ESCAPE FROM AMERICA MAGAZINE MARCH 2004
March 18, 2004
Discovering The Soul Of Armenia ~ by Dorothy Aksamit
“Oh”, said the young woman standing beside us at the baggage
queue at the airport in Yerevan, “they’ve changed already”. Blowing
kisses to the two little girls peeking from behind bouquets of roses,
she told us she lived in Kosovo with her husband who is with the UNDP
peacekeeping mission. “I come home every three months, but children
change so quickly.” I agreed it must be difficult and then she said,
“But of course you know our history. It is important that my children
stay in Armenia and speak Armenian.” The young mother assumed we were
visiting our family.
Armenia sees few “pure” tourists: those not affected by the
Diaspora of the 1915 genocide. Most tourists are visiting their
homeland, or travelers on a pilgrimage to the early churches. We were
neither. You might say we came on the wings of words. Carroll, my
husband, and I knew something of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians
orchestrated by the Turks. We had been introduced to Armenia by the
Armenian-American writer, William Saroyan in “My Name is Aram”. Our
interest was further heightened by Bitov’s lyrical “A Captive of the
Caucasus” and the bittersweet memoir of Peter Balakian’s “Black Dog of
Fate”. We were anxious to see the Low Caucasus Mountain Range, the
early churches in this land that in 310 A.D. was the first to accept
Christianity as a state religion and the imposing Matenadaran housing
illuminated books dating to the fifth century.
Our taxi salaamed around potholes as we entered Yerevan, the
capital of The Republic of Armenia. The city, scattered on either side
of a deep ravine, appeared forlorn. Store windows were empty or
sparsely stocked. Huge cranes, their wrecking ball missing, stood idle
beside staring holes of windowless buildings. Incongruously, the only
construction seemed to be the multiple pools of an aquatic park.
Impressions began to change as we passed between startlingly huge
complexes, one a hillside cognac distillery and the other a former
winery, now a museum. Near the center of town broad leafy avenues named
for poets and writers and several impressive statues lifted our spirits.
Gagik Siravyan, our driver/guide, (we had made arrangements with
Levon Travel on the Internet), perhaps seeing Yerevan through our eyes,
said, “We have a beautiful mountain, but you can’t see through the
clouds today.” and he added, “It’s in another country.” And so, even
before reaching our hotel, Armenia had bared its soul. The palpable
longing for home, land and language would become the spoken and unspoken
theme of our journey.
When we reached Republic Square, the scene changed as quickly as a
mouse click, dropping us into another time, another place. Ornate
buildings of rose or yellow tufa ringed the square of joyful people.
Filled with merry-makers, a coach and four trotted around the square.
The cafe crowd, mostly businessmen and Red Cross personnel, sipped beer
and lattes under umbrellas in front of the Hotel Armenia. A band played
beside the gushing fountain, the centerpiece of Republic Square,
formerly Lenin Square during the Soviet occupation. The square pulsated
with the exuberance of youth. Young women in short black dresses with
frilly white aprons teetered above platform heels, their partners, young
men in black jackets with white lace and rose corsages, everyone
celebrating the last day of school and graduation. Our black and white
entry into Yeravan had, by midnight, turned into Technicolor reflected
in the eyes of the young as the grand finale fireworks lit up the sky.
The major sites that we wanted to see lay in the four cardinal
directions and so each day as we cleared the bruised city we quickly
entered a gentle green land of shepherds whose sheep grazed under cobalt
skies. An ancient church at the end of each road drew us slowly and
inextricably into a pilgrimage..
We stopped the first day at the slender Arch of the poet
Yeghishe Charents. Gagik roughly translated the inscription: “You may
look the world over and never find such a mountain as Ararat.” Often
hidden in clouds, I photographed Mount Ararat framed perfectly in the
arch, but alas, only I could find the snow-capped mountain in the
clouds. How frustrating for Armenians, with Ararat heartbreakingly
close but lying in forbidden territory. Armenians must negotiate a trip
to eastern Turkey through Georgia to visit Mount Ararat where Noah is
thought to have moored his Ark. Armenians call their country Hayastan
and trace their descent from Haik, Noah’s great-great-great-grandson.
Afterwards we visited what looked like a small Roman temple, The Temple
of Garni, dedicated to the sun god Mithra, built with funds and slaves
sent by Nero. But I remember Garni as the place where grandmothers sold
roejik. These delicious sweets hang like curtains of brown candles but
are strings of dried fruit, rolled thin and wrapped around walnuts. We
quickly became addicted and stopped everytime we spotted them.
Each morning Gagik scoured roadside markets for picnic
supplies: lavash, parchment thin bread, to wrap around soft cheese,
olives, green onions, cucumbers and tomatoes.
As we approached Geghard, the 10-13 century monastery, a
scene straight out of my Sunday school coloring book sprang to life. A
family group, leading a sacrificial lamb was met by a group of pied
pipers who piped them into the church. The lamb would later be butchered
and a grand picnic held on the banks of the river. Geghard was also the
church where a group of teenagers sang beside the chapel where stones
are pressed into the wall and if the stone sticks your wish will come
true. Gagik said, “They are singing for the freedom of their friends in
Karabakh.” (An Armenian enclave surrounded by Azerbaijan).
Geghard is an architectural wonder. Carved in solid rock,
it is a collection of several churches chiseled from the mountainside as
a sanctuary for the early Christians. Memorable as Geghard is, it’s
Gagik’s song that I remember. He stood in the center of the original
church surrounded by columns and walls carved from one stone and sang
quietly – perhaps to himself, perhaps to his God, but the curved stone
vault increased the volume until, by the time it floated skyward through
the round opening, it was a heavenly chorus.
On a Sunday visit to Cathedral Echmiadzin we discovered that Gagik
was an artist and the son of an artist. In fact his father had helped
restore the frescos in this beautiful Cathedral famous as the site where
Christ descended from Heaven and pointed to the spot on which the
Cathedral should be built. The elaborate service of the Armenian
Apostolic Church was in progress when we arrived. Under vibrant blue and
gold frescos and sparkling crystal chandlers, the gold mitered, black
robed Catholicos moved slowly through the standing crowd dispensing
blessings and accepting offerings. There was incense, a chorus and at
the altar where Christ descended, a motionless prostrate man, obliging
the faithful to lean over him in order to kiss the stone.
Our favorite trip was to Hamberd, a fortress and church high upon
the slopes of Mount Argats. On the slopes, higher even than the fortress
we found the distinctive rectangular steles of the pagans. These stones
(khatchkars) were later inscribed with intricate filigreed crosses and
thousands of them are found all over Armenia.
As we approached the fortress we saw a school bus and a
rollicking party in progress. It was an end-of-school picnic and the
English teacher suggested that while we looked at the fortress and
church she would make coffee.
The teachers second question after, “Where are you from?”
was, “Have you heard of the Genocide?” One of the women offered to sing
for us and we heard for the first time the poignantly beautiful song,
“Your house is in front of my house, but I don’t see you anymore.” The
teenagers then turned up the boom box and the dancing began. We spent a
couple of hours eating grilled chicken, drinking vodka and dancing. An
added attraction was the daring feat of a local youth who scaled the
fortress wall sans ropes or shoes. It was for us a moment in an
The last day we stayed too long at the imposing Matenadaran,
the library that holds thousands of books dating to the fifth century
documenting the history of Armenia. But to those in this shrunken
landlocked country that once spread to three seas, The Matenadaran is
more than a library; it is the depository of cultural history and is
spoken of in reverential tones. It is like scaling a mountain to get to
this lofty mausoleum-like building. On the first terrace is a statue of
Mesrop Mashtots who, as every school child in this land of 98% literacy
knows, created the Armenian alphabet in 405 A.D. On the second terrace
are granite statues of writers and finally inside a wide staircase
leading to the exhibition room. Here are the intricately illuminated
manuscripts bound in leather, ivory and filigreed silver and parchment
books of botany, math, science, geography and astrology. Gagik proudly
pointed to the framed pictures and quotes of William Saroyan who in the
early twentieth century introduced the Armenian people to the world in
his plays and novels. He also shyly told us it was his father who showed
Saroyan around when he visited Armenia.
When we finally reached the Genocide Museum, the door had just
been locked but Gagik explained that we had come from San Francisco to
see the museum. Without hesitation we were ushered into the underground
gallery where grainy photographs depicted the suffering of the Armenians
who were “relocated” from ancestral lands by the Turks. Although in
1915 the word “genocide” was not known, over 1,500,000 Armenians
perished in the world’s first genocide. The Treaty of Sevres, the last
treaty of World War I, granted lands lost in the genocide to Armenia and
demanded punishment of the perpetrators. But by 1923, western powers
caught the scent of Ottoman oil and signed the Lausanne Treaty.
Reparation, restitution, retribution and Armenian dreams slipped into
fields of black gold The remaining sliver of Armenia was incorporated
into the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991.
After visiting the Genocide Monument, 12 leaning stones
surrounding the eternal flame and the slender sky-piercing shaft
representing the hope of the Armenian people, we sat on the ledge of the
courtyard waiting for a last glimpse of Mount Ararat. This is a true
“court” yard formed by a semicircle of 12 basalt slabs inscribed with
statements by politicians, writers and scientists. Each visitor is a
witness who can make his own judgement regarding the Genocide.
Even though the sky had turned fittingly somber, we hoped for a
last glimpse of Mt. Ararat. It didn’t seem strange to sit silently with
Gagik who actually spoke little English and who in retrospect I thought
of as a spirit guide. Gazing over the rooftops of Yerevan, I thought of
my childhood during the depression on the high plains of the Texas
Panhandle, and my mother’s frequent admonition: “Dorothy, please finish
your dinner. Just think of the poor starving Armenians.” If I had had
any inkling of the starving Armenians, I wouldn’t have been able to
choke down a bite. And I thought of what Peter Balakian had written
about his Armenian grandmother in “Black Dog of Fate”: “She was
history knocking on the door of my heart.”
I gave up on Ararat. I knew the mountain was there but this was
to be a “wasn’t” day. Peter’s grandmother had begun all her stories,
not with “Once upon a time,” but with “A long time ago there was and
there wasn’t.” A few drops of rain fell. And then, like an answer to a
prayer, Ararat “was”. The mystical mountain, ephemeral, hauntingly
near and illusively far, billowy clouds becoming mountains and snow
covered mountains tops becoming clouds. A tantalizing glimpse and it
was gone. But I knew that on whichever side of a man-made border Mount
Ararat lies, there lies the soul of Armenia.