A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
25 March 2021
Lately I’ve been dreaming of Armenia again.
Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last year stuck at home, under what feels increasingly like house arrest. It’s weird – I can’t remember the last time I spent a whole 12 months in one single country. I was always on the move before this, and as a result my friends, my hobbies, and my work, are scattered across multiple continents that I can no longer get to. My sense of wanderlust is overpowering, but it’s not actually the destinations I miss the most right now… It’s the places in between. The quirky three-star hotels, the scenic rest stops, the great big monuments in the middle of nowhere that aren’t even marked on maps. It’s the feeling of travelling that I miss: all the unscripted sights and encounters on the way to each new destination. Sometimes I think I pin markers onto maps just for the excuse of passing through all the places on the way there. And Armenia does those in-between places better than anywhere else I know.
When I visited Armenia back in 2017, I was travelling according to a meticulous plan. I had spent months creating a map of Armenia’s Soviet-era monuments – stark red-stone memorials dotted across all corners of the country – and the three of us then executed the plan with military precision. I’m still amazed we managed to cover so much ground, in what was really little more than a week. Later I wrote a report of that trip with similar efficiency, a comprehensive catalogue of the architectural sites we had visited. But now, in lock-down four years later, it’s not those monuments I’m remembering… it’s all the wild, open places in between them.
Armenia doesn’t look like anywhere else. We noticed it right away, driving in from Georgia along the Tbilisi-Yerevan highway. Almost immediately the landscape felt different. The land and sky here have their own unique palette, and there’s a heightened sense of verticality too: caves and gorges opened beneath our feet, while saw-blade ridges marked the horizons; and above that, even further off, the peaks of snow-capped mountains shone mistily in the distance. Then there are the buildings, many of them built from slabs of tuff, a local lava rock, which catches the sun in shades that range from burnt orange to salmon pink. In Armenia, even the clouds seem to look different – as if they have more space to move around in.
It would be too easy to simply call Armenia “beautiful.” I don’t think that’s really the right word for it – because Armenia is not just postcard-pretty, it’s something more than that. These landscapes are fierce, primal, and breathtakingly powerful. There are places where the views seem to go on forever in all directions, impossibly long distances beneath an even bigger sky. If it hadn’t been for the occasional church, or the broken shells of abandoned Soviet-era factories, I might have guessed I was on another planet. Even those factories look afraid. Rather than dominating, or polluting the landscape, here the industrial ruins of the Soviet era look lost in it… shrunken and powerless, as if they failed to tame this land. Pylons line the open plains like columns of bipedal ants.
That week we drove for dozens and dozens of hours all over Armenia, down from Georgia until we saw the mountains that mark the border with Iran to the south. In the west, we followed the course of the Akhurian River that draws the border with Turkey. This border has been closed since shortly after Armenia gained independence from the USSR; over disputes arising from Turkey’s backing of Azerbaijan in the Artsakh conflict, and also, Turkey’s refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 under the Ottomans. Today, the Armenian side of the border is punctuated by a series of defensive gun placements – repurposed tank turrets, built into the landscape, with concrete bunkers beneath them for the operators.
In the east we crossed into the spectacular mountains of Artsakh, and drove far enough that we almost came within range of the Azeri snipers on the other side.
Everywhere we went, there were hints of stories lying just beneath the surface. Like the black stone church at Jrapi, whose building blocks were faintly marked with numbers written in white chalk – as if the whole church had recently been moved and reassembled. The village of Jrapi was built to replace two former villages, that were flooded in the 1970s to create the Akhurian Reservoir. The chalk on the church looked fresh… probably the building was simply being surveyed for an architectural conservation plan. But I couldn’t shake the picture from my head, of this church sitting under the waters of the reservoir for 50 years before being brought back up to the surface and reformed, one black block at a time.
Another day, driving through Stepanavan we spotted a faded old sign labelled “Communist Caves,” pointing off the main road towards the ravine. We followed it. There was very little information when we arrived, just a broken monument to the town’s namesake – Stepan Shaumian – his stone face now missing its nose, and more signs pointing us to a precariously overgrown staircase that wound down the cliff face. At the end of the path we reached a cave, a small grotto with running water and wild, rocky views, where, according to local legend, the Bolshevik revolutionary Stepan Shaumian (once described as the “Caucasian Lenin”) had met with his fellow conspirators to plan Armenia’s socialist revolution. A hundred years of history, buried in the long grass at the roadside.
We visited Vanadzor, with its parks and towering factory blocks, and drove down the east side of Lake Sevan, on a narrow road that felt squashed between mountains and shimmering water. We chatted to old men sat on benches in the villages, and stopped for ice creams at family picnic spots in the mountains.
We drove up to Gyumri too. In 1988, Armenia was rocked by a devastating earthquake, and the country’s second-largest city was hit harder than anywhere else. Of approximately 24,000 casualties, 17,000 of those were here in Gyumri. At the time, the Soviet authorities promised to rebuild the city – work began immediately on Mush-1, a new residential quarter nearby, that would accommodate the thousands of people who were then still living in temporary shelters. But then the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and the work was left unfinished. Half-made housing blocks, and untouched schools and playgrounds, lay spread across 200 acres of land outside the city. In 2008-14, a newer district was built in the middle of the ruins: Mush-2. An island of hope amidst the devastation, it takes its name from a tragic place in Armenian history – an ancient city ruled consecutively by the Arabs, the Armenians, the Mongols, the Persians and the Ottomans. By the turn of the 20th century, the city of Mush still had around 10,000 Armenian citizens, roughly half of its total population. But none of them survived the genocide, and now, the city of Mush lies across the Akhurian River, within the borders of modern Turkey.
Armenia is as complicated as it is compelling. I spent enough time there to fall in love with it – but not nearly enough to understand it. These landscapes might contain a nation’s stories, but there is a sense of timelessness to them still: the mountains and plains, the red earth and clouds, unchanging for millennia as civilisations, their conquests and tragedies, come and go. I sincerely hope it isn’t long before I’m passing through them again; and whatever my stated destination may be next time, I have no doubt that once again it will be Armenia’s wild, warm vistas that end up staying with me for longer.