BY MATTHEW KARANIAN
First-time travelers to Armenia seem to always end up at Echmiadzin, Khor Virap, Geghard, and Garni.
There’s nothing wrong with this. After all, Echmiadzin, Khor Virap, and Geghard are three of the most significant cultural and religious sites in Armenia.
The fourth site, Garni, is the most significant site that’s located along the road to Geghard, which is, I suppose, a good enough reason to keep it on the itinerary. Plus it’s a great spot for a picnic.
These sites are on almost everyone’s itinerary for the additional reason that they are all trips that you can take in one half day, or less, from Yerevan. But this isn’t reason-enough for them to be the only sites on your itinerary. There are just too many other cultural, educational, and historic sites just outside Yerevan, that you can also visit in a half day or less.
Getting Off The Beaten Path
The town of Ashtarak, for example, is closer to Yerevan than Khor Virap, and boasts the architecturally significant Karmravor Church, which was built in the seventh century. In the time it takes to visit Khor Virap, you can drive to Ashtarak and back. Twice. And you will see sites that are just as memorable.
Karmravor is tiny and can accommodate only a few parishioners at a time. The church takes its name from its red tile roof, and the architectural style is said to be influenced by the Arab invaders who were passing through Armenia near the time the church was built. The ruins of two other churches, and a field of khatchars (stone crosses), are nearby.
Just east of Ashtarak, in the village of Saghmosavan, is the beautifully situated monastery of Saghmosavank. The monastery stands atop the gorge of the Kasakh River and is a dramatic example of thirteenth century Armenian architecture. This can also be a great place for hiking, as long as you use care not to fall into the gorge.
Many of Armenia’s greatest cultural sites are churches and monasteries. They have withstood the ravages of time better than many Armenian sites. Unfortunately, after visiting several dozen (or fewer) of them, monastery fatigue can set in. That’s when it helps to know about places worth visiting that are not churches—places such as the community nurseries of the Armenia Tree Project.
The Tree Project was founded in the US in 1994 as a non-profit organization, with the objective of helping reforest Armenia. The tiny village of Karin, just a few kilometers south of Ashtarak along the main road that leads to Echmiadzin, is home to one of the community nurseries of the Tree Project. Here, you’ll find trees, saplings, and other plants. But no monasteries or churches.
Private tours of the nursery are available, and the Project’s guides offer visitors a chance to learn about Armenia’s environment and about the reforestation efforts that are underway. The Tree Project’s nurseries, including the one in Karin, are responsble for producing the roughly one million trees that they have planted in Armenia in the past 19 years.
The Metsamor Museum is an off-the-beaten-path museum that’s another good alternative to the standard fare of day trips from Yerevan. The museum is located in the village of Taronik, which is close to the town of Metsamor.
Metsamor is perhaps more famous for its nuclear power plant, but the Metsamor Museum shouldn’t be overlooked. The facility houses artifacts from the nearby Bronze Age settlements, demonstrating that there was a vibrant cultural center here from roughly 4,000 to 3,000 BC.
One of Armenia’s greatest museums is located just beyond Metsamor, in the town of Sardarapat. Here, the Sardarapat Museum stands on the site of what is certainly Armenia’s most significant military victory of the modern era.
The stone statues of two massive winged lions flank a bell tower at the entrance to the site, and there’s a celebration each year on May 28 featuring folk dancers and cultural exhibits.
In 1918, Kemalist Turkish forces had internationalized the Genocide by invading Armenian regions of what was then the Russian Empire. The Turks were turned back by the Armenians at Sardarapat on May 26, 1918, however, and the Armenian nation survived. Armenia became an independent republic two days later. It is unlikely that the current Armenian Republic would exist today if this battle had been lost.
Relics from this battle are on display at the museum.
The museum also chronicles the development of Armenian culture from antiquity until the modern era. This is certainly one of the best museums in Armenia and deserves a trip at any time of year.
A visit on May 28 is likely to be especially rewarding because of the public ceremonies commemorating the victory at Sardarapat, and the establishment of the first republic in 1918.
I visited on May 28 last year, and got a chance to greet several Armenian leaders, including the President and the Catholicos of the Armenian Church. I chatted briefly with Raffi Hovhannissian, too. I wasn’t surprised to see them all at Sardarapat on May 28. Where else would any Armenian want to go on that day?
KARIN: Located midway between Echmiadzin and Ashtarak. To arrange a tour, visit www.armeniatree.org
SARDARAPAT: Museum open 11 am to 4:30 pm daily except Monday. Admission is 500 dram (about $1.25). To get there, travel west past Echmiadzin.
What You Need To Know About Armenia
- POPULATION: 3.259 million (2010 census)
- LAND: 29,793 sq. km. (roughly the size of Belgium or the US state of Maryland)
- CAPITAL: Yerevan (population 1,119,000)
- CURRENCY: Dram (1 US Dollar = 400 Armenian Dram)
- LANGUAGE: Armenian
- ETHNICITY: Roughly 96 percent of the population is Armenian
- RELIGION: Almost entirely Armenian Apostolic Christian
- TOURISM: More than 800,000 tourist visas issued in 2012
- BEST WEATHER: Visit during May or September
- BEST ROUTE: Fly from LAX through Moscow or from JFK through Paris for the fastest connections.
- VISA: Get a 3-week tourist visa for about $15 at the airport in Yerevan upon arrival
- SPENDING: Bring cash or an ATM card. Credit cards are accepted at larger hotels and shops.
READ ON: ‘Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide’ is the leading guide to the region, and was recently released in its third edition. This book is the source for the information that appears here. Purchase online at www.ArmeniaTravelGuide.com or by mail, $30 postpaid, from Stone Garden Productions, PO Box 7758, Northridge, CA 91327.