May 162014
 

I arrived at 9:30 last night April 29th, 2014 after leaving San Francisco at 3:00 April 28th.  Flights like that make one know that people circumnavigating the world before the age of jets must have been a very special breed of human.

I woke to this view of the Caspian Sea.

Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, AzerbaijanThe day began with a walk down Baku Boulevard, also known as National Park.  It is a promenade established in 1909 and runs parallel to the waterfront. Its history goes back more than 100 years, to a time when Baku oil barons built their mansions along the Caspian shore.

Baku, Azerbaijan

 This is a parachute tower, (yes we thought it was an oil derrick too) built in 1936 and used for “extreme activities”  However, the tower was turned into a weather forecast station after a fatal accident in the 1960s, which led to the ultimate ban of parachuting from the tower. To this day, the tower is considered one of the landmarks of the boulevard, and at night is lit with the time and the date.
*Parachute Tower, Baku
Baku, Azerbaijan

The Cleanliness of Baku is one of the first things you notice 

As early as the 15th century, Baku was an important international trading center for merchants traveling between the East and Europe. Caravans of camels and merchant ships transported oil, salt, plant dyes and saffron. In the 19th century, the rapid growth of the oil industry caused a total modernization. By the turn of the 20th century, Baku was one of the biggest industrial cities of the world, and today it is the largest city in Azerbaijan.


In fact the oil wells drilled in 1846 at Bibiheybat in the Baku region were the first mechanically-drilled oil wells in the world, an important technical innovation. It is worth pointing out that the USA, the world’s first oil producer, started using this mechanical-drilling method 13 years after Baku.

We know we are going to visit the important sites of the old town of Baku in the next few days so we thought we would take the opportunity to just wander. It was odd, we felt we had walked into a ghost town. The old town is walled, and yet we saw no people to speak of. It was obviously inhabited, and along the outside walls there are people, but deep in the interior we found no one.

Baku, AzerbaijanI did find lots of great public art however.  This is a stack of  Armudu, Azerbaijan tea cups called the Twelve Beauties.

Baku, AzerbaijanThe Inner Walled City is one of the few surviving medieval towns in Azerbaijan. It retains the characteristic features of a medieval town, such as the labyrinth of narrow streets, congested buildings and tiny courtyards. The walls of the old town, which still survive on the western and northern sides, were built by Menutsshochr Shah in the 12th century and were repaired in the 19th century. In fact there is much repair on the walls  and archaeological exploration within the old town itself still occurring. The narrow streets are lined with houses dating from the late 18th century onwards.

Baku, AzerbaijanWe had been told by the concierge to go to one of the three restaurants that bake the Azerbaijan bread as you order it, so that was our morning snack with tea.

Baku, Azerbaijan

My friends Lolly and Gary with the Bread Oven

Azerbaijani Bread MakingNotice how HUGE the loaves of bread are, I am pretty sure we left at least 1/3 of our loaf behind.  Oh, and by the way it was 1 Manat which is equal to about $1.28
Break Making in Azerbaijan

 Bread making at another restaurant down the street.

AzerbaijanWe have no idea why these three sheep were lazing in this little alcove, but we thought them rather cute.  Possibly tonight’s dinner?

Baku, AzerbaijanAzerbaijan is truly where East meets Europe and where Russia intruded itself for a while.  The architecture just makes your jaw drop.  There will be European Palaces built for the original oil barons, and then Persian Architecture, and then a Russian style housing project left from the 1960’s.  However, the new economy is attracting a new and highly modern type of architecture, that actually works.  Some of the modern structures are a tad flashy, but many are a lovely addition to the skyline. 

Baku, Azerbaijan

 These are the “Flame Towers”, which have turned into the symbol of modern Baku. The three buildings, were designed by HOK in 2012. The one on the left is a hotel and the other two serve as business centers. They are 620 feet tall and their shape was inspired by the city’s history of Zoroastrian fire worshipping and its ongoing connection to the natural gas industry. The three buildings are a continually changing light show at night, which is attractive, not garish.
A few shots from our wanderings: 

Baku, Azerbaijan*
Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, Azerbaijan*

Baku, Azerbaijan

A few last thoughts. The people here and their language are called Azeri. 

Baku is located in the state of Shirvan, which existed from the 9th century CE until 1538, when it was annexed by Safavid Iran. In 1585 the town was captured by the Ottoman Sultan Murat III, and in 1723 it was occupied by the Russian General Matushkin, when it was destroyed by fire. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, and gained independence in 1991.  I think that pretty much explains its eclectic architecture and fabulous food.
 
I am off for a hammam at the Four Seasons,  followed by what I know will be a fabulous dinner somewhere along Baku Boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea and watching the sun go down.
 
May 152014
 
We began the day at the Fountains Square,  a public square in downtown Baku.  The name derives from the presence of dozens of fountains throughout the square first constructed during Soviet rule of Azerbaijan.  The square was completely renovated in 2010.

Fountain Square, Baku*Fountain Square, Baku

I instantly fell in love with this carousel, and yes that is an octopus occupying the top of the ticket booth.

*Fountain Square Baku*Fountain Square, Baku
We then meandered over to the Funicular that runs from a square on Neftchilar Avenue to Martyrs’ Lane.   It was originally opened in 1960, but closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It was reopened again in 2001 and then went through a major renovation in 2012.  The views from the top are spectacular. 
 
Top of the Funicular in Baku
 
We then spent the afternoon walking around the The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center which was designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid  and named for Heydar Aliyev, the leader of Soviet-era Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982, and president of Azerbaijan from October 1993 to October 2003.

Baku

According to the architect’s website: As part of the former Soviet Union, the urbanism and architecture of Baku was heavily influenced by the planning of that era.  Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in modernizing and developing Baku’s infrastructure and architecture, departing from its legacy of normative Soviet Modernism.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

Zaha Hadid Architects was appointed as design architects of the Heydar Aliyev Center following a competition in 2007.  The Center, designed to become the primary building for the nation’s cultural programs, breaks from the rigid and often monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku, aspiring instead to express the sensibilities of Azeri culture and the optimism of a nation that looks to the future.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center*The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

The building is surrounded with wonderful outdoor sculpture and is truly an experience to behold.
 




 
A little bit about the art scene here.  Art is everywhere, and everything is artistic.  However, we visited the Modern Art Museum and while there was good art in it, it was not what I would consider museum quality.
 
That is not a criticism.  I can not imagine what it must have been like to have been an artist under Soviet domination.  It is exciting to see that it has so much potential and feels to me like it is a coil ready to spring and bring forth an amazing amount of energy and new things. 


We have sadly moved hotels, and join our group tomorrow.  The new hotel leaves a lot to be desired.  The one thing that is especially going to be difficult to deal with is the smoking situation.   This is a part of the world that still has a heavy smoking culture.  The rooms and restaurants are difficult to inhabit, and I am sure my clothing will all have to go to the cleaners when I return.

Funny how we have forgotten how badly that can be. 
May 142014
 

When taking the funicular yesterday we ended up at Martyr’s row.  Like so many city’s around the world have, this is an area of war memorials.  I waited until today to go into them as there is so much history tied up in this tiny area of grave sites and memorials.

At the top is this mosque.  It represents the loaded political scene of the Caucusus region.

CAUTION: – Complicated History Lesson is about to Ensue.

I am going to start with including an older map I found, I had to add a bit to it, so I hope it helps in understanding this region without confusing too much

The map was drawn up in 1991-1992 by the Rand Corporation


This entire site above the funicular was originally a muslim cemetery with victims of the 1918 Russian Civil war.  It was completely destroyed and the corpses removed when the Bolsheviks came to power.  They then created an amusement park in the area.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the amusement park was removed and the area again became a burial site for national heroes.  

War Memorials Baku


This tower is the Baku Turkish Martyr’s Memorial dedicated to Ottomon soldiers killed during WWI in Azerbaijan. Along the tower is an alley of name plates.  1,130 Turksh solders were killed in the Battle of Baku in 1918. (For those that want to truly delve into your history it was the Azerbaijani forces and the Army of Islam against the Bolsheviks-Armenian Dashnaks and Baku Soviets)

War Memorials Baku

The monument was designed by Turkish architects Hüseyin Bütüner and Hilmi Güner.  The mosque was built by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs and opened in 1996.  It was dedicated in 1999 with both the Turkish and Azerbaijani Presidents of the time.

In April 2009 the mosque was closed down by the Azerbaijani authorities.



Bear with me as we are continuing with the conflicts in politics here:

 This area  is the site of the men who died in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, an armed conflict that took place from February 1988 to May 1994, in the small enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by the Republic of Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan.  The Nagorno-Karabakh region is still contested today.

War Memorials Baku

The eternal flame and the graves that line the right hand side of this walkway are from Black Saturday, also known as Black January or the January Massacre. 

Essentially during the breakdown of the Soviet Union there was a flaring up of the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict.  


On January 19th 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku. The troops attacked protesters, firing into crowds.  The shooting continued for three days.  On January 22nd almost the entire population of Baku turned out to bury the dead and the country stayed in mourning for another 40 days, by staying away from work.

According to one report, 93 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviet soldiers were killed in the street skirmishes. Other reports state that 21 soldiers were killed and 90 wounded in the fighting, however these numbers are highly disputed.

War Memorials BakuThere is one more memorial on the hill.

War Memorial Baku

This memorial to British troops killed during WWI is also not without controversy.  The British were sent to prevent the Turkish invasion which most Azeris supported.

In total it is estimated there are about 15,000 people buried here on Martyrs’ Lane.

This small area on the top of a hill in Baku is a prime example of how difficult it is to understand so much of the world we live in.  Baku is a melting pot of history and invasion, and this little area is an amazing reminder of all of that.

 
We did so very, very, very much more today, and I will eventually write about that.  However it is late so I will finish up with this wonderful piece of art work.
 
 
This is Aliagha Vahid he was an Azerbaijani poet and Honoured Artist of the Azerbaijan SSR (1943). He was known for reintroducing medieval ghazel style in Soviet Azerbaijani poetry.  A ghazel is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain with each line sharing the same meter. 
 


 It is a very detailed sculpture, and all of the items have meanings, but I am unclear on most of it. The tree trunk is apparently an oak to symbolize age and strength.  The back of his head has the scholars over the years that he has influenced and that influenced him.  However, the meaning of the others are not quite so clear.  None-the-less it is a massive, and yet really well crafted sculpture.
 


 
 
 
 
 

 

May 132014
 
Flag of Azerbaijan
 I feel like I have just stepped up to the water fountain and haven’t even had a chance to reach for a glass in the cupboard and we are leaving.

The name Azerbaijan is Persian and means “protect(or) of Fire”, which is said to have a direct link with Zoroastrianism.

Eternal Fire in Azerbaijan

 
But lets begin with our visit to Yanar Dag.  The flames emanate from vents in sandstone formations, and are the result of steady gas emissions from underlying soils. Even on the surface of streams near Yanar Dag, fire can be ignited with a match. These streams are known as Yanar Bulaq – “burning springs”. 
 
These burning springs and rocks are mentioned by Alexandre Dumas, during one of his visits to the area. Only a handful of fire mountains exist today in the world, and most are located in Azerbaijan. Due to the large concentration of natural gas under the Absheron Peninsula, natural flames burned there throughout antiquity and were reported on by Marco Polo.
 
While I know that the above photograph looks like every fireplace in California, imagine how magical it was in the 13th century.
 

Zorastrian Temple Baku

This is Atesgah, a Zorastrian Fire Temple.   Some scientists believe that the temple was built between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first building of the reconstructed temple dates from 1713 and later other buildings were added in the 18th century and served as cells for monks, chapels and a caravanserai, as well as a hospital and a sanctuary.

Remember, Azerbaijan “protect(or) of Fire”, which is said to have a direct link with Zoroastrianism.
 
Zoroastrianism  is an ancient Iranian religion and a religious philosophy. It is estimated that the current number of Zoroastrians worldwide varies between 145,000 and 2.6 million. Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan goes back to the first millennium BC or earlier.
The last worshiper left Ateshgah in 1887 and the complex fell into neglect throughout the final years of Russian Tsarism and the Soviet era. The temple was restored in 1975 and opened as a museum.  In 2009 and 2011 a further restoration took place and resulted in what you see today.
As someone who spent years in restoration, I despise this type of reconstruction as you are unable to tell what is old and what is new, and you walk away with the look of Disneyland.  So here are some photos  showing what it looked like in an earlier century.  I will grant you, not much different, but the new one is a tad too polished for my liking.
 We took a trip out to Mardakan Castle. Mardakan is one of the oldest villages of the Absheron peninsula. It is named after a tribe called the Mards who lived in the area during the 1st century AD.

Mardakan Castle, Baku

While it is a lovely castle, I believe what I took away more from it is how it really is an oil country.  This is what you find as you start to leave Baku.  I know that there is the sophisticated drilling that we associate with the oil industry occurring all over Azerbaijan today, but these wells are on some of the very first oil fields discovered and are still running, and also showing how destructive to the environment this type of drilling is.

Oil fields of Azerbaijan *Oil fields of Azerbaijan

This goes on for miles and miles and miles.

We also visited Ramana Fortress, parts of which have been standing guard over this coastline since before Tamerlane invaded Azerbaijan in 1380.  But what was the coolest thing was this old man.  He takes care of the castle for free out of his love for the history of his region.  He invited us to walk the battlements and it was scary but a heck of a lot of fun!

The last of our trip consisted of a trip out to the petroglyphs of Gobustan,
Caesar never actually visited the petroglyphs as far as I know, but the Caspian Sea rises and falls throughout the millenia and at one time the sea was much farther inland.  So Caesar made sure that the world knew he had been here.
Caesar was here

“The time of Emperor Domitianus Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Lucius Julius Maxim, Centurion XII of the Lightning Legion”

We had a delightful surprise visit to the home of the Nobel family, known to the entire world because of the one brother Alfred, that created the Nobel Prize after a successful run in the chemical business.  However, in Azerbaijan the other two brothers Robert and Ludwig, are better known for being some of the richest oil barons of Baku. 

Nobel Family Home Azerbaijan

 So…some wrap up thoughts about Azerbaijan.  The country is secular, but predominately Muslim.  Having said that, you would not know that.  There are no mosques (with the exception of a few of historical significance) and no call to prayer.  Alcohol is served, and there were pork sausage at morning breakfast.
We ran into so many people that truly did not know why we were there visiting their country.  It is difficult to get a visa to the country; while you can apply on-line it takes over a month, which requires some serious planning.
 The Azerbaijan Manat is essentially equal to the Euro so it is not cheap, and you do not come to sit by the beach.  However, the people are friendly and their history is rich.  Sadly, thanks to a soviet influence service is still indifferent and sometimes surly.

Statue outside a restaurant along the Caspian Sea

Azerbaijan is heading down the path of  Dubai with a new island being developed with 12 palm leaves for high-end homes restaurants hotels and shopping. 
 
Azerbaijan

The Entryway to this new man made Island This photo was taken out of the bus, hence the big blue dot.

Their GDP is higher than the other two countries (Georgia and Armenia) of the Caucasus because they are the one country rich with oil and natural gas.  Their education levels are high, and their number one friendship in the world right now is with the US, followed closely with the EU and Israel.  Cultural and educational exchanges are occurring regularly now that they are independent and we even ran into three U.S. Army men in our hotel this morning here to help with training exercises as the Azerbaijani work to be accepted into NATO.  Something that will happen when hell freezes over as long as Russia is part of the UN.  All three countries, however, are doing what they can to become part of the EU.

Baku Carpet Museum

The new Carpet Museum
 Azerbaijan had a classic oil economy prior to WWI and then the Soviets took over turning it into one of its republics.  In the 20 some years since its independence the country has taken those petrol dollars and done amazing things.

Baku, Azerbaijan

They have poured them back into the economy and at least the city of Baku is as modern day a city as one can imagine.  At the same time they must pour dollars into a military establishment to keep up a front against Armenia. 
 
Historic Maiden Tower.  No one really knows what it is for but it dates from the 12 Century
They have hosted a European World Song Fest which I am told is huge, and they are getting ready to host the European Games in 2015.  I will be anxious to see if they attempt in the future, to develop an economy outside of oil.

Main Boulevard of Baku

 I am an avid reader, and try very hard to read as much as I can regarding a country before going.  There was not much to get my hands on that I felt wasn’t also difficult to wade through.  Prior to leaving on this trip I read The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King,  is a wonderfully informative book, but as I said a tad thick to get through.  Upon my return I read The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, while only the first few chapters are about Azerbaijan in particular, the book is an absolutely fascinating read and well worth picking up.

May 122014
 
Tblisi is the capital and the largest city of Georgia.  The Mtkvari River runs through the middle of it and it has a population of roughly 1.5 million people. Tblisi was founded in the 5th century by the monarch of Georgia’s ancient precursor Kingdom of Iberia, and has served, with various intervals, as Georgia’s capital for more than a thousand years. 
Tbilisi is diverse culturally, ethnically, and religiously, though it is overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox Christian.
Our accompanying professor calls it the home of a million churches and a million hammams.
 
Hammams, (Turkish Baths) in the oldest part of town
According to old legend, the present-day territory of Tbilisi was covered by forests as late as 458. One day King Vakhtang I Gorgasali of Georgia went hunting in the region with a falcon. The King’s falcon allegedly caught a pheasant during the hunt, after which both birds fell into a nearby hot spring and died. King Vakhtang became so impressed with the hot springs that he decided to cut down the forest and build a city on the location. The name  ‘Tbilisi’ means warm location. 
This hawk statue is just to the right of the baths above and is truly one of the most beautiful sculptures I have seen, sadly the light at the time of day we were there was very poor and you need to walk all around it to really appreciate it.
 
Tblisi’s great location meant that the King wasn’t meant to stay in power for long.  From 570–580, the Persians took over Tbilisi and ruled it for about a decade. In the year 627, Tbilisi was then sacked by the Byzantine/Khazar armies and later, in 736–738, Arab armies. The Arab domination of Tbilisi continued until about 1050. In 1068, the city was once again sacked, only this time by the Turks.
 
In 1122,  King of Georgia David the Builder entered Tbilisi.  He drove out the turks and inaugurated Georgia’s Golden Age from the 12-13th centuries.  Then you have the Mongols, the Persians and of course, the Russians.
Georgia gained independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union.  They have internal problems and strife with Ossetia, but they get along just fine with the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis.
The country does not have the wealth of Azerbaijan.  Their primary income is from their expatriate community sending money back home.  Their largest expat community is in Russia.   They suffered horribly during the 1990’s and are still suffering.  Many museums are closed due to lack of funds, and according to our accompanying professor, fields such as archeology just don’t have the funding to be supported in a manner that should be, to keep them up with international standards.
 
The photo above shows the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi it is the main Cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It was constructed between 1995 and 2004, it is the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world.   In front of that the building with the blue (glass) dome is the presidents home, and the two ultra-modern buildings, still under construction will be an art gallery, and I am not quite sure what else.
 

Tblisi

Looking down into town, from the feet of Mother Georgia.

Tblisi

This is the headquarters of the Bank of Georgia. Designed by architect George Chakhava, parts are lifted off the ground so nature can grow beneath.Its structure resembles Russian constructivists from the 1920’s but has a bit of Brutalism thrown in for fun.  I just love it, but I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Tblisi

 

Tblisi

I don’t know if this was or was not a real Starbucks, but this was an authentic old horse-drawn tram car.
This is a Tamada, or Georgian Toastmaster.  Georgians like to say that the tamada is dictator of the table, but it would be more appropriate to compare him to a leader or even a teacher. Tamada ought to be eloquent, intelligent, smart, sharp−witted and quick−thinking, with a good sense of humor because very often some of the guests might try to compete with him on the toast making.   This particular guy is modeled on an old Colchian statue. (6th to 1st century BC)
 

Tblisi

We have, and most likely will visit many old churches along the way. Above is the dome of Sioni cathedral which shelters the Cross of St. Nino the woman that brought Christianity to Georgia.
The cross on the top of 13th century Metekhi Church of the Virgin, this church was built on the site of David the Builders former palace.
There are approximately 2500 jews in Tblisi happy to show off their beautiful synagogues.
And finally Mother Georgia herself, in all her Soviet Constructivist glory.
May 112014
 
DSC_0012We headed out of town to Dmanisi.  Dmanisi is a medieval town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Road caravans used to pass.  Early human fossils, originally named Homo georgicus and now considered Homo erectus georgicus, were found at Dmanisi between 1991 and 2005. At 1.8 million years old, they represent the earliest known human presence in the Caucasus, and the oldest outside of Africa.
Georgia CaucususThe country side is truly gorgeous, and a picnic on the grounds was a welcome change.
Georgian Countryside old Church ruins
*
grave markersWe then meandered down to Bolnisi, long the seat of a bishop or archbishop, and the home of the oldest dated Christian structure in Georgia. It is known as Bolnisi Sioni (Sioni being Georgian for Zion and a designation used by many of their churches). This three-nave basilica church dates to the 5th century AD and features some pagan elements in its stonework. The original roof is missing but has been replaced with a modern covering.
A dedication inscription from the Bolnisi church, carved in the late 5th century, is one of the oldest dated specimens of Georgian writing. It mentions Bishop David of Bolnisi and two Sassanid kings Peroz I and Kavadh I.
Sadly, whoever had the key, failed to show up, so we were unable to get inside.
Bolnisi GeorgiaWe ended the day with a visit to a five female art co-operative that does batik and silk painting.  Of course, I was in heaven.  Delightful studio space in an old home, and two really beautiful working women to show us around. The studio is called La Maisono Bleue and is at 94 Barnov in Tblisi.
Hand painted fabric
Georgia is radically different that Azerbaijan in so many ways.  Their economy is so much more depressed, so there isn’t the extra money to throw at cleaning the streets and environment.  Things don’t quite get done, ala, the key to the church, and yet the Georgians are a proud and wonderful people.  They love their country, that is so obvious, they love their history, you can tell by the guides in the museums (those that are open), I hope that their economy can find a way to help them realize their potential.
May 112014
 

We began our day heading straight out of Tblisi to Kutaisi.  Today was an entire day of archaeological sites, and a very, very long day in the bus, so not too many photographs.

CaucasusThis is an archaeological group and our visiting professor is Gocha Tsetskhladze, who is Georgian, studied at Oxford, was there during the breakup of the Soviet Union, thus becoming stateless and now teaches in Melbourne.

He has explained how difficult it is to be an archaeologist in Georgia, and why the sad state of the sites we visited.
Archaeology under the Soviet rule was a fairly good field. There was money for museums, which meant there was money for digs. After the breakup of the Soviet Union there was no money at all. Gocha told a story of how during the 1990’s to about 2006 it was so difficult that one of his colleagues that still lived in Georgia built a cage on the window of his apartment to raise chickens just so his children would have food.  He simply stated that there is no way to say how awful it was.  There was no food, no heat, and no jobs.  It is still difficult for anyone over the age of 40 as they were so accustomed to the government providing all, and of course that is just not the case now.
With this situation archaeology has been put on the back burner.  Yes, there are quite a lot of outside countries that are dying to come in and help, but the government here will not allow anyone to dig without a supervising Georgian archaeologists, and of course, most of them have moved out of the country.  There is also the classic higher educational silliness.  In other words, they don’t want other countries to come in because the Georgians want to be able to own all publications that result from any knowledge gained during any dig that occurs.

Archeology in the Caucasus

There was a short period where there was some expeditions occurring and that is where the three sites we visited began.  Sadly, once these sites were opened they were robbed, so much of the more important sites have literally been covered over with dirt to protect them.
The first site we saw was prepared for tourists with signage, however the others were not. It appears to me that there is hope that this can become one way of  obtaining financing.
Caucasus The other form of archaeology they have here is Pipeline Archeology.  When the pipeline was dug between the oil producing country of Azerbaijan through Georgia the oil company was given 5 meters on both sides of the pipeline to dig.  The archaeologists were right there with them.  They found thousands upon thousand of items.  The down side of this was that it showed them how rich a site it was, but they couldn’t dig further than the 10 meters in width.  While anyone can understand the frustration, I would assume that the lack of dollars to do a decent dig would have put an end to the entire venture anyway.  They did however publish three volumes regarding what they found.
Mtshkheta was our first stop for the day.  Our first site was Bagineti and our guide was a delightful Georgian girl that was a George Soros scholar from UC Berkeley.    Mtshketa was the capital of the Eastern Georgian Capital of Iberia from the 3rd to the 5thcentury BC. 
 
 
I will digress for a moment here.  The use of the name Iberia can be confusing.  The name comes from the same Iberia of Spain.  It is not known if people started in Georgia and migrated to Spain with the name, or vice versa.
We visited a church, of course.  This is Jvari, one of the first Christian churches in Georgia.  Georgia’s conversion to Christianity took place in the Mtshkehta area in 337 AD, and the Orthodox churches built during this period are considered among the finest in the country.
*

Caucasus

We then visited the Samtavro Valley Site cemetery.  An amazingly old and diverse cemetery. The languages they found consisted of (amongst others) Georgian, Greek, Roman and  Aramaic, showing there was a large Jewish population at the time. There are more than 4000 graves in this area and they date from the 8th century BC to the 8th century AD

Samtavro Valley

*Samtavro Valley
There are may graves here, this is an example of where they pushed soil
back over the site to prevent looting
Our third site was Dzalisi.  First thing that you come across in the excavation is the Kings (from the Karlti Kingdom also known as Iberia)  olympic sized pool dating from the Roman time.  Then the Roman-style baths, where the most concentrated effort is taking place, with the first mosaic that I have seen since we arrived in the Caucusus. 

Dzalisi

*

Dzalisi

We are spending the night in a little “B&B” type spot.  It is actually an expanded home of a woman known as Lali.  The accommodations are sparse but the homemade wine is good. (or at least it is after an entire carafe).  We are in the second largest city in Georgia, and yet it is so impoverished that there is no hotel for tourists.  The locals have made up for it by turning their homes into these little guesthouses and hostels, serving homemade food and homemade wine with monk size rooms and boat style bathrooms.  At this point our group is so cohesive it has turned into a wonderful adventure and a whole heck of a lot of fun, and they obviously have wifi!
 
May 102014
 

After an interesting night at Lali’s Guesthouse our first stop was just down the road at Bagrati Cathedral.

Bagrati Cathedral is an interesting study in the rights, wrongs, ups, downs and political meddling’s of historic restoration.
Bagrati was/is one of the finest examples of the domed-church architectural style of the medieval period.  The church was constructed at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century. It was devastated in an explosion during war with the Turks in the 17th century. The explosion caused the cupola and ceiling to collapse, the church continued to fall into complete ruin through the ages.
It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 along with the other site we visited today the Gelati Monastery.
However, due to the extreme reconstruction Bagrati was removed from the World Heritage List in June of 2013. 
The restoration was headed by Italian architect Andrea Bruno.  This was a project, personally pushed by President Mikheil Saakashvill, despite criticism from many different parties and absolutely no input from UNESCO.
Most everyone complains about the use of glass and steel, my attitude is this restoration should never have taken place.  The church should have simply been left in ruin.  However, if you are going to restore the building then do it in a way that you are absolutely sure where the old leaves off and the new begins. 

The Gelati Monastery was founded by King David the Builder in 1106.  This architectural complex housed Georgia’s first academy as well as the monastery.

The grave of David the Builder
The Monastery is known for its tile mosaics and frescoes.  They were suffering from neglect and thanks to a donation by the American Ambassador to Georgia a restoration program has begun.  I do not believe that the US has donated enough money to do the whole job, but at least the damage has slowed and repair has begun.

Our last stop was the Vani archaeological site that began in 1947, but sadly sits idle today for lack of funds.  The digging that has taken place has revealed thousands upon thousands of artifacts, many of which were of gold. 
 Gocha showing us the striations of the dig
Some of the larger items in the curator’s office
We were given a tour of the storehouse of items that were dug up prior to the closing of the dig.

We had a rather rainy day, and are spending the next two nights in the alpine village of Bakuriani.  This was a favored ski resort during the Soviet times and training area for the Soviet team.  It is also the site one of the Russian Children’s Pioneer Camps and sits amidst a 100-year-old fir forest.  Truth is, it is an odd place.  It is somewhat of a ghost town.  Many of the homes have been abandoned.  Starting in 2000 people have started to come back, and hotels are creeping in, but it has an odd feel to it.  A little like going to a ski resort in the summer that has no summer season.

A roadside pottery shop typical of the area, reminded us all of Tijuana.

May 092014
 

Today was a fascinating day.  Not just for what we saw but how long it took for us to get to where we were going.  We were approximately 3 hours away from our destination.  What this says is there are literally no places to stay in Georgia.  The hotel we are staying at in the ski resort is as close a hotel as we could get to the part of Georgia we were visiting.   There just aren’t hotels that are acceptable for the average American.

 

This says so much about the situation in this country.  I am not knocking it, it is just an interesting observation about their economy.

 

We traveled all of this way to visit Vardzia. Vardzia is the site of the most famous cave-city in Georgia, which, largely because of its connections with Queen Tamar, is a place of almost mythic importance for most Georgians.  It was in a closed border zone throughout the Soviet period, making it even more mythical than it might have actually been.  It is said that its name derives from Ak Var Dzia or “Here I am, uncle” Tamar’s call when lost in the caves.

First established by King George III in 1156 and consecrated in 1185, his daughter Tamar made it into a monastery, which became the chief seminary of southwestern Georgia housing 2,000 monks until an earthquake ruined it in 1283, slicing away a large portion of the rock face.  Another quake in 1456 was followed by a Persian army in the mid 1500’s and the Turks at the end of the century so that now around 600 chambers survive from a total of 3,000.  These originally included stables, barracks, bakeries wine presses and stores.

The area still has a working monastery and chapel and exquisite frescoes outside of the chapel.

Only about one half of the original 13 levels remain that penetrated 54 yards in to the cliffs.  The area has been protected since 1938.  Heavy rain in 1998, caused a large section of cliff to collapse and the Dutch and US governments quickly came to the aid with money for repairs.  It is said that Egyptian vultures nesting in the caves are making the management even more complex.

Our drive was through interesting countryside.  I think it best to just post a few photographs and let everyone take from them what they would.

Both this house and this apartment complex were typical of what we saw in most every town.

We stopped to take pictures of the castle, and probably had more fun teasing each other on this old rickety bridge.

 

May 072014
 
Uplistsikhe Cave Town, “Lord’s Fortress”, is one of three cave towns in Georgia. We saw the first one, Vardzia, yesterday and we will see the third tomorrow. 
 
 
Uplistsikhe was founded in the Bronze Age around 1000 BC and was inhabited until the 13th century AD.  Between the 6th century BC and the 11th century AD Uplistshke was one of the most important political and religious centers of pre-Christian Georgia.
Prior to the country becoming fully Christianized, some of the caves were used to celebrate pagan ceremonies thought to be related to the sun goddess, but there is no actual proof of this fact. 
The cities largest period of glory was after the Arab conquest, in the 8th and 9th century, when the town grew to about 20,000 people and it evolved into an important caravan trading post.  The city was almost completely destroyed by the Mongol conquest in the 13th century that led to the abandonment of the town.   An earthquake in 1920 did severe damage to the cave structures, so photos do not represent the actual size of the original settlement.
The View from the caves overlooking a 17th century settlement
During the glory period it was a part of the Silk Road.  The silk road began in Xian in China and travelled many, many routes, the main being through Kashgar, Merv, Aleppo, Syria and on to Turkey.  Someplace between Aleppo, Syria and Turkey the routes took off and headed through the Caucasus, and eventually all roads ended in Road.  The Silk Road, known as the Horse Road to the Chinese, wasn’t just a road for goods, it was also a road for the movement of science and ideas, in fact, Buddhism spread this way.
A little diversion here, the reason the Chinese called it the Horse Road is because they could not breed horses due to a calcium deficiency in China.  They desperately needed horses to beat back invaders, so they set out on what we call the Southern Silk road trading tea for horses.
Our second stop was one that we requested, and that was the “Soviet” Museum better known as the Stalin Museum.  Stalin was born in the town of Gori in Georgia.  He lived in a one room home until he was four years old when he moved to Tblisi.  He studied the seminary in Tblisi, but upon discovering Marx he left to become the Stalin that history knows.
At some time his boyhood house was essentially cased in marble for protection, and then the museum was built behind it in 1953 after his death.
I have absolutely no desire to go into Stalinism, but the question has arisen how the Georgians feel about Stalin.  Essentially they are not fond of him.  The older generation, especially men that served in the war still respect him, but those are dying out.  I saw this little demonstration taking place in the square as we drove by.  I have no idea what the situation was, but there have been people making a point for millennium, and will continue for millennium.
 We drove past the refugee camps of the Russo-Georgian war also known as the 2008 South Ossetia War, the Five Day War or the August War.  It was an armed conflict between Georgia and Russian South Ossetian separatists regarding the Ossetia area, which is part of Georgia.  The only people that recognize Ossetia are the Nicaraguans, the Venezuelans and the Russians.  The conflict remains today.  I bring this up only because I discussed the divisions occurring in Azerbaijan, and want you to know that there are conflicts here in Georgia as well.
 These are pretty blurry as we were on the freeway
Our last stop was Svetitskhoveli (living pillar) Cathedral.  This was the holiest of churches in Georgia, until the Holy Trinity Church in Tblisi was built, replacing it as the number one church for Georgia.  This the third church built on this site, this particular one was built in the 11thcentury.
We happened upon a wonderful ceremony regarding the icon of the Virgin of Iberia.  These icons travel around, and this particular one was in the United States just two days ago.  It will travel to all the major churches in Georgia before heading back to the U.S.
Another slight diversion.  The church cross in Georgia has drooping arms.  This is because St. Nino made the first cross out of grapevines, and they are not straight.
 Some walking around shots:
The town where the church is, is fast becoming a place for tourists so money is being poured in and the town feels more like Disneyland.  These were on someones gate.

 

Nuts are poured into the wine lees and then starch is added to make “candy”.  It is horrible!

 

These dumplings, on the other hand are wonderful.  These are some knitted ones out of the local felt.

 

Georgian Grappa

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 072014
 

Today we had a 2 and 1/2 hour drive  out of Tblisi. Our destination was the David Gareja Monastery complex.

 

There are a few things about this drive.  We are heading south east towards the Azerbaijan border. This is classic steppe country, a semi arid desert, that is essentially just wide open country, no trees, and grass for as far as the eye can see.  It is time to move the grazing animals up to the high country, so we had so much fun hoping off the bus and taking pictures of the cowboys herding the sheep, cows, goats and whatever other animals went along for the ride.
 The David Gareja Monastery Complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hallowed out of the rock face.  The complex consists of 15-20 monasteries depending on what book you are reading, and the countryside they sit on is vast, but I could not find an idea of acreage.
These caves were carved out differently that the other two we saw.  Here they would heat the sandstone and pour water on it to break off the cave walls in chunks.
The complex was founded in the 6th century by St. David Garejeli one of thirteen Assyrian monks who arrived in the country to spread the gospel.  David had two disciples Dodo and Luciane, and the three of them left Tblisi to find a more aesthetic life.  They headed east towards the holy land and made their final stop here.  Eventually the word spread and the area became a pilgrimage area. 
 
 
From the 11th to the 13th century the cultural development of this area reached its highest phase, with frescoes that became part of the world’s treasures.
Upon the downfall of the Georgian monarch the monastery suffered a period of decline and then devastation by the Mongol army in 1265.  The monastery was restored and then suffered an attack by Safavid in 1615 when all the monks were massacred, and manuscripts, many of the frescoes and unique works of art were destroyed.
After that there was a period when the monastery was unoccupied, most likely due to the fact that the Persians were occupying the area.  The monastery was resurrected in 1690 by Father Superior Onopre Machutadze.
The monastery was again closed after the Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921.  During the Soviet War in Afghanistan the area was used as a training ground for the Soviet military.  They did some serious damage to the murals that were still left in the monastery by using the monastery as a firing range.
The original monastery is still active today with some very antisocial monks.  The monastery complex sits on the Georgian border with Azerbaijan, and is part of a few border disputes.  The area has been part of both countries during history, but since the monks were Georgian and it is such an important part of the Georgian religious movement, the Georgians are not open to any negotiations, especially talks on the part of the Azerbaijanis to make it a joint tourist center.

 

On the ride home we were told about the social situation in Georgia.  After the break up of the Soviet Union pension funds were suspended and many people had absolutely no income.  Today pensions have been re-instated but are very, very small.  They run about $150 Laris a month which is about $85US.  The retirement age for woman is 60 and 65 for men.  There are talks of upping the retirement age for men to 67.  Unlike social security, everyone gets a pension irrelevant of time and type of work. 
 

 

St. George, who replaced Lenin after the fall of the Soviet Union
 
Education under the soviet was free from kindergarten through college.  Today state kindergarten costs  about 150 Lari/month   but private kindergarten is double.  School is compulsory from the age of 6 to what is equivalent to our sophomore year in high school
It is spring and wildflowers are everywhere, I always loved red poppies.
State schools are free of  charge, and I am not really sure there are any state universities. Private university  can vary between 5000 Lari ($2850 US) a year to $15,000 US a year.
Georgia adopted universal healthcare in January of this year (2014). Healthcare is free for retired people and vaccinations are free of charge for children under 14.  Doctors visits are charged per visit but 70%  of hospital stays are paid by the government, however, there are waiting lists for operations.
Old cars are everywhere, but filled with wine bottles, now that is worth a photo.
Military service is compulsory for men at 18.  If you get into college before the age of 18 you can defer your service until after you graduate.  The service is 18 months.
In soviet time it was compulsory for everyone to learn Russian, so it was the second language.  Today it is still taught, but being replaced by English, various European languages and even Japanese.
We saw tortoises everywhere
We leave Georgia tomorrow and head for Armenia.  It has been an interesting trip.  Georgia is obviously suffering financially from the break up of the Soviet Union.  There is a considerable soviet hangover, obvious in much of the older citizenry.  Our guide, while delightful, towed the soviet line so often, I often just tuned her out.  Which is sad, but you can only hear so many times that every fruit, vegetable, and red wine produced in Georgia cures all ails including radiation poisoning. 
 
 
There is absolutely NOTHING to purchase in Georgia.  I am not surprised.  People are so busy trying to figure out where they are going, that the concept of tourism is so very much on the back burner.  I discussed this earlier when I pointed out there were essentially no hotels outside of Tblisis and the ski resorts.  However, it is also obvious in the fact that most every museum is closed, and there are no tourist shops to speak of, yes they exist, but they seem to cater more to the Russian tourist than people from outside the Russian mindset.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 052014
 
Armenia is much smaller than Georgia, covering only 11,482 square miles.  It is a country of only 3.2 million people and 98% are ethnic Armenians.  The capital is Yerevan and it was established in 782 BC.  One third of the population of Armenia lives in Yerevan.

Armenia

Armenians call themselves Hyastan after Haik the great great grandson of Noah, and of course with the assumed landing of the Ark at Mount Ararat (which now sits in East Turkey), Mount Ararat stands as the symbol of Armenia.  Armenia is staunchly Christian.  The apostolic Church of Armenia is the oldest church in the world as Armenia was the first country of the world to declare Christianity as it’s state religion in 301 AD.  Today the church faces a most serious problem with a lack of men willing to enter the clergy.

Armenia

Armenia is an Indo European language  closest to Greek but very limited in its actual foundation.  It has 36 letters and most Armenians can read their ancient language, since it hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. Armenian does, however borrow heavily from other languages.  The language was founded in the 5th century by Meshrup Mashtots, who is considered a national hero.  There are only 14 alphabets in the world Georgia and Armenia each are one of these 14.
Armenia

A sculpture honoring Armenian and Georgian actors.

Armenians are well educated and credited with inventing MRI, the Mig jet, plastic surgery and the single handled water faucet to name a few.
Armenia has 6 distinct ecological zones, so the countryside, as you drive through it varies constantly.  It is home to the Prunus Armeniaca, or apricot.  So the apricot is another symbol of Armenia, and they even have a film festival where they give out the Golden Apricot.
The Armenians have suffered far greater from the breakup of the Soviet Union than Georgia.  Similar to Georgia, a goodly portion of their income comes from the Armenian diaspora.  Armenia is still mentally very Soviet.  There is no democracy and they have done far fewer economic reforms than Georgia.  Bureaucracy, bribery and corruption are still a large part of the Armenian way of life.
Armenia

I think this was a horse paddock made of abandoned cars

Their two problems are their “state of war” with Azerbaijan, and the genocide issue with Turkey.  These two situations have forced border closings with those two countries and sanctions.  Because of this, Russia has had the ability to put big pressure on Armenia so that 80% of the Armenian economy is owned by Russia.  This forces Armenia to actually be somewhat of a client state despite the fact that it is in fact independent.

Armenia

The Dashnaks, or militias, are still around, although their most active period was throughout the 20th century.  During the 1970’s the Dahsnaks were responsible for the assassinations of diplomats found to have been part of the Armenian genocide.  The last of these assassinations was in Canada in the 1990’s.

Armenia

It is essentially an all day drive from the border to Yerevan. 
First stop on that road was the Haghpat (means solid walls) Monastery complex.  This UNESCO site was founded in the 10th century and was added to over a two hundred year period.   The architecture, which is a blending of Byzantine church architecture and the local Caucasian architecture was just amazing.  The size of stone used, and in such a simple manner was majestic and royal.

Armenia

*Haghpat, Armenia

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Haghpaht, Armenia

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Hagpaht, Armenia

*Haghpaht Armenia

Next stop was the Sanahin Bridge in the town of Alaverdi.  The bridge was built in the 12thcentury as was used for all types of traffic until the 1970’s today it serves as a footbridge only.
Alaverdi Bridge, Armenia
*Alaverdi Bridge, Armenia
Sadly Alaverdi is also the site of a Russian copper smelting operations, which were abandoned upon the breakup of the Soviet Union.  The horrendous ecological situation is obvious by just standing on the street looking into the abandoned plant and down into the river that runs beside it.
Russian Smelting in Armenia
Lunch was with a Molokon family.  The Molokon are a breakaway sect of  Orthodox Christianity.  They do not believe in iconography, they pray but do not make the sign of the Christ, they abhor alcohol, TV and the internet.  They are pacifists and marry only others of their own faith.  The men wear beards and the women scarves.  The society is a male dominated society.  They have been described as very industrious and honest. There are Molokon’s around the world including Los Angeles and a group in Potrero Hill San Francisco; the SF church is at 841 Carolina Street
Lunch was meager but good, and in a house that is so poor, that it was very sad. No photographs were allowed due to their religious convictions. 
 
I snapped a picture of our host as he left his home, and the other photo I took off the internet.  The woman looked much like our hostess.  Yes we too noticed our host was clean shaven, there are many rules and many different interpretations of this religion, and in fact there was a TV in the room we ate in.
DSC_0311-001
We passed by Lake Savan, it was pouring rain by this time.  Savan is the 2nd world’s largest Alpine Lake at 48 ½ miles long. During Stalin’s time the Russians had plans to use the lake for power production and irrigation and the lake shrank by 59 feet, while tragic, it showed a small island that held a bronze age settlement that was an absolute treasure trove for archaeologists. 
Lake Savan
We arrived in Yerevan in time for me to get this off and head to dinner.
This Soviet era monument was erected to mark the 50thanniversary of the Soviet power in the Caucasus its design was intended symbolically to represent the eternal union of Armenia Georgia and Azerbaijan under Soviet rule.  That it is still standing perhaps shows that the Armenians have a well-developed sense of irony
May 052014
 

 

Since everything is so far from Yerevan and, like Georgia, there are no hotels outside of the big cities we did not return until very late last night. I had no idea yesterday was going to be as long a day as it was, so here we go with two days – I apologize if it runs long.

We began Monday with a visit to the Genocide Memorial and Museum.  Next year is the 100-year anniversary of the Genocide so the museum and most of the memorial is undergoing a complete restoration, but we still had the chance to visit the eternal flame. 
 
 
The memorial is within eye site of Mt. Ararat and is a lovely site.  I have no intention of getting into the politics of the Turkish/Armenian situation, but I agree it was genocide, and that the Kurds and the Ottoman Turks did the atrocities.  I also believe it is in Armenia’s best interest to look towards a thaw, as there economy is suffering from the closed border and boycott with Turkey.  However, I also believe that Turkey committed mindful and horrible atrocities and needs to admit that fact.
That is Mt. Ararat covered in clouds in the distance.
We had a quick stop at a food market, the market itself is inside of a new building, but inside is fun, just the same.  Dried fruit seems to be the staple of Armenia.

 

 

 

 They pickle anything and everything in Armenia
 A very friendly shop woman – Viva Armenia Viva San Francisco!
 Our next stop was unbelievable.  We drove miles and miles on horrible, bumpy, often dirt/gravel roads to the Geghard Monastery.  The heart of the monastery was carved out of a mountain and is just gorgeous.  We were treated to a concert by 5 beautiful women that were incredible.  The caves resonated with their amazing voices, it was a real thrill.

 

 

 

This is NOT the group we heard, but it gives you an idea of how fabulous the sound is in the monastery.

Khachkars, also known as the Armenian cross, are the carved stone crosses you see everywhere.  They act as a focal point for worship, as memorial stones and as relics to facilitate communication between the secular and the divine.

 

 

 

The Armenians never show the crucifixion because they believe that Christ lives.  The cross appears to be growing like a tree or flower, the symbol of eternal life.  Under the cross they cut a circle to celebrate the birth of life and they usually contain classic Armenian symbols of faith, an eagle, a lion, a bull and angels.  Keep in mind, however, that like most religious symbols, this is a great adaptation as Pagans used the crosses long before Christians adopted it in the 9th century.
 Just down the road was The Temple of Garni.  It was the summer palace of King Tradat I.  Temple Garni is Armenia’s only known Greco-Roman style building.  The temple was destroyed in 1679, but was restored between 1969 and 1975. They have done a proper restoration, in that the new stones contain no ornamentation, making it easy to distinguish between the old and the new.
Our day began at 8:30 and yet we did not return to the hotel until 7:30 in the evening. – That is how far apart these sites are.
*******DAY 2 ******
Tuesday – May 13 – The morning started off muggy and hot, so I put on a nice cool outfit.  By 11:30 it was pouring rain and cold.
We began our day at Zvartnots Cathedral.  In its day, 643-652 AD, it was the largest round church in the world.  It was sacked in the 10th century AD by Arab invaders.  There is no historical evidence to explain why the church collapsed, but it is in a geographically unstable area.

 

 

 

 

We then headed to Echmiadzin.  This is the Holy See of the Armenian Church, the seat of the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.   The complex is huge, but we were there, for a private tour to see the remains of a Zorastrian Fire Temple that they found under the altar when doing some renovations in the 1950’s.  (no pictures allowed of the Fire Temple)

 

 

 

 

We had a little side trip to the 7th century Hripsimeh Martyria Church.  The original church was built in 618. This is where Hripsime was slain after refusing to marry King Trdat III, choosing instead to remain true to her faith.  In a small chamber in the back of the church purportedly contains rocks used to stone her to death. Her stoning indirectly lead to the conversion of the King to Christianity.

 

 

We then stopped off at the Matenadaran Complex which is a glorious ancient manuscript library. It is one of the richest depositories in the world.  There are more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and 100,000 medieval ancient and modern documents.  The complex not only houses the library but a research institute as well.
The tiled entry arch was particularly interesting

 

 The Main Museum Room
 An ivory covered manuscript
I just really liked the design and colors on this particular one, they are all behind glass so photos were problematic.

Our last stop of the day was the Archaeological Museum, which was really spectacular, but sadly, no photographs are allowed.
Tomorrow we head for two days to Sisian.  I understand our accommodations will be sparse and last I looked, it was snowing.
May 032014
 
Today we drove from Yerevan to Sisian – approximately 130 miles, at 30 MPH, through windy, sometimes gravel roads, for a day that began at 9:00 and ended around 8:30.
We stopped at a beautiful monastery, which I will get to, however, today was about three incredibly important archaeological digs.
The first was Kamir Blur, sadly it was pouring rain and the site we came to visit is clay, so we were forced to sit on the outskirts and gaze over the site.  Kamir Blur, is still in Yerevan on the outskirts near the airport.  This “red hill” are the ruins of Teishebaini, a fortified Urartian city from the 7th century BC, discovered in 1939. Objects here were predominately made of iron and bronze.
Our second stop was the Shengavit Settlement, just down the road.  This site contains the remains of a 4th century BC early Kura-Araxes culture.
The highlight was the third dig, Areni 1.  All three of these digs are being supervised by Boris Gasparian (or Gasparyon).  He is an absolutely delightful human being.  His passion for his work, coupled with his humble nature and great sense of humor and adventure, make everything fascinating and wondrous.
Areni 1 is a cave discovery.  Here they found the earliest wine press to date, the oldest shoe found to date, and the oldest skirt found to date. 
 
These caves were originally carved out by water, however, they are, and were at the time of these civilizations, bone dry.
There is evidence of at least 3 distinct settlings in these caves.  The first site is over 7 thousand years old.  On this level they found that human sacrifices had taken place here.  There is some evidence that girls, all of the same family according to DNA sampling, were raised specifically for sacrifice. They were brought in during the wine making period, bathed, and then their throats were slit over the wine.  They know there was blood in the wine, as there were molecules containing diseases that are found only in humans.  Why human sacrifice, no one has any idea, but it was most likely for religious purposes, whatever that religion might have been.  Also, wine during this period was only used for religious purposes, not for consumption.
We were so very privileged to visit this site, it is not a tourist site, and it is still a very active dig, although there is no plan to excavate any further into the caves.  At this point they feel they have enough for the lifetime of those leading the dig.  They will now remove all of the objects and study them and hen start publishing articles regarding what they found. After they take everything out they will replace them with replicas. 
 
 
The law is that they can only dig 25% of any site, which the archaeologists support; this is also why they will not go any further on this site.  The archaeologists working on this site are fully aware that as time goes on the science will only get more progressive, and the way to date, analyze and dig will be more sophisticated, and they look forward to what might be found with all the new technology that is being developed.
We also visited the Noravank Monastery high in the hills above Areni 1.  This monastery is best known for its second floor which is accessible by the stairway that is carved into the front of the church.  The church was designed by Momik Vardpet.  Momik was a 14th century architect, painter, sculptor and master artist of illuminated manuscripts.
Momik was also famous for his carvings of Khachkars, and most of these are here at the monastery.
After a honey tasting, which was accompanied by home made brandy made by the apiarist we had a 2 hour drive to Sisian.
We have driven through 3 very distinct landscapes today.  A large portion of the second portion of our trip was through the Zangezur Panhandle (a name only used in Armenia) or the Syunik Province as it is called elsewhere. The top of the pass was at approximately 7000 feet, it was green with yellow mustard blooming and snow on the top of the hills. This area borders Vayots Dzor which is Azerbaijans Nakchivan Autonomous Republic exclave to the west, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to the east and Iran to the south.  You will have to go back to my discussions regarding Nakchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh for a refresher on this area.  Keep in mind that both those provinces are technically in Azerbaijan, but are now ethnically Armenian, so this is how Armenians travel to that area.  Also remember that the Armenians won the war, and victors write the history.
At the outset of our trip today we were traveling very close to the Turkish border. 
May 022014
 

 

Mt Ararat

 

We stayed the night in a very interesting hotel in the town of Sisian.  This time I was a tad more prepared with shampoos et al, but it is sparse, none-the-less.
Today our first stop was Carahunge, This place is called Armenia’s Stonehenge, and I don’t think anyone really knows what it was, but it sits in a stunning area with views everywhere. 
 
Some studies state that it was an acropolis from the middle bronze to the iron age. Apparently it made it to some documentary about alien visits, so needless to say the stories we made up were far better than anything we heard.
We then stopped at the Tatev Monastery.  The Tatev Monastery now has a Swiss built tram called the Wings of Tatev to get you there, and they are using the money to restore the monastery.  I must have taken hundreds of photos, it wasn’t that we hadn’t already seen our fair share of church buildings by now, but this one was truly spectacular, and it sits upon a huge hill so the views were rather magnificent  as well.
The monastery site was originally a pagan site.  The church that we saw dated from the 9thcentury and is said to hold relics from Saints Peter and Paul.
The first leg of the cable car ride
It was built by a king and queen after hearing from god that if they built it they would have a child.  Apparently if you want to guarantee a son or a large family you get married here.
A monk, the hood means he is celibate
A natural bridge called “Devils Bridge”

 

 Looking down from the tram
A flock of birds having lunch
 Our lunch, packed by the hotel, was a boiled potato sandwich with a slice of cheese and pickled mushrooms.  We had this sitting at a picnic table in Goris.  This was my favorite stop of the day.

 

Looking down onto the caves from lunch
Just down the cliffs, and across a suspension bridge are caves.  These caves were occupied until the 1960’s, apparently especially after WWII.   There have been signs of habitation in Goris since the bronze age.  In 401 BC, during the retreat of the Ten Thousand (Anabasis), Xenophon passed through Armenia. In his account of the expedition he mentions the Armenian troglodytes of Khndzoresk and GorisA few of us hiked down to a church that was especially fabulous.  It was abandoned and covered in graffiti, and yet someone had put a classic vessel for receiving candles, and had an honesty box and candles there.
 
 The church from afar
The inside of the church

 

 
I had a few pictures left over from yesterday I wanted to share as well, as today wasn’t quite as long.  
Nesting storks were everywhere in one of the valleys we went through
Everyone makes their own vodka and many places you can buy it on the side of the road in pepsi bottles, to disguise it from the Iranian Border patrol.  This was a fellows still at a restaurant we stopped at.
This is a common site in many towns, the building is abandoned and yet the old lady continues to sweep the sidewalks.

Apr 302014
 
We begin our last day heading back to Yerevan.  We are taking a slightly different route, but again, due to the state of the roads we are traveling a little over 20 MPH and the day is a very, very long one.
Our first stop is a Jewish cemetery in Yeghegis which was rediscovered in 1996 and has been excavated since 2000 by a team from the University of Jerusalem.  As happens all over the world  many of the stones are found in the foundations of other buildings, including some in the bridge we walked over to get to the cemetery.  Some of the symbols on the gravestones like the spiral wheel, were also in use on Armenian Christian stone-crafts around that time.  One of the stones dates from AD1266.  It is thought that due to the style of carvings the same crafts person carved the tombstones for both the Christian and Jewish cemeteries. It is thought that the Jews settled in this area between the 14th and 15th centuries, possibly around the time of the Ottoman takeover.

 

Why the stones on the tombstones?  No one really knows but here are few fun thoughts I found:  1) During times of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish priests became ritually impure if the came within four feet of a corpse so the rocks were a way of saying stay back.  2) Flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. 3) The Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror which also means bond, by placing the stone we show that we have been there and the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through us. 4) Putting stones on the grave keeps the soul down in this world or that the stones keep the demons and golems from getting into the graves. 
 

 

 
Another stop was the Selim Caravansary, just before heading over the Selim pass (7900 ft).  The Selim Caravansary, built in 1332 by Chesar Orbelain during the reign of Khan Abu Said II.  is the best preserved caravansary in Armenia.  Apparently its location at the pass prevented its stones from being carted off for other usages.  The caravansary is made of basalt and is a long building with a single entrance, making it easily defensible against thieves.
At the entrance is a griffin.  The caravansary was restored in 1956-1959, but the job was excellent and did nothing to mar the atmosphere.,  The caravansary is divided into a main hall with three naves.  The two narrower side naves were used by the merchants and their wares and the animals were kept in the central one.

 

 

I mention the Griffin, as I have been spotting them around, and that surprised me somewhat, why I don’t know, but it did.  The griffin was thought to be the king of all creatures, because he is made of up the eagle, which is the king of the birds and the lion, traditionally considered the king of the beasts.  In researching the origin of the griffin, I came across the theory that the griffin possibly originated with ancient paleontological observations brought by long distance traders to Europe along the silk road, this might explain why we saw them here in Armenia.
I wanted to take a little time to discuss the architecture of Armenia.  As we have been seeing, the greatest architectural achievements in Armenia are their churches, influencing certain aspects of western church architecture.
Features of this church architecture are:
·       Pointed domes (possibly mimicking Mt. Ararat), mounted on vaulted ceilings on a cylindrical drum.
·       The vertical emphasis, with the height often exceeding the length
·       Reinforcement of that verticality with tall narrow windows
·       Stone, vaulted ceilings
·       Heavy use of tall structural arches, essentially needed for support of the cupola and vaulted ceilings.
What we have also witnessed is the prehistoric Armenian architecture distinctive in its circular shapes.
For my fellow travelers…We were given an interesting history of the word and origin of the basilica and I would like to set some things straight at this point.

The first basilicas had no religious function at all, they were a public area for transacting business and were a part of any developed city.  The oldest known dates to 184 BC.  The origin of the word basilica is from the Greek word basileus, meaning king.
This is it, our last day.  I have such mixed emotions about this entire area, most of which is that it has a very, very long way to go before many people will come.  The archaeology of this area is superior to anything I have ever witnessed due to the wide open, untouched areas, but neither Georgia nor Armenia are ready for tourism.
If you come, be prepared for national treasures and museums to be closed, hotels to be far less than you imagine, and food, while delicious, is repetitious and pretty carbohydrate centric. Also, shopping, there is none.  I had hoped to see some local crafts in Armenia, sadly not even folk art, it is hard to believe that I could wander for 15 days and come home with absolutely nothing, a sure sign of how bad things are.
However, the countryside of Armenia is beautiful and I will leave you with photos to prove it.

 

 

 Sorrel, braided and dried and ready for use

 

 Another view of Mt. Ararat

 

 The Armenian Alphabet
 Wineries everywhere

 

 

 

 

 Butterflies