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.

Archaeology Wrap-up

The end of my time in Gyumri also brought with it the end of my archaeology job.  It was kind of nice because the digs only took place during the month of August, so I didn’t have to feel like I was missing out on anything by moving to Yerevan at the end of the month.

The only bummer was that we didn’t have to do any digging during the last week, and I missed the week before last because of my food poisoning. I didn’t get to spend as many days as I had hoped out working with everyone, but I’m still just happy I got to join them at all!

This was generally the process of digging… the guy in red dug first, then people sifted through the dirt and pulled out anything interesting, and finally, the leftover dirt was shoveled out of the hole to be carried away.

One of the other volunteers, Haig, joined me at the digs during the third week. He can speak Armenian, and that seriously changed everything. There were so many things that I didn’t completely understand and that no one could communicate to me because of the language barrier, and finally, they were all explained.

Views from the site!

In the list of fun things I learned is this: We wore gloves while we worked, and apparently it wasn’t just to protect our hands from getting blisters and covered in dirt. I don’t know how true this is, but they said that some of the people whose skeletons we were digging up may have died from something like tuberculosis, and it’s possible to contract the disease from handling contaminated bones, even thousands of years later. EEK! I mean, that sounds kind of crazy to me, but true or maybe not, I definitely wouldn’t risk it.

Oh yeah… remember how before I said that we were just digging up animal bones? NOT TRUE. We found some almost full human skeletons! On one of the days that I wasn’t there, they found some graves that had skeletons plus all of the stuff they bury them with to take to the afterlife. There were pots that were almost completely intact, and in the past they’ve found things like little glass vessels to hold perfume in graves as well.

I think this is the only picture I have to prove that I was ever on the site haha.

Soaking the ceramic pieces in some sort of acid to clean them

During the last week of the month, we got to see them washing and cataloging the different bones and ceramic pieces that we found. There was one woman who had the job of measuring and sketching every single piece. Geez. Trust me when I say that that’s an incredibly tedious job, and there were A LOT of pieces to go through.

Pot reconstruction

Laying out to dry

Imagine having to draw all of these…

Inside one of the storage rooms

We also got a mini tour of the storage rooms at the institute. There are rooms and rooms of shelves and boxes and cabinets that are completely filled with different things that they’ve dug up over the years. It’s kind of amazing! They said that they think this area was frequently under attack because they’ve found a bunch of weapons. Partly they think that there was at least one big battle (keep in mind that this is like 6th century BC that they’re guessing about) because of the locations and quantities of some of the weapons they’ve found, and partly they think there were just frequent little attacks because even the common people were equipped with weapons. It’s super interesting to hear about how they piece everything together and make guesses about what was happening based on what they find and where.

Tusk!

Guess what was the coolest thing they had (in my opinion)… a mammoth tusk! Yeah, I’m being completely serious. The woman, Larissa, who was showing us around was just pulling these things out like they were no big deal. It was kind of awesome to be able to see everything up close when I could easily imagine them being in a museum behind a thick sheet of glass.

A helmet!

Arrowheads in front, glass perfume bottles in the back

The van that we took out to the site

Getting the meat off of the cow head… eek!

On our last day of work, there was a party. Here, that always means khorovadz (barbecue) and a LOT of shots. This was an extra special party because they got a cow head (in addition to enough chicken to feed three villages). That meant there were also the special delicacies of cow tongue, brain, and face meat (that’s the technical term, obviously). The highlight of the day was watching a couple of the old guys taking swings at the cow skull with a hatchet and trying to break out the cow brain.

The food was great (I passed on the brain and tongue… I’m sure they were nice too), but the atmosphere and the group were what made the whole thing so much fun. Everyone was joking around and laughing, and I felt like I was part of a big family. They kept talking about how the work isn’t what’s important. It’s all about the friendships we make and the fun we have. Some comments to the effect of “friends who physically labor together, stay together” were made, and I’d say that in general, I agree. At the very least, doing that kind of work together brings about a different kind of bond. Even before I could really communicate with everyone, I felt comfortable with and welcomed by them.

Brain extraction

The khorovadz scene

In typical Armenian fashion, everyone made at least one toast during the course of the meal, and everyone always had a full shot glass. You know how there’s always that one guy at the party who is making sure that no one’s cup is empty? Well, he was at this party for sure. They were drinking some super strong, clear liquor that smelled like gasoline, followed by cheap vodka when that ran out. Lucky for me, water can look a lot like both of those, so I kept my own glass filled to the brim. No one even noticed that I was pouring into my cup from the water pitcher, and I got plenty of impressed looks each time I took a whole “shot” without looking like it even fazed me.

When it was time to leave, I had one of those sad/happy feelings. Sad because it was ending, but happy because I got to spend the time that I did with them. Now I can say that I’ve worked on an archaeology dig and touched 2500-year-old human bones, and how cool is that??! Talk about unexpected experiences.

Mansplaining

Traveling always has its ups and its downs as you learn the ins and outs of a new culture, and one of the ongoing struggles here is getting used to the way that women are perceived and treated. At home, there’s a certain amount of people assuming that I’m incapable of doing certain things because I’m a woman. I’ve gotten used to it somewhat, but I also kind of shield myself from it by choosing to spend time with people who don’t. None of my guy friends would ever even think that I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman. If they thought like that, we wouldn’t be friends. In that way, I’m very spoiled, and it makes it a struggle sometimes to step into cultures that have a different view of women and their capabilities.

Waiting for our buckets

From the beginning, I kind of baffle people here. When they ask what I studied in school and I answer “engineering”, they’re clearly taken aback. That’s been the case in all of the countries I’ve spent time in this year. The possibility of a female engineer isn’t even on most people’s radar.

In general, there are certain situations that bring out people’s assumptions about women better than others. Playing sports and doing any sort of physical labor/home improvement-type work are two times when you’ll DEFINITELY see if people have unbalanced views about your capabilities. I haven’t played any organized sports since I got here, but even just going for runs in the morning and working out at the park draw some confused looks. There are local women who exercise, but it’s still not something that people expect to see.

The men working hard.

Work-wise, I’ve had some frustrations both at my archaeology job and at our community service days. At the archaeology dig, as soon as I so much as touch a shovel, there’s someone there telling me to let them do it instead. One time, I went to move a rock that weighed less than 10 pounds, and they told me to leave it for someone else. Those are the times when I pretend that I don’t understand what they’re saying and just keep doing what I’m doing.

Much of what I do at that job is carry buckets of dirt. If I’m going to take those buckets, walk all the way over to the dirt pile, and dump them out, I don’t want to be carrying half-full buckets. Fill ‘em up! I try to tell them to put more dirt in mine, and one time, right as I was saying “add a little more”, the guy filling my bucket was saying “that’s a little too much”. I started having them fill three buckets for me so that I could dump the third into the other two. Then, someone told me I was going to tire myself out. -_-

Window painting. (This is one of the masters… I like him.)

At community service, I have more of an issue with people “mansplaining” (verb for when a man condescendingly explains something to a woman that she already knows) things to me. I have had painting mansplained to me at least twice. The first time, I was the only girl working in a room with four guys. Guess who was the ONLY person in the room to get an extra tutorial on painting? Yes, me. Did my wall look any different from the others? No, it didn’t. Did my wall look the worst out of everyone’s? Definitely not. Later, when we were painting the bottom half of the wall, someone saw me painting over a dried paint drip and thought that it was fresh. He came over to tell me that if the paint drips, I should wipe it up. I showed him that it was already dried, and instead of thinking that maybe it had nothing to do with me, he said that I needed to wipe it up right away so that it didn’t dry like that. I had someone explain to him (since my Armenian certainly isn’t good enough yet) that it was already there when I started, and instead of apologizing or even acknowledging that explanation, he just looked annoyed and he walked away.

All this means is that I need to do everything perfectly. That’s the only way to make people believe that you’re capable because as soon as you have one slip up, it means you can’t do it because you’re a woman. For example, if I was shoveling dirt and accidentally caught my shovel on the edge of the hole when I was throwing it out, it would be because I’m getting tired or I’m not strong enough to do the job. If I was a man and the same thing happened, it would be chalked up to me just judging the distance wrong and making a small mistake. There’s no room for errors when you’re trying to prove yourself.

Painting the tops of the walls

I was excited last week at community service because I felt like I was finally being taken seriously by the masters. I was specifically assigned the job of painting the top line in a couple of the stairwells (basically taking the place of using painters’ tape because we ran out of that weeks ago), and I was doing a darn good job if I may say so myself. They had chalked out the lines, and I was just freehand following along with a paintbrush. When I was probably 95% finished, some dude comes along with a paintbrush and one of those wide plastering spatulas and starts elbowing me out of the way saying, “wait, wait” and “let me”. I tried to ignore him and keep working, but when that didn’t work, I just walked away and let him finish the job. I’m not trying to fight with anyone.

When one of the masters spotted me leaving the stairwell, his face lit up and he led me to ANOTHER stairwell to do the same job. HE obviously thought my work in the previous one was fine. When I went back to check out the last 5% of my first stairwell, it was horrible. Like, the point of the job was to paint a clean line at the top of the bottom half of the wall. On that last part, there were almost continuous paint smudges above the line. All I could do was shake my head and hope no one thought that part was mine.

I obviously can’t prove that these same things wouldn’t have happened if I was a man, but I can say that none of the guys have had similar experiences. The only way I can keep from going crazy is by believing that anytime I prove an assumption wrong, maybe I’m playing a small part in erasing them for good. Hopefully.

Larkaeologist

I am completely wiped. I feel like all of my Armenia posts have started with a statement to that effect, but that’s because it’s true all the time! My schedule here is at a constant sprint. It reminds me of when I was in college and felt like I had somewhere to be at every second of every day.

On the bright side, I am happy with my crazy schedule. Probably the low point of every week is teaching my AutoCAD class, but even that really isn’t so bad. I think I’m just at the point of exhaustion with teaching. My other job, though, is awesome!! Remember how I talked about how I heard that an archaeology job exists in Gyumri? It does! And I’m doing it!

View from one of the excursion sites… in the middle of nowhere

During the month of August each year, the archaeology institute here does a dig! They’re working 5 days a week, but I only join for Tuesdays and Wednesdays because of my other job and community service Fridays. It’s exhausting work, but I wish I could be with them every day because I’m having a lot of fun. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me go back to the beginning…

During my first weekend at Birthright, I heard a rumor that there used to be an archaeology placement in Gyumri, and I immediately emailed Sona, our jobsite coordinator, to see if it was true. She said yes, and after contacting them, she told me that they do a dig during August and were willing to take me! Eek!!

We went to a meeting with the guy in charge, and he told us that on August 1st, there would be a sort of kick-off meeting that I should come to, and the work would start on the 2nd. When he found out that I don’t speak Armenian, he basically said, “well, you will!” and then told me not to be afraid to talk even if I might mess up.

View towards Gyumri

Sona sent me to the August 1st meeting with Liana, my translator for class. The “meeting” was exactly the chaos that I should have expected and consisted of too many people in one room all talking about different things in a million languages except for English. There is a German couple who comes each year for the digs, plus there were some other people who I still don’t know who they were, plus there were the locals who are working the digs. So by “a million languages”, I mean Armenian, German, and French. But either way, it was all things that I didn’t understand.

It was announced to all people in attendance that no one should speak to me in English. Great. I mean, it is great to be forced to learn, but at the same time, I’m not trying to mess something up because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. Liana was silenced anytime she tried to translate for me, and instead I was given all of the instructions in Armenian (thankfully, at a slow speed). She gave me a summary after we left, and I actually did get most of it on my own! We leave at 8 each day (which is VERY early by Armenia standards… Karen called one of his marshrutka driver friends to make sure that they’re even running that early. Luckily, the one I take starts running at 7). I have to wear pants and long sleeves, and I should bring a hat, lunch, and lots of water. We went on a surprisingly difficult quest to find me a long sleeve shirt, and after rejecting far too many with weird/awkward English phrases on them, we located a plain white, fake Louis Vitton long sleeve. Better than nothing.

Me in my most attractive state, eyes still recovering from my Vardavar eye infection

On the first day, I made it to the office without any trouble, and off we went! We headed to a site that had already been partially excavated, and the day was spent removing weeds. It wasn’t the most thrilling work, but I enjoyed being outside and having something active to do rather than sitting at a desk. The sun got to be brutal, and I was happy to be covered up so completely. I had a bandana that I used to shield my cheeks and neck, so literally the only part of my body that was exposed was my face. I found out that a couple of the girls can speak some English because they whispered some words to me to let me know what we were doing. Thank goodness. I’m fine with being spoken to in Armenian most of the time, but for instructions, I’d really rather be sure.

This week was pretty exhausting. We were doing some actual digging, so I spent two days shoveling and hauling bucketfuls of dirt. That plus the hot sun is more than enough to make you want to lay down and sleep forever. I have no idea how everyone else is doing that 5 days a week! Though it is a lot of fun, and the people are all awesome. They all try to speak to me in Armenian and are patient when I don’t understand what they’re asking. I’m definitely improving though! Besides the practice I get there, I really like the language class that I’m in now, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with putting sentences together and speaking.

The weeding site

They think that the sites we’re working on now are from the 5th or 6th century BC. Whoa, right? Everyone is amazing at spotting artifacts in the dirt while digging, and I’m getting better at it too. The constant question – rock or ceramic? They also were pulling out things that looked like wooden tools, and it took me almost an entire day to realize that they were actually bones. Yeah, I know that it doesn’t make sense for wooden tools to last 20 some centuries without disintegrating, but I just let myself go with my first thought. Then I was kind of freaked out thinking they were human bones, but the German woman said that they’re probably all animal bones. Phew. Less weird. We found some that were jawbones though and still had teeth! Creepy.

By the end of the week, I was spotting and pulling things out of the dirt too. I’m like a real archaeologist! Not really, I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s fun to pretend. Larkaeologist. Hehehehe. (Lara/Lark-izing words will never get old for me.) I also upped our digging efficiency by taking on the role of bucket mover. I went into the hole and placed buckets for the diggers to put dirt into, removed/replaced them when they were full, and lifted them out of the hole for dirt dumpers to take away (these are all, obviously, the technical terms for the different jobs). My goal was to have no lag time between when a bucket was filled and a new bucket was put in place for the diggers to use. It was a fun challenge to keep myself entertained, and I think everyone noticed how much more smoothly the process went. Before that, the diggers were dealing with the buckets themselves, and it was super inefficient. It was cool to feel like I actually improved something rather than just being another body doing physical labor.

Anyway, so far this job is everything I hoped it would be. Like I said, I kind of wish that I could just work with them every day instead of having to teach too, but that’s not possible, so I’ll have to just be happy with the time I have there!