Last month Tony mentioned an upcoming work trip to Yerevan. My ears pricked up. Yerevan, a city as old as Babylon? A country without a McDonalds? When do we leave? Naturally, the same day I purchased my flight, Tony shared a comment from a colleague: “You’re going to Yerevan? Who did you p- – – off?” Meh, I’ve heard it before. A friend’s husband once declared the beautiful city of Sofia a, “sh- -hole,” and not worth visiting. I was unfazed by the colleague’s travel commentary, and set off last week with expectations as high as the forecast 34° temperatures.
Austrian Airlines is the only carrier flying non-stop from Vienna, though the flights fell short of the usual Austrian Air caliber. Honestly, I think I would have preferred the six-hour layover in Moscow on Aeroflot instead. But, I’ll reserve the travel commentary for a later post.
It would be the case throughout our short visit that wrapping our heads around how ancient this part of the world is would prove difficult, though perhaps never more so than on our first morning. Because Tony and I only had one day of sightseeing together, I made arrangements for a driver to take us to Khor Virap Monastery on our first morning. The monastery sits on the site where organized Christianity was declared in 301 AD, making Armenia the first Christian nation in the world.
(Another (cultural) adjustment was the sincere friendliness and hospitality of the Armenian people. Our driver presented us with a box of Armenian candy as an apology for being ten minutes late (!) in collecting us for our tour. I think even the crazy-happy Danes would have to adjust to the Armenians, so imagine how we felt coming from Vienna.)
Khor Virap is a short drive southwest from Yerevan, and sits rather close to the closed border with Turkey. Once out of Yerevan the landscape became rural, to put it mildly. Armenia is extending its highway to the Iranian border; in several sections, however, the “road” is incomplete, and Sergei did his best to make us laugh as we bumped along. A different kind of Fahrvergnügen.
Scenes from the drive to Khor Virap.
The majority religion (95%) in Armenia is Apostolic Catholic, and the church is headed by a Catholicos. Earlier this year Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, visited and was afforded, according to Sergei, “Rock-star treatment.”
A little village that abuts the Turkish border.
Nearing the monastery we passed through another village, unique (to us) for its aboveground gas and water lines.
The monastery is pleasantly un-touristy (the same could be said for all of Armenia, I think), and affords remarkable views of Mount Ararat, where the Bible holds that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Great Flood. So very peaceful.
Our window for visiting was perfect, Sergei informed us. And he was correct; by the time we departed the area an hour later, clouds and haze had begun to obscure the mountain (which is technically a snow-capped dormant volcano).
In this place of great peacefulness lie geopolitical tensions equally as great, unfortunately. Turkish-Armenian relations have been strained for centuries; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought additional strife between newly-independent neighbors. If only we could all get along…