A reflection on the nation and our five-year journey from experiencing to returning to the highlands.
Landlocked between east and west, Europe and Asia, or rich and poor, however you look at it, Armenia is at an important crossroads, or some say center, of this planet. This ancient land is squeezed between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia, creating a landscape that feels so condensed it feels lost. And unfortunately for Armenia's history, most has been lost, whether the vast majority of its land, the people, and it's most important landmark. In 2018 we journeyed around the world totaling seven months exploring different cultural regions, including three months in Nepal, a month in India, a month in Turkey, and a month in the Balkans. However, we spent only 5 days in Armenia, yet it is the place we most often think about. In our view, it is one of those forgotten places that begs to be appreciated. Five years ago we flew into Armenia knowing next to nothing about this country. Five days spent within its borders were enough for us to create a lasting image that couldn't and still can't be erased, one of hope in a country that should have lost hope long ago.
IN THE SHADOW OF ARARAT
Our flight touched down on Armenian soil on the eleventh hour of the day. The sun l peered over the eastern horizon, creating a haze in the sky and lighting up the landscape of fertile plains and small settlements. We departed our Dubai Airlines craft, immediately satisfied to escape the heat and materialism of that Middle Eastern spectacle. Armenia, to our delight, was everything Dubai was not; quiet, subtle, off the-beaten track, and authentic. And not to mention legendary. When we walked through the corridor of Armenia's only international airport - Zvartnets - the glass window panes led our eyes to the south. What lay before is Armenia's national symbol and perhaps history's most infamous mountain - Mount Ararat. Yes, the resting place of Noah's ark and God's chosen location to repopulate Earth.
Mount Ararat is depicted everywhere in Armenia, from postcards, paintings,architecture, and stories. It is the pride of the nation, if there is one, as God's chosen spot. Noah descended its slopes to settle in the Armenian Plateau. His descendants repopulated earth, with one of them founding Armenia. Maxoudian, a scholar on the Armenian Empire, described Armenia as “the area about 200
miles in every direction from Ararat." Where is Mount Ararat now? Firmly in Turkey's borders, the same nation that is at odds with Armenia and denies any wrongdoing. Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenians for thousands of years, does not even belong to them today. Think for a moment what affect this would have on Armenian patriotism and pride.
THE GARDEN OF EDEN
As we gazed at the slopes of this legendary mountain moments after arriving in Armenia, I knew our short time here would be special. Our first stop was an unknown guesthouse outside the capital, in a hard to pronounce town called Vagharshapat, around 20 minutes west of the airport. We booked a taxi from an app called Yandex that works in Russia and some surrounding countries. For only a few dollars worth of Armenian Dram, we were on our way to the guesthouse. We immediately noticed on the streets the number of decades old vehicles, relics of its past incorporation into the Soviet Union, ending in 1991 with Armenia's current independence. By most standards, Armenia is a poor nation. It's people hold onto objects, such as 50 year old vehicles, that we would otherwise take for granted.
Our driver wasn't sure of our intended destination. "Mechanents" - the name of the guesthouse - I said multiple times in every pronunciation I could think of. His confused look didn't give any credence to its location. Ultimately, he dropped of off on a corner of a street thinking it was nearby. It was. Just a hundred meters along a smaller road was a small sign in carved wooden letters that read 'Machanents Guesthouse.' We opened the wooden door, with our large backpacks and tired faces from the early flight, to be welcomed by an oasis, a garden of Eden, hidden in this town of Vagharshapat.
Our time here set the foundation to slowly uncovering the history of Armenia.
THE STORY OF GREGORY
Vagharshapat is a unique choice for a first impression of Armenia, considering Yerevan, the capital and only true city of the nation lies half an hour away. Unbeknownst to us, however, is that this town is crucial to understanding Armenia perhaps more than any other location. At the start of the 4th century, Armenia dramatically turned from their pagan ways and converted to Christianity, mostly through the bravery of one man. In the middle of the third century A.D., Armenia was a land of pagan worship with endless temples scattered throughout. Anak, a nobleman whose life is relatively unknown, was incited by a conspirator of the throne of Armenia and murdered the said king, Khosrov, and his wife in the same town of Vaghashapat, former capital of Armenia. Anak met an expected end of his life shortly thereafter, including his entire family save his infant son Gregory who was carried to Cappdocia. Gregory grew up in Cappadocia but dealt with intense guilt of his father’s murder of the king of Armenia. Gregory felt he had no other choice but to return and be in the service of the murdered kings son, King Tridates III.
Tridates knew not the identity of Gregory’s father until a time when Gregory refused to offer sacrifices to a pagan goddess. The whole truth was then revealed to Tridates, who then Gregory tortured and sent him into a deep and dark pit at Khor Virap. 13 years passed, and the memories of Gregory became a blur to the king who slowly became mad. Legend says he acted as a wild boar and roamed the forests as if a fowl beast. The king’s sister had a vision that Gregory is still alive and able to heal the mad king. Upon opening the pit of Khor Virap, they were shocked to find Gregory miraculously alive after thirteen dark and long years. Gregory healed Tridates, and as a result, Tridates confessed his sins and converted to Christianity. A cathedral, the first in the world, was soon constructed in Vagharshapat, just steps away from the guesthouse of Machanents.
This made the Armenian nation as the very first in the world to officially embrace the message of Christianity.
OUR ARMENIA EXPERIENCE IN 2018
It’s hard to put into words the impact Armenia had on us in 2018. Five days were far too short in the nation, but five days also felt like a lifetime of memories to sort out and cherish. We dived into the depths of Armenia’s heartbreaking history, from the genocide memorial to the chambers of Gregory in Khor Virap.
It shook us.
How much this nation has endured is hard to grasp, yet the hospitality and love they display is a level we can only hope to achieve. We found ourselves on the side of the road on our third day with an angry dog feigning attack. Th first passing vehicle stopped and picked us up - a family with two small children. They ended up driving us several hours to their home, offered every fruit and snack they own, and then proceeded to drive us to the shores of Sevan for a stroll along the ancient monastery and a fish dinner. All from love - to two strangers - because that’s who they are. The next day? On the northern border, we found ourselves in a dilemma with no place to sleep. The Father of the ancient monastery we were visiting displayed Christ-like love that still feels unbelievable five years later (read the story here: Banquet Among Strangers). The following morning we left the country. It took us years to process what five days brought. One thing is evident though:
We came as strangers, but we left as family.
A RETURN IN 2023
Armenia never really left our minds as the years passed and two children entered our lives. Armenia felt like a long-lost home that was waiting for us to come and rest. We painted the ancient and haunting monasteries, made maps of the highlands, and memorized the 39 letters of the alphabet. 2022 almost saw us back in Armenia, but life threw other curveballs. It wasn’t until June 26, 2023, where we set foot on the fertile soil of Armenia again. Rather than 5 days, 35 days was devoted to exploring and understanding this nation more. We journeyed north and south, east and west, hiked dense forests, wandered red-rock canyons, gazed a five thousand-year remains, and stood in silence at the halls of stone of Armenia’s countless monasteries. We made a new family in the most unlikely of places (Grapes of Love: Areni), journeyed to the depths of Armenia’s spiritual center (Depths of Tatev) and rested at the same Machanents from 2018. Some may say we have come full circle, but the circumstances this time feel vastly different. With two children in tow and a vision for the future, it feels as though we may have a place we belong.
I like to think of it as a spiral staircase. Looking down, we see the parallels to five years ago. Looking up, we have a dream for our future in this nation. But at the moment, we are thankful for the chance to visit Armenia once again, share lavash and coffee with her people, and marvel at the perseverance and beauty of this nation.
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