The sweet taste of Armenia

Last week, while having lunch at my company cafeteria, my colleague Ashot was surprised when I told him that last weekend I went to Yerevan, his native city in Armenia. Indeed, Armenia would not come immediately in mind for a recreational trip, but this is definitely a country you should visit if you like authentic destinations.

The flights from Moscow to Yerevan are numerous and take less than three hours. As the plane was approaching the landing strip, I saw the two summits of the Ararat mountain range. The smallest one has a perfectly symmetrical shape of a volcano and was capped with snow.

Armenia is roughly the size of Belgium with a decent road network. To make the most of our time in Armenia for the weekend, we hired a car with a driver and a guide, which is relatively cheap. Our guide, Irina, from Hyur Tours, told us many interesting things about Armenia.

I found Yerevan to be a nice, quiet and harmonious place. In the centre, facades are clad with a volcanic pink stone. The city has been fully reshaped in 1924 under an urban plan led by the general architect Tamanian. Despite cold winters and its altitude at about 1,000m above sea level, the climate in Yerevan is generally warm and dry.

Yerevan Republic square

The Republic square in Yerevan was completed in 1958. The fountain light and music show make it an agreeable place for an evening walk.

yerevan brandy ararat

The Ararat distillery in Yerevan has been producing an award-winning brandy since 1887. Brandy is one of the major exported products from Armenia, mostly to Russia.

yerevan fruit market

The Yerevan market can feed you free of charge! Just walk along the different shops and you will be immediately offered huge portions of dried fruits, which, I was told, can be shelved for up to 3 years.

Unlike its neighbors, Azerbaijan and Iran, Armenia has few natural resources. The export economy is mostly based on agriculture, especially fruits. The electricity that is produced is generated from a single nuclear power plant. Other exports include cement and building materials.

Armenia is also renowned for its jewelry. It has a gold processing plant, gem mines (for moonstone and obsidian) and a watch factory.

Like in many places throughout the Caucasus, Armenia has a lot of thermal water, which also makes for a significant part of the export revenues.

Communicating with Armenian people is easy if you speak Russian, as almost everybody I met spoke Russian very fluently. English tends to be spreading quickly too, but still lags behind Russian. This is because many TV channels are in Russian and foreign movies are typically in Russian version. Armenians have an astonishing capacity for reading easily three completely different alphabets from school age – In English “Hello”, in Russian «Здравствуйте», in Armenian “Ողջու՜յն”. Confusing, isn’t it?

For many Armenians, Russian is associated with a certain nostalgia of the USSR period, when everybody had a job and the factories were working at full capacity. The collapse of the USSR was a shock for the majority of Armenians. Massive privatization ensued; factory equipment was sold for metal scrap.

Having the internet, the freedom of travelling and the possibility of making profit in business don’t mask the fact that Armenia economy is in a dire situation with a 40% unemployment rate. Many people rely on help from relatives living abroad and massive investment projects don’t take place without the help of the numerous Armenian diaspora. For example, one of the biggest infrastructure projects, the 3 km long Dilijan tunnel, was finished thanks to foreign investments.

The average income in Armenia is roughly 200 USD per month, however, Yerevan with its vibrant city life, with its abundance of luxury cars, contrasts sharply with the humble rural lifestyle, that has not changed much for centuries.

armenian villager horse

We left Yerevan for one day to drive about 50 km northward to the Lake Sevan.

Below: Sevanavank Monastery

sevanavank monastery armenia

The Sevanavank Monastery was established as early as in the 4th century. It is said Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity (Although this status is disputed with Ethiopia). The current design, inspired by Byzantine churches, dates back to the 9th century. The Sevanavank Monastery is certainly worth a visit if you don’t pay too much attention to the numerous souvenirs shops and hotels nearby. You can reconcile yourself with the place by trying a local crayfish kebab, which is the Lake Sevan specialty.

Below: St. Hripsime chapel (also known as St. Gyorgi chapel), Goshavank monastery (13th century), is not far from the Lake Sevan.

goshavank monastery armenia

At Goshavank, behind a stone wall, I stumbled upon a tomb plate, called a “khachkar”, so finely chiseled, that it bears a name: “The Needlecarved”.

armenia hochkar cross

Khachkars are typical of Armenian medieval cemeteries. Then, I also discovered quite a disturbing story that I studied more carefully afterwards; the massive and senseless destruction of the biggest Armenian necropolis at Djulfa.

With hundreds of khachkars, the Djulfa cemetery was a unique historical heritage that was destroyed in 1998 by the Azeri army in an attempt to erase all traces of the Armenian presence in the Region. Some khachkars have been saved and brought to Armenia, but most of the cemetery was reduced to an empty plot by bulldozers with the same rage as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Talibans, or Palmyra in 2015 by the Islamic State (1) .

Djulfa is situated at the frontier between Iran and an enclaved Azerbaijan region, cutoff from the main territory by the Armenia-controlled Nagorno-Karabah Region. This area is a puzzle of disputed territories. The last major armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabah sparked in 1994, but sporadic gunshots occurred in spring 2016. The official website of Azerbaijan openly fuels hatred and propaganda against Armenians, so tensions seem not to be appeased any time soon. Having said that, a trip to Armenia is very safe.

Two days in Armenia are too short a time to encompass the hundreds of highlights the country may offer. I feel sorry for having missed Tatev, the monastery flanked on a top of a cliff, and Garni, a well-preserved Roman temple. The first step is the most difficult, and this trip only aroused my desire to come back.

(1): Islamic State is an organization illegal in Russia.

2 Responses to “The sweet taste of Armenia”
  1. Michael Grossmann says:

    Armenia has always been on my “to do” list”. Thank you for reminding me of this. I’ll go there one day.

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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