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Archive | Middle East/Caucasus

So very Armenian -Khachkar, Lavash, Zhingalov

There are quite a few things that I found either unique to Armenian or omnipresent in this country: the gas-pipelines crisscrossing the country , the  candle trays in churches, Lavash and Zhingalov, the famous flat bread, or Khachkars, stone crosses. And lets not forget the current hairstyle for young men.

 

Zhngalov Khat, flat bread filled with 7-27 herbs

Lavash and  Zhingalov Khat

Lavash, a kind of flatbread, is the staple food in Armenia, it is found everywhere. There is even a sweet version. Unique to Nagorno Karabagh is a  refined  version,  Zhingalov Khat. It is Lavash filled with many different herbs. In Goris I was lucky enough to come across a group of ladies who were making lavash in a tiny bakery, they three were working like machines. One was rolling the dough out flat and thin , the next step and done by a second woman  was spreading the think spread of dough on a cushioned board and then slamming sticking against the walls of an oven set in the ground. The third was getting the Lavash out with a long iron hook.

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Shushi – sad reminder of the war

It was the very name that first drew my attention, finally a name I could easily remember. Once there, it became ingrained in my memories forever. Large parts of Sushi are still in ruins, 23 years after the war with Azerbijan that cost the lives of thousands of Azari and Aremnians soldiers and civilians. The reminders of this war are much more evident in Shushi than Stepanakert, only 15 minutes drive away.

Sushi apartment block destroyed in the war 1991- 1994

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Travelling to Nagorno Karabagh

Reading my Lonely Planet before leaving for Armenia,  the section on Nagorno Karabakh drew my attention. Vaguely I remembered a conflict over this Caucasus region, without having any specific knowledge of the reasons behind it. After walking through the bombed out areas of the town of Shushi, 23 years after the war, I will never forget. Azerbaijan and Armenia each claimed this territory for themselves. After a three-year war that left 400.000 people dead, Nagorno Karabagh is now a de-facto independent state, with a population that is predominantly Armenian.

 

Sushi bombed house

Sushi bombed house

Nagorno Karabagh has close relations with the Republic of Armenia and uses the same currency, the dram. As a tourist you don’t notice the volatile situation. Locals told me of daily skirmishes on the border with Azerbaijan. One week after I left 33 people got killed.

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Ejminatsin – The Armenian Vatican

Armenians are deeply religious, churches are packed with people of all ages during mass. Around Easter is an excellent time to visit Armenia, lots of fascinating ceremonies like the candle-lightening ceremony or the blessing of small wreaths offer great photo ops. Both of these ceremonies I did not know about, but literally ran into them. Like when I passed street vendors selling little green wreaths on a street corner near my hotel, I simply followed the buyers and ended up at a small church dating back to 1694. A week later I noticed  people in the street carrying small, lit candles.  I quickly walked back to this church and again I stumbled into the most moving ceremony, the lightening of candles.

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Candle Lightning Ceremony

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Windswept Lake Sevan

Being the biggest lake in the Caucasus region makes it a very popular summer destination for Armenians. End of March was certainly not the best time to visit this lake high up at almost 2000m. Windswept, bare and snow-covered mountains in the distance did not allow any summerly feelings. Nevertheless the place was packed, mainly with Iranian tourists who literally let their hair down during those trips.

Lake Sevan - bare and windswept

Lake Sevan – bare and windswept

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A Day of monastery hopping: Noravank – Garni – Geghard Monastery

Armenia prides itself to be the first country that made Christianity its state religion. Consequently, the country is plastered with monasteries that have one thing in common: a setting with a breathtaking view. The inside of these mostly small stone buildings is usually simple: an altar without much décor, no seats, very few paintings, the omnipresent candle tray, that’s it. Those monasteries are Armenia’s main touristic attractions, although I wanted to avoid this touristic itinerary, I ended up doing exactly that, for one long day.

Typical interior of Armenian churches

Typical interior of Armenian churches

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Stepanakert – the charming capital

If I did this trip again, I would spend more time in Stepanakert, I found this a lovely town to stroll around, lots of restaurants, impressive government buildings and two excellent tiny museums reminding of the war. Generally, a very inviting city. The news that one week after I had left, fighting broke out again was extremely shocking. I remembered the people sitting in street-side cafés, children buying ice-cream on the way home from school, couples on benches in the many parks. All in all, living a life as we all do and I wondered what happened to them.

Approaching Stepanakert

Approaching Stepanakert

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Armenian Genocide of 2015

In 2015 Armenia commemorated the 100th anniversary of the genocide of 1915. The number of victims is incomprehensible –  1,5 million Armenians lost their lives. They were executed or marched across the Syrian desert. Many died along the way  of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. In Yerevan the Genocide Museum is a stark reminder of this very dark part of Armenian history.

Genocide Memorial

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Gandzasar Monastery meets kitschy Vank

By the time I visited Gandzasar I had had my dose of monasteries and had chosen my clear favorites: Khor Virap with majestic Mount Ararat as a backdrop and fairyland-like Noravank wrapped in a blanket of snow. Gandzasar became the perfect number three. Why? It was so quiet there, I hardly wanted to leave. You could hear nothing, absolutely nothing, but a few birds. At the end of March I was the only tourist, summers are busy I was told. Besides it is a popular wedding destination for Russians.

Gandazhar Monastery 10th century

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Khor Virap Monastery comes with a view

Khor Virap

Mount Ararat, 5300m, Khor Virap Monastery

From Khor Virap Monastery the view of Mount Ararat is unbeatable, but unfortunately its summit is almost always hidden behind thick clouds. Therefore, I had watched the weather forecast carefully, and Monday March 21st, was the day to do it! Clear skies, off to Khor Virap.

Though Mount Ararat is 8km across the border onTurkish territory, this 5,300m high mountain seems so close. While marveling at its beauty you wonder where exactly Noah’s Ark stranded on the mountain, during the biblical flood.  If you have time to visit only one monastery while in Armenia, choose this one. Continue Reading →

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