The beauty of an old church at Lake Sevan, Armenia
The beauty of an old church at Lake Sevan, Armenia Paul Coffey

Enjoying the rustic charm of Armenia and Caucasus

THE landscape has dried out as we travelled further south through Georgia, ie. away from the Caucasus mountains, and Armenia seems drier still.

The land is more undulating with high hills scattered about, but only the valleys are the least bit green, although it is summer after all. Together with a slightly more basic housing stock here in the rural areas, the impression is that Armenia is poorer than Georgia. The GNI per head is not greatly less, however.

Modern Armenia is a small landlocked country of only about 30,000km sq (less than half the size of Tasmania), with a population of about three million, similar to Georgia's.

The lack of a port of its own, and of any oil, are major disadvantages; we're told that the main industries are tourism (which is still nascent), agriculture and surprisingly IT.

Chess is taught in the schools.

Earlier Armenian civilisations and populations covered far greater areas even as they waxed and waned, primarily further to the south in eastern Anatolia, and to the west in northern Persia including the current-day Azerbaijan. There are only around 50,000 Armenians in Turkey today, down from well over one million prior to the Armenian Genocide, and very few in Azerbaijan other than in the Armenian-controlled, disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabach. The area that has become modern Armenia was variously controlled by Hellenistic kings, Persian satrapies, Muslim khanates, the Ottomans, and of course the Russians.

Wars and treaties between empires over the centuries, and especially after WW1, left Armenia in its present reduced state, something over which Armenians are resentful.

Armenia proudly lays claim to being the first Christian nation, a king having converted and declared the kingdom Christian in 301AD. The Roman (or Byzantine) Empire was declared Christian in 380AD, some time after Constantine converted in c.312AD. The Armenian Apostolic Church was an important vehicle for a sense of cultural identity under Muslim rule, and remains central to Armenian identity today.

Armenian Churches are very spartan, with none of the rich icons and ageing frescoes that feature in Georgian churches.

En route to the capital, Yerevan, we stop at the gorgeous Lake Sevan, one of the world's largest high-altitude and freshwater lakes, c.70km long. At 1900m of altitude, it freezes over from time to time. When we were there it was a brilliant greeny aquamarine colour, quite beautiful. Invariably, there's a church involved.

Dancing in the square, Armenia.
Dancing in the square, Armenia. Paul Coffey

Our first glimpse of Yerevan is of armies of dull apartment blocks in the distance. Unfortunately the whole city turns out to lack colour: grey to dun-brown is the limit of the colour range, and there are almost no buildings that distinguish themselves. The better inner-city buildings have facades of local stone, which varies from a grey through to a range of browns, some attractive as individual stones, including tones of orange and even rose among them. But on the larger scale, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

The very dry hills surrounding the city don't add to the city's visual appeal. It would be very different in the winter, with snow on the hills and mountains all around.

However the city grows on us all, as people appear on the streets in the balmy, temperate evenings and nights. On the Friday night we are lucky to witness local people in their hundreds doing their traditional dancing to that marvellous high-pitched middle-Eastern flute music that I love, in a main square. The next night provides a free water music show in another square, again with hundreds present. The streets are alive in a very European way.

In fact, despite another a very different script here, there is a European feel to the look of the people as well as the way of life. All seems familiar. We had only one full day here; it's a city that one could easily live in for a time. There seems to be a spirit under the surface that would take a little time to appreciate.

I gave a visit to another carpet factory a miss and instead wandered the local streets nearby. They featured several depressing Soviet-era apartment blocks, of about 15 storeys: grey, drab and unornamented. They had bitumen surrounds except for a couple of tiny parklets. As so often in such countries, I thought: Where do the children play?

The Genocide Museum was largely what was to be expected, in terrible detail. Such a contrast with the version I heard when in Turkey in 1981. The Museum has an emphasis on eye-witness accounts, as if to deliberately counter Turkey's decades-long denial. Only 31 countries officially recognise the Genocide: Australia, the UK and the US do not, while Canada, France and Germany are among those who do. Politics usually determine countries' positions on it.

As to the eternal question of why, there's a long and complex history, with periods of tolerance and periods of oppression of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. My quick conclusion was that politics ultimately played the primary role, although that story is also a complex one. And on reflection, it probably is politics that triggers and/or sustains the worst examples of large-scale ethnic or religious massacres, not merely the human flaws that underlie the frictions between peoples.

To the south of Yerevan lies the famed Mt Ararat, situated in Turkey but very visible at 5,165 metres at the summit. The summer haze makes it difficult to see well, but I got a shot from the airport on leaving, with its cap of ice visible adjacent to a small cloud.

We've felt safe and seen absolutely no cause for concern on this whole trip. We had only one warning here in Armenia at a tourist site to watch out for boys selling candles that the church won't allow to be lit (that's a church monopoly of course!), but saw none. Hardly life-threatening! It's striking how often we assume that places that we know little about are dangerous. But it's a very human trait - valuable for survival in the long run.

On my last morning my plane leaves too early to have breakfast at the hotel, but while waiting for my airport transfer I was spontaneously offered a tea and some dried fruits, which are ubiquitous here. They are plumper and less desiccated than our dried fruits and quite delicious. A simple thing but an enduring memory.