed by far the majority of our visits.

We then headed for the 4-star Harsnaqar Hotel.  This proved a rather strange hotel as it was clearly very new but equally clearly poorly thought out and poorly maintained.  Whilst it looked very stylish, it was approached by a large flight of steps (not good with cases!) and had no lifts inside!  The staff were fairly sullen and the breakfast the least varied we had had to date.  It was a buffet but odd bits were added as the staff got round to it.  There were few other people staying there.

Our first task of the day was to learn the morning greeting in Armenian which sounded to our ears like “Barry Lewis!”

The morning was cloudy and mild as we set off through the forested mountains with significant rivers  of  the northern region of Armenia .  Our route followed the old Silk Road.  Our first stop was the site of a caravanserai but the town (Dilijan) had been rebuilt in the 19th century as a holiday resort for cold water treatments and hill walking.  It was very run down and neglected.  After buying bits for lunch from the only food shop we looked at the 19th century open air theatre, where we took some group photographs.  We walked on to a heavily restored (rebuilt in traditional style) Museum Street, a street of tourist craft shops. There Jill succumbed to buying a Noah’s ark made of many different woods as well as a puzzle rather like our Lowry one.

The countryside changed from heavily wooded to grass covered mountains.  Our guide told us about Russian Old Believers who had objected to the religious reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  They had been exiled to Siberia and to the Caucasus.  Here they established religious communities that continue to this day and also extend to some areas in Canada, Australia and the U.S.  They are called “Mullocas” – milk drinkers.  They form the second largest ethnic minority in Armenia and are noticeable for their blue eyes, blond hair and beards.

We passed through the industrial town on Vanad and subsequently villages of subsistence farming and local sales and on to Alaberdi.    Like the outskirts of Yerevan, we passed endless, abandoned, industrial buildings in Vanad and Alaberdi.  Again there were the all-pervading depressing signs of neglect – and this in an area of such mountain beauty.  It was a really strange contrast.

We then continued on to visit the monasteries of Haghpat and then to Sanahin Village.  Haghpat is one of the most notable medieval monastic complexes .  Unlike in the desert areas, the mountain monasteries of this area are in or near villages.  This complex dates from 967 -991.  The site is listed by the World Heritage Organisation as a supreme example of the religious architecture of Armenia at that time.  There are other buildings from the next two centuries.  Although damaged by earthquakes and attack, the buildings retain their original character.

Sanahin Village is on a plateau within sight of the monastery and contains an ancient monastic site dating back to the fourth century.  The buildings showed the features now familiar to us of much external writing and decoration of the walls, plus, inside, crosses carved on the pillars and symbolic shapes of people carved on tombstones. There was also a modern part of the cemetery with one particularly poignant memorial depicting an entire family of four (including 16 and 18 year old girls) who had died in 1998 when their car plunged off the edge of the winding mountain road into the ravine below.

By way of complete contrast, this village was the birthplace of Artem Mikoyan who had designed the MiG fighter plane. There was a museum in his honour with statues and a plane itself.  We came across his cousin who proudly told us more about the man.

We then returned to the coach and retraced our route through Alaverdi  and up the mountain to Dzoragat. Here  we stayed at a 4*hotel (Hotel Dzoraget) which had been built in recent years by the successful business man who had paid for the restoration of Museum Street that we had seen that morning in Dilijan.  It was accessed over a narrow bridge that seemed to lead to the hotel courtyard.  However, the buildings that we saw behind the hotel and which appeared strange to us proved to be the village!  One of our number walked around these the next day and was invited into a home.  She said she was taken aback at just how poor the people were.


In the morning we bought from a strange man outside the hotel one of the little pictures that he had drawn or possibly just coloured.  Leaving at 9 a.m. we again passed down the mountain to Alverdi and on to the border with Georgia.   The first part was through the forested mountains with a few settlements and derelict industry.  Again we passed plateaux with settlements as we had seen at Sanahin. The valley gradually widened to become broad.  We soon then arrived at the border with Georgia.   It took about half an hour to get through the border control, and walk unaccompanied across the bridge and river to Georgia to meet our new guide.


Overall impressions:  beautiful country, lots of ancient churches, limited interaction with the people but we felt that they were not particularly friendly, welcoming or happy!

History and politics:  Clearly a country situated at geographical crossroads and suffering for it.  Eastern Armenia was under Persia from the mid 16th century and Western Armenia under Turkey.  Russia later took the east from Persia.  The country was far larger than now and its population has also reduced.  There have been many wars between Russia and Turkey and Armenia has been in the midst of these.  In the 20th century the “Young Turks “ set about building a new republic and saw Armenians as a problem.  Turkey sided with Germany in the 1st WW and this also meant they were against Russia. In 1915 Turkey transported many Armenians to the desert areas and carried out genocide.  They also got rid of the Armenian intelligentsia.  All told 1.5 million Armenians were killed.  This was not known to Jill and me, but the genocide museum and copies of English books of the period showed that Britain was aware at the time. The Armenians still feel incredibly deeply about this.

After the war Turkey agreed with Russia for the return of land but the Armenians were ignored.  Azerbaijan is a great ally of Turkey.  Armenia wants better relations with Turkey and an opening of the borders but Azerbaijan (with whom Armenia has closed it borders) opposes this.    Laura referred to “our very good neighbour Iran” and also Russia.  They have trade relations with Turkey.

The Caucasus became Soviet in 1920.  Stalin was from Georgia which had been part of Eastern Armenia.  The plan was to give land, housing and education to the poor. The downside was the “Terror”.  Oil was discovered in Azerbaijan.  Russia took Marabah and gave it to Azerbaijan and other land to please them.  It gave Ararat to Turkey.  Always there was tension.  With the coming of Perestroika people spoke out about those divisions, especially with Azerbaijan.  Moscow ignored this and war broke out in 1991-4.  7,000 died in Armenia.  Armenia then took land from Azerbaijan.  

People are happy with independence but people compare the time of Brezhnev where for ordinary people salaries were enough, travel was easier and Soviet control of individual liberty was less than it had been and lees than in other Soviet countries.

Economy:  Armenia appears a country that is quite poor and struggling.  It seems to depend quite heavily on agriculture.    There were many factories in Soviet times (chemicals, cars, glass, shoes) but these were located to provide employment rather than for economic reasons.  Many are now closed. Now they produce brandy and wine.  They also produce rubber and copper but these are not exported. Unemployment is now 20%.  There is a large black economy.  Armenians who have left the country provide a lot of support.  There are 3m people in Armenia and 6m Armenians abroad.

Travel:  Visas for Armenians wishing to travel are difficult for Europe and thus.  “They are limited to 100 p.a!  Most visitors are from the U.S, Canada, France and Russia.

Education:  ages 6-18 and 5 year university. They learn Armenian, Russian and English or French at school.  Schools remain free but books and the maintenance of buildings has to be paid for.  Of those going to university 85-90% pay $600 to $6,000 p.a.  There are a number of private universities and parents make big sacrifices to pay for these – they give good degrees. 

Health:  They have to pay for health care.  Life expectancy is dropping.