Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia, is a cheerful place to visit in summertime. The city, many of whose buildings are constructed out of a distinctive pink stone known as tuff, is laid-back and full of parks and cafes.
Republic Square, Opera Square and The Cascades, a giant stairway decorated with fountains and artworks, form an axis, running at a diagonal to Yerevan’s grid system. These hubs are linked by a modern avenue of swanky shops. If you’re tempted to clothe your children at ‘Armani Kids’, Armenia could be the country for you.
At Republic Square, crowds gather in the evenings to watch fountains ‘dance’ to lightshows and music. Around Opera Square, people mingle in a series of outdoor watering-holes, like VIP Café, where we were moved on for (presumably) not being sufficiently important. At the bottom of The Cascades they loiter around the artworks, older Armenians staying entertained with the odd game of backgammon and their younger counterparts making do with selfie sticks.
It’s an easy place to relax and an easier place to enjoy. But it’s difficult not to be confronted (and appalled) by some of Armenia’s darker history as well.
Those dancing fountains are overlooked by enlarged photographs, at the front of the History Museum, depicting notable citizens killed during the Armenian Genocide. The purple ‘forget me not’ flower, designed to mark the centenary of the genocide, is visible across the city. It would be a neglectful visitor who failed to visit Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, which stands on a hill, overlooking central Yerevan.
The museum at Tsitsernakaberd describes atrocities committed against Armenians in Turkey, during the first world war, from an Armenian perspective. The story includes a background of oppression by Ottoman authorities, preceding 1915, and the genocide’s ‘dark aftermath’. It’s a deeply affecting exhibit, stirring strong emotions among some members of the Armenian diaspora who visited while we were there.
Like the Holocaust for Jews, the genocide is understandably a defining event for Armenians. Their sense of grievance is particularly acute, because Turkey denies that genocide took place.
Recognition in the wider international community is also patchy. The UK’s Parliament, for instance, has never formally recognised that the massacres comprise ‘genocide’, although the institutions in all three devolved regions have. The situation is similar in the US, where 43 states recognise the Armenian genocide and the President has spoken of his personal conviction that genocide took place, but hasn’t moved to recognise it formally.
As far as Armenia is concerned, genocide recognition constitutes ‘unfinished business’.
Outside the museum, the memorial consists of a circle of twelve huge stone slabs, representing ‘lost’ Armenian provinces in modern Turkey, which loom protectively over an eternal flame. A towering, needle shaped ‘stele’, in two parts, symbolises the ‘rebirth’ of the Armenian nation, following the slaughter.
The complex contains reminders of more recent conflicts too. On the avenue leading to the genocide memorial, there is a monument to the first Armenian soldiers killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the disputed republic, as the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
While the genocide has left an indelible mark on modern Armenians, the most enduring pillar of Armenian identity is the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia is said to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. The country’s ecclesiastical buildings are among its most popular attractions.
Geghard monastery, for instance, is a short drive from Yerevan. Its churches and cells are built partly into the rocky mountains which form its backdrop. Geghard also boasts a fine collection of medieval khachkars, distinctively Armenian flat stones, decorated with the cross and other motifs, including almost dizzyingly intricate interlacing patterns.
There was something rather Celtic about the khachkars and there are theories that monks from eastern churches travelled to the British Isles and influenced early Christian art in Ireland and Northumbria. At Kathoghike Church, the oldest surviving church building in Yerevan, we had a brief conversation with a friendly Armenian priest who implied that there were ancient religious and even racial links between people in Ireland and Armenia.
He rushed away, before we could test a hypothesis that seemed to rest on some dubious theories about the origin of both countries names. However, there are some striking similarities between the medieval Irish Church and the Armenian Church. Both drew upon older belief systems and practised forms of Christianity frowned upon by established churches in Rome and Constantinople.
Philip Marsden’s brilliant book, Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians, takes fascinating detours through several heresies that influenced the distinctive and independent form of Christianity which developed in Armenia. This complicated background of traditions and symbolism made the monasteries and churches we visited, across the country, particularly interesting.
Travelling around Armenia, visitors are reminded that Armenian culture and identity have ranged far beyond the boundaries of the current republic. It is now a small country, which can be explored comfortably from its charming capital, Yerevan. It is also a land with varied landscapes and absorbing traditions, which blends the atmospheres of the Middle East and Europe.