Armenia

On trips in 2003 and 2008, I had managed to visit all former Soviet Republics situated in Asia except Armenia. Because of that, it always had a high priority and as I found out that there were cheap flights from Riga (where I spend six weeks in 2010) to nearby Tbilisi I knew what I should do. Mid-May is also a perfect time to visit Armenia so let’s go.

I led a double life on this trip, during the day I was an ordinary traveller while at night I turned into a student who urgently had to finish a paper for university. I got very little sleep which led to the effect that I immediately fell asleep when I entered public transport. The moment the minivan (as it usually was) started to move I entered dreamland. I finally send my paper off from an internet café in a small town in Nagorno-Karabakh which led to a rebuke by my professor (you were not supposed to send in papers by mail) but as he described my work as excellent the rebuke was mild.

My decision for Armenia had proved popular and two friends decided to join, the timing wasn’t perfect, my friend Marco had a few days on his own before we spend some days together. When my friend Julia arrived, we travelled for some days as a trio before Marco’s departure brought us back into duo mode.

Armenia is a beautiful country of mountains and monasteries and in some cases these two factors are combined into a monastery that lies deep inside the beautiful mountains. Our plan to climb Mount Aragats (4,090m), the highest mountain of Armenia, failed, as in mid-May it is still covered with plenty of snow. Isn’t there an even higher mountain in Armenia, you might ask. No, there isn’t. The mountain Armenia is associated with, Mount Ararat, lies to the great chagrin of Armenians, in Turkey. To add insult to injury, majestic Mount Ararat, maybe the most majestic mountain in the world rises out of the plain and is visible from Armenia’s capital Yerevan and the surrounding areas. On a normal day, half of the population of Armenia can see the outline of the mountain that is about 50 kilometres away. On a clear day, they can see the giant in all its beauty. Unfortunately, we had only normal days during our stay. Most Armenians will never reach the mountain though. Landlocked Armenia is isolated, there is a short border in the south with Iran and a longer border in the north with Georgia but the eastern border with Azerbaijan and the western border with Turkey are both closed. With Azerbaijan the problem is the post-Soviet territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh (covered here) and with Turkey the issue is the Armenian Genocide.

To understand all that, I have to delve deeper into the history of Armenia. I’ll try to keep it short. Armenia has a long history as a state, the name first appears in the 6th century BCE and by the 2nd century BCE Armenia had a large territory that stretched into today’s Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia and very far into today’s Turkey. Christianity arrived as early as the year 40 and Armenia became the first officially Christian state in 301. Christianity did not catch on though in the surrounding lands. There are quite a few significant developments in this story so far. First, it explains why Armenians have been spread over a large territory with many Armenians living outside of today’s Armenia. Second, Armenians early on developed a national consciousness and a national identity. I you have a national identity you are a lot more likely to stick with it and not adapt to the majority population even when living around them for a long time. This is in some ways similar to the Germans settled to the east of German lands in the last millennium. They considered themselves German, considered Germany to be their homeland, stuck with the language and their customs and to some degree thought themselves as superior to the majority population they were living with. Assimilation was not an option even as some were living for hundreds of years in essentially foreign lands. Third, this national identity was still enhanced by their religious singularity being surrounded mostly by Muslims.

After its heyday, things didn’t go that well for Armenia. It turned out that it was surrounded by more numerous and more powerful neighbours namely the Persians and the Turks. The Arsacid dynasty fell in the year 428 and for the next 1500 years an independent Armenia ceased to exist. Its territory was partitioned into an Eastern part under Persian control and a Western part under Byzantine and later Ottoman control. Conflict was regular, Yerevan, for example, changed hands fourteen times between 1513 and 1737 during Ottoman-Persian conflicts. The region had by then become a mishmash of different ethnicities living together. By the late 18th century a new and powerful player appeared with the Russian empire and after the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828) modern day Armenia became part of it. After a long time of Muslim domination Armenia was back under Christian rule. A new idea appeared, population exchanges, Armenians from Persia were settled in Russian Armenia and Persians from Armenian Russia moved the other direction. Armenians under Ottoman rule enjoyed considerable autonomy within their enclaves and lived in relative harmony with the other groups. Things heated up in the late 19th century though, as Armenians pushed for more rights and Sultan Abdul Hamid II reacted with a wave of state-sponsored massacres between 1894 and 1896 with estimated casualties ranging from 80,000 to 300,000. The Ottoman empire was in trouble and dealing decisively with a perceived internal enemy seemed like a way out of the mess. Over the next twenty years, an uneasy truce developed with the occasional massacre and Armenians forming militias to protect themselves. The revolution of the Young Turks did not significantly change the dynamic. With this history as a background, the events that began in 1915 do not even seems that surprising.

In November 1914, in accordance with the developments in the First World War, the Russian Empire declared war on the Ottoman Empire (an ally of Germany). Even a day before, Russian soldiers had crossed the border and with them Armenian volunteers. Ottoman authorities became concerned about the loyalty of their Armenian population. Still, their reaction was shocking. On the 24th of April 1915, the day now observed as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, about 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople. In late May, the Tehcir Law, the “Relocation and Resettlement Law” was passed by the Ottoman Parliament authorizing the deportation of populations considered as treasonous. The law did not mention Armenians specifically (the Ottoman Empire had plenty of minorities) but it mostly hit Armenians and the policy was pursued with maximum cruelty and with the clear aim to decimate the Armenian population as much as possible. Able-bodied men were shot or pressed into forced labour, women, children and the infirm were forced on death marches towards and into the Syrian desert (part of the Ottoman empire back then). Water and food were deliberately withheld from the suffering Armenians. It is hard to establish exact numbers but it is estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians, the vast majority of the Armenians living in Ottoman lands, perished. The definition of genocide is clearly fulfilled.

As if this history would not be bad enough it continuous to negatively shape relations between the two countries up until this day. In fact, relations have lately even become worse. Turkey has never owned up to its actions and denies that a genocide happened, in the Turkish version there was just war and, in the end, some people were dead and no one knows how that exactly came about. The only thing the Turkish side knows for sure is that systematic government actions did not play any role in it and talking about a genocide is “insulting Turkishness” and a crime. Considering the historic facts, this is a farce. The Soviet Union had not much interest in pursuing Armenian claims but since independence Armenia has. It wasn’t all set this way from the beginning. Turkey actually recognized Armenia’s independence and did not treat it any differently than Georgia and Azerbaijan, the single border crossing between the two countries was open. This changed as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began to heat up and Turkey sided with Turkic-Azerbaijan. The border was closed and has remained so ever since.

Public attitudes in the Turkish-Armenian dispute are rather hardening. The short-lived thaw that occurred in 2008/2009 rather supports that assessment. Politicians, who realized that both countries would profit from a normalization of relations, signed the Zurich Protocol in 2009 to that effect. The public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with the Turkish side being accused of selling out Nagorno-Karabakh (which was not mentioned in the accord) and the Armenian side accused of selling out to Turkey as a whole (as the genocide was not mentioned). Ratification of the accord was never seriously attempted by both sides. Meanwhile, Turkish and Armenian lobbyists are fighting a proxy battle over the recognition of the Armenian genocide. In 2010, only about 20 countries (Canada, France, Italy and Russia being the most significant) have recognized the Armenian genocide (about ten including Germany and Brazil have since joined). The fact that the genocide is not universally accepted is a sign of the sorry state of the international political arena. International relations are often not ruled by logically having a look and taking care of problems but by the same great power politics that have hindered progress for way too long already. Turkey as a regional power knows how to throw a temper tantrum and this is enough to prevent many countries from following the facts. Even the United States of America have so far heeded Turkish pressure although a certain Barack Obama was very outspoken on the issue as long as being a senator. For me, being German, this is especially vexing as I know how liberating it can be to accepts one’s guilt for terrible crimes and move on together with your neighbours to a better future.

Back on the road in Armenia, I am surprised/shocked how deep the Turkey-is-bad, they-are-our-enemy, we-will-never-have-good-relations-with-them-attitude sits. Openness is something different. I find that weird, especially as the advantages of a rapprochement for Armenia are obvious. No one I speak to has anything positive to say about Turkey. The taxi driver back from Lake Sevan is especially harsh, he says it is better the border is closed, otherwise the Turks will come again and kill people. At our homestay in Yerevan, the daughter of the owner is even worse. She is young, well educated, works for an NGO, travels, speaks English and French well, and she is hard-line. In her racist view, Turks are somehow inherently prone to commit genocides.

Although I am generally sympathetic to the Armenian position sometimes things go a bit far for me, in the National History Museum maps still refer to parts of Turkey as “Western Armenia”. These lands haven’t been Armenian for a long, long time. Armenia shows some typical behaviour of a country that once ruled large territories and is longing back to these days of glory. I studied history; I know history is important but if your history gets into the way of your future you should question if you are getting things right.

Northern Armenia

I entered Armenia coming straight from Tbilisi airport, checking out the monasteries of the Debed valley around Alaverdi, moving on to Stepanavan with the Lori Berd fortress and to Gyumri where you can still see damage from a devastating earthquake in 1988.

Around Yerevan

We reach Yerevan and take some day trips as Armenia’s capital is located quite centrally. To Hovhannavank Monastery and Amberd Fortress, Vagharshapat (Ejmiatsin), the centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church, we hike from Geghard Monastery via the destroyed Havuts Tar Monastery to the temple of Garni and explore Lake Sevan.

Yerevan

Yerevan and its surrounding region is home to every second Armenian and is the city dominating the country. It is a collection of different architectural styles and in my eyes not especially beautiful. Best are the views of Ararat if the weather permits. One evening, I nearly get myself into trouble, there is Ararat, there is a picturesque church and just a low wall separating myself from a good picture. I partly climb the wall and get my camera out. Suddenly, I hear a whistle blowing franticly, some soldiers come running and a nearby policeman also approaches. I unknowingly climbed the wall of an army base. I admonish the soldiers for not building proper walls around their bases that cannot be climbed. Ahhh, no, I don’t, in reality, I say sorry, tell them what a beautiful picture that would be, explain that I didn’t realize that this is a base and soon we depart amicably. Having a blonde, beautiful Russian native-speaker with me certainly helped to defuse the situation.

Southern Armenia

Many of Armenia’s monastery are located deep into the mountains especially in the less-populated south. We rent a car, asked to decide between an ordinary Lada and a Lada Niva we opt for the latter. A good choice, the Niva is a good match for the Armenian roads. We easily overtake the golden BMW, who carefully navigates around the potholes. The driver of the BMW sees this as an affront and blocks us after he overtakes us on the next good stretch of road (speed is not a Niva strength). Having the car gives us plenty of flexibility, we visit Khor Virap, have tea with some Iranian truck drivers we can hardly speak with, buy some homemade wine, head up to beautiful Noravank monastery, explore the prehistoric archaeological site of Zorats Karer, very optimistically referred to as the “Armenian Stonehenge” and visit Goris. We head on to Nagorno-Karabakh and coming back from there, we maybe should have stayed another night in Goris. Instead, we move on to the small village of Tatev, we drive on a small unpaved road without signs, without any traffic into the darkness, into an approaching thunderstorm. I am so tired that I forget to close the boot of the car after a short stop. We don’t even notice, the Lada Niva is not a quiet car, luckily none of our stuff fell out. The first person we meet on the dark streets of Tatev is the owner of the guesthouse we wanted to go to. Tourism all over Armenia is basic, most of the time we stay in simple but friendly homestays. Tatev Monastery is worth the detour. We head back to Yerevan and on to Tbilisi.