BY KRISTINE KESHISHIAN
October of 2010 saw the closing ceremonies of the centennial of the Armenian Relief Society’s “Century of Service” throughout the four corners of the world. ARS members and their supporters came together for this celebration—from Artsakh, Australia, Canada, Cyprus, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Javakhk, Jerusalem, Kuwait, Lebanon, Moscow, South America, Syria, Eastern and Western US.
Fifty-two members and friends of ARS-Western USA made the journey from Los Angeles to Syria, and then on to Armenia and Artsakh, A smaller group of eight participants traveled directly to Yerevan from Los Angeles.
For a number of participants this was their first journey to the homeland and it was replete with emotions and wonderment.
Our seasoned trip leader, Jasik Boniatian-Jerahian, did an outstanding job of organizing this pilgrimage. The whole group was able to visit as many places and sites in Armenia and Artsakh as was possible in the course of two weeks.
Our small group of eight arrived at Zvartnots, where we were met by Gaguik and Arayik, our tour guide and driver. Gaguik is a painter, who comes from a family of artists. His father was well-known painter Henrik Siravian, an apprentice of Mardiros Sarian; and we couldn’t have asked for a more patient and affable bus driver than Arayik, who throughout our two weeks adroitly maneuvered congested Yerevan streets, treacherous mountain passes, and narrow roads, tunnels and highways.
Our group’s first vision of Hayastan was brief but exciting: Mt. Ararat, shrouded in clouds. We just got a glimpse of it.
Upon arriving at Ani PlazaHotel, we had the rest of the day to ourselves and we set out to see the sights. We took a cab and went to “Petak,” a colorful, two-story swap meet, where the locals do their shopping. We visited the much talked and written about (New York Times) hanging gardens museum, Cascade, erected by the Cafesjian Foundation. Unfortunately, it is closed on Mondays. Nevertheless, a few of us decided to climb the one thousand or so steps to the top where a panoramic view of Yerevan and Mt. Ararat awaited us. Awesome! On our way back to the hotel, we strolled on Tumanyan Avenue and made a stop at “Mer Kiugheh,” a landmark Yerevan cafe, enjoying the famous, Aintab style “lahmajoun” prepared by the Grboyan family.
The entire group of 227 participants visited Dzidzernagapert, the monument dedicated to our martyrs of the 1915 Genocide. The large crowd, silent and solemn, walked from the arboreal area to the eternal flame, where a “hokehankist” was held, and flowers and wreaths laid in their memory. More than two hundred trees, 43 of them from ARS Western USA, donated by the worldwide ARS chapters and by individual donors, in commemoration of our centennial, were planted on the slope next to the memorial. The Genocide Museum is on the grounds of that memorial.
The afternoon was devoted to the preparations for a visit to the presidential palace, where President Serzh Sarkisian met, welcomed and addressed a delegation of ARS members and graciously treated us to a cocktail reception.
We took a docent tour of the Matenadaran, the famous museum of thousands of manuscripts, covering all aspects of ancient and medieval Armenian culture and sciences.
Then we headed to Yerablour, the cemetery dedicated to our national war time heroes, Sosseh Mayrig, Monte Melkonian, Gen. Andranik among others. After lunch, we went to Garni, the restored pagan temple, built in the 1st century A.D. on a hill overlooking the valley of the Getar River, which became the summer residence of the rulers of the country in the 4th century. The landscape of Garni canyon is breathtaking.
Finally, on to Geghart, a monastery carved into the mountain in the 12th-13th centuries, where hundreds of khachkars and caves were built in the rocks surrounding it.
The day ended with a visit to Mayr Hayastan, a monument overlooking the capital, built in 1967.
In the course of that day, a few ARS members, with prior permission from the Ministry of Employment and Social Security of the Republic of Armenia, participated in the preparation and serving of a meal in a boarding institution—“Bnag Meh Geragour”—reinstating this ARS program for one day. A total of 1,479 children were served a special meal on that day in seven orphanages and eight boarding institutions, sponsored by ARS chapters. This ARS project was implemented decades ago in the aftermath of the Genocide and deportations, to feed needy children a healthy meal during the day.
The evening was devoted to centennial ceremonies in the “Moskva” movie theater of Yerevan where the audience enjoyed a program of welcoming words and remarks by governmental dignitaries, and where a documentary was shown on the achievements of our organization in the course of a century.
We are on our way to Gyumri, one of the oldest cities in the world and the second largest city of Armenia, which still bears a few scars from the devastating earthquake of 1988. We visited the Akhurian Mother and Child Health Center, which opened its doors in May of 1997, and provides young mothers and their infants with free pre- and post-natal care. The health of child-bearing women and the infant mortality rate in the region have been noticeably improved as a result.
We returned to Yerevan via Spitak, another region which was devastated by the 1988 earthquake.
In Yerevan that evening, a cultural and artistic program, devoted to the centennial commemoration, was held at the Opera House. The program included messages from the Prime Minister of Armenia Dikran Sarkisian, ARF Bureau, and the ARS Central Executive.
ARS-Western USA Region delegates had requested an audience with His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Aremnaina, who graciously met us and bestowed his blessings; the commendable work ARS does worldwide was not lost on the “Vehapar.” In his address, given in measured and soft tones, among other themes, he mentioned at great length the precarious situation of our churches and compatriots in neighboring countries, Afterward, the pontiff happily surprised us by personally giving our group a tour of Etchmiadzin, its newly renovated museum, the cathedral and the grounds for about an hour and a half.
After a short visit to St. Hripsime Church, we were on our way to Sardarabad, an imposing memorial complex, established in 1968, which commemorates the Armenian people’s victory of 1918 over the Turkish invaders.
In the evening, we were feted at a gala banquet where First Lady Rita Sarkisian honored us with her presence.
On a drizzly day, we went to Dilijan by way of Lake Sevan, the wonder of nature, famous for its “Ishkhan” fish, which has become a rarity these days because of overfishing, and visited the 9-12th cc. monastery perched on a rock by the lakeshore. Dilijan was and still is the resort par excellence for healthful living in an idyllic and clean environment.
On our return from Dilijan that evening, our delegation was invited to a cocktail reception enhanced with songs, dances, and recitations, given by the Minister of Diaspora Hranoush Hagopyan. That evening, in spite of drizzles, the whole city of Yerevan was enjoying a Chocolate Festival on the main square sponsored by the Grand Candy Company, which was carving and distributing the Guinness-worthy world’s largest chocolate bar.
Artsakh, here we come. What a pleasure to view Mt. Ararat on our way there! We admired the nests made by cranes, our national bird, as we drove through the village of Areni, known for its grapes and wines; we passed by beautiful and majestic ancient churches and monasteries; we had a delicious lunch in a unique bed and breakfast inn, in the village of Goris. Aficionados of organic food, take note. In Armenia and Artsakh, most everything you consume has organic sources. The landscape all around us is indescribably beautiful, never boring. Mountains have the coloration of their various rocks: all shades of beige, from the lightest to the darkest, interspersed at times with basalt, obsidian, and “douf” stones. Then again, a big expanse of verdant green, dotted by a herd of steer or sheep, or slopes and vales where rivers rustle, covered with trees in the bright and sunny colors of autumn. We finally arrived at our destination, Stepanakert, tired but happy to be there.
We visited the War Memorial and paid our respects to the many combatants who fell to liberate Artsakh. We had an audience with the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic prime minister, Arayik Harutunyan; and the president of the National Assembly of Artsakh, Ashot Ghulyan. Also present was Armen Sarkissian, a member of the National Assembly. We were told efforts were being made to bring potable water to about a hundred villages that need this service. In addition, the government has a major project to make each village into a self-sufficient unit.
In the evening, a centennial celebration was held in the Youth and Culture Palace, attended by Nagorno-Karabakh Republic President and the First Lady Mr. and Mrs. Bako Sahakian and various government dignitaries. It was truly a memorable evening, where the program was artistically impeccable, performed on time, with feeling and warmth, and was received enthusiastically by the audience. The evening culminated with a joyous banquet, where musicians and singers, young and old, gave a rousing performance. Everyone joined in the singing and dancing, as well as Rev. Emmanuel and the Yeretzguin, who entertained us with their beautiful voices. It was heartwarming to find a Der Hayr so much in tune with his community, involved and participating in the social functions of his flock, and because of it, so well appreciated by his people.
ARS has nine “Sosseh” Kindergartens under its aegis in different villages of Artsakh. Two of those, Ashan and Aganabert, are wholly sustained by the Western Region. We visited the kindergarten in Stepanakert, where 118 children, ages 3, 4, 5, and 6, are taken care of in a nurturing environment. They were happy to demonstrate to us their singing and reciting skills, in a self-assured, friendly and outgoing manner. We were teary-eyed to see them perform with such fervor and gusto.
We then boarded the bus to visit the well-known monument dedicated to the “Babik and Dadik” of Artsakh, after which a visit to the museum of Stepanakert gave us a cultural and historical overview of the region.
On our way to the village of Nigol Tuman, one of the many highlights of our trip, we stopped by the church and monastery of Gandzasar, in the village of Vank, whose benefactor, Levon Hairabedian, a native son, sponsored the weddings of 700 couples in 2008. He also funded the renovation of the church dome and the construction of a seminary next to it.
When we finally arrived at Dzaigashat, a village brought to life and given sustenance by the Boniation family, we were greeted with “davoul zourna” and welcomed with singing and dancing; freshly baked “tonir” bread, its aroma filling the mountain air, served with homemade cheese and a variety of locally grown herbs, tea and coffee; a village grandma demonstrating the art of spinning wool, which made us relive a day in the life of an Armenian village.
We toured the home of Nigol Tuman, also restored by the Boniatians, and turned into a museum. They also restored Vartan Ishkhan’s home in 2008 which it too will be a museum in the near future. A copious and hearty dinner, made with fresh ingredients, served in a large community room with a stage, again donated by the .Boniatians, was followed by an a cappella concert of Gomidas works outstandingly performed by the National Choir of Artsakh. One of the audience members was so moved she remarked that even though all through our trip we visited, prayed and lit candles in many ancient churches and cathedrals, she felt this choir transported us in heaven with their angelic singing.
The National Choir of Artsakh has participated in a number of choral competitions in Europe and won several prizes. They were getting ready for a performance in Vienna, Austria.
It was difficult to leave Artsakh, but we had to head back to Yerevan, by way of Chermouk, a health spa favored not only by local and “spiurk” Armenians, but by many different nationals. Its curative waters have a far reaching reputation. On our way there, we passed by picturesque villages, some interestingly enough were inhabited by Malagan Russians.
Having spent a restful night in Jermuk, we visited the famous falls of the Arpa river before we got on our way to Khor Virab. We stopped by the architecturally unique 13th Century Noravank church, built on two levels, by Orbelian princes. Historian Stepanos Orbelian anchored a monastery renowned for its art work. The famed Echmiadzin Gospel of 989 was created at the site, when the church was still standing. This was one of the relatively few manuscripts that survive from that period. St. Grigor Mausoleum-Chapel, was built for the Orbelian princes, one of the strongest dynasties in the Armenian history (1286}. Some of the most important universities/monasteries and artistic centers of the time sprang from that period, including Tatev, Gladzor, and Noravank.
Baruyr Sevag’s village, now renamed Zankakadoun, is known for its apple and walnut orchards. His home there is now a museum, as well as his burial grounds. This was an area where peace and quiet prevailed, conducive to meditation and poetry.
The next stop was Gen. Vazken Sargsyan’s museum, the first Minister of Defense, who had a major role in the liberation of Artsakh. He was gunned down in the Parliament building, with a few other MPs by a treasonous group of gunmen. The funds for this museum were provided by his family.
Khor Virab, our last stop before reaching Yerevan, was emotion laden. A few brave souls did the descent in the pit where, according to legend, St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by pagan King Trdat. From Khor Virab, which is the closest point to Mt. Ararat from the territory of Armenia, we enjoyed the majestic view of this biblical mountain.
The region of Lori certainly deserved more than a day trip. Its administrative center, Vanadzor, is the third largest city of Armenia. We met Susanna Abresian, the multi-talented director of the Vanadzor Special Art Center for handicapped children, and a composer of school hymns, whose gala recital by young “shvi” players is on CD.
The monastery of Sanahin, Church of the Redeemer, was built in 966 A.D. It is also the birthplace of the Mikoyan family. From its founding in the 10th C. to the 13th C. on a wooded mountain slope in the Alaverdi region, it was one of the renowned religious, cultural, and educational centers of Armenia.
Construction of Haghpat Monastery and St. Neshan Church was started in 976 during the reign of King Ashot the Merciful (953-977) and was completed in the 13th C. having tripled in size by then, and had assumed a position of preeminent center of learning.
For a long time, it was one of the spiritual centers of Medieval Armenia. Its dwellings are regarded as splendid specimens of 19th C. Armenian folk style. Famous Armenian poet and musician Sayat Nova spent 20 years of his life here.
Haghpat in 1996 and Sanahin in 1999 were jointly registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
On our way to Yerevan, we passed again by Lake Sevan. The sun was setting and a full moon was shining like a torch. Lake Sevan shimmered under dark blue skies. What a splendid way to end our journey!
We left Armenia and Artsakh with heavy hearts, but carrying memoriesand experiences unlike any other. It is true: Armenia and Artsakh are open air museums. One cannot have its fill in a mere two weeks. Until we meet again…
Kristine Keshishian is a member of the ARS Western US Regional Executive.