New old Armenia

suman tarafdar | Updated on April 18, 2014

The entrance to the imposing Matenadaran useum in Yerevan suman tarafdar

Monumental heritage Mount Ararat serves as a glorious backdrop to the Khor Virap Monastery

A charming mix of Soviet history and Anglophile leanings

As someone who studied Russian, I tend to go to the former Soviet republics with an air of having an advantage. Well, my practise of da-da, nyet-nyet will have to wait a while, for Armenia in the years since independence from the ex-USSR has turned unashamedly Anglophile.

Yes, the capital Yerevan now resembles a cross between Paris and Moskva. Monumental Soviet-era statues — Mother Armenia is as tall as Qutub Minar — are interspersed with street-side cafes. People, largely white-skinned with Caucasian noses, work in MNC offices, shop for Western labels, dine on a variety of global cuisines, drive Mercs and Hyundais, the occasional Lada notwithstanding, and see the evenings out with jazz. Given that a third of all Armenians live in Yerevan, and set the tone for the rest, Sovietly chic it is.

Well, actually, there are more Armenians globally. Many more. Armenia is one those nations whose past has been far more glorious and extensive. A country of just about three million citizens today, its diaspora numbers about eight million. Great traders historically, many leading ports across continents had Armenian quarters, much like Chinatowns. In India, look for connections in Kolkata, Bombay and Surat.

Armenia’s location, at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, has meant centuries of strife, with a current conflict still simmering with neighbour Azerbaijan. As the first country to declare Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, in a region where Islam would later establish its roots, could only mean intensified conflict.

Yet it isn’t easy to categorise the nation. For the regular tourist, Armenia’s attractions are plentiful. It’s a predominantly mountainous land, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. The centre of the country is dominated by Sevan, a rambling lake at over 6,000 feet above sea level. Spectacularly set amidst high mountains, the lake has shrunk in size due to excess drainage during the Soviet era, but remains a hugely popular tourist spot with wide beaches and multiple holiday destinations to the north. The southern shores tend to be forested and wild and spectacular too.

Armenia is best known for its monasteries. Quite a few are on the UNESCO heritage list, and it’s not difficult to see the reasons. Often set high up in the mountains, their very architecture makes it evident just how much of a struggle it would have been to survive here. Fortress-like, often dating back by more than a millennium, often in rock faces, often rebuilt after invasions, they house carvings and text that often document the strife they witnessed. You won’t easily find a nation as proud of its history of the written script, and it shall be pointed out to you. As will be the huge museum in Yerevan, the Matenadaran, which any local guide will insist be your first stop in the country.

Global influences show up in the cuisine too. Religious conflict apart, the region does share its cuisine, and you could be forgiven for thinking this cuisine is first cousins with Lebanese or Greek, Arabic or Turkish fare. Most meals follow the same pattern, salads and cheese as starters, followed by a soup. The national favourite is khash, made of — hold your horses — cow’s feet, but there are literally dozens more choices easily available. The main dishes could consist of meats or occasionally fish, with sides of vegetables. Aubergines and pumpkins rule, much like in Italy or Lebanon, but here the mixes with other ingredients are quite different, especially the way these are combined with lentils, white beans, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs and a wide variety of nuts. Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts are most common, and used crushed and whole, roasted, fried, salted, sweetened... Potatoes can be deep fried or baked or grilled or roasted, and are usually not combined with anything else.

Of course lavash, huge paper thin breads prepared in clay ovens, and other breads, are ever present. Interestingly, dry lavash is sprinkled with water to make it soft! There’s really little to match a fresh warm lavash straight out of the oven though. You have to tear it with your hands, roti style, though you can also roll it or stuff it or crush it in soup. Dessert comes in the shape of brandy! Armenia is famous for its brandy — called konyak, and Ararat and Dvin are the most famous brands. Pomegranates are the unofficial top fruit, though walnuts, apricots, pears, almonds, quinces, melons, plums, oranges, grapes and many more compete for the runner-up slot.

Ararat, yes the anchor for Noah’s legendary ark, is actually a name you are most likely to encounter in Armenia. The actual mountain looms over Yerevan, and just about every product will have a brand named after Armenia’s favourite peak, not to forget an entire province, and an imprint on the national flag. The only catch — Ararat is now part of Turkey, which has sided with Armenia’s rival nation Azerbaijan (think Indo-Pak relations). Turkey in fact complained to the UN about Ararat being on the national flag of Armenia as it wasn’t even in that country, only to be told that they, Turkey, had the moon on theirs, and surely they could not lay exclusive claims to it.

Well, for a small country, nationalism is often at the forefront of a nation rediscovering its place in the world. Yet it makes the tourist feel welcome in partaking of that process.

(suman tarafdar is a Delhi-based business and travel writer)

Published on March 21, 2014

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