When I received an invitation to be part of a select group of English travel colleagues to visit Armenia, I admit that I needed to look at my atlas to see where it was; what a fascinating 5 days we spent in this ancient Christian country, bordering Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran, 3 of whom are not exactly friendly, and it is only when you learn a bit more about Armenia’s past history, that you can understand why their most popular neighbour ironically is Iran.
The Lonely Planet starts off by stating “ A country haunted by it’s tragic past”, and it would take a more erudite and knowledgeable historian than myself to explain this in a few words, even with the help of local guides and historical experts, that we met along the Old Silk Road route, visiting numerous churches, cathedrals, monasteries, museums and monuments.
Many more Armenian citizens now reside outside their homeland, at least 3 times the 3 million that remain, mainly due to the after effects of the Genocide that wiped out over 1 ½ million of their race in 1915, that were living all over the old Ottoman Empire; many now live in France, North America, Lebanon and the UK.
The Tsitsernakaberd genocide memorial overlooking the City, shaped like a needle surrounded by a circle of pillars guarding an eternal flame, now features an adjoining Museum that depicts this tragic period of Armenian history, and when presented by one of the young Armenian student guides, creates an emotional and almost unbearable account of the extermination of this generation, of which there are now few survivors.
Yerevan was originally founded in 782 BC, as Erebuni, and has suffered over the years from Ottoman and Persian invasions. Based in the Ararat Valley, fringed by mountains on 3 sides and divided by the Hrazdan river that flows through the city in a picturesque canyon, Yerevan is now a big and bustling city with over 1 million inhabitants.
The central part of the city is dominated by three main squares, Republic Square being the real jewel, framed by historic buildings now housing hotels, museums and government offices; in the evenings the fountains create a myriad of pictorial splendour, accompanied by traditional and classical music, with street events being held daily in high season. Modern shops mix with historic buildings, traditional restaurants, cafes and street markets adorning wide promenades, creating a welcoming and friendly day and night time environment.
The city’s skyline is dominated by the Matenadaran Museum and the Tsitsernakaberd monument, whilst within easy reach of the Capital many other historic sites can be reached including Echmiadzin Cathedral, the Temple of Zvartnots ,the Hellenistic temple at Garni, and the Cave Monastery at Geghard as well as The holy site at Khor-Virap, which is the closest point to Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, ironically not even on Armenian soil, being over the border in Turkey.
Spectacular views of Mount Ararat from Yerevan and much of the South East area of the Country, with the snow covered peaks of Mar Sis and its smaller sister Sis, provide a constant poignant reminder of Armenia’s traumatic past.
During our short stay we were also able to visit local vineyards, see many examples of early Christian architecture, and even visit a caravanseray high up on the Selim Pass; situated on the celebrated Silk Road 2410 metres above sea level, and built in the 13th century, this unique inn was designed for travellers and their animals as a shelter and was reputedly used by Marco Polo on his journeys.
We were also fortunate to visit the cave in Southern Armenia where a recent discovery was made by a Phd student at the Institute of Archaeology in Yerevan, of a perfectly preserved leather shoe dating from 3600 BC, 1000 years older than the Great Pyramid in Giza and 400 years older than Stonehenge.
Andrew travelled as part of a small group of English travel agents, accompanied by Serge Jerejian, an Armenian resident in the UK and John Grew, both of Sunvil Discovery, who organised the tour; tailor made and escorted itineraries can be arranged to this fascinating Eastern European destination, with BMI operating flights 4 times per week allowing weekend trips as well as longer tours.
For more information call Andrew on 01428 658777.