BY ACHOD PAPASIAN
One day, I was hanging out at my friend Siuneh’s and found a book dedicated to Armenian architecture in her library.
As I leafed through the pages, I came across the Yereruyk and Talin cathedrals—two jewels of medieval Armenian art I had never visited. When the desire to see an Armenian church is stuck in my mind, it becomes my resolve to fulfill it. The evening before going on the trip, I discussed my upcoming adventure with dear friend Manouk, who suggested that I take the opportunity to also visit the Dashtadem fortress, an impressive yet little known monument located in the town of Talin. The next morning, a chilly winter day in February, I took the train heading to Gyumri, riding along the Turkish border. First stop: the Yereruyk basilica, located in the village of Anipemza, very close to the frontier.
I got off at the Aniavan station, and rushed to a nearby shop to buy some supplies. The shopkeeper asked me suspiciously: “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” I explained in a few sentences and left.
As I started walking towards the next village, I realized the weather was much colder than in Yerevan, so I sat on a bench to put on a second layer of socks. On the other side of the street, a group of men were staring at me like I landed from Mars. Same interrogation: “What are you doing here?” A bit upset, I answered, “Hey, look at me, I am not a spy!”a riposte they all enjoyed with a laugh. While I was putting on my socks, a car stopped in front of me. “Come sit!” said the driver, “you’ll do that later.” I grabbed my stuff, sat in the back of the car, and told the driver I was heading to Anipemza to see the church. On the way, the car drove along barbwires delimiting the border of Armenia – literally five meters from us – and I could see a military base in the distance.
The driver dropped me close to the basilica. As soon as I got off the car, I was hit by a powerful blast of cold wind, which projected me into another dimension. The basilica stood at the stop of a plateau overlooking the Akhuryan canyon. The building, whose foundations date back to the 4th century, is one of the earliest surviving Christian monuments in Armenia. Although the roof is gone, the walls eroded by time still stand on several layers of stairs reminding me of pagan temples. The color of the stones, typical of the monuments of the region, was gorged with sun and warmth. Fragments of the church scattered all around, like a reminder of its former unity. Meanwhile, that vigorous wind was still blowing, hitting my thin body and those ancient walls, careless for borders.
When I had my fill of admiring the church, I decided to take a stroll in the village and have a look at the canyon. On my way, a car stopped, and the driver once again began interrogating me,
“Hey, young man! Where are you going?”
“I am just taking a stroll, and then going to Talin,” I replied candidly.
“Well, I can take you to a place where a car might go to Talin,” said the driver.
“Perfect!” I thought, and sat in the front of the car. However, after driving a few minutes, I understood why my driver had been so obliging: he was in fact taking me to the military base! A soldier asked me to get off and began to flood me with questions.
“Where are you from? Why did you come here? Don’t you know this is a military area? You cannot be here without permission!”
He then asked for my passport, but I didn’t have it with me.
“That bloody driver has screwed my whole program!” I thought. Soon after, a Russian officer came up to me and asked me a ton of questions, with the soldier translating to Armenian. The only document attesting of my identity was my library card, which contained very little info. However, the Russian officer was reading it very seriously, especially the opening hours, as if some important info was to be found there. After checking my bag and my phone and asking some more absurd questions, the officer understood I was not dangerous and asked a villager to take me back to Aniavan. What a relief! In the car, the villager told me with sympathy: “Don’t worry, this is a normal thing. In bordering villages, anyone has the right to ask foreigners what they are doing here. It’s a border region, so everyone is very suspicious.” He then told me he was working in the stone cutting industry, like most locals, as the Shirak region is the main stone provider for the country.
Back on the main road near Aniavan, my plan was now to hitchhike to Talin, a little city located 20 km inland, on the other side of several mountain ranges. From the moment I raised my thumb, I embarked on a series of hitchhiking adventures that began with two young locals working for the railway line. When I told them that I was from France, they immediately drove to a market to buy beers and celebrate the unbreakable union of Armenia and Diaspora. “We are a good people, brother! We always help each other!”, they repeated joyfully, while swearing at their boss. The second car, overloaded with Armenian brooms, comprised two men in their fifties. I didn’t take too long before the “copilot” offered me a shot of vodka and a sandwich. As we got acquainted, the driver asked me.
“But why are you travelling alone?”
“Well, I am not alone now!” I answered, to their greatest pleasure.
Soon after, the car slowed down and stopped. We ran out of gas, in the middle of nowhere! The driver stood on the side of the road, waving at the passing cars for them to stop. Fifteen minutes later, a car eventually stopped and shared its gas with our vehicle. When we sat back in the car, the driver told me:
“See! The Lord has helped us, because we helped you!”
In the next car, however, the atmosphere was completely different: a father and his son, were driving from Georgia, in a heavy silence. The father kept observing me in the rear view mirror, from behind his sunglasses. We eventually arrived at the crossroad near Talin. As I got off, the driver stopped me.
“Hey, what about the money?”
“Oh, you’re a taxi? Well, that wasn’t written anywhere!” I riposted, and shut the door. First time someone ever asked me for money while hitchhiking!
I found my way to the cathedral, walking across muddy fields. When I reached the sanctuary, a crowd of people wearing black had gathered in the nearby cemetery. The cathedral made a deep impression on me, with its majestic and peaceful aura. Much of the building had been preserved, apart from the upper part of the dome and a significant portion of the western wing that had partially collapsed. Close to what was supposed to be the main entrance, an abandoned rail for stone cutting indicated that the church must have been renovated back in the days. From there, a surrealistic perspective opened before me – the superposition of walls crumbling into ruins, and elegant arches – a combination of abstract and figurative art. I wandered in and out of the church, contemplating its endearing stones, and walked away quietly, leaving the crowd of the funeral behind me.
After asking the way to the Dashtadem fortress to an old man, I walked along a road stretching into fields overlooked by Mount Arteni. This time, I was less lucky with hitch hiking. The road was almost desert, and the few cars passing never stopped. Half an hour later, a car eventually stopped: a zhiguli packed with a family of villagers, including four children. With great kindness, they made room for me, even though it meant driving packed like sardines. On the way, the children and I exchanged knowing glances. In Armenia, you should always be ready to find a new family! They dropped me right in front of the ramparts entrance.
The fortress stood in the middle of a huge walled enclosure, surrounded by houses in very poor condition. The building itself was very different from what I had imagined: it was a strange mix of circular towers and straight fortifications. Interestingly, one of the walls bore an Arabic inscription which – as I later discovered – testified of the fact that Arabs added the towers to the already existing Armenian structure in the 12th century. The inside revealed a dark and confined space consisting of a large cistern and tunnels leading the top of the keep. Behind the fortress, a crumbling rampart opened on a gorgeous ocean of valleys, bathed in sunshine and covered with scattered stones, with a little chapel in the distance. While I was exploring, I encountered an old woman who took me to her neighbor’s house to have coffee. They still both lived within the enceinte, unlike the many local shepherds and their families who were displaced from the grounds because of ongoing renovations. As we got to meet each other, the old woman told me she was the great-granddaughter of the vartapet of Holy Apostles Monastery, a legendary monastery located in the province of Mush, in Western Armenia. Most people of the area fled the genocide perpetrated in the Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and resettled in the Western provinces of the young Armenian Republic. Just like this old woman, their descendants can still be found there today.
Noticing the late hour, I decided to head back to Yerevan, and said my farewells to the ladies. As I walked away from the entrance of the fortress, I heard someone calling me.
“Hey, young boy! Where are you going?”
I turned over to see a stout man in his forties, going down the stairs of his house. “Come in, we are having a party! You’re my guest!”
Before I could answer anything, he dragged me inside his home filled with guests, and invited me to sit around a huge table of thirty people. Everyone was starring at me, intrigued and amused, while Karen – my host – was filling the glasses with vodka.
“Today is a very special day,” said a friend of the host. “We all gathered here to celebrate the death of Karen’s mother, and the birth of his third child. Earlier, we went to the cemetery and paid tribute to the old lady.” Incredible! That was the same “funeral” I saw near the Talin cathedral!
Another took over and said: “See, we are all Mshetsis. Our ancestors came from Moush. Have you heard of this place?”
“Of course,” I said, “I’ve been there two years ago, when I was travelling in Western Armenia.”
Instantly, I felt a sparkle in the guests’ eyes. As we got to know each other, I watched the scene being performed by those colorful characters: one was constantly raising toasts to everything, even though no one listened to him, another kept asking me which girl of the table I would marry, while another one, Mher, the only sober one, answered all my candid questions with calmness. Children ran everywhere, dishes were constantly refilled, and toasts came one after the other, in a dionysiac atmosphere.
“Allright, young boy! Now it’s your turn to make a toast!” said a guy.
I felt my heart drop. What could I say that was worthy of this party? To save my own skin, I looked into my heart and just said what I was feeling.
“Well, I had read a lot about Mshetsis, and now that I am here among you, I can say for sure that truth is greater than fiction!”
My words struck the whole audience with emotion.
“What a toast he just said! Apres, akhper jan!”, exclaimed Karen, as we all clinked our glasses together. The party carried on even more intensely, and I fully enjoyed the madness. At some point, however, the hour was getting late. I knew no one would allow me to leave, so I relied on Mher to take me out of this crazy feast.
Here I was, on the road again, drunk as a skunk, under the spell of the Armenian magic! But the peak didn’t last very long. As I passed in front of a house, a furious village dog came out and started to chase me! I ran with all my strength, while waiving at the passing cars. One of them stopped and I rushed inside. Again, I entered another dimension: I instantly connected with the driver, Taron, a khatchkar carver from the neighboring village, who worked in Dashtadem. As we drove by a square renovated through the financing of the French-Armenian community, he said with pride that he carved a khatchkar to order for a French city. Before dropping me off at the Talin crossroads, he said: “Don’t worry, we’ll meet again!” His last words echoed in my mind in a strange way. I didn’t have a clue as to when or how we would meet again.
A few days after this adventure, I was reading a book called “Moush, Sweet Moush” that my friend Nané gave me. The book, written by young Armenians and Turks in the framework of a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation project, focused on collecting memories related to the province of Moush. What a surprise to me when I came across an article about a certain Taron Muradyan, from the village of Irind! In the article, Taron was telling the story of his grandfather, Serob, who witnessed the killing of his brothers, sisters and parents at the age of 14.
“Old people, women, children were driven into the church. The Turks and Kurds closed the door and set the building on fire. In the confusion, as people were screaming and falling over each other, he fell under the corpses. That is how he didn’t get burned. He only fainted. In the morning, when fresh air came through the crack of the door, he came to his senses, crawled out and ran away. Afterwards, he went to a close Kurdish friend, who ran the risk to hide him. From now on, he would be called Hassan, and would have to pretend to be deaf and dumb. One day, as he took the Kurd’s sheep to pasture, he saw a group of Armenian survivors in the village, mostly women and children. He walked among them and suddenly encountered his aunt’s daughter. She told him they would be leaving in the afternoon. He hesitated: he felt responsible for the Kurd’s sheep but was also afraid to stay. As he saw the survivors disappear over the horizon, he found a decision within him and joined the group.” I close the book, stunned by this incredible twist of fate.
But let’s come back to the Talin crossroads, where my friend Taron left me. As I waited for a car to stop, thumb up and my head in the sky, I felt my heart was about to burst. I felt the desire to live so intensely that my body would dissolve and that my last breath, carried by the wind, would blow in the hair of a future hitchhiker who, just like me, is in love with this land and its people.