(dictionary.com: motherland (origin: 1705-15): 1. one’s native land. 2. the land of one’s ancestors. 3. a country considered as the origin or source of something.)
My mother’s side of the family is 100% Armenian. Both of her parents’ families were from Eastern Turkey, which had been part of Armenia prior to 1555, and my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide. We always planned on visiting the country of Armenia, but a trip never materialized… until I found myself closer to the country than Denver is to New York City.
I’ve been in Sofia, Bulgaria since early October, but it was the prior month, when I was desperately looking to leave Morocco, that my mom asked me why I hadn’t tried to take a trip to Armenia (I’d be only 1,500 miles away once in Bulgaria). That’s when the idea took shape for my parents to meet me there. My mother had never been, and it was a culturally important step for her to make the trek (as it was for me) for a few reasons, not the least of which was being able to connect the dots of our heritage.
We made the pilgrimage last week to spend 7 days in a little country that we’ve talked about on a regular basis all my life. It’s the size of Maryland, and retains only 2.9 million citizens within its borders, with over 7 million Armenians (otherwise known as diaspora) living outside of the country. The climate is a lot like where I grew up in Colorado: high country (Yerevan’s suburbs are over a mile high at 5,700 ft), snowy jagged peaks (resembling the 14’ers), gorges like the Rio Grand, and potato fields that resemble the fields of the San Louis Valley.
The capital, Yerevan, has been built into a cosmopolitan city thanks to the country’s independence in 1991 and money funneling in from the diaspora. After the earthquake of 1988 leveled much of the countryside in northern Armenia, killing 25,000 and leaving 500,000 homeless; running water, heat, and electricity were virtually non-existent. Most of the trees in the country were burned for fuel and warmth. In major cities like Yerevan, families were allowed only 1 hour a day of running water. The country has replanted its trees, rebuilt its cities, and gotten itself back on its feet, but the years between 1988-94 were brutal.
Yerevan now is beautiful: international restaurants are on every street corner, dancing fountains are choreographed to vastly different music (from pop to classical) every night in the main Republic Square; well-kept parks have live music next to ponds and sculptures, and mountains rise up on 3 sides of the city. Communist administration buildings have been turned into Universities (American University of Armenia) and new buildings have been built to create free (high-tech) after-school learning centers for kids (Tumo). Students even designed a TV tower which resembles the Eiffel tower and changes colors nightly. For the most part, it’s clean and well laid-out. I had expected a more communist vibe in Yerevan than Sofia, Bulgaria, but aside from the Russian cars, there seemed less in comparison.
Thanks to our cousins, who have been involved with rebuilding Armenia since the earthquake (they started Birthright Armenia to bring both diaspora and non-Armenians into the country, have built beautiful gated communities with golf courses in the suburbs of Yerevan, and have funded a lot of the rebuilding of the communities), we were able to see a lot of the country as locals. Not only were we given great directions on where to go, but we toured the countryside with them, were given a private tour of the American University of Armenia and Tumo, were invited to the backstage reception for the cast of Tosca after watching the opera in Yerevan’s beautiful Opera House- and in general, were treated like royalty.
We walked the Cascade, a centerpiece in Yerevan with a cascading stairwell art museum, both inside the mountain and outside, and with fountains and art installations shimmering in the sunlight. The tour group who accompanied Kim Kardashian on her visit, Sima Tours, spent two days driving us through the countryside where we soaked up as much history as we could absorb. We ate Lebanese, Armenian, French, Italian… and more Armenian. We stayed out until 3am one night, closing down a restaurant and walking home through pitch black streets, feeling just as safe as we would back home.
My favorite highlights are shown below: the Cascade; the monasteries: Etchmiadzin: where Christianity’s first Church was built in 303 and where the Armenian Apostolic Church headquarters is located, Noravank Monastery and its 4 churches surrounded by cliffs, Tatev Monastery: the longest gondola ride (4miles) stretches over towns and mountain tops, Sevanavank: on Lake Sevan, the largest, highest lake in the world at 6,234 ft altitude and covering 362 square miles, Geghard: this monastery is built into the mountain and is from the 4th century; and Khor Virap where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a pit. The first church was built here in 642, and it looks up to Mount Ararat (which, unfortunately, we didn’t see that week due to cloud coverage); and, of course, Carahunge: Armenia’s Stonehenge, from 5,000BC.