Ancient Rome in Armenia?

Garni Temple doesn’t represent the kind of architecture you expect to find in Armenia.  In fact, it’s a bit off –putting to see classical Greek columns in the first Christian country.  The history is actually more interesting than the ruins. The temple dates back to the 3rd century and was part of an entire compound of royal palaces, a bathhouse and elaborate defenses.  It is believed to have been built by King Tiridates I of Armenia with money from Rome’s Emperor Nero and was probably dedicated to the Zoroastrian god Mihra.

All that history aside, it was on the way to Garni Temple that we met a group of Iranian tourists.  Chatting along in broken English, they were as curious about us and our life in America as we were of theirs. After Garni Temple, we set off together to visit another monastery.  Before the day was out, we were sharing a cold beer in the back of a van!

IF YOU GO: Armenia is a relatively inexpensive country to visit, and the comfort level is similar to surrounding Caucasus countries.  Due to unfriendly relations with its neighbors, fewer people speak English in Armenia as it has been somewhat cut off.  It’s worth a visit to the North to view the old monasteries and churches.

Foodie Friday: Drinking Yogurt Milk

The first time I tried the stuff was a few weeks before we landed in Turkey.  We were going to a Persian restaurant in Florida with some friends and the waiter suggested we try some of the Iranian doogh, flavored with mint, on the house.  The cup that was poured for three of us try ultimately made it around the table of 12 with no one willing to try more than a sip.

Then we got to Turkey, managed to couchsurf in Istanbul, and it was served again and again and again.  Down the hatch it went each time.  I grew to like the stuff, Jillian, not so much.

The Turkish version, ayran, is the word you might have heard of before.  All over Turkey it was served to us with meaty dishes.  On its own, I still think the stuff is aweful, but with a nice plate of spicy kebab it is a perfect match.  It is served on menus basically anywhere the Ottoman Empire went and according to some sources, McDonald’s even includes it on its standard menu in the region.

The beverage is a simple mix of yogurt, water, and usually a bit of salt.  Then it might be flavored with a variety of other things such as minced cucumber, chopped mint leaves or even garlic.  Often it is served out of a pitcher but it is so popular that it comes bottled in the store alongside cans of coca-cola.  Sometimes it is even foamy to help you with your stylish milk mustache.

We drank it for the last time for sometime to come (the next likely chance will be the Indian version called lassi) while in Yerevan as we ate more traditional food than we could shake a stick at.  Our Couchsurfing hosts made sure we had a chance to try everything imaginable and this included the local style of aryan, called tahn, with cucumber mixed inside.  The flavors in the meat dishes that went along with the drink were strong and spicy and my aryan went down without a problem…Jillian however, opted for the juice.

If you try it, take a bite of your meat first, then start to drink the ayran…it is a bit of an acquired taste.

Always Accept Alcohol…from Iranians

Everyone knows never to get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slight less well known is this: never deny the offer of a beer from an Iranian when friendship is on the line!

Iran, more than any other country these days, fills the headlines as America’s number one threat. We are Americans and that should mean that Iran is our enemy. This is the country whose most recent news headline have revolved around such punishments as stoning and lashing. As we travel through the Soviet states our parents grew up with, it is easy to think of Iran as today’s threatening menace. Many of us don’t know what goes on inside, and are left wondering….and worrying.

Taking a day trip out from the Armenian capital of Yerevan we were on a bus heading to some ruins when another tourist asked us first if we spoke English and then confirmed we were all going to the same place. She, an Iranian English professor, was on holiday with another female friend who was an architect. Neither lady wore a headscarf. A man made up the trio, he was a dentist but didn’t speak much English.

The first of the sites we went to, the Garni temple, was a bit underwhelming and probably wasn’t worth the trip out from the city for us. It consisted of a single Hellenic temple and a few scattered ruins of the old baths. We toured site together, and then shared a taxi from the Garni Temple to the Geghard Monastery further up the road. (Much nicer than the Garni temple, best Monastery yet) As we were sitting and waiting for our final bus back to town, a cup was suddenly placed into my hand by the dentist. Next I knew, it was filled with beer. We had hardly said two words to one another, his English not being too much better than my Farsi, but it was a hot day and he aimed to quench my thirst and his own…not something he was permitted to do within his own country. I asked how to say thank you in Farsi and was disappointed to find out that the Iranians, like the Armenians, simply use the French ‘merci’ because it is easier. They saw my disappointment and proudly shared that the word ‘Bazaar’ is of Persian origin. As we sat on that bus riding back to town, passing a beer around the back and sharing some chips and popcorn, one thing was absolutely clear: These three people were no more capable of terrorism than me.

IMGP7034It was the start of this encounter though that I will remember the best. As we walked together down the street, we found ourselves exchanging the usual pleasantries. They said they were from Iran and upon hearing that I’m sure our eyes were as wide as theirs were when we answered with our home country. We told them how much we had wanted to visit Iran but that the visa process was simply too difficult and costly for us and that those few people we’ve known who have actually gone there had only good things to say…especially about the people. They blushed and thanked us for the kind words and said that everyone really is all the same and wants the same things. We agreed and we all expressed hope and expectations that the current divisions between our countries would not be long lasting. After a mere two minutes of conversation, they offered to personally sponsor a visa for us if we thought it would be helpful. (Don’t worry mom, we denied…but only because it wouldn’t have helped :) )

With the rest of our time in Yerevan we visited the National History Museum as well as the Museum and Monument to the Armenian Genocide. With the help/force/urging/etc of the best Couchsurfing hosts in Yerevan we ate gobs of traditional food and loved every minute of it.

IF YOU GO: There are several day trips around Yerevan. We took public transportation to Garni Temple and from there shared a taxi to Gerhard Monastery. Guidebook times were way off, Yerevan to Garni took nearly an hour on the bus not 25 minutes. Taxi’s in Yerevan were relatively inexpensive, but the entire center is easily covered on foot. Don’t miss Botero’s fat soldier in the park between the Opera and Cascade. The season hadn’t opened yet for the symphony or opera while we were there, but tickets are extremely inexpensive and I would recommend checking them out if you’re interested in a night of culture.

The First Christians Are Who???

IMGP6929The Armenians. In their little patch of land, tossed between the Islamic Ottoman and Persian empires, somehow managed to become and remain the world’s first Christians. Through the years they have maintained a distinctive Christianity which is more closely related to the Coptic Church than most other things. Their Monasteries are impressive and cover the country and are unlike anything that exists in Europe or anywhere else we’ve visited.

Arriving from Georgia to the north we set off to visit a handful of these structures. The first, Kobayr, was basically in ruins and saw only a handful of tourists each week. It is currently being reconstructed to become a house of prayer once again but this is likely to take many years. The second (Sanahin) and third (Haghpat ) were larger and more elaborate. Both were still in use and one,Sanahin, even had it’s Priest there, a man who spent 20 years with the Armenian Church in California and was only too happy to speak to a few Americans. The architecture in all of them was unique and interesting to explore if only for a short while. All were covered in Armenian script lettering which added to the ‘Indian Jones’ allure of the locations.

IMGP6996The fourth Monastery (Aktala ) we visited proved to be the most interesting. In it, we met the Priest who had only been ordained 6 months prior, and at this monastery for only 5 of those months. He was the first Priest of the monastery in over 200 years and was working painstakingly to to finish the refurbishments (outside asphalt was being poured to rebuild the crumbly road). The inside of the this church though was covered in Byzantine styled frescoes unlike the other churches we had seen in Armenia. This particular building had been designed according to the styles and customs of the church in Georgia as something of thank you for protection and a few centuries later fell out of use for this reason. (Nationalist identities in the Caucasus are particularly strong!)

IMGP7009He shared stories of each fresco and stopped when he reached the front of the room, where a canon had blasted a hole in the ceiling where Mary’s face should have been. He told us this had been done by some Turks but noted that they stopped after that one shot when they saw another fresco. This other fresco he described as Jesus’ trial by the Jew Herod who was wearing a turban. He told us that when the Turks saw this scene they stopped because they felt Allah was in the room. We neglected to point out the several flaws in his story of events as he was a rather nice man…which was good because he then took us to the secret rooms which were pretty cool.

IF YOU GO: We based ourselves in Vanadzor. There are few tourists in this region and even less in the way of infrastructure. The easiest way to see these sites is to hire a taxi for the day, which we did for ($22) 8000AMD. Vanadzor is a 2-3 hour bus ride from Yerevan on the Yerevan-Tbilisi road, if coming from Tbilisi you’ll need to pay the full fare to Yerevan and let the driver know you want to get off in Vanadzor. There is one institutional hotel in the town and several homestays for the same cost which can be more comfortable. The pizza place in town quotes its pizzas by the cost per slice, not per pie, so be careful!  A ride to Yerevan should cost you about 1200AMD.