Friday, September 08, 2006

First Impressions Of Armenia

The main road to Armenia from Tblisi winds its way through the stunning Debed canyon. Finally a proper canyon, with high plateaus ending in precipitous drops into a gushing river below. Unfortunately this idyll is spoiled somewhat by remnants of old Soviet mines and factories that blot the otherwise pristine stretch of countryside. Along the lip of the canyon are many old towns with accompanying churches and monasteries, some dating back over 1000 years, like the beautiful monastery complexes at Haghpat and Sanahin. Eyeing each other across a deep valley that feeds into the canyon the two sites are gorgeous and show a degree of design and craftsmanship that were unequalled in contemporary western Europe (they were built in 976 and 966 respectively). Though what I really liked was the apparent rivalry that there must have been between the two seats of learning, as Sanahin, the elder by a full 10 years, means "Older than that one" in Armenian. Things are also getting distinctly pricier in this neck of the woods as the local dive in Sanahin wanted $8 for their crummy room. I said "no thank you!", walked up the hill and camped under an electricity pylon above the town.

Anyway, then it was on to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It's certainly not as pretty as Tblisi, especially when you are driving in as the Armenians still seem to be rather fond of the Soviet style "rabbit hutch" apartment blocks. However the downtown area is nice enough, the saving grace being the use of local basalt (that varies from dark grey through to beige and pink) as the main building material, so that buildings, though generally of one colour, are not uniformly so, creating a charming "patchwork" effect. The city is bursting with nice boutiques and girls all dressed up very chic and all seemingly on the verge of going somewhere; the young men, on the other hand, have a bit of catching up to do in the style department. A lot of this is being, at least partly, funded by diaspora Armenians, with a great many public buildings being named after wealthy Armenian-Americans. Plus it's difficult to go anywhere remotely touristy without running into a busload of the aforementioned diaspora descendants "finding their roots".

It is impossible to visit Armenia without noticing the huge place the 1915 Armenian Genocide has in the national psyche. It is estimated that around 1-1.5 million Armenians were killed by the regime of the Three Pashas in Western Armenia and the rest of Turkey under cover of WWI. Even the location of Yerevan is a constant reminder as the double peaks of Sis and Masis (Little and Big Ararat respectively) loom large in the distance, though formerly in the heart of Armenia now they are just over the border in Turkey, and all the Armenians can do is look wistfully at them (which they do a lot). It is also possible to find almost any product named Ararat, be it cognac, toothpaste, baby food or kitchen appliances. It's also impossible not to visit the Genocide memorial where an eternal flame burns and wailing opera music is piped to every corner of the site. The adjoining museum is also very powerful, with moving (emotionally that is) pictures and accounts from the time. One gets a sense that the entire nation is fighting to keep the memory alive and to exact an apology from the Turks (not something that seems to be likely in the immediate future though).

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