Tuesday 17 September 2019

Amazing Armenia is ready for Aurora

'Tatev monastery is a reminder of how fortunes ebb and flow'

Despite its challenging past, Armenia and its impressive capital city Yerevan, is steeped in history and holds on to a unique and strong culture worth experiencing
Despite its challenging past, Armenia and its impressive capital city Yerevan, is steeped in history and holds on to a unique and strong culture worth experiencing
Chloe Brennan

Chloe Brennan

I couldn't refuse an invite to explore Armenia, the country responsible for the decade's most famous family, the Kardashians. Their father, the late Robert Kardashian - a lawyer best known for defending OJ Simpson - had great-grandparents on both sides who escaped to a better life in America in 1913.

The reality TV family's first trip to the land of their forefathers was in 2015, when Kim toured the country with husband, singer Kanye West, and their daughter North. It was even reported that Kanye staged an impromptu concert in the capital, Yerevan, for the crowds of fans who were following them, before leaping into the city's Swan Lake.

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Though the family's visit may also have had a less light-hearted purpose, too. For Armenia is a strikingly beautiful country which has a troubled past.

And the Kardashian's visit coincided with the anniversary of one of the country's most defining moments - the massacre of 1.5 million of its people by the Ottoman Turks in 1915.

I visited as a guest of the Aurora Forum, an organisation founded by three Armenian philanthropists -Vartan Gregorian, Noubar Afeyan and Ruben Vardanyan - whose aim is to attract leading thinkers from around the world to attend their inaugural event this October for talks, debates and knowledge, sharing across areas that include science, tech and education.

I have to admit I knew little of the history of this small landlocked country that sits to the east of Turkey. So it seemed appropriate that we began the trip with a visit to the Armenian Genocide Museum - a place that truly tests your emotions.

The location of this museum is unique, sitting on top of Tsitsernakaberd hill in Yerevan. The entrance has panoramic views over the city with newly planted trees, gifted from various heads of state, acting as a guard of honour.

Outside the museum sits a circle of giant concrete slabs that tower over you and slant inwards at the top - much like an open pyramid - towards the centre where dozens of roses surround an eternal fire of flames and music echoes around the vacant and chilling space.

The museum is a moving tribute to the Armenians who lost their lives in the genocide, and the atmosphere, as you might imagine, is sombre and sobering.

The museum covers the history of the last 100 years, including the horrendous deaths that many Armenians faced, and the fate of the remaining 300,000 Armenians who escaped and relocated around the world. Today, Armenia's diaspora has become a global community of 10 million people.

Later I enjoyed a visit to the Matenadaran, home to a collection of Armenian manuscripts, some of which date back a thousand years. These manuscripts hold the key to the history of the development of literature, politics and medicine in Armenia.

Then it was time to test out Armenian food - not in a restaurant, but in the Megerian Carpet Museum, where as well as enjoying some fine local dishes, we would learn about the process of carpet making. The large dining room is decorated with floor-to-ceiling sized oriental carpets and we sampled authentic Armenian foods like eetch, a side dish made from bulgur; lavash, a flatbread similar to a tortilla wrap; and barbecued lamb.

The Megerian family has been involved in the selling, restoration, and production of fine oriental rugs for over four generations. They have hosted the likes of Pope Francis, American television host Conan O'Brien, and, of course, the Kardashians. Here, you can browse through hundreds of both new and antique handmade carpets.

We ended our day with one more stop, the Sergei Parajanov museum. Filmmaker Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents and is considered to be one of the greatest masters of cinema of the 20th Century. He is best known for his 1969 film Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates). Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union just 28 years ago, but Parajanov's controversial lifestyle meant he was repeatedly persecuted by the authorities and his films were banned.

The museum was founded in 1988, and the location was chosen by Parajanov himself, though it didn't officially open until after his death in 1991.

Parajanov invented his own cinematic style, and the building is filled with a whacky collection of collages, drawings, dolls and hats.

For the last three years, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative has awarded $1 million to an exceptional humanitarian who risks their lives to defend others. The humanitarians are chosen by the Selection Committee, which includes actor George Clooney, diplomat and academic Samantha Power and our own former President Mary Robinson. She was chosen as a Selection Committee member, says Arman, because of her holistic approach to solving issues around the world.

It was a treat to dine on a mixture of Armenian and Lebanese dishes - Mayrig was first founded in Beirut 15 years ago by a member of the diaspora, and has now come home to Yerevan. Plate after plate of delicacies like mante - small dumplings, Pandjarov sarma - Swiss chard triangles filled with rice and herbs were finished off with homemade gata, a traditional sweet bread, for dessert.

Yerevan is a busy city, with pedestrian streets, full of restaurants, cafes and bars and there's a friendly atmosphere about the place. Many of its buildings were constructed of pink stone hewn from the surrounding landscapes, which lends a dusty pink hue to the city, especially at sunrise and sunset.

And having spent a day in the "pink city", I was eager to see life in the Armenian countryside. So off we headed for Tatev, a town just over four hours' drive south-east of Yerevan, near the Azerbaijani border.

En route, we stop off at Noravank, a 13th-Century Armenian monastery that is surrounded by fiery red-rock cliffs. Armenia is nicknamed the "land of the churches", as it boasts over 4,000 monasteries. There are Armenian cross-stones, which look very similar to Irish Celtic crosses, carved into the walls and the ground of the monastery.

The second floor of the monastery is accessible by a narrow brick staircase that perches above the door at the face of the building - a truly unique feature.

We finally arrived at Tatev late in the afternoon, and I didn't think it would be possible to compete with the raw and rugged landscape that surrounded charming Noravank.

But Tatev monastery is spectacular. Situated on a high plateau, with breathtaking views of the green-ridged mountain range, the 9th-Century building appeared to me to be inaccessible by foot, as it is protrudes from the deep gorge of the Vorotan River.

However, in 2010, Ruben Vardanyan, one the founders of the Aurora Forum, built what's called the 'Wings of Tatev', a cableway that made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest reversible cableway. So it's possible to reach the monastery in 12 minutes, with the bonus of unforgettable scenery along the way as you soar at nearly 40 kilometres per hour, suspended 320m over the Voratan River.

The purpose of the cableway is to provide tourists and locals with an easy way of reaching the monastery - and it works. But with those views, it's a trip I would take with, or without, a monastery waiting to be explored at the other end.

All the profits from the cableway are re-invested into the ongoing restoration and upkeep of the monastery. It's clear to see the knock-on effect the Wings of Tatev has had on the locals in the area, with many stalls and shops set up outside the monastery walls.

Indeed Tatev is regarded as one of the most important architectural and historical monuments of Armenia. It's a reminder of how fortunes ebb and flow. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, towards the end of the medieval times, Tatev was the largest university in Armenia and became the leading scientific and cultural centre of its time.

Despite its troubled past, Armenia is steeped in history and holds on to a unique and strong culture worth experiencing.

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