Sunday, October 16, 2016

Yerevan, Armenia

DAY 1

I went to Yerevan, Armenia for a conference by the Armenian Shakespeare Association in late September and early October.  I had a full day before the conference started and had time to see a bit of the city by myself.  My first stop was the Blue Mosque, the only mosque in the city and one that was built by the Iranian government on the site of a mosque that had been there for hundreds of years.  There are no pictures of that as my card was filled up and I needed to re-format it.  Then I went to the largest Armenian church in the world, Surp Grigor Lusovorich Cathedral.  Built in 2001 to celebrate 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia it is massive, but very unimpressive.  There are pews and no candles, both of which are absolutely bizarre in any orthodox church outside of North America.  Even though there was no place to light candles, you could buy the tall thin ones you see everywhere else in orthodox churches.  I even saw an old man pushing a wheelbarrow (a wheel barrow!) overflowing with bundles of these candles to the small desk where you could buy them.  

The Blue Mosque.  A mosque had been on the site for hundreds of years before being destroyed by the Soviets.  This was rebuilt by the Iranian government and is the only mosque in the city.

Surp Grigor Lusovorich

Mt Ararat from the front of the cathedral.

Interior of the cathedral, looking almost Protestant. 


This baldacchino is right inside the front door.  The cover is medieval (making it the oldest part of the building.  Priest are changing the oil in the lamp that hangs directly above a relic of St Gregory.  

Most churches were destroyed by the Soviets, but one that survived was a tiny, tiny church called Katoghike (meaning cathedral).  Unfortunately it was closed for reconstruction, but the modern church built next to it was open.  It was just as much of a let down.  Pews.  No candles.  Sterile.  It seemed to be like a orthodox church designed by Protestants.  There were places to light candles outside, but the wind made it really hard to light them.

Katoghike church seen through the arch of the Surp Anna church.
A piece of stone work removed from the Katoghike for renovations.  
One of the best things about going into an orthodox church is the smell.  The hundreds of candles are beeswax, making everything smell like honey.  If you visit near a service the smell of incense will also hit you.  Not in the Armenian churches.  Although the candles are dyed yellow to look like beeswax, but there are make of paraffin.  So to recap on the modern churches I visited: pews, no awesome beeswax smell, no candles.  Really, a big disappointment.  But this would be changed later.

I spent the rest of the day just walking around.  Went to the Vernissage Market to see knickknacks and antiques for sale.   Ate lunch at a Lebanese place.  Finished the night gorging myself on Georgian food and wine.  

Carpets at Vernissage market.

First meal in Armenia.

Religious and soviet items at Vernissage market.

These poor little furies were for sale on a sidewalk in front of a toy store.  I passed by it a few more times and it looked as if the rabbit was sold.

DAY 2

Today we had lunch before the opening of the conference.  Before we met for that I went to the GUM Market, a Soveit-built market hall selling lots of stuff. LOVED IT!  I saw a bunch of cheese and took a picture.  The old man setting the stall up posed for me as he held up long strings of salty cheese.  He gave me a sample and so I bought some.  Then it happened.  The man pointed at a large (3 litre), old bottle of Smirnoff vodka, tapping it and smiling while saying something in Russian.  He turned around and bent down, opening up the large fridge behind him. He turns around with a massive jar of clear liquid and an old, faded and pickle label on it.  Taking off the lid he produces a small teacup, dips it into the jar and hands it to me.  It smells strong.  Not much worse than normal vodka I think.  I taste it, smile at the guy who indicates I should down it  I succumb to social pressure and take what was maybe 2-3 shots of homemade vodka.  He grabs a bag out of another fridge.  I think it was goji berries.  He seemed to be saying the vodka was made from them.  A man from another cheese stall came over with a large slab of a semi-dry, stringy cheese with a bit of surface mold.  He gives me a sample and it was delicious!  I couldn’t buy more because I didn’t think I was going to be able to eat the small bit I already bought.  I went on my way to the next section of stalls: SPICES!

My cheese man.

The homemade vodka.  Don't worry, I can still see.

The second, drier, cheese.

I wanted to buy two spices that are very hard to get in the UK (unless you pay a lot online): blue fenugreek and marigold powder.  I think I found the first one (called suneli) but could not find the latter.  But I ended up buying barberries, svan salt, and dry adjika.  I know that means nothing to most people, but it excited me.  I walked around the rest of the market, seeing a lot of interesting things, like:

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market. The long hanging things are sujukh, a string of walnuts dipped in a grape (brown ones), pomegranate (red), and apricot (orange) syrup.  They are not as sweet as you would think.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

GUM Market.

We had a welcome lunch and then an opening event with readings of Armenian sonnets and a singer from the state opera house.  This was all at the American University in Armenia.  It is housed in the old soviet building that used to be the seat of the Communist Party of Armenia.  


After this we had a group trip to the Armenian Genocide Museum and Monument.  It was a very good museum, but was of course sad and depressing. 

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

Genocide memorial and museum.

DAY 3

Today was the first full day of the conference.  We were at the State Literature and Theatre Museum just off Republic Square (the main square in the city).  I was the very first paper and so was, naturally, nervous.  My paper was called ‘Imposed Meanings: Shakespearean Performance in The Cathedral Context’.  It looks at the way in which site specific performance forces new meaning onto plays that make the critic look at its meaning differently, taking the space into context.  I focused on a production of The Merchant of Venice in the lady chapel of Worcester Cathedral.  Doing this draws connections between Portia and The Virgin Mary via feminine power and anti-Semitism…basically a big geeky nerd fest.

State Museum of Literature and Theatre.

State Museum of Literature and Theatre.

State Museum of Literature and Theatre.  The costume and props used by a famous actor when playing Othello.

State Museum of Literature and Theatre.  The rooms at the museum are sealed every night with these seals.

After the papers and lunch we got in a bus and left the city to go to two of the most visited sites outside of Yerevan: Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery.  On the way up we stopped by a lookout to see Mt Ararat.  Eventually we got to Garni.  This is the only pagan temple left in the country.  It was destroyed in the 20th century by an earthquake and then rebuilt by the soviets.  There are remains of a church, Roman bath house, and Bishop’s palace near the temple, all on the edge of the amazing Garni Gorge.  

Garni Temple.

Garni Temple.

Garni Temple. The bathhouse. 

Garni Temple. The underfloor heating of the bath house.

Garni Temple from the ruins of a church.

Garni Temple, form the ruins of a church.  The stage in the front is the former altar area of the church.

Garni Temple.

Garni Temple.

Garni Temple.

We then got in a bus and went to Geghard Monastery.  It’s name comes from the spear that supposedly pierced Jesus’ side at the crucifixion that was held at the monastery for centuries before being moved to Echmiadzin.  The monastery was begun by monks who carved out chapels, churches, and living areas in the solid rock of the mountain.  These were added to by the monks when three large churches were built next to the existing monastery.  It is one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen.  I really regret not having more time there. 

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.  This is a small chapel carved out of the rock.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

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Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.  This is a sweet bread called gatar that they sell at many of the sites.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.

Geghard Monastery.


That night we went to the opening ceremony for the Yerevan International Theatre Festival, which included a very interesting play by an Uzbek theatre company in Russian and Uzbek. 




DAY 4

More conferencing today.  Had a bit of time to go back to the Vernissage market.  Then we went to the house of the famous Armenian Soviet composer Arem Khatchatorian.  The house was given to his by the state for his work.

Armenia Khachaturian's Lenin Prize, the highest honour of the USSR.


Day 5

Today we were back at AUA for the final day of the conference.  The British Ambassador to Armenia spoke and there were some great papers by the keynote speakers.  We took a trip to Echmiadzin, a town just outside Yerevan that is the seat of the Catholikos of the Armenian Church…basically the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican.  The main cathedral is medieval, but there has been a church on the site since 301AD, making it one of the oldest Christian sites in the world.  

Has anyone else noticed that my mouth is crooked?

Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson giving a brief talk about the events of the year form Stratford-upon-Avon.

That night we went to a production of Macbeth done as a 20 minute comedy by an Iranian theatre company.  Believe it or not, comedic Macbeth worked.  

The Iranian company after Macbeth: A Comedy

DAY 6

Today I went with one of the delegates from the conference to the house of Sergei Parajanov, a famous director. His house is full of a dioramas he made reflecting his films, history, and traditional Armenian stories.  There was also a room with his artwork from his time spent in prison.  

This piece is called 'self portrait'.


'My father's strange and funny life'.

'Hats in memory of the roles Nato Vachnazhe Never Played', is a tribute to the mother of two of his friends, a famous actress who was killed in a plane crash that may have been orchestrated by the KGB.

'The Fate of Eastern Women'.

Parajanov in the prison that he spent many years in.

I can't remember exactly what this was now, but this is the seal of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, which is what the Cyrillic letters stand for.  

'Amnesty', made either in or just after leaving prison in 1975.

I believe this was called 'Memories of War'. 

His bed.
We then met a few others from the conference for lunch then went to the Matenadaran, the museum of ancient manuscripts.  Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures as I forgot to buy the pass.

Our lunch.
The view from the Matenadaran down Mesrops Mashtots Avenue.  ITs very fitting that the avenue that starts in front of the museum of ancient manuscripts is named after the man who created the alphabet.  
Jasmine, the woman who organised the conference, took us to the old train station.  There are only a few trains from Yerevan now, and since the border between Georgia and Russia closed there are even fewer.  It seems surprising that it can even remain open. 

Paromita, Myka, Jasmine, and me as an old Soviet-era train came into the station.  

Statue of Sasuntsi Davit, a (possibly) mythic hero who save Armenia form invasion after invasion and who is remembered in an epic poem named after him.  More on the statue further down.  

Soviet carving on the nation platform.

DOGS!!

This is the top of the train station.  It is the only piece of Soviet-eraimagery I saw that was not stone.  Apparently it was allowed to remain after independence because it shows Mt Ararat and is therefore distinctly Armenian.

DAY 7

I took a Soviet themed tour of the city today.  It was really corny but very enjoyable.  The guide kind of acted like she was an Intourist guide (the official Soviet tourism agency), which made it genuinely funny when she spoke in the first person about life in Soviet Yerevan.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

The train station.

I said I would say one more thing about this statue.  The Armenians have had to fight off invasion and perfection from Persians and Ottomans for centuries.  When the sculptor of this statue made this in the late 1950s he made the tail look very peculiar.  If you look closely you can see the tail is made to look like the pants worn by Ottomans and Persians, making it look as is the enemy has their head of the horse's butt.  This is further pointed to by the ring around the base of the horse's tail (something that makes no sense as such a decoration has never existed) which is clearly the belt of the Ottoman/Persian.  The Soviets had this built as a symbol for unity and the fighting of oppression, so the sculptor could not say anything about the tail as that would have not been very fraternal.  After his death reins started to point this detail out to others.    

An old Soviet fertiliser plant.  

Another chemical factory.

Pipes coming to/going from the factories.  Our guide said 'In Soviet Armenia we like to have everything visible, its very transparent, sos that everyone knows what is going on.  The only you don't see is the money.'


Pens like this were seen quite a bit on the sides of roads.  Sometimes you could see the small slaughterhouse nearby.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

The Bangladesh Market.

You can't tell from this angle, but this is part of a giant soviet building project that was begun in the early 80s.  The idea was to build large apartment blocks in the shape of the CCCP (the cyrillic initials for the USSR), so that you could see the letters spelled out from the sky.  Only two Cs and part of the remaining C and P were completed before independence.  Thousands of people live in these buildings.   

After the fall of the USSR life was pretty awful in the former soviet republics. Armenia did (and still does) rely on natural gas and electricity from Russia and Azerbaijan (not so much Azerbaijan anymore).  Because of the turmoil and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (began in 1991, ceasefire in 1994, but is still a frozen conflict) gas and electricity were mostly shut off to the country from 1991-94.  Because the radiators did not work some people took them apart to build these benches in the neighbourhood created by the large building project above.

I saw this on a truck.  I have no idea. 

Only a single piece of statuary of Lenin or Stalin still exists in Armenia.  After the revolution all the statues of them were destroyed, except a bust of Lenin that was saved because the artist who made it asked for it to be saved because, although he hated communism, he worked hard on it and did not want his work to be destroyed.  It now sits in this courtyard of a soviet era housing complex. 

After the tour I walked to the cascade, a massive stepped structure built into the hillside at the end of one of the nicest pedestrianized streets in Yerevan.  It houses an art gallery and each platform has statues and other art installations. Spent the rest of the day walking around and seeing the city again before going back to a Georgian restaurant and eating an unhealthy amount of amazing food and wine.            

  
The Cascade.

The Cascade.

The Cascade.

The Cascade.

This is the dancing fountain on Republic Square.  It was built by the soviets but was left unused after independence.  in 2006 (I think) the president of France saw it on a visit and gave something 1 million euros to have it restored.  It is a zoo when it is working on summer nights.

The Cascade.
And Finally, some random facts about Armenia:
·    * The Armenian word vem means both stage and altar.  Makes sense when you look at how the altar is set on an actual stage in the Armenian churches.
·     * Ethnic Armenians make up 97% of the population.  The second highest is Yazhidis, who make up lass than 2%.
·     * Soviet joke: Lenin showed us how we should govern. Stalin should us how me must govern. Khrushchev showed us that any idiot could govern.  Brezhnev showed us that any idiot couldn’t govern.
·     * The man who invented the Armenian alphabet also invented the first Georgian alphabet.  Georgians do not believe this (and if he did, why did he not use the same or similar characters?).
·     * Ancient Armenians worshiped a sun god called Ar.  The suffix on the end of Armenian names (-ian or –yan) means ‘of’, or ‘come from’…so Yerevanian is a person from Yerevan).  So people of the sun (Ar), are Arians. Hence the name.  
·     * Echmiadzhin, a town outside Yerevan, is the Vatican of the Armenian church.  The main cathedral there was founded in 301 AD, making it one of the oldest churches in the world.  
·       Yerevan has only been the capital of Armenia from 1920, but this year (2016) it turns 2,798 years old.
·     * During the soviet era a man called the office responsible for housing and complained.  He said he was a soviet citizen and he did not know why he was given a home in Bangladesh.  Everyone was confused in the office and spent days trying to figure out how and why this could have happened.  After speaking to the a few more times it became obvious that the man was not in Bangladesh, but in the outskirts of Yerevan.  He was saying Bangladesh as a way of saying that he was stuck out in the middle of nowhere, far from anything.  Every large city in Armenia now has a neighbourhood called Bangladesh that is far from the city centre.
·     * Alexander the Great conquered Armenia but did it relatively peacefully and bloodlessly, unlike most other places he came to.  He supposedly liked the food and people too much (historical accuracy?).  But he brought Armenians with him to India (along with Parsis, a Zoroastrian group that still exist in India to today).  They are still there and have churches around the country.  The first newspaper in India was called Ararat, and was in Armenian. 
·    * Yerevan desperately wanted a metro in the 1960s, but Soviet law said that a city must have 1 million residents in order to be given one.  Moscow said they did not have the population necessary.  The city started to bring in more residents in order to boost its population but that still did not work.  Then one day Brezhnev came for a visit.  The mayor of Yerevan (I think that is who it was) orchestrated a mass traffic jam, giving cars to people who lived outside the city and told them to drive around all day.  Brezhnev spent three hours on a car trip that should have taken 20 minutes.  The city got its metro.

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