Monday, December 21, 2015

Introducing Armenia.

Central Yerevan view from the Cascade.  Snow capped Mount Ararat in the background.
(Photo by Raffi Kojian.  Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
A few weeks ago, I also spent an afternoon with my friend and former colleague, Areg.  Areg is Armenian and she was keen to bake some gata cookies for me, especially since I had never had them before. They are a traditional Armenian filled cookie made from flour, tons of butter and sugar and eggs, yogurt and a bit of yeast. Areg made two versions of the gata cookie.  One that was filled with just butter and sugar and the other with nuts.  She told me she found her recipe on YouTube but I found a few on the web with very easy to follow instructions:  A recipe from plain gata from The Armenian Kitchen and nut filled gata from Food'n'Chef.

Typically, baking is viewed as a method of cooking that requires precision, especially when it comes to measuring out the ingredients.  Areg was, well, not so accurate.  Her cup measure was a 10 oz coffee cup so 10 cups of flour for just the dough part turned out to be a LOT of flour :-)  She started with one big bowl and ended up needing two to mix up all the ingredients in. Somehow though, it all seemed to work out okay as the cookies came out delicious!

Areg's plain gata cookies, fresh out of the oven!
Lucky me, I got to eat one of the plain ones fresh out of the oven.  Very yummy - soft, buttery and sweet.  It made me want to reach of a cup of tea to accompany it - would have been perfect with a cup of tea.  I got to take a few home with me and greedy me finished them off for breakfast the following day!

While Areg busily worked on making the cookies, I told her about my tentative plans for Armenia.  In turn she offered for her brother, who provides touring services, to take us around.  She also offered for us to stay with her sister but after some thought, we'll be staying in an apartment instead as it will not only give us the freedom to come and go but we'll have ready access to more amenities as well.

I had Areg take a quick look at my proposed itinerary and she confirmed that indeed it covers the highlights.  We'll rely on her brother to take us to the more off the beaten path places - those usually turn out to be far more interesting than the places listed in the guidebooks.

We start in Yerevan and we'll have a day to wander about on our own before we visit the out of town  places with Areg's brother.  Currently, the itinerary is just all day trips out of Yerevan and while I have booked an apartment for our entire stay, I think Pat and I would be willing to give up a night in the city if it means we can be someplace interesting in the Armenian countryside.  In fact, we still have time to make adjustments now as I will be letting Areg know what are final travel dates are now that we've got our plane tickets.

For Armenia, here are the places and sights I have on our current itinerary....to be revised as we travel :-)

Garni Temple.
(Photo by Rita Willaert.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
  
Garni is a village with an ancient history having been first occupied in the 3rd millennium BC and has been inhabited almost continuously since then.

Garni is notable for its fortress complex with the 1st-century AD Garni Temple, Surb Astvatsatsin Church, Mashtots Hayrapet Church, a ruined 4th-century single-aisle church, a ruined Tukh Manuk Shrine, Saint Sargis Shrine, and

The Garni Gorge with its basalt cliffs, below the village, is also well worth a stop.

Geghard Monastery.
(Photo by Vigen Hakhverdyan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)


Geghard is a medieval monastery that is partially rockhewn.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in 2000.

While the main chapel was built in 1215, the monastery complex was founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave.

Originally, the monastery was named *Ayrivank*, meaning "the Monastery of the Cave".  Its current name means *Monastery of the Spear* in honor of the spear which was used to wound Jesus at the Crucifixion.  The spear was allegedly brought to Armenia by the Apostle Jude stored amongst many other relics.

The  towering cliffs surrounding the monastery are part of the Azat River gorge, and are included together with the monastery in the World Heritage Site listing. Some of the churches within the monastery complex are entirely dug out of the cliff rocks, others are little more than caves, while others are elaborate structures, with both architecturally complex walled sections and rooms deep inside the cliff.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral.
(Photo by Areg Amirkhanian. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Vagharshapat is one of the historic capitals of Armenia and the religious heart of the country; it is thus unofficially known as a "holy city".  Between 1945 and 1995, the city was officially known as Ejmiatsin (also spelled Echmiadzin or Etchmiadzin) and is still commonly used colloquially and in official business.

Vagharshapat is home to the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the main church of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The current building was erected in 483 and heavily rebuilt in the following centuries It still functions as a church and according to many scholars, it was the first cathedral (but not the first church) built in ancient Armenia, and is considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world.



Khor Virap Monastery with the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat in the background.
(Photo by MrAndrew47. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Khor Virap (meaning *deep pit* or *deep well*) is a monastery located in the Ararat plain in Armenia, near the border with Turkey. The monastery was once a theological seminary.

Khor Virap is also notable as a pilgrimage site, attributed to the fact that Gregory the Illuminator was initially imprisoned here for 14 years by King Tiridates III of Armenia. St. Gregory subsequently became the king's religious mentor, and they led the proselytizing activity in the country. In the year 301, Armenia was the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation. A chapel was initially built in 642 at the site of Kirat Virap by Nerses III the Builder as a mark of veneration to Saint Gregory. Over the centuries, it was repeatedly rebuilt. In 1662, the larger chapel known as the "St. Astvatsatsin" (Holy Mother of God) was built around the ruins of the old chapel, the monastery, the refectory and the cells of the monks. Regular church services are still held in this church.

An ancient church in Areni.
(Photo by franek2. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Areni is a village in the Vayots Dzor Province of Armenia and it is best known for its wine production.  Armenia is known for its wine so I am certain, Pat will enjoy a glass or two.

Areni also has its fair share of churches and monasteries of churches dating back to the Medieval period.  No doubt, we will be visiting a few.

However, the village is far more ancient.  In 2007, an Armenian-Irish team of archaeologists decided to do test excavations in the cave site near Areni.  Two test trenches in the front and rear galleries revealed Chalcolithic Age and Early Bronze Age layers dating back to 5000-4000 BCE. Excavations during 2007-2008 uncovered 3 pot burials in the rear chamber of the cave. Each pot contained a Copper Age human skull with no associated grave goods. biological anthropologist. Remarkably, one skull contained a piece of a well-preserved brain tissue. This is the oldest known human brain from the Old World.

The cave has also offered surprising new insights into the origins of modern civilizations, such as evidence of a wine making enterprise and an array of culturally diverse pottery. Excavations also yielded an extensive array of Copper Age artifacts dating to between 4,200 and 3,900 BC. Additional discoveries at the site include metal knives, seeds from more than 30 types of fruit, remains of dozens of cereal species, rope, cloth, straw, grass, reeds and dried grapes and prunes.

In January 2011, archaeologists announced the discovery of the earliest known winery, the Areni-1 winery, seven months after the world's oldest leather shoe, a stunningly preserved 5,500-year-old leather moccasin referred to simply as the Areni-1 shoe, was discovered in the same cave. The winery, which is over six-thousand years old, contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups.

Tatev Monastery, Armenia.  (Photo by Alexander Naumov)
Tatev is a 9th-century Armenian Apostolic monastery located on a large basalt plateau near the the village of the same name.  The monastery complex is perched on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River.

The fortified Tatev monastery consists of three churches (Sts. Paul and Peter, St. Gregory the Illuminator and St. Mary), a library, dining hall, belfry, mausoleum as well as other administrative and auxiliary buildings.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastery was home to one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, the University of Tatev, which contributed to the advancement of science, religion and philosophy, reproduction of books and development of miniature painting. During this time, fortifications were built to the south, west and north of the monastery with buildings for habitation, administration and other purposes. In the 18th century, additions were made to house the bishop’s residence, cells for the monks, storage, dining hall, kitchen, bakery and winery. Sixteen rectangular classrooms, covered with arched ceilings, were built along the main fortifications.

St. Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral.
(Photo by Beko.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
In October 2010, Armenia launched the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway a 5,750 meter (3.57 miles) long cable car, as part of its effort to revive tourism in the area. The tramway, named *Wings of Tatev* connects the village of Halidzor with Tatev monastery.




Oshakan is a village known for the St. Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral which is the burial place of Saint Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet.  Following Mashtot's death in 444 a small chapel was built on his tombstone by Vahan Amatuni.  The chapel was partially ruined towards the end of the 18th century and in the 19th century, the small chapel was replaced by a respectable basilica. The builiding of new church was initiated by Catholicos George IV in 1875.   The cathedral is an important pilgrimage site for Armenians and a popular site for tourists to visit.







Amberd Fortres and Vahramashen Church.
(Photo by Nina Stössinger. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Amberd Fortress is 7th-century fortress located 2,300 meters (7,500 ft) above sea level.  The tall fortress is built on the slopes of Mount Aragats at the confluence of the Arkashen and Amberd rivers.

The princely castle of Amberd was built in the 11th to 13th centuries and was protected by walls with inclined towers.

Today, all that remains are ruins but back in its glory days, the castle was a two-storeyed structure fitted with a majestic staircase and baths outside.

Located a short walking distance from the fortress is Vahramashen Church which was built in 1026.  The church's exterior architecture is simple and expressive, crowned by an umbrella shaped cupola. 

Haghpat Monastery.
(Photo by Konrad Kuhn.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Haghpat is a village located near the city of Alaverdi and the border with Georgia. It is notable for Haghpat Monastery, a religious complex founded in the 10th century.  Along with the monasteries in nearby Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.


Haghpat Monastery was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh, wife of the Bagratid king Ashot III, sometime around  976. The nearby monastery at Sanahin was built around the same time.

Haghpat Monastery is situated so that it overlooks the Debed River. It was built, not on a peak, but halfway up a hillside on a site chosen to afford protection and privacy.

The largest church in the complex, the Cathedral of Surb Nishan, probably begun in 976, was completed in 991 by king Smbat. It is a typical example of 10th century Armenian architecture.  There are several other structures at the site as well, including the small domed Church of Sourb Grigor (St. Gregory ) which was built starting in 1005.

The monastery has been repeatedly damaged and restored over the centuries though much of the original complex is still intact and stands today without substantial alterations.

Sanahin Monastery.
(Photo by Hans Dewaele. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Sanahin is a monastery founded in the 10th century.  The name Sanahin literally translates from Armenian as "this one is older than that one", presumably representing a claim to having an older monastery than the neighboring Haghpat Monastery. The two villages and their monasteries are similar in many ways, and lie in plain view of each other on a dissected plateau formation, separated by a deep "crack" formed by a small river flowing into the Debed river.

The monastery complex at Sanahin complex belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church with numerous khachkars (stones with elaborate engravings representing a cross) and bishop grave sites scattered throughout it.





Lake Sevan.
(Photo by Shaun Dunphy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Lake Sevan. Lake Sevan  is the largest body of water in Armenia and the Caucasus region. Situated in the central part of Armenia, at an altitude of 1,900 meters (6,200 feet), it is one of the largest freshwater high altitude lakes in Eurasia.

The most famous cultural monument is the medieval Sevanavank Monastery located on the peninsula, which was until the mid-20th century an island.  Initially the monastery was built at the southern shore of a small island. After the artificial draining of Lake Sevan, which started in the era of Joseph Stalin, the water level fell about 20 meters (65 feet), and the island transformed into a peninsula.

Sevanavank Monastery.
(Photo by Armguapa. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Another prominent monastery at the western shore is Hayravank, and further south, in the village of Noratus, is a cemetery with about 900 khachkars of different sizes and styles. The khachkars remind me of the balbals around the Issyk Kul region in Kyrgyzstan.  Pat and I enjoyed walking among the balbals but Issyk Kul turned out to be a bit of a bust for us.  I hope that we'll have a more enjoyable time at Lake Sevan.

Aside from its recreational and cultural value, I read that Lake Sevan is also the source of 90% of fish and 80% of crayfish catch of Armenia.  Crayfish??  Did I read that correctly?  I had so hoped to have some when Bro and I were traveling through the Baltics but we never came across any.  Presumably, there's a season for them and I don't know if they will be in season or not when we're in Armenia.  I'm going to follow up with Areg because if we can have a meal of them, that would be awesome!






Sharambeyan Street in Dilijan.
(Photo by Shaun Dunphy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Dilijan is a popular resort area located nestled in the forests of the Dilijan National Park.  Dilijan is often referred to as the Armenian Switzerland or Little Switzerland by the locals.  The little town is home to numerous Armenian artists, composers, and filmmakers and features some traditional Armenian architecture. Sharambeyan Street, in the town's center, has been preserved and maintained as an "old town," complete with craftsman's workshops, a gallery and a museum.  After days of seeing a lot of monasteries, it'll be nice to have a break and take in Mother Nature as see a bit of traditional Armenian architecture.

I have allocated quite a bit of time in Armenia and I think we'll have a couple of free days, after covering everything described in this post.  Those days I will leave up to Areg's brother to decide on where to take us.  As Pat says, even if we don't see anything of historic or cultural significance, it's good to just be able to hang out.  Hmmmm.....maybe a cooking lesson or a visit to a handicrafts place or.....helping Areg's father make vodka.  Yes, he makes vodka!  Here's to Armenia!