Travelling in Armenia has been both fascinating and frustrating, for the country is a mix of beautiful scenery and rich history marred by staggeringly ugly towns, woeful public transport and an almost entire lack of tourist infrastructure or information. Armenia’s greatest tourist draw is its ancient churches and monasteries that lie scattered across the country in frequently stunning locations: in the midst of wooded valleys, overlooking lakes, at the foot of Mount Ararat, or carved into cliff faces. The Armenian Church became the first legal Christian Church in the world when King T’rdat converted in 301 AD and many of the monasteries date from the 500 AD or earlier, some built on the site of earlier pagan shrines. The domed cruciform Church plan that has become common across the world was also first introduced in Armenia, and remains the most common style of church in the country.
The monasteries we visited (including Haghpat, Sanahin, Sevanavank, Goshavank and Gerghard) tended to be made up of a collection of churches and chapels, usually accompanied by a refectory and library. The buildings were built of plain, unadorned stone, with floors of laid gravestones, giving them a beautiful if slightly austere appearance. Around the churches stand stone stellae known as kachkars, engraved with crosses and intricate motifs similar in appearance to Celtic knots. While some of the monasteries are no longer used for worship, where we explored alone in the damp, dark buildings and overgrown gardens, most remain in active use and the Churches we visited on Sundays were filled with worshippers.
Christianity remains the dominant religion in Armenia, with only minute Jewish and Muslim populations. Over 90% of Armenians align themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the Oriental Orthodox churches, along with the Coptic Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches, and which is distinct from the Catholic Church and from the Eastern Orthodox Church followed in Greece, Russia and Georgia. The services we observed were certainly reminiscent of those we’d witnessed in Ethiopia, with more singing than sermonising and the priests processing around the Church blessing the congregation, followed by a line of young men carrying banners, cymbals and incense.
Amongst our church visiting we also spent a couple of days at Armenia’s premier resort on the shores of Lake Sevan. There we joined holidaying Armenians, sunbathing on the stony beach and swimming in the icy water. Again we were struck both by how normal it is to drink alcohol in the morning across the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and by peoples’ generosity as vodka and food was forced repeatedly upon us. Lake Sevan also provided one of our more unusual night’s accommodation – we slept in one of the old shipping containers that line the shore and have been converted into tourist accommodation.
Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is a pleasant city where the Soviet tower blocks are intermingled with beautiful old stone houses and grand new buildings filled with expensive designer shops, where cafes and bars line the leafy pavements and the streets are full of shiny new 4X4s and people in expensive clothes. The city has an impressive collection of museums, and we spent an enjoyable few days sightseeing, and an evening at the ballet watching Prokovief’s Romeo and Juliet.
In marked contrast to the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, rural Armenia feels as poor as anywhere we’ve seen in the FSU. The buildings in most towns and villages are a mixture of dilapidated asbestos- or tin-roofed bungalows and high-rise concrete towers. Public transport is scarce, with at most one or two old buses a day, most as old as us and surely not able to last much longer, and almost the only cars on the road are Ladas that look as ancient as the buses. The shops too are dingy, poorly stocked and expensive for the region – in part a consequence of the lack of trade with neighbouring Turkey.
It was a surprise then to find, amongst the otherwise very non-descript shops, an Orange mobile phone shop in town we visited, with pretty much every street adorned with Orange advertising. The ubiquity of Orange was particularly surprising as, apart from a few designer clothing brands, the only Western retail companies that seem to have broken through in the FSU are Naf Naf, United Colours of Benetton, Debenhams and Mothercare – which all seem far more popular here than they are at home.
Travelling in Armenia we became aware of what appears to be a national preoccupation with what the Armenians describe as the “survival of the Motherland.” The red in the national flag, for example, symbolises the blood shed in defence of Armenia; the Mother of Armenia statue above Yerevan brandishes a sword and is surrounded by weaponry; and the National Museum in Yerevan made no mention of Armenia’s status as the world’s first Christian country but was instead devoted almost entirely to the various conflicts Armenia has fought with its neighbours. This stance can be explained at least in part by the loss of over 90% of the territory of historic Armenia (most of which now forms part of Turkey), and by the 1915-16 Armenian Genocide inflicted by Ottoman Turkey which occurred in 1915-16 when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and 500,000 deported – almost the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
While the mass killings have been recognised as the 20th Century’s first genocide by much of the world including the European Parliament and the US (although not by the UK), Turkey has however neither acknowledged nor apologised for what occurred. This, together with what Armenians consider the continued destruction of their cultural and architectural heritage in Turkey, is responsible for the continued poor relations between the countries, with the closed borders contributing to high prices in Armenia, and Armenians unable to visit ancient Armenian sites like those on Mount Ararat or at Ani, the former capital, which now lie in Turkey.
The poor relations between Armenia and Turkey are not the only area of tension within the region. Instead, travelling throughout the Caucusus we’ve been struck repeatedly by the three countries’ fractured and complex relations with each other and with their larger neighbours. These continuing disputes were brought home to us by a shrine in one of the family homes we stayed in in Armenia, dedicated to the couple’s son who had been killed in the recent war with Azerbaijan. In this region not one of the countries is on good terms with all of its neighbours: in both Georgia and Azerbaijan the borders with Russia are closed (in Georgia’s case to everyone except the Armenians who are still allowed to cross); in Georgia, the autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain closed to the rest of Georgia and accessible only from Russia; and in Azerbaijan and Armenia tensions are increasing over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region (occupied by and only accessible through Armenia but recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan), with the border between the two countries firmly closed and renewed fighting expected.
Perhaps surprisingly, the international tensions evident throughout the Caucusus are in contrast to what we’ve experienced elsewhere on our trip where local tensions have been largely limited to internal disputes, most commonly between different ethnic groups, with generally good relations existing between neighbouring countries. Again it reminded us of how unusual Britain is, with a largely peaceful recent domestic history, and with geographically fixed borders unlike much of the rest of the world where borders have always and continue to move repeatedly, reflecting shifts in power as much as of demography.