New Model Armenia

New Model Armenia

March 2004
Vol. 76, Issue 3, p24

Text and photography by Nick Smith

With a history of persecution, natural disasters and political
upheaval, Armenia has lurched from one crisis to another. But now it’s
poised to recover and, with the aid of a population in diaspora, is
starting to reinvent itself as a heritage tourist destination.

Not many people visit Armenia. In fact, as many people go to Lord’s on
the first day of a test match as go to Armenia in a year. Most of the
30,000 visitors are ‘heritage tourists’, which is to say that they are
part of the estimated four million-strong globally distributed network
of the Armenian diaspora, descendants of refugee Turkish Armenians who
fled this part of Central Asia during the Ottoman persecution of
1915. Most come to rediscover their homeland, track down long-lost
distant relatives and to commemorate their ancestors. They are a
much-needed source of income for the two million or so Armenians who
live in Armenia today.

Once a far-reaching territory ranging from the Black to the Caspian
sea, Armenia is now landlocked in the Southern Caucasus, covering an
area little more than the size of Belgium. It is the smallest of the
former Soviet states and was the most reluctant to become independent
when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Armenia benefited from a longstanding
and strong political alliance, relying heavily on the machinery of the
Soviet economy. Now, with little of its own heavy industry or
electronic engineering to support it, Armenia’s youth has emigrated
westward in search of jobs and tertiary education, while the elderly
and unemployed have returned to the land to scratch out a living as
subsistence farmers. War in the 1990s with neighbouring Azerbaijan
drained the economy further, while migration in same period reduced
Armenia’s population by a quarter.

It’s a hard life, not helped by the fact that Armenia has a
surprisingly dry climate that gives rise to vast areas of
semidesert. More than 80 per cent of its arable farmland needs to be
irrigated. Some relief from the unremitting hardship comes in the form
of tourism: Armenia has an incomparable wealth of medieval (and
earlier) religious architecture, to which members of the diaspora make
pilgrimage. At the same time, Armenia has the most beautiful landscape
imaginable — the majestic scenery that the country’s great composer
Aram Ilich Khachaturian describes in his sublime 20th-century
orchestral works.

Khachaturian is buried under a slab of grey-black granite in the
Pantheon of Heroes in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. You can see much of
the city from his resting place: its drab centre fades into an even
more drab urban sprawl, designed by Soviet architects with an eye more
on utility than aesthetics. But there are redeeming features: apart
from the recently refurbished Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square),
there’s an impressive, if defunct, Ferris wheel on the skyline, as
well as the imperious Ararat brandy factory perched on a plateau high
above Victory bridge.

Armenians are proud of their brandy. And so they should be: its deep
amber colour and smoky simplicity make the ten-year-old a fine match
for any cognac. Boris Yeltzin likes it so much that he has his own
barrels in the factory’s cellars, as does singer, songwriter, actor
and local hero Charles Aznovour. Recently, the brandy has been getting
better and better. But it may be the only thing: for Armenians, life
under the hammer and sickle was comparatively rosy. But since the
disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country has become one of the
poorest in the developed world, with an average annual inflation rate
of 172 per cent. It has also ceded control of its energy utilities to
Russia in lieu of debts.

Not far from Khachaturian’s grave is a bronze statue of Komitas, a
composer whom Armenians hold in even higher regard than Khachaturian,
if that is possible. As an ethnomusicologist, Komitas travelled the
length and breadth of Armenia collecting its traditional folk songs,
which he then wove into the fabric of his own music, music that
defines Armenia as much as its red, blue and gold flag. As my guide,
Nina Dadayan, put it, “He writes in the colours of the countryside,
the gold and the green of the hillsides.”

During the First World War, Komitas saw firsthand the slaughter of
those whose culture he had done so much to save. He survived the
genocide, but having witnessed the rape and murder of his people, he
was plagued by mental illness for the rest of his life. He was unable
to complete his ongoing choral work, Divine Liturgy, which became the
last music he ever wrote, and died in Paris in 1935 a broken and
beaten man. If you look carefully at his statue in the Pantheon you’ll
see it is tarnished and covered with grime, apart from the right index
finger, which shines like gold. This has been kept clean by the stream
of Armenians who visit the cemetery to pay their respects by touching
his hand.

The genocide is an incredibly emotive subject. The Armenian section of
the Financial Times World Desk Reference 2004 sums it up, somewhat
dispassionately, as follows: “1915: Ottomans exile 1.75 million
Turkish Armenians; most die.” And while the book is very careful not
to use the word ‘genocide’, the Armenians aren’t so
lily-livered. According to the Armenian National Institute (ANI) in
Washington, there are 28 official genocide memorials in the
country. The main one is at Tsitsernakaberd (‘Swallow Castle’) and is
a 44-metre stele that symbolises the survival and rebirth of the
Armenian people. Next to the stele is a ring of 12 huge basalt slabs
— closely resembling traditional khachkars, or engraved memorials —
which encircle and lean towards an eternal flame. The steps down to
the flame are extremely steep, and you have to look at your feet to
avoid stumbling. This has the effect of making visitors appear to be
in mourning. Why there is a need to create this illusion defeats me:
most people I saw there were weeping.

The current British government does not recognise the 1915 genocide.
Fact. On the Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001, the UK, along with many
other nations (including the USA), honoured the victims of genocide in
the 20th century, including the Jews killed during the Second Word War
and the Tutsis murdered in Rwanda in 1994. But there was no mention of
Armenia. Nicholas Holding, an expert on the former Soviet Union and
author of the new Bradt Travel Guide to Armenia, says, “So far as the
1915 genocide is concerned, every Turkish government since has denied
that it even happened, as have certain US academics. The evidence to
the contrary seems overwhelming. I imagine that Tony Blair’s
reluctance to acknowledge it stems from his unwillingness for obvious
reasons to upset Turkey, as well as his own ignorance.”

One “obvious reason” is that Blair and George W Bush need Turkish
goodwill to secure permission for the use of Incirlik airbase, from
where they launch air raids on Iraq. Critics of the British-US
alliance see this denial as shameful — as shameful as denying, say,
Auschwitz to spare Gerhard Schroeder’s feelings. Writing in the New
York Press on the 2001 Holocaust Memorial Day, journalist Charles
Glass said: “Alas poor Tony. Upon whose lack of integrity will he
model his own when Bill [Clinton] departs? I suppose Al Gore or George
W Bush is up to the job.” Bush appears to have fulfilled Glass’s

The UK’s current position is completely at odds with its historical
record. The first official report on the atrocities against Armenians
in 1915 was prepared for the British government by Viscount Bryce, who
submitted his findings to parliament, which published them in an
official document in 1916. Wartime prime minister David Lloyd George
said that Ottoman policies regarding its Armenian subjects resulted in
“exterminating and deporting the whole race”. The foreign secretary
James Balfour described the massacres as “calculated atrocities”,
while Winston Churchill, writing in 1929, ten years before the
beginning of the Second World War, referred to the massacres as an
“administrative holocaust”.

The facts and the record haven’t changed. What has changed, says Dr
Rouben Adalian, director of the ANI, is the willingness of the British
government to concede to the Turkish government’s insistence on
denying the Armenian genocide. “The reluctance to affirm the
historical record in the face of official denial implies participation
in that denial,” he says. “That is the major departure from the
original position of the British government back in 1915.”

In December 2003, the Swiss lower house of parliament voted to label
the killings by Ottoman Empire forces as ‘genocide’ — a move welcomed
by the Armenian ambassador to Switzerland, Zograb Mnatsakanyan, who
said on Armenian television, “The Swiss parliament has again confirmed
its adherence to human values and justice.”

With the addition of Switzerland, the list of countries that recognise
the genocide now has 15 signatories. This includes France, Argentina
and Russia, but no UK or USA.

John Hovagimian bounds up the perilously steep and narrow stone
staircase up to the entrance of the Sourp Astrastatsatjin (‘Holy
Theotokos’) of the Noarovank monastery. With his designer travel gear
and chunky SLR slung around his neck, he looks prosperous and
confident. To Hovagimian, his tour of Armenia’s heritage with his
newfound Russian and Georgian friends is a big party. And why
shouldn’t it be? He’s glad to be home. “Come on down,” he shouts,
before quietly correcting himself, “er, up, I mean”. Talking with him,
it emerges that his exuberance is mostly superficial. “It’s nice to
know we have a history. It’s a feeling of grandeur. Every Armenian
feels this way, and we cry inside for the tragedy. But now you see our
architecture restored, where once there were no roads.”

Most visitors are, like Hovagimian, members of the Armenian diaspora,
usually from Canada, France or the USA. And most are fabulously
wealthy by the standards of native Armenians. One Armenian
philanthropist, who paid for so much of the restoration work and the
reappointing of Republic Square in Yerevan, is billionaire Kirk
Kerkorian, a man who made his money in Las Vegas hotels and Hollywood

And there is some serious urban development in Yerevan. Although
estimates vary considerably, there seems to be a consensus on
Kerkorian contributing somewhere in the region of $130 million (USD)
for a major facelift of the civic centre of the country’s capital. So
you will see plenty of new pavements and resurfaced roads. In fact,
there are 20 kilometres of new streets in Yerevan, there are five-star
Western-style hotels and there are Gucci and Armani.

Travelling around Armenia it’s easy to see what donations by members
of the diaspora are doing for the country, but not so easy to see what
they mean for the people. Whenever there is a celebration, there is
always money. (For example, when Armenia’s war-damaged tourism
industry decided to give itself a much-needed boost in 2001 by touting
the year as the 1,700th anniversary of Armenian Christianity.) And yet
only one in 1,000 Armenians owns a car and only 14 per cent of the
population is connected to a telephone.

Critics of the influx of funds from abroad say that there is no other
rational conclusion than this: the money may well be restoring civic
and devotional heritage architecture, but it’s also turning Armenia
into a rich man’s playground and transforming Yerevan into a ghastly
imitation of any Western European city you care to mention. Why
rebuild quite so many churches, they ask, when Armenia has so many
rare metals and semi-precious minerals lying underground waiting to be
exploited? The aid money should be spent releasing the natural wealth
of the country and helping the indigenous people on a day-to-day
basis. The reply from the diaspora is that the development is
creating employment and wealth in a country staggering under the
burden of its own poverty as a result of the post-Soviet transition.

But it isn’t necessarily that simple. “Even a quick survey of the
contributions of overseas Armenian organisations would show that
members of the diaspora remain very concerned about the well-being of
the population in Armenia,” says Adalian. He offers the example of the
largest of the philanthropic groups, the Armenian General Benevolent
Union, which supports a range of services from soup kitchens to
institutions of higher education such as the American University of
Armenia which, Adalian says, is “preparing new generations of leaders
and managers”.

However well planned, the spending of money from the diaspora is
dictated by external events. “There was no choice but to seek to
rehouse the 500,000 made homeless by the 1988 earthquake,” says
Holding. Also, the closure of several borders meant that road and rail
routes to Iran in the south that passed through the Azeri exclave of
Nakhichevan were now literally off limits. This meant that less-used
routes — such as that which connects Armenia with Iran via the Selim
Pass — which had suffered terribly from soil erosion and
underinvestment, had to be rebuilt virtually from scratch.

Conservationists have objected to the reconstruction of the Selim Pass
road because it travels within a few metres of an ancient Silk Road
caravanserai. Increased tourism, they say, will ruin the magic of the
place. They also claim, with more justification, that vibrations from
the huge freight lorries that are forecast to travel regularly over
the pass will damage the fabric of this ancient building.

However, this is the only route into the Yerevan district of Armenia
from the south. As such, it’s an umbilical cord to Iran and, by
extension, the outside world. Currently, the Turkish border is closed,
as are the two Azerbaijan borders, and there’s little sign of any
immediate resolution. To the north, the relationship with Georgia is
unstable, although improvements in the political and economic
conditions there can only contribute to “reducing ethnic tensions and
security concerns across the entire Caucasus region”, says Adalian.

PHOTO CAPTION Clockwise from right: the fourth-century monastery of
Geghard (‘spear’) was built into the side of a mountain and later
surrounded by walls. On the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2000, it
is named after the spear that pierced Christ’s side at Calvary;
‘temporary housing in Vayots Dzor is now well into its second decade;
the Temple of Garni, which was built in the first century AD,
subsequently destroyed by earthquake and renovated several times

While it is tempting to think that the collapse of the Soviet Union
could only have been a good thing, many Armenians would argue with
this. Under the Soviet regime, people may have lived like “machines”,
says my guide, but at least it was all planned out for them. “There
was no need to think for tomorrow,” she says. There were holidays and
pensions, and there was electricity and public transport. Now, one of
the few trains that runs through Armenia takes six hours to complete
its 70-kilometre journey (that’s slower than a London bus on Oxford
Street). “The problem is,” says Nina, offering a somewhat unnecessary
explanation, “there are too many stops and the train doesn’t go fast

It’s not just the trains that have fallen into disrepair. As you drive
around Lake Sevan there is mile after mile of abandoned heavy
machinery, now broken and idle. They stand by countless unfinished
construction projects that became derelict before they were ever
used. There are blocks of concrete crumbling to nothing, their metal
reinforcements rusting away. There are sections of oil pipeline lying
unconnected on scrubland by the side of the road.

Most of the land around Lake Sevan is reclaimed. During the 1950s,
Soviet hydro-electric power engineers decided to lower the level of
the lake by 19 metres. As with so many Soviet schemes, the engineers
were betrayed by their idealism and instead of benefit-ting from
unlimited free power, new land for arable farming and livestock
grazing, they got a wasteland. Most of the fish in the lake died and
the land proved to be useless for cultivation. Only a gorse-like scrub
plant now grows there in any abundance, while peasants working above
the old shoreline dig up potatoes, for which they will receive
100drams (7p) per sack, with their bare hands. In the background, a
monastery stands on a headland — once an island — jutting out into
the lake.

Further along the shoreline there is the faded optimism of the 1960s
Soviet residential areas of Sevan, with its close-packed blocks of
apartments in estates with names like ‘Gagarin’, and the obligatory
Ferris wheel in the luna park, the likes of which you can see in
Zanzibar, Mozambique, and the former East Germany. It’s what my guide
calls, without a trace of irony, “good old Soviet architecture”. It’s
hard to see what the nostalgia is all about — they’re every bit as
horrible as some of London or Manchester’s worst blocks of flats or
Glasgow’s tenements. It’s a far cry from the splendor of Armenia’s

In the shadow of Mount Ararat there is a monastery called Khor Virap,
where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in the third century
AD. Despite his title, he wasn’t a manuscript illuminator
(illustrator). He got his name, and was subsequently imprisoned, for
casting the light of Christianity into the dark comers of Armenia. For
a small fee, you can release doves from this monastery, in the same
way as Noah did as the flood subsided and his ark came to rest on
Mount Ararat. In this case, however, the doves fly back to their cages
and their owners ‘sell’ them again to the next unsuspecting diaspora

It’s a place of mixed feelings. In the local orphanage, children are
encouraged to draw pictures of Ararat and Noah’s ark. These crayon
drawings are stuck on the wall next to US flags. One class has
obviously been taught to write, “We love George Bush.”

I wonder if the children who made these drawings have been taught that
Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, is in Turkey and that they
will never get the chance to climb it.

Visiting Armenia

Nick Smith travelled to Armenia with British Mediterranean Airways (0845
772 2277;).

Regent Holidays can organise trips to Armenia (0117 921 1711;

Armenia with Nagorno Karabagh by Nicholas Holding is the first
English-language guide to Armenia. It is published by Bradt.

PHOTO CAPTION Clockwise from top left: men in Vayots Dzor trade smoked
fish from Lake Sevan; old women meet in the ‘Field of Khatchkars’, whose
900-or-so engraved stone memorials are a national treasure.

PHOTO CAPTION Noaravank monastery, built in the 13th and 14th centuries
and renovated in 1998 with money from the diaspora.

PHOTO CAPTION Clockwise from right: high above the Yeghegis valley is
the fifth-century fortress of Smbataberd, guarded on three sides by
steep cliffs.
Local legend has it that it fell to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century
when they used a thirsty horse to sniff out its water supply; the
eternal flame at the genocide memorial at Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan;
the memorial’s 44-metre stele.

PHOTO CAPTION Top: standing just below the top of the Selim Pass
(2,410metres), the caravanserai at Selim, one of the best-preserved in
the world, used to be an important resthouse for traders following the
Silk Road; Above: subsistence farmers scratch out a living growing
potatoes at the Selim Pass.

PHOTO CAPTION Clockwise from top left: Gregory the Illuminator kneels
before King Trdat in a 17th-century Turkish manuscript; Mount Ararat and
the monastery of Khor Virap (deep dungeon), where Gregory was imprisoned
by King Trdat in the late third century; a child’s drawing of Noah’s ark
on Mount Ararat.

Earthquakes in the Caucasus: a shaky history

As the recent earthquake in southern Iran tragically showed, the
collision of the Eurasian and Arabian tectonic plates has turned this
part of Central Asia into an earthquake danger zone. Although it lies
to the north of Iran, Armenia sits on the same boundary and is subject
to the same catastrophic geophysical forces.

As tectonic plates move, they often grind against each other, slowly
building up stress until one of them moves suddenly. When this
happens, the result is an earthquake, a natural phenomenon with which
Armenia is all too familiar. Historical accounts describe how
earthquakes claimed thousands of lives, destroyed the ancient cities
of Erznka, Erzroom, Basen and Dvin and ruined the temples of Garni
(below left) and Zvartnots.

On 7 December 1988, northwestern Armenia was struck by a quake
measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. It devastated the cities of
Giumri, Vanadzor and Spitak. Countless houses were obliterated,
leaving more than half a million people homeless. Manufacturing, as
well as cultural, scientific and educational institutions, were
destroyed. According to the UN Development Programme, more than 45,000
people were pulled from the rubble, 25,000 of whom were dead. In 2000,
the UNDP estimated that 20,000 people were still displaced and living
in temporary housing (left).

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