On October 14, 2017, Armenia celebrated the 2799th birthday of its capital, Yerevan. A country that can trace its roots this far back certainly has some history behind it, and when it comes to Armenia “some” history is quite the understatement. Visit Armenia and one will find ancient fortresses, monasteries, caves, and impressive natural landforms, all of which have a story to tell.
For instance, take Khor Virap, a 7th-century monastery. Khor Virap was originally the name of a pit, in which St. Gregory the Illuminator (credited with converting Armenia to Christianity in the 4th century) was kept as a prisoner by the king of Armenia for 13 years.
Secretly, the king’s sister, Khosrovitookht (if you thought “khor virap” was a tricky one, try “khosrovitookht”!) kept him alive by throwing food and water into the pit for him. After the 13 years, the king grew very sick, and Khosrovitookht had a dream that Gregory could pray to God for the king to be healed if he was brought to the king.
Low and behold, the dream came true! Gregory was released, the king was healed, and by seeing the miracle Gregory performed through Christianity, the king was converted and declared Armenia the first Christian nation. About 300 years later, a chapel and then a monastery were built over the pit, and today the pit is still intact. In fact, visitors to Khor Virap Monastery can climb down a 60 meter (200ft) ladder into the pit! Over the last 1,700 years of Armenia being a Christian nation hundreds of churches and monasteries have been constructed, each with their own tale.
The thing about these stories is that they have been passed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years, so sometimes the details are not always so clear, and sometimes you hear a story that seems to be just a bit more embellished than realistic… For example, there is a 7th-century fortress which is in ruins, but very much still present and explore-able!
The generally accepted name for the fortress is Amberd, but one may find a zealous tour guide who will argue it is really called Anberd. What is the difference between a single letter, one may ask? In this case, it makes compelling cases for two possible origins of the name. In Armenian, “berd” is the word for fortress, “amb” is the word for cloud, and “an” is a prefix that negates words.
So, if one chooses Amberd, one gets “cloud fortress”, which is very reasonable as it is located on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the tallest mountain in Armenia” and is almost completely surrounded by sheer cliffs that make it feel as if one really is in the “clouds”. On the other hand, Anberd would be something more like “impenetrable fortress”, which is definitely relevant to the history of the place as it was repeatedly attacked by invading Mongols beginning in the 11th century and it wasn’t until the end of the 13th century that the fortress was overtaken and destroyed. Either way, it is a truly amazing structure to visit and explore!
There are also some stories that are not quite so old. Visit the cave dwellings of Khntsoresk and you will learn that it was not until Armenia came under the control of the Soviet Union that people moved from the caves and built typical 20th-century homes (apparently cave dwellings were not viewed as acceptable living arrangements for citizens of the Soviet Union).
And then, there are legends about places and people that we can much more accurately explain with science, but the stories are still told (they are quite interesting, that is for sure). One favorite is that of Mt. Aragats, the tallest mountain in Armenia at just over 4,000m (14,000ft) above sea level. Today, Aragats has four peaks and a giant cavern at the center streaked with thousand-year-old lava streams.
The mountain was once an active volcano, and thousands of years ago it erupted in an explosion so great the entire top of the volcano was shattered, scattering fragments of rock in every direction and rendering the four mountain peaks seen today. On the other hand, legend has it that the four peaks were once four human brothers, but they were all too focused on making money and working that they did not spend any time together. God was upset that they did not treat each other in brotherly companionship and after his warnings were not heeded, he turned them into the four peaks of the mountain so that they would forever be together.
The renowned Armenian poet, Yeghishe Charents, wrote, “travel the world: you will never find a mountain peak as white as Armenia’s Ararat”. Well, neither will you find food so delicious. Ask local Armenians and they will tell you it is from the water and sunlight that flows through and shines down on the country that produces such heavenly food.
For breakfast, take some lavash, fresh from the tonir (traditional Armenian cylindrical oven dug into the ground), and add tomato, the reddest, juiciest, most flavorful tomato you will ever taste, and cucumber, the most crisp and refreshing. Take it a step further and choose some fresh herbs, parsley, dill, basil, etc, spicy peppers, or the famous salty cheese found everywhere in Armenia.
For lunch, try one of the Syrian Armenian lamajun (ground beef and chopped onion, pepper, tomato baked onto a thin bread) spots in Yerevan. With flavors inspired by middle eastern cuisine, the amazing flavors of Armenian produce are magnified by combinations of spices that really give tastebuds some excitement! And for dinner, prepare to be overcome by mouthwatering smells and flavors with khorovadz, Armenian barbeque.
Traditionally cooked over an outdoor pit dug into the ground, pork, beef, chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are marinated, skewered, and roasted to perfection. Grab a piece of lavash leftover from breakfast, forget about a plate, fork, and knife, and use the lavash to pull your choice morsel off of its skewer and munch away, popping the perfectly seasoned lavash into your mouth at the very end.
3. NATURE AND HIKING
Armenia, at just under 30,000 square km (18,500 square feet), may be one of the smaller countries in the world, but it certainly makes up for small size with the sheer number of amazing natural sites. Technically, Armenia is located in a sub-tropical climate zone, but this is mostly seen only in the southern regions.
Visit Meghri, the southernmost city in Armenia, on the border with Iran, and you will find breathtaking views of mountains as far as the eye can see. Words, and even, pictures will never do this place, or really any place in Armenia justice.
Take a picnic lunch and sunbathe on the banks of the Arax river, the natural border between Armenia and Iran, while soaking in the mountain views. Driving north from Meghri, one enters a more continental climate and the cave dwellings of Khndzoresk. Khndzoresk is an ancient village of cave dwellings that were actually inhabited up until the 1950s!
Apparently, when Armenia became a part of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government decided it was not appropriate for citizens of the Soviet Union to dwell in caves and as a result, the modern day village of New Khndzoresk was built.
Continuing north, in the heart of Armenia, is Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in Armenia and another heavenly spot: crystal clear water sprinkled with sandy beaches and framed by soaring mountains in the distance.
Due to its higher elevation, the Lake Sevan region stays cool and comfortable, even in the middle of summer, making it an ideal place to retreat from the unbearable summer heat in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Stay until sunset and you certainly will not be disappointed, but make sure to bring an extra jacket! Near Lake Sevan is the Armenian Little Switzerland, Dilijan.
Dilijan is a picturesque town with many spa resorts, a university, and the Dilijan Natural Park Forest Reserve. The best way to travel to Dilijan is to take the M4 highway from Yerevan and pass through the 2.25km (1.4mile) Dilijan tunnel.
This is the longest tunnel in Armenia, and is something akin to the magical wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series: driving through the tunnel one emerges in a different world from which they entered. Rocky outcrops with scattered brush become rolling hills covered in trees of the richest green colors. Somehow, the sun seems to be brighter, the air cleaner, and the sky bluer.
Mt. Aragats is the tallest mountain in Armenia and is located in the central region of the country. Both a photographer’s and hiker’s paradise, the views from every angle and height are absolutely gorgeous and there are four peaks to climb, each a different challenge. Visit in summer and you can picnic beside the lake at the base of the mountain, or take a hike and have a snowball fight in the patches of snow that dot the landscape even in the hottest month of summer, or climb to the top and see the impressive valley at the center of the four peaks, streaked with the centuries-old lava paths that are now highlighted with snow!
The ancient Temple of Garni is also in the central region of Armenia and is the one pagan temple remaining from the nation's pre-Christian history. The Garni temple is located on a high plateau surrounded by a deep gorge where the Azad river flows.
And, in this gorge is a natural phenomenon that most tourists are unaware of: The Symphony of Stones. The impossibly high walls of the gorge are made of thousands of year old volcanic rock that was cooled quickly by the water of the Azad River. This rapid cooling process caused the rock to expand into hexagonal pillars stretching from the Garni Temple plateau down to the banks of the river which created them.
It's a perfect day trip, spend the morning wandering around the temple, and then take the path that winds through the adjacent village down along the Azad river, turn around one final bend and violá!! Prepare to be amazed!
© Arm GEO
Continuing to the north of Armenia, past Lake Sevan and Dilijan, is the town of Ijevan; and in Ijevan is the famous Lasti Ver gorge. In this place is a breathtaking hiking path that takes one twisting and turning along cliffsides and through forests. The type of place where you could sit on a rock and gaze at the view for hours and still feel like there is more to see. It would take far too many words to describe all of Armenia and its natural phenomena in this way, but here is a glimpse of what one can find!
4.PEOPLE & ATMOSPHERE
Perhaps the most compelling reason to choose Armenia is not a specific place, or food, or activity, but the overall atmosphere of the country. Time, the non-existent reality that controls our every act, is less present in Armenia. There is a culture and atmosphere of going with the flow. Maybe you will be talking with your taxi driver and end up with an invitation to a dinner barbeque, which turns out to be a hundred person family gathering, and you return home with a second family who you visit every time you are in Armenia, and maybe even Skype on birthdays and holidays!
5. LOW COST
Of course, there many amazing places to dream of traveling to, but with Armenia, that dream can be a reality even if the pocketbook is feeling a bit thin. Transportation, food, accommodations, all are ranked amidst the most affordable when it comes to travel destination options! For example, a weekend stay in the capital, Yerevan, will cost about $10/night in a hostel with restaurant meals under $5/person. The city center is easy to traverse by foot, but to leave the city, taxis charge about $0.20/km, and the Soviet-era marshrutka mini bus rates are even lower!
Published December 12, 2017
Article by Areknaz Khaligian