Sasuntsi David and Yerablur Military Cemetery

Today on “Random Places Lara Decided to Visit”, we have one not-random-but-just-happened-to-be-on-the-way place and one google-map-located place.

Ceiling detailing inside the train station

My plans for the day included visiting the Komitas Pantheon and Yerablur Military Cemetery… because why not just visit a bunch of cemeteries one after the next? Actually though, they’re just kind of in the same direction, and I thought I could visit both on the same day without much trouble.

I took the metro to Sasuntsi David Station on my way to the Pantheon and figured I’d pay a visit to the train station and the famous David of Sassoun statue out front while I was in the area (this is the not-random-but-just-happened-to-be-on-the-way place). Before that, the last time I had been at the train station was when I was moving to Yerevan from Gyumri and was too busy falling asleep/trying to carry my stuff to admire the building. My general thought stream was something like, “hm this is nice. I’m tired. I should come back when it’s light. ZZZzzzZZZzzzZZZ.”

Inside the train station… the Christmas tree is gone now, the weird red lines are still there

David of Sassoun is a mythological hero of Armenia from a classic folk epic poem. The oral tales about David date back to between the 8th and 10th centuries. They were passed down from generation to generation and were finally recorded for the first time in written form in 1873 by Garegin Srvantsdiants, an Armenian bishop. It took him days to record it as it was narrated to him. In 1903, Hovhannes Tumanian, a famous Armenian poet, created a rhymed version. During the Soviet years, the story was further developed and made into a more coherent work because as a previously oral work, there were well over 100 variations of the story. The entire epic is called “Daredevils of Sassoun”, and it’s like the Armenian Illiad. It is divided into four parts that tell the stories of four generations of a family.

Sasuntsi David appears in the third part of the epic. He is a giant with super strength. He is brave, generous, selfless, peace-loving, honest, upright, and patriotic. He will do anything to protect his land and his people. The overarching theme of the epic is good vs. evil and fighting for justice.

 

Sasuntsi David

David was the son of a king and queen who previously had no children. They were visited by an angel who told them that they could have a child, but they would die immediately after he was born. They agreed, and so David started his life as an orphan.

 

He was a very strong boy, and after he grew up, he took his place as defender of the Armenian people. Throughout the epic, he fearlessly defends his people against invaders from Egypt and Persia. In one battle, to avoid shedding the blood of the enemy soldiers, he challenges their leader to a duel and emerges victorious.

The statue was sculpted by Yervand Kochar and was unveiled in 1959. Kochar was an Armenian sculptor and artist who was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, lived in Paris while his career developed, and eventually moved to Soviet Armenia. Sasuntsi David is one of his most famous works, depicting David on his faithful steed and holding his sword of lightning. It’s a pretty… epic… statue (hehe).

Isn’t it a cool statue?

The train station is behind the statue, and it was built in 1956. I think the inside is really nice, but there are currently some weird red lines all over the ceiling and walls, and they kind of ruin things. I thought that they were just an addition for the holidays, but they’re still there now, so I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

Yerevan train station

Main hall of the train station

From there, I walked to the Komitas Pantheon which I’m going to write about separately, and finally, I made my way to Yerablur Military Cemetery. It’s on the outskirts of Yerevan, so I took a marshrutka there, and we wound our way through the surrounding neighborhoods before finally making it to the base of the hill where the cemetery is located. There’s nothing else in the area. It’s just built on top of a hill in the middle of a lowkey neighborhood. If I didn’t know it was there (and wasn’t following along on my phone map), I would have thought I was in the wrong place.

The cemetery was established in 1992 and is for Armenian soldiers who lost their lives during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. There are over 700 people buried there.

I just wanted to go and pay my respects. I knew it wouldn’t be a happy trip, but war isn’t a happy thing. I try not to shield myself from unpleasant things because then you can make yourself forget how unpleasant they are. Then you start to think things like, “Oh, Armenia is in a never-ending war, and that’s just the way things are,” instead of thinking about the fact that war is a horrible thing and it takes the lives of fathers, brothers, sons, and friends. Each number in a death toll statistic was a person, and that person’s death was heartbreaking for a lot of others.

Coming into the cemetery

Church at Yerablur

One of the things that makes cemetery visits even more emotional here are the faces of the deceased displayed on the headstones. Reading a name is one thing, but seeing a face makes each person a lot more real.

Memorial at Yerablur

Church doors

One thing that I noticed very quickly was the general youth of most of the people buried there. As much as I feel like I’m getting old, I’m really not. Meanwhile, I would say that at least half of the people buried there never even made it to my age. The youngest person I saw was 15. A huge number of graves were for 18-22 years olds. At 18, you haven’t even gotten to the best stuff in life. Things only get better from there, and none of those people got to experience that.

Most of the graves are from about 25-30 years ago, but so many had fresh flowers on them. Some of them smelled like freshly burned incense. Thirty years, and those families are still feeling the loss. Everyone else might forget or be able to put the war out of their minds, but they don’t have that luxury. Then, there are the families who have sons there now, the kids doing their mandatory two-year military service. I don’t doubt that those families, those mothers especially, don’t let a single day pass without thinking about the war. It’s not right. Life shouldn’t have to be like that.

I hate that this cemetery even has to exist, but they did do a beautiful job of landscaping and giving these families a place to grieve.

This memorial is to the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). I had never heard of it before seeing this at the cemetery and looking it up, but it was an organization that carried out various attacks and assassinations, primarily of Turkish diplomats and politicians. It seems a little shady… that’s all I’m going to say about it, and you can do your own research if you want to know more.

Unknown soldier grave

Cathedral of the Holy Cross

From the cemetery, I could see a shiny church that I wanted to visit since the first time its gold roof caught my eye. I thought it didn’t look too far away… so I walked there. Probably not my best call because despite the fact that the distance was quite walkable, it wasn’t terribly pedestrian friendly. Live and learn… and I did live, so now we can all just laugh it off as a funny story that happened in the past and isn’t a big deal because it all turned out okay (Mom – I’m fine.).

On the bright side, the church was very pretty and worth the visit. There was a groundskeeper who came out to see what I was doing, and I was so busy trying to reassure him that I wasn’t up to anything shady that I didn’t even think to ask if he could open the door and show me the inside. I did my best to peek in the windows, and from what I could see, it looked beautiful. I bet he would have let me in, too. Life lessons: you’ll never know the answer unless you ask. And here, the answer is so frequently yes.

Shiny, right?

Erebuni Fortress

I’ve been aggressively tackling my Armenia bucket list over the last few weeks, and this past weekend’s item was visiting Erebuni Fortress. The way I’ve been making my bucket list, especially around Yerevan, is this: I go to google maps. I click on random things on the map that look like they may be interesting. If it looks like anyone has ever been there and liked it, I add it to the list. That means that, besides the mainstream sights, I really have no idea what to expect from things because I don’t actually know other people who have been to them.

Erebuni Fortress was one of those mysteries. I found it while browsing maps and was like, “Oh yeah! This is where the city of Yerevan started!” and I added it to my list. I don’t know anyone else who has been there, besides one old volunteer friend who I found out actually volunteered there… but clearly, it meant nothing to me when she told me that the first time, and I immediately forgot. I suckered Olivia into coming with me, and the plans were set!

Me and Olivia

Erebuni Fortress, also called Arin Berd, is on top of a hill in the southern part of modern-day Yerevan. It was built in 782 BC by King Argishti I and was part of the kingdom of Urartu. It was one of a series of fortresses built along the kingdom’s northern border and became an important political, cultural, and economic center. The name “Erebuni” is thought to mean “capture” or “victory” (but maybe not because there are like 50 other guesses to what it might mean). If you visit the site, the location they selected makes perfect sense. The hill seems to come out of nowhere. Surrounded by flatness, it’s a random mountain, rising up 65 meters (about 215 feet).

Walls and walls and I don’t know what this is because it wasn’t labeled on the map.

A town was constructed at the base of the mountain, and the fortress had a view of the town, the surrounding settlements, and all roads leading to the fortress. They think that the walls used to be 12 meters high! And if that wasn’t enough defense, there were three layers of walls. And they tied in with the slopes of the mountain, making access seemingly impossible. The fortress had a triangular plan and included a main courtyard, temples to Haldi (the supreme Urartian god) and Ivarsha (some other god), the palace, grain storehouses, and guards’ and servants’ quarters.

The formerly-but-not-currently-12-meter-tall walls

Looking towards the center of Yerevan.

The existence of the fortress was forgotten until excavations in 1950 rediscovered it and revealed inscriptions crediting King Argishti with the construction. They also found the citadel walls, pipes for running water, frescoes, statues, ornaments, weapons, and over 20 cuneiform inscriptions. The water pipes were one of the craziest things because they’re made out of stone, and one of the signs in the museum said the water was piped in from GARNI. That’s like a 40-minute drive from Yerevan which doesn’t sound like much, but it is when you’re CARVING STONE PIPES to span the distance. Crazy.

These are some parts of the water pipe system. The extra hole in the middle one was for maintenance. Can you imagine having the job of carving out all of those stone pipes??? Do you know how hard it is to carve a hole through stone without splitting the whole thing apart?

This wine jug was in one of the temples. It’s also huge.

There are also some awesome mural paintings on the walls of the palace and temple. It’s amazing to think about the fact that those paints have survived for almost 3000 years! Mostly, the paintings are just patterns, but some of them also show scenes of the gods.

In celebration of Yerevan’s 2750th birthday in 1968, the fortress was partially restored, and a museum was built on the grounds to display some of the artifacts found during the excavations.

We visited the museum first, and it was kind of underwhelming. I’d still do it again though because it was only 1000 dram (about $2) for admission to the museum and the ruins, so it’s not like I felt gypped. We also didn’t get a guide which maybe would have been a good idea. Eh, it was still interesting enough, and they had some cool stuff in there like the stone water pipes. I think part of the problem was that it was kind of dark and the font on the signs was small, so I just felt like I should be falling asleep.

Museum views. Kind of dark, right?

They had a reconstructed model of the site, and when we looked at it and noticed the painted walls, we thought that the modeler had just taken some artistic liberties. When we walked up to the fortress and saw painted walls in the very first building, we were VERY excited and also made mental apologies to the modeler for doubting him/her. To get to the ruins from the museum, you have to walk up a LOT of stairs. Olivia and I pretended to stop periodically to “check out the view”, but we were both just pretending that we weren’t getting winded. I used the excuse that since we were walking up a mountain, the air was thinning out so it had nothing to do with our physical shape and everything to do with the lack of oxygen in the air.

Model of the fortress. the part at the bottom of the triangle is the religious part of the fortress with the main temple, the top left part is the palace complex including the smaller temple, and the top right is mostly servants’ quarters.

To be fair, the view was pretty great. If we had gone on a clearer day, it would have been spectacular. It’s without a doubt the best view of Ararat in the city, and you can see Yerevan stretching out in every direction around you. I always forget what a sprawling city it is because I live near the center, and if I don’t have a specific reason to go into the outskirts (such as a random sightseeing excursion), I never do.

Hey hey, Yerevan! And Ararat is lurking under a whole load of clouds.

I don’t know what I expected from the ruins, but I think I imagined them smaller and in worse condition. They are not small, and it looks like they did a decent amount of work rebuilding things. The walls are only maybe three meters high, and I can’t even imagine how imposing it must have looked when they were 12 meters. We entered through the original entrance to the fortress on the southeastern side, walking past the famous cuneiform stone about King Argishti coming to this place where there used to be nothing but desert and accomplishing great works upon it… or something to that effect. Very modest guy, that King Argishti.

This was the outer post where visitors came before getting admitted to the fortress. This is when Olivia and I realized the wall paintings were real

They must have looked amazing when they weren’t 2800 years old!

Entrance stairs into the fortress.

We wandered around the ruins for a bit and marveled at how extensive they were. We also both ranted about how no one respects history and “kids these days” because a bunch of the murals had names and other jibberish carved into them. Like come on… do you really have to do that? No one cares about your declaration of love or the fact that you “wuz here” (I don’t know if that was actually written anywhere, but probably). Why can’t people just go somewhere, admire it, and then NOT deface it? I know, crazy talk. Sorry for even suggesting it.

The main courtyard, looking towards the servant quarters.

Looking towards the temple area from the main courtyard.

Temple hall with vandalized walls.

If we had explored the entire fortress, we could have spent hours and hours there. Instead, we explored a decent amount of it and then decided we were hungry and went to get dinner. I think we were still there for a considerable amount of time though because I ate before we went and was famished by the time we left (we’re apparently going to reference my stomach clock instead of actual times… mostly because I don’t remember those).

Anyway, all I can say about the general experience is thank you, google map browsing, for preventing me from missing out on a Yerevan not-so-hidden-but-definitely-underrated gem. Why on earth don’t more people go there???

Courtyard in the palace area.

Palace… kind of… used to be.

The temple area is to the left, and the palace area is to the right.

Back to the Old Neighborhood

Included on my list of “must do” things before leaving Armenia was going back to visit Gyumri for a weekend. One of my friends, Lexi, had an apartment there until the middle of February, so I went a couple weekends ago and stayed with her. There wasn’t anything too crazy on the schedule… mostly I just wanted to hang out and enjoy being back in my old hood.

There are three ways that you can get to Gyumri from Yerevan without having your own car (excluding walking):

  1. Taxi – takes 2 hours (unless you have a psycho driver who makes it in 1:30… but that’s really not safe), costs 10,000 dram (about $20) so 2500 each when you have four people
  2. Marshrutka – takes about 2.5 hours, 1500 dram (about $3)
  3. Train – takes 3 hours, 1000 dram (about $2)

This may seem strange to you. In what universe is the train the slowest and the least expensive mode of transportation?? Answer: the strange, strange universe called Armenia. I guess it makes sense that when one of those is true, the other also is… but like, when is the train the slowest mode of transportation??

Inside the train

Despite this, the train is without a doubt my favorite way to travel. As long as you’re not in a rush, it’s fantastic! There’s space to stretch, you can walk around if you want, there’s a bathroom, you can get work done because you’re not cramped, and the scenery is beautiful. It’s slightly less beautiful in the winter when everything is brown, but at least the mountains are still there, and they look great coated in snow.

Enjoying all of my space on the train

I woke up bright and early on Saturday to take the first train of the day at 8AM. I had an incredibly productive ride… I worked on my blog, I worked on my journal, I studied some Armenian, I looked out the window… and then just like that, we were in Gyumri!

I didn’t have much of a plan for how to get from the train station to Lexi’s apartment, but turns out that I didn’t need one! I walked out of the station, saw a #12 marshrutka, and vaguely remembered that maybe it went to the right neighborhood. They do have a list of stops written on the side, but there’s no chance it was going to sit there while I tried to figure things out. And I guess I could have asked the driver, but sometimes I like to look like I know what I’m doing so I blend in better. I figured that worst case, I would get off in whatever random part of town I ended up in and call a taxi. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary because we ended up exactly where I thought we would. Score one for my memory!

Puppies!

I dropped my stuff at Lexi’s apartment, and we went to have breakfast at her friends’ house. They’re trying to start an animal shelter in Gyumri which is definitely needed. They still have to raise money and work out more of the details, but in the meantime, they’re rescuing dogs on their own and working to find homes for them, both in the US and in Armenia. It’s actually kind of amazing (you can check out their facebook page here). In general, people here don’t see animals as creatures with any value (though there are certainly exceptions to that). There are stray dogs and cats everywhere, and people mistreat them all the time. I’ve seen people kick dogs, people get paid to shoot them, dogfighting isn’t uncommon, and even people who own pets don’t necessarily know how to take care of them.

We went over to their house to see three puppies that they had found roaming around on the side of the highway the day before. After checking out the situation, they realized they had been dumped there and left to die, probably because they were all female puppies, and people want males for dogfighting. They took the puppies in, got them checked out by the vet, and were starting to look for permanent homes for them. Lexi loves puppies, so off we went. I’m not a huge animal person (as in, I’m not interested in picking up poop or getting my face licked, so I’m fine with not owning any myself), but who doesn’t like puppies?

Isn’t it a little weird?

After a little puppy time, we went to cross off the only three things I had on my list for the weekend. I hadn’t been to the Russian church in town, St. Nikolai the Wonderworker Church, so that was my first must-do. It was built in 1880 and is located in what is now a Russian military cemetery. It’s an interesting looking building because the bottom part uses black tuff stone which is classic Armenian, but the roof gives it away as a Russian church. Its nickname is “the shimmering chapel” because of the shiny roof.

 

The cemetery with the church in the background

Painting in progress!

Pretty cool!

I stopped by a few times back when I lived in Gyumri, but it was never open. This time, we were in luck! We walked around the grounds first and then went inside. I guess they’re in the middle of some restoration work because now they’re in the process of painting the walls and ceiling. They look awesome!!! I love painted churches. They still have a bit of work to do, but I can just imagine how incredible it will be when it’s finished.

Number two on my list was kind of stupid, but there’s this road in town that was under construction all summer and is finished now. I mostly was just impressed that a construction project was completed in a reasonable amount of time, so I wanted to check it out. We took a drive down the new street, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s probably the nicest road in town now.

Number three was really the most important. I wanted to have ponchiks at Ponchik Monchik. I am convinced that they make the best ponchiks in Armenia (they’re basically like the most wonderful cream/chocolate-filled donuts). They always make them fresh for you, they’re nice and crispy, and I love them. In their terminology, a ponchik is a vanilla one, and a monchik is a chocolate one. And they’re both delicious, so I got one of each. And I obviously didn’t take a picture of them because that would have kept me from eating them immediately, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. As if those weren’t already enough sugar, I got a hot chocolate too. If that’s not the perfect meal, I don’t know what is. WAIT. I do. Add ice cream to that, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Unfinished ceiling of the Russian church

The rest of the day/night was spent hanging out, talking, and playing Rummikub (best game ever). It was relaxed and fun, and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes it can get exhausting living in Yerevan. I know that’s crazy to say considering I used to live in Philadelphia which is at least equally as chaotic, but it’s the truth. Yerevan feels like a big city, and Gyumri feels like home.

On Sunday, we took a trip to the vet to get the puppies and Lexi’s cat checked for worms. Ew. I was slightly less than thrilled with the situation because the vet’s office is tiny, and it was packed. There was an old woman with her little dog, a couple of guys with their cat, and a few other dog owners came and went. The woman was losing it a bit because they had to drug her dog. She was so hysterical that I wanted to give her a big hug, and I’m not a hugger. It was nice to see that there are some people who care about animals. She clearly loved that dog. When she and the other people in the office heard the puppies’ story, they declared that whoever left them was a monster. Maybe there’s hope after all!

Post-vet, Lexi and I spent some time wandering around the fields near the neighborhood. We walked around the same fields back in July when we first met (throwback here), so it was a fun full circle for our friendship. There was still some clean, untouched snow to play around in out there, and the mountains in the distance were beautiful and snow-covered. Field walks are also always good for conversations, and it was nice to have some time to catch up.

It wasn’t a very clear day so you can’t see the mountains very well, but just trust me when I say they looked great

Me and Lexi

You can kind of see the mountains better here… kind of

We had just enough time to eat before I had to get to the train station to catch the last train back to Yerevan. It was kind of crowded this time, so I ended up in the window seat on top of the heater… which tried very hard the entire ride to burn my butt. Slightly less than pleasant, but at least I couldn’t complain that I was too cold! I still managed to be productive though, so it clearly wasn’t that bad (after I folded up my scarf and sat on it!). I finished my Armenian homework, made some flashcards, and by the time we were back in Yerevan, I had them memorized.

I thought the weekend might feel rushed since I was only there for one night, but I’m so glad I went. It was just the relaxing escape I didn’t know I needed!

Matenadaran

I’m starting to have the feeling that I’m running out of time, and I’m not going to be able to do all the things I want to do before I leave Armenia. That feeling has given me renewed motivation to use my weekends wisely and start crossing things off my list again.

One of the big things that I’ve repeatedly put off is a visit to the Matenadaran, the manuscript museum and repository in Yerevan. Sarah and I tried to go when I first came to Armenia, but we went on a Sunday and it was closed. My family thought about going, but the week was already too museum-packed. I didn’t want to go alone, and that’s why it was put off for so long. Finally, I decided that I was going to go no matter what. I still asked a couple friends if they wanted to come along, and one said yes! I guess all it took was for me to make up my mind, make a firm plan, and THEN ask someone to join. That works much better than saying, “Do you want to do this together at some point?” because ‘some point’ never ends up getting scheduled.

Matenadaran on the approach

Me and Zoe

I met Zoe, my friend from church, outside the Matenadaran. It’s a pretty epic building, set at the top of a hill on the edge of the Yerevan city center. Aptly, it’s on Mesrop Mashtots Street, and out front, there’s a statue of Mashtots sitting next to a stone tablet displaying his prized alphabet. Makes sense that the creator of the Armenian alphabet would be the hero of the manuscript museum!

Can you find me in this picture?

The Matenadaran was completed in 1957. Before then, most of the manuscripts were kept at Etchmiadzin and the State Library. Today, the building houses around 20,000 manuscripts. Only about 1% of the collection is on display, and the rest is kept in environmentally-controlled storage for preservation purposes. They still receive new (old) manuscripts to add to the collection, mostly from the diaspora.

So epic!

Those doors weigh A LOT

Entry area of the museum

Inside the Matenadaran

Grand staircase (it’s a panorama picture which is why it looks warped)

One percent of the total collection might not sound like a lot, but trust me, it’s plenty. I knew that it would be a waste to go to the museum without a tour guide, so we sprung the extra $5 (split between the two of us) for a tour. As always, it was MORE than worth it. Zoe was a great museum buddy too. We both asked the guide a bunch of questions which she patiently and thoroughly answered. If we had just gone on our own, I wouldn’t have even gotten half as much out of our visit. Most of the stuff I’m going to say is based on what we learned from the tour, so if something is wrong, I’m passing off the blame!

The Armenian alphabet was created by Mashtots in 405AD in order to translate and record the Bible in Armenian. The first Bible was translated, and many other books followed. There were a lot of books translated from the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and our guide said that when that library burned down, a number of books were translated from Armenian back into the original languages to replace those that were destroyed.

The materials used to make the different ink colors.

The first books were written on lambskin and later parchment. They used all-natural inks, so the colors have been preserved in their original quality throughout the years. Blue is from lapis lazuli, a rock known for its rich blue color. Green is from copper oxide. Red is from the Armenian cochineal bug, found in the Armenian highlands. The bugs live underground and only emerge for a few hours each morning from mid-September to mid-October to mate. Gold is real gold, and it’s attached to the pages with garlic juice. How on earth did people figure this stuff out?? (Excuse the upcoming series of horrible pictures because it’s not easy to take good pictures of things covered in glass.)

It’s amazing that the ink is unrestored! This copy of the gospels is from the 13th century.

That’s one serious Bible cover

The Bibles especially have very beautiful covers because the quality of the cover should reflect the importance of the contents. Mostly, Bibles had silver, leather, or velvet covers. One Bible that they have on display was copied at Etchmiadzin and has a 6th-century ivory cover.

After the alphabet was invented, Bibles and other books started being copied all over Armenia, mostly in monasteries. It could take around two or three years to complete one copy. That sounds like long, but when you look at the amazing penmanship and drawings inside, it almost doesn’t seem like it should be enough time!

The original 36 letters of the alphabet as designed by Mashtots. For the old numbering system, the first column is ones, second tens, third hundreds, and fourth thousands.

Until the 10th century, everything was written in all capital letters. They think that Mashtots only made the capitals, and lowercase letters were developed later on. They also used to use the alphabet for numbers. When the alphabet is written in four columns from left to right, the first column is ones, the second is tens, the third is hundreds, and the fourth is thousands. From top to bottom, the letters are 1-9. There’s no way to write zero, so don’t ask me how they dealt with that. For numbers greater than 9999, a horizontal line drawn over a letter meant that the value of that letter should be multiplied by 10,000. The western Arabic numbering system started being used in the 16th century… thank goodness because that old system is confuuuuuusing.

Ivory covered Etchmiadzin gospel

These are some books that were in very bad shape and had to be grafted onto new pages to keep them from falling apart. You can see the original pages in the little pictures to the left, and the book shows those pages attached to new ones.

Armenians also used to have their own system for music. There are 49 classical Armenian musical notes and the great tragedy is that no one knows how to read it anymore. They can’t find a key that explains it, so all of the music that they have is unusable. I feel like someone should write a historical mystery novel where the characters are searching for the lost key (if anyone out there wants to write it, you don’t even need to give me credit… just send me a free copy of your book when it’s finished).

I just love how museums look. So neat and organized!

There are more than just Bibles at the Matenadaran, though at this point it might sound like that’s the extent of the collection. There are definitely MOSTLY Bibles, but they have a bunch of other cool things too. There’s a 6th-century book written by David the Invincible, the first Armenian philosopher. There are 5th-century Armenian history books, including one written by Movses Khorenatsi that was the first attempt to create a complete history of Armenia from its origins. Armenia’s first legal text is displayed, written in the 12th century by Mkhitar Gosh (he also founded Goshavank Monastery). Since, as you know, everything was done first by the Armenians, Anania Shirakatsi’s work is also displayed, showing that he claimed in the 7th century that the earth is round and that the moon has no light of its own and instead reflects the sun’s light, though he had no way to prove either claim (Galileo didn’t come along until the 16th century). There are also 3,500 manuscripts written in languages other than Armenian.

History books! Why did I never have any history books with such awesome pictures?

This is an example of a book that was copied from one at the Library of Alexandria, and now the original no longer exists

This inscription was found at a destroyed church. It is the only thing that survived. It was written by the builder and says that he gives it to his brother and his sons. Then, the brother adds on saying that anyone who destroys the inscription will not have God’s mercy. It was the only part of the church that was left untouched.

This is written on palm leaves in the Tamil language (spoken in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, etc)

The printing press was invented in Germany in 1440, and the first Armenian book was printed in 1512 in Venice. The first Armenian Bible was printed in 1666 in Amsterdam. Etchmiadzin eventually got its own press, and it printed its first book in 1772. All of those books are displayed in the museum.

There is also an entire medical section. Mkhitar Heratsi, the father of Armenian medicine, lived in the 12th century. Some of his books are there, plus many others. There are books talking about different herbs, Armenian and imported, and their medicinal qualities. At the Matenadaran, they have used some of the recipes for elixirs and lotions and other beauty products in the old books and recreated them! Isn’t that cool?? One of them, the “royal elixir” is made from 54 herbs that are gathered on specific lunar days in order to make the elixir stronger. It was used in the Middle Ages to give the kings “youthfulness and zest” and it “heals the heart and makes the spirit happy”.

These are the 54 spices used to make the royal elixir.

Medical book talking about herbs and their uses.

Looking out at the city.

Side tidbit: when we were talking about the royal elixir, our guide brought up the fact that at Etchmiadzin, they make myrrh every seven years. Armenian priests come from around the world to take some back with them and use it sparingly until the next batch is made. Each new batch is mixed with the old, so there’s continuity from the very beginning of the Armenian church. It contains over 40 herbs and is mixed in a big, silver cauldron.

Reading the biggest book. Captions courtesy of Zoe.

Finally, the funniest display they have is a contrast between the biggest and the smallest books in the museum. The largest one is 604 pages, and each page is an ENTIRE lambskin. That means that 604 lambs went into the creation of that book. Like what. It weighs 28kg and is the Homilies of Mush. It’s now split into two parts because two women decided to save it during the Armenian Genocide. They found it in the ruins of the church in Mush, split it in half, and both headed towards Etchmiadzin. One woman made it. The other did not, but before she died, she buried her half at a monastery. It was found years later by a Russian soldier. Those two women saved that book from sharing the fate of the estimated 20,000 manuscripts destroyed during the Armenian Genocide.

The smallest book doesn’t have a story to go along with it, but it weighs 19g and, in contrast, did not require one lamb for the creation of each page. It’s a church calendar, and apparently you can’t really read it with the naked eye which seems a little inconvenient to me… Oh well.

The biggest book and the smallest book!

It would have been a shame to leave Armenia after 9 months without visiting the Matenadaran. It was absolutely worth the visit, and absolutely x10000000 worth the tour. I am a lover of books, art, and architecture, so it was kind of like heaven to me, but I think that even if you weren’t, it would be an interesting and worthwhile trip.

Life Back in Armenia

It’s been a long journey, but welcome back to Armenia! It took me so long to write about everything that I did in Lebanon and Dubai that I’ve actually been back for a few weeks now. It’s amazing how much can happen in the city when you’re only gone for a week or so!

After I went home for Thanksgiving, I came back to a bunch of lights and light sculptures all over the city. When I came back from Lebanon, they were starting to take things down, and within a day or two after Old New Year (January 13th), it was like the holidays never happened.

I have a proposal. How about we stop calling them “Christmas lights” (note: this is not a religious or political statement. This is a “Lara likes lights” statement) and start calling them “winter lights”? Here’s my reasoning: “Christmas lights” implies that the lights are decorations for a holiday, and once the holiday is over, the lights should go away. I don’t like that. Lights are one of the things that make the winter less sad and dreary and more like a winter dreamland. Why do we take them down when we’re not even halfway through winter? I could use some winter dreamland encouragement to keep me from winter sadness whether it’s December or February! If we start to call them “winter lights” instead, maybe people will think that it’s okay to leave them up until the end of winter, and then I… I mean “we”… can enjoy the twinkly lights for a couple more months.

Spring flowers!

Speaking of rushing things, before the Christmas lights were even taken down, people seemed to just decide that it was springtime aka flower time. All around the city, there are people selling little bundles of yellow flowers for 100 drams each. I asked my coworkers about them, and they said, “Oh, they’re selling them because it’s spring!” I was like, “Uhh… it’s January…”

To be fair, this has been an incredibly mild winter. Throughout the fall, anytime I told someone that I was planning to stay until March, they took it upon themselves to prepare me for the horrible winter ahead. They said that last year, the temperatures were frigid, and it snowed a TON. I was ready for some sort of snowpocalypse, and I was even a little excited because I haven’t had a good, snowy winter in a while.

All of that mental preparation ended up being completely unnecessary. I think that Yerevan and the U.S. east coast traded winters because while it’s been horribly cold and record-breakingly snowy there, here it’s been amazingly pleasant. The temperature has barely dropped below freezing, and we only had snow stick once… and it was about a centimeter of snow that melted by the end of the day. Now, in mid-February, it really is starting to feel like spring. The temperatures are usually slightly above freezing in the morning, but by midday, it’s around 8-10 degrees C (about 50 degrees F). I’m not going to complain because if we’re being completely honest, I would have been miserable in a real winter. I haven’t experienced an actual winter since 2015-2016 because I was in Peru at this time last year, and it was summer there!

It’s looking like springtime! You can kind of see Ararat in the distance.

Shiny kitchen!

Life has been hectic since I got back. Work has been seemingly nonstop with me running from one thing to the next. I honestly can’t even remember what I’ve done since I’ve been back because I’ve been here and there doing this and that, and my head is spinning. The most recent big and exciting thing happening is that the kitchen project I’ve been helping with since September is close to becoming a reality! They held a few events with various donors last week, and the construction work should be finished soon! I think I’ll be around to see the finished product, though it won’t actually open until after I’m gone. They’ve done some training sessions and stuff to prepare, but there is still a little logistical work to finish before it can open for real. Here’s an article that appeared in the Armenian Weekly about the project!

Besides helping with the planning and the construction drawings for the kitchen, I’ve most recently been asked to help with the logo. That’s been a whole adventure in itself because I’ve done graphic design-type things before, but I’ve never made a logo. I had to learn a new computer program, and it’s been pushing me to be creative in a new way. I finally came up with something that I think is brilliant, but I’m not sure that they’re going to use it which is kind of a bummer… oh, well. Such is life. I can still put it in my portfolio though because I’m proud of it.

Check out my name on the presentation slide! It’s second to last 😀 it was nice of them to give me a shout out.

For the rest of my time here, I’m mostly going to keep working on developing new content and an updated layout for the website. Oh, and I’ve also been assigned the task of social media manager for the twitter and Instagram accounts which is another new adventure for me. I’m a woman of many hats… the twitter hat and the photographer hat are probably my two least favorite at the moment, but I’m still wearing them anyway. While I’m here, I’ll do whatever I can to help.

One of my ongoing sources of joy is the ridiculous English things they have here. This is on a school notebook… like what??

A bright spot in the chaos has been language class. Remember how, back around Thanksgiving, I finally felt like I was making breakthroughs with my Armenian teacher, Inga? Then, there weren’t enough people in my class, and Inga got switched to a beginner-level group. I was assigned to a different teacher, I started feeling like I wasn’t learning anything, not because my new teacher wasn’t doing a good job but because I needed to focus on different things than what she was covering.

Then, a couple weeks ago, one of the girls in my old teacher’s class told me that she thought I might be okay moving back if I wanted. Only she and one other guy were left in the class, and she said that they were mostly just working on speaking which is exactly what I need. I talked to Inga about it, she said she had been thinking the same thing, and I changed back!

Since then, class has been great!! It’s just me and the guy, and we’re both good at different things. I know more grammar than he does, but his vocabulary is MUCH better than mine, and he’s one of those people who will just speak with no fear of making mistakes. I know that’s how you should be when learning a language, but it’s something I always struggle to do. Inga is focusing on making us speak, and she doesn’t let me just sit there silently. That’s exactly what I need. I feel like I’m making big strides of improvement again which is exciting. She also gives us interesting but challenging homework, and I don’t even mind spending a lot of time on it because it’s fun to come up with funny ideas and practice writing. For example, for next class, our assignment is to write a biography of our grown-up lives if we had become the people our younger selves had dreamed of becoming. Little Lara was a riot, so I’m looking forward to working on that.

My neighbors are doing construction out in the elevator lobby, and it keeps on surprising me when I come home. This day, I took the elevator up to our floor and was greeted with this tape barricade. I had to go down a floor, walk up, and then shuffle along the one un-concreted strip along the wall to get to my door.

Another time, they were plastering the walls. The guy stands on this to get the upper part of the wall… but I was walking up the stairs and was less than thrilled to find this barrier in my way (then, of course, I refused to go and use the elevator, so I climbed up and over it to get home).

In general, I’m starting to get that feeling of time moving too quickly. Language class is great, and I don’t want it to end. I have some really cool friends here, and I don’t want to leave them just yet. At the same time though, I’m mostly okay with leaving. I feel like I’ve done what I came to do. I have some closure. I’m ready to embark on a new adventure.

Despite that emotional readiness, I’m still getting stressed/anxious about everything I need to get done before I leave. I’m trying to fight it because worrying is the quickest way to ruin an experience, but I’ll be honest, it’s not going incredibly well. I know it’s mostly irrational, but that doesn’t help to make it go away. I’m stressed and anxious about moving out of my apartment, the things I need to finish at work, the things I haven’t seen/done yet, the logistics for the mini-southern Armenia trip I want to do before I go, the plans for the week that my cousins are coming, and the plans for the little Euro-trip I want to take before coming home. I’m looking at that list and shaking my head at myself because they’re all good things that I should just be excited about, but anxiety is a cruel thing. I just keep praying for a sense of calmness and peace because there’s no way I’m going to get over it on my own.

Me and my coworkers! I’m getting close to them which is going to make leaving a little harder. From left to right we have Laura, Yelena, me, Olivia, and Hayasa. We went out to dinner together, and it was a lot of fun!

This was on the holiday of Trndez, another one of those pagan-turned-Christian holidays. It used to be a sun/fire worship ritual meant to help strengthen the sun at the beginning of spring. Young women would jump over the fire so that they would bear “strong and intelligent male children”… classic. Now, they say that the fire symbolizes God’s light and warmth. Newlyweds especially will jump over the fire symbolizing their joy and happiness (and not due to superstition/to chase away evil because that would be non-Christian).

Yerevan Church Adventure

New church, Kathoghike Chapel

A couple weekends ago, my determination to not waste the time I have left in Armenia led me to a mini church tour around Yerevan. By the time I motivated myself to go outside into the cold weather, it was already the afternoon. That limited my options a bit, but there were a couple churches on my list of places to visit that are right in the Yerevan city center. I’ve walked past one of them probably twenty times and have always thought, “I’ll have to come back to look at this, but I just don’t have the time right now.” The other was a bit hidden, but I’ve been within a block or two of it more times than I can count. I guess this goes back to the whole “walking around with your eyes open” thing.

Carvings on the outside of the chapel

My first stop was the Holy Mother of God Kathoghike Church. It’s the oldest church in Yerevan, and it has an interesting history. According to inscriptions on the walls of the church, it was built as early as 1229. There was a large earthquake in 1679 that destroyed the other churches in the city, but somehow, this little chapel survived. A new church was built on the site in the 1690s where it sat until Soviet years.

Fast forward to 1936 when Soviet authorities ordered the demolition of the “new” basilica so that apartment buildings could be constructed in its place. They did make the concession that the large church could be disassembled and cataloged by archaeologists and historians, and during this deconstruction, the little chapel was found built into the larger church. They could tell that it was a different, older church because of the inscriptions carved into the walls.

Inside the chapel

After discovering this previously hidden cultural gem, archaeologists protested the demolition orders and asked authorities to spare it due to the historical significance of the structure. The request was granted! Buildings were constructed all around it, but the chapel was allowed to remain. After the end of the Soviet Union, the surrounding buildings were demolished, and now it’s a part of a religious complex that includes a new church and the Yerevan residence of the Catholicos.

The chapel is only used for praying because of its size. Unlike so many Armenian churches, the chapel and the new church are nice and bright inside. That’s because one entire side of the chapel is glass, and the church has two gigantic windows! I didn’t think twice about (or even really notice) the church windows until I was inside and was trying to figure out what made it feel so pleasant.

Lots of pretty carvings! And you can see the top of one of the windows too.

Carved cross at the entrance to the church

Inside the new church

HUGEEE window… and there’s another, identical one on the opposite side of the church

Looking up!

From there, I walked a few blocks to Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin Church. This place was barely on my radar and ended up being full of surprises! Getting there was the first adventure. It’s hidden in the middle of a bunch of tall apartment buildings. If I hadn’t read about it ahead of time, I would have thought that I was going the wrong way. I was still second guessing my route a bit, and then, out of nowhere, there it was! The church isn’t anything grand or magnificent, but I liked it. There was a service going on inside, and everything about the building felt cozy and homey rather than cold and impersonal like some other churches.

Discreet, right?

Eerie tree outside of Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

The original church was part of a monastery complex built in the 1630s, but after the earthquake of 1679, the entire complex was destroyed. The church was rebuilt on the same site in the 1690s. The thing that makes this church unique is the second building on the grounds, Saint Ananias’ Chapel. In case your brain isn’t a Bible dictionary, here’s a refresher on Ananias. When Saul (later called Paul) was visited by the resurrected Jesus, he left the interaction blind. God spoke to Ananias, told him about Saul, and sent him to restore his vision. After Ananias prayed over Saul, he could see again, stopped persecuting Christians, and was baptized. That’s the only mention of Ananias in the Bible, but according to historians, Ananias was eventually martyred.

Did you know that relics are often actual body parts/bones? I didn’t. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Is it just me, or is that a little weird?? When we went to visit the museum at Etchmiadzin, there were all of these “right hand reliquaries”. I thought that was just some clever name or weird Armenian Apostolic thing that I didn’t understand. Well, I guess the latter is partly correct, but I thought there was just some symbolic reason for the fact that they were shaped like hands… NOT because they contained ACTUAL parts of the saints’ hands! Freaky.

Saint Ananias Chapel in the front, church in the back

The chapel includes a mausoleum for Ananias. I’m not sure if there are currently any parts of him there, but they used to have his right hand reliquary until it was moved to Etchmiadzin’s museum. Each year, it is brought back to Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin for the commemoration of Saint Ananias. According to the signs at the chapel, “his sacred relics bear miraculous power”. Okayyy. I understand why people want relics if they believe that they bear power, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be nicer to leave people’s bodies intact?? I’m obviously missing some essential piece of understanding because I still don’t quite get it.

The church and the chapel are simple, but I thought they were beautiful. There are some nice carvings and pretty khachkars on the grounds. They also have heat in the building which I was not upset about because it was a chilly day. For a last-minute, reluctant sightseeing excursion, it was great! It’s amazing how many random, hidden gems there are to see in this city. You could live here forever and never see them all which is precisely why I need to make the most of my time here! Sometimes I peruse Google maps to see what less mainstream things might be worth a visit. That’s how I found Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin! There are SO many churches and other places to visit here that even some cool ones end up getting filtered out when you look for sightseeing recommendations. Goal: find and visit as many random, underrated sites as possible before leaving Armenia.

That’s going to have to wait for at least a week though because I leave tonight for Lebanon!!! I. Am. So. Excited!!!!!

Inside the mausoleum

Inside Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Շնորհավոր նոր տարի (shnorhavor nor dari)! Wow! Can you believe it? 2018. I’m feeling good about this year based on nothing more than the fact that 8 is my lucky number. This has been my only New Year’s out of the USA, and it was definitely a different kind of experience!

Tree at the base of Cascade

I’m used to New Year’s being a sort of “friends’ holiday”. You spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and on New Year’s, you spend time with your friends. Here, that is NOT the case. New Year’s is a massive family holiday, and it launches a celebration that lasts an entire week, until Armenian Christmas on January 6th.

Like everything else here, there’s a lot of history behind New Year’s. Throughout the years, it’s been celebrated on multiple different days. “Kaghand” new year was celebrated on March 21st, coinciding with the spring equinox and the awakening of nature. “Navasard” new year was celebrated on August 11th, the day that the Armenian patriarch Hayk defeated the Babylonian King Bel, a tyrant seeking to extend his power over the whole earth. That day, Hayk killed Bel in battle with a long arrow, guaranteeing the freedom of his people and establishing Armenia in the year 2492 BC. (Hayk apparently had a pretty busy life because he also helped to build the Tower of Babel. That’s the tower in the Bible that people were trying to build up to heaven, and God disrupted its construction by making the people speak different languages.)

Ridiculous light tree

Next, according to the Julian calendar, the new year falls on January 14th. This is now called “Old New Year” and is still celebrated, though to a lesser degree than “New New Year” on January 1st, recognized on that date after switching to the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century. Does your head hurt yet? Yeah, same. During the Soviet years, the new year was celebrated three times each year: at midnight the night of December 31st, at 1AM (midnight in Moscow), and again the night of January 13th.

New Year’s is when Dzmer Papik (Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter) comes and brings presents. Families gather and eat a big meal at midnight after spending the entire day cooking enough food for a week. No matter the economic status of the family, significant money and effort are put into the table for New Year’s. People do what they need to do to create a spectacular feast.

The rest of the week is national holidays, and they’re spent going from relative’s house to relative’s house, visiting and eating more. Apparently, there’s a proper order to do your visits in. You would visit your parents, for example, first and move through the relatives and close friends from there. The most important people should be visited in the first couple days. I don’t completely understand how you’re supposed to know if the people you’re visiting are home considering everyone is going around doing visits… who knows. But even if you’ve been visited at your home by someone, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to go later and visit them at home too. Of course, each visit includes eating. It’s amazing that everyone in this country isn’t as big as a whale.

I didn’t know about these lights until last night! There are lights going allllll the way up Cascade, and they look awesome! There are some twinkle lights too.

More lights

High-quality picture of me with a light-up reindeer

I didn’t have any big plans for the night until my friend Liz invited me to come over and celebrate with her host family! I was excited to get an authentic Armenian New Year’s experience. The walk over to their apartment was super eerie. I have never seen the street so deserted! It was especially startling considering how crowded everything was over the last couple of days as everyone did their last-minute shopping. At that point, the shopping was finished, and everyone was inside getting ready to commence the eating! I got to the apartment around 11:30, and Liz’s host mom was just finishing up cooking. They live close to Republic Square, so when the clock struck midnight, we crowded around the windows to watch the fireworks.

My plan before getting invited to Liz’s was to check out the festivities in Republic Square. They had a concert and a countdown and, of course, fireworks. In hindsight, I would have been miserable there. As usual, they were setting the fireworks off terrifyingly close to the crowd. When I talked to my parents earlier in the day, my mom said, “You’re not scared of fireworks anymore, right? You used to hate them!” Welllll. I don’t know that I would use the word “scared”, but I certainly don’t prefer them. It’s much better when you’re inside, can’t hear them as well, and can still see them. Everything definitely worked out for the better.

Republic Square New Year’s concert

Besides having a great view of the official fireworks in Republic Square, we also had front row seats for the many backyard firework displays. They were everywhere. I saw some getting launched off the top of an apartment building earlier in the day, and I’m sure that’s not uncommon. Seems like a horrible idea. We saw a few flying out of Liz’s building, and it seriously looked like the people on the floor above were just launching them out of their window. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tree at an intersection because why not

Being in Armenia has made me despise fireworks (previously I just had a strong aversion). At home, I only have to deal with them a couple times each year. Here, it’s practically every night. There isn’t like a 15-minute fireworks show, but there are at least a few because every celebration deserves some firepower. I think there’s something else going on right now too because some of the explosions sound more like little bombs than fireworks. They remind me of the firecrackers that the operations people would use back in university to scare the crows off campus. Is crow relocation a thing here too? I don’t know, but I’m not a fan. I’ll be happy when we’re back to the usual five fireworks per night and no terrifying firecrackers. (Side note: if you enjoy reading about crow relocation like it’s a man vs. bird war, check out THIS ARTICLE. Crow relocation was consistently one of my favorite wintertime amusements in university.)

These are fun

Anyway, after the official fireworks ended, we went to eat the incredible meal that Liz’s host mom and sister prepared. There was enough food for thirty people, and there were four of us. Of course, everything was also delicious. I ate so much that I thought I was going to burst, and then they told me that dessert was next. Uh oh. There’s always room for dessert, though.

It was nice to spend time with a family again, especially after living alone for the last four months. Both Liz’s host mom and sister speak English fantastically well, so I got to participate in the conversation and really feel like I was part of their family. It was a lot of fun! After dinner, Liz, her sister, and I watched a movie together until about 5:30AM. I have no idea how I stayed awake so late, but I more than made up for it today when I slept until 2PM and still had to drag myself out of bed.

Tomorrow, while all of the locals are doing their annual family visits, I’ll be doing a family visit all the way to Lebanon! Get ready for another trip!

The Grinch

I have a new “favorite thing I’ve ever seen”. I’m sure that in the past I’ve said that something was the best thing I’ve ever seen, and whatever it was, it’s been dethroned. By what, you ask? The Grinch. The Yerevan Puppet Theatre version of the Grinch, to be specific.

A few weeks ago, I casually walked by the puppet theatre and saw a new show poster outside. Even though I didn’t understand everything on it, the picture was really all I needed. The Grinch, in all of his green, yarn-haired glory. At that moment, I decided I had to go. Honestly, I would have gone by myself if I had to, but everything is more fun with friends. Plus going to a children’s show solo is even weirder than three grown humans going to a children’s show without bringing any children.

Because how could you not take this picture??

Finally, I got some friends to nail down plans with me. My gosh, it’s hard to get people to commit to anything! My friend Olivia from work and another friend agreed to go. Olivia bought the tickets, and we were good to go! That morning, I sent a text confirming our meeting time with the two of them, and the other friend didn’t respond… Backup plan. Liz, other friend from work, was in the office on Friday, and I re-pressured her into coming with us. She had already said no back when we were figuring out how many tickets to buy, but I told her that it wasn’t going to be long, the tickets were super cheap (only about $2 each), and she would regret not going. Sold. She was in.

This is a horrible picture, but see how some of the seats are folded up for kids and others are down for grown people?

I know that I said Liz would regret not coming with us, but that was a statement based on nothing more than my own expectations for the production. I had no idea that those were actually some of the truest words ever spoken. From the moment we walked into the building, I knew it was going to be good. They were selling popcorn, and kids were running wild. Any theatre that you can eat in is definitely my kind of place… and it was good because I had picked up some snacks for us on the way which we were obviously going to eat no matter what, but it’s nicer when you know you’re not breaking any rules. Also, the seats in the theatre are genius. You can leave them folded up if you’re a kid and need an extra boost, and you fold them down if you’re a grown person.

Okay, the show. How do I even begin to describe the show? We really didn’t know what to expect going in. Since it was at the puppet theatre, did that mean it was going to be all puppets? No. No it did not. A girl with blue yarn hair came running into the theatre to start off the show, and it was nonstop action for 45 minutes after that. Best things about going to something intended for kids:

  • Food in the theatre
  • Audience participation is encouraged
  • Constant high energy because otherwise the kids get bored
  • Everyone speaks clearly because kids
  • The words they use are pretty basic because kids
  • Kids think everything is funny, so the acting is completely over the top

The whole crew

Hehehehe

I’m sure I could keep going if I wanted, but basically, my major takeaway was that I should have started going to kids’ shows a loooong time ago. I even understood what was going on! The music was all the Christmas songs we know and love, translated into Armenian. The story was slightly different for cultural reasons. Here, people don’t exchange gifts on Christmas. That happens on New Year’s, and Christmas is celebrated on January 6th. I like this way much better because I’ve thought for a long time that gifts on Christmas take away from the fact that it’s about Jesus. That’s especially true for kids because as soon as presents are in the mix, they become the most memorable things. I think New Year’s presents are going to be my new approach to holiday gift-giving. Sorry, I know… I’m always getting sidetracked.

Which one am I? I’m such a good copier that I know it’s hard to tell

Anyway, since Christmas presents aren’t a thing, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” doesn’t make much sense. They decided to go with the much more direct “Who Stole the Gifts?” for the title. The town is obsessed with the new year. They do not live in Whoville. Cindy Lou Who is Dzyun Anushik, aka sweet snow (kind of weird no matter what, but slightly less weird because Anush/Anushik is an actual name). Santa Claus is Dzmer Papik, aka Grandfather Winter. The Grinch hates the new year because he was born green (GREEN! *gasp*) and therefore had no friends, was loved by no one, and never got any presents.

The first song of the show was crazy and energy-filled, and I didn’t even care that they were people and not puppets. Then… song #2… PUPPETS. No clue why they were necessary (they really weren’t), but I’m never going to complain about something like that. The dog, Max, was also a puppet, handled by a puppeteer in a white jumpsuit and hood.

The Grinch, Max, and the puppeteer

It had everything I hoped for and more: stupid humor that the kids LOVED, audience participation, puppets, bad lip syncing, hilariously translated Christmas songs, PUPPETS, dancing, and a feel-good ending. And I understood most of it!

Curtain closing. Encore, encore!

Puppet displays

Like I said, the supermarkets are completely swamped. At this one, they had extra stock piled in front of all of the shelves so that they wouldn’t run out of things. One part hilarious, one part brilliant. And also much harder to navigate your way through the store because you simultaneously have more people and less aisle space.

When we left, we all agreed that it was valid to say that missing out on the show was something to be regretted. Thank goodness because I was just making that up to convince Liz to come. It was the perfect way to kick off the holiday season and holiday VACATION!

I’m so excited to have some time off work and to go to Lebanon! Work has been chaotic, and I can tell that I need a break. The construction project is coming along, and they think it should mostly be finished by the beginning of February! I can’t believe I’m going to get to see the finished product! Everyone takes off during the first week of the year between New Year’s and Christmas, so luckily that means I’m only going to miss a week of work for my trip which isn’t a big deal.

Otherwise, the city has been crazy with everyone getting ready for the holidays. All of the supermarkets are swamped, traffic is insane, and there are just people everywhere. I’m excited to experience the New Year’s festivities!

More light pictures! LOOK AT THIS

I think this is my favorite one so far

Inside a light ornament with Liz and Daniel, a guy from my language class

Sergei Parajanov Museum

I’ve been trying not to fall into the trap of feeling like I have so much longer to spend in Armenia and getting less aggressive with the sightseeing. I definitely have been failing a little bit, and we’re going to put some of the blame on the cold weather. That’s not much of an excuse though because there are so many things to see within Yerevan that I barely have to go anywhere to see or do something new.

The museum also has collages and artwork made by Parajanov’s friends or just made by people to honor him. The one is called “Parajanov in Prison”.

One Saturday, one of my friends, Tara, asked me if I wanted to go with her to the Sergei Parajanov museum. I didn’t know much about him or about the museum, but I knew that some of my friends had been there before and enjoyed it, so why not? We got there close to closing time but had just enough time to do a tour, and that ended up being a fantastic decision. It seems like that’s kind of a theme here. In a lot of places, I think that you can do just fine in a museum without a tour guide, but there are so many museums that I’ve been to here where your experience is made at least 50x better by going on a tour. Maybe it’s a language thing because there aren’t as many English descriptions of things, but I also think they just do a good job with the tours in general.

Sergei Parajanov was an Armenian director and artist who was alive during the Soviet years. He was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, so if anyone tries to tell you he’s Georgian, ignore them! HE’S ARMENIAN. His given name was Sarkis Parajanyants, and what could be more Armenian than that??

Parajanov was born in 1924 and studied a variety of creative arts including voice, violin, and ballet before finally going to film school. His life was filled with plenty of struggles. In 1948, he was imprisoned for 7 months on homosexual charges. In 1951, he married a Muslim Tatar girl who was murdered within the year by her relatives for marrying outside of her religion. He married again in 1955, at age 31, to a 17-year-old, and they had one child in 1958 before divorcing in 1962.

A rooster made of hair pins

Since he was working during Soviet years, everything he did had to be approved by the authorities. In order for him to create a film, he had to get funding from the government. He started directing films in 1954 and released his first film that achieved worldwide fame in 1964, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  After its release, he was blacklisted by the government for “supporting Ukrainian nationalists”. This put his other projects in jeopardy. His next influential film, The Color of Pomegranates, was released in 1969 and tells the story of Sayat Nova. This film was re-cut by the authorities before its release, and he was punished for speaking out and criticizing Soviet cinema. After that, his projects were all rejected.

In 1973, he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in a Ukrainian prison. People protested internationally, and despite the dangers associated with protesting within the Soviet Union, some people spoke out there as well. He was released after four years and wasn’t allowed to create more films, so he used his creative energy to make collages which he called compressed films. In 1982, he was imprisoned AGAIN, this time for 10 months on bribery charges.

Finally, in 1984, he was allowed to create another film. He was even allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and he attended an international film festival in the Netherlands where he won an award. He was in the middle of working on an autobiographical project when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1990, right around the collapse of the Soviet Union and at the age of 66. He is considered a genius, and it is unfortunate that he was never able to create free from the constraints of the Soviet system.

The Yerevan museum is in a house that was intended for him, but he passed away before ever living there. It’s filled with a ton of his collages, and they are hilarious. He was one of those people who, if you ever left anything at his house or unattended for a second, you could expect to come back and find it irreversibly altered. He wouldn’t apologize but rather would tell you that he improved it.

There was one collage that the base was a piece of art that was given to him by a friend. Parajanov, of course, thought that it could be better, and so he took it upon himself to improve it. Can you imagine giving someone a painting as a gift and then coming back and seeing that they glued stuff all over it? Or there was another one where he took a cane (that someone left at his house maybe?) and integrated it into a collage.

He also used an incredible quantity of baby doll heads. Pretty much all of his art is made from things that he found, but Tara and I were amused anyway at the thought of him going to a toy store, looking at the dolls, and picking one out, thinking, “Ah, yes! This is precisely the type of doll head I need for my next work!” Sometimes things don’t have to be true for them to be funny.

This collage is of Romulus and Remus, the twins from Roman mythology whose story led to the founding of the city of Rome. Romulus is the one with the full torch and Remus is the one with the torch cut off, symbolizing Remus’s death, supposedly at the hands of his brother.

The flower collage with the perfume bottle in the bottom right corner.

I think Tara and I laughed through about 90% of the tour. Parajanov was a funny dude, and our tour guide was also awesome. Sometimes, our guide would explain something, and we would both just look at him like, “You have to be kidding…” For example, there was a glass collage in the shape of a flower, and he said that since flowers are smell good, Parajanov stuck a perfume bottle in the corner of the collage. Almost painfully literal.

There is a bunch of stuff that he created while he was in prison, including dolls, collages, and sketches. Even with incredibly limited resources and resistance from the prison guards, he still kept making things. It’s actually pretty amazing that so many of his creations survived.

The best part of the whole museum is his Mona Lisa collages. The actual Mona Lisa is, in the opinion of some people, kind of overrated. I don’t know what Parajanov thought of it, but I do know at least that he thought he could make it better. In my opinion, he definitely did. He made a whole series of different Mona Lisas, and they’re all beyond awesome. When we walked into the room with them, Tara called my name and just pointed at the wall… and the second I looked, I completely lost it. They are hilarious. Like this guy was a total genius. Imagine looking at one of the most celebrated works of art and thinking, “That’s nice, I could make it even nicer.” And then he did. Eleven times.

The Mona Lisas

I’ll just let these speak for themselves.

His work is wacky and weird and ego-filled, and I loved it. Tara had a cool story about him too. Her parents got married in Armenia, and afterwards, they went to Georgia for part of their honeymoon. When they were in Tbilisi, they just asked around until they found where he lived, and they MET him! They were with another couple who had also just gotten married, and Parajanov quickly whipped up some earrings for the two women as wedding presents. How cool is that?!?!

If you’re ever in Yerevan and you have the time, you MUST go to this museum. Seriously, it’s one of the best ones I’ve been to in Armenia. I think you can also watch his films on Youtube if you’re interested. I haven’t gotten around to watching any of them yet, but they’re on my list.

Me and Tara with our favorite wall in the museum

Outside of the museum

Christmas Round 1 and New Friends

It’s weird being away from home for Christmas. It’s even weirder being away from home for Christmas and having no one around celebrating. In some ways, I think that’s made it much easier. I don’t have to look around here and see everyone celebrating with their families while my family is halfway around the world. Instead, today was just like every other day. People went to work, kids went to school, and stores were open.

Nativity scene on Northern Avenue

When it comes time for Christmas to be celebrated here, on January 6th, I’ll be in Lebanon! I’m going to visit Badveli Nishan and Maria, family friends who moved there this year (shout out to Badveli’s blog for interesting musings on life in Lebanon). They came to Armenia for a week back in October, and we were able to meet up a couple of times. While they were here, they invited me to spend Christmas with them in Beirut! I’m super excited to get to see them, experience Christmas in a new place, and be surrounded by adoptive family for the holidays!

I made some earrings to get into the holiday spirit!

Even though it’s an adjustment not being home for the holidays, I have been making some new, good friends here which makes it easier. It was hard after a bunch of my friends from the summer left, and over the last month or so, things started falling into place again, both with brand new friends and reconnecting with some old ones.

At work, we have a really fun group! Besides me, there are three other people volunteering there, Hagop, Liz, and Olivia. They’re all nice, and two out of three of them are going to be here longer than I am! That means no hard goodbyes with Hagop and Olivia because it’s always easier to be the leaver rather than the left. I’ve started talking more with Yelena, one of the full-time staff at work, and she’s great too. Feeling like I have a little community there makes going to work much more enjoyable.

Ice skating with Zoe

I also made a new friend at church, Zoe. She’s going to be in Armenia for at least a year, so there’s another person who I don’t have to worry about leaving me! We went ice skating together a couple weeks ago, and once you’ve been ice skating with someone, your relationship reaches a whole new level… one hour of skating in circles, trying not to fall or skate over a child, and talking about anything and everything. It’s quite the friendship exercise (both physically and emotionally).

I think it’s cool to have friends from all different parts of life because then you get to bring them together and see what happens! My birthday was a perfect opportunity for that. For the opera, our group was me, Liz, Olivia, Zoe, and Gabrielle who is a friend from my old language class. Only Liz and Olivia knew each other ahead of time, and it was a ton of fun! When we went out for dessert afterward, Olivia and Gabrielle swapped out with Faith and Alina, a Birthright friend and an ex-BR friend who is now working in Yerevan. I like getting to see people connect, and when you’re friends with a bunch of different people, you feel like it’s only right that they meet and like each other.

Cake for Zoe’s Christmas Eve birthday

I’ve been trying to be less of a hermit (it’s too easy to let that happen when you live alone), and that requires an active effort which can be a struggle. That’s especially true when work nights are involved because all I want to do on non-language class days is go home and sleep! A couple weeks ago, I went with Hagop and Olivia to a screening of a genocide documentary called “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction”. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, and it turned out to be incredibly interesting. I have seen and read plenty of things about the Armenian Genocide, but this took a different approach than most. It followed the filming of the movie “The Promise”. There were mixed reviews on the quality of the storyline in that movie, but that’s really not the point. The point is that for years, people have been trying to make a major, mainstream movie about the Armenian Genocide, and every time, it’s been shut down somehow due to pressure from the Turkish government. The US has strategic reasons for wanting to stay on Turkey’s good side, so rather than standing on the side of justice, the US government has failed to acknowledge and condemn the actions of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago and has even contributed to pressuring production companies to abandon projects.

See? Don’t we look like old friends?

This documentary told the story of the genocide while also weaving in other stories: what happened to previous attempts to make a movie like this, people’s individual experiences during the genocide, impacts of the persistent denial, etc. It also gave some genocide deniers a chance to speak, and that was interesting because I’ve never heard anything like that before. I guess I should have known that such people existed considering that there are even people who deny the Holocaust happened, but it was strange to actually hear the voices of denial. They say that it was a war and that yes, many Armenians died, but that’s what happens in a war, and many Ottoman Turks died as well. Forget the fact that a huge number of the Armenians were women, children, and the elderly and that the Ottoman Turks were mostly able-bodied soldiers… Anyway, it was surreal and a little discomforting to hear people questioning something I’ve known as fact for my entire life. I strongly recommend checking it out if you get the chance!

Fountain lights in Republic Square. I love these!!!

I’ve also been making some new friends in my new language class. I haven’t talked about that yet, have I? I’m pretty sure that the last time I mentioned language class, I was raving about how awesome my class was and how well things were going with my teacher and how happy I was. Yeah… so probably the week after that, I was informed that I was switching classes. Devastating. I had the option of staying with my teacher and joining her new class but was warned that it would probably be too easy. After trying to stay with her for one class, I was forced to admit that I needed to get over it and move on. It was kind of cool to see how far I’ve come since my teacher’s new class was at the point where I was probably three months ago, but mostly I was just depressed because I knew that I had to get to know a whole new class and a new teacher.

Now, it’s been about three weeks with my new class, and it’s not so bad. This class is definitely at a higher level than my original class, and it’s pushing me to learn more. That’s good I guess. I’m still getting used to the teaching style and the other students, but I’ll get there. The best part is that everyone in the class can read Armenian which means no more transliterating words on the board. A recommendation for anyone seriously trying to learn a language with a different alphabet – learn the alphabet as soon as possible because it makes everything else SO much easier. At least with Armenian, there are a bunch of sounds that can’t be described with transliterated spellings, so you’re basically learning everything kind of wrong until you learn the correct sounds of the alphabet. Now that I can read, trying to do anything transliterated is a massive struggle because it all just seems wrong.

Anyway, things are going great for me right now. I feel happy and comfortable in my life here, and that’s exciting! It’s also good because I still have two months to go. If I was feeling unhappy, we’d be in trouble!

More Republic Square fountain lights. Don’t these look like Cinderella carriages?

Light tunnel in Republic Square