Back from Meghri
Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Meghri with two friends, both from the Boston area. Ara Sarkissian, a composer who lives in Boston and who incidentally recently performed with Arthur Meschian (see the previous entry) asked me if I wanted to come along as he wanted to visit a family he stayed with during a visit last year. His plan was to travel for seven hours by minibus crammed over capacity. I said I would go but only if I would drive. We, including our friend Hamlet who left the US after living there for 15 years to return to his native Armenia and study dentistry, piled ourselves and our stuff into my Niva and were off.
The drive through southern Armenia is truly majestic and never ceases to leave me in awe. I would say that Vayats Dzor has to be one of the most beautiful regions in Armenia, not just because of the mountains but the sudden changes in elevation, climate, and landscape. Then there is Syunik that has its own amount of beauty, with the high plains of Sisian and its surroundings as well as the majestic town of Goris, which is situated in basically a large bowl at the foot of a curving mountain range. For me it was the first time traveling south of Goris and through the Shikahogh nature reserve, which thankfully will remain untouched from promises of constructing a new, alternate trade route. Although the mountains were completely covered by mist and driving at times was nearly impossible, we finally descended into the Meghri valley to find a landscape I had not imagined.
Meghri is truly a magical place because it has its own climate zone. It is the only tropical area of Armenia, which is fully accessible three times a year. Although little to no snow falls during the winter, the high mountain ranges separating it from Kapan, which is the administrative center of Syunik, occasionally cuts off the town from the rest of the country. Meghri is also situated in a valley, with the older parts of town lying on the mountain slopes, leaving the center of town for the main transport route and newer construction. There are approximately 5500 people living there, not including the smaller adjacent villages. The population of the area has hardly changed since Armenia claimed independence
We stayed with the assistant mayor of Meghri, Gagik Hampartsumian, who is a gracious host but a bit of an eccentric. It is rare to meet people that have an ironic sense of humor in Armenia—in Yerevan irony does not exist (except in politics). He along with several other administrators throughout the Syunik region visited Boston on a civil society exchange visit four years ago. Although I remember his face, I did not have the chance to mingle with him since I was busy caretaking other visitors. But I am lucky to have met him, because he is truly a decent, genuine guy, and his family is hospitable as well.
The weather during the weekend was entirely overcast, and at times it rained heavily. When we first arrived, I noticed that there was an indescribable aromatic scent in the air, much of it emanating from Gagik’s home. It was a mixture of boiling cabbage, persimmons, and other fruits. Most of the trees on their own property, as well as those of their neighbors, was completely covered by persimmon trees, which in turn were full of huge fruits. Both persimmon and pomegranate trees grow throughout Meghri like weeds—they are everywhere. Of course, Meghri is know for its pomegranates, and they are considered to be of the highest quality available in the Armenian marketplace—depending on where you are in Armenia you can find mostly those from Georgia and even Azerbaijan. In Vanadzor I could not find any pomegranates from Meghri, probably because the price of transport outweighs the fruit’s worth at market.
There are two churches in Meghri, both high up on the slopes, as well as four ancient fortresses that are perched even higher. The interior of one church, which is about 300 years old, is completely lined with intricate, richly colored frescoes. It simply blew my mind because it is extremely rare to find preserved frescoes in churches throughout the country. It is worth making the trip to Meghri just to visit the church, even though you must walk along several winding narrow streets and climb a few jagged boulders to get to it.
The atmosphere of the town is extremely relaxed, and there is not much happening. A few grocery stores sell some fruits and things that are not readily available in the town—for instance I could not find any local fruits for sale, since everyone seems to have trees growing in their yards and thus do not need to buy them. Now there is an art renaissance of sorts—the only cultural center is organizing special programs for the youth, namely pottery and rug weaving lessons. A pottery specialist from Sisian has been invited by the town’s school administrative board to instruct students how to make pottery—mostly jugs and bowls. In another room a large loom can be found near which students sit and begin weaving a carpet, which has already begun to take shape. The current administration has already completely repaired one of the two schools, replacing the windows and heating mechanisms. And to attract tourism, the defunct Soviet-era hotel has recently been purchased, with plans to renovate and reopen soon. There is already a small bed and breakfast under construction that is expected to be open by the spring.
Meghri has been a contested strategic area because of its proximity to the Iranian and Nakhichevani borders. As part of a controversial peace deal to the Karabagh conflict in 2001, which was ultimately rejected by the Azeri side, Meghri was to be converted into a free transit zone, providing a direct corridor connecting Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan, from which the former is completely cut off. Naturally, Meghri would have provided for a route to Turkey as well. Gagik was proud that they—Meghri citizens and the Armenian side—would never allow that to happen, although it probably would have happened had Baku agreed to all the terms of the deal, including the never-clearly defined official Karabagh separation from Azerbaijan.
Meghri is one of two land lifelines to the outside world for Armenia. Many domestic goods come in through the Iranian border and are sold in Yerevan and elsewhere, whereas northern cities and towns in the country are flooded with bypassed-through-Georgia Turkish goods. Much of Armenia’s current economic stability is dependent on the open border with Iran, since it is encouraging huge business. Armenia’s tight relations with its southern neighbor ensure investment in the country as well as incite tourism—it is widely know that Iranians are snapping up real estate throughout Yerevan at highly attractive prices, and many vacation in Yerevan.
To sum up Meghri is one of the most beautiful areas in Armenia that has excellent potential for high economic growth. It could easily be established as an attractive rest resort for Iranian tourists. Although it is far away from being that, both logistically and most probably psychologically for the town’s residents, it is doable. Armenian tourism, particularly in autumn, needs to happen there as well. Apparently it is rare for people from other areas of Armenia or tourists for that matter to visit Meghri, which is inconceivable given the splendor and tranquility the town offers.