Armenia and Georgia
“A Journey to the Land of the Golden Fleece”
This was a journey to the very distant edge of the new European frontier; not so long ago these two countries were frontline states of the former Soviet empire. Situated on one of the world’s great crossroads, Georgia and Armenia occupy a mountainous zone on the southern flank of the Caucasus Mountains. This is the meeting point of two continents, Europe and Asia, as well as the frontier between Islam and Christendom – these two countries nestle in the shadow of the regions’ power players: Russia, Turkey and Iran. Over the centuries, empires and conquerors have crossed these lands: Roman legions; Mongol hordes; the Red Army and the Ottoman Turks. Whilst both countries share a recent past as republics of the former Soviet Union, today both countries see their future as part of an ever expanding European Union.
A Brief History
According to Bible lore Armenians are the descendents of Hayk, great-great-grandson of Noah; whose ark came to rest on Mount Ararat after the great flood. The earliest records that mention Armenians date back to the Greeks in the 6th century BC. By the 1st century BC the borders of Armenia had reached their greatest extent under the king Tigranes II, who defeated the Persian army, securing lands stretching from Lebanon and Syria in the west to Azerbaijan in the east. In 301 AD King Trdat III declared Christianity the state religion, making Armenia the first country to officially fully embrace this fledgling religion. The “Byzantine Empire” (Eastern Roman) came into being in the wake of the implosion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. The Byzantine Empire expanded eastwards at the same time that the Persian Empire grew westwards, resulting in Georgia and Armenia being caught in the middle of a power struggle between these forces.
Muslim Arabs were the next regional “power” in the area. In the mid 7th century they’d spread across the region and by the year 661 gained control of Armenia. Conversion to Islam was fiercely resisted by Armenians; many of whom fled into the neighbouring Christian Byzantine territories. The 11th and 12th centuries saw death and destruction as the Seljuk Turks over-ran the Caucasus region. Armenia, along with its neighbours, suffered from the Mongol invasion in the mid 1200’s. The Black Death soon followed and then in the late 14th century the Asian warlord Tamerlane invaded from the east leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. The next power was the Ottoman Turks. By the early 16th century they controlled the whole of Armenia and kept control of most of it, for nearly 400 years.
As the Ottoman Empire was in its ‘death throes’ it presided over the darkest period of Armenian history. The contentious issue of the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans still resonates today. Between 1915 and 1922 around 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated. In 1922 Armenia became one of the founding republics of the newly expanding Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, between 1990 and 1991, Armenia declared independence.
My adventure began in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. My group arrived at 6am and after a quick ‘forty-winks’ and some much-needed breakfast we went straight into the city for an orientation tour. The Yerevan skyline is dominated by the picturesque Mount Ararat which holds dear in the hearts of the Armenian people. The Genocide Museum, a sombre and reflective part of our journey, is dedicated to the 1.5 million Armenians who perished at the turn of the 20th century during the occupation of the Ottoman Turks; monuments of man’s inhumanity to man. In the middle of Yerevan is ‘The Cascade’, a monumental staircase embellished with water fountains. This cascade forms a giant piece of outdoor artwork incorporating beautiful flower beds and sculptures. Such is the scale of this ‘artwork’ that escalators run up through its core and the view of the city from the top is quite spectacular.
The Greek temple in the town of Garni was built in the 1st century and dedicated to Helios, the Sun God. It’s the only temple of its type in the whole of Armenia. We enjoyed lunch in the most tranquil of garden settings and were treated to endless kebabs and lavash bread (an Armenian speciality). This thin, tortilla-style, oven-cooked bread is eaten with cheese, tarragon, spring onions and dill. Our final stop of the day was the Geghard Monastery (a ‘cave church’), named after the holy lance that pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion; the actual lance was once kept at the monastery. This ancient ‘cave church’ was cut from surrounding rock and is reminiscent of the churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia. Inside the church there are beautiful carvings and stalactites hanging from the ceiling as in the Islamic style of architecture.
Any holiday to Armenia will involve visiting quite a number of churches, as they are a devoutly Christian country and these buildings are to be found everywhere in abundance. Given Armenia’s history and particularly the more recent Soviet suppression of the church, it’s no surprise to find that church attendance is at a high. Many of the churches are in spectacular and remote mountainous settings such as Zvarnots Cathedral, which is a picturesque ruin. The mid 7th century cathedral collapsed due to an earthquake in the year 930. Like Zvarnots Cathedral, Surp Hripsime Chapel, built in 618 is situated in a countryside setting and it is dominated by views of Mount Ararat.
Holy Echmiadzin is the ‘Vatican’ of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s the site where, St Gregory the Illuminator, in a divine vision, saw a beam of light fall to earth and where he built the first Mother Church of Armenia. Echmiadzin was once the capital of Armenia, when it first instituted Christianity as the state religion. The site is a massive complex of: churches; monks’ cells; bell towers and museums, which date back to the early 15th century. The interior of the main cathedral is lavishly decorated; the dome and the adornments at the upper levels are similar to those found in many mosques. This architectural style becomes more comprehensible when it is appreciated that the cathedral was built at a time when this area was heavily under the influence of Iran and that the architect responsible was an Iranian. The Treasury, a museum, houses 1700 years of precious objects collected by the church, which include the Holy Lance mentioned earlier in this article.
Yerevan is outwardly European where affluent locals stroll around streets buzzing with expensive cars and attractive shops. On the downside, this is the land of the ‘Lada’ motor car, which is the taxi drivers’ car of choice. However, it’s the venerable Lada 4x4 that rules the roads in the countryside. An alfresco meal and a stroll around Republic Square, the heart of the city, was a nice way to say goodbye to Yerevan where water fountains adorn the centre of the square and spout in rhythm to music and colourful lights as the fountains dance and entertain.
Heading north out of Yerevan we head for the Khor Virap Monastery, situated in a beautiful setting at the base of Mount Ararat, on the border with Turkey. Churches have been built on this site since the 6th century but the only church visible today (the Khor Virap Monastery) dates from the 17th century. Of interest, is a climb down the 60 metre deep ‘well’ (not for the claustrophobic or unadventurous) where St Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 12 years; he was later to become the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Next, we visited a winery where we were taken through the production process and then indulged in a spot of wine tasting before heading off to a 13th century church complex at Noravank. A masterpiece of architectural design, Noravank is set on a rocky outcrop overlooking a spectacular gorge – appealing to the photographer in me. At the end of a tiring day, on some long and winding potholed roads, we arrive in the town of Goris. The town has a decaying feel to it - almost as though the population have left without closing the door behind them. There were innumerable crumbling soviet-style apartment blocks and deserted factory buildings that would certainly not pass a health and safety inspection. There is a single restaurant.
Our next journey took us through the most incredible mountain scenery, alpine meadows and deep gorges with sheer drops (called the ‘Armenian Switzerland’) and after one and a half hours on the road and having negotiated a series of zig-zag roads and hairpin bends we arrive at our destination: the Tatev Monastery, which dates back to the 9th century. At one time the monastery housed over 600 monks and nowadays it is deserted except for one resident monk who is the custodian of this remote outpost. The monastery is perched on a rocky ledge and there are vertiginous drops of around 600 metres from every one of its windows. Words or photographs are unable to do justice to the jaw-dropping impact that this monastery has on its visitors. In the afternoon we drive to the Selim Caravanserai. Built in 1332, this is the best preserved caravanserai in Armenia and it is situated at the head of a mountain pass, 2300 metres above sea level. The ancient Silk Road ran along this route on its way from Iran to Europe. This well-preserved building would have provided a safe haven where merchants could stop for the night with their animals and goods. Inside the caravanserai there are animal pens with water troughs and sleeping areas for the merchants. The ceilings are decorated with the intricate maquana carvings.
Our road through towns and villages took us through the countryside where farmers still till the land and shepherds tend their flocks of goats and cattle. One of my lasting impressions of Armenia is stagnation, derelict factories and a general feeling of a country that has not modernised in tune with the rest of the world. After twelve and a half hours on the road we arrive at our five star luxury hotel (which I was not expecting to come across) on the shores of Lake Sevan, situated in the middle of nowhere. However, we soon had to part from the pleasures of the swimming pool and the hot tub and continue on our journey.
Gosh is a mountain village that has a main church, Goshavank Monastery that was founded in 1188 along with several smaller churches and a school. At one time the complex boasted a library purported to contain over 15,000 books and this was burned down by Tamerlane as his army rampaged through Armenia in the 14th century. Our final stop of the day was the alpine village of Dilijan, which is currently being restored by a wealthy Armenian benefactor who lives outside of the country. Vast amounts of cash are being injected into restoring the village back to its original splendour; currently the completed buildings consist of tourist shops and up market hotels.
Moving on, Alaverdi is a mining town with the now familiar rows of crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocks. Like most of the buildings here they look as if they have never seen any form of maintenance since the day they were built, the concrete is crumbling, the metal reinforcing is rusting away and the balconies are falling away from the buildings structure. The town’s copper mine is still in operation and its tall chimney belches out pollution into the atmosphere that is visible for miles around. Our final site to visit in Armenia is the Haghpat Monastery, built in 976, it is the largest of its type in the country. Situated on the edge of the Debed Canyon the views from the monastery are spectacular; the interior of the building boasts the most impressive frescoes seen so far.
As a final point of interest, Armenia is unusual in that it has a greater number of its native population living abroad than within its own borders.
A Brief History
Georgian history is closely intertwined with that of its neighbour Armenia. Greeks, Persians and Romans brought their influence to bear on the region in the 1,000 years before Christianity became the dominant faith. The Greeks established settlements in Colchis (western Georgia) as early as the 8th century BC; Colchis was the legendary home of the fabled Golden Fleece. In 66 BC the Roman Emperor Pompey arrived in Georgia, crushing any opposition to Roman rule. In the early 4th century Georgia adopted Christianity as the state religion, thus being the second country to do so a quarter of a century after its neighbour Armenia. In the 5th century western Georgia came under the influence of the expanding Byzantine Empire, whilst the eastern part of the country was controlled by the Persians. In the year 654 the Muslim Arabs gained overall control of Georgia. Georgia, as a recognisable country, was first formed when a number of small independent principalities were united in the 11th century. Georgia reached the zenith of its powers under Queen Tamar who ruled from 1184 to 1213. During this golden period of history Georgia’s influence extended over much of Azerbaijan and Armenia, parts of Turkey and southern Russia. This golden age came to an abrupt end in the 1230’s when the Mongol invaders ‘stormed’ in from the east laying waste to all in their path. They were soon followed by the Black Death, then towards the end of the 14th century by the Asian warlord Tamerlane.
Next on the pages of Georgian history were the Persians. They were followed by the Ottoman Turks who had taken Constantinople and swept away the Byzantine Empire in 1453. From the late 18th century Russian influence gradually engulfed Georgia and eventually the entire Caucasus region. Along with its neighbour Armenia, Georgia became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union in 1922. Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 - the dream of independence turning into a nightmare overnight. Almost immediately the Caucasus region was plunged into civil war, internal strife and fierce ethnic divisions. De facto states and disputed enclaves have plagued the region and remain disputed to this day.
Georgia is situated in a fascinating part of the world. It’s bordered by many small enclaves, all aspiring to independence after decades of Soviet domination, civil wars and semi autonomous declarations. South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Chechnya are just a few examples with violent and bloody struggles engulfing them over recent years. Georgia itself walks a very delicate tightrope; the United States army is based in Georgia and is engaged in training the Georgian troops. Georgia has applied for membership of the European Union and NATO; to the chagrin of her powerful neighbour Russia. Georgia’s position, geographically, makes this situation extremely volatile. To counter this Russia has made several incursions into Georgia as well as imposing an embargo on the import of Georgian goods.
Upon crossing over the border, from Armenia into Georgia, you may notice some stark differences. The language is completely different, the population is fair-skinned and the country has a more European feel to it. The capital Tbilisi is quite a compact and vibrant city where European-style coffee culture is fully embraced. Our city tour of Tbilisi begins with a visit to the Tsiminda Sameba Cathedral, built in 2004. This building is a massive architectural statement in concrete, granite and marble. The cathedral is an expression in verticality with enormous white marble columns soaring 84 metres to the central dome. When we arrived the morning service was in progress and the cathedral was overflowing with worshippers and the choir in full voice allowing an appreciation of the acoustics. The city has a magnificent synagogue dating from 1904. The once sizeable Jewish population has now diminished quite considerably because many of the families re-located to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dominating the city skyline from every viewpoint is the Narikala Fortress; its defensive walls date from various periods going back to the 4th century. Over the years, the Georgians, the Turks and the Persians have captured and subsequently rebuilt sections of the fortress. In 1827 Russian munitions stored here exploded and reduced large parts of the fortress to the ruin you see today. The views across the city from the rampart walls are magnificent and are ample repayment for the hard climb required to reach the top. Up along from the fortress is Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia), an aluminium statue of a woman with a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. She is 20 metres high and has become the emblem of the city.
Hmmm … time to immerse myself in the city’s coffee culture. It’s a lovely warm late afternoon - time to sit down at a cafe and enjoy a coffee and some cakes.
This morning we left Tbilisi and drove along the Georgian Military Highway deep into the Caucasus Mountains. This was yet another of the region’s amazing drives through stunning scenery, glaciated valleys, snow covered mountains and crystal-clear streams gushing with ‘melt snow’. Our first stop of the day was the village of Ananuri. This 13th century fortress, with its churches, is another wonderful example of Georgian architecture set in a picturesque location. Within the fortress there are two 17th century churches displaying some fine frescoes.
My favourite moment of this holiday was the one and a half-hour climb up the mountain to visit the Holy Trinity Church. This was an exhilarating walk through woodland, across open meadows and a chance to stretch my legs - a great change from the usual touring. The weather was perfect: blue sky; warm sun and a slight cooling breeze. The views of Mount Kazbegi and the surrounding Caucasus Mountains were breathtaking. Built in the 14th century, the church is situated on an isolated lofty perch some 2200 meters up in the mountains. It’s a picture postcard setting and the scene you are most likely to see on the cover of most guide books. When you get to the top the church is ... a church. This adventure is about the walk and the scenery. Our overnight stop was in the ski village of Gudauri where we stayed in a lovely Swiss-style chalet.
Driving through mountain scenery we arrive in the town of Gori. To Georgians, this town is synonymous with just one man, Joseph Stalin, who was born and attended school here. The town has a macabre attraction as a place of pilgrimage and a monument to Stalin’s enduring popularity. The Stalin Museum is a fascinating place and charts Stalin’s life from his birth in Gori, through to him becoming leader of the Soviet Union and his death in 1953. The exhibits in the museum have been carefully selected, omitting any references to the purges, the mass murders, the Gulags or Stalin’s wartime pact with Hitler. What you see is an exhibition telling the ‘glorious’ story of the towns ‘local lad’ who rose to the highest office in the land. The eerie exhibit of the museum is Stalin’s ‘death mask’; a bronze cast taken from a plaster-of-paris cast, within just 6 hours of Stalin’s death. Gori is littered with numerous paeans to its most famous son; the main street is the broad Stalin Avenue, which leads into the towns centre, Stalin Square. In the middle of the square stands a huge statue of Stalin; which was stealthily removed by the authorities in the middle of the night around a month after my visit!
Uplistsikhe is a vast ‘cave city’ complex, dating back to around 1000 BC. It’s one of the oldest known settlements in the Caucasus. This complex was a principle religious and political centre, as well as an important staging point on the northern section of the Silk Road, which ran to the north of the city. What is visible today is the result of archaeological excavations begun in 1957 revealing: a theatre dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD; a pre-Christian temple; a large hall and a 10th century church. Our stop for the night is in the town of Kutaisi in a hotel, which is more of a guesthouse really. The views from the terrace are spectacular. Kutaisi was one of the main cities of ancient Colchis, synonymous with the myth of the Golden Fleece. In reality, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts relates to real places and events. The legend has it that Jason sailed to Colchis and after various tribulations along the way was set a series of tests, whereupon if he was successful, the King of Colchis would agree to give up the fleece. Surviving the tests, Jason finally slew the multi-headed dragon guarding the fleece and sailed off into the legendary sunset. The Golden Fleece legend has a basis in mountain tradition; prospectors panning the rivers for gold would place a sheepskin across the rocks in order to catch the nuggets. This technique is still practiced today in parts of the Caucasus Mountains.
We take a short walk from our guesthouse to see Kutaisi’s Bagrati Cathedral - built in the 11th century by King Bagrat III. This roofless atmospheric ruin is currently swathed in scaffolding as part of a massive renovation project, including reinstating the roof and adding a cupola. This project has inflamed local passions as many locals are of the opinion that to rebuild the structure as it once would have been, rather than just preserving the building as it currently is, will irrevocably alter its integrity.
A walk in the Borjomi Kharagauli National Park was an opportunity to appreciate the flora and fauna of the Georgian countryside. The highlight of this walk was meeting a group of Georgian men enjoying a BBQ on their day off from work. Having imbibed large quantities of home-made wine they were merry and insistent that we joined them. In true Georgian custom it was obligatory that we raised a toast to each other and then to our visit. The town of Borjami is famous for its spa and mineral water park. This spa resort became fashionable in the 1890’s when Duke Mikhail Romanov (brother of Tsar Alexander II) took a liking to it. In Soviet times people flocked from all over the USSR to indulge in the health-giving qualities of the water. Today Borjami bottles and exports its mineral water to 51 countries. Nearby is the house of the Persian trader Murza Riza Khan. Built in 1892 in the typical Persian style, the facade features beautiful glass mosaic work with hanging maquanas. Look behind the facade and this once magnificent building is in a state of complete dilapidation and virtual collapse. It’s a truly sad situation to see such a unique structure being allowed to rot away. It’s debatable as to whether there is enough money or the inclination to save this magnificent example of Persian architecture.
Today, we travel from the west of the country across to the east. Our first stop is the town of Mtskheta and a visit to the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Tradition has it the Christ’s robe lies buried beneath the cathedral and was brought back to Mtskhta from Jerusalem, at the time of the crucifixion. As such this has endowed Mtskhta with the spirituality that has engendered stories of numerous ‘miracles’ down the years. At this point in the trip ‘church overload’ is apparent and they are beginning to ‘blur’; I don’t think I could stand seeing another one.
In this eastern part of the country the economy was particularly hard hit with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Planned Economy that facilitated guaranteed markets for the region’s produce of wine, citrus fruits and walnuts disappeared overnight. The income and jobs generated here have been lost and are yet to recover.
After another long drive we arrive at Telavi. The main site of interest is Batonistsikhe Castle, built in the 17th century. The precincts of the castle contain the remains of two churches and a Persian-style palace built in the 1660s and the local police station.
Overall, I shall remember Armenia and Georgia for the sheer beauty of its untrammelled scenery; the beautiful locations of its churches, monuments and the region’s strange crossover of part-eastern-part-Soviet atmosphere. Tourism in both Armenia and Georgia is still in its infancy making a visit here so much more enjoyable.