Gergana Georgieva discusses the hidden complexity of Armenia’s cultural and religious heritage.
The lack of coastline with fancy resorts, the ongoing war with Azerbaijan, and the recent “Velvet Revolution” are just a few of the reasons why many aren’t eager to choose Armenia for their next retreat. However, the pride its people have in their country would make you believe that it is indeed a small piece of heaven.
With less than 3 million residents, this tiny country has been nestled in the heart of Eurasia for more than 3,000 years. When the tension on the Azerbaijani border escalated in 2016, thousands of volunteers submitted their applications to leave for military bases within a matter of days following the public announcement. Furthermore, Armenians don’t hesitate when fighting internal threats, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to ask for the Prime Minister’s resignation earlier this year. These are just recent examples of the fearless patriotism of the nation.
From my window seat in the marshrutka I surveyed the vistas that my cousins were so eager for me to see. The pink tuff of buildings, characteristic of Armenian architecture, perfectly matched the scenery’s range of colours. The occasional glossy building along the highway provided an unusual contrast to the windowless, unfinished or abandoned buildings in the distance.
Armenia sees mass internal migration from those in search of better opportunities, often leading straight to the capital of Yerevan. The ever-expanding city embodies the nation’s pride in its history, but also its aspirations for progress and modernisation. The people want you to see their capital in all its glory, so go to the Armenian Opera Theatre, walk along the shiny Northern Avenue, climb the Yerevan Cascade, and lose yourself in the sounds of the Singing Fountains at the Republic Square. To dig deeper into the country’s history, lay a carnation at the eternal fire at the Genocide Memorial Complex, kneel at the feet of the Mother Armenia monument, and have a closer look at the cross-stones (khachkars) next to the National History Museum that have symbolised Christianity in Armenia throughout the centuries.
The first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, Armenia is still very much a land of believers. Trying to understand my cousins’ everyday life here, I was rather surprised to hear that a perfect day trip for them would be visiting a monastery complex. Even if Christian places of worship aren’t exactly your idea of fun, it is the sparkle in the Armenians’ eyes that leaves you equally inclined to visit the churches and monasteries of which they talk so enthusiastically.
My most memorable visit was to the Haghartsin Monastery Complex. I don’t know if it was from breathing in the humid air of the Sevan Lake for the first time, the energy created by the company I was with, or the mysticism of all the legends that they told me along the way, but for a few hours I too felt like a believer. I made a wish while trapped in a hollow tree stump, and while not taking too seriously the prediction of the stones that my future partner’s name will begin with an ‘S’, any eligible readers should get in touch.
Things to never do in Armenia (that I learned the hard way):
- Say that Mount Ararat is not in Armenia. Mt Ararat is sacred for the Armenians, not just because of the legends of Noah’s Ark coming to rest there, but because, according to Goldman’s article in the New York Times, it is “a bittersweet reminder of the homeland and national aspirations”.
- Show scepticism towards PM Nikol Pashinyan. A former journalist, Mr Pashinyan has been in prison for his “disobedience” for roughly three years, and is seen by many as the Nelson Mandela of Armenia, currently promoting transparent governance and cooperation.
- Provoke someone (if you are male). Armenians are not afraid to throw the first punch. A scuffle in a bar or club, for example, is highly unlikely to end with two people being thrown out by security, as confirmed by all Armenians I met. It would most likely grow into a melee with 30 “close friends” of each side coming within minutes to settle the case “like real men”.
- Speak English. Almost everyone studies Russian as their first foreign language, so finding people that speak even a little bit of English is difficult. Most radio stations play only Russian or Armenian songs.