November 19th: Armenia: a country full of Kardashian look-alikes.
I know, I know, the Kardashians are only half Armenian, but seriously, most of the girls in Yerevan could be related to them. They’re all beautiful!
Anyway, let’s back up. After leaving Azerbaijan, Linc and I spent a few days in Georgia (the country, not the state) with the group, and then decided to break away for a few days to head to Armenia. (We’ll come back to Georgia in the blog later). Although it’s not very far away, Armenia is not on the Odyssey itinerary. Since we figured we probably wouldn’t be coming back to this area of the world for a while, we signed ourselves out, said bye to the group, and made our way south to the capital city, Yerevan.
Mini-history! Armenia is an ancient land, first mentioned in Greek texts around the 6th century BC. Local lore is that Armenians are descendents of Hayk, the great-great grandson of Noah. After the flood, Noah’s Ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat (now in modern day Turkey). Thus, Armenians refer to their country as Hayastan, ‘land of the Hayk people.’
In 301 AD, Armenia was the very first country to declare Christianity as its national religion. Here’s the legend: the king at the time, King T’rdat, was educated in Rome where he became a pagan. Upon returning home, he befriended a man named Grigor who was secretly Christian. At a pagan ceremony, T’rdat ordered Grigor to place a wreath at the foot of a pagan statue. Grigor refused and declared his Christian faith. Upon further investigation, T’rdat discovered that Grigor was the son of the man who assassinated his father. In a rage, he imprisoned Grigor in a well with snakes. Thirteen years later, after going mad from ordering the murders of some saints, he sought the help of Grigor who miraculously cured his madness. T’rdat converted, and thus began Christianity in Armenia. Saint Gregory then set off to start building churches on top of pagan temples all over Armenia.
We only really had a day and a half in Armenia so we had to pack in the sights! After a relatively easy six-hour drive and an extremely easy border crossing, we arrived in Yerevan and checked into our hostel. First on the agenda was a quick walk around the city, stopping of course to check out the souvenir shops along the way. Like Baku, shiny Mercedes and BMWs intermixed with battered Ladas in the streets. Beautiful and quirky art covered the city, from murals to sculptures to fountains, which certainly made up for the lack of an Old Town. Everyone was dressed to the nines, and we got many puzzled looks from the locals when they saw our hiking boots! And do you want to hear the best part about Yerevan? They have a Cinnabon! Yes, yes, I know, very sad, but I was so excited!
That night we had dinner at a very kitsch but very cute restaurant where we were entertained with traditional music. We also climbed the beautiful Cascade, a large stairway leading up to a monument at the top. Along the Cascade are countless sculptures and under the stairs is a huge art gallery, free to wander the hallways.
The next day we hired a taxi and headed out of town to visit some cool old monasteries and temples. Our driver was super friendly and even bought us some gata, a walnut coffeecake-like pastry for breakfast! First up was Geghard Monastery, named after the lance that supposedly pierced Christ’s side when he was on the cross. The man who did it was cured of his vision when Jesus’ blood hit his eyes, so he converted to Christianity and went around preaching with the lance. The holy spear was once kept at Geghard but is now in the ‘Vatican of Armenia’ at Echmiadzin. Geghard is seriously cool—a series of four cave churches carved from the rock and two large built churches adjoining them. The monastery was founded in the 4th century and the earliest cave church is from the 7th, but most of the structures are from the 13th. By far the best structure was the Upper Gavit which was perfectly proportioned for amazing acoustics. Back in the day it was used as a musical school. Linc and I did a test: my high-pitched note echoed for four seconds, and Linc’s low-pitched note echoed for an incredible ten seconds!
Next we visited Garni Temple, a Hellenic Temple from the 1st century that they’ve rebuilt. It looked just like a temple in Greece! Lastly, we headed to Khor Virap, a monastery at the foot of Mount Ararat. This is the place where Saint Gregory (Grigor) was imprisoned for 13 years in the well. (Khor Virap means ‘deep well’) This well actually still exists and we were able to climb down a 7m ladder to check it out!
Back in Yerevan, we spent our evening at the Ararat Brandy factory, taking a very entertaining tour and tasting two of their brandies. Remembering our failed whisky tasting experience in Scotland, we weren’t too excited for another spirit tasting, but turns out we both like brandy much more than whisky! After a last stroll through town and another visit to Cinnabon, it was time to say goodbye to Armenia and head back to Georgia in the morning.
Now it’s time for your Armenian fun facts!
– Want to know how to say thank you in Armenian? Shnorhakalutyen! Heehee. We remembered it by snorting up a loogie and hocking it on the ground. Snort-hock-a-loogie = shnorhakalutyen (close enough)
– In 2011, Armenia was judged to be the world’s second-worst economy by Forbes magazine. Per capita income is $3090 and inflation is 9%.
– In 301 AD, Armenia was the first country in the world to officially declare Christianity as their state religion. Kartli (now in Eastern Georgia) and Albania (now in Azerbaijan and no relation to the current Balkan country) followed only 30 years later.
– More Armenians live outside of Armenia than in it (8 million as opposed to 3.2 million).
– Cher, Andre Agassi, and the members of System of a Down are all Armenian.
– The world’s oldest leather shoe was found in Armenia in 2008. It is 5500 years old, 300 years older than a shoe found on a frozen mummy in the Alps in 1991.
– When Stalin’s statue was removed from Yerevan in 1967, one soldier was crushed to death and several others were injured, leading to mutterings of Stalin killing from beyond the grave.
– Tsaghkadzor, a tiny town in Armenia, was where the former USSR athletes would come to train for the winter Olympics.
– There is a church in Armenia which has an image of the Madonna and Child with Mongolian features—a ploy to convince the next wave of Mongolian invaders not to destroy the church.
– Turkey and Armenia have a bitter history: in the past, Armenians were scattered through the Ottoman and Persian Empires. In 1896 when Armenian Christians pushed for more rights in Ottoman Turkey, the sultan had between 80,000 and 300,000 of them massacred. Later, in 1915, all Armenians were ordered out of the Ottoman Empire. They were either killed or marched across the Syrian Desert where 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians perished. Turkey still denies genocide. Lastly, after WWI, Turkey offered Russia peace in exchange for half of Armenia. Lenin agreed, thus much of what Armenians consider Armenia is actually part of Turkey. Efforts to reconcile their past have ended in a stalemate because Turkey supports Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue (see previous blog post for more info) and refuses to normalize relations with Armenia until the Karabakh issue is settled. So complicated!