Travel logs
2014 Caucasus
May 12 and 13 - Baku
After an adventureless but long journey to Baku, we were met by our Azeri guide, who proudly welcomed us all in the biggest state of the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan. On the way to our hotel in Old Town, we passed by half-finished buildings popping up everywhere we looked, like mushrooms after a storm. The construction fever that grips Azerbaijan is attributable to the oil boom which boosted the national economy after the country freed itself from Soviet control in 1990.  

The road to independence was not without bloodshed: Martyrs’ Lane, a cemetery as well as a memorial, with an eternal flame at its end, is a painful tribute to the 169 mostly young people who lost their lives in the “Black January” of 1990.

The most famous (most overwhelmingly large) buildings in Baku are among its most non-traditional. Most visible, from almost anywhere in the city, are the 190-meter high Flame Towers designed by Texas-born architect Barry Hughes. The new Carpet Museum is appropriately shaped like a half-rolled carpet while the 25,000 seat Crystal Concert Hall, especially built for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, is a more traditional, arena type design. Perhaps most impressive is the stunning Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, designed by Zaha Hadid.

Old Town is testimony to the importance of the city in the distant past. Badam dar (almond-color) tiny buildings abound in a labyrinth of narrow and winding cobblestoned streets, where carpet merchants and other shopkeepers invite passersby in, and beautiful cats appear at every corner and old ladies with brooms at every square. The powerful Persian Shirvanshahs, who were the medieval rulers of this land, fortified Old Town against the Mongol invasions, and built an amazing palace on its highest point. This grand complex contains, among others, a two-story palace, a burial-vault, a Mosque with a minaret, and baths.  The imposing 12th-century Maiden Tower has a rather unusual recent history: holes in its crumbling walls provided nesting places for about 250 swifts for the past 30 or 40 years. A special restoration project ingeniously provided the displaced swifts with alternative nesting space on the side of a nearby building. Loudspeakers within the nest boxes played swift calls to attract the birds while offensive (at least to swifts) odors were placed in their old homes – in a short period of time, the swifts moved out of the Maiden Tower in favor of new apartments!

An interesting stop during our Baku sightseeing was the Modern Art Museum, containing over 800 works by notable Azerbaijani painters and sculptors, particularly avant  garde art of the 1960s and 1970s. Our busy first day in the Caucasus closed with a brief cruise on the Caspian Sea.

May 14 - Baku and Gobustan
Today we took a short ride south of Baku to Gobustan, where more than 6,000 petroglyphs stand testimony to civilizations that lived there from 35,000 to 6,000 BC - the Paleolithic through the Iron Age. The small but excellent museum near the entrance of Gobustan National Park, takes you into the world of petroglyphs and the life primitive societies around the world, providing and excellent frame of reference for you are about to see – drawings and their (supposed) meanings.

The amazing rock carvings depict primitive people, animals such as aurochs, goats, snakes, and oxen, ritual dances, hunters and boats, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, and even pregnant women. Standing in front of the ritual dance drawing, our guide pointed out that the Azeri Yalli dance of today resembles this drawing from 4000 BC, and demonstrated why it is a song dance: hitting  the “stone tambourine,” a flat stone supported on three stands which can be struck in various spots, creating a range of tones. These stones were almost certainly used for this purpose in prehistoric times. The most famous “petroglyph” of all, is the inscription of a Roman centurion made sometime between 84 and 96 AD, commemorating the 12th Legion which reached the Caucasus in around 75 AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian.

On the way back to Baku, we stopped at Bibi Heybat Mosque, built over the tomb of the daughter of the seventh Shiite Imam, who fled to Baku to escape persecution by caliphs. We respectfully took off our shoes and the women in our group covered their heads before entering the mosque. Pious worshippers were sitting with their hands in a posture of supplication, and several were touching the grillwork separating them from the tomb, murmuring prayers.

Since the new Carpet Museum is not yet open (scheduled to do so with much fanfare on Independence Day at the end of May), we went to Baku's Museum Center where fine examples of 19th and early 20th Azerbaijani carpets from the collection are displayed in three rooms. We learned about the different motifs used on the carpets – nightingales and flowers symbolizing paradise, dragon seen as a protector of society and family, and ram horn representing manhood, male fertility, strength and bravery. Before leaving, we accidentally discovered a room where women were weaving at the loom, at an incredible speed. Even though we couldn’t communicate through words, we expressed our gratitude for being allowed us to watch and take their pictures with an abundance of obvious gestures.

Tonight we attended the Azerbaijan State Ballet and Opera House for the premiere of a ballet choreographed on a Carmen-like theme, “A Tango of Love.” Simply said, the skill of the dancers was at a higher level than the choreography or production.
May 15: Surakhany and Semakha
Our day started in Surakhany, on the Absheron peninsula, at the famous temple of fire worshippers: the Zoroastrians. Azerbaijan’s ancient Zoroastrian fire temples were fueled by natural gas, pushed to the surface from rich oil deposits underground, but today – with much of the oil here extracted – the fires burn on piped-in gas. The temple, reconstructed in 1728 and recently renovated, offers a glimpse into the life of the Zoroastrians who lived here for centuries: how they lived, what they ate, and what they considered important in life. We learned from our guide that even Alexandre Dumas spent time here, and Mendeleyev, who had his own laboratory behind the temple, made the first kerosene here.

On the way to Sheki, we stopped at Deri Baba Mausoleum: the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed, a very highly regarded religious ruler who died in 1402. He is venerated to this day, and is known as the “forever living” (Deri Baba). The mausoleum was carved into a steep rock, so we had to climb many steps to get to the entrance. But the climbing wasn’t over: the tomb is actually on the second floor, accessed via a very narrow spiral staircase that was a real challenge for most of us. Our efforts were rewarded with lunch in a shady gazebo where we feasted on wonderful fresh vegetables and cheeses, an assortment of grilled foods, and for dessert, tea with watermelon-rind jam. 

After lunch, we visited the recently reconstructed mosque of Shemakha. The capital of the Persian Shirvan dynasty which ruled these lands in the Middle Ages, Shemakha was an important place until the 12th century, after the capital was moved to Baku to get away from the all-too-frequent earthquakes. The mosque has been destroyed twice, both naturally (in an earthquake) and artificially (by Soviet Bolsheviks).   

We drove up a hill overlooking the mosque to see 12th-13th century tombs of the Shirvanshahs, which – sadly – seem to be in a neglected condition. They are enclosed by seven beehive-shaped mausoleums, in a cemetery surrounded by many old graves, where cattle are allowed to graze. We even saw a cow coming out of one of the mausoleums – she had found a very good place to cool off yet had the courtesy to leave no “present” for us!

In the evening, we made it to our destination for the day, Sheki: a lovely little mountain town, with friendly, smiling people, ancient Russian Lada cars in incredibly good shape, and open-air bars where young and old men (but no women) drink tea and chat in the evening.
May 16: Sheki, Kis, and Sighnaghi
Ancient Sheki was at the crossroads of trading routes along the Silk Road, and consequently had a very developed trading and manufacturing industry. As we drove to the Sheki market this morning, we learned that Sheki is very famous for its silk factory where silk is produced to this day from the cocoons of silkworms on the local white mulberry trees. The town is also known for its halva: a delicious pastry made of pistachios, walnuts, and honey, which we had the opportunity to taste at lunch. Sheki market and bazaar displayed the rich variety of local trade, taste, and lifestyle. Strolling through the market, we saw an abundance of fresh vegetables, meats, spices, fruits – even freshly butchered lambs and goats . . . including their severed heads! Several of us petted ducklings and chicks in boxes, and bought saffron to take home.

Our main point of interest in Sheki was the magnificent 18th-century palace of the Sheki Khans: a fine example of Islamic architecture that miraculously survived the Russian appetite for destruction after the whole region became part of the empire in the late 18th century (a trend that really took hold during the Soviet era). The walls and the ceilings of the palace are richly decorated with floral, vegetable, and animal motifs, in very intense colors, made from natural dyes such as onions, basil, indigo, pomegranate, tarragon, watercress, and chestnut.

We then drove to the village of Kis, where once stood a wooden Albanian church. Caucasian Albanians are not related to the country of Albania that everyone knows today: these “Albanians,” or white-faced people, lived in an ancient Christian kingdom established by Turkish tribes. The wooden church is long gone, of course, and even its later stone reconstruction of the 17th-18th centuries was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl visited the place and fell in love with it. Through his good offices, the Norwegian government helped Azerbaijan with the recent reconstruction of the church.

After the bureaucratic hassle involved in crossing the Azeri-Georgian border, we finally drove into Georgia, and made our way, a bit circuitously, to the lovely hill town of Sighnaghi. 
May 17: Bodbe, Tsinandali, and Gurjaani
On our first full day in east Georgia known as Kakheti, we left Sighnaghi and drove the short distance to Bodbe monastery, an active convent of 30 nuns, where St. Nino is buried. A Turkish girl, Nino is credited with the Christianization of the Georgian people in early 4th century, and is the most venerated saint in Georgia. Although we arrived just at the “official” opening time, unfortunately we couldn’t enter because the bishop was participating in services. On the way to our next stop, Tsinandali, the estate of the Chavchavadze family in the 19th century (currently a museum) we learned very interesting facts about Georgia from our talented and knowledgeable guide Tina. Georgia doesn’t sound anything like Georgia in Georgian: the natives call it Sakartvelo, or the place where the Georgians live. The language, called kartuli, is a member of a distinct language family, and has a unique alphabet. The alphabet is unusual and curly, and very beautiful –as most of us agreed, just by looking at the road signs!

A walk through the cool, shady English-style garden took us to the house-museum of the famous poet, writer, political figure and duke Alexander Chavchavadze, where we learned interesting details about his family, and even saw a Picasso and a Central Park lithograph by Dali.  In the winery of the estate, we tasted five famous Kakhetian wines: two dry whites made from Tsinandali grapes (one made according to Georgian technology, with the juice together with skins and seeds aged in clay jars buried under the ground); two reds from Saperavi grapes (Mukuzani according to European technology, and the other the traditional Georgian way); and a semi-sweet wine called Kinsmarauli.

Lunch in Gurjaani was a real traditional feast of Georgian delicacies, accompanied by polyphonic singing and other Georgian folk music.  The Georgian supra, or feast, was led by a toastmaster, who raised his glass several times to us, to the women in the group, etc. After the fourth toast, one of our travelers offered a toast and blessings to our newly found friends and the good relations between our two nations. Lunch was followed by local chacha, a very potent drink similar to grappa, and churchkhela: a sausage-like dessert that is made of caramelized grape juice and walnuts.

From Gurjaani, we drove to Tbilisi, and settled into our luxury hotel right on Freedom Square, before attending a concert by the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vakhtang Kakhidze. The program comprised Weber’s Oberon overture, Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante (a premiere in Georgia), and Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The orchestra played with skill and finesse under the intelligent, understated conducting of Kakhidze. The hall, built in the 20s and recently renovated, was perhaps the star of the evening, offering a full rich sound that was at the same time crisp and clean.
May 18: Mtskheta, Gori, Uplistsikhe
On a beautiful sunny morning we drove the short distance to Jvari Monastery, or the Monastery of the Cross.  The monastery is perched on top of a hill, which offers a breathtaking views of the confluence of the  Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers in the valley below, with the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta, now a smaller town, and its imposing Svetitskhoveli Cathedral lying between them.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is a very unusual church. The story goes that a Jew from Mtskheta attended Jesus’s Crucifixion in Jerusalem and returned with the robe. His sister Sidonia took it from him and immediately died in a passion of faith. The robe was buried with her but the exact location was unknown. Later, when St. Nino brought Christianity to Georgia and the first Christian king, Mirian, wanted to erect a church, the center column could not be raised. St. Nino prayed all night and the column moved to the burial site of Sidonia and the robe.  A small wooden church was then erected around the tomb, which is still within the cathedral, as are the remains of the 5th-century stone basilica. The cross cupola is a later, 11th century addition. Being Sunday, services were underway in the Cathedral, so we experienced a unique and unforgettable spiritual moment. The priests were dispersing incense and murmuring prayers, the faithful were crossing themselves, and a choir of men was chanting choral responses. We all listened in awe.

As we were driving to Gori, our guide pointed out the settlements of the internally displaced people, who had to flee from their homes in South Ossetia during the August War (also known as the “five-day war”) of 2008. Since they were mainly farmers, and the resettlement did not give them a lot of land, many are unemployed. According to our guide, the government wants to show that these people “exist,” rather than scatter them in Georgian villages where there would be plenty of land for them.

Gori is mostly known for being the birthplace of Iosif Jugashvili, better known by the name he chose for himself, Joseph Stalin, and a rather grandiose museum was erected in 1957 in the center of the town to honor him and his “achievements.” As we visited the museum, we couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there are many people here who think highly of him, and that the museum only shows the positive aspects of his rule. Photographs, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and numerous paintings tell the story of his life, from childhood to death. One can even buy Stalin souvenirs! Moreover, a huge Stalin statue that was removed from in front of the town hall in 2009 will be put up again in front of his birth house and museum. What a way to remember one of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants.

Lunch was resplendent with Georgian delicacies, including khinkali - Dean is now officially an honorary Georgian, as he didn't spill the khinkali dumpling filled with meat soup!

Our last stop was Uplitsikhe Cave Town: an intricate maize of caves carved out of a sandstone hill, inhabited from as early as the first millennium BC until the mid-14th century. At its peak, Uplitsikhe is estimated to have been the home of some 20 thousand people. Our intrepid little group hiked up the hill in the heat of the day, but the caves and the views from the top were well worth the effort. We saw “sewage” canals, recesses to collect rain water, the remains of a pagan temple, and carvings in one ceiling that looked like wooden beams, imitating “normal” house structures of the day.

Upon our return to Tbilisi, those of us who still had some energy left, finished the day at the National Gallery of Georgia, which acquainted us with the works of the famous primitivist, Niko Pirosmani and other notable Georgian artists.
May 19: Tbilisi
On a breezy, chilly morning, we started our explorations of Tbilisi, a vibrant capital lying in a valley between two steep hills, divided into two sections by the Mtkvari River. Located on a cliff, the 12th-century Metekhi Church was, according to traditional accounts, erected by King Vaktang Gorgasali, whose equestrian statue near the church overlooks the Mtkvari River and Tbilisi Old Town.  The church’s unadorned walls boast a treasure of icons of different shapes and sizes, and a side chapel hosts the tomb of a 5th-century martyr. To our surprise, the over-decorated iconostasis, familiar to us from other Orthodox Churches (Russia, Romania, etc.) is replaced in Georgian orthodoxy with a simple wooden or stone structure, and the icons on it are also simple paintings, “undressed” in silver. Strolling through Tbilisi Old Town, with its hidden alleys, ramshackle and weather-beaten buildings, churches, mosques and synagogues concentrated within less than 500 meters, one can feel the vibrancy of the multi-ethnic, multicultural Tbilisi of bygone ages.

We visited Anchiskhati Church and Sioni Cathedral; in the latter, the cross of St. Nino is kept. According to the legend, St. Nino received the “ grapevine cross” from the Virgin Mary and secured it by braiding her own hair around it. We walked across a very modern bridge to the other side of the river to board a cable car that took us to the Narikala Fortress and the giant statue of Mother Georgia. We then walked down the hill carefully picking our way over very loose cobblestones, occasionally without the security of a rail to hang onto – but made it safely to the legendary bathhouse district. Distinctive dome-shaped buildings, like beehives, rise from the ground – go inside and you discover the magic of the sulphurous waters provided by the many hot springs in this area!

Lunch at Old Metekhi Restaurant, overlooking the river, was unforgettable for all of us: world renowned ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, formerly a guest artist with the Houston Ballet and currently Artistic Director of Georgia National Ballet, joined us for lunch. Afterwards, she invited us into the garden of her home . . . literally across the street from our restaurant . . . an then offered us a private visit to the National Opera and Ballet building, currently under reconstruction. 
May 20, Armenia – Akhtala, Haghpat, and Sanahin
On a rainy, gloomy morning, we left Tbilisi for our final destination: Armenia. To entertain us on the bus, our guide Tigran, a PhD historian and polymath, gave us a little lecture on the history and etymology of Armenians and Georgians: in fact,  according to traditional accounts, they descend from two brothers, the grandsons of Noah: Armos and Kartlos. We learned that 30% of the 10 million Armenians in the world live in Armenia, which is only part of their historical homeland; the rest are in Diaspora. The first stop across the border was 10th-century Akhtala fortified church, located in the remote mountains of the Tavush region – we felt like stepping back in time to a place where time is suspended, like protagonists in a fairy tale – a feeling heightened by brooding clouds and mist. The monastery inside the crumbling walls of the fortress boasts incredible 13th century Byzantine frescoes. Sadly, they are in desperately bad shape, not having been restored for 700 years!

We made our way through Soviet style small towns with drab-looking apartment buildings and abandoned factories to Haghpat, a UNESCO World Heritage site complex. We visited it, along with Sanahin monastery, after lunch in the little village of Haghpat, which was extraordinary: everything came fresh from the farm onto the table! We had our indoctrination into how many interesting ways one can fix fresh vegetables.  At the Haghpat monastery complex, we had our first lesson in medieval Armenian architecture.  Constructed of basalt or volcanic tuff stone, these early medieval churches are three-nave basilicas, with little praying rooms in the vestry or vestibule. The open-domed vestry, often larger than the sanctuary itself, was reserved for non-baptized people, as many did not get baptized during the long Mongol rule of the 13th-14th centuries. Khachkars, or cross stones, as well as Armenian inscriptions, can be found on the exterior and interior walls. The simplicity of the undecorated interior is accentuated by the darkness of the stone.

We drove to Dilijan through the copper-mining region of Alaverdi and an area inhabited by Molokans: four villages of Russian-speaking Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians who keep their traditions to this day. We learned that with copper mining on the decline, 38% of the working-age population is unemployed, as the lands are not suitable for agriculture and there are no other industries in the country. We arrived in Dilijan in time for a sumptuous dinner buffet at the hotel.
May 21: Haghartsin, Goshavank, Sevan
Our second day in Armenia started at the relatively “new” Haghartsin Monastery Complex (10th-13th centuries), nestled in the mountains around Dilijan.  It was all spruced up in 2011, when the Sheikh of Sharjah, from the United Arab Emirates, gave 2 million dollars for its renovation. Today again an active monastery, the complex has a series of buildings, including three churches. A well preserved refectory is now an art gallery. Of special interest is the sculpture of the St. Astvatsatsin church’s eastern façade: two men in monks’ attire – the founders of the monastery – who point with their hands at a church model with the image of a dove with half-spread wings between them.

Goshavank Monastery is named after bishop-priest Gosh, the creator of the Armenian Medieval Civil and Criminal Code, who also initiated the construction of the monastery complex at the end of the 12th century. A statue in front of the church now honors him. Attesting to its cultural and educational importance, the monastery boasts a 13th-century book depository, which was built using the walls of an older, pagan temple, and later topped with a bell tower.  The complex houses one of the world's finest examples of a so-called needlecarved khachkar – a finely carved work with intricate lacy ornaments, carved by Poghos in the 13th century. In the Church of St. Gregory, four niches carved in four different styles (Persian, Jewish, Roman, and Arabic) highlight the ecumenical spirit that one overwhelmingly feels inside Armenian Apostolic Churches.

In the main church of the complex, this ecumenical spirit came to life as the priest of the complex asked us to pray together for three things: peace in the world; the souls of our ancestors; and for those in need of healing. Then we sang together quite easily, as we were relieved to discover, in a language we didn’t know….but it really didn’t matter!

Next we headed to Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus and one of the largest fresh water high-altitude lakes in the world. We stopped at Sevan peninsula to climb to an altitude of approximately 2,000 meters (6, 500 ft) to see 9th-century Sevan Monastery – two little cross-winged churches built of black tuff. Sevanavank is famous for three things: a 13th-century khachkar depicting the Crucifixion; the cross stones in the courtyard are not made on the usual reddish tuff stone, but on local stones that have a light greenish coloring; the seemingly out-of-place iconostasis, which was a gift from another church.

A leisurely bus ride along the lake took us to our hotel for the evening, tucked away in a small fishing village. Before dinner, we sat down in the lobby of the hotel, sipping Armenian brandy and wine while listening to our guide’s very informative lecture on the geopolitical situation of the region and the ongoing Nagorno Karabach conflict. We were the only guests at the remote hotel, but dinner was so exquisite that we could well have been at a Michelin-star restaurant in Paris!
May 22: Hayravank, Noratus, Selim Pass, Noravank, Khor Virap
On our way to Hayravank Monastery on the southwest shores of Lake Sevan, we were given a detailed account of the circumstances leading up to the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, of how they were carried out, and what the current status of the official recognition of the massacres as a “genocide” is, worldwide. Like Sevan Monastery,  9th-century Hayravank Monastery is in a gorgeous setting, but much closer to the lake. Surrounding the monastery are numerous beautiful khachkars and gravestones.

Our next stop was the village of Noratus, famous for the largest surviving collection of khachkars, in the village cemetery, the oldest of which date back to the 10th century. Our guide explained the purpose and iconography of khachkars while showing us some outstanding examples. Initially, cross stones were a sort of advertising for Christianity, and a very powerful visual image in the effort to convert the pagans. Later, after Christianity took hold, they were repurposed as tombstones (in the 10th-11th centuries). There are 20,000 khachkars in the world, all under UNESCO protection, each unique, and each with its own story to tell.

The highlight of lunch in Martuni was crayfish kebabs, a very interesting take on 'mudbugs" – not at all the way we eat them on the Gulf Coast, but very delectable! We washed them down with mulberry wine, whose taste grew on us with every sip we took.

As we were making our way on a serpentine road over the Selim Pass (2400 m/ almost 8000 ft), as many caravans traveling the Silk Road did,  it started to rain and soon we were enveloped in heavy fog. As we got off the bus to see the 14th-century caravanserai at the top of the pass, the mist lifted and a ray of sunshine streaked across the valley below, allowing for some photos. Stepping into the caravanserai was very dark and intimidating, but the laughter of some bikers feasting in a corner cheered us up – we were even offered a taste of their food! All these centuries later, the structure still fulfills its purpose, giving shelter to travelers.

We descended into the Areni valley, famous for its wines, and soon found ourselves in the Noravank Canyon, with dramatic brick-red cliffs on both sides of the road – we all felt that we had been transported to the American southwest! The spectacular setting of the 13th-century Noravank monastery complex was complemented by impressive reliefs above the door leading into the vestry of the lesser church: a representation of the Holy Virgin seated on a rug with the Christ Child and flanked by two saints; on the tympanum of the twin window over the door is found the only carving of God the Father in stone. He is depicted, blessing the Crucifix with his right hand and holding in his left the head of Adam; a dove — the Holy Spirit — hovers above.

The wine tasting with hors d’oeuvres that followed in a natural cave of the Noravank gorge was truly exceptional. The pomegranate wine was a real favorite!
Bbefore getting to our destination, Yerevan, there was one more stop on today’s packed program: Khor Virap Monastery, set against the backdrop of the majestic Mount Ararat. Unfortunately, the mountain was shrouded in clouds, so we could just barely make out the silhouette of the two snowy peaks. We arrived in Yerevan for a very late dinner, but everyone went to sleep content with the sights, tastes, and sounds of a truly exceptional day.
May 23: Yerevan
We drove through the “pink city”, as Yerevan is nicknamed, due to the omnipresent tuff stone that most buildings are made of, to the Erebuni (the ancient name for Yerevan) Museum is located, just below the ruins of the Erebuni Fortress (782 BC). The museum guide walked us through the small but very interesting museum, telling us about the powerful state of Urartu (9th-6th century BC), of which current Armenia makes up only one-tenth part. Two cuneiform inscriptions were found in the 1950s attesting to the foundation of the fortress in 782 BCE. This makes Erebuni 29 years older than Rome, of which Yerevanis and Armenians are very proud! The archeological artifacts (pottery, agriculture and viticulture tools, armory fragments, jewelry) are unique.

Next was the Matenadaran: a superb collection of 5th-15th century manuscripts, mostly in Armenian, but also in Assyrian, Egyptian, Old Greek, Hebrew, Indian, Persian, and Arabic.  We couldn’t but bow in awe at the wonderfully illuminated manuscripts, with incredibly vivid colors, on subjects ranging from religion through music, to geographical books. We even saw some curiosities, like a book about medical herbs and the method of teaching in medieval Armenian schools, and the biggest 13th-century parchment manuscript: two giant volumes comprising 660 pages! Another curiosity was the little red insects from which the color red was obtained, and the use of garlic juice for gilding – a cheap gilt trick that also functioned as an antibacterial.

The Cascade Complex, an attempt to evoke the ancient “Hanging Gardens,” was started by the Soviets in the 70s but left incomplete. Recently, an Armenian American, Gerard Cafesjian, purchased and completed the project; the park in front now displays part of his own massive sculpture collection. We couldn’t help but notice his affection for rabbits!  After another superb lunch with lots of vegetables and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), we visited the Genocide Memorial.  We couldn’t get into the museum, since it is closed for improvements in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Genocide next year. I am sorry we hadn’t thought to bring flowers to place next to the eternal flame in the center of the memorial. We had to settle for saying a little prayer while listening to a wonderful melancholic Armenian song played at the memorial, expressing the collective and individual suffering of the Armenian nation.

Tonight we attended a concert by the Armenian Philharmonic, and to our surprise, the performance was sponsored by the Romanian Embassy in Yerevan and featured a Romanian violin as soloist. The Romanian ambassador and a famous Armenian Romanian, currently a senator, gave long speeches that Zsofi translated to those lucky to be seating nearby. The three pieces on the program were exceptionally well-executed, and each was followed by an encore, so the evening was a bit longer than we had expected.

Dinner followed the concert, with a local duduk ensemble providing traditional music. Tired as we were, we rallied, managing to put away quite a bit of food.  Some of us even joined in some spontaneous folk dancing!
May 24: Geghard and Garni
We set off this morning to the Kotayk region to visit two very important yet diverse sites: the 13th-century Geghard monastery complex and Garni, the only remaining pagan temple in Armenia, which was built in the 1st century AD but underwent substantial reconstruction in the 1960s and 70s.

Geghard is an unusual complex in a spectacular setting: practically carved out of the surrounding rock.  According to tradition, the holy spear of the Roman centurion who pierced Jesus’ side is kept here, brought to Armenia by Apostle Thaddeus. Of the four chambers carved into the rock, three are on the ground floor, with the fourth, the burial place of the Pross family (the dynasty that founded the complex) upstairs. It took 118 years to carve the complex, which means it took about 30 years per room! An oddity is that the vestibule is higher than the sanctuary, an architectural choice dictated by the constraints of the space. In addition, there are Jerusalem crosses carved in the Church of the Holy Spring (third room), with a natural spring flowing through it.

In the room upstairs, we were treated to a beautiful performance of spiritual songs – a nice demonstration of the chamber’s incredible acoustics.

Below the monastery, along the road, there were numerous women selling very appetizing Armenian desserts – the Armenian version of churkhela, gata, and a variety of freshly dried fruits. It goes without saying that we couldn’t resist trying all.

Garni, located on the edge of a picturesque gorge, was once the summer residence of Armenian kings. Let’s see if you can follow this in a single reading: Roman architects built this Armenian temple dedicated to the Persian God Mithra in Greek Hellenic style in 77 AD. Since the Soviet era reconstruction doesn’t meet UNESCO standards, the temple is not UNESCO protected. There is a Roman bath house next to it, used by the Armenian royalty, with an interesting mosaic on the floor of the vestibule.

On the way back to Yerevan, we stopped for lunch at a nice B&B, where we had a demonstration of baking of lavash, the paper-thin bread one finds from here eastward to India, with tasting of course. The meal was exquisite: fresh vegetables fixed in a wonderful variety of ways, fish en croute, and mouthwatering lemon cake – all accompanied down by house-made wines and apricot brandy. The feast was so good . . . and so filling . . . that we agreed dinner before this evening’s ballet wasn’t called for.
Returning to Yerevan, some folks went out shopping at the Vernissage, an open-air market of practically everything under the sun – national crafts, jewelry, carpets, woodworks, ceramics, paintings, etc. – on the boulevard in front of our hotel.

The Armenian National Ballet’s performance of Spartacus was a novelty for most (if not all) of us. The very powerful orchestral start was relentless – the unfolding drama of the story, beautifully choreographed, kept us (as well as the dancers, of course!) on our toes until the very end.
May 25: St. Hripsime, Echmiatsin, Zvartnots, Oshakan
A short drive southwest of Yerevan took us to Echmiatsin, the Holy Seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church and residence of the Armenian Catholicos – the highest ranking priest  of the Armenian church. Our first stop was at the 7th-century Church of St Hripsime, built on the foundation of a pagan temple. The burial place of the eponymous 3rd-century martyr is in a side chapel. Before entering Echmiatsin Cathedral, we visited the ecclesiastical museum of the Armenian Apostolic Church, with its beautiful treasures of silver and gold goblets, reliquaries, mitras and staff belonging to archimandrites and bishops. Tradition holds that the lance of Geghard is kept here, along with relics of St. George, Luke, John the Baptist and many Armenian Apostolic saints.

Echmiatsin as the site of a future church appeared in the dream of St. Gregory the Illuminator, who started the construction of the church in 301 AD. Two years later a simple basilica stood, with a wooden roof, making this one of the oldest churches in the world (there are only two – Greek Orthodox – churches that are older). It has been reconstructed twice – the wooden roof was changed into stone and a bell tower was added – but the basic structure has remained unaltered for 17 centuries. Echmiatsin complex is both a religious center (with a functioning monastery) and an education center (with a seminary).

Our visit, carefully planned to be on a Sunday, gave us the opportunity to observe the start of the church service (which usually lasts two hours). The church was soon packed, and it was difficult to see much of the ceremony; however, we heard the amazing choir and observed the faithful gathered.

Our third stop today was the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, build by the order of Nerses III (nicknamed the Builder), Catholicos of all Armenians: a 7th-century circular, central-domed, three-storey church, which was destroyed in an earthquake in the 10th century. The novelty of the design is apparent; its only borrowing from earlier cruciform and central cupola churches was the interior cruciform plan. However, the architectural masterpiece was supposedly faulty in terms of very thin columns supporting the upper levels, which we could observe in the display maquette at the small museum there. 

Lunch followed at Ashtarak, in the memorial house of a famous Armenian writer, initially by candlelight as the electricity was off. Everything came freshly made from the kitchen, from mouthwatering cheese and vegetable appetizers to beef and potato soup and rice with meatballs.

The final destination on the program today: Oshakan, burial place of Mesrop Mastots, creator of the Armenian alphabet in the 5th century AD. Our guide initiated us into the mysteries of the unique script inside the Cathedral bearing his name, after showing us a series of beautiful Armenian alphabet khachkars in the yard of the cathedral. The 36 letters of the alphabet reflect the Armenian phonetics, but Mesrop also built the letters into a matrix of four columns by nine rows and applied a numeric code to each letter. Moreover, putting together the numeric codes of the Armenian letters in the Armenian names of metals (such as gold, lead, silver, or bronze) one gets exactly the numbers that correspond to their atomic numbers in Mendeleyev’s periodic table of elements. Mesrop’s alphabet also served as the basis for other scripts: the Georgian and the Caucasian Albanian alphabets were created on the model of the Armenian alphabet, as was Ethiopia’s!

We capped off our stay in Armenia with a farewell dinner accompanied by live Armenian folk and popular music and dances. Our Armenian provider even provided a big cake for the occasion, which Dean and Zsofi cut together, as if protagonists in a wedding.  This has truly been an unforgettable experience to all of us – thank you, Armenian Travel Bureau!