BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
When I was growing up in Iran, Armenia was a Republic of the Soviet Union and a forbidden travel destination. By the 1980s, a small wedge had been created inside the “Iron Curtain.” The tightly closed doors of the Republics were opened, we Armenians could visit our homeland, and we could experience what our literature and the verses of our poets had praised about its beauty.
My love affair with Armenia began on my first visit in 2001. It was love at first sight. They say, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” Well, I “beheld” and I fell in love. The allure of connecting to my ancestral roots was so great, I was not affected by the dilapidated condition of the buildings, the vestiges of the Soviet era, or the rampant poverty of the whole country.
Like so many other visitors from the far-flung diaspora, Armenia got under my skin. I went back home to Glendale, but my heart stayed in Armenia. I decided: “Given a choice, Armenia is where I’m going to retire.” During the following years, I visited Armenia several times, but always for short stays
When my mother died a few months ago, I decided to look into a more extended stay in Armenia. I packed my belongings and planned a trip which I embarked upon in June. In mid-July, I had just arrived in Yerevan when my friend Sonna asked me if I’d like to join her family for a three-day trip to Lake Sevan, the verdant Dilijan, and the neighboring cities and villages in the northwestern part of the country. It was a great offer. I was ready at the drop of a dime to join them. I knew I’d be in for a treat, and I was right.
Our driver and guide was the director of Pan-Armenian League of Cultural Workers; on the side he was moonlighting as a tour guide. He had arranged a very well-thought-out itinerary.
We left Yerevan on the first day of our trip at 9:30 in the morning, heading towards Lake Sevan to the north. Our excellent guide gave us detailed background information all along our route.
As we exited Yerevan, he pointed to our right to a city called Abovian. I had heard the name of that city since I was young. In the 1930s, the Republic of Armenia allowed Armenians around the world to move to Soviet Armenia. In 1963, the city of Abovian was established to house all the “hayrena-dartdz,” or repatriates. My family knew people who were assigned to Abovian, which is considered a satellite city to Yerevan.
I remember very well that until the 1970s, Armenian families from Iran were packing their belongings, saying goodby forever to their loved ones, and moving to a land where they had no idea what living conditions to expect. Since everything was under surveillance; they communicated with their families with codes. For instance, to describe their current conditions, they would send snapshots of themselves either standing, sitting or lying down. Standing meant that they were very happy, sitting meant things were okay, but lying down meant that the situation was bad.
We had a housekeeper whose relatives moved to Armenia. To communicate how bad things were, they wrote back that Lucik should get married before she moved to Armenia. And who was Lucik? She was a spinster in her fifties and blind. That particular coded message meant the situation was not good: “Don’t come.”
After Abovian, we passed a city called Hrazdan on our left. Our driver told us a very interesting fact. During the Soviet era, Hrazdan used to produce hot water for export to the surrounding cities. (I’m not sure about the technical procedure but this sounds incredible.) In the 1990s, when Armenia was cut off from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and was enduring critical times because of the war with Azerbaijan, Hrazdan still had the privilege of having hot water.
During those “dark years” as they are known in Armenia, the country almost collapsed without water, electricity and gas. There are many stories of how the population survived those years. I may write about that in later essays.
Back to our trip: It took us about an hour to reach Lake Sevan, which is 60 km north of Yerevan. We climbed all 250 steps up to the monasteries that were built around 1000 years ago. And we marveled again over our phenomenal past history. We enjoyed the beautiful and exquisite scene of Lake Sevan, which epitomizes deep nationalistic sentiments for Armenians. The first time I visited Lake Sevan, I was almost in tears.
After many exclamations over the beauty of the landscape and the surroundings, we left the lake and headed to our next stop: another monastery called Hagharsin, built in the 1200s.
I won’t go into the details all the architectural aspects of the monasteries and churches we visited, but I just want to say that it boggles the mind that my people have built so many of them. Our driver/guide says there are more than 3000, mostly built around fifth to thirteenth century.
After Haghartsin, we visited Gosha vank, another monastery and then we drove into the city of Dilijan and stopped at its history museum. Dilijan has a rich collection of art and unearthed tools and vases dating back to 4000 years ago. I should add that I was pretty impressed to see all that antiquity.
We finished our first day in Haghpat, a city known for its monastery, arriving at around 8 p.m. The father superior in charge of the monastery was waiting for us. We were served dinner and slept there at the monastery.
The next morning, the father gave us a personalized tour of the churches. I got the chance to climb the bell tower and ring the bells. From there we headed to another monastery, Sana-Hin, then to the village of Dsegh, where our most beloved poet and writer Hovanes Toumanian was born.
After having an early dinner at a restaurant along the banks of the Debed river, we journeyed further to Gyumri and stayed at Berlin Art Hotel, a nice boutique hotel in the center of town.
We managed to fit in a visit to Gyumri’s history museum the next morning before heading back to Yerevan. The young docent at the museum impressed us with the detailed history of the town explaining everything through the artifacts.
In the 19th century Gyumri was the cultural hub for the South Caucasus. It was called Alexandrapol and was home to all the wealthy Armenian families who had direct ties to Russia.
And at last, our three day tour came to an end. I enjoyed it fully and wish I could write even more. I should add that the roads were well constructed and the landscape was so beautiful that I wanted to take a picture on every turn.
I rediscovered my homeland.