Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Eleven, Old Churches

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

If I could change one thing about the Birthright excursions, it would be to spend more time at each of the places we visit. Of course, barring manipulation of the spacetime continuum, that time would have to come from somewhere and would probably mean visiting fewer places. So perhaps that wouldn’t be the best thing to change, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these beautiful sites.

For our most recent outing, we started by visiting the Yereruk Basilica in Armenia’s Shirak province. It was a chilly morning, particularly after sitting still for the two hours or so it took for the vans to drive from Yerevan to the village of Anipemza on the western border. A distant, cloudy haze filled the sky, as it often does here, somehow making the rocky plains around us seem that much wider.

0402.JPG
The landscape around Yereruk.

The Akhurian River and the closed border with Turkey are nearby, a reminder of the unfriendly political situation that the country faces. It adds a further bittersweet note to the visit, beyond the one that always seems to haunt old ruins.

The remains of the basilica are awe-inspiring on their own, though I can’t help wishing I could see it whole. The church is large enough that it’s clear it was central to a large community when it was constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries. It’s also one of the oldest surviving examples of Christian architecture in Armenia, which is why it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in August 1995.

 

From there, we climbed back into the vans to go to the village of Dashtadem where we were to have lunch, which we did in the home of one of the village families. I’ve talked before about Armenian hospitality, and this is another example of it. Birthright excursions started visiting this family after the staff went door to door, asking if anyone would be willing to host us. This family said yes, and now when we come this way, we eat with them.

The walls of the old Dashtadem Fortress stood just a few yards from the house, and after eating a wonderful meal of dolma and lavash we walked across the road to explore it. I think I was grinning the entire time. I’ve always loved castles, but living in the States means I don’t often* get a chance to actually see them. The original keep was constructed in the 9th century, and its enceinte was constructed in the early 1800s, with other additions being made in the years between.

 

From there, it was a short drive to the Cathedral of Talin. Like at Yereruk, the size of the ruins give a hint of the size of the community it served when it was built in the 7th century. It was built with two studies on either side of the apse, both of which contain a series of handholds that can be used to access the second floor and were used as a way to hide the church’s manuscripts when hostile rulers came with the intention of burning them all.

 

We finished the day with a short stop at Aruchavank. Like so many of the old churches here it suffered extensive damage from earthquakes, and though most of it has been rebuilt, its dome remains collapsed. The architecture of its eastern wall contains two examples of a type of engineering that provides the entire structure with greater stability, and our guide told us that another monastery using the same method was strong enough to survive even after its central pillars were cut by the Mongols under Tamerlane.

 

I love the fact that there are stories like this everywhere we go, that history in this region has been recorded for so long that the connection to the past is so much clearer than I am used to. And I know I’m only seeing and hearing a fraction of them. There is so much to learn, so much to discover. Armenia is such a small country, but it’s so wonderfully full.

 

 

 

* The only other time (so far!) was about seven years ago, when I had the chance to study abroad in the UK and Ireland, and our group visited Kenilworth Castle. I took hundreds of pictures, and if I remember right, my friend and I were late in returning to the bus.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Eight, Artsakh

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

Oh, man. Where to start. Our Artsakh trip was four days long, and I could almost dedicate an entire post to each one. However, in the interest of documenting my adventure in a timely manner (read: sometime this month), I’m going to try to fit it all in here. As always, let me know if there’s anything you’d like to hear about in more detail; I’ll be more than happy to oblige!

Before I start into what we actually did, I want to mention that Artsakh is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been– and yes, that’s including Santa Barbara, Ireland, and northern Idaho. According to one etymology, the name Artsakh means “Aran’s woods”, with Aran being an ancient Armenian king. The other name commonly used to refer to the region is Nagorno-Karabakh, which translates as “mountainous black garden” from a mixture of Russian, Turkish, and Persian. Either one is accurate, though words alone hardly do justice to its fierce beauty. Hopefully pictures will help where descriptions fail.

 

 

Day 1

We left Yerevan at eight o’clock on Friday morning, starting our adventure by driving southwest to the Ararat Plain where we ate a breakfast of bread, coleslaw, and lakhmajun in a field with an incredible view of Greater and Lesser Ararat. Despite the vague fog that hung between us, the mountains were awe-inspiring.

0132
Mount Ararat (right) and Little Sister.

 

From there, we drove on eastward through southern Armenia. I stared out the window the entire time, watching as the landscape grew ever more mountainous and the director of our program shared a thousand different facts and bits of knowledge about the places we passed. We made a short stop at the Arpi Market to buy snacks and use the restrooms, and I took the opportunity to take pictures of the rocky hills and the beautiful Arpa River.

 

Our next stop was at the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest non-stop double track cable car, which we took up to the monastery and village of Tatev. We ate a simple lunch of salami, cheese, cucumber, and tomato wrapped in lavash (Armenian flatbread), which we got to enjoy in the refectory between exploring the grounds. Much of the monastery itself is currently being rebuilt after suffering severe damage during an earthquake in 1931. While much of it is still variously damaged, Saints Paul and Peter Church has been reconstructed and our group was able to go inside and receive a blessing from the bishop before we crossed over into Artsakh.

 

It was well after dark by the time we finally reached Shushi. Group by group, the Birthright staff separated us by which Artsakhsi family we would be staying with, and our generous hosts received us and fed us and made sure we had everything we needed before sending us off to bed. Armenian hospitality is deeply warm and giving; I hadn’t thought it possible, but it was even more so in Artsakh.

 

Day 2

Our second day started with breakfast at our homestays: tea, bread, cheese, preserves, potatoes. Perfect fuel for exploration. Both of the other volunteers who stayed at the same house spoke Armenian, so we were able to talk with our host mom and share a little back and forth. I think my only regret from the trip was that our schedule was so packed that we had little chance to get to know her and her family more.

 

After that, we gathered at the Shushi Music Academy where we learned more about the conflict between Artsakh and Azerbaijan– a huge topic that I will not be able to do any sort of justice in this post. Please, if you’d like to hear about it, let me know and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned. We also got to hear about the work that the Music Academy is doing. The institution is a full academic school, though as the name implies it also focuses on music. In addition to teaching the students, they also provide instruments and two meals a day.

From there we made a short stop at the Tatik-Papik Monument just north of Stepanakert before continuing on to an army base outside the city. For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of the latter, but the experience was incredibly interesting. We had the opportunity to see two different types of tanks, shared lunch with the soldiers, and ran a part of the obstacle course they use for training.

 

Afterwards, we returned to Stepanakert and took part in a “winemob”, which is what it’s called when the ninety of us get divided up into groups of five and each group is given a bottle of wine and told to get ourselves invited into one of the surrounding apartments in order to get to know some of the people who lived there. The staff made sure that each group had at least one person who spoke fluent Armenian, sent us all towards specific buildings, and gave us a time to be back at the buses, but beyond that, left us to our own devices.

It’s not the sort of thing I can imagine doing anywhere else. If I’m honest, I had a hard enough time imagining it in Stepanakert. But I’m afraid I might be giving the wrong impression. Despite my introverted misgivings, this was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had.

My group didn’t even get a chance to knock on a door before we were invited inside. As we reached the building we were assigned and tried to figure out where we were supposed to enter, a man carrying groceries came up and asked us what we were doing. As soon as we explained, he invited us to follow him to his home where he introduced us to his wife and his little son, and we spent the next hour and a half sharing stories and kindling our new friendship over wine, fresh fruit, and homemade vodka.

Our last stop of the day was the Gandzasar monastery, which we unfortunately did not reach until after dark, and therefore were not able to see the incredible view of the surrounding area, which we were told is particularly beautiful. The church itself is lovely, of course, and is surrounded by high walls, one of which still bears damage from Azeri artillery, and we could also see bullet holes in the main building, though I understand that it never fell during the Liberation War. We ate another simple, tasty meal of meat, cheese, and vegetables wrapped in lavash and finally returned to our homestays a little after midnight.

 

 

Day 3

We had breakfast with our host families again, then headed back out to the buses for the ride out to the Azokh Cave. Or rather, to a trail head nearby which we used to reach the caves themselves. The hike wasn’t particularly long, but our surroundings were incredibly beautiful, and I spent the entire trek stopping every thirty seconds to take more pictures. I regret nothing.

The Azokh Cave is actually a group of six interconnected caves that have proven to be a site of rich archaeological discovery as well as a pristine ecosystem in its own right. We were able to go inside, and one of our staff members who had worked with the team doing the excavation told us about the process and some of the things they had found. We also spent a little while with our lights turned out, standing in the deep dark and listening to the fluttering of bats overhead.

 

Afterwards, we hiked back down to the trail head, where a couple of trucks picked us all up to take us to the nearby village of Azokh for lunch. There’s a hiking trail that runs through Artsakh and passes by Azokh, and one of the village families has opened their doors to those going through. They also welcomed ninety hungry Birthrighters and fed us with bread, cheese, meat, incredible salads, tasty gata, and more.

From there we returned to Stepanakert, where we had a little free time to explore the city. It’s not a large city, and though even the last ten years have seen much progress in the rebuilding process, there are still many, many buildings that are either abandoned or still bear damage from the war. It’s a striking dichotomy, a strange mixture of hope and pain.

Our final stop for the day was the kef or feast at the home of a longtime friend of Birthright Armenia. The whole evening was filled with food, drink, and countless toasts as we expressed our friendship and our thanks for each other, our staff, and our incredible host. The kef is something that every Birthright group that comes to Artsakh has taken part in for the last ten years, and though many of us there that night had never been there before, our host welcomed us as family.

 

Day 4

Despite the late night after the kef, some of us dragged ourselves out of bed early the next morning for a hike to Jdrduz in the mountains above Shushi. The views from the hike to the caves the day before were wonderful. The views here were awe-inspiring. We found beautiful views of both Shushi and Stepanakert. We saw canyons and a village open up below us, the remains of an ancient hill fort built impossibly into the cliffs, the metal ropes strung across the gorges to keep enemy aircraft from sneaking in under the radar. I don’t remember quite how long we spent up there, soaking in the beauty and the history of the place. I just know that I could have spent much longer there.

 

Our last hours in Shushi were spent packing, eating a final breakfast at our homestays, and taking a quick walking tour of Shushi. We visited the ruins of one of the city’s old mosques and saw some of the work being done to restore it. We passed through some of the ancient, narrow streets and saw the old buildings there. We spent time in the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.

And finally, we had to leave.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Artsakh. I had heard that it was an incredibly beautiful place, and that is certainly true. It’s so much more than that, though. It’s a place filled with people fighting to make a life for themselves, a place filled with history, a place that can simultaneously give you hope and leave you wondering how a thousand and one obstacles can ever be overcome. It’s a place I’ll never be able to do justice in a single blog post. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it justice with words at all.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Seven, A Few Highlights

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

This past week has been one of those funny stretches of time when you’re keeping busy enough, but when you look back and try to remember exactly what you did you find that you can’t quite remember. I blame it on my time being full of a million little things instead of one or two big ones.

Part of that was the fact that Yerevan celebrated its 2799th birthday this weekend, which meant that there was all sorts of celebration, including a half marathon on Sunday. Before you ask, no, I did not run in it or any of the shorter runs happening at the same time, but I did help register the hardy souls that did. That was an adventure in and of itself, since while my Armenian is getting better every day, I’m still not quick with it. My two fellow volunteers were native Armenian speakers, though, and more than happy to bail me out more times than I can count. It was slightly trickier when we met a few people who only spoke Russian, but even then we were able to send them down to the next table.

As hard as it is at times, I think the huge bounty of languages here is one of my favorite things. There’s Armenian, of course, and I’m getting to the point where I can recognize the differences between Western and Eastern even when it’s being spoken quickly, though my understanding of what is being said is still a spotty at best. There’s a lot of Russian as well, and spending time at the Birthright office means that I hear at least bits and pieces of Spanish, German, Arabic, French… And English is common in my day to day, which I’m simultaneously grateful for while still knowing that I’d be learning Armenian faster if I couldn’t fall back on my native language.

That being said, I’m far less able to do that while at the hospital. While there are a number of people there who do speak English, most do not and I get all kinds of practice for speaking Armenian. It’s exhausting, but my progress is undeniable if still a bit slower than I’d like.

Speaking of the hospital! This week I got the chance to spend a little time in the actual Emergency Department, or at least the section of it devoted to cardiac emergencies. I saw what a STEMI looks like on an echocardiogram, and was able to watch on a monitor as they treated it with a stent.

The rest of the week has been pretty low-key, just keeping busy with the aforementioned million little things. Part of that has been preparation for an excursion to the Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, is a territory just east of the Republic of Armenia with a mostly Armenian population. It declared and fought for its independence from Azerbaijan in the early 90’s, and while most nations do not recognize its sovereignty, it has been a “de facto independent entity” since the fall of the Soviet Union.

I’ll have a lot more to say about it next week after we return, as well as pictures, as I understand that it’s a particularly beautiful area.

Until then!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Six, Genocide Memorial

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

I blinked, and it’s halfway through October.

It’s been a fairly quiet week, which has given me a little more time to sit back and think, which I’ve enjoyed. A couple weeks back I mentioned that I was starting to feel at home in Armenia, or at least in Yerevan. That feeling has continued to grow, almost without my noticing, and whatever happens after I finish volunteering, I’m certain that a piece of my heart will always stay here.

There’s a part at the end of The Return of the King where Frodo tells Sam that he “cannot always been torn in two“, and that he must be “one and whole, for many years”. That quote lodged in my head sometime during college as I started trying to figure out how to balance my love for family and friends in my hometown with deep, new friendships. Now, instead of being torn in two I’m being torn in three, and I can only hope that Frodo’s advice was at least somewhat more Sam-specific than broadly general.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these feelings got stronger the same week that I visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial for the first time. A group of Birthright volunteers gathered there around its eternal flame on Wednesday night and listened as our program’s Country Director read passages from the eyewitness account of a genocide survivor. If asked to describe the experience, the first word to come to mind would be “sobering”, but with that feeling being tempered by an incredible sense of resolve.

Today, Armenians live. Today, Armenia exists. Despite everything that happened, we are here today. With everything good and bad about this tiny country in the South Caucasus, it’s here and it’s independent and it has a future. There’s just a lot of work to do.

Which would explain why I’m feeling a little pulled apart. Because when I go back to the States, I’ll still be Armenian. I’ve always known that, but there’s such a huge difference between knowing a little bit about the language and the culture and the food and actually living and working in Armenia, even if only for a few months. It’s only been six weeks; I’m less than halfway through my trip and I’ve already learned so much.

Right now, I can only guess at what it’s going to look like. And I probably shouldn’t be doing that yet either, since, as I mentioned just above, I’m less than halfway through my trip. I need to live here, in the present.

There are about a thousand other thoughts buzzing around in my head right now, almost all focusing on what it means to be an Armenian-American (and more specifically an Armenian-American writer), but none of them are coherent enough to merit writing down. Mostly because they are less full-fledged thoughts than they are just questions. At a guess, it’s going to be quite some time before I find answers to them that satisfy me.

So, in lieu of further writing, I’ll just share a couple pictures of the city in the country that’s doing a frighteningly good job of stealing my heart.

0100
View of Mount Ararat from Yerevan

 

0095
View from near Barekamutyun Station
Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Five, Grapes, Tea, and Borscht

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

As another week has already flown by, I find myself grateful that the Saturday immediately following my previous post was filled with adventure, because if it hadn’t been, this entry might be a little boring. While resting at home when you’re sick tends to make you feel better, it doesn’t make for particularly thrilling writing material.

I’m not sure if it was food poisoning or a run-of-the-mill stomach bug that decided to follow me home, but either way it could have been so much worse. I mostly just had to deal with a total loss of appetite, absurdly tight muscles, and no energy whatsoever. Regardless of what it was, drowning it in tea and borscht proved effective in finally chasing it off.

0097
Pictured: Tea kettle and pots of borscht and yogurt soup, valiant defenders of queasy stomachs everywhere.

But before all that, we had another lovely excursion, this time going to the Karas Wines vineyard and the Sardarapat Memorial.

Karas Wines is a member of a company called Tierras de Armenia that was founded in 2005 by an Argentine Armenian businessman named Eduardo Eurnekian. The company acquired 2300 hectares of land (that’s over 5500 acres, or almost nine square miles) in the Armavir region of Armenia to the west of Yerevan. The gentlest phrase I’ve seen used to describe the area is “previously uncultivated”, though “desolate wilderness” has also been used and might be somewhat more accurate.* I’ll have some pictures down below that will help illustrate.

It took us about an hour and a half to cover the sixty kilometers between Yerevan and the vineyard, which meant that I got to spend an hour and a half staring out the window as the Armenian countryside rolled past, as well as a few villages. If nothing else, it gives a glimpse of all the parts of the country that aren’t Yerevan, as well as a lot of stark, ruggedly stunning landscapes.

We had a pretty good idea that we were getting close when we started seeing fields of grape vines stretching on all around us in long, orderly rows. As a girl who grew up in northern Idaho where the rolling hills are covered in fields of oat and wheat, the sight was simultaneously familiar and not. To state the obvious, grape vines are a lot bigger than grains and grasses.

0980
A view of the vineyards.

 

Once we got there, we found out that we were going to be helping the villagers who are employed by the vineyard as they removed the plastic protectors that had been put in place around the stems of the vines. Sleepy as I was, there was a (sizeable) part of me that felt a sudden dread. It’s one thing to be mildly sleep deprived as you take a tour and listen to people tell about what they do. It’s something else entirely to have to do something yourself.

Or, maybe, I was just feeling a little lazy and intimidated by the prospect of having to communicate in Armenian when I hadn’t expected it.

As is usually the case, it was actually a whole lot of fun. The plastic protectors were secured in place by thin metal rods which we had to find among the vines. Some of them were hard to find. Some were stuck. Some had tiny vine tendrils all wrapped around them. Each one was just a little different than the others, and it reminded me how much I miss working as a groundskeeper.

Lest I give the impression that we spent the day in the fields, each of the little groups we had split ourselves into only did one, or maybe two rows, and each row was probably only about fifty yards** long. Even though harvest was over, there were still a few clusters of grapes here and there, so we also got to eat fresh grapes and sun-dried raisins as we worked. Actually, by the time we got to the end of the row, we all had more grapes than we knew what to do with.

Afterwards, we were treated to a lunch of (massive) sandwiches, and we spent the next while just hanging out together and talking. There was even a little bit of dancing as a couple of the more knowledgeable volunteers taught some of the rest of us a Armenian folk dance or two.

 

After that, our excursion leaders somehow managed to herd us back onto the buses so that we could take the tour, and we got to learn a bit about the vineyard and what had gone into creating it. I’ll try to hit a few of the highlights.

I mentioned above that the land was a mix of “previously uncultivated” and “desolate wilderness”. What that actually means is that the ground was so rocky that no one had thought that it would be worthwhile to clear it for agricultural purposes. This is one of those times when pictures really are worth a thousand words.

 

All those rocks you see right there are just the tiniest fraction of the ones they pulled out to clear the ground, and this is not the only pile like it. Additionally, these pictures don’t show the massive boulders that have been removed from under the surface, or the fact that they are still pulling rocks from the fields every year, or that the 230 hectares that have been cultivated so far only represent about a tenth of the total land that will need to be cleared in this way in order to become useful for growing grapes.

The entire endeavor is more than a little incredible. Add to that the fact that Armenians have been making wine for a very long time, and it’s as much a link to the past as a way to look to and provide for the future: Karas employs hundreds of people from the surrounding area, and has chosen to go without certain machinery that would make the process more efficient at the cost of jobs. They are focused on sustainability, using dripline to minimize water waste and organic solutions (pheromones imported from Germany) for pest control as opposed to chemical methods.

From there we went on to the Sardarapat Memorial that commemorates the battle of the same name fought in 1918 to stop the advance of the Ottoman Empire across the rest of Armenia. They were already in its heartland. The Armenian army consisted mostly of volunteers, pitted against the trained Ottoman troops. If they had failed, it’s possible that it would have meant the destruction of the Armenian nation.

The memorial itself is beautiful: two massive winged bulls made of reddish stone and a 26-meter tall trellis structure built of the same stone and hung with twelve bells that are rung every year on the anniversary of the victory. There is also a path edged with stone eagles and a curved victory wall, as well as a beautiful museum containing all kinds of items of Armenian history. I’ve got a few pictures of the monuments, but they hardly do it justice. If you ever have the chance to come to Armenia, I would highly recommend visiting it for yourself.

 

That’s all for this week. I feel like I’ve talked forever this time, but as always, there’s so much more that I haven’t said, and I can only hope that I’ve provided a decent summary. As always, thanks for reading, and let me know if you’ve got any specific questions or want more details on anything. I’d be happy to provide!

 

 

 

* There’s a folktale I ran across regarding how the Armenians ended up with the particular plot of land that is now known as Armenia. I had a heck of a time finding it when I went looking, and didn’t succeed until I’d already rewritten it, so I’ll leave my retelling down below as well as linking to the post where I found it originally.

Back when God was dividing up the earth among the peoples of the earth, the Armenians were late, as happens often enough.

“You should have come earlier,” said God. “Because now there is no land left for me to give you!”

But the Armenians pleaded with God, asking for anything, any scrap of land that he had left that he could give to them to live on. Finally, worn down by their endless cries, God relented.

“Fine!” he said. “You win! But I have nothing left but this little rocky piece of land that wasn’t fit to give to anyone. Do with it what you will.”

So the Armenians took it and built on it and cultivated it and turned it into a place where they could live, and that’s why Armenia is the way it is.

As it turns out, the Armenians weren’t the only ones who were late, and once God had given the Armenians their land, the Georgians came up to him and asked if they could have a piece of land to live on as well.

God frowned and said, “You should have come much earlier! I’ve just given the last piece of land to the Armenians and have nothing left to give you.”

But the Georgians begged and pleaded with God as well, until at last he threw up his hands and relented.

“Here, take this! I had reserved a small piece of paradise for myself, but since you will not give me any peace until I give you a little land, I will give it to you.”

And that is why Armenia is rocky, mountainous, and hard, and why Georgia has beaches and forests and the Black Sea.

 

** I should mention here that I am notoriously bad at estimating distances. Please take all attempts with a grain or ten of salt.