Auschwitz II-Birkenau

As I explained in my last post, Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts. The two largest were Auschwitz I which I talked about, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is probably the most well-known.

Auschwitz I was built first. It was mostly for political prisoners and some POWs and was a concentration camp. This was where the gas chamber “trial runs” took place, in buildings modified for the purpose of mass murder.

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau started in 1941. The goal was a camp for 200,000 prisoners of war. It was also decided that mass execution facilities would be included, and these were ready by 1942. It became a combination concentration and extermination camp where the majority of concentration camp prisoners died due to starvation, and extermination camp prisoners were killed in gas chambers.

To give you a sense of the layout and scale of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, here’s a map.
Red – Sector I, built first, brick buildings, primarily barracks
Green – Sector II, wooden barracks divided by row into different “camps” for men, women, Roma families, etc.
Yellow – Sector III, never completed
Blue – locations of the four purpose-built gas chambers
Orange – shower house for concentration camp prisoners
Between red and green is the entrance and the railroad tracks through the camp.

Ten-thousand Soviet POWs were brought to Auschwitz I to construct Birkenau. Through the winter, they worked and walked the 2.5km between the camps. Over 9,000 of them died within 6 months. In total, 300 buildings were constructed at Birkenau, mostly prisoner barracks. The original gas chambers were located in modified farmhouses near the camp, and eventually, four much larger chambers were constructed. The Nazis estimated that 1.6 million people could be killed there each year.

Path away from camp towards one of the farmhouse gas chambers.

Remaining brick buildings in Sector I.

Today, much of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is in ruins. In 1944, when the Soviet army started moving across Poland, the Nazis began trying to cover their tracks at Birkenau. Written records were destroyed, buildings were burned to the ground, and the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up. Most prisoners were transferred to other camps, and the remainder was sent on a death march to the west.

Looking out at the remains of Sector II.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. Conservative estimates are that 1.3 million people were imprisoned at the Auschwitz camps, and 1.1 million of them died. Of those prisoners: 1.1 million were Jews; ~150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma; 15,000 Soviet POWs; and 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups. Those numbers don’t add up because everything is estimated. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, and it’s probably more than 1.1 million.

The International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. In front, there are inscriptions in all major European languages that read, “FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945”

Walking through the entryway into Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my first reaction was, “Wow. This place is huge.” My second reaction was one of recognition. It looks exactly like it does in movies and pictures. I know that’s obvious, but looking at a black and white picture can sometimes feel like fiction. You can separate yourself from it. Standing there, seeing it all in full color, I couldn’t do that anymore.

The only row of wooden barracks standing. The rest of the camp would have looked similar, but now it’s nothing more than brick chimneys.

I had no plan for where to start, so I went in the less-travelled direction, hoping to get away from the crowds. I walked by a row of wooden barracks, the only ones that can be seen today as they were (though much cleaner now) during the camp’s operation. These structures were prefabricated barns, quick and easy to assemble.

Exterior of the barracks

Inside one of the barracks. Each level of bunk was meant to hold 4 people, but more likely there were closer to 8 on each. The wooden slats were covered with a layer of straw. The brick wall running through the center connects the two stoves on each end of the building.

The barracks had a brick stove at each end

Latrines. There isn’t a pit underneath the “toilet” holes. The cavity is only as deep as the latrines are high. Prisoners had to clean them out when they were full.

Wildflowers outside of the barracks.

The other visitors quickly thinned out as I moved away from the entrance. I spent the rest of my time wandering the grounds with practically no one else around me… I suppose most people simply come in the entrance, walk to the memorial straight ahead, and then turn around and walk right back out. I, on the other hand, wanted to see as much as I could manage.

Remains of a kitchen building.

Gate into Sector II

After passing the first row of wooden barracks, intact buildings were few and far between. Almost more eerie is what remains of the majority of the camp… all of the wooden shells are gone, and only the brick stoves and chimneys remain. Brick chimneys pop up as far as the eye can see. Imagining a building to go with each pair is mind-boggling. Imagining 500 half-starved prisoners to go with each building is painful.

Barbed wire surrounding the camp

Brick chimneys as far as the eye can see.

Service road through Sector II

I was already feeling a little uneasy after only walking a few paths. I started feeling better immediately when I spotted a grove of trees ahead. I love forests… they always make me feel at ease. This one was beautiful. Towering trees, sunlight filtering through the branches just right, wildflowers scattered here and there. Again, I had that feeling of “if only things had happened differently, this place would be beautiful.” And then, I came across a sign that reminded me of where I was.

Grove of trees

Isn’t it beautiful?

“On their arrival in Auschwitz most Jews were sent by the SS for immediate death in the gas chambers. However, they were often forced to await their turn in this clump of trees if the gas chambers were full at the time.” It was accompanied by a picture of people sitting underneath the trees, waiting for death. Those same trees that I was just admiring. The things those trees have seen, and they keep standing there, still living. I wonder if those people also thought about how pretty the trees looked. Did they know what awaited them? How lucky am I that I can go to these places freely and then leave again? No one is telling me that I can’t, controlling my movements, hating me for no reason.

Beyond the trees, there are fields and a lake marked with signs saying that they’re filled with the ashes of the dead. People. People are in those fields. Their ashes are the ground that the grass grew from. What. If I didn’t know, I could have just walked across them. Walked across these graveyards for literally THOUSANDS. Hundreds of thousands. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz. 1.1 million people. There are plenty of countries made up of fewer people than that.

The stones read:
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.
In this pond lie their ashes.
May their souls rest in peace.”

One of the fields where the ashes of the murdered were spread.

The thing is, unless you really, really make yourself think about it, unless you stand there and imagine the scared, naked, innocent people in front of you, it’s easy to feel nothing at all. It’s like you’re numb. Your brain doesn’t want to feel the full weight of the truth, so it doesn’t allow you to. Unless you push through your mind’s self-preservation wall, you don’t feel anything. Everything is written so factually that it’s possible to just read it factually. “The gas chambers at Auschwitz were designed to hold 2,000 people at once.” Oh, okay. But then if you stop and think about it. What does 2,000 people look like? My high school had about 1,200. That’s more than 1.5x my high school’s student body. All of those people, gone, dead within 3-15 minutes. All of those people were connected to so many other people. That’s the other thing. When you think about people as numbers, it’s not as meaningful. When you think if it as 2,000 families losing someone so incredibly dear to them, it’s harder. Or when you think about an entire family wiped from the face of the earth. How do you even comprehend that? Sometimes, one person survived from a family. What if that happened to my family, if I was the one person who survived? What if I could never talk to my parents again or see my brothers or nieces or cousins? If I knew that they were all gone forever, and I, for some reason, survived? How do you go on? How do you start over and integrate back into society after years of seeing and experiencing horrors beyond comprehension? I don’t know how I could manage to pick myself up after something like that.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium V

Looking back at the forest from the gas chamber

This gas chamber and crematorium was blown up by the Nazis in an effort to cover their tracks

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV. This building burned down in the only prisoner revolt to take place at Auschwitz. It was led by a group of the Jewish prisoners in charge of emptying the gas chambers. 450 prisoners were killed in the revolt, but they succeeded in their goal to destroy this gas chamber.

The most disturbing thing is the realization that none of that pain was necessary. Sometimes, people die young. They get sick or get in an accident, and it’s heartbreaking. This though, this wasn’t an accident. It was a complete disregard for human life. Each of those people had a personality. They had dreams and thoughts and talents. They had people they loved, things they enjoyed. They laughed, they cried, they felt. Each person was not a number. They were humans, filled with life and light, and in an instant, they were turned into empty shells. In an instant, their bodies went from being animated and alive to being nothing.

Inside the prisoner shower building (the actual showers, not the “showers” that were actually gas chambers). This room was where prisoners had to undress.

They walked down this hallway to the shower room.

Prisoners received “medical examinations” in this room after getting their hair shaved. The shower room was through this doorway.

These furnaces were used to steam-clean clothing.

The “sorting area” near the train tracks is another place where all you can do is shake your head because none of it makes sense. This is where people got off a train and were assigned to life or death. All of those precious little children and strong grandparents and loving parents were scrutinized and sorted. Already, they were nothing but bodies. No one cared about their minds or personalities. The question was, is this creature physically capable of labor? They weren’t people; they were tools.

The area where sorting took place after people arrived by train.

The gas chambers were dynamited, but still, looking at the ruins and knowing what happened in there, how do you begin to make your brain process that? I couldn’t. I tried to imagine the trains coming in. The chaos and disorder as people got off. The confusion, the shouting, the crying. The families trying to make sure everyone was together. Then, the sorting. People getting ripped away from their loved ones. Mothers from fathers from their children. Not knowing what was coming. Being told that you were going to shower. The discomfort of undressing in front of so many other people. Undressing your kids first, the ones too young to help themselves. Then you. Then waiting. Going into the shower room, making sure that your kids were with you. “Stay close, it’s crowded.” And then that’s it. Then there’s a room filled with empty shells of people, and later, there’s only ash, sprinkled in a field. One minute there’s all that life, the next minute there’s an empty field filled with ash. What the heck. What the freaking heck.

Again, I got to the point where I just had to leave. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to see the ruins of the rows and rows of buildings that used to hold PEOPLE. How? That’s the ongoing question in my brain. How could people do this to people?

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium III. This was destroyed by the Nazis. The room straight ahead was the undressing room.

The area to the right with a lot of rubble was the crematorium. The gas chamber was perpendicular to this space, on the left side of the photo.

The train tracks directly next to the gas chambers. The entrance can be (barely) seen, about a mile straight ahead.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium II.

 

Warsaw Museums

I spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around the streets of Warsaw, partly because I was recovering from Iceland and partly because sometimes it’s nice to simply wander. You know me, though. I also need to fit in some nerdy museum time to be fully content. Like any capital city, Warsaw is FULL of museums. With only three days in the city, I had to be selective (especially since I can easily spend an entire day in a museum). I ended up visiting three: the Museum of Pawiak Prison, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and the VERY highly recommended (like seriously everyone said that if you’re going to visit one museum, you should visit this one) Warsaw Rising Museum. If that sounds like an emotionally heavy selection… well, it was. (Fair warning this is also kind of long… but there’s so much to say!)

I had good timing for a couple of reasons. First, I was in town on a Thursday, and a bunch of museums are free on Thursdays. Second, my particular Thursday was the 19th of April which is also the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – and 2018 was 75 years. I had no idea! After I cluelessly walked into a school program at the largest remaining section of the ghetto wall, I did some googling. I’ll talk more about the Ghetto Uprising in a minute, but first… My next stop after the wall was the Museum of Pawiak Prison which I decided to go to simply because I walked by and thought it looked interesting.

Crowds at the ghetto wall

The prison was originally constructed in 1830, and from the start, it housed both criminal and political prisoners. During the partitions of Poland, the political prisoners were Poles who fought against the invaders for independence. During the Second Republic, they were often communists. Then, during WWII, the Nazis took over Pawiak. Most of the people held there during the war were members of the Polish resistance, but even innocent passers-by weren’t safe from being captured during random street roundups. People from all walks of life ended up in the same place – men, women, families with small children, pregnant women. The only commonality was their Polish heritage.

Pawiak Prison Museum

Inside the museum

The museum is small but powerful. The best part is these video interviews with people who were imprisoned there. They talk about the different aspects of life as a prisoner, painting a pretty brutal picture. In summary, the food was horrible (think soup with worms in it). Cells were stuffed to 4x their intended capacity. Prisoners were frequently interrogated, and when someone was taken, no one knew if or in what condition they would return. A mini-resistance formed inside, and messages were often passed on through Polish doctors and nurses working in the prison hospital. An estimated 100,000 people were imprisoned in Pawiak during WWII. 37,000 were executed by firing squads, and 60,000 were sent to concentration camps.

One of the cells in Pawiak. A cell this size was intended for 3-4 people but held 10-18 in WWII.

One thing that I found interesting but so confusing was that they said mothers were taken care of. They might kill you in your 9th month of pregnancy, but after giving birth, you were placed in a separate mothers’ wing with the baby. They had interviews with people who were born and lived in the prison for the first few years of their lives! It just doesn’t seem consistent. One woman said that she was arrested just after having a baby, and she begged to leave the baby with her family rather than bringing him with her. Then, at the prison, they asked if she would be willing to breastfeed another baby whose mom had stopped lactating. Why go to so much trouble?

Names and photos of some of the victims

At the end of the war, the Nazis blew up Pawiak, including the prisoner records, so there’s no complete list of the people who were imprisoned and who died there. A lot of the information they have was volunteered by relatives, etc. I love that. It’s a group effort to preserve history, with people volunteering information, pictures, objects, etc. to the museums to make them more complete and to honor the memory of their family members.

The only remaining part of the actual prison is this gate and small portions of the wall.

This tree also remained standing after the prison was destroyed, and people started covering it with memorial plaques. Eventually, the tree was infected with a disease and had to be removed. It was replaced with a bronze version, and the remains of the original are now inside this case in the museum.

The bronze Pawiak tree.

My daffodil


After leaving Pawiak, I made my way to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Outside, they were getting ready for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary event. People all over the city were wearing paper daffodils in commemoration, and when someone on the street gave me one to wear, I did so with pride because I feel like I’m a little bit Polish now. The info pamphlet they gave me said, “By wearing them, we demonstrate that together we remember those who perished fighting for their dignity.” I can definitely get behind that.

Setting up the stage for the night’s events

The Warsaw ghetto was established in 1940, and over 400,000 Jews were herded inside. Conditions were horrible, and people were killed by starvation, disease, and mass executions. In 1942, 300,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka (a death camp), clearing out much of the ghetto. Those remaining knew that certain death awaited them and decided to fight back. On April 19, 1943, Nazi forces entered the ghetto to remove the remaining inhabitants and were met by a resistance of about a thousand. The insurgents were outnumbered, under-equipped, and exhausted, but they chose to die on their own terms. Over the next four weeks, residents fought back as the ghetto was cleared out and burned to the ground. By May 16, the ghetto was gone and the Great Synagogue was blown up. A few managed to escape the burning ghetto through the sewers, but most were killed or committed suicide to avoid capture.

Flowers outside of the museum

The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but stories of the participants’ bravery inspired more acts of resistance. Inmates at Treblinka heard about the uprising and held their own revolt, leading to the eventual dismantling of the camp. Many survivors of the Ghetto Uprising participated in the Warsaw Uprising the following year.

Wearing my daffodil at the top of a tower near St. Anne’s Church

I popped into the museum since it was also free on Thursdays and was completely overwhelmed. They did a great job, but it’s absolutely massive. It starts with the first Jews coming to Poland and goes through modern day. I did a quick skim of the background stuff and mostly focused on the Holocaust forward.

Funky architecture inside the lobby

A few months before my visit, I read about how the Polish government was in the process of passing a law criminalizing the mention of Polish crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. Essentially, the president said that Poland was 100% a victim of Nazi Germany, and anything Poland may have done against Jews was forced. People freaked out, and after going through the museum, I understand why. Yes, Poles weren’t actively fighting with the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean there were no moral failings. Even Jews did things that hurt the collective in hopes that it would help their families. In this museum, a museum in the capital of Poland, the same city where the legislation passed, it talks about the roles that the Polish people played during the war. Often, they were hiding and protecting their Jewish neighbors. Other times, however, they were believing the propaganda, letting fear take over, and attacking or turning in their former friends and neighbors. In one town, the Jewish residents were gathered together and burned alive in a barn… by their Polish neighbors. I just don’t understand the value in making such a statement at this point. It’s nothing more than a barrier to healing and productive conversation.

Cool exhibit design!

My last museum stop was the Warsaw Rising Museum. I was so excited because everyone gave it such glowing reviews, and I wanted to learn more about this important part of Warsaw’s history. For me, the museum was beyond confusing. I had a map and tried so hard to follow it, but I never felt like I was in the right place. Maybe it was user error. Maybe I should have gotten an audio guide? I spent three frustrating hours trying to piece the timeline together (and dodge giant groups of school kids), and every time I thought I understood what was going on, I’d realize that my timeline was all mixed up again. I don’t know if it’s because they assumed some base level of knowledge which I didn’t have, but I probably would have been better off watching a documentary. I’ll spare you the rest of my museum struggle details, but I don’t want to skip talking about the Warsaw Uprising because it’s pretty awesome.

Warsaw Rising Museum. It’s located in a former tram power station.

The outside of the museum. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see some formerly black and white images that have been colorized. So cool!

A Polish resistance began to form almost immediately after Poland was occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets. The “Polish Underground State” was practically an underground Polish republic. It was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London, and there were divisions concerned with every aspect of life. Underground printing houses distributed books, newspapers, and other uncensored printed materials. An extensive underground school system gave students, from primary school through university, the chance to continue proper studies (the Nazis banned schools past 4th grade, and the children were to be taught as little as possible). Very few Polish Jews survived WWII, but many of those who did were aided by the resistance.

This symbol represents the Polish Underground State. In Polish, the PW stands for Polska Walcząca (“Fighting Poland”).

There was also a military component to the resistance. Polish spies carried information to the Allies. German supply lines were disrupted. Representatives were sent into concentration camps to gather information and organize prisoner revolts. The Polish Home Army also fought a couple of major battles against the Nazis, one of which was the Warsaw Uprising. On August 1, 1944, the uprising began with the ultimate goal of liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. People worried that if Warsaw was “liberated” by the Soviet army, the government-in-exile would not be recognized, and Russia would take over. So, the only option was to liberate themselves.

Warsaw Uprising Monument. You can also see another Chopin bench in the bottom left.

The uprising lasted for 63 days. In the beginning, the Germans tried to break the will of the resistance through massacres in some outlying neighborhoods. Soldiers went from house to house and murdered everyone inside, regardless of gender or age. This brutality only strengthened the resistance’s resolve, however, and they fought on.

The main part of the monument shows resistance fighters in combat as a building collapses behind them.

After about a month of fighting, the Polish forces had control of Old Town, and the exiled government was desperately asking for help. The Soviets refused to support the resistance army and also obstructed other Allied countries from sending aid. Without any support, the situation was hopeless, and the decision was made to retreat. In two days, over 5,000 resistance fighters fled the city using the sewer system (a major transit route throughout the resistance efforts). The uprising was officially over at the beginning of October, and as punishment for fighting back, Warsaw was systematically destroyed. About 25% of the city had been destroyed in the uprising fighting, but now destruction was the major goal. Houses were firebombed, and national and historical monuments were drilled and blown up with dynamite.

This part of the monument shows fighters sneaking into the sewer system.

A model of the Warsaw sewers in the Uprising Museum. You can walk through to get a sense of what it was like. It was… uncomfortable. You have to bend over the whole time, and I’m sure the ground wasn’t dry like in the museum model. When the resistance evacuated, they were in the sewers for over 5 hours!

Memory wall with a list of the names of those killed in the uprising

This unnatural hill on the fringes of the city is the Warsaw Uprising Mound. The hill itself is 120m tall and is actually a giant pile of rubble and remains of those found in the destroyed city. This is also supposedly the longest staircase in Europe, and I believe it.

Even though the Uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, it is amazing what the resistance was able to accomplish with limited resources and support. After learning about the struggles of the Polish nation, it’s not hard to understand why people are so proud to be Polish. They’ve had a rough history with more low points than high, but they’ve endured. Poland exists today because of the persistence and endurance of the Polish people. That’s pretty darn cool.

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.

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.

Rain, Ruins, Everything

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

Downtown Beirut Tour!

The next day, Badveli and I braved the rain and walked around downtown Beirut. This was one of those infrequent times when I wished that I had a step tracker or something to know how far we walked because we were on our feet practically the entire day!

This was as much as we could see of the inner part of the museum (I stuck my head through the window in the exterior doors in an effort to see as much as possible)

We started off at another museum, Beit Beirut (House of Beirut). Unfortunately, it was closed, but we looked at what we could from the outside, and Badveli explained the story and described the interior to me. The building was built in 1924. It was an apartment building, originally called the Barakat house after the family that commissioned its construction. The building’s architecture was very transparent, connecting the occupants to the city around them with beautiful, unobstructed views. There were eight families, both Muslim and Christian, living in the building when the civil war broke out. They evacuated, and the building was taken over by Christian militias.

It is located along the Green Line, the road that divided the east and west sides of the city during the civil war. There are five major crossings, and the Barakat building is on the corner of one of them. That strategic location, plus the architecture that allowed for such fantastic views, made it into an ideal location for snipers to prevent people from crossing the street.

After the war, it was discovered by a Lebanese architect, Mona Hallak, who became determined to preserve the building and share its history. She said, “To me it represented Beirut: before the war through the archives I found under the dust and debris, during the war through the sniper additions, graffiti and bullet holes covering its walls, and after the war through my fight for the preservation of our heritage, identity and memory against the sweeping amnesia.”

Beit Beirut

It took years of battling with both the Barakat family and the city, but she was eventually successful in ensuring its preservation. It went through a serious restoration process to make sure it was structurally sound while preserving the interior and exterior damage or “war architecture”. There was also an addition to support its new function as a museum.

I would have loved to go inside. It seems like a pretty spectacular and powerful place, and despite the damage, you can still see the beauty and elegance of the building. Welp… guess I’m going to have to go back to Lebanon! Oh darnnnn…

Ruins on the left, shiny new mosque in the back, construction on the right.

Armenian Catholic Church! It looks exactly the same as every church in Armenia except for the material, doesn’t it?

From there, we wandered towards downtown, pausing to observe the absurd amount of construction happening along the way and wonder about the buildings that have gone seemingly untouched since the war. There’s a big developer that has control over practically all of the rebuilding and development in the downtown area. They have compulsory purchase power which means that they can force people to sell their property even if they don’t want to and pay them way less than it’s worth. There’s a weird feeling that you get in a lot of parts of town that they’ve heavily developed. They certainly look nice, but they’re missing personality and life. There’s no color, both figuratively and literally because everything is built out of the same, yellowish stone. The streets look like they should be full of people, but it’s like the city falls asleep as soon as you step into one of the little development pockets.

I kept having these conflicting feelings because often, I thought that the buildings were pretty. But what’s the point of having pretty buildings if no one can afford to use them? Buildings are made to be used. Otherwise, they’re worthless. Yes, architecture is also art, but what makes it such a cool art form is the fact that it needs to be both functional and beautiful. Without function, you have nothing more than a very large sculpture. The city changes from a living, breathing place into an inauthentic, amusement-park-type attraction.

Here’s one of those pretty but deserted streets… See what I mean?

Also, sometimes you have to wonder if more buildings really are better. More buildings means more people. More people means that you need more space for people to do their living. Not just apartment space, but outdoor space. Space for kids to play and people to socialize. A city with only tall buildings quickly turns into a very isolating, suffocating place.

Detailing on the side of Al-Amin Mosque

From there, we walked past Al-Amin Mosque. It was built between 2001 and 2008 and is the largest mosque in Lebanon. There’s some controversy surrounding the procurement of the land that it’s on, but I can’t mentally handle learning about more complicated history sooo… here’s the one second summary of what I think I know, and we’ll leave it at that: the prime minister at the time was the one who managed to do the previously un-doable purchasing of land which seems a little questionable. That’s all I’m going to say.

Of course, the controversy doesn’t stop there because why would there ever be a simple story for me to tell you? That would be way too easy. The mosque’s architecture is Ummayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman-inspired, and many people think that it looks out of place in the center of Beirut. It’s also extremely large which makes it stick out even more. The minarets are 72 meters high!

Personally, I didn’t love the exterior. It definitely felt like it was forced and didn’t quite match the other things around it. However, I went back later on my own and went inside… and it was spectacular. The painting, calligraphy, and gilding in the dome were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I could have stared at the ceiling, marveling at its beauty and complexity, for hours. I kept thinking, “Who the heck can do something like this? And HOW LONG did it take them??”

The church and mosque from behind with all of their towering components.

Well, let me just say… the internet, my friends, can be a wonderful thing. Guess what? The dude who did all of that is named Harout Bastajian, aka definitely Armenian. He specializes in the painting of religious buildings, and he says that the painting of Al-Amin Mosque took him and his team ONLY 3 MONTHS. Ummm how.

Obsessed.

IS THIS NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN??????

My visit to the mosque was also very interesting because they have a guy there just to talk to visitors. I was the only visitor at the time, so I got to ask him anything I wanted about the building or Islam. He was trying to convert me which obviously wasn’t going to work, but I was excited to have someone to answer my many questions. I’ve been getting more and more interested in learning about other religions so that I have a basic understanding of what other people believe, and reading about religion on the internet only leads to headaches. When you’re talking to someone, you can ask them exactly the things you’ve been wondering about and get answers that aren’t written for religious scholars.

Directly next to the mosque is a church, St. George Maronite Cathedral. One of the complaints about the mosque is that it dwarfs the church, and I guess they decided to deal with that by building a randomly tall clock tower topped with a tacky (in my non-objective opinion) light-up cross. To be honest, I don’t know why they built the clocktower and if it actually had anything to do with the mosque or not, but there is kind of a nice sentiment behind the height they chose for it. It was going to be a bit taller to match the height of this clock tower in Rome, but they decided to cut off a few meters so that it’s the same height as the towers on the mosque to send a message of harmony and solidarity between the religions.

I think that’s enough for now, right? I don’t want to overwhelm you with information all at once… we’ll save more overwhelming for the next post. 🙂

The campanile (aka clock tower)

Night view! You can see my favorite glowing cross.

Inside St. George

Lebanon History Lesson

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.

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

Sardarabad and Etchmiadzin

After the Day 3 marathon, I think everyone was happy with our shorter Day 4 plans. At the very least, everyone was happy about the later departure time – 10AM instead of 8. The schedule for the day was Sardarabad and Etchmidazin/the Vagharshapat churches. I was looking forward to Sardarabad because I hadn’t been there yet, and I was looking forward to the rest of the day because I actually know something about the churches we were visiting and could be a better tour guide than some of the other days.

The approach…

Sardarabad, an Armenian town west of Yerevan, is often considered to be the site of the most important battle in Armenian history. In January of 1918, the new Bolshevik Russian government ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus. Ottoman Turkey saw this as an opportunity to not only complete their seizure of Western Armenia but to take over Eastern Armenia as well. This would have meant the complete the destruction of the Armenian nation.

Not a great pictures, but this is the only one we have of all of us from this day.

The Armenian army rushed to deploy forces to hold the positions formerly defended by the Russians. Only a fraction of the historical Armenian homeland remained unconquered by the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Western Armenian refugees had fled to safety there. In May, Ottoman forces marched into Armenia and attacked modern-day Gyumri. After Gyumri (then called Alexandropol) fell, the army turned towards Yerevan. They launched three simultaneous attacks in Sardarabad, Karaklisa (now Vanadzor), and Bash Abaran.

Fall. Is. The. Best.

The Armenian forces were vastly outnumbered, and a massive civilian recruiting effort was organized. There’s a story about the Catholicos at the time refusing to leave Etchmiadzin when people wanted to relocate him to safety. He said that he would fight if it came to that, and he ordered all of the church bells in the valley to ring for six days to recruit more people. People, regardless of age or occupation, volunteered to fight and were organized into civilian units. Women and children helped in various capacities as well, and I have no doubt that many even ended up in combat.

The belfry

Against all odds, the three battles resulted in Armenian victories, halting the advance of the Ottoman army and preserving the last bit of Armenia. They (once again, the mysterious “they” who have an opinion about everything) say that what the Armenian volunteers lacked in training, they made up for in determination and passion. For them, it was personal. They were fighting to protect their families and for the survival of Armenia.

The thing about war is that even when you win, you still lose. Thousands of lives were lost during the battles, and I’m sure that the families of those people didn’t much feel like celebrating. However, due to the courage and sacrifice of the army and those volunteers, Armenia exists today.

The memorial complex was built for the 50th anniversary of the battle, in 1968, and it’s kind of amazing. You drive straight at it on your way there and have an epic view of the bulls and the belfry. The bulls represent the united strength and persistence of the Armenian people. The bells are a shrine to those who were killed in battle and now represent victory bells. The eagles lining the path to the memorial wall are standing guard over the future of the Armenian people. The memorial wall depicts the battle (very symbolically I think because we totally didn’t get it) and the rebirth of the Armenian people. Finally, the museum is designed like an Armenian medieval fortress. All of the windows face interior courtyards except for two – one facing Aragats and the other facing Ararat. Everything is made from red tuff and is gigantic. On days when the sky is blue, the contrast between the red stone and the blue sky is pretty awesome.

One of the bulls

The eagle walk

The memorial wall

The fortress-like museum

The museum was built later and has two parts: the majority of the museum is filled with various historical and cultural objects (ethnography museum), similar to the Armenian History Museum in Yerevan, and the other part is dedicated to the battle. We went on a tour of the Ethnography Museum, and it was exhaustingly long but also very well done. It’s one of those places that’s almost not even worth visiting without doing the tour because you can walk around and completely miss the important things without realizing it.

I can never get enough of the painted ceilings at Etchmiadzin.

By the time we left the museum, I think everyone was ready for a nap, but we had more things to do! We drove to Etchmiadzin, and I walked everyone around my favorite parts of the complex. We also went to the museum inside Etchmiadzin which I was excited about because they have (supposedly) a piece of the cross, a piece of Noah’s Ark, and the spear that pierced Jesus’s side when he was on the cross. Each of these relics is one of many in the world with similar claims attached. The cross and Noah’s Ark could at least physically have multiple pieces in different places, but the spear is another matter. There can be only one. Obviously, all of the others are fakes and the Armenia one is real. It’s said to have been brought by the Apostle Thaddeus to Armenia and was housed in Geghard Monastery for a long time before ending up in Etchmiadzin.

The rest of the museum was less exciting. Lots of fancy Catholicos clothing and other reliquaries that didn’t have much information about what was inside them. Honestly, the museum could use a good labeling. I thought it was cool anyway and the rooms were beautiful, but I also wouldn’t have minded actually knowing what we were looking at.

Like seriously… is this not awesome??

Piece of Noah’s Ark. We were a little confused about this but think that maybe the brown stuff you can see behind the cross is the piece? Maybe?

The spear. The only real spear.

Here’s another confusing one. I guess the piece of the cross is inside, but you can’t see anything. For all we know, it could be empty. Or filled with cotton balls. Or Hello Kitty erasers. Or M&Ms. My point is, it could be anything. Or nothing.

Not a fantastic picture, but this is inside one of my favorite chapels at Etchmiadzin. When the sun is in the right positions, the light coming through the windows makes crosses on the ground or the walls. It’s cool!

From there, we walked to Saint Gayane Church and later drove to Saint Hripsime. There were weddings happening at both churches, so we pretended we were invisible and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. It was only semi-successful because at Saint Hripsime, if you want to see the tomb and the stones that supposedly stoned her, you need to get all the way to the front of the church. Not easy to do without being noticed. Anyway, I’ve written in great detail about the stories of Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime and the origins of Etchmiadzin, so if you want a refresher, you can check out those old posts HERE.

We were planning on stopping by the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral on the way back to Yerevan and decided to skip it because everyone was about ready to pass out. I think we made the right choice in the moment, but it’s still on my list. Maybe I’ll manage to get there one of these days!