Editor’s note: while a bit out of order with Sam’s Caucuses trip, I felt it important to present his side trip into Armenia after his articles from Azerbaijan. Georgia will be next. For more of Sam’s awesome travels, click here to visit his index page.
One of the greatest surprises and inspirations for my travels has been, of all things, conflict. Narrative is important and it is necessary to understand that people’s narratives often compete and contradict each other, but narratives are those people’s truths and should not be dismissed. Some of the most meaningful destinations that I have visited in my life have come from me either wanting to confront something outside of my comfort zone or to be exposed to alternative points of view than the ones with which I am most familiar. It was for these reasons that I traveled throughout the Arab and Muslim world, as I wanted to confront the media portrayal of Islam and Arabs during my formative years in a post-9/11 world and in the midst of the Second Intifada. Through these experiences I developed a deep respect for Islam and love of the Arab world.
In a couple of recent articles, I wrote about another wonderful predominately Muslim country that now holds a special place in my heart: Azerbaijan. While in Azerbaijan I got to witness firsthand how wonderfully the nation promotes multiculturalism and interfaith relationships; however, I also heard about animosity towards their neighbor Armenia. Having lived in Hollywood for four years, I got to know many Armenians, most of whom were lovely, so I was a bit taken aback in Azerbaijan to hear about the disdain and distrust of Armenia. Much of the mutual dislike between the two countries dates back to the displacement, forced Islamization, and genocide of the Armenians from 1915-1917 at the hands of the Committee of Union and Progress, an Ottoman Empire-revolutionary organization. While in Turkey, it is illegal to even acknowledge the genocide, which killed an estimated 600,000-1.5 million Armenians; for Armenians this story is critical to their national narrative. After these incidents, the Armenians established a nation, one that would later be a part of the Soviet Union, just to the east of Turkey. Azerbaijan also does not recognize the Armenian genocide and claims that Armenian paramilitary groups carried out genocides and attacks on Azerbaijanis in 1918. The Azerbaijanis see themselves as Turkic people and that Armenia divides them not only from the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic exclave, but also from greater Turkey, their brethren and closest allies. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia have waged two wars over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is historically Azerbaijani but has significant populations of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Armenia won the first war in the early 1990s and captured most of the region, while Azerbaijan decisively won the second war in 2020 and recaptured much of, but not all, the region.
Being in Azerbaijan for almost a week (click here to read about Baku and here to read about Quba) and meeting with governmental leaders daily, I got to hear repeatedly the official Azerbaijani narrative, which I appreciated, given that I knew virtually nothing of this conflict before my trip. However, an unintended consequence of hearing such a one-sided view was that I then had a burning curiosity to visit Armenia and see it for myself. Following my visit to Azerbaijan, I went up to their Caucasus neighbor of Georgia, with the capital of Tbilisi being less than two hours drive from the border with Armenia. In Tbilisi, I visited several beautiful monasteries and was told by some, “You don’t need to visit Armenia; it is the same thing, just more monasteries but on that side of the border.” I thought about not visiting Armenia then and doing something else in Georgia, but I could not let go of the curiosity I had after my trip to Azerbaijan, so I went to the Envoy Hostel in Tbilisi and booked a day trip to the monasteries of northern Armenia. Envoy Hostel has two locations, one right in the center of the Old Town of Tbilisi in a perfect spot for tourists with a beautiful rooftop terrace, and the other location in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. They do tours all over Georgia and Armenia and are a great place to stay if you are backpacking around the region as they have a weekly trip that drops you from one hostel to the other with sightseeing along the way. Part of their mission is to not only have you experience the culture of the area through people-to-people interactions, but through a charity that builds homes for Armenians who were displaced in the recent conflict; they even house some families in their hostel.
On our full day trip, we drove down to the Armenian border; interestingly, right before getting to the border was an ethnically Azerbaijani town in Georgia. In this town, there were several houses that had various colored ribbons on their gates and doors. Our guide explained to us that these ribbons signified that these families had a single daughter of marriage age (at least 16-years-old) and that if potential suitors would like to come and introduce themselves, they were welcome to do so. The border itself looked like something out of the Soviet Union, with Armenian soldiers with furry hats and camouflage uniforms looking suspiciously at my Azerbaijani stamp in my passport and asking my guide a lot of questions. I was also fairly nervous when they looked through my pictures including those of me with high-ranking Azerbaijani officials. However, after a while, I was allowed to enter the country and we began our drive through the winding hills of Armenia’s Debed River Canyon. The landscape and beautiful nature reminded me a lot of Utah’s, yet it was noticeably different when we arrived at the town of Alaverdi with a population of roughly 13,000. Alaverdi is a village that time has seemed to have forgotten, as it looks exactly like what every American movie depicts of a small Soviet village. While for Eastern Europeans, this town is nothing special, it was fascinating for me, especially the old Soviet-era playground with monuments, the abandoned 19th century copper mine and processing factory, and the Soviet cable car line with defunct cable cars suspended mid-air. The town also is noteworthy for having a beautiful 12th century footbridge that goes over the Debed River, a gorgeous example of medieval architecture from that area.
We visited three monasteries, which are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our first visit was to the Sanahin Monastery, a 10th century complex with the remains of a library and vestibule and a large sanctuary. The most impressive parts of this monastery were the numerous arches holding up the church, and also the hundreds of graves of bishops that made up the floor. While in many cultures it is considered rude to walk on graves, for the Armenians it was actually a sign of honor that these bishops were carrying us on our destination. Outside the complex is a modern cemetery; it is common in the former Soviet Union nations to have depictions of the deceased on their tombstone. One particularly sad and intriguing tombstone was at a family plot for an entire family that was killed in a car crash. Depicted on their tombstone was the entire family hugging, and then in the background an artist’s rendition of their car driving off a cliff displaying the family’s demise (apparently the wreckage of the car used to be on display at the gravesite).
From Sanahin, we went to another nearby monastery, Haghpat, from the same era. Haghpat has less to see inside and is a skinny, tall structure; its main appeal is its surroundings of lush green valleys and mountains, creating a beautiful panorama. Already, I was glad that I went to Armenia as these monasteries used dark stone, had orange pointed roofs, and looked much different than their Georgian counterparts. There were also virtually no tourists when we visited them, giving us the entire sites to ourselves (except for a few friendly local dogs and some village ladies trying to sell their handicrafts).
Following our trip to these two nearby monasteries (allow at least 30 minutes for each), we had a wonderful home-cooked meal of traditional Armenian food by a host family in the town of Sanahin. An important part of these tours is experiencing not just the sites, but also the culture and people, and seeing their wonderful hospitality firsthand. Like the other Caucasus food, there were delicious pomegranate seeds and eggplant; however, as Georgia and Armenia are predominately Christian, you will find pork in their cuisine, unlike that of Azerbaijan, which is mostly Muslim. Despite being a very small village, Sanahin was the home to one of the most famous Armenian families, the Mikoyan brothers. One brother, Anastas, became the symbolic head of state for the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and the other, Artem, designed the MiG (short for Mikoyan-Gurevich, the two creators) aircraft that would become the main combat aircraft of the Soviet Union, and later the Russian, Indian, and Iranian air forces. Sanahin has a monument dedicated to the two brothers and a MiG plane on display to the town’s native son.
Finally, following lunch we went to the Akhtala monastery, which really looks more like a fortress. Perched on a cliff, visitors cross under a large stone gate entrance that was part of the original fortress wall into the courtyard, where there is a recent monument for the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Be careful walking around the courtyard, as there are ruins and also random holes with ten-foot drops to the underground complexes below the surface that were part of the original monastery. Akhtala also differs from the other sites because unlike the other two whose interiors are bare, Akhtala is known for having some of the best frescoes of any of Armenia’s many monasteries. The ancient paintings dating back hundreds of years give an awe-inspiring impression of what all these monasteries must have looked like in their glory years.
While I would be curious to see Yerevan given that the other capitals of the Caucasus, Baku and Tbilisi, exceeded my expectations so greatly, I felt that this one-day tour of northern Armenia really gave me a great taste of the country. If you find yourself in one of my new favorite cities, Tbilisi, this day trip will be one of the highlights of your Caucasus adventure.
Note: I would like to thank Envoy Hostel in Tbilisi for a wonderful tour and for generously giving me a 10% discount as a travel writer.
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