14 April 2012

Spring Break 2012: Gyumri

After spending March 31-April 1 in Gyumri, we can officially say we have visited every region of Armenia!  This little weekend excursion immersed us in the history and culture of the towns and villages of Armenia's western provinces, particularly Aragatsotn and Shirak.

Diane, Ben, and the Blackmer family left Yerevan on Saturday morning, with our first stop at St. Stepanos in the village of Kosh. The restored 7th century church, situated high above a dry riverbed, occupies a shelf of land so narrow it seems to cling desperately to the steep, boulder-strewn mountainside.  The area is riddled with caves once inhabited by hermits; now they are empty, but Nathan believes they are the homes of bears and monsters, and insists whenever we visit such locations we speak only in a whisper so as not to wake them.

The front of St. Stepanos Church

Standing at the northeast corner of the church

We scrambled to the top of the mountain to see the view, and there met a local shepherd taking a rest among the remains of Koshavank monastic complex while his flock grazed nearby.

This is the only part of the monastery left standing today.

An interesting find among the ruins -- my amateur interpretation: medieval monks sharing a drink.

As we continued towards Gyumri, we stopped to check out a partly reconstructed caravansaray (the term for an inn along the old Silk Road).  This one is more complete than the one we visited last spring in Syunik marz.

Then we drove into the village of Aruch to see their lovely Cathedral of St. Gregory, built in A.D. 666.  As we arrived, we observed 2 local men sacrificing a chicken, decapitating it and spilling its blood on the ground at the church door.  As the entire process took less than 2 minutes (including getting out of and back into their car), the ritual was obviously not part of any formal religious ceremony; rather, we suspect it was their way of saying grace before cooking and eating dinner.  

The cathedral dome has collapsed, allowing the sun to illuminate the spacious interior.

Inscriptions above a side door

At last, we reached Gyumri, the capital of Shirak marz and Armenia's second-largest city.  We ate a late lunch at a restaurant with a bizarre, enormous stuffed polar bear in the front room, then spent the rest of the afternoon walking around town.

Gyumri was settled millenia ago, but its current architecture reveals its more recent history: a fascinating, multi-layered mix of Armenian, Imperial Russian, Soviet, and contemporary influences.  What made the greatest impression on us, however, was the slowly ongoing reconstruction of the Cathedral of the Holy Savior 24 years following its nearly total destruction in the 1988 earthquake that devastated much of the region.
A banner showing heart-wrenching photos of the cathedral before and after the 1988 earthquake

Nearly 25 years later, and still a long way to go: workers ascend the cathedral roof, laboring even on Palm Sunday.

Nathan poses by a collapsed dome.

We spent a quiet night in the very comfortable Berlin Art Hotel. Following a delicious breakfast, which was included in the price of our room, we took a Palm Sunday stroll around Gyumri's historic district. The bells of Yot Verk (Seven Wounds) rang all morning as worshipers attended church services, and sidewalk vendors sold pussy willow branches, sacrificial birds, and Lenten trinkets to passers-by, and the central market was bustling with shoppers preparing special family meals.


Diane buys a bunch of pussy willow branches, the local substitute for palm leaves.

Colorful crafts make Mr. Ben grin giddily.

 Nathan blows bubbles in the Gyumri central market, where we picked up some fresh fruit for the day's journey.

We bid farewell to Gyumri and drove to the northwest until we found Marmashen Monastery on the banks of the Akhurian River.  Lucky for us, it was the first day back to work for the caretaker, who takes winters off due to cold weather and lack of visitors.  He explained to us some of the details of the monastery's history, and we spent a long time exploring the extensive nearby ruins and taking pictures.  Just as we were walking back to the car, it began to snow.

Jarred and Nathan on the eastern side of this thousand year-old complex

As seen from the northwest

We took a different route back to Yerevan, driving along Armenia's western frontier so we could make one final, important stop.  About 45 kilometers south of Gyumri, we made use of binoculars and telephoto lenses to catch a glimpse of Ani, the ruined, abandoned, and hauntingly beautiful city that served as the capital of a medieval Armenian Kingdom.  As a result of the 1921 Treaty of Kars, this once-glorious stronghold is now within the borders of Turkey, and the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed since 1993.  Additionally, Ani and the surrounding area is in a militarized buffer zone between the two countries.  In other words, it is nearly impossible to get any closer to Ani from the Armenian side of the border than we did.

Remnants of the city walls

The mosque and cathedral of Ani, with another church visible in the distance

Church of St. Gregory, A.D. 1215 

Freezing winds and snow above the Akhurian River had us shivering, but we were awestruck at the sight of this forgotten, forbidden city.  Climbing atop a large, flat stone for a better view, I spotted the dome of a church that appeared to be close in age to the Ani ruins.  There were two major differences, however: it was in better condition and it was on our side of the river.  We excitedly plowed our way downhill through mud and passed through the tiny farming village of Haykadzor in the direction of the church, only to discover with disappointment that it, too, was in the militarized zone on the edge of the gorge.  Jarred stopped the car, and we got out to take pictures, attracting the attention of a nearby Russian border guard (and probably anybody watching from the military towers).  This didn't concern us much, though, because Russia is an Armenian ally, and those soldiers are there to defend Armenia against the threat -- however unlikely -- of a Turkish invasion.

 Dome of the red church in Haykadzor

This 10th century church is behind electric fences on the edge of the village...

...in Russia's militarized buffer zone between Armenia and Turkey.

The fact that Armenian citizens who wish to visit their own historic city of Ani must travel to the "enemy" country (at great expense and inconvenience, by air or overland through Georgia) and pay the Turkish Ministry of Tourism for a ticket is ironic enough.  But the idea that the people of Haykadzor cannot worship at the church in their own village because it is behind electric fences and guarded by armed soldiers is a perfect example of how disgusting politics and the aftereffects of war can really be.

We contemplated all this and more as we made our way back to Yerevan.  Nathan, in his innocence, couldn't understand the situation at all.  At one point, the following dialogue occurred:

ANGELA: Isn't it amazing -- that's Turkey right there, but we have to fly to get there.
NATHAN: What?  We don't need to fly.  We can drive.
ANGELA: No, honey, the border is closed.
NATHAN: But we can just drive there, like we drove to Georgia and crossed the border.
ANGELA: Yes, but we're not allowed to cross the border to Turkey by car.  We have to take a plane and arrive in the airport.
NATHAN: (confused) But it's so close!  We don't need a plane.
ANGELA: I know, but the soldiers will stop us if we try to drive there.
NATHAN (frustrated) Why?!  It's right there!
ANGELA: I know, honey...
NATHAN: (Tears welling in his eyes) I want to go to Turkey!


Thus ended the first two days of our spring break.  We spent the next week relaxing at home, working out at Gold's, doing errands around town, and preparing for Easter.

Special thanks to Ben, our always-on-the-job interpreter of Armenian language and culture, and Diane, who provided some of the photos for this post and occasional Russian translation services, too.  Although we've taken several road trips together in the past, it became very clear on this trip what a fabulous team we all make: Jarred the driver, myself the planner-navigator, Ben and Diane the multilingual translators, and of course, Nathan the charmer, whose gregarious energy and sweet smile help us make friends wherever we go!

To see all the photos from our trip, visit this Photobucket album.  This Picasa album contains a few photos to commemorate 2012 Easter preparations and festivities in the Blackmer family household.

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