Yerevan Journal – November 2004

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Karmravor A trip to Armenia wouldn’t have been complete without meeting the relatives in Byurakan, famous for its observatories and, further up the mountain, the physics institute and Arakadz Lake. In Byurakan, while visiting several cousins and neighbors, my brother said he didn’t know what he’d miss most when he left Armenia, the spectacular monuments or the hospitality, which he says is more natural and open than anywhere he’s been. From the village, where we ate madzoon and lavash, we drove past Orgov and on to Tegher Monastery, an impressive, dark-stoned church built early in the thirteenth century. The church keeper told us about the small school for deacons and acolytes, where the students lived in five or six rooms located above the gavit, a ladder needed to reach the entrance just inside the gavit’s entrance. He also said that the church’s architect was named “Aghberik,” and that he was also responsible for building Saghmosavank, Hovhannavank, and four other churches in southern Armenia and Western Armenia. It happened that the next morning we were able to travel to the churches of Ashtarak, including Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank, where we watched as the filming of a church service was taking place. In Ashtarak, we visited Dziranavor and the seventh century church of Karmravor. A woman caretaker told us that the name of the monastery was Kusanats, and showed us the location of a prayer house just in front of the church. She went on to tell the story of the three virgins buried at the base of the khachkars near the arched entrance to the church and courtyard, how each had fallen in love with a man named Sargis, and, so that the others would be free to be with Sargis, each had commited suicide, not knowing the others were commiting the same deed. As she told the story, my wife walked up and asked me why I was listening to this story, since I already knew it, and I said I was enjoying the woman’s way of telling the story, letting her continue to the end. In the evening, we went to the family home in Charbakh, where we enjoyed a khorovadz dinner and singing by the younger family members, who sang traditional Armenian children’s songs, much to the delight of everyone. As the evening ended, my brother commented that he had never seen more sincere people, and asked, do you always have this much fun in Armenia?

During a previous trip to the Cosmic Ray Institute at Aragadz Lake, I was lucky enough to visit physicists at the main building, but didn’t go to the various buildings of the complex. This time, with my brother, wife, and another physicist, we walked through a tunnel under the mountain to two different buildings, where we met physicists conducting experiments and taking data in conditions not always conducive to such high level work. A scientist born in Baku told us that he had worked there since 1968, and would never leave his work “on the mountain.” He went on to tell about winters there, where snow completely covers the buildings, tunnels needed to go from building to building and tank-like vehicles traveling from Yerevan bringing their replacements and food and other supplies for their life and work there. From Aragadz, we drove down the mountain to the fortress and church of Ambert, walking across the flat area past the church and around the ruins of the fortress. Back at the car, we met with two fishermen from Byurakan, who took a sack of tomatoes and cucumbers and another of lavash and cheese from their car, and some “new wine,” offering these delights to everybody. If we waited, they said, they’d go down to the river beneath the fortress and bring back some fish and barbecue it for us. Unfortunately, time didn’t permit us staying, my brother enjoying the humor and hospitality of these villagers, one having just returned from Russia, saying he had no plans to leave “his village” again. The following morning, we went to the Laser Institute in Yerevan, where several physicists talked over raman and optic spectroscopy, continuing to make plans for their future collaboration. My brother was quite pleased with the high state of this field in Armenia, in spite of the lack of government funding, the scientists working almost entirely on grants, etc., with scientists and countries around the world. Then, fortunately, we were able to meet with Baris Herouni, famous radiophysicist and author of a new book proving the antiquity of Armenia, which turns out to date back over 7,000 years, as opposed to the generally accepted 3,000 years. Mr. Herouni showed us his book, which, among other things, showed ancient drawings found in Armenia showing the earth to be round, and that the true age of Karahoonj to be far older than previously believed. The name Urartu, he explained, is an invented name, a distortion of the old Armenian name “Ararat” or “Nairi,” the name given to deny Armenia its place as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nation on earth. My brother, quite impressed with Armenia, its people, and its churches and monasteries, left Armenia this morning, as he said, a place he won’t stay away from for long. A few hours later, at a hotel in central Yerevan, I greeted seven cousins from my Sebastatsi grandfather’s side, who like my brother are visiting Armenia for the first time. “Yerevan Journal” will resume in several days, after a several-day trip we have planned to Haghbat, Sanahin, Lake Sevan, and Tatev Monastery.

With my wife and seven relatives and in-laws, we set out on a journey through the mountains and plains of Armenia, with plans to see many of Armenia’s famous monuments and meet people in different regions of the country. The trip started by traveling the road past Aparan, where we discovered a village of Yezdis and an ancient cemetery, where this tribe had apparently lived for centuries. A minute or two after stopping, several Yezdi children came running to see who had stopped in their village. Even though their features were obviously not Armenian, a young boy with blue eyes and a strikingly handsome face fascinated us all. Then, further up the road, we stopped at a Sunday market where hundreds of people, Armenians and Yezdis alike, were buying and selling livestock, most of the animals, especially the sheep and pigs, meant for khorovadz. From there, we continued our journey to Sanahin and Haghbat monasteries, jewels of Armenian architecture and UNESCO-protected monuments. At Sanahin, we sat outside the library and small round chapel and had lunch, toasting especially their ninety-five-year-old grandmother (my grandfather’s sister), who had inspired their decision to travel to the homeland. After investigating the churches, chapels, and ruins of Sanahin, we drove on to Haghbat, north of Alaverdi. There, we walked through the monastery grounds, led by the caretaker, who told us the history of Haghbat and about Sayat Nova’s life and work there. I asked the caretaker about the missing khachkar to the left of the St. Mary chapel, and found out that a Kurdish prince with Armenian ancestery took the khachkar, nearly causing a war in the region, the khachkar then somehow ending up in a British museum . . . thus the missing khachkar on a spot where three khachkars were originally placed on elevated stones near the chapel. Later, from Haghbat, we drove down the hill past Tsevank and Alaverdi and on to Vanadzor, where we turned towards Dilijan and the forested Pambak mountain range, and the monastery of Haghardzin.

Reaching Dilijan, we drove past the town and up a mountain to the Cinematographer House, where in Soviet times movies were judged and actors and others spent time in the area known as the Armenian Switzerland. At daybreak, we watched as the new rays of light spread over the heavily-treed mountains, the higher peaks already covered with snow. After breakfast we hurried to Haghardzin Monastery, arriving as the morning light shone into the churches of Haghardzin. In St. Stepanos, we lit candles as my wife sang “Aravot Luso.” Outside the church, we met the local beekeeper and bought some honey, the sweet, natural taste shocking the visitors from San Francisco. Leaving the monastery, we traveled on to Lake Sevan, where we climbed the steps to the ninth century churches built by Ashot Yergat. Then, after a brief stop at Hayrvank, a ninth century church overlooking the lake, we went to Noraduz, where 900 khachkars stand testimony to the ancient history of the area. Arriving, we stood on the edge of the cemetery as a small group of men walked toward the new section of the cemetery, the apparent beginning of a village funeral. Later, while having lunch amongst the khachkars and chapels, we noticed a huge number of people walking from the village, several men holding up a casket leading the procession to the burial place up the hill. From the procession, a man walked towards us, saying he was the official historian of Noraduz, and asked if we would like him to tell the history of the famous khachkar cemetery. Not wanting to pass this opportunity, I walked with the man and my relatives through part of the cemetery, hearing stories about khachkars carved as far back as the fifth century, the historian’s great-grandfather Der Karapet, buried in Noraduz, and found out that the simple stones scattered amongst the khachkars were for the poor people of the village, who couldn’t afford one of the more classic khachkars of Noraduz. I asked about the khachkars carved on small gravestones, and was told they were for small children. Appreciating the knowledge of this village historian, we nonetheless had to leave for Sissian, by way of the new road known as the Selim Pass, part of the old Silk Road.

Selim Caravansarai The new road through the Selim Pass led us along the old Silk Road and to the Selim Caravansarai, a place where caravans, their expensive goods often protected by small armies, spent the night before continuing their journey to the East, by way of Hadrut in southern Karabagh and other routes. Walking through the entrance, under the royal emblems carved in stone, we went into the dark building, and saw where people slept and areas reserved for animals. We continued our journey along the Selim Pass, a huge project rebuilding a road so bad that only animals could successfully travel the mountain paths, yet now able to serve as transport routes and even for military purposes, cutting the road from Karabagh to the Sevan region, which until now required a trip to Yerevan and then back north to Sevan. Reaching Vayots Tsor, our driver pointed out the location of Smbatabert, which he said was safer to reach by foot than by car. We made our way to Sissian, where we spent the night before visiting Karahunj, the ancient rock observatory said by physicist Baris Herouni to be some 9,000 years old. We wondered about a large, round area of scattered rocks, which will likely be explained by Herouni’s soon-to-be-released book about Karahunj and the origin of the Armenian alphabet. We then took the road to Tatev, a winding road through some of the spectacular mountains and cliffs to the ninth century monastery and university and home of Grigor Tatevatsi, the last saint named by the Armenian Apostolic Church. Reaching Tatev, our guests from San Francisco quickly forgot their fear of driving through the high gorges of Zangezur. For nearly two hours, they walked the grounds of Tatev and its church buildings, amazed at the quality of construction, the view from the monastery, and the fortress walls, with special slots pointing almost straight down, where Armenians shot arrows or poured boiling oil onto any enemy daring to enter Tatev. As we traversed the site, my wife was in Tatev village, talking with villagers and the mayor, gathering food and drink for lunch at the restaurant just outside the monastery walls. We were all pleasantly surprised to see a table set with freshly cut greens, fried potatoes, cheese, madzoon, khaghoghi oghi, pickles, and other delicacies, all from the homes of the Tatev villagers. The mayor showed us how to eat a special kind of tahnabook, eating it with soft lavash while keeping it covered with lavash to keep it warm and “to keep people from sneaking some for themselves.” Leaving the monastery after 3 p.m., darkness fell as we reached Noravank, forcing us to leave this stop for the next trip. At a dinner the next night, toasts were many, most ending up praising their ninety-five-year-old grandmother and her inspiration for them making the trip. A grandson, after stating he planned on returning next year and possibly buying a house in Garni, told that they planned on gathering all their digital photos and video material for a party for their grandmother back home, who was waiting anxiously for word from the homeland.

Yesterday evening I met the last Armenian born in Agoulis, a city in Nakhichevan, an ancient Armenian territory currently controlled by Azerbaijan. In the early 1920s, Turks massacred the Armenians of Agoulis, only a few remaining in Agoulis and neighboring villages. It happened that the woman had seen my wife on Artur Bakhtamyan’s “Aklorakanch” on National Television, and had called Hasmik asking to have a copy of her Armenian Lullabies CD. The woman, known as Lucik Agouletsi, is a well known painter, and also has several rooms in her house devoted to old carpets, necklaces, earrings, and vases, some dating back to pre-Christian times in Armenia. At a gathering at her house attended by President Kocharian’s wife and the wife of the president of Estonia, Lucik showed guests these treasures, all the while dressed in her typical tradional Armenian costume, including a hat from Moush. The next evening, Hasmik and I were treated to the same tour, after which we sat and enjoyed traditional Armenian desserts, drinks, fruit, and cake. Lucik told us about Agoulis and its history, about it having been an important cultural center in the seventeenth century, with seventeen churches, the city now unfortunately completely depopulated of its Armenian residents. The carpets, furniture, cabinets, and other Armenian treasures in the Armenian-built homes, she lamented, were now being enjoyed by their new owners, the Turks. She went on to tell of famous Armenians from Nakhichevan, probably the most renowned being composer Aram Khachatryan, whom many think was born in Tblisi, where he later lived before moving and working in Moscow. Lucik’s husband, a sculptor and strong Vanetsi, came into the room after fellow artisans had left, concluding a noisy game of nardi, the sculptor telling me that the only national Armenian kingdom was in Van, almost daring me to name another Armenian kingdom. It was a fine evening, in a setting which easily could have been taken from the pages of old Armenian history, in the home of Lucik Agouletsi, a keeper of our culture as few others.

Work took me to the offices of AGRICO, a Holland-based company which deals with Armenia’s potato farmers, bringing in new varieties and ensuring a market for the potatoes grown by their farmers. The company is run by an Iranian-born Armenian who lived in Holland but has returned permanently to Armenia. The walls of the office are covered with brochures and posters describing the work they do, yet a map of Armenia, as is often the case, had us talking about the borders of Armenia, past and present, and how they might hopefully change in the future. As the map had Nakhichevan as part of Armenia, along with Karabagh and the liberated territories, I found Agoulis, a large town and former Armenian cultural center located in Nakhichevan. An AGRICO official told me that the painter Lucik Agouletsi, born in Agoulis, had traveled, with her family, by foot from Agoulis to Syunik, a trip lasting nearly a week due to the rugged mountain terrain. He then showed pictures of the area and the road taken by Lucik’s and another family as they fled Agoulis. After studying the map and discussing Armenia’s future, we continued our work concerning agriculture in Armenia. Before leaving, someone brought up the reports concerning the recent drop in numbers of those living in poverty in Armenia, which unofficially is thought to be due to Armenians who left the country several years ago, now being better established financially in their new countries, have begun sending larger remittances back home, thus easing the situation of many here in Armenia. Some think that higher-ups are trying to say that such figures aren’t completely true, in order to continue receiving funds to fight poverty, these funds leading to the good lives of many operating poverty-reduction programs. Back home, I was happy to walk into a rehearsal of the Shoghaken Ensemble, as in three weeks the ensemble will be traveling to Dubai for concerts arranged by the Culture Ministry of Armenia. As the Arabs of Dubai have requested, only traditional groups have been invited to perform, including Shoghaken and the Komitas Quarter, the Arabs having refused a group which sings modern interpretations of folk music, much to the shock of the stars of this group. Also, a concert will likely take place for the Armenians of Dubai, many of whom are Yerevan Armenians working in the financially-agreeable atmosphere of the UAE.

A trip to the village always opens up new worlds and surprises, as was the case in an afternoon trip to Byurakan. Our first stop was the church in the old part of the village, the thirteenth century St. Hovhannes, where we lit candles as a baptism was taking place. After taking pictures by the ancient khachkars outside the church, we walked across a creek to a house for sale, where we had arranged to meet with the owner. After discovering the true condition of the house, which is in need of nothing short of tearing down, and telling the owner our opinion, a mild argument started, the owner stating we were completely wrong, that the house was in such good condition we could even add another level if we wanted. After a few insults, the owner said enough, if you don’t want the house, come to our home, and we can drink “majar” (new wine) and eat freshly baked tonir lavash. At the house, buried in old walnut trees, we enjoyed their hospitality and the lavash, which we ate with cheese the owner’s wife had made. From there, we checked another house before going to visit my wife’s cousin, in the northernmost part of the village. Reaching her house, her husband appeared on a side street, on his horse, saying he had to leave but that his wife was somewhere close by. After calling her name a few times, she appeared in a robe of sorts and a snow cap, still in the process of helping a neighbor roll out dough for baking bread in a tonir oven. Leaving her neighbor and the other women to their tasks, she invited us into her house, where we talked about various family matters, including a sick uncle in Tutoo Choor, before she began setting the table with various items from her kitchen and storage. We ate lavash with “horadz panir,” cheese which is put in a clay jar and buried in the ground, the flavor and smell so powerful that one is immediately reminded what real cheese tastes like. She then made eggs, cooking them in natural oil, made from butter, and brought out the khaghoghi oghi — grape vodka her husband had made after the autumn harvest. As I looked at another nearby house for sale with my wife’s brother-in-law, the women were loading large sacks with apples and loading containers with horadz panir, milk, and eggs, all with such pure taste that it makes life in the village something to seriously consider. Driving down from Byurakan, down the slopes of Aragadz, a combination of light, clouds, bright autumn colors, and Mt. Ararat, welcomed us to the Ararat Valley and, eventually, to Yerevan.

A late afternoon visit to the Armenian Ag Ministry had us talking about the importance of keeping border regions strong, especially in Zangezur and Shamshadin, the latter a region in the province of Tavoush. The official said he had been in Shamshadin recently, both to visit relatives and to see the result of some recent deliveries of wheat seed. A trip that had taken up to five hours now took, he told, about three hours, thanks to the new roads in the area, finally taken care of due to the government’s decision to help strengthen these remote regions. When I asked him if he had roots in Shamshadin, he said no, that he was born in Nakhichevan, and was one of the last Armenians born there, even after the painter Lucik Agouletsi, who he said was the last Armenian born in Agoulis, not in all of Nakhichevan. We told the official that we were leaving the following morning to check some new plantings of wheat in Artik and Akhourian, and he said we were a day late, that by daybreak snow would already have fallen in the high mountain region of Artik. Not taking his prediction seriously, we left a sunny Yerevan the next morning, only soon to be greeted by snow and icy roads, even before reaching Ashnak and Talin. With the help of our four-wheel-drive Niva, we easily made our way to Artik, where icy winds made outdoor conversations nearly impossible. The sad part about the region is that the roads, both thoroughfares and villages roads, are nearly all bad, making travel from village to village, especially in inclement weather, almost unbearable. Hopefully, the government will soon understand the importance of this region, as they did in Shamshadin, as these farmers and villagers are in dire need of at least minimal government help, especially concerning the condition of the roadways. Leaving Gyumri after dark, the icy roads again forced us to creep along, until the roads became safe after passing Ashnak. Reaching Ashtarak, we saw that snow had reached the valley floor, ice again forcing us to slow our journey. At the turn towards Echmiadzin, we spotted a large bus with goods piled both inside and on top of the bus, likely mandarins, garalyok, and other fruit and goods from Bagratashen, the village near the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan where businessmen from the three countries brush aside their ethnic differences and hatred and conduct trade, forced to this remote village due to the closed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The day began with my wife appearing on the morning talk show at Yerkir Media, a new station sponsored by Armenia’s Dashnak party. The show was more peaceful than a recent appearance on Artur Bakhtamyan’s “Aklorakanch,” where Bakhtamyan took an opposing role, saying there was no need for real folk music, that Armenians were completely out of touch with folk music, Hasmik then explaining the need for true Armenian folk music. This morning, Hasmik talked about the state of folk music in Armenia, lamenting that many use synthesized music and even change the words of folk songs, supposedly to “make the music more interesting and accessible to the young generation,” suggesting that it would be easier to sing and play the music as it was meant, a simple, honest approach being much easier for people to understand and enjoy. From the studio, we went with a staff member to work with a singer of patriotic songs, who wasn’t happy with an “arranged” version of a song she was going to sing, Hasmik and the singer discussing this and other musical issues. Later, the conversation switched to the decision to discontinue phone calls by Internet, the small outlets all over Yerevan soon to be closed, and companies that people call and use to connect with their friends and relatives overseas, again by Internet, will also cease to operate. The calls, averaging 100 dram per minute (about twenty cents) are far more affordable than the three dollars or so a minute charged by Armentel. So much for those who have claimed over the past few months they were “fighting for the common man” on this issue.

On Saturday evening, Yerevan Armenians were treated to the symphonic works of Vache Sharafyan, whose style has intrigued Yo Yo Ma and others, and who also has recorded music for Traditional Crossroads of New York. The program, presented by the Yerevan Chamber Orchestra, began with a work by Handel, before Sharafyan’s music began. Sharafyan’s interesting harmonizations were entertwined with the duduk of Gevorg Dabaghyan, who, even though playing classical-style music here, never loses his feel for Armenian folklore. Following the concert, we visited a friend and his family who live across from the Komitas Chamber Hall, where the concert was held. Our weekend adventures continued the next morning at the Vernisage, where crowds still flocked in spite of freezing temperatures and little-needed wind. In the book section, we ordered a series of books containing the music and theory of Komitas, before entering the area where carpets are sold, an area with a culture of its own, where we saw an old, poorly dressed man begging for money, dragging along on shoes which barely held together. Obviously not one of those begging “professionally,” we gave him some money and headed towards the carpets. We passed an area where musical instruments were being sold, and saw someone trying a clarinet, when another picked up an accordian and another began pounding on a dhol, creating an instant concert, to the delight of everyone. In the carpet area, we met with a member of the Maratouk group, known for its performance of patriotic songs and dances, and one of the few traditional groups remaining after the fall of the Soviet Union. After telling about a planned trip to Syria, he stated that he was Mshetsi, and was related to a commander who fought with Gevorg Chavoush. He said that Chavoush was so feared and respected in the Taron region that even many Kurdish tribes fought on his side, as Chavoush was so skillful even his own men at times didn’t know where he would turn up. After Chavoush’s death in 1907, the alliance with these Kurdish tribes began to fall apart, and four Armenians from Chavoush’s group went to the Kurds to find out who they were siding with, but were given poisoned food and died. Wishing our Mshetsi friend well, we walked past a stand where CDs were being sold, and, unfortunately, saw an illegal copy of Shoghaken’s Armenia Anthology, done in very poor taste and without the extensive booklet included with the original CD. The seller claimed innocence in the matter, saying in fact that all of his CDs were illegal. Although new laws are slowly being enacted concerting the pirating of CDs in Armenia, judges and the police are still easily persuaded, some would say bought off, yet our struggle in the matter holds some hope of success, time being the judge in this matter.

Yesterday evening’s presentation of “Fifth Wheel,” in which Artur Bakhtamyan mediates a discussion where two persons of opposite opinions debate their views, with occasional opinions expressed by those in the audience, put forth the question as to whether the government should declare the establishment of the second republic, Soviet Armenia, a national holiday. Baruyr Hayrikyan, who is a clear supporter of the West and an opposes anything Russian, said the date should be declared as the death of the first republic (1918-1920). He went on to lambast Dashtaksutyun and the Russians, namely Lenin, for the loss of Nakhichevan, Karabagh, and Surmalu. A member of the Communist Party said that during Soviet rule, in spite of several obvious problems, the Armenians experienced a national revival in science and culture, and that the date of establishment of Soviet rule should be noted and celebrated. As this talk ended, news revealed activity in Budapest concerning the case of the Azeri Turk who killed an Armenian officer with a hatchet as he slept, saying that the Turk planned on killing a second Armenian, but his plans fortunately didn't reach fruition. Turks again showed their colors in Valence, a city in southern France with a sizeable Armenian population, when they attacked Armenians demanding Turkish recognition of the Genocide before Turkey’s admittance into the European Union. Instead of trying to show some sort of cultural advancement, at least in order to meet their political demands, Turks further set back their case, showing the French, and all Europeans, how they deal with people who dare to disagree. Threats of business retaliation have already been sent to the Slovaks, whose government, just minutes ago, recognized the Armenian Genocide.
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