We came to Armenia as volunteer labourers, hoping in some small way to help ease the country’s housing shortage. We were also tourists, but only on the handful of days allocated for R&R. We hoped this combination of work and leisure would give us deep insights into a complex country just emerging on the world’s tourism map.
I was one of 10 Canadians (ranging in age from 27 to 83) on a 17-day Global Village program booked through Habitat for Humanity Canada. We spent much of our time sanding, plastering and painting the walls of two unfinished houses in the northeastern Tavush province. It is an area of high unemployment, subsistence agriculture and a stunning mountain landscape straight out of The Sound of Music.
Our sightseeing forays were centred mostly in and around the capital, Yerevan. With its opera house, pedestrian shopping street and central circle of elegant government buildings, the city could have been anywhere in Europe. In fact, land-locked Armenia lies in the southern Caucasus where Europe and Asia meet. It is accessible through Iran and Georgia, but disputes keep its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan sealed shut. The tourists we saw in Yerevan were mainly of the backpacking variety, and hailed from Europe, Russia and the worldwide Armenian diaspora. Many took coach tours to historic and cultural attractions, including three World Heritage Sites.
Arriving on an overnight flight from London, we were greeted by a view of Ararat, an ice-cream sundae of a mountain that shimmered in the dawn light. The legendary landing spot of Noah’s Ark, Ararat is Armenia’s national symbol and gives its name to a bank and a brandy factory. Although visible from Yerevan on clear days, it lies wholly within Turkey.
We touched down on May 28, which was a national holiday honouring Armenia’s short-lived independence from Turkey following the First World War. A second holiday on Sept. 21 marks Armenia’s 1991 secession from the collapsing Soviet Union. Along with Ararat, the twin independence days keep alive memories of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia, which was much larger than the country today.
Central to the nation’s vision of its past and future are the deaths of an estimated million and half Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. The deportations and massacres, which started in 1915, are chillingly remembered through photos and documents in Yerevan’s Armenian Genocide Museum. It feels like a holy shrine. Our guide reminded us that Canada is among countries that have officially recognized the genocide. Others, including Turkey, have not.
Religion is another touchstone of national identity: Armenia proudly boasts of being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity. On a Sunday morning, our group visited the country’s mother cathedral, Echmiatsin, built according to tradition on a site revealed to St. Gregory in a vision.
The ceremony was colourful with robed and hooded clergymen, an a cappella choir and a colourful screen that opened and closed. Tourists, who nearly outnumbered the worshippers, treated it as theatre, butting their way through the standing congregation and shooting flash photos and videos.
Most of the other religious sites we toured – centuries-old churches and monasteries – are now museums. Small in size but solidly built of stone blocks, they are rugged reminders of the country’s religious past. The massive Zvartnots Cathedral still inspires awe, even though it collapsed centuries ago, leaving only a circle of pillars. Sevanavank monastery, perched on a hill overlooking the blue waters of Lake Sevan, takes top prize for panoramic setting. Geghard, dwarfed by a sheer cliff, is most impressive of all. Its burial chamber – hewn into the rock – has such incredible acoustics that two members of our group burst into a chorus of Holy Holy Holy.
The work portion of our trip was centred close to Ijevan, Tavush’s provincial capital, which has fallen on hard times. Its central park once boasted spouting fountains and landscaped lawns; now it’s a wasteland of rusting pipes and weeds.
Even our one-day tour here was a wild affair. At Lastiver, we set out with a local guide for what was billed as “a three-kilometre walk.” Instead we found ourselves slogging along a muddy path at the edge of a precipice, fording a rushing river on slippery stones and clambering up a vertical rock wall. It was dangerous but rewarding. The views were postcard perfect and we ended at a cave where early Christians had carved an altar into the rock wall.
It was in Tavush that we had our closest contact with the people of Armenia. Most homes we visited had satellite TV, the Internet – and an outhouse. Our group spent a lot of time debating these priorities. (If I was raising children today, I too would opt for Facebook and Google over indoor plumbing.)
Here we came face-to-face with the economic struggles of the families our group had come to help. At our first house, we ran out of paint because the parents had spent their money on health care for a sick child. (Again, a choice I would make myself.)
As we finished our work at the second house, the owner, Kamo, expressed his gratitude by inviting us back inside. He poured us all a glass of Armenian cognac. Then he kissed each volunteer on both cheeks.
It was a moment we would never have experienced had we been in Armenia solely as tourists.