The city of Yerevan offers a treasure trove of monasteries, flea markets and open-air cafes that serve traditional coffee.
I have to confess: before I left for Armenia, I knew only two things about the country: one, that American socialite Kim Kardashian has Armenian roots and two, that a sizeable Armenian merchant community once resided in my city, Chennai. I even visited their now almost deserted church that’s maintained by a lone caretaker. So I brush up my knowledge of the landlandlocked nation and learn that Armenia is just east of Turkey and bordered by Georgia on the North, Azerbaijan in the East and Iran on the South.
On reaching Armenia, I meet our local guide Tatevik. “Armenia is a sliver of Christianity in a sea of Muslim countries,” explains Tatevik. Armenia, I learn, was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, and that the move defined and shaped its turbulent history through the ages.
Tatevik, who is also a gifted singer, tells us that the name ‘Yerevan’ was inspired by the first words Noah uttered after he found his ark on Mt.Ararat — he is believed to have shouted ‘Yerevats’ (which means ‘I see’), on finally seeing land after the flood. “Noah was actually the first tourist of Armenia,” she quips.
But Armenia has a bloody past and has been whittled away by its neighbours over centuries.
The genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire is still disputed by Turkey. Today, most Armenians live outside the country’s borders in diaspora communities throughout the world. A discussion about Armenia’s past is incomplete without mentioning Mesrop Mashnots, the founder of the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. “He gave the country a symbol that helped resist assimilation and survive anywhere,” says Tatevik. Armenia’s rebirth after the Soviet era was made possible by the financial help that poured in from the Armenian diaspora spread across the world.
Over the next few days, I explore the city which is an intriguing mix of drab Soviet-era blocks interspersed with stylish European style buildings and boulevards dotted with olive and mulberry trees, fountains, shops, restaurants and verdant parks. Most of the buildings in Yerevan are made from pink tufa (a special variety of limestone), which gives the city its pink tinge.
The mastermind behind Yerevan’s architectural splendor is Alexander Tamanyan, who proposed that the city’s historical, residential and cultural centers be linked with large green areas, replete with waterfalls and gardens. But his idea remained only on paper and would have been completely forgotten if it wasn’t for Jim Torosyan, Yerevan’s chief architect, who resurrected the idea in the late 1970s.
At nighttime, the city turns magical with everyone gravitating towards Republic Square lined with public buildings, where musical fountains prance to the strains of classical music. Locals lounge in open-air cafes that line the streets and gelato bars do brisk business till late at night. We take a stroll on Abovyan Street, which is lined with cafes serving Armenian coffee called soorj, a name that’s derived from the sound of slurping. During the weekend, I stroll through Vernissage, an openair flea market which operates in a square with stalls selling everything from old Elvis Presley LPs to obscure car parts and even vats of acid. In the closed market, I buy strings of dried fruits called sujukh that are arranged to hang like curtains. Here, walnut strings are dipped in grape juice and then dried.
I find a zillion references to India which make me feel at home — from the anthemic Jimmy, Jimmy from the Mithun Chakraborthy starrer Disco Dancer, which locals greet you with the moment they know you are Indian, to the Bombay street where a theatre used to play Bollywood movies. Even the food reminds me of the Indian sub-continent— charred eggplant reminiscent of Baingan ka Bharta, paper thin rotis called lavash — a tortilla like flatbread like rumali roti which women swirl around their heads before baking them in hot ovens and walnut preserves like murabbas.
The next few days, I drive through miles of desolate stretches in the Caucasus Mountains and find that the small country is a treasure trove of monasteries hewn out of volcanic tufa, pagan temples, lapis lazuli lakes and churches, tucked away in wildly remote places to protect them from destruction.
I love the Khachkars or, Armenian Cross stone, which are memorial tablets found in graveyards and churches, with intricate motifs like pomegranates and stylised plants. I buy my own small clay Khachkar from a souvenir store, to remind me of this culturally rich country which reminds me of home — a pint-sized version but full of positive energy.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Yerevan by Air Arabia from Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai
WHERE TO STAY
Double Tree by Hilton, located near the Republic Square, is a good place to stay in Yerevan
WHAT TO DO
Visit the Republic Square, the Cascades, the Vernissage Flea Market, the Matenadaran Library and the National Art Gallery and the Armenian Genocide Museum
Local staples like lavash flatbread, dolma—grape leaves stuffed with meat and vegetables— salads and various local cheeses
Dried fruits, preserves, jams and juices, local brandy and wine, traditional dolls, Khachkars or crosses, paintings, hand embroidered linen and silver jewellery
1. Republic Square with its musical fountains
2. Khachkars or Armenian Cross stones are memorial tablets that are found in graveyards and churches across the country
3. Contemporary art at the Cascades
4. The art section at Vernissage. Pics: Kalpana Sunder
5. Strings of dried fruits hang in the covered market