In The Shadows of Mountains: A Trip to Yerevan

Started by Jubal, August 04, 2023, 07:09:58 PM

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In The Shadows of Mountains: A Trip to Yerevan

Republic Square, at the centre of Yerevan.

The night train from Tbilisi had been rattling through the night, cutting across the middle of Armenia first and then looping around the Turkish border. I moved down from my bunk and exchanged a few words with the trio of Russians who shared the sleeper cabin, and my eyes opened wide to see the twenty or so white stork nests piled high upon old railway girders and towers as we passed an old rusting rail terminal – and then one of the others in the carriage pointed it out to me, that there it was in the background.


I was on my way to Yerevan, and Ararat loomed above me.

Georgian pro-Ukraine graffiti, evoking Pirosmani's Portrait of the Actress Margarita.
I had boarded the train to Yerevan from Tbilisi, which was itself not quite the same as the place I had left in 2019. Always a chaotically beautiful city, Georgia's capital felt more on edge than it had once done. Pro-Ukraine graffiti on every other house and signs in shop windows asking customers to agree that Putin was a war criminal were visible vents the anger of the capital's residents at a government seen as abandoning Georgia's internationalist position and anti-Russian stance just when it geopolitically mattered most. I was visiting the universities there at a difficult time: Ilia State in particular, by reputation the more liberal of the two state universities, was seeing a wave of attacks on its rector by government-aligned media outlets causing a great deal of turbulence. More widely, the influx of Russians to the Caucasus was audible in central Tbilisi, the numbers resented by Tbilisi residents faced by high inflation. The newcomers were a mix of those deeply in need of refuge, the children of liberal Russia seeking refuge in a punk opposition from abroad, and a great many colonial-attitude middle class Russians seeking somewhere inexpensive and comfortable to ride out their government's follies.  The unseasonal storms that hit the city while I was there seemed to reflect some of the mood.

In general Tbilisi sometimes feels caught somewhere between the good and bad bits of both a 1920s re-enactment and a cyberpunk futurism, with very little between the two. I could veer in the space of minutes between neon lit graffitied under-road shopping alleys, vine-wreathed painted balconies, bitcoin terminals, archives run with galleries of card catalogue drawers, electric violin rock solos, and wine cellars in use practically since the Middle Ages. It is a city of small alleys surrounded by dry hills and filled with pollution, emotion, stories, and wine, and I have given it and its country a great deal of my life and intend for that to continue (perhaps of interest here is that in Georgian countries have a deda-kalaki, mother city, rather than a mere capital). I bought a pomegranate juice, fresh-squeezed and overpriced, from a street stall one night, looked between the pips innumerable flooding into it and the dark surroundings, and thought of Persephone. Softly thanking the stallholder, surrounded by old buildings and new lights and car noise, I drank deep. Gaumarjos, Hades.

The Opera and ballet house, with the wittily named Swan Lake in the foreground.
But this time I was headed onwards, as well. It was slipping into night already as my train left Tbilisi: the train conductor only bothered speaking Russian, perhaps indicating the radical shift in the make-up of foreigners in the Caucasus after the war and the pandemic. I can hardly claim the sleeper bunks were comfortable, and the journey is slow, but given my personal dislike of cars it was an option that had some charm – particularly on the way back, now that the timetables have changed such that one crosses the open Armenian highlands in daytime, though the journey to Yerevan was almost all overnight, with hours spent disembarking the train to have every passport checked and stamped by both the Georgian and Armenian border guards in a frankly absolutely wild display of the inefficiencies of nation-states. After the dark, and besides the storks, the morning brought magpies innumerable – sevens after sevens of them, coming out of a countryside that looked greener and rougher than the relatively bland, mechanised post-soviet farmland of Kartli. There were enough, I thought, for a lot of secrets in this little country.

It is hard not to compare Yerevan to Tbilisi, or Georgia to Armenia. The cities are sisters, the countries brothers - not in the way of bickering children but in the way of old siblings who have known more than their share of troubles, who know that some things cannot be undone or unsaid, and other things should be said but never will be.

My first real impressions of Yerevan were walking in from the station: the language balance is more visibly towards Russian as a second language than in Tbilisi, though as elsewhere in the Caucasus the younger generation here are far more Anglophone than their older counterparts. Yerevan has a more solidly twentieth century look to it than Tbilisi, lacking any real retained central old town and with far more wide, planned, tree-lined avenues. The centre is based around a number of soviet era set-pieces: the wide sweep and columns of Republic Square or the squat grey presence of the Opera house. Distinctive faded-red stone faces many of the buildings, which gives the city a more ancient feel than the age of most of its buildings would imply (though the city itself is certainly ancient). The town birds are pigeons, laughing-doves, sparrows, and most of all innumerable swifts: I have rarely if ever seen skies so full of them and their high whoops and shrieks are a key part of the city's soundscape.

Another immediate curiosity in Yerevan is money. Most currencies I have had to use in recent years (the Pound, Euro, Dollar, Georgian Lari, and Tunisian Dirham) operate according to the principle of a small, low-cost base unit and then a larger central coin, as with dollars and cents, pounds and pennies, lari and tetri, and so on. The Armenian dram, the word being cognate with e.g. drachma, very much does not do this. Instead it simply has a base unit, the dram, worth something like a quarter of a euro cent, with no higher denominations. Banknotes run easily into the thousands – I don't think I ever saw a one dram coin, while my highest single expenditure was something like thirteen thousand drams. The feeling of putting notes marked 1000 into a tip jar (not even an especially high tip) is certainly a strange experience by European standards.

A huge Zodiac-themed fountain outside the famous Moskva Cinema.
A colleague I was meeting with also introduced me to another feature that is quintessential to the city – water fountains. There are big water fountains for show across the city, probably more per unit area than I've ever seen elsewhere – but the real jewels in the crown are the pretty little pulpulaks, small drinking fountains that are placed across the city. They are built at about at waist height with a continually running jet of water aimed directly upwards, quite differently to drinking fountains elsewhere that tend to be angled to allow for e.g. bottle refills. The pulpulak is conversely drunk from directly: one bows at the waist over the upward-pointing water jet to drink straight from it. They exist across Armenia, often fed by springs, and often serve a memorial function or have associations with khachkar cross-stones – bowing to the pulpulak to drink is not only a necessity of the design but a mark of veneration and respect.

My first day or so contained little exploration, in part due to meetings, in part due to yet more unseasonable storm weather and some dramatic thunderstorms, and in part due to my body deciding to give up on me briefly with some minor travel illness. On Tuesday evening I went to a small art café near where I was staying, Ilik – here I learned that smoked trout has a long tradition in Armenian cuisine, and that the flavour combination of smoked trout and orange is one I have a very great deal of time for. It was not to be my only trip to the café.

In general food and drink in Yerevan is good: to make the inevitable comparison, my brief assessment is that for restaurants I think Tbilisi has the edge, but for cafes, snacks, and street stalls Yerevan does a little better. Armenian food feels more meat-centric in its traditions than Georgian, with the most promoted items being barbecue meats of various sorts. More stereotypically Georgian dishes such as khachapuris and khinkalis are not hard to find, but I focused on less familiar options like the meats, tolma, smoked fish, and harissa. This last is not to be confused with the similarly named hot peppery paste from North Africa: Armenian harissa is a dish of bulgur wheat porridge mixed with meat and seasoned, and is one of the country's national dishes. Armenian food is meant to be shared: one of the difficulties of eating as a solo traveller in Yerevan is that the best way to do most restaurants involves multiple dishes between multiple people.

The city is more walkable than much of central Tbilisi as few cars are funnelled directly through the centre, and this creates more scope for crepe stands and other such enjoyments (easily washed down due to the pulpulaks, a particular blessing in summer heat). There are some traditional bakeries around the centre, too, with dough made into rings and stuck to the inside of a kiln oven to bake: this bread is fantastic, and excepting travellers with gluten intolerances is definitely one of the must-eats of Yerevan. Some other interesting flavours of the city include sea buckthorn, a notoriously astringent and tart berry with an extremely distinctive and hard to describe taste which, with sugar added, is used for teas and other drinks.

Manuscript pages at the Matenadaran museum.
On Wednesday I finally felt able to explore again, and that meant the Matenadaran, Armenia's national centre for manuscripts. I had already been there for a meeting, but now was time to explore the museum. The building itself is impressive to begin with, an enormous statue of Mesrop Mastots, the monk who apocryphally invented the alphabets of the Caucasus, standing guard at the entrance before one ascends to a temple-like square building with old heroes of Armenian law and literature lined up in front of it in statue form.

The Matenadaran's collections are spectacular: there are few superlatives worthy of using for them. I may be more of a lover of old books than the average traveller, but the middle-eastern styles of art that come with a lot of manuscripts from this region make for stunning illustrations. The brightly coloured pillars, page decorations, and birds make the pages feel vivid and almost heady in a way that the whimsy of western European manuscript traditions rarely matches. As with most national museums, parts of the signage should be taken with certain pinches of salt – the suggestion that cross-script manuscripts written in other languages with the Armenian alphabet were simply 'due to its phonetic perfection' may be a slight over-simplification of the process. Nonetheless, the exhibitions are fascinating to go through whether specialist or not. The Matenadaran as a whole is the jewel in the crown of Armenian historical studies: a whole second building around the corner from the museum contains library and research facilities dedicated to the rich history of Armenian manuscripts – many of them from monastic and literary traditions crucial to the development and preservation of an Armenian identity over the last millennium. Within the wells of written memory in Armenia there is everything from geography to history to healing, foreign connections and of course religious works, the Armenian church being subtly but continually present laced throughout the weave of life in the country both historically and up to the present day. Even compared to the national museum or gallery, the Matenadaran is a must-visit collection when in Yerevan, without a doubt.

A note for the traveller should be made here in that Armenian museums in general have a rather loose approach to signage compared to some counterparts in other countries, such that one sometimes has to risk a bit of wandering around to find tucked away exhibitions in rooms that are down flights of stairs or otherwise non-obvious. Had I not done this, I would for example have missed an entire and well worthwhile exhibition at the Matenadaran on Qajar Iran (19th century), and later on there was a similar story with several rooms at the National Gallery.

My old book fascination sated for the time being, the next stop was the Cascade. Located near the heavy grey opera house, it is an enormous monumental stone staircase with a large modern art gallery inside. It is both one of the largest monuments in Yerevan and, because it runs up a hillside, surprisingly hard to see until one is almost in front of it. Under the staircase lies a modern art museum, some of the collections of which spread out in the small park at the Cascade's foot, a mix of metal lions, double-eyepatched pirates, unusually stout Greek warriors, and large delicately metalled teapots.

The Cascade staircase, one of Yerevan's most iconic monuments.
The staircase itself is a long climb, more of the city's rooftops revealing themselves as one goes. One can skip parts by using the escalators in the museum below the stairway, but I though it worth doing the climb once at least. Large cutaways in the centre contain large fountain arrays, while beds of red flowers and neat box hedges stand guard at the sides. The uniformity of the planting is a pity: with some more larger shrubs, small trees, and general variation in the plants the Cascade could feel much more alive whereas at present it is very bare beneath the heat. The stairway continues up the hillside until at the upper levels there are or two large subsections which have remained unfinished for decades, with an enormous hole between the top of the existing staircase, full of rusted girders and looking more like a Warhammer: 40,000 terrain map than part of a capital city's most recognisable piece of monumental architecture. One has to walk round the hole to reach the top, where a high pillar stands as part of a paved area.

And from the top, of course, one can see Ararat. The mountain is enormous, distinctive in its shape, and with a deep sense of presence even beyond its own form. Snow-capped even in summer at over five thousand metres high, it is undoubtedly one of the most breath-taking pieces of natural scenery I have ever witnessed. Ararat appears on maps well back into the medieval period, with its peak's resonances as the supposed end of Noah's voyage giving it a sacred character. One could easily wonder how much species extinction Noah might have caused after the flood was over, simply by the difficulty of the journey down those steep and snowy slopes again. The fact that Ararat has no nearby neighbours of similar height makes it stand out yet more in the landscape. Its oldest Armenian name was Masis, though nowadays Ararat, a term that first appears in the medieval period around when the association with Noah's Ark first developed, is used interchangeably if not more commonly even in Armenian. It has passed between and indeed acted as border point for empires throughout history, its imposing peak a point over which full ownership by any state has been far from the norm and tense if achieved. There is nothing easy about Masis, Ararat, or Ağrı Dağı (Sorrow Mountain, to the Turks), or Ἄβος and Νίβαρος (to the ancient Greeks) – even in its names it defies simplicity, its height accentuated by the sheer mass of history lying beneath its slopes.

There is less of a sense of rolling argument about Armenian history than its Georgian counterpart. Georgian history feels chaotic, contested, used to frame a thousand slightly different ideas about what Georgia is or should be or might become – the Armenian past has this element of contest too, of course, everywhere does, but it is understood through a framework where the depths of time are solemnly remembered, almost mourned, imbued with a sense of loss. According to one report at a conference I attended recently, a plurality of Armenians still consider the reign of Tigran the Great (95-55 BC) the best period of Armenian history. Dreams of national strength and even empire ring a little different for a people whose stories are often more of bitter survival than conquest, though all such imaginaries of the past as present risk a certain creeping toxicity in the self-images they create.

Graffiti of a church and Ararat from the Kond district.
And above all that sense of loss? There is Ararat, always Ararat. The national gallery seems to have it in every room somewhere – how could one be an Armenian artist and not try to capture the mountain? Sometimes it is a spidery background sketch, sometimes the centre of the piece; sometimes it is clad in its own grey and white raiments, sometimes appearing in bright surreal colours as if from a dream. But those peaks are there, always there.

Ararat, along with other sites like the medieval capital city of Ani, lies just outside the closed modern borders of Armenia, in Turkey. The borders are closed, the mountain itself requires military approval to climb: Armenians cannot easily visit these places integral both to Armenian history specifically and to the shared histories of the region. Historically the church forbade climbing Ararat, but today it has become the cherished goal of many an Armenian just to try and stake their own closeness to the mountain. In a country with a powerful cultural memory of genocide, Ararat looms over the sense of Armenian loss so heavily in part because it is treated as part of that loss. As the region was hacked into modern nation-states during the years of Turkish post-Ottoman 'modernisation' and Russian dominion, an unbearable weight of pressure built towards turning the past into a mirror of modern statehood, to 'prove' the antiquity of particular groups or claims in increasingly zero-sum contests over who could both legally and morally own what. Thus, even the landscape itself became locked into a singular, ethnocultural concept of eternal state ownership. It has had a bitter and often deadly effect on the region as a whole.

But it is one thing to consider the lack of ownership Yerevan has over Ararat: to best understand the city, one must also, I think, consider the ownership that Ararat has over the minds of Yerevan. Graffiti in Tbilisi was angry: graffiti in Yerevan, that city of fountains and mourning stones, was rarer than in its hectic, eclectic cousin. When it could be found, though, those two peaks were as present in the bright paintings on walls in Yerevan just as much as they were among the artists of the National Gallery.

On Thursday I went to both the Gallery and the National Museum, which coexist in the same building on Republic Square, the fountain-filled formal Soviet era heart of the city and are both well worth visiting. The building occupies a centrality in one of the city's central locations that one would almost more expect from a parliament building than a museum: gazing up to Masis as it does, history sits heavy in Yerevan's heart.

Tiny model carts from ancient Armenia: remembering the little crafts and tales of a place matters.
The National Museum goes from finds from well before the emergence of Armenian identity, transparent volcanic glass knives from the Armenian highlands still looking sharp after many centuries, ancient silver ritual goblets, and tiny models of oxen and sheep. Roman era gold-working, medieval bas-reliefs, and traditional clothing and jewellery from Armenia in recent centuries were all included as well. It was partly because of renovations in certain sections, but I was interested to see how heavy the relative emphasis on ancient and pre-Roman history was there. As a medievalist, my knowledge of Urartu and other ancient realms of the Armenian highland is minimal, and I found the wide array of animal designs and stonework fascinating to look through. Recent history was not absent, however: a photographic exhibition detailed sharply the impact of recent fighting in Artsakh (the Armenian-majority separatist region within Azerbaijan's formal borders, more commonly internationally known as Nagorno-Karabakh). At the centre of the museum is an exhibition of historical maps. The one-room distance between the photographic story of some of the most recent encroachments on Armenian-majority lands and maps showing the empire of Tigran the Great stretching between the Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean seas is noteworthy for the juxtaposition.

The National Gallery was also partly being renovated when I was there: the medieval art is mostly large copies of church wall art, with my favourite sections coming more from the more recent Armenian artists. Besides the recurrent sight of the twin peaks of Ararat, Armenian mythic figures burst from the paintings: it was a far cry from many western fine art galleries whose halls tend to focus much more on portraiture of the elite and on the Greco-Roman canon, and was much the better for it in my view. The water goddess Tsovinar bathed in a spring – one wondered if she still dances half-unseen through the great fountains of the city. The pages of illustrator Martiros Sarian offered takes on the firebird, the Shahnameh, and myriad other fables and tales from Armenia and beyond, with bright little figures striding through pages of adventure and promise. A phoenix formed more like a pheasant than the conventional swan-like or hawk-like views strutted from the craft of early twentieth century sculptor Hakob Gyurjian, whose work varied from curled cats to nightmarish creations, imparting a mix of sexuality and danger that seemed ill fitted to the usual moods of Yerevan. Perhaps that challenge was part of the point. Gauging a place from its art is tricky in part because art is there to be formative as much as reflective. Those reactions then build a new sense of a self, that is in turn reacted to: what it means to be from anywhere is a thing always in subtle flux.

It was the ancient model animals from the National Museum that probably most stuck with me from the museums, though. There is something endearing in the fact that humanity has spent the entirety of human history discovering and inventing materials with which to reshape our world, and there are few if any where nobody has contemplated making a tiny cow out of them at some point. More human by far than the idealised statues outside the Matenadaran, the little shapes of prehistoric animal figures were a reminder that history need not always be heavy. It can be easy to be swept up by the scale of history and landscape, by past and present pains that cannot be reckoned and cannot be numbered by our finite capabilities. This place deserves, though, to have the myriad small histories of its joys to be told and retold just as much as the weight of its pain. There is much to be said for tiny clay or metal oxen from thousands of years ago, and perhaps it should be said more often.

One of the blue-scaled lizards of the Hrazdan gorge.
Friday came and the Hrazdan gorge beckoned. It was my one real natural history stop in Armenia – I had hoped to do the botanical gardens as well but ended up lacking time – and despite my contacts being a little sceptical of its value, I think I managed at least three or four entirely new species for me in a matter of hours. The gorge is shallow, with a fast-flowing river at the bottom, and a rough track along one side that turns at a certain point into the route of the Children's Railway, a small novelty rail ride where one occasionally has to stand out of the way for the train as it rattles past. The trees gave cover for a Syrian woodpecker – a species that nominally extends in range as far west as Austria, similar in appearance to the great-spotted woodpecker, but which I had never seen before. Perching above the valley was another nearly-familiar bird, a sparrowhawk, but in this case it was the shorter-clawed, longer-winged Levant Sparrowhawk, a cousin of the common European raptor more adapted for catching mammals and which has a tendency to form flocks unlike its western counterpart. Grey wagtails hopped between the stream-stones and lizards with gloriously blue-scaled flanks skittered between cracks in the walls.

One rather larger reptilian face appeared in a hole in some rocks, and I failed at a number of attempts to photograph it – but deciding to double back at the end of my walk to have another go, my second visit to its hole achieved the aim, and I ended up looking at what I could later identify as a sheltopusik, a European glass lizard. Lacking legs – a surprisingly common trait among lizards compared to the popular imagination, the better way to tell a lizard from a snake is that the former have eyelids rather than the number of limbs – they can grow up to 1.3 metres long, and particularly like eating slugs and snails, which probably explains the utility of a small cave with a riverside view. I left the by now probably rather grumpy creature to its shaded home, and headed onward.

The Children's Railway has a beautiful if dilapidated station building, only one side of it holding a table with ticket sales and snacks, the rest just sitting out of use, with one carriage and train running on the tracks and several others rusted nearby. An intermediate stop halfway along the railway is almost entirely falling to pieces, the children's railway getting a children's microcosm of the general problems of Caucasus infrastructure investment. Building work along the gorge more generally, however, is clearly rapidly ongoing in places with new homes being built down the steep parts of the valley side. It's a worrying development given how few big green spaces Yerevan has easily accessible to begin with, and the gorge could definitely do with a lot more improvement and protection than it currently has available.

After the gorge, I headed through a tunnel and up to Kond, one of the remaining old areas of Yerevan. The winding street layout certainly was pre-modern, the building a cluster of varying age. Some are in ruins, many others need urgent building work, with battered tin rooves and none of the attempts other places might make to sell 'old town charm' for tourists. At the entrance to the district there is a new hotel emerging, but probably more despite Kond than to make any use of it: it towers above parts of the district, grim square glass and stone above the ramshackle life below. Bits of the area have an artistic flair, with graffiti murals, but it has seemingly not attracted a more general bohemian artistic edge as a place. I tried to find the better reputed of the district's two cafés, failed, and ended up being directed into the other by someone I thought was directing me towards the first place: after some confused back and forth I ended up with an overpriced fruit juice and a small amount of food, which I ate sitting in a curiously decorated kitchen. The tree of life was muralled, large, on the wall, represented as a pomegranate tree. A picture of Ararat, inevitably, was hung above its topmost branch.

Part of the sprawling Vernissage craft market.
Departing from Kond, I returned to Café Ilik, where I perched awkwardly at the T-junction bar and ordered some wine and the "talking fish" – a reference to an Armenian legend, the dish is a lavash bread wrap of smoked trout, which comes with a piece of poetry picked for you by the Café. Ilik's owner, Anahit, was behind the bar, and on noticing my evident curiosity listening to an Armenian and a Frenchman talking in English at the bar itself, invited me up to join in the conversation. What unfolded was the sort of scene one imagines in travel narratives but rarely actually comes across in person: a succession of colourful characters and conversations over the course of the evening. I talked to a local film-maker and a graphic designer from France, discussed the women of medieval Armenian history and how they attained power with a local NGO organiser, and had an Armenian diplomat whose expertise was in his country's Ethiopian connections decide to buy me a drink and tell me I should go and visit Lalibela and Aksum. Behind the bar, the music shifted to Leonard Cohen, and I felt more at home than I had done at any other time in Armenia. There are few places in life that achieve that sort of carousel of human interest, and they should be cherished where one finds them.

On my last day I went for a walk with a friendly local and discussed life and the city, and then visited the Vernissage, Yerevan's large craft market. When I say large craft market, I wish to stress that I do not simply mean that there were a range of things avaiable. What I mean is that I had counted double digit numbers just of stalls selling chess sets by the time I left. Silk scarves, dresses, pomegranate themed pottery in varieties innumerable, musical instruments, handmade obsidian knives, optical equipment, rugs, coffee-making equipment, vases, paintings, books: the place was a kaleidoscope of creative possibility, though with the omnipresent themes of art and design that meant you could be nowhere but Armenia. I bought a present for my mother and a duduk for myself – the latter being a Caucasus instrument similar to the oboe, with a much larger and heavier double-reed than that instrument. Mine is beech and rather a beginner's version, apricot being the more traditional wood. One friend described the sound as being, even when played well, somewhat like a haunted saxophone, and they're not entirely wrong, though it can be haunting as much as haunted, both powerful and delicate. My own attempts at playing it still suggest that the haunting is that of an unruly poltergeist rather than a shepherd-spirit from the Armenian highlands, but hopefully I'll get there.

The next day it was time to leave: rain settled in over the city, and I turned, like the weather, and headed onwards. On my way to the station I had a confusing interaction where I struggled to buy two apricots, because I simply had no money small enough give it was five hundred drams (about a euro) per kilo, I had few smaller coins and it took some persuading for the elderly salesman to accept that I was honestly prepared to pay a hundred drams for a single piece of fruit. Snacks thus obtained, I found myself passing the statue of the mythic David of Sasun once more and re-entering the railway station. The rail route changed its timetable during the very week that I was there: the train now runs all the way to Batumi directly, starting earlier from Yerevan, such that one can do the Yerevan-Tbilisi leg during the daytime. Ararat was still visible for some time – but, as the mountain itself knows too well, everything recedes eventual into distance, memory, and myth. Flocks of what I think were rosy starlings whipped up from the rocky terrain of the Armenian highland, and the colourful flashes of hoopoe and bee-eater passed quickly with the rattling of the train, as well as larger birds of prey, heavy-winged over the landscape.

Northern Armenia is much less bare and more wooded, when one gets there, between the flat farmlands of Kartli and the bare highlands to the south. As the night drew closer, the swaying banks of trees beckoned me through the mountains again, green and gentle. The shadows of the mountains wrapped around the train, as they have always wrapped Armenia, and in that last half-light that they leave, there is a place where dreams can touch reality. Some dreams are hazes of glories lost, of wars and statues and heroes: the imagined past is easier to dream than the complexity of the future. But the difficult little dreams of hope nestle in those shadows too, in the burrow of a glass lizard and between the pages of books at the Matenadaran and hiding under the glasses at Café Ilik. Ararat, unreachable and ancient, looks over Yerevan and shelters them all: and, for better or worse, I think it always will.

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Eadgifu the Fair

This was a lovely read, full of the sort of little details one can't look up about a place without going there but loves to hear! I was charmed by the pictures of the Cascade and the lizard, but I think my favourite thing in the whole piece is the little clay oxen. I'm also curious about the specifically obsidian knives...


I finally got round to reading this - great to learn about a country I otherwise knew nothing about. I like your use of the children's railway as a mirror to wider problems in the country. Very sad that the city's mountain has ended up in rival territory! I'd echo your friend's recommendation for Lalibela. I didn't visit Aksum on my trip to Ethiopia because it is a long long way from the other sites I'd interest. Sadly now is not a good time to visit, of course. I share your frustration with currencies with tiny base units. When adjusting to a new currency it's very easy, and costly, to confuse your 10000 note for a 100000. I once paid 70000 pesos for admission to a stately home; a century ago that sum would have bought me the entire property.


I do wonder if Ararat would have quite the prominence it does in the Armenian imagination today if it wasn't in Turkey: I'm sure the sense of loss somewhat supercharges the sense of numinous longing for the place.

Re Eadgifu's comments - yeah, the obsidian knives were very interesting! Quite what you'd expect in a "yes, is knife, is obsidian" way, but it's such an amazing material with how translucent and dark yet ahiny it is.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...