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