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

Ceiling detailing inside the train station

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

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

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

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

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


Sasuntsi David

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


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

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

Isn’t it a cool statue?

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

Yerevan train station
Main hall of the train station

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate that this cemetery even has to exist, but they did do a beautiful job of landscaping and giving these families a place to grieve.
This memorial is to the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). I had never heard of it before seeing this at the cemetery and looking it up, but it was an organization that carried out various attacks and assassinations, primarily of Turkish diplomats and politicians. It seems a little shady… that’s all I’m going to say about it, and you can do your own research if you want to know more.
Unknown soldier grave
Cathedral of the Holy Cross

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

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

Shiny, right?

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.

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.

New church, Kathoghike Chapel

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

Carvings on the outside of the chapel

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

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

Inside the chapel

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

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

Lots of pretty carvings! And you can see the top of one of the windows too.
Carved cross at the entrance to the church
Inside the new church
HUGEEE window… and there’s another, identical one on the opposite side of the church
Looking up!

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

Discreet, right?
Eerie tree outside of Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

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

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

Saint Ananias Chapel in the front, church in the back

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

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

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

Inside the mausoleum
Inside Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin

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

I had another adventure day with Victoria! She wanted to go to the botanical garden in Yerevan, so we decided to go and check it out. We didn’t have any expectations, and that’s probably a good thing. The botanical garden was built in 1935, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, funding stopped and things started to fall apart. During the energy crisis in the late 1980s, the trees in the park (along with pretty much all of the trees in the country) were cut down for firewood. At its height, there were 1240 species of plants in the gardens. Now, I don’t know the exact number, but I can tell you that it’s far reduced from that number.

I think this got stepped on by a giant.

Our first struggle was figuring out how to even get in. The entrance location wasn’t very clear on Google maps, so we may have taken a less-than-official entry route once we got tired of walking around without success. That was another one of those “I would never do this at home” moments.

I think they just patched these things back together with whatever random scrap metal they could find…

The thing about visiting a botanical garden is that you expect to see a lot of plants. And you expect those plants to be alive. Anyway, I haven’t been to a ton of botanical gardens, but this one was like if the world ended, all of the humans disappeared off the planet, and the plants were allowed to grow wild. Like so many other places here, it had that “former glory” feel where you can tell that it used to be pretty cool until *fill in the blank* disaster happened and nothing ever got totally fixed.

The most intact greenhouse

There was this big row of greenhouses where it was clear that someone was doing things with the plants inside, but none of them had intact windows anymore. The broken window fragments were still scattered on the ground. Like couldn’t someone spend a few minutes cleaning things up? Maybe my priorities are out of whack. Maybe they want it to look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

The impenetrable greenhouse

The biggest confusion and frustration of the day was this one giant greenhouse that kind of looked like a spaceship. It was round and strange looking, and Victoria and I wanted nothing more than to go inside, but every little window hole that we could have squeezed through was blocked off with a collage of rusty sheet metal, fencing, broken glass pieces, and barbed wire. For as little effort as they put into actually fixing anything, they were very determined to keep us out of there. We circled the building twice, pounded on the door hoping someone would let us in, and tried in vain to find a ground-level hole to sneak through…  I mean, to find a respectable entrance… obviously.

There were a few broken windows we could have made it through, but they were probably 10 feet up and I wasn’t in the climbing mood… plus I don’t think the “I don’t speak Armenian” face of innocence can explain “accidentally wandering” through a 10-foot-high hole. It looked like someone was taking care of things inside, and I was bummed that we couldn’t check it out more closely (you know, besides what we could see in the cracks between the sheet metal and barbed wire). But yeah, like I just said… no matter how much we wanted to see the inside, we would NEVER go in without a clear, official entrance to go through.

This is like land coral
Taking advantage of the good lighting with some completely normal picture posing
Inside one of the functional greenhouses
These things are the coolest
Okay, so there were some cool plants
Flower pathway!
Random sculptures
The green is overwhelming!
Since we didn’t have a third person to take a picture, we just took two pictures and I photoshopped them together. I’m like Peter Pan… my shadow is disconnected from the rest of me!
Plant tunnel on the way out of the botanical garden. This was probably the coolest part of the whole experience.

We wandered out the official exit to the botanical garden (simultaneously finding the way we were supposed to have entered) and across the street to a very green and empty looking park. It caught our eyes as we were walking to the bus stop, and we felt like we had to go investigate. There we found weird lollipop trees, questionable Christmas light wiring, random exercise equipment, and a large statue of a woman miming screwing in a lightbulb. Just kidding. Probably. I’m not quite sure about what her pose was supposed to be.

We couldn’t understand why so much effort and money clearly went into this strange park on the side of the highway that isn’t near any houses and really isn’t accessible. Meanwhile, across the street, there’s a botanical garden that could use a lot of love. And funding. And lollipop trees. I guess that’s just another one of those Armenia mysteries of life. Probably someone donated a bunch of money and wanted a park, so they made one even though it doesn’t make sense.

Midday workout
Victoria, doing her best statue impression. You can see some lollipop trees in the background.
Christmas light wiring… they took normal, plug in Christmas lights, pulled out the metal parts of the plug, and shoved some wires in. Safe, I think.

On our way back into the city, we realized that it was still visiting hours at the Blue Mosque. I stopped in for a minute when I first came to Armenia with Sarah, but we could only go into the courtyard because it wasn’t during visiting hours. This time, the timing was right, but I was completely unprepared for a mosque visit. Luckily, Victoria had a hood AND a scarf. She used her hood and let me borrow the scarf so that we could both go inside at the same time.

Opposite the courtyard from the mosque

The Blue Mosque/Persian Mosque/probably some other names is the only functioning mosque in the country and was built in 1764. During Soviet times, it survived because it served as the Museum of the City of Yerevan. It was renovated in the late 1900s through a mutual effort with Iran who now also owns it. It’s a symbol of the friendship between Armenia and Iran, and with two out of Armenia’s four borders currently closed, maintaining friendships with the other two is probably a good idea.

I thought it was beautiful. The outside is tiled which is always fun, and the interior is simple but elegant. One of my favorite things in the whole world is stained glass, so the fact that they had some was enough to completely sell me on the building. Stained glass in churches unfortunately isn’t a thing here.

The front of the mosque
The inside. So pretty!!

Anyway, it was fun to spend the day seeing something a little different. Rare for an excursion in Armenia, we actually visited zero churches. The botanical garden maybe wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but I’m still glad we went. It gave us some time to pretend that the world had ended and we were the only two humans left.

Our last day of sightseeing unintendedly ended up being somewhat rock themed. Since we obviously hadn’t seen enough monasteries yet, we had another one, Geghard, on the docket for the morning, plus the only remaining pagan temple in the country, Garni Temple.

Temple of Garni

By now you’re used to the process of getting around… we took a city bus to a marshrutka station and a marshrutka to Garni, the town where Garni Temple is. It took under an hour to get there, and the walk from the bus stop was less than 10 minutes. Easy peasy.

Back in the day (like waaay back), the Armenians were sun worshippers. It’s interesting because you can look at the Christian art and architecture that came after the country’s conversion to Christianity and see how it’s connected to the art and architecture that came before. Pagan symbols were re-explained in Christian terms, rather than getting rid of them. For example, the pomegranate is used A LOT as a symbol here. In the pagan days, it was a symbol of fertility. In the Christian days, it was changed into a symbol of unity (people are the seeds, all individuals but part of the same body of Christ).

Temple from the back

Anyway, I kind of went off on a tangent. The point is that Garni Temple was a temple built in the first century AD and dedicated to the sun god, Mihr. The reason it survived even after Armenia’s conversion was because it was turned into a royal summer house. An earthquake in 1679 caused it to collapse, and it was finally excavated and reconstructed in the 1970s. They used almost all original stones to reconstruct it, but the ones that are not original were made obvious. It’s built in the classical Greek style with a little bit of an Armenian twist. The temple is cool, and the location makes it even better. You can get a great view of the Azat River gorge which is part of a big national park, Khosrov Forest State Reserve, one of the oldest protected areas in the world. It was founded in the 330s AD! I’m getting sidetracked again, but I’m definitely putting it on my list of places to visit while I’m here.

Such cool detailing!

The gorge
Looking out into Khosrov Reserve

After Garni Temple, we headed to Geghard. That required getting a taxi which we weren’t too excited about, but it ended up being extremely easy! Walking back towards the main street, we met an older gentleman who asked if we were going to Geghard. He asked if we needed a taxi and offered to take us in his, there and back for 2000 dram (a little more than $4). It’s about 10km away, and he said he would wait for an hour which is plenty of time to see everything. We agreed because that price was definitely lower than it should have been (and we gave him some extra at the end because we kind of felt like we were cheating him), and we were off!

First glimpse of Geghard

Geghard Monastery has a connection to everyone’s favorite historical figure… that’s right, St. Gregory! In its current form, it has multiple churches and tombs, but it started out just as a cave church. There’s a spring inside where you can wash your hands and face or drink some fresh, freezing cold water. There’s some great water in this country. The name “Geghard” comes from the word for “spear” because the monastery used to house the spear that was supposedly used to wound Jesus during the crucifixion and brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus. That spear is now kept in the museum at Etchmiadzin.

Geghard scenery

The monastery has a few different chapels now, with most carved into and one built out from the cliff. There’s one chapel in particular that is completely carved into the cliff and has some amazing acoustics. There are khachkars (stone crosses) EVERYWHERE, with some stuck into the cliff. They’re there to commemorate donations or in memory of the deceased. The “khachkar style”, if you will, was developed because stone crosses with the stone following the shape of the cross broke too easily. With a khachkar, the stone is a rectangle, and the cross is carved into it with elaborate decorations surrounding it.

This is all carved into the cliff!
Hallway into the big chapel with khachkars lining the walls. Ignore my finger in the picture (oops)
The biggest chapel completely inside the cliff
Khachkar party!
You’ll see tons of people trying to toss pebbles into little shelves in the rocks. If you get your rock to stay, your wish comes true!
Into the depths…

Our day ended with a trip to a slightly more offbeat attraction. Sarah and I are very into going to see things that are a little bit weird, so when we found the information about Master Levon’s Divine Underground, we knew we had to see it. The story goes (and this I know for a fact is a completely true story) that a man named Levon, a builder by trade, was asked by his wife to dig a potato cellar. He started digging, hit rock, moved over and kept digging more. And then he kept digging. And digging. And digging. And digging. He said that he had divine visions that told him to keep going, so he did. He dug for 23 years, until his death, with just a hammer, a chisel, and a bucket to carry out the rubble. The underground complex he created still isn’t complete according to his plans, but my gosh it’s amazing. My favorite quote by his wife, Tosya, is, “all I wanted was a good house and a potato cellar, and I got neither.” On the bright side though, she now has an ongoing revenue stream from visitors, so maybe Levon knew exactly what he was doing (it’s free to enter, but they accept donations).

At its deepest, the complex goes down 70 feet below the house! How crazy is that?!?! There are seven rooms connected by corridors and staircases, and decorations are carved into the walls at every turn. The pictures don’t do it justice, but they can at least give you the beginnings of an idea of what it was like.

Column carvings like these were all over the place

Awkward self-timer pictures
This room is huge. It was at least a two-story space with an overlook where I propped my mini-tripod and sprinted downstairs for this picture
This is crazy, right?

We were welcomed in by Tosya, and she left us to explore the caves on our own. At 50 degrees F (10 C), it’s fabulously cool down there, and thankfully, there are arrows marking out the route or we would have been hopelessly lost. When we came out, Tosya showed us to a little museum inside the house where you can see the hammers and chisels that Levon used, plus his clothes and a bunch of news articles that have been written about his creation. She spoke no English, but once again, we managed to communicate enough. After that, she led us outside into the garden where the walls were covered with stone mosaics and two paintings: one of Levon, and one of Tosya. This was one talented guy. We signed a guestbook with notes by visitors from all over the world and headed back into the city, our minds still blown by what we had just experienced. Who knew that this would turn into a cave exploration day?

One thing that there’s no shortage of in Armenia is churches. We wanted to go to Etchmiadzin (basically the Vatican of Armenia), and we decided to turn it into a full-on church day.

Etchmiadzin. Probably would look cooler without the scaffolding, but what can you do?

Etchmiadzin is located in Vagharshapat, a town about half an hour west of Yerevan. Even though the town isn’t that big, there are five churches there (including Etchmiadzin which is like a little church city), so we decided to visit them all. Why not, right?

Church of Saint Gayane

We did the usual routine, taking a city bus to a marshrutka station and getting a marshrutka from there to Vagharshapat. The churches we were planning to see were kind of laid out in an L-shape, so we started at one end of the L and worked our way through. The first stop was the Church of Saint Gayane. It was built originally in 630AD and had some renovations done in 1652. Just pause for a second… That. Is. Ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but I think that St. Peter’s (the Vatican) is old, and construction on that didn’t start until the 1500s! Also, the fact that they went over 1000 years without needing renovations, and that after 1000 years they just did some work on the dome and ceilings, is crazy. Who knows, maybe it’s not as impressive as I think, but it sounds pretty good to me!

Lots of curved and perfectly fit together stones.

Anyway, do you want to hear the story of Saint Gayane? Because obviously she has a story because everything is part of a long, interconnected history here. Get ready for your head to hurt a little. Remember how I talked about St. Gregory? The guy who was imprisoned for 13 years in the pit in Khor Virap and was only freed when the king went mad? Well, the reason why the king went mad has something to do with both Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime, the namesake of church #5 in our Vagharshapat church tour. (Note: this is another one of those stories that definitely has a certain amount of fact in it but has also certainly been embellished over the years. You can decide what you want to take and leave.)

The word is that Gayane was the head of an abbey of nuns in Rome, with Hripsime included. Hripsime was very beautiful, and Diocletian, the Roman emperor, noticed her and wanted to force her to marry him. The entire abbey of 30-some nuns fled Rome and ended up in Vagharshapat. There, Hripsime attracted the attention of yet another unwanted suitor, King Tiridates III, the same king who St. Gregory helped. When she refused his advances, she and the rest of the nuns were tortured and martyred. Some stories say that the king also fell in love with Gayane, and she also refused him. The exact facts on this are a little unclear, as are the exact methods of the martyring. Both Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime’s churches are supposedly built on the sites where each woman was killed, and the rest of the nuns were killed at the future site of Shoghakat (church #4 on the tour). I read somewhere that Saint Hripsime was stoned, and her church supposedly has some of the actual stones that were used. Who knows if that’s true, but I can attest that there’s a little glassed-in alcove in the wall near her tomb with some rocks in it. Anyway, these women are considered the first Christian martyrs in Armenia’s history.

Sarah’s beloved doors

After killing a bunch of nuns for doing nothing wrong, the king went crazy (with some stories saying that he literally turned into a wild boar or that he had a boar’s head), and that’s when St. Gregory came in and saved the day and Armenia became the first Christian nation. So really, these women deserve the credit for turning Armenia into the country that it is today, though it would have been nice if they didn’t have to be murdered for that to happen.

Saint Gayane’s church is beautiful. It’s the same style as so many other Armenian churches, but I still think they’re all super cool. The doors are wooden and covered with insanely intricate carvings (Sarah closely examined and marveled at a door for a solid 5 minutes: “This is WOOD??! And someone carved it like THIS? What if they messed up? How did they do this? THIS IS AMAZING. This is WOOD??”) The inside of the church is simple, but it’s still impressive when you think about the fact that it’s stone, and all of those stones had to be shaped and fit together perfectly to make all the curves and arches.

Etchmiadzin (church #2) was up next. Guess who is involved with the story of Etchmiadzin? If you said “St. Gregory”, you win! St. Gregory had a vision of Jesus Christ descending from heaven and striking the site with a golden hammer, so that’s where the cathedral was built. Etchimiadzin means “where the Only Begotten descended”. It was originally built in 301AD and is considered the oldest cathedral in the world, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since the original. It is the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church and is where the Catolicos (like the Armenian pope) resides.

The inside of this church was anything BUT simple. Everything was beautifully painted, and Sarah and I sat on a bench inside and just stared at the walls and ceilings until we felt ready to leave. It was beautiful. Check out the pictures because words aren’t sufficient.

Talk about epic doorways…
Simple, right?
My new most favorite ceiling in the universe.

Church #3 was Holy Mother of God Church. No crazy story with this one. There was an actual service going on when we visited, so that was fun to see. That also means I don’t have any pictures though, so you’ll just have to go for yourself if you want to know what it’s like.

This is a park in Vagharshapat. Some kids were playing in the far fountain, and Sarah and I were about 5 seconds away from joining them to escape the heat. This park is also funny because there are all of these little church replicas around it, so we did a mini-church tour in the middle of our human-sized church tour. You can see a couple in the cases on the left side of the picture.
I laughed at this. There are a bunch of churches where I’ve seen similar things, and maybe you won’t think its as funny as I do… but instead of using light bulbs that look nice and match the chandelier, they have these icky spiral compact fluorescent bulbs. I mean, good for them for trying to save energy, but it is possible to do that without sacrificing aesthetics. Okay, rant over.
Intense dragon drainpipes

Church #4 was Shoghakat, the site where the remaining nuns were martyred. That was probably the smallest of the five churches, but it was still interesting to see and compare it to the others.

Saint Hripsime

Finally, church #5 was St. Hripsime’s church. It’s definitely one of my favorites if you’re going off of exterior appearance, and the fact that it’s basically sitting on a pedestal probably helps. It makes the church seem so much more commanding because it’s raised up above the surroundings, and nothing is impeding your view of it. The inside was simple again, but very pretty. I think it was set up for a wedding or something because the aisle was lined with candles and flowers (Sarah and I approved… they looked nice). We popped our heads into the tomb to see the glass-encased stones and then high-tailed it out of there because it felt weird.

The candles are a nice touch, right?
This is from the back of the building, but you can get an idea of the mosaic work from the dome.

When we got back to Yerevan, we stopped by the Blue Mosque, the only active mosque in all of Armenia. It avoided the fate of other mosques because it was temporarily the History Museum of Yerevan. It seems like temporary repurposing is the only way that religious buildings make it through tumultuous times. We only snuck into the complex for a couple of seconds because it technically wasn’t visiting hours, but the mosaic work on the mosque is awesome.

Last stop was St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral (yes, as in our BFF St. Gregory) which is the biggest Armenian church in the world. It was finished in 2001 for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia. It is massive, obviously, and very simple inside except for a crazy big chandelier that I didn’t feel comfortable taking a picture of at the time. I could probably go into more detail, but I’m exhausted just writing this, and I’m sure you’re exhausted reading it. Gosh, Armenia. You have too much history!

I don’t know that this picture conveys the scale or epic-ness of this church, but just trust me, it’s huge.

Congratulations, you’ve now virtually visited EVERY mosque in Armenia and six of the 1 bagazillion churches in Armenia. How does it feel?

The memorial from afar

One of the must-visit spots in Yerevan is the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), and Sarah and I wanted to be sure that we would have as much time as we needed there. It opens at 11AM, and we were there at 10:45, taking advantage of the nonexistent crowds and visiting the memorial first.

The memorial wall

The memorial is very well done. There are three main parts: the memorial wall, the eternal flame, and the stele (I’m sure there are official names for these parts, but I don’t know them). As you approach the memorial, there is a 100m long wall with engravings of the town names where massacres took place. The eternal flame is housed in a memorial hall where the floor is 1.5 meters lower than the surrounding walkway, representing the 1.5 million Armenian victims. The area is semi-enclosed by 12 huge concrete slabs that slant in and up, representing the 12 lost provinces that are in modern-day Turkey. The tall stele symbolizes the Armenians’ survival and spiritual rebirth. It is partially split into two parts, expressing the unity of the Armenian people despite their physical separation/dispersion.

The outside of the hall with the eternal flame

It looks beautiful from a distance, and everything was so deliberately done. Sarah observed that the concrete slabs made you feel a certain heaviness when standing in the hall with the eternal flame, and I definitely agree with her. It’s a space that almost forces emotion and reflection. Who knows what exactly the designers were aiming for, but I’d say they did their job well.

The stele

There’s also a museum that gives a VERY thorough timeline of the repeated persecution of the Armenian people, starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1920s. I knew a good amount of the information presented there, but getting all of it in such a detailed, chronological format was really helpful. I’m going to do my very best to summarize while also doing the story justice, but I’d obviously recommend going to the museum if you ever get the chance because they do it 1,000x better than I ever could (which, whether you’re Armenian or not, come to Armenia for vacation! Sarah will be the first to tell you that you should).

1915 is the year that people think of as the beginning of the genocide, but that wasn’t the beginning of the Armenians’ problems. Minority groups in the Ottoman Empire, Christians included, had limited rights (there were even restrictions on what they could wear!) and high taxes. The 1876 Ottoman Constitution supposedly guaranteed some rights, but even that wasn’t followed. Even so, the Armenians thrived during this period and were successful in business and education. During the negotiation talks for the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Armenians pushed to make their struggles known to the Western powers, and an article was put into the treaty saying that they should be treated differently but not including any real way to confirm that it actually happened.

Entrance to the underground museum

The sultan ordered the first round of massacres to take place in 1894-1896. The thought was that if there were no Armenians left, then no reforms were necessary. It was a convenient answer to the “Armenian Question”. About 300,000 Armenians were killed during this period, and many more were converted or moved. Any efforts made to get fair rights were met with aggression.

When the Young Turk party started, it called for freedom, equality, and justice, and many Armenians supported the movement, thinking that it would be better than the current government. Those policies were soon abandoned, and a “Turkification” movement started with the goal of taking back the Turkish homeland. In 1909, there was another round of massacres in Adana. Armenians were disarmed, their houses were marked, and Turkish civilians and criminals were given weapons and set free.


Elsewhere during this time, Armenians were gradually being scapegoated, accused of treason, and turned into the enemy in the eyes of the public. The government waited for an opportunity to move into the next phase of the plan and then World War I came. The Ottoman Empire joined sides with Germany under the agreement that their eastern border could be expanded. 60,000 Armenian soldiers were drafted, blamed for a battle loss, and put into labor battalions that were starved or killed once they were no longer needed.

On April 24, 1915, 235 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople, based on a previously compiled list. That number eventually grew to 800 leaders in the Armenian community who were imprisoned. Political leaders and members of the clergy were killed. The property that all of these people left behind was considered “abandoned” and was confiscated by the government.

The view of Ararat from the memorial

After these two phases, the military-age men and national elite were out of the way, leaving mostly women, children, and the elderly. Mass deportations were organized. Any remaining men were usually killed first, and the rest were “spared” to embark on grueling marches through the desert where starvation, planned attacks, and kidnappings were the norm. There were group drownings, burnings, forced jumps from cliffs and bridges, and medical experiments. Those who survived went to concentration camps in the desert where many succumbed to infection or starvation.

The museum had pictures of big families, school students, etc., and the captions said which people in the pictures survived. The family pictures would have maybe 15 people in them, and the only person who survived was the baby in the picture. One school picture had probably 80 or so girls in it, and only two survived. That really put things into perspective.

On May 24, 1915, Great Britain, France, and Russia issued a joint declaration condemning the massacres and holding the Turkish government responsible, but it didn’t change a thing. It wasn’t until the end of WW1 that much of this was stopped. The government officials involved were tried and convicted, but after that, they were freed in exchange for the release of British POWs. Even after all of this happened, in 1922, Armenians and Greeks in Smyrna were killed in masses, and the city was burned to the ground. That same year, Armenia became part of the USSR.

To this day, the Turkish government denies that the massacres were genocide. Armenians are scattered across the globe, and the size of Armenia is a tiny fraction of what it once was. The museum ended on a positive note though, talking a bit about the people who helped to recover orphans who had been taken to be “Turkified” and rescue kidnapped women. It was a good reminder that even in the face of so much evil, there are incredible, selfless people who will step up and risk their own well-being to help others.

The museum ends with the classic Hitler quote, reminding us that if we don’t acknowledge and learn from history, it will repeat itself. “…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Like I said before, the memorial and museum were very well done. We left feeling a bit sad but mostly hopeful and extremely well-informed. The amount of information and materials gathered there is amazing!

Sarah looking awkward in the metro

Sarah and I are basically public transportation pros now. We’re all about economical travel which means things are never easy or straightforward and always weird and memorable. The goal of the day was to make it to Khor Virap, a monastery about 30km south of Yerevan. The trek started with a walk from our apartment to Republic Square (the central square in the city) to catch the metro.

The metro here was built when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Cities with at least 1 million residents were granted a subway, so even though a population of that size wasn’t in the original plan for Yerevan, the quota was reached, and a subway was built. There’s only one metro line and the route is kind of random, but if you’re starting and ending somewhere close to the line, it’s actually very nice. The stations are way cleaner than any other subway I’ve ever been in. A ride costs 100 drams (about 20 cents), and to pay your fare, you buy these little plastic tokens that look like someone cut them out of a sheet of plastic using safety scissors.

The ride back to Yerevan. Spot the Sarah.

Our metro ride was uneventful, and we made it to the bus station quickly and without any trouble. The next part of the trip was taking a marshrutka (that’s the Russian word for it… I’m sure there’s an Armenian word too, but this is the one that I’ve heard used) which is basically the exact same thing as tro tros in Ghana and combis in Peru. They’re minibuses that (generally) look like they’ve seen MANY better days, and everyone packs in like sardines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a strong need for personal space.

It was easy enough finding the right one to take. I let Sarah think that my Armenian reading skills were really good, but actually the sign also said “Khor Virap” in Latin letters too. Shh, don’t give away my secrets. Actually though, I can read at least well enough to make sure we’re going the right way. I didn’t realize how big of a help that was going to be.

The bus left exactly on schedule which impressed me. Is “Armenian time” just an excuse that people use in the States to justify being late, but it’s actually not a thing in Armenia? Or maybe the public transportation is just on point here. I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Khor Virap from afar

We made it to Khor Virap in maybe 40 minutes, and the driver took us all the way to the parking lot even though the route is supposed to leave you off about 1.5 km away. That was fine with me! He saved us 20 minutes of walking each way, and we used that time for extra adventures. The first stop though, obviously, was the monastery. There are two reasons why this monastery is extra cool. Reason #1: you get an awesome view of Mount Ararat. Reason #2: legend has it that St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by the king for 13 years in a “dungeon” (aka a creepy underground room or a “khor virap” – a “deep well”) in the monastery. He was left there to die and was even forgotten by the king, but he was fed and kept alive by a woman from a neighboring village (I’ve heard this a couple ways though… one is that it was one woman under the influence of a strange dream that compelled her to bring him food. The other is that it was a few Christian women who secretly fed him. The length of the imprisonment also seems to be up for a bit of debate with some sources saying it was only 13 months, not years, but we’ll go with years because that’s a better story).

Sarah looking excited about coming down the ladder into some random hole. Why does one monastery need so many holes?
The random hole, purpose unknown (by me, that is. I’m sure someone knows).
The ladder out of the imprisonment hole. It smelled nice and musty down there, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Surp Astvatsatsin Church in Khor Virap

Eventually St. Gregory was freed when the king went mad, and his sister had a dream that St. Gregory could cure him. And that is how this story goes from being just about St. Gregory to being the story of how Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 A.D. If you know any Armenians, then you know how proud everyone is of that fact, which by association makes Khor Virap kind of a big deal. Wow. Sorry, that story ended up being much longer than planned (and I cut out a LOT of details, trust me). Anyway, the takeaway from this is that Armenian legends are great, and who knows what’s true and what’s not quite. I’m going to count them all as completely factual because that’s way more fun.

Check out that view! Hi, Mount Ararat!
Us with Gervorg

After exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Khor Virap, we still had some time before our return bus. We headed out on a pilgrimage to a statue of Gevorg Chaush, a guy who I think would be best described as a freedom fighter (correct me if I’m wrong). We thought it was funny that there’s a statue of him basically in the middle of nowhere, so we made the trek out to give him a little company.

Thankfully, we made it back just in time to catch the bus which was, once again, EXACTLY on time. Incredible. We got back to Yerevan and spent some time at the Armenian History Museum. Here’s the quick summary: The Armenians have been around for practically forever (they say that there’s been a geographical region called Armenia for 2600 years). There’s a LOT of history to go through. You can see the oldest shoe in the world that’s dated back to about 3500 BC (that’s even older than the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the ice man). If you go, you should do the tour because there’s so much to look at, and if you try to understand it all on your own, your head will explode. Even with the tour, your head might explode. Sarah and I are filled with a whole lot of Armenian history knowledge now.

The Armenian History Museum. Apparently it was used as an orphanage at one point.

We also visited Vernissage, a big souvenir market, and went back to Republic Square at night to see the fountain music/light show. I won’t say too much about that except that it’s awesome. And then we came home and passed out.

Vernissage from across the street
Roaming Vernissage
Fountain music/light show!
So cool!