Travel

Miriam Thaler in Armenia: Yerevan is where the West meets the Soviet Union meets the Orient

Nowhere else but in Armenia’s capital Yerevan does the country’s confluence of histories and cultures become so tangible. The city centre truly awakens on summer nights, with the streets, squares, cocktail bars, shisha bars and cafés buzzing with people, tourists, families, the young and hip.

Many of them gather at the dancing fountain in Republic Square – formerly Lenin Square – to view a dazzling spectacle of water fountains and lights moving along to the rhythm of pieces ranging from classical music to Queen’s “We are the Champions” and Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” unchangeably ending every night with “Une Vie d’Amour” by the famous Armenian- French chansonier Charles Aznavour.

Even though one might be reminded of Las Vegas and its renowned water spectacle, the fountain was constructed already back in the 1970’s and served as a blue print for several more dancing fountains that sprung up across the former Soviet Union.

The fountain stands in harmonious contrast against the buildings surrounding the square, which carry the unmistakable imprint of Russian imperialist neoclassical monumentalism that had its revival in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Some of these buildings, however, reveal at a second closer look. Armenian stone carvings on their facades that resemble ornaments found in Islamic countries. This mixture is also mirrored in the Armenian cuisine, which offers a broad culinary palate of hearty stews, grilled meat and vegetables. The cuisine includes Russian salad, mokka, stuffed grape leaves, bakhlava, khinkali (a sort of hearty, meat-and broth-filled dumpling, originating in Georgia, most likely with roots reaching back to the 13th century Mongol invasions that included Armenia).

This cultural melting pot is the result of Armenia having been on the ancient silk road for thousands of years; it is also – as is so often the case when tracing back cultural cross-pollination – the carrier of painful legacies of an extremely violent past.

Diaspora

Armenia was as the first independent nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD and has since maintained it alongside its own language and alphabet. Truly remarkable given that over the centuries, the country fell to different foreign rulers including Byzantine, Persian and Islamic rule. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided among the Russian and the Ottoman Empire and many Armenians lived dispersed throughout both empires.

The 20th century brought about the darkest chapter of Armenia’s history with the genocide of an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 at the hands of the Ottoman military. And although, through the centuries, Armenians had emigrated all over the world not only fleeing the country’s political instabilities but also pursuing business as merchants, it was the genocide that led to the enormous dispersal of the Armenian people. Today, about 3 million people live inside Armenia and – according to estimates– 6 million to 7 million live abroad.

The largest Armenian communities are found in Russia (2.25 million), the United States (1.5 million) and France (about 450,000).

The Genocide Museum in Yerevan is worth a visit for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of this cruel event that so deeply and painfully affected the country and its people. It also illuminates in depth the history of the decades leading up to the orchestrated mass murder. The memorial area next to the museum complex includes a space for quiet contemplation high above the city.

Photo courtesy of Miriam Thaler

Take the train … the tiny train

The Armenians’ love and appreciation for children that is so very tangible all throughout the city might stem in parts from the need for hope for a future after the devastating losses caused by the genocide. You’ll find small playgrounds and attractions for kids on almost every square and in every park. In my opinion, one of best children attractions of Yerevan that is well worth a visit also for adults is the so-called children’s railway.

A true time travel experience!

Only a 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre, the railway passes through the green romantic Hrazdan Gorge along a small stream where fathers and sons gather in summer to spend time playing cards and bathing. The charmingly run-down railway that is completed by a small art deco station hall is a Soviet relic from 1937.

Railways like these were built all over the Soviet Union. They invited children to experience different railway related tasks to awaken an interest in them for the job. Today the railway is run merely as an attraction for families.

One of the most spectacular excursions to the surroundings of Yerevan that is easily done as
an organised bus trip (for example with One Way Tour) is another case in point for the country’s multi-layered history and culture.

Garni (Photo courtesy of Miriam Thaler)

Garni and Geghard

Geghard Monastery

Don’t miss out on a combined visit to the antique Roman temple in Garni and the Christian monastery Geghard. If you manage to book the afternoon tour that allows you to enjoy the sun set at the temple, even better. The Geghard Monastery is one of the most impressive monasteries I visited during my journey.

According to legend the apostle Thaddeus brought the spear that had wounded the crucified Jesus to the monastery, where it was stored for a long time. The monastery’s main structures date from the 13th century and parts of it are built into the rocks the monastery seems glued to. It was founded, however, already in the 4th century next to a sacred well that still attracts many visitors.

I certainly was captivated by the rough mysticism that seemed to emanate from the well, that has calmly spouted since centuries in a pitch-black corner of a cave turned into a chapel. After so much Christian mysticism, the Garni temple offers a strong contrast. The temple stems from the first century AD and was dedicated to the Armenian pagan sun god Mihr, which can be connected to the Persian deity Mithra.

It majestically crowns the surrounding landscape of rolling hills. Once the sun has set and the stars emerge, the temple shines through colourful spotlights.

Sitting in contemplation taking in the timeless beauty of the temple, one gets the feeling of thousands of years and millions of miles, past and present, East and West collapse to a single place and moment.

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See more of Miriam’s work in Dispatches’ archives here.

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Miriam Thaler is a PhD student in Culture Studies in Lisbon. Exploring foreign places and getting to know different people, their stories, ways of life and worldviews has always been her passion. After finishing school she lived and worked as a volunteer for one year in the South of Chile.

Her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology brought her to Munich and Paris. Iceland called her during her Masters for an ethnographic research stay and the shooting of a documentary.

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