On Tsitsernakaberd Hill, overlooking the city of Yerevan, you’ll find a pilgrimage site dedicated to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide. Their harrowing story cannot fail to move you, as it did me.
I sit, alone. The music haunts every inch of stone and every speck of dust. The sound of violins, melancholic yet soothing, permeates the soul. I feel it. It seeps into my heart and as I focus on the flickering flame, I raise a hand to my cheek, wiping a persistent tear. A few sorry bunches of carnations have wilted where they were placed. Tall slabs of basalt crush the sunlight. The sky is obstinately blue but in here, inside the stone circle, it’s a place of shadows and ghosts. I’m shocked at the strength of my feelings. Until yesterday, I hadn’t been aware an Armenian genocide had taken place. And I’m ashamed of that.
A cleaner arrives with her broom and sweeps, rhythmically, until my attention is forced out of its sad reverie. She busies herself collecting dead blooms and rearranging those that will stay. A young man follows her with a camera, framing and reframing his shots. He clicks repeatedly but then he too is still. A family of five arrive, speaking Armenian, and pose in endless configurations for snapshots beside the flame. The emotion I felt is lost and I glance at my watch. The museum is open. I head inside.
I read, missing nothing, trying to make sense of what happened. In the late 19th century, Armenia was a divided country. The Persians had ceded territories to the Russians, who occupied what was then known as Eastern Armenia. Strategically important Western Armenia had fallen to the Ottomans in 1555 and over four centuries later, they retained control. War between the Russian and Ottoman Empires had torn Armenia apart. Armenians living under Turkish rule looked to the Russians for protection but though the 1878 Treaty of Berlin set out basic rights for Armenians they were not honoured. Amidst growing calls for independence, Sultan Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, tightened his grip on the dissenters. Words were banned: Armenia, rights, freedom.
To ban the word freedom is an alien concept. From my privileged life in a stable democracy, how could I understand?
Compelled, I read on. In 1895, 300,000 protesters were massacred in Constantinople in an attempt by Hamid to shut down the Armenian Question for good. It didn’t work. Nine years later, there was another uprising. The stability of the Ottoman Empire was under threat. In 1908, a political party called the Young Turks seized power. Their policy of the “salvation of the Turkish homeland” could only be achieved, they held, by the liquidation of the Christian population. Under their watch, anti-Armenian atrocities continued unpunished. A further 30,000 were killed in a market in Adana in 1909. Their treatment was horrific. Many were set alight or stabbed repeatedly. The backs of children’s legs were gored with cotton hooks leaving gaping holes. A series of photographs documented the horror.
I’m struck by the eyes. They stare, vacantly, yet implore those watching to act. But it’s too late. I’m a century too late.
World War One was to provide cover for the vilest act of all. A secret treaty was signed, allying the Ottomans with the Germans. Needing the support of its largely Islamic population to survive, the Turks proclaimed Jihad in an attempt to demonstrate their religious credentials. In October 1914, 60,000 Armenians were called up to fight, joining others already conscripted. They fought, bravely, at Sarikamish on the Caucasian Front under Enver Pasha, but were no match for the wintry conditions. The Ottomans suffered huge losses and 70,000 lost their lives. A scapegoat was required. The Armenians were that scapegoat. Soldiers who had fought alongside Pasha were killed on his orders. Afterwards, the Young Turks turned their attention to civilians, murdering politicians, clergy, intellectuals and other eminent Armenians. Mass arrests followed, in Western Armenia and Constantinople.
The Armenian family I saw at the memorial see that I’m making notes. It’s diaspora season and they’re from LA, bringing their children to the home of their ancestors for the first time. They ask if I’m a writer and if I’m going to write about this. I promise them I will, emotion choking my words. The mother hugs me, an unspoken thank you.
Unarmed Armenians in Ottoman territory were rounded up to be sent to the deserts of Mesopotamia and Syria, their property looted as they left. Men were separated and stabbed. Women, children and the elderly were spared, but instead driven south. On the way, their police and army escorts stood by and did nothing as bands of Kurds and Turks kidnapped and murdered the helpless. Those who did complete the journey ended up in concentration camps. In Rakka, Bab, Deir Ez-Zor, Ras Ul-Ain and Meskene, 600,000 endured horrendous atrocities. They were subjected to medical experiments, pregnant women were used for target practice, bare feet were shod as if they were horses’ hooves, children were burned alive or dragged behind horses until they died from their injuries. Rape was common. An estimated 600,000 lost their lives.
It’s hard to reconcile what I’m reading with the gentle and welcoming Turks I’ve met on my travels. I’m shocked to find I’m upset, not because I think it’s not worth getting upset about, but because at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, I haven’t been. Sobered, desperately sad, but not upset like this. The tragedy that befell the Armenians feels worse, somehow, because I wasn’t aware it had happened. I feel that in some way that means I’ve betrayed them.
On May 24 1915 France, Britain and Russia issued a joint statement condemning and declaring the Turkish government responsible for a “crime against humanity and civilisation”. After the war, the Young Turks were brought to trial. The key perpetrators – Mehmed Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal – were brought to justice and punished for what they’d done. Yet today, the mass extermination of Armenians isn’t acknowledged by all countries. Britain views what happened as a war crime and doesn’t recognise it as genocide.
I climb, slowly, from the bowels of the museum back up into the sunshine of the plaza, legs and heart heavy. Another tear escapes from my eye but this time, I let it fall.
To visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial it’s easiest to take a taxi. From Republic Square I paid 700 drams, just over £1. The museum is free to enter. Leaving, the unofficial taxis in the car park were asking for 2000 drams for the same ride. I walked down the hill and across the footbridge to the Dalma Garden Mall, from where I caught the #27 marshrutka back to Mashtots Avenue for a 100 dram fare. The bus stops right outside the Blue Mosque, also worth a visit.
Armenia claims to be the oldest Christian nation on the planet so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll encounter plenty of monasteries. Most feature a “gavit” or entrance hall, where the floor is often spread with graves. A few steps will lead into the church proper. As a woman, covering your head isn’t required as it would be in Georgia. You will see the faithful reverse out of the church so as not to turn their back on God; even those who aren’t regular churchgoers sometimes do this out of respect. Here’s a brief guide to eight of its most commonly visited.
Located in the Debed Canyon, this is for many visitors their first monastery in Armenia as it lies on the way to Yerevan from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. This imposing mediaeval complex was built in the 9th century, a sprawling delight of building added on to building, the grey stone set off perfectly by the terracotta of the roof tiles. Inside, one of the rooms has a series of holes in the floor, once used for storing wine.
Why should you visit?
As it’s quite a distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan, this is a great way of breaking the journey.
Twinned with Haghpat, this one means “older than that one” though it’s not as attractive from the outside. The cavernous interior is fascinating, with plenty of tombstones on the floor. Step on them as it’s commonly held that if you do, you’re freeing the dead of their sins – and fortunately not taking them upon yourself as a burden in the meantime. And you’ll learn how to recognise whether a monastery is a functioning church or not – if it has a curtain that can be pulled across the altar, it still hosts regular services.
Why should you visit?
While you’re in the Debed Canyon, you may as well visit both the monasteries.
A party of schoolchildren were visiting at the same time, so for me, this monastery lacked the serenity that some of the others offered. It was a good opportunity to watch the priest deliver a blessing and to hear the acoustics as the children sang inside the chapel. Look out for the hole in the floor which allows you to peep down into the church from above. There’s also a spring inside which is believed to be holy.
Why should you visit?
If you’re in Yerevan and your time is limited, this is an easy excursion from the city and together with nearby Garni temple, doable in just a few hours.
To reach Sevanavank, located above the shoreline of Lake Sevan, you’ll need to climb a lot of steps: 243 to be precise. The reward, though, is a panoramic view of Armenia’s largest lake and its environs. Again it’s a double church site plus plenty of khatchkhars to admire in its cemetery. Those are the standing stones which you’ll see at all religious sites. The largest concentration can be found further along the lakeshore at Noratus cemetery. But it’s that vast expanse of blue that will draw your attention away time and time again.
Why should you visit?
It’s all about that spectacular view – and the satisfaction of making it up the steps without collapsing.
This monastery, built out of tufa, also lies on Lake Sevan, but this time occupies a less lofty position. Its alternative name is Aghavnavank, meaning “church of the human pigeons”. The connection refers to a legend associated with Tamerlane, whereby the local population were turned into pigeons to keep them safe from the invaders – a deal had been struck that anyone who could fit into the church would be spared and of course birds are smaller than people.
Why should you visit?
If they’ve gone to the trouble of coming up with such a fantastic legend, you’ve really got to see how big the church is from the inside.
This one’s all about the setting, and what a setting. The road curves on approach offering the picture postcard image of the monastery perched to the right of a backdrop of Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest. From the rear of the monastery, you can climb a small hill – look for the cross on top of it – and you’ll have a similar view, but this time the monastery will be on the left. Inside, you’ll see a steady stream of people descending a narrow stairwell at the doorway to the church – it’s a well, and it’s a dark and shaky climb down.
Why should you visit?
The setting is special, but pick a clear day so you get the panorama of Ararat at the same time; you’ll have a better chance of good visibility in the morning.
Tucked away up a narrow canyon, Noravank is another site that feels special as a result of its location. There are some wonderful carvings, including one of Jesus with Peter and Paul. What you’ll remember, though, is the scarily steep and narrow stone block steps that lead up to the second storey of the church. Take it from me, it’s much worse coming down. But from the restored cupola to the view across to the other chapel from up high, it’s worth dealing with the fear. After all, you can always come down on your bum!
Why should you visit?
The vertiginous steps up to the second level of the church might be scary, by the view from the top is splendid.
This one is reached by the world’s longest ropeway (that’s cable car to those of us who speak the Queen’s English). If you don’t believe them, there’s a sign which claims Guinness has officially recognised it as such for their Book of Records. The column allegedly predicts earthquakes and approaching enemy armies.
Why should you visit?
With such an awesome approach, this one’s a must-see.
Of course, that’s not all. But even spreading these across a week, I was beginning to feel monasteried-out by the end of it. My advice would be not to feel like you ought to see every major monastery in the country, just pick a few and enjoy the view. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d probably say Sevanavank, as its lofty position represented not only an impressive feat of engineering but also felt remote despite the visiting tourists. Norovank, with those crazy steps and beautiful carvings, came a close second, though perhaps it was a little too perfectly restored to claim the top spot.
I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas. I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:
It’s outside my comfort zone. Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel. I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary. Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.
The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus. I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week. This is firmly within my comfort zone. This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.
The former is a departure from my usual travelling style. Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport. There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy. I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip. The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research. I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas. Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.
In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging. I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read. I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka. I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms. I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal. I really must look that up. A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too. I’m happy. Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.
It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas. Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place. It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen. And that’s a shame.