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.

Ready for more walking? How about more rain, some ruins, and a little bit of everything else? I left off my last post at St. George Maronite Cathedral in downtown Beirut. Directly next to the church and Al-Amin Mosque, there’s a large area filled with ruins! At the moment, it doesn’t look like much besides a grass-covered pile of rocks. There are a few columns standing, but besides that, it’s hard to tell what exactly is there. Supposedly though, the ruins date back to the Hellenistic period (around 320BC – 30BC) and have layers from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman times as well.

Future Garden of Forgiveness

The site was discovered during the post-civil war excavations. There’s a procedure to follow when ancient ruins are found during construction: construction halts, the authorities are notified, and archaeological excavations are undertaken until they are considered complete. Then, a decision is made about what will happen, based on the findings and secretly probably the level of influence of the developer. The ruins are either left in place, moved, or demolished to make way for the construction.

These particular ruins have been set aside in the Beirut master plan as an area to be left unbuilt. The intersection of the Roman city’s two major streets was found there, and archaeologists also think that the famous Roman law school was located nearby. They haven’t found the school, but they know it was next to a church whose ruins have been located. There was a competition to decide what to do with the land, and a plan for creating a “Garden of Forgiveness” was selected. The project hopes to be “a step towards social harmony in Beirut by raising awareness about the need to resolve historical grievances”. The plan integrates the ruins and also includes lots of trees and water features and other things that I guess are supposed to suggest peacefulness and harmony. The construction is currently on hold though, so for the time being, the overgrown pile of rocks is here to stay.

The ruins with St. George in the background
Outside of St. George

There’s ANOTHER St. George church on the other side of the ruins, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It was originally built in the 1760s, but there had already been churches on the same site for hundreds of years by then. The first known church there was built in the 5th century AD, and that’s the one I mentioned that they know was located next to the Roman law school. That church was destroyed along with the law school in the 6th-century earthquake, and a new church was built in the 12th century. Another earthquake in the 18th century destroyed that one as well, and another new church was built. During the civil war, the church was shelled and left in ruins. Geez. Talk about bad luck.

When they decided to rebuild the church in the 1990s, they used the opportunity that the ruined church presented to conduct some archaeological excavations before reconstruction. Over about a year and a half, archaeologists worked to uncover and decode the layers of history underneath the church. They found the ancient cathedral, plus evidence of other churches built on the site. There are also graves, remains of a paved street, and columns that used to line the colonnaded streets of the Roman city.

St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I just think this is the coolest picture ever with the lights and the frescoes visible through the windows.
Excuse this picture of a picture, but I thought it was really cool because it shows the church with the floor all opened up during the excavations.

After the excavations were finished, they turned them into a museum and restored the church above. Badveli and went to visit the church first, and it was AWESOME!!!! I love frescoed churches, and literally every surface in this church was covered in frescoes. There were magnificently done, and they actually had them lit so that you could see everything! I wish I’d had all day to scrutinize each fresco, but it would have taken hours to do anything more than quickly glance at them while walking a loop through the church. The frescoes obviously all had to be restored after the war, but a few bullet holes were left as a reminder. I like when they do that… It’s like saying, “We’re rebuilding and moving on because that’s what we have to do, but we also can’t forget about the past or pretend that it never happened.”

Inside St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral
I have no words… except for HOW FREAKING COOL IS THIS???
EVERYTHING was painted.
It’s a little creepy looking up at the church from the museum!
Material timeline!

From there, we went to the crypt museum to check out the ruins. Badveli had never been before, and I was glad that we were doing something new for him so that the whole day wasn’t just him playing tour guide for a bunch of things he’d already seen a million times (most of the day was that, but thanks to this museum, it wasn’t the WHOLE day).

The museum is small, but it’s one of the coolest archaeology museums I’ve ever been to. Since the museum IS the excavation, things are mostly left where they found them. You can see the layers of churches and their different mosaic floors. You can see exactly where graves were found, and a bunch of them still have the skeletons inside. When you first enter, there’s a wall that shows what is basically a vertical timeline of the site. The different material layers in the soil are identified and dated so you can see the various civilizations all stacked on top of one another. The Ottoman layer has a skeleton sticking out, so that’s fun too (eek!). They also have cases with various things in them, but it’s so much cooler knowing that those things were found right next to where they’re now displayed.

A grave… creepy. The last year has made me VERY certain that I want to be cremated because as cool as skeletons are, do I really want people from hundreds or thousands of years in the future digging up my bones? Nooo thank you!
The floor of the medieval church!

It also gives you an idea of how archaeologists piece things together. Since you’re looking at exactly what they were looking at, you can see what columns they used to determine the orientation of the medieval church or the fragment of fresco that was the basis for their assumption that the entire church was painted. The museum has a path for you to follow with numbered stations. At each, you press a button on the information panel, and lights turn on to direct your attention to the places it’s talking about. It was very well done! I felt like I was an archaeologist too, uncovering the secrets of the site as we went from station to station. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, but it was awesome.

You can see the walkways and information panels

Doesn’t it just look like a cool museum? (I ran around and hit like 5 buttons to turn the lights on for this picture.)

You can see two layers of mosaic floors!
Fresco remnant from the medieval church.
Archaeologists in training!

From there, we walked out into the central square of Beirut. There’s a clock tower in the middle (that escaped damage during the civil war because was disassembled and hidden until it was over) and the Parliament building. It’s a bit eerie because the car traffic is incredibly limited there, so it’s practically a ghost town. Fun because you can walk in the middle of the street, but still just a little weird.

Clocktower! This was taken on a sunny day later in the week, and even with the nice weather, you can still see that there are barely any people out.
The baths on a sunny day when I went back later

Another area of ruins in the city is the Roman baths. They were discovered originally in the late 1960s, were further excavated in the 90s, and are designated as land to remain “unbuilt” in the city. They aren’t the best-preserved baths I’ve ever seen, but they’re definitely still impressive, especially when you think about the fact that they were buried under the city for hundreds of years! The floors are almost completely gone, but they’ve re-set many pieces of the little pillars that held up the floor in the hot room so that the warm air could go underneath. I need to brush up on my Roman bath knowledge again because I didn’t remember too much beyond that, but it was still cool to look at while not knowing anything.

The Roman baths! And you can see the tower of Saint Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the background.
The baths from above

Right near there is the Grand Serail which is the headquarters of the Prime Minister. Badveli said that they can get pretty defensive if you try to take pictures…  even if you only want a picture of the Armenian church Surp Nishan that happens to be right next to it. I’m not interested in getting on the wrong side of someone with an assault rifle, so I didn’t try to take one from any closer than from the Roman baths.

Grand Serail to the left
Surp Nishan from an angle where no one will yell at you for taking a picture.
Inside St. Louis Cathedral

From there, we walked over to ANOTHER church, St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral. It was originally built by Capuchin missionaries and is named after the French King Louis IX. By the time we got there, it was getting dark outside which made it extra dark inside. We couldn’t see much of the interior, but luckily, the stained glass windows were still bright! I went back later on during the day, and I got to enjoy the stained glass again and see the pretty paintings on the ceiling above the altar. No matter how many churches I see, I’m still amazed by how each of them has something that makes it different from the rest. I haven’t gotten sick of them yet! That’s saying something, too, because I’ve been to Rome and I’ve been to Armenia, and they both have more than enough churches to keep you busy.

We saw a couple more things after that, but I’m going to save those for later. When we were both about ready to collapse, we decided to walk the 40ish minutes back to the apartment because it was rush hour. That means walking is probably close to as fast as driving, and I wanted to see the nighttime street life anyway. The walk was nice, though it would have been even nicer with functional sidewalks. I know, I know. I expect too much sometimes.

Check out those paintings!
St Louis Cathedral
Louis from the front

My first few days in Lebanon were rainy. When I say “rainy”, I’m not talking about just overcast skies and some little showers here and there. I mean that for three straight days, it was like the sky decided to finally unload some serious emotional baggage. I usually don’t believe in umbrellas (don’t bother trying to make sense of me), but no chance was I going out in THAT with just a rain jacket.

We started out by planning “rainy day activities” and ended by defiantly going outside despite the rain. The National Museum of Beirut was stop #1 on the rainy-day Beirut tour, and it was a great way to start off my time in Lebanon! It’s an archaeology museum, and they have a huge variety of artifacts. There are so many different types of things, and they span thousands of years of history. The museum has over 100,000 artifacts, and about 1,300 of them are displayed. If you think that sounds like they’re kind of gypping you, trust me when I say that 1,300 is more than enough. The museum is incredibly well done with enough stuff to make you feel satisfied but not so much that your brain is mush by the time you leave. I was also impressed with their audio guide… they give you an ipad! And you go around the museum scanning barcodes to bring up more information about certain objects. So high tech!

Doesn’t this just look exactly the way you think an archaeology museum should look?

The museum is located right along the road that served as the separating line between the east and west sides of Beirut during the civil war. That meant that there was no chance of the building making it through the war unharmed, so the curator of the museum at the time undertook measures to protect the collection. Some artifacts were relocated to other parts of the country, and other small objects were hidden in the basement. Those storerooms were walled in so that no one even knew they existed, aside from the very few who were involved with the installation. Larger, unmovable objects, such as the mosaics set into the floor and large statues, were encased in wood and concrete and left in place.

Museums are the best.

The war lasted longer than expected, so despite these protection measures, the collection still suffered greatly. The artifacts hidden in the basement storerooms were in an uncontrolled environment for 15 years. Flooding in the museum led to high humidity levels (around 95%). A fire caused by shelling resulted in the destruction of museum records and artifacts. Large objects suffered damage from the salt in the concrete and the lack of ventilation in their emergency casings. Looting scattered the collection across the world. The building itself was covered in shell and bullet holes and graffiti.

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember what these are. I imagine they’re like the ancient version of little green army dudes (ignore me).

It took 21 years after restoration began for the entire museum to open again. The building needed a serious overhaul, and the collection had to be inventoried and restored. In 1999, four years after restoration efforts began, the museum permanently reopened, but the final floor wasn’t completed until October 2016. The museum is STILL working to track down artifacts that were stolen and sold during the war.

Some cool rings that they found buried with the anthropoid sarcophagi.

I was lucky that the basement was open by the time I visited. It included some of the coolest stuff in the whole museum… there were three naturally mummified people who were found in a cave, a huge collection of anthropoid sarcophagi, and a 2nd-century frescoed tomb that was relocated from Tyre. I don’t have pictures of the people because it seemed disrespectful or of the tomb because photography isn’t allowed, so I guess you just need to visit Lebanon if you want to see them…

I checked out the National Museum solo, but Badveli and Maria joined me for the next museum on the list, the Nicolas Sursock Museum. During his life, Sursock was an art collector, and his will left his house to the city of Beirut to be converted into an art museum. I’ll be honest, 90% of the reason I wanted to go was just to see the house. It’s a modern/contemporary art museum, and we all know the complicated relationship I have with modern art. I figured that no matter what the art was like, the building would be worth the trip. Badveli was interested in checking out these 19th-century pictures they have of the ruins in Baalbeck, so we made it a family trip!

That stained glass though…
Talk about an epic doorway!

The house was built in 1912 and is a cool mix of architectural styles, including some elements inspired by Venetian and Ottoman architecture. It also has a bunch of stained glass which basically guarantees that I’m going to like it. The museum first opened with the house kept in its original condition, and exhibitions were shown in the many rooms of the mansion. Eventually, a project was undertaken to reconfigure some of the rooms into more traditional gallery spaces. Recently, a much larger project was completed that added four underground floors beneath the house and garden. I can only imagine how fun that construction process must have been, figuring out how to levitate a mansion while constructing another building underneath it.

For the most part, the exhibitions were about what I expected… weird. There were a few cool pieces, but it was largely baffling, as is the way with modern art. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with weird. I love weird things! But the weirdness of most modern art is a type that must be incompatible with my personal brand of weird. There was one thing though… as we were leaving, we walked past a curtained doorway marked with a sign saying, “Please do not touch the floating burger.” I was intrigued. Burger like hamburger? Why was it floating? What about it made touching it so tempting that they explicitly had to tell people not to? I peeked my head inside, and somehow what I saw was simultaneously exactly what I expected and the last thing that I expected. It was a floating burger. The room was completely dark, a blacker darkness than any I’d ever experienced. The only light shone directly onto a floating hamburger. It was like a beacon, calling you towards it. The burger practically screamed, “TOUCH ME!” I’m not an uncultured scrub… I know that you’re not supposed to touch things at museums, but I’ll be honest. I wanted to touch that burger. HOW DID THEY KNOW?  It was like I was hypnotized. There was also a museum staff woman standing by the entrance, probably making sure that the burger was left untouched because I bet she’s felt the same, inexplicable desire that I felt to touch the forbidden burger.

Like… how could you NOT look after seeing this??

I felt like my faith in modern art was restored… until we left the museum and I read the pamphlet that accompanied the piece. It was something about capitalism and blah blah blah profound symbolism blah blah blah. I immediately forgot what I read because I knew that trying to assign too much meaning would inevitably ruin the whole thing for me. Maybe that’s the problem. I want modern art that has no explanation besides “I made this because I thought it was weird and funny.” Otherwise, it gives me flashbacks to university where we’d make a design that we thought looked cool and then go back later to make up some stupid, symbolic meaning because the project required it. What’s wrong with just saying, “I did this because it looked cool”? To be fair, sometimes the explanations feel legitimate, but most of the time they seem like a bunch of hooey.

This is the salon where Sursock would entertain guests. It’s a ridiculous room but also kind of awesome.
I couldn’t get over how much detail there was in EVERY aspect of the room.
The wood paneling on the walls was brought in from Damascus.

Remember when I said that Lebanon is super old? As you might expect from a very old place, there are a lot of museums in Lebanon displaying very old things. I went to two of them, the National Museum of Beirut and the American University of Beirut’s Archaeology Museum. Beyond just museums, there are ruins all over the city (and under the city) and the country. It would be impossible to give you a thorough history of Lebanon, mostly because you would be bored to tears reading it, and I would react similarly to writing it. Instead, I’m going to give you the highlights deemed most interesting by me.

(Disclaimer: as usual, I’m at like 90% confident that what follows is accurate, but I’m not a scholar of ancient history which means that looking at this stuff for too long makes my head hurt. I did my best.)

View of the main hall in the National Museum of Beirut.
Ancient molar! It’s dated to 200000-50000 BP.

To talk about the first humans in Lebanon, we have to go back… waaaaaay back in history to AT LEAST 48000 BC. Oh yes, that’s right. The National Museum has a molar that has been radiocarbon dated to 250000 – 50000 BP (BP means the number of years before 1950). That, yes, seems like quite the range of dates. I know this is complicated stuff, but you’d think they could come up with a gap of less than 200,000 years. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, even if it’s only from 50000 years before 1950, it’s still ridiculous.

The first permanent settlements are estimated to have emerged by 5000BC. By 4000BC, the land was inhabited by the Canaanites, or Phoenicians. They lived in coastal cities, and the inland was covered in forests. Those cities are still in existence today: Tyre and Sidon were big maritime and trade centers, and Gubla (Byblos) and Berytus (Beirut) were trade and religious centers. The Phoenicians thrived because of their location and many tradable resources. They established a trading relationship with Egypt, bringing in wealth and foreign goods.

These bones from a woman are dated to 15000 BP. They’re laid out exactly as they were found.

In the 1400s BC, Lebanon became part of the Egyptian empire for a couple of centuries. Egypt was just the first in a long line of powerful outsiders to come in and rule over the land. Post-Egyptians, the Phoenicians enjoyed a few centuries of independence, thriving again and mastering the arts of textiles, ivory work, metalwork, and glassmaking. The Phoenician alphabet spread, making it possible for common people to learn to read. Many modern alphabets can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet. It was during this period that Sidon and Tyre first entered the story in the Bible, when cedar trees and craftsmen were provided to Israel’s King David to build his palace. Later, Jezebel, the queen of Israel who led the Israelites astray by worshipping the Phoenician god Baal, was the daughter of the king of Sidon.

Thirty-one anthropoid sarcophagi were found near Sidon. They’re from about the 5th century BC and show both Egyptian (the sarcophagi) and Greek (the style of the carved faces) influences.
Ancient braces! This is dated back to the 5th century BC, during Phoenician times. It’s the earliest known example of “retentive dentistry”.

When the Assyrians conquered the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, they ruled oppressively. Any uprisings were squashed, and the people were punished for their rebellion. The Babylonians were similarly harsh rulers. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sieged Tyre, an island city, for 13 years before gaining control. This siege is described by the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Next came Persian rule and a period of peace until they started imposing high taxes, and the people rebelled.

When Alexander the Great and the Macedonians came onto the scene in the 300s BC, most cities didn’t resist and instead welcomed them in. Tyre, on the other hand, refused to allow entry into the city. The Macedonians sieged the island for seven months and ended up victorious after constructing a causeway from stones, timber, and dirt that linked the island to the mainland. Without its water defenses, the city fell, and its inhabitants were harshly punished for their resistance. Over time, the causeway widened as more and more sand and debris washed up, and today, Tyre is a peninsula. The fall of Tyre and its failure to ever recover its previous status as a world-wide trading center was described by the prophet Ezekiel.

After Alexander died, his great kingdom fell apart under the conflict-filled rule of his successors. The Romans took over, and Pompey added Lebanon as a Roman province. The inhabitants of its major cities were given Roman citizenship. The language switched from Phoenician to Aramaic. It was a time of economic prosperity.

This is a model of a 2nd century AD temple. It was made to guide the builders… architectural drawings, classical style! Imagine being an architecture student in those days and having to make your models out of limestone… I thought cardboard was bad enough!

This was also the time period in which Jesus performed his first miracle in Qana, in the south of Lebanon, turning water into wine at a wedding. He visited Tyre and Sidon as part of his ministry. Later, Paul also briefly visited both cities and met with disciples in each. Christianity spread quickly, leading to a Christian majority in the area. The Maronite church emerged at the end of the 4th century from the followers of Saint Maron, a monk.

Natural disaster in the form of earthquakes struck in the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The 4th century earthquakes were accompanied by tidal waves that destroyed the coastal cities. The 6th century’s destroyed Baalbeck (originally a big pilgrimage location for the Phoenician god Baal and later the location of Roman temples) and Beirut, killing thousands. Between these disasters and internal conflicts in the empire, Roman control of the area weakened.

These ruins are guessed to be the remains of the famous Roman law school in Beirut. They haven’t found any decisive evidence of this, so really it’s just a guess because they don’t know what else it might be.

Islam was introduced by the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the 7th century, and the Muslim Arabs took control from the Romans in the same century. Islam began to spread, and Arabic was introduced as the new language. The Maronite community clung to Christianity and was treated with varying levels of tolerance depending on the ruler at the time. The Druze faith also emerged around the end of the 10th century.

This is some Roman goddess… maybe Venus? I can’t remember, but I thought the fact that she’s wearing a necklace and earrings is pretty cool.

The Crusaders swept in during the 11th century, organized by Western European Christians who were trying to reclaim the Eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon became part of the Crusader states, split between two of them. The Maronites formed a connection with the French and pledged their allegiance to the pope in Rome, rather than to a more local patriarch, bringing them support from both France and Italy.

Muslim control resumed in the late 13th century. The Ottoman Turks were growing their empire, and Lebanon became a semi-autonomous part of it. Fakhr-ad-Din II was a Druze leader who ruled in the 16th century and worked to unify Lebanon. He resolved religious conflicts and enforced tolerance, enlarged the emirate, and is considered the founder of modern Lebanon. His rule led to economic and cultural prosperity, and he wanted Lebanon to gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire. They obviously didn’t like that very much, and his execution was eventually ordered by the sultan.

The AUB museum. It’s very pretty.

Fakhr-ad-Din II’s rule was a high point, and after that, things went downhill. Conflicts between the Maronites and Druze got increasingly violent in the 1800s. The Ottomans helped the Druze conduct massacres of the Maronite population. The Maronites grew more and more discontented with Ottoman rule and were fighting with the support of the French. The British backed the Druze. The Ottomans wanted to maintain the conflict to maintain control. Eventually, foreign powers threatened to intervene, and the Ottomans worked to end the conflict to avoid foreign meddling.

The latter half of the 1800s was more peaceful. The next big disaster struck during World War I when food shortages led to the deaths of almost half of the population. At the end of the war, with Ottoman assets being divided up, control of Lebanon and Syria was given to the French who were meant to prepare the countries for independence.

That’s where I’m going to leave off for now because I’m exhausted, and I assume that if you’ve managed to make it this far with me, you’re also exhausted. Sorry to anyone who fell off somewhere in the middle. I tried to stick to the most interesting and important parts, but we just went through about 7000 years of history so really there’s only so much you can do.

To be continued… HERE

More of the AUB museum.

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.


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.

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.

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!