Yerevan Journal – September 2003

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During a Saturday trip to Tutoo Choor, one of the villages of Aparan, we stopped at Saghmosavank, a monastery just outside Ashtarak, overlooking the Kasakh River gorge. Before entering the monastery churches, we visited friends who own the house next to the monastery, and had coffee and watermelon in their large, shaded yard. We then entered the main gavit and church, where a caretaker told us about a secret passageway from the gavit down to the river, used in the past for escape and to bring up water from the river when under seige. I was also told about the window opening toward the east, to where the first light of morning shines directly on the altar. A window opening in the west also had the last light of day falling on the altar, yet when the gavit was built, the latter opening was blocked from the evening light, leaving the altar without the day’s last rays of light. To make up for this sin, an intricate khachkar was carved high into the dome of the gavit — the only such khachkar in Armenian architecture.

We arrived in Tutoo Choor in mid-afternoon, with my wife’s aunt waiting impatiently at the opened gate of their house and yard. After a few minutes of greetings and updatings about the Yerevan relatives, we descended into the garden to pick greens to go with lunch, as well as beet leaves which would be cooked later for dinner. We showed pictures we had brought of the wedding that took place earlier this summer in Tutoo Choor. Then, as my wife, her sister, and their aunt began preparing the ingredients to make tonir gata and lavash, the men journeyed into the forest to bring in the cows, sheep, and goats, as it was our turn to bring the village animals in for the night. Along the way, I heard a man singing some sort of ballad, so I walked into the large yard and met Margar, a hospitable man who has been blind most of his life. Margar told me the story of the song he was singing, then asked a granddaughter to bring his duduk, which he played with ease and expertise. As several villagers gathered, we talked about the great writer William Saroyan, as it was Saroyan’s birthday that day, and about Margar’s ancestors, who had come from a village near Moush, as had many of the population of Tutoo Choor. We drank coffee and ate apples, which had about a month remaining until they would be ready to eat, reminding me of Saroyan’s preference for similar tart fruit. We were leaving to continue our task of bringing in the village animals, when I met a man named Grigor, who also had animals grazing in the forest. Together, we went into the forest, Grigor talking about his life and family in the village. When he heard I was related to Saroyan, he happily told about his ancestors from Alashkerd, which is not far from Moush and Bitlis, the home of the Saroyans. Later, back home in the village, we sat on the balcony and had a dinner of potatoes, beet leaves, mushroom soup, lavash, and apricot vodka — the only dinner item not grown or prepared in the village. Then, within the course of half an hour, clouds gathered and hard wind and rain forced us inside. The rain lasted well into the night.

I couldn’t help but smile as a friend told me about a thief climbing to her second-floor balcony and stealing several kilograms of dried apricots. As she described the way the thief would have had to have climbed to reach the apricots, and how the thief overlooked other more valuable items, I thought, only in Armenia are the thieves intelligent enough to steal dried apricots. Another friend told of an attorney who had moved with his family to Glendale, but came back to Armenia, saying the pressures, paperwork, insurances, and everything associated with life in the West had been too much, so he decided to return to his homeland. Yet, word in Yerevan is that a well-known political figure is being politely forced from Armenia, due to his lone opposition to current policy regarding Armenia’s close relationship with Russia.

Today I was walking alongside the Vernisage. Being a weekday, the place was quiet except for a few booksellers and an outdoor coffee shop. A man was sitting barefoot inside a shoe repair shop while his shoes were being repaired. As I continued on, I heard a man singing “Dle Yaman,” his voice coming from a building I was approaching. Judging from the high quality of the voice, I thought a recording or rehearsal was in progress. Closer, I realized the man was begging. This was the first time I had seen someone singing for money, the usual being someone playing accordian, shvi, duduk, or some musical instrument. I was reminded of a singer on the well-known Ruben Altounyan folk/ashoughagan recording, a woman whose rendition of the Sayat Nova song “Blbli Hid” is quite enjoyable. Recently when I asked where she was singing these days, the answer was that she and her husband had left Armenia and were living and working in Spain, and that the Altounyan group is no longer in existence. Also, similar groups have either stopped performing, or pay so poorly that one cannot live on the salary. In a country where culture is so highly thought of, or so people say, it seems that fine singers should be well enough paid, and even promoted, so that the thought of having to leave the country just to make a living wouldn’t even be considered.

Today was the first day in months that our yertooghayin van drove freely along Baghramyan, after months of road work which included tearing out the tramway tracks and resurfacing the entire road. BMWs and Mercedes were enjoying their new freedom, racing along the smooth, wide surface. In the “hrabarak,” formerly Lenin Square, work is advancing, an elegant stage-like cement platform being built in front of the fountains. An ancient settlement discovered in the square this summer has long since been covered up. Later, nearing home in Anastasavan, I saw about twenty youths gathered on a street corner. Before I could check and see what was happening, the sound of a dhol and zurna started, and a tight-wire walker began his act on the high wire, as those below cheered and clapped for the man, who was dressed in clown’s clothes. At home, National Television aired a special about Sargis Baghdasaryan, the architect of the famous Dadik-Babik monument near Stepanakert in Karabagh. The architect of both avante-garde and traditional monuments and statues, Baghdasaryan also sculpted the statue of poet Avedik Issahakyan, which is located near Yeridasartagan Metro in Yerevan. The sculptor also created a statue of William Saroyan, and told of how the great author liked the statue so much that he wanted it to remain in Armenia, so it could be better cared for in a museum here.

This weekend we went to Hopartsi, a village near Stepanavan in the northern Armenian province of Lori, to pick up a young relative who had been staying there for the past month and a half. We traveled by way of Spitak and Vanadzor, then through the Pushkin Mountain Pass, a long underground tunnel, into the region of Stepanavan. Hopartsi is an old village, as old as Yerevan, and, in spite of electricity and an occasional car, remains an Old World village, with horse drawn carts as the main form of transportation. Soon after arriving, and being treated to a lunch of greens and vegetables from our hosts’ garden, we decided to go to the neighboring village of Vardabloor to see the church of St. Astvadzadzin, where Komitas sang his famous Lori Horovel early in the twentieth century. The church, mostly destroyed in the 1988 earthquake, has been rebuilt, the unusually dark stone of the church possibly due the region’s damp climate. Even though dated at 1890, the church probably has more ancient roots, judging from the abundance of tenth-eleventh century style khachkars. A woman who provided us with candles told us about a monastery, St. Sargis, located atop a mountain overlooking Vardabloor, but said it would be difficult to find without a local guide. With an interesting man named Gagik, a native of Vardabloor, we drove our Russian-made Vilis van up the mountain, until the path became too rocky and too steep for the vehicle to continue. We then walked until we reached the mountain peak, where a village shepherd tended his sheep and cows, literally amongst the clouds. The first sight of the monastery gave the appearance of a fortress, one of the churches having a rounded, fortress-like wall. The monastery, mostly in ruins, remains a place of pilgrimage. Rags and pieces of clothing are tied to the trees, as can be seen in the monastery of Geghard near Yerevan. After paying our respects and photographing the churches, we rushed down the hill, as wind and a light rain descended upon us. Reaching the village, it seemed we had been in another world, lost somewhere in time. The next morning, before leaving for Yerevan, we visited the famous sanatorium near Hopartsi, just past Gyulakarag village. There, in Soviet times, a Polish man had created a reserve and imported trees and flowers from all over the world, which are maintained and manicured to this day by his son, and protected by the Armenian government as a national park.

Just past the town of Echmiadzin are the villages of Ardimet and Aratashen. Both are known for growing great-tasting fruit and vegetables and large fields of wheat. Yesterday’s trip took me to meet wheat farmers from each village, two of whom had record high harvests. In Aratashen, as we talked inside about the year’s successes, smoke began wafting into the house. When the aroma of roasting peppers and eggplants reached us, our host said, “You’re staying for khorovadz.” We told him that it was getting late, that we had to get back to Yerevan. Then the smell changed to cooking meat, and we knew that we would be staying to partake in our hosts’ hospitality. Although everyone’s mood was good as we enjoyed the barbecued treats, the conversation included a problem area farmers have, that of an overabundance of gophers. They lamented that the government wasn’t helping eradicate the pest, or offering some kind of general program to help those with no means of eradication, causing problems for everybody. It reminded me of wheat and potato farmers in Vardabloor and Hopartsi, near Stepanavan, who explained how cannons were used during Soviet times to blast into the clouds when hailstorms were imminent. The cannons were taken away for use in the Karabagh war, but never brought back, leaving farmers subject to destructive hailstorms, which were only a minor problem in the past. I heard about an unrelated historical meeting that took place in Vardabloor while visiting the village this past weekend — that of General Andranik, Hovhannes Tumanyan, and Komitas. The meeting took place some time before 1915, at the St. Sargis monastery on the high mountain above Vardabloor. It happens that there has been a celebration at the monastery each year since the famous meeting took place.

A friend from Yerevan, now living and working in Dubai, visited Yerevan this past week. During lunch at the new Sayat Nova restaurant, she expressed her shock at seeing girls “walking the streets,” something that didn’t exist during Soviet times. The friend continued that if the changes in Yerevan stopped there, it would be understandable, but she was saddened by the looks on the faces of the people of Yerevan, the relaxed, friendly look something of the past. She said Yerevan natives had the look of having had taken advantage of someone, of having made money in a less than honest manner — or that they wish they could make money in this way. It seems the state of the Armenian economy, creating almost insurmountable obstacles in living, has presented a challenge to the moral fabric of the Armenian people. Yet, a kind of energy exists in Armenia, well described by a well-known painter. The painter told me recently that he has had plenty of opportunities to leave Armenia, and to live in Europe where he could far more easily work and sell his paintings. Yet he stays in Armenia for the strength he receives here, citing the positive energy of Mt. Ararat, the nature of Armenia, and the sun’s rays, which shine as nowhere in the world.

One of the main religious holidays in Armenia is Khachverats, known here as St. Khach, or “St. Khech.” Armenians flock to cemeteries in huge numbers this day, to pay respect to their deceased relatives, especially those who died during the past year. In Armenian Church tradition, people attend Badarak on Sunday, and go to the cemetery on Monday, but due to modern times and work schedules, Sunday has become the accepted day to visit the cemetery. Since my wife’s mother died this past February, all of her family went to the cemetery in Charbakh, near their family home. At the cemetery, as is usual this day, there were hundreds of mourners gathered at gravesides, saying quiet toasts and burning incense. Elder women chanted a “voghbyerk,” a crying lament where they “communicate” with the deceased. This can be about how much they miss them, or about growing up together, or whatever the woman wishes to say, her tears and laments usually resulting in the tears of other family members. After each of us spread a little incense in the shape of a cross in a small container with burning incense, everyone went to the family home, in the lower part of Charbakh next to the Zangou (Hrazdan) River. Toasts, often lasting around five minutes, paid respect to my mother-in-law, her family, everyone’s parents, and other family members who have passed on. Dinner included the traditional khashlama (lamb cooked with potatoes) and various salads, greens, and lavash. Neighbors, friends, and relatives came and went during the day and evening, each saying a toast to the deceased and partaking in the khashlama dinner.

Today ArmNews, a branch of the new station Euronews, presented archival films of Ashough Shahen, who lived and sang in Armenia in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the better known ashoughs, Shahen was born in Moush and was the sole survivor of his family during the 1915 massacres there. Early in life, he sang in Gyumri, known then as Leninakan. Later he moved to Yerevan. Old films showed the great ashough singing one of his own works, accompanied by an ensemble of traditional Armenian instruments, and enthusiastically telling about the importance of speaking the Armenian language. Shahen had quite an interesting appearance, with a high cheekbone and long, flowing white hair. Later, I watched for the first time the movie Yergoonk, which means something like “great pain.” It is a historical movie in two senses — in the movie’s actors, and in the parts they were playing. The movie was set just after the Genocide, with heartrending scenes of survivors gathered together in the northern Armenian province of Lori, with no shelter and little to eat. Khoren Aprahamyan played the part of the Armenian communist leader Miasnikyan, with Azat Gasparyan as the poet Charents, and other well known (such as Sos Sargsyan), or who later became well known, actors playing the parts of Mardiros Saryan, poet Vahan Teryan’s wife, and other famous Armenians of the time. Some great traditional music from early in the century, including the Komitas version of “Kroonk,” gave a flavor to the movie that comes perhaps only once in a generation.

These past two days, I was given a small taste of what it was like in Yerevan during the “bad years” of 1993-1994, as we experienced two days without water due to repairs being made on the water system in the suburb of Ajapnyak. The residents of our apartment building hauled buckets of water from the nearby bakery, which probably sold a huge amount of bread as a result. Our water supply, like most of Yerevan’s, comes twice a day, for about an hour and a half each time. Recently, officials from the water department and government promised a twenty-four-hour water supply, beginning no later than the end of next year. Yet spokesmen from the Italian company that purchased the water system in Yerevan make no such promise. During the past few months, Yerevan residents have been busy installing water meters — partly due to the promise of water around the clock, and partly because it would save them from paying a general fee for water regardless of the amount used. If one didn’t install a meter, and was away from his apartment for a month or a year, he would still be charged a flat rate for water usage. So the people of Yerevan spent an equivalent of about fifty dollars for the meters, fees, and installation — not a small sum, since the average monthly salary remains somewhere around thirty dollars a month.

A recent meeting at the National Academy of Sciences continued the talk of reconstructing the Zvartnots cathedral, built in the seventh century and destroyed by an earthquake and Arab invasions in the eighth-ninth centuries. Apparently the decision has been made to reconstruct Zvartnots, with initial work begun on the foundation. A difficulty arises due to the lack of original stones, unlike at Garni where seventy percent of the original stones remained, making reconstruction easier and the result more like the original. . . . It’s interesting that in a country capable of producing a miracle of world architecture, such as Zvartnots, that now the people have to live with a lack of a normal communication system, made worse by unfulfilled promises by Armentel. Making an everyday phone call here can take several minutes and is often unsuccessful. When one dials a number, many interesting things can happen. For one, when pressing the power button (or lifting the receiver on old phones), there may be no dial tone. So one tries again. The next time, instead of a tone, a false “busy signal” may sound. When a normal tone comes, you dial the number, and there may be silence, forcing you to start the whole process over again. Or you may dial and it connects to a completely different number than you dialed. So you start all over again. Often, after connecting, another conversation can suddenly enter yours. Also, when talking, a common occurence is that the call disconnects, for no apparent reason, so people have to go through the entire process again to continue the conversation. In spite of the lack of any improvement in the phone system here, per minute charges have been installed. Such is communication in Armenia.

Armenian Independence Day has passed with an array of concerts, festivals, and dedications around the city, as well as traditional music and movies on television. After watching an inspiring old film of the Maratouk group singing patriotic songs and part of the movie Mkhitar Sbarapet, I was brought back to reality when a friend called and wished me a happy holiday, and then went on to say that the luckiest Armenians were those living outside Armenia. Although I don’t agree with her, the opinion she expressed is fairly widespread, as the benefits of independence have indeed bypassed a large part of the population. Later this afternoon, I went to the area near the Komitas Conservatory where a festival was taking place, with several stages and booths, and sections for traditional games and lavash baking, where actual tonirs had been dug into the ground. A little more thought could have gone into some of the programming, such as the distastefulness of having clowns and jugglers performing on the base of the statue of Komitas. Expecting at least some traditional music on Independence Day, I was disappointed as dancers performed Latin American dances and singers sang in accents and styles foreign to Armenia, or at least the Armenia I expected to be represented today. After passing through the Vernisage and checking the carpet section and visiting friends, I went home and watched Davit Bek, the story of the eighteenth century hero of Zangezur, who led an independent state for about three years before his untimely death.

My wife’s niece’s birthday celebration took us to the village and monastery of Saghmosavank, located along the Kasakh River gorge just north of Ashtarak. After arriving in the village and greeting our hosts at their home, we went to the monastery. We walked into the gavit and lit candles, and then walked through the two churches of Saghmosavank. In the gavit, I noticed that each of the four huge pillars had a different shape, round or octagonal and with differently shaped notches on the pillars, with the bases also having different shapes. The woman selling candles told me that this feature was common to all Armenian church gavits. Back at the village home, we gathered upstairs in a large room and celebrated the birthday with several toasts and khozi (pork) khorovadz, which included peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes, and two types of bread baked in their tonir oven. Afterwards everyone descended into the typically large garden and sat amongst the fruit trees, the younger set playing cards and the rest talking about politics or cutting and peeling apples for drying. Our host showed us a plot of land for sale, an apple orchard on land that led to the edge of the river gorge, next to a dacha (summer house) in the village of around thirty homes. A couple of us then walked back to the monastery and up a hill to a cemetery, which, to my surprise, had khachkars dating back to the time of the construction of Saghmosavank. The khachkars were unusual in that they had stone around the actual khachkar, starting from the foundation to the top where an arch was formed. The rich style of the khachkars leads one to believe that important church elders or members of a royal family were buried there.

The tenth century monastery of Haghbat is located just north of Alaverdi, not far from the border with Georgia. Yesterday we traveled to Haghbat with friends from Australia and their cousins, going by way of Ashtarak, Aparan, Spitak, and Vanadzor. In Vanadzor, we visited the St. Astvadzadzin church, where Der Ohan, a cousin of our guests, told us the story of the church and took us to see the new diocesan headquarters in Vanadzor. We continued our journey to Haghbat, which reached its glory during the tenth-twelfth century zenith of the nearby Kingdom of Ani. We investigated the churches, chapels, and many khachkars of Haghbat, especially fascinated by a khachkar close to the entrance to an ancient classroom. The famous khachkar, resting high on a stone foundation, has a likeness of the crucified Christ carved into the stone. In the church of St. Nshan, the oldest of Haghbat’s three churches, my wife sang “Havoun, Havoun” to the tav shvi accompaniment of a musician of Shoghaken Folk Ensemble, the music echoing in the magnificient acoustics of Haghbat. After the song, we wandered around the sloping, grassy monastery grounds to the bell tower, which unfortunately was locked due to a recent accident, someone falling from steps high in the tower. From the monastery, located on a plateau, one can see the church of St. Goosanats below to the east, the city of Alaverdi, and the church of Tsevank, on a mountain peak between Alaverdi and Haghbat. We then went to the Vanatun, in Haghbat village, a new church building where priests and guests stay overnight when visiting Haghbat. There, sitting at a table near a vegetable and flower garden, we enjoyed a lunch of eggplants, peppers, and khozi khorovadz. After lunch, I asked Ashot, a staff member of the vanatun, about a khachkar on the grounds. He said it was brought from a collapsing church building a distance from the main monastery grounds, and then explained how to find out the age of the khachkar. He explained that on khachkars carved after the tenth century, letters are carved into the upper part of the khachkar, each letter representing a certain number. The khachkar we were investigating dated back to 1077 AD. After this interesting lesson, my wife and the tav shvi player gave an impromptu concert of Armenian folk songs, some dating back to pagan times, long before the construction of the nearby monastery. An old neighbor lady appeared at the fence between the vanatun and her home, holding a plate of plums for the visitors, thanking the musicians and inviting us to her home. It happened that her husband and son were brewing vodka made from plums and “hon,” a red berry that makes some of the best vodka in Armenia. After tasting the new vodka, taking pictures, and promising to meet again soon, we left for Yerevan.

Singer Chara Dalian was born in 1903, and died in the 1960s. He was an opera singer who sang a classical version of many folk and ashoughagan songs, notably the epic “Mokats Mirza” and “Mi Khosk Oonim” by Sayat Nova.Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, a celebration of speeches and songs was presented at the “Pokr Talij” (small auditorium) on Abovian Street near the square in the center of Yerevan. The evening began with an introduction by Araxie Saryan, granddaughter of painter Mardiros Saryan, who told some of the musical history of the great singer. It happens that Dalian was the first singer of Saro in Anoush Opera, performed in the presence of Armen Tigranyan, who composed the music to Anoush. Tigranyan, after listening to the opera, told Dalian, “I wrote the music, which you have given life with your voice.” Dalian was also the founder of the Sayat Nova Ashoughagan Ensemble, which was later led by the well-known Vagharshak Sahakyan. After Araxie Saryan’s speech, several singers performed songs that Dalian was noted for during his long career. Following the concert, we went to a friend’s birthday party at the Hygagan Khohanots Restaurant on Mashtots Boulevard, where, after dinner, toasts, and dancing, my wife sang songs by Sayat Nova requested by those attending the party.

A golden autumn has settled in Yerevan, with mild, sunny days and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in the markets or most anywhere one looks. Today the Vernisage was nearly impassable, tourists and local Armenians admiring or buying the seemingly limitless array of goods. Human nature being what it is, our friends from Australia were about to buy a small carpet when the seller said something about them being from another country and therefore rich, resulting in a lost sale. It was a strange occurence, being our friends spoke on television yesterday morning of the unfortunate belief many have here that anyone who visits Armenia is rich, and therefore can afford to be charged any price the seller likes. As our guests said on the National Television talk show, it would be nice if Armenians would stop being in competition with each other, as to where one is born, who is richer, which old political party is better than the other, etc. After wishing them a happy journey and deciding to go to Moush on their next visit here, my wife and I went home and ate harissa, left over from a dinner/pie-making party the night before. On television, I was shocked to see a singer who had changed her appearance so much that I didn’t recognize her from who I remembered from the past, which was just two years ago. Back then, the young singer, who has quite a fine voice, sang with such ease that I thought she was guaranteed future success. In two years’ time, instead of working on her voice and her future, she had changed her look and her singing style to the point both she and her voice, now strained and unnatural, were unrecognizable. A shame that in this modern world many choose such a path, to an immediate “success” and a future that is, at the very least, questionable.

Today I was told that the large increase in home prices in Yerevan was a hoax. Supposedly, money was given to several of the large real estate companies to buy homes while they were still cheap, and later to raise the prices artificially, and to resell the homes at a far higher price than they paid. This profit was to be split between the real estate people and whoever gave them the money in the first place. I don’t believe this. It is clear that many Armenians from Russia are buying homes for the purpose of retiring or returning to Armenia to work, and that Armenians from the U.S. or elsewhere are doing the same to have a home in Armenia to live in, spend vacation time in, etc. The price, therefore, is rising due to need, not otherwise. The sad part is that people here have such little faith in the system that they believe such a rumor, in spite of current news about the government taking away Armentel’s right of monopoly over cell phones and Internet service, the effort led by Justice Minister Davit Harutyunyan. Apparently time is needed for the government to regain the faith of the people.
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