Notes From Hairenik

I read an interesting story this morning about taxi drivers protesting the new rules imposed upon them by the Armenian government. Basically all taxi drivers would be required to install electronic mileage meters, pay an annual fee of 200,000 dram to the government, and forbid taxi drivers to operate vehicles more than 10 years old. The rules go into effect on August 1. 

These rules, which I personally welcome, will result in fewer taxis on the road that lurk everywhere, and will also increase safety on the roads as I would say nearly all of the private taxis being driven should not be allowed to take on passengers. Most private taxi drivers indeed operate vehicles that are well over 10 years old, such as Volgas, Ladas, and Opels. I would have to say that the majority of such cars have faulty exhaust systems, thus generously contributing to noise pollution, and have been involved in collisions at some point. Why anyone would consider getting into one of these taxis is beyond me, a few of which are literally held together with rope and glue. I have sat in such taxis which reside on taxi corners throughout the city and the experience is frightening. Not only are the drivers barely able to operate the vehicles, some having flawed manual transmissions (all Russian cars are manual), most such taxis simply do not function properly, especially those with shoddy natural gas hook-ups. Since everyone is in a hurry to go nowhere, decrepit jalopies are bound to get hit at some point. 

There’s concern which I think is unfounded that drivers will be out of jobs, which is far from reality. There are plenty of legitimate taxi services out there with fairly new cars in their fleets and they are ever expanding, meaning that there is always a need for additional drivers. It is not as if old-car owners will lose much money either—there is always a demand for cars, and those that would be most willing to buy old Russian cars for instance live outside Yerevan in villages and small towns, since they are easy to repair and many know how to fix them in case they break down in the middle of nowhere. It may be safe to guess that someone will start a car recycling business and purchase old cars, albeit for a nominal fee, for scrap metal or send them across the border to nearby countries that may not have such age restrictions. I heard that Iran is always in demand for metals, so such an endeavor may be a lucrative undertaking.

But there is another factor to consider: apparently the 10-year expiration date applies to all vehicles, not just taxis, which will mean that more than half the cars on the road will be required to be decommissioned, including my car. I don’t know how much I will have to pay in “fines” to keep my car on the road every year but rumors will spread soon enough, if they haven’t already. It is unlikely that everyone with cars more than a decade old will start abandoning them. I suppose it’s high time that I consider buying a newer Niva (which may not necessarily be a good idea since newer models are apparently inferior), but I don’t know what I can do with my own if no one will apparently be able to purchase it, unless they are willing to pay the presumed fees associated with keeping it. Perhaps government authorities will turn a blind eye to people driving very old cars in villages at least, I don’t know. We’ll see soon enough.

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An article that I wrote as an exclusive for the Armenian Weekly was just published in the paper's print edition. Here are some excerpts from the article:

The number of registered vehicles on Armenia’s roads is kept secret by government authorities. However, the unofficial estimated figure is around 350,000. By contrast, the number of motor vehicles per 1,000 people was 1.5 in 1997, according to the World Bank Database.

***

Last month the Yerevan municipality decided to undertake a massive operation aimed at curbing traffic pile-ups. The measure has actually worsened the situation, forcing minibus drivers to travel against oncoming traffic on some one-way streets, Hanrabedutian Street in particular, which is narrowed at one end by construction projects and by parallel parked cars on the other.

As part of the plan, three underground passages are being constructed simultaneously at strategic areas in Central Yerevan, indefinitely impeding vehicle access. As a result the intersection of Tigran Mets and Khanjian Boulevards, one of the busiest crossroads in the city featuring an extremely large shopping complex and a bus station sending travelers to northern regions of the country throughout the day, is blocked to traffic. Instead an insufficient detour has been routed causing further bottlenecks.

***

According to a study by Princeton University’s International Networks Archive, Armenia has been rated the most dangerous country for driving in the world, with an estimated 347 people killed or wounded for every 1,000 vehicles. By comparison, 16 people are injured or killed in the United States for that same number of vehicles.

Click on the image to view and read the article as it appeared in print.

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I just received some photos taken of my father by my brother, Sevan. Khosroff returned home a few months ago and is getting stronger by the day mentally as well as physically. When I speak to him on the phone it seems as if he had not been ill at all; his wit and knowledge are fully intact, although he cannot comprehend what has happened to him, probably because he is in denial. Even his doctors are amazed that he has come this far and will continue to improve, as they initially insisted he would never survive the shock and damage resulting from my father's cardiac arrest. 

But he suffered a minor setback the other night when apparently he had difficulty breathing. Some water had begun to collect around his heart and thus it was failing to pump at full capacity. The same doctor that initially treated him seven months ago, who cannot believe how far my father has come, seems to think that the condition may be attributed to too much salt in the food he eats, so he will have to adjust his diet to cut down his sodium intake considerably.  My mother has naturally been spoiling him, letting him eat whatever he wants no matter how outrageous, but I would probably have done the same thing considering all he has gone through as well as she.

Photo: Khosroff Adanalian, Kosroff's Jewelry, Lexington, Massachusetts, courtesy Sevan Adanalian

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Today citizens of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh will go to voting stations and elect a new president.

I have been reading some articles in the blogosphere and the news regarding the growing resistance from Armenian citizens for Armenia to return the lands that it has been controlling since the ceasefire of the Karabagh war in 1994. After the recent round of failed talks for reaching a peace deal between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents last month, and the persistent rhetoric regarding Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity coming from Baku, Armenians are starting to become more patriotic when it comes to Nagorno-Karabagh. I have found this position to be evident especially amongst the youth in my discussions with some people here. Some think that the position is politically motivated, being played as an anti-government card. Their patriotism may be misconstrued as being signs of building nationalism. However, I believe patriotism and nationalism are two separate ideologies that may intertwine, depending on scenarios and stances relating to national interests.

I have often stated my position on this blog about what I would consider a logical conclusion to the war in the signing of a peace agreement. But it is simply my own opinion, and expressing it should not necessarily describe me as being a nationalist. I think nationalist ideas as they pertain to Armenians mostly involve hard, uncompromising stances related to the Armenian Cause mostly prevalent within specific groups in the diaspora, some of which are obviously justified and are perhaps accepted by most if not all Armenians, such as the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey. It could be deduced that there is a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. In other words, if you believe in one or more ideals of the Armenian Cause then you may be considered a patriot, but if you undyingly believe in all of them, including the liberation of Western Armenia, then you may possibly be a nationalist.

But can an individual be an independent nationalist without belonging to a party considered to be nationalistic in its ideology? Is a citizen of a country under the rule of a nationalist government also considered to be a nationalist although not believing in some or all of the state policies? Furthermore, can a person not consider him or herself a nationalist although others in society consider him/her to be one?

I don’t know how anyone can filter the convictions an individual holds and then classify them as belonging to one ideology or another. I doubt anyone can distinctly identify the aspects of will, determination, and hope defining each ideological categorization. Armenia as a nation-state is far from being considered nationalist as there are too many internal ideological and political divisions with no unifying gel whatsoever. There are only arguably perceived independent nationalistic elements in Armenian society, if they can even be defined as such.

My position regarding Nagorno-Karabagh used to be that most of the Armenian controlled lands could be contemplated being returned to Azerbaijani governance in a compromise, with the exception of the Lachin region and Kelbajar to the north, which is sandwiched between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh and could not be surrendered. In wake of the latest round of failed peace talks, I realize that Armenia’s position should instead toughen in consequence to the rise in verbally expressed aggression from the Azeri side, especially the refusal to accept the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabagh, something that is totally preposterous, especially after 13 years have passed since the territories have fallen under Armenian control and 16 years since Nagorno-Karabagh declared itself independent in 1991. Terminology in some print/online media outlets now refers to the Armenian controlled lands as “liberated territories,” whereas before the generally accepted terminology was “occupied lands.” This morning I read a reference to Nagorno-Karabagh as being an “ethnic Armenian-controlled enclave.” Unfortunately my knowledge of Armenian history is not strong enough to make my own determination as to what areas can distinctly be considered Armenian, with the obvious exception of greater Karabagh, and what would be accepted as land historically occupied by Tatars, other than what has been told to me by various history buffs as well as what I have read in brief summaries online. However, I concur that given the circumstances Armenia’s position should reflect a refusal to compromise on the status quo, in other words releasing the territories that it has been controlling since the ceasefire. I would take things further by anticipating that Armenia formally recognizes the legitimacy of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh as soon as possible, then after having done so immediately put forward a referendum for the two states to be unified. The sooner that the initiative is conducted the better.

Now does that conception make me a patriot or a nationalist? I can’t say for sure but I know one thing—Armenia seems to have always had the upper hand in these discussions and it should not compromise its own territorial integrity. In the latest talks rumors being spread that were eventually affirmed were that most of the territories would be returned—the details of which were still being worked out—and either the Lachin area or only a corridor would remain under Armenian control with international safeguards in place, whatever that was supposed to entail. Also, a referendum would be held sometime in the future, perhaps in 10 years, to officially and diplomatically determine the status of Nagorno-Karabagh, while it lingered all that time in an ambiguous sort of diplomatic limbo (Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov finally announced that the latter provision was “unacceptable,” in other words fostering an all or nothing position). All of those were ridiculous proposals, again in my opinion, but given the recent circumstances Armenia should not back down any longer.

One argument that is shared by political analysts and others is that if a solution is not found in five years Armenia will be economically isolated and diplomatically shunned as a strategic partner in the region. With all the investment being made in Armenia’s infrastructure by Russian conglomerates and European business ventures I find that scenario hard to believe. The economy is booming in Armenia, albeit mostly because of widespread ceaseless construction projects, and trade seems to be stronger than ever judging from the plethora of goods in markets and the ever-increasing amount of motor vehicles that cruise the roads. Armenia is stronger now than it ever has been, and it will only continue building that strength with time, even though I have concerns that it will hit road bumps along the way, especially with the dram’s recent dramatic appreciation.

Another concern is that a refusal to give in to Baku’s demands would trigger resumption in war. That is also not probably n unlikely scenario, since western powers will not tolerate further aggression in the area, especially when they have invested billions in a new oil pipeline connecting the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Baku knows this and would most likely not take the chance in risking oil revenues while it wages war. But this is only my opinion, obviously.

Quite simply, Armenians need to unite on the Nagorno-Karabagh issue once and for all, and discussions which I would describe as patriotic calling for the refusal of handing over Armenian-controlled lands are healthy. The Armenian position should solidify if there is indeed a building support for maintaining Armenia’s territorial integrity from within, and patriotism should flourish nationwide. The rampant display of the tri-color national flag in a grandiose display of patriotism would be a nice start to rally the masses (it is hardly visible anywhere, even on government buildings) along with bold declarations made by politicians, pro-government and opposition alike. Despite some concerns regarding what the international community might say, Armenia really has nothing to lose.

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July 16, 2007

Yesterday I went to the Garni temple in the Kotayk region with Onnik Krikorian, my wife, and two guests to attend the annual pagan ritual, something I had wanted to capture on video for years to use in a short film. The event was less flamboyant as I imagined but it was a crazy experience nevertheless.

Vardavar occurs on a Sunday in July, but the actual date changes every year for some reason and I can’t figure out who determines the day of the month. It is a traditional Armenian holiday that dates back to pre-Christian times, but I don’t know how far back exactly. Back in the days when Armenians were worshiping fire and various gods and goddesses, the day was set aside specifically for praising the magnificent glory of the goddess Astghik. Somewhere along the way, the mutual drenching with water, primarily performed by children, came into play in the celebration. For some reason the Catholicos of All Armenians is responsible for declaring at one time during the day Vardavar begins and I think ends, but I don’t suppose kids care very much about what he has to say at all. I noticed they were soaking each other as early as 10:00 am.

The pagan ceremony was conducted by the National Union of Armenian Aryans, which is one of about five different organizations of such in Armenia (even the pagans are split apparently). The pagans also perform their rituals on Terendes in February, dedicated to Vahakn, who is the primary Armenian Aryan/Zoroastrian god of fire and probably the same known as Ahura Mazda to other cultures. The ceremony was conducted in front of a crucible of fire, and the priest, flanked by his assistant priests, was wearing a bright red cape with a strange concentric cross printed on the back. He held a dagger which he occasionally warmed up over the fire during the ceremony and read from a Zoroastrian holy scripture before giving a sermon. Once in a while during the rite the priest would announce “holy!” and everyone would shoot up their right arm shouting out the word again.

Afterwards there was a mass christening, with two or three guys taking part as well as an entire family complete with a two-year-old kid. One of those being christened was an Armenian from Germany who calls himself a Christian Aryan Buddhist, whatever that means. It was performed more or less the same way as a Christian ceremony, with the pouring of water over the head and so forth, which leads me to believe that it was another tradition that carried over into Christianity with the priests approaching the alter, using wine in place of the crucible of fire, et cetera. When the ceremony was over they hug and kissed each other—one of them seemed as though he was shedding tears.

I spoke to the head honchos for a few minutes and when I asked whether they recognize the Armenian Church they told me they accept all Armenians so long as they serve their nation and are good, regardless of their religious faith or allegiance to political parties.

Although I was videographing the event some twerps running around with plastic water-filled bottles felt compelled to squirt water all over my camera, which annoyed me but I dealt with it by wiping it down promptly. Hopefully it will work when I am ready to import the footage into my laptop for editing.

I recommend to anyone residing or visiting Armenia during the month of July to discover on exactly what Sunday will Vardavar be celebrated and then head out to Garni around noontime. It is a worthwhile experience but be sure to bring a change of clothing. If you plan on meaning business take along plenty of bottles of water with you.

Photo: Garni Temple, Kotayk, Armenia

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On Thursday ArmeniaLiberty.org reported that a missing boy in Gyumri was found dead in a shack. Apparently his body was riddled with shrapnel thought to have been from an exploded grenade. The boy had disappeared on May 20, the same day when a notorious shootout which involved the Gyumri mayor's son took place. The bizarre thing is that no one found the kid in the shed, which was not far away from his neighborhood by the way. Supposedly the entire area was searched at the time he disappeared but he wasn't found, until police followed up on a report of swarming flies in that shed the other day. One neighbor interviewed by phone by the news service said “I don’t know what to say... We just felt a bad smell and saw many flies.”

No one knows why the boy was found dead as there have not been any accusations of murder so far, but you do not have to be a detective to presume that the boy was most likely killed because he was a witness to something that occurred that day related to the shootout. It should immediately be ruled out that he wasn't playing with a grenade that he found lying around somewhere. Most likely the boy was hiding because he saw something or someone he shouldn't have seen that day, and he was found by people involved in the shootout, then exterminated.

It is unlikely that neighbors did not hear a grenade go off, it can't be possible. What most likely happened is that the body was indeed found by someone or several people, but they did not report it because they were scared something would happen to them, probably that they would meet the same fate as the boy. The problem is that most everyone is afraid to speak up when they know pertinent information in this country. Very few want to take responsibility and cry foul when they know there's something dreadfully wrong in their society. And until people start speaking up when such things happen like the murder of an innocent boy, or something less severe, things won't change and thugs will remain in power.

Onnik posted something about this incident on his blog. This event is a real tragedy, and everyone, from the mayor of Gyumri to residents living in that boy's neighborhood should be ashamed for not taking a stand.

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July 11, 2007

Early this morning Hamlet and his two siblings who were visiting for a couple of weeks departed Yerevan for Los Angeles via Moscow. Unfortunately, this time he won’t return after a few weeks of rest with his family back home.

Hamlet Gevorkyan is a true friend who I had the pleasure of meeting at the end of September 2005. That first evening we made the first of dozens of trips to the now defunct New Delhi, where we were perhaps the restaurant’s best customers. A few days later we were off to Meghri with a mutual friend from Boston who had introduced us just before our first repast of Indian cuisine. Over the course of the last two years we embarked on several adventures together, including a climb up Mount Ara, a road trip from the Georgian border to Kapan with the aim of finding Datev monastery along the way after failing to visit Tbilisi, and two trips to Haghpat. We were together at least three or four times a week, and since late May have even been working with one another nearly every evening.

Hamlet was born in Charentsavan, a former industrial town, 32 years ago but grew up in Aboyan. In the late 1980s his father was able to secure a way out of Soviet Armenia to Los Angeles, where he continues to work tirelessly as a plumber. Hamlet made the decision after attending university to become a dentist and was accepted at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, considered to be one of the best dentistry schools in the entire US. I actually first met him during a span of two seconds in Boston before I left for Armenia in the autumn 2004. In the summer of 2005 he left Tufts to study in Yerevan, favoring life and education in his homeland. Shortly after arriving he immediately forged relationships with cousins located in Abovyan and Artashat, traveling to both towns frequently. But he needs to return to the US to pass his exams and begin an internship. He mentioned the possibility of interning here, hopefully to start a year or so from now if the opportunity arises.

We have become very close during these past two years. Hamlet has become my dear soul brother, one of only a few that I have anywhere, I am proud to admit. Whenever I needed a favor, advice, or companionship he was always there for me (unless he was out of the city, of course). He was extremely supportive when I was stressed during my father’s health crisis last winter, refusing to accept that he was beyond healing (he has made a near full recovery in six months). In fact, Hamlet has only brought me luck with his counseling and his very presence around me. There has never been a time when any grave misfortune had occurred while we were together. Our marvelous appetites for fine foods compelled us to seek out the best cuisine that can be readily found in the city, having shared at least a 100 meals together I would safely estimate.

But as I told him last night, I regret that he did not contact me just after he arrived in July 2005, thereby shortening our time spent together, and that he did not attend my wedding because I did not know him at the time.

As all Armenians arguably are, Hamlet has an emotional character but manages to keep his cool most of the time. Actually the one time that he completely lost it was when my car was hit while we were driving along well over a month ago. He has a fantastic sense of humor and manages to make light of most situations that are not necessarily rosy. His laughter and smile are infectious, and my friends with whom he has encountered have become totally enthralled by his princely charm and wit. I especially admire his candid opinions on life, as he is not prone to demonstrate insincerity or to patronize anyone in the slightest. All of us, particularly his many girlfriends, are wholeheartedly distraught to see him go away. I for one will be feeling withdrawal symptoms probably tomorrow, as it has not yet sunk in that he has gone.

Hamlet jan, we wish you good fortune and anxiously await your return, for you have compassionately admitted time and time again that Armenia your place to be. We love you and will be missing you very much, more than you can possibly imagine. Stay well.

Photo: Hamlet Gevorkyan, Haghpat, 2007

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July 5, 2007

Last Saturday I decided to take a trip out to Sergey Minasian's farm in the village of Voskedap, which is located in the Ararat region. He has been farming the land there since 1995, although he is a mechanical engineer by profession. When I was last there about four weeks ago about six hectares of high-quality wheat had sprouted and was about six inches high, which possessed a rich, emerald green color. He told me it would take at least another month before the wheat would be ready for harvest, so I wanted to be there to see it beforehand.


I have a fascination with wheat fields, I am always amazed by their splendor. Wheat represents life in many ways--it provides sustenance for animals, it gives shelter to birds and insects, and man's very existence depends on it. It's a fabulous experience to be standing in front of a gorgeous field of golden, sun-ripened wheat, even therapeutic. Sergey will harvest the crop in another day or two and sell it for about 150 or 200 dram a kilo as seed to the Armenian government, which had requested that he grow it having been impressed with the wheat he produced last year. On the remaining 10 hectares he is cultivating will grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, which he usually sells to the Ardashat Canning Factory to be packed under the "Artfood" brand.




I arrived on the very day when Sergey (pictured kneeling above attacking the pump with a pair of pliers) had to remove a pump from the artesian well that he drilled several years ago to irrigate his fields. Apparently one pump had fallen from its perch just above the water line within the pipeline leading up to the ground surface. It was obstructing the water from being pumped by a second pump he had installed since the first was dangling 50 meters below. So the pump that was considered to be operational was taken to the village center to undergo routine maintenance, while workers toiled away at removing the malfunctioned pump with a portable crane. It took them several days to remove it from the well as it kept falling down the pipeline, infuriating everyone involved, especially Sergey. In the meantime, his functioning pump was taken away without his knowledge to another village since the people there were undergoing some kind of emergency with their water supply. Thankfully it only took a day for Sergey to get a hold of it again as the village's crisis was over.

Once the broken pump was finally extracted after several nail-biting hours, the functioning one was inserted into the well and the process began of reassembling the pipeline, which took about two hours. Almost immediately after the job was done water began flowing like a gushing river through the irrigation channel and into the fields.

However, a phone call to Sergey this morning revealed that the pump began to fail on Wednesday. He is perhaps one of the most resilient men I have ever met, second to my father perhaps, and I am positive that he will figure out what to do about the water situation in the next couple of days. Nevertheless I cannot say that I could have been able to handle the stress he has endured in the last six weeks especially since the water shortage problem began, and I would guess very few would as farming entire depends on water.

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July 3, 2007
Around five in the morning my wife and I, not to mention the entire neighborhood, were awakened by the sound of what seemed to be gunfire at first. Turns out fireworks were going off in the courtyard behind our building, which is covered by greenery and tall trees. Why they were going off is unknown, and I didn’t go out there to find out so that I wouldn’t have a cherry bomb go off in my face. But I am assuming that they were being stored by a not very astute person in some kind of container or perhaps a garage with a hole in the roof, can’t say for sure but I saw some of them shooting into the sky. A blazing fire broke out but was extinguished in about five minutes, as the fire station happens to be just two blocks away, thankfully. It is amazing that the trees did not catch fire. From our open window I heard the voices of startled men shouting “aper” (or “bro”) at one another. There was a lot of banging about as if firemen were trying to break through something; I suppose they found the location of the fireworks. They kept going off intermittently until the problem was solved, about an hour later. To top it off, in all the chaos a pair of cats were vying for dominance in front of the tree just below our bedroom window, growling at a high pitch at one another in that catlike way of theirs, vaguely sounding like wailing infants. Somehow we managed to fall back to sleep.

In an unrelated yet perhaps not as equally idiotic situation, later in the morning I drove my Niva to a car wash located about a block down from the office, which was just relocated about five days ago to Mamikoniants (a.k.a., Furmanov) Street in the Arabkir district, not far from the Gomidas Market. Anyway, I dropped the car off and they told me it would be ready in a half-hour. I arrived 35 minutes later but they were still washing it and kept at it for over 10 more minutes. They called out to me with an “aper” (an expression I have grown to loathe), I paid them 2000 dram including a tip (they didn’t have 500 dram in change to give back) and left. After I parallel parked my car only about 200 meters away I noticed that the driver's side had small black gummy spots on it, which I had not noticed before. I drove back there immediately to figure out what the hell happened. They told me that the spots were already there, even though I was suspicious, as the dirt covered them up from being seen. Supposedly the stains had splattered up from under the carriage according to their logic, which didn’t make much sense since that had never happened before. I started to pick at one of the spots with my fingernail and it seemed to have been coming off. They laughed off the thought that they had put them there, something I did not even suggest, then mentioned something about “taking my pain;” in other words they were either giving me a break or I had to give them a break for not doing their job properly. Then they said that in order to get the spots off they had to use gasoline, which they didn’t have, so I told them they should have obtained some since there were a couple of gas stations nearby (one just next door as a matter of fact). Another moron had the audacity to tell me that they were not at fault, and when I reminded him that I was paying them for a service that they offered, namely to wash my car and remove all the filth, he restated that they couldn’t do anything without gasoline and that I should get some if I wanted the spots removed. Amazing.

Now I have to figure out how to remove the spots on my own—without using gasoline. Hopefully some cheap vodka will do the trick, even though it is considered a “shame” here to use its astringent properties for cleaning purposes or for anything else other than merriment and inebriation.

Sometimes the only way I can cool down about a ridiculously stupid life lesson is to write about it. Good thing I keep a blog.

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I’m making this post a week too late but better than never I suppose. Along with four others I visited Haghpat and Akhtala monasteries located north of Alaverdi in the Lori region. Our goal was to donate an old laptop computer to Archimandrite Artak Tigranyan, who is a celibate priest and the Abbot of Haghpat. He was the staff bearer and thus the right-hand man of Catholicos Karekin I. Father Tigranyan is perhaps the only priest who I have taken seriously as being genuine and sincere. He is an excellent conversationalist as well as lecturer, as he was able to capture the attention of 40 visitors for a full hour sitting in the shade of an elm tree. Yet he did not once in his conversations dwell on the sublime magnitude of God. Instead he offered his opinions, which I agreed with, about religious practices, such as the Armenian sacrifice (“madagh” as it is called in Armenian), or the shedding of blood from a lamb or rooster, having really no significance with the Christian faith as it is wholly a pagan rite, despite the fact that it is often performed by a priest in honor or dedication to an personal event viewed as being miraculous by a family. He also emphasized the meaning of the church as a holy place which must be respected and understood, as Armenians raised during the Soviet era are generally clueless about Christianity. Last year Father Tigranyan was assigned to one of the most remote working churches in the entire country, so you can make your own determination about what the current Catholicos is thinking.


Haghpat was incidentally the home of troubadour Sayat Nova several hundred years ago when he himself served as a celibate priest there.

When Hamlet and I first met Father Tigranyan last fall there he expressed the need for a computer to write letters and use the Internet, as he is cut off from virtual intellectual stimuli for weeks at a time. Lucky for him, he has a car and can come to Yerevan whenever necessary, which I am guessing is not very often anyway. An obnoxious woman with an inflated ego offered some sort of gift to the church and to celebrate the occasion she also financed a barbeque lunch for the priest and the grounds’ caretakers. Father Tigranyan asked us to stay to share bread with everyone present, then an hour later we moved on to Akhtala.


Only last year did I learn of the existence of Akhtala monastery, another holy site perched high upon a secluded hill about a four kilometer drive from the main road. The architecture is unique standing apart from the other churches you can find anywhere in Armenia, with the characteristic, wide, round stone steeples. Akhtala is a stoic, grand church with two gigantic crosses embossed on the northern and southern sides. Apparently it was surrounded by high stone protective walls, which have for the most part crumbled save for the main gate. What we found inside were frescos pained everywhere, which were either completely intact or faded in areas that were damp, such as the corners. The paintings were fantastic, something that I have only seen in the monastery in Meghri, the architecture of which also bears resemblance to Akhtala. The church is locked with a chain and padlock since it is not functioning, but a few minutes after arriving some kids came by to open the doors.

The surrounding area is full of copper and mining continues there as it has for decades. One of the kids gave my wife a few pyrite stones that he found nearby, so the hills are chock full of minerals. There is a new initiative now to engage in exploratory mining nearby the church, which would cause severe ecological damage to the surroundings. The drive is led by Former Minister of Nature Protection Vardan Ayvazyan, who happens to own several gold mines but under the names of family members, and who is essentially a son of a bitch to put it bluntly. He was also willing to devastate Shikahogh forest in the southern part of Syunik two years ago in order to construct a new access road for truckers driving in tons of imports crap from Iran, and the timber would most definitely have been sold probably to European countries, the profits of which going into his pocket as well as that of the Minster of Transport. But that plan was scrapped after overwhelming outcry from Armenian NGOs and foreign organizations. There is more information as well as a petition that can be signed against the new initiative here.



Photos by Christian Garbis

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