BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Since 2001, I have traveled to Armenia numerous times. However, I never had the chance to visit the Blue Mosque in Yerevan, which is right across the street from the main market, called the “Pak-Shuka,” where I have shopped several times.
I always wanted to visit the mosque for two reasons: first, because of its historic value, and second, because it’s an Iranian mosque, and I was born in Iran. Finally, one day my friend Katya Aghabegian, a French language professor, told me that on May 11, 2023 a group of students from the university would be visiting the Blue Mosque, and that I could join them.
I arrived at the mosque a bit early. There were a few students already waiting outside. At 11:30 a.m., the group was ushered inside the mosque. Right next to the entrance of the mosque was the library, where our group of 40 to 50 students entered.
Some of us sat around the long table, and the others stood alongside the library shelves. A docent, an Armenian woman, gave us a brief history of the mosque.
The Blue Mosque is one of the oldest structures in central Yerevan and the most significant from the Persian occupation of Armenia. It was the largest of the eight mosques in Yerevan in the 19th century and is the only active mosque in Armenia today.
This modest mosque was originally constructed in the 18th century. It is called the Blue Mosque because blue is the dominant color found in the design of the tiles of the dome.
The Blue Mosque occupies a little over 1.6 acres of land. Apart from the mosque and the prayer hall, the building encompasses a theological school, meeting halls, and sleeping facilities all around the courtyard. Those structures still exist on the sides of the courtyard.
The construction was ordered by the governor of the region at the time, Hussein Ali Khan, who represented the sitting Persian Shah. During those days, the region of Yerevan was under the rule of Persia.
The construction of the Blue Mosque began in 1760. Finally, sometime between 1764 and 1768, the mosque was opened to the public. Around that time, the population of Yerevan was about 20,000.
Following the Russo-Persian War of 1826 to 1828, Yerevan and Eastern Armenia fell under the rule of the Russian Empire.
After the peace treaty was signed between Persia and Russia, the Arax river became the natural border where the Russian influence ended. To this very day, the river separates the borders of Iran and Armenia.
Under Russian rule, throughout the years Yerevan saw some gradual growth and several buildings were constructed. At that time, there were other mosques in the region, but because of Communist beliefs, they were destroyed. Only the Blue Mosque has remained standing.
The mosque ceased to operate as a religious institution in the mid-1920s. However, its courtyard became a creative space for Armenian artists, writers, poets, and academics, facilitating the production of a new cultural and aesthetic order for socialist Armenia.
In the courtyard there was a large Elm tree which gave a shady refuge from the hot and dusty city of Yerevan. There was also a teahouse, which became a hub for intellectual gatherings.
Seyed Hossein Tabatabai, who is the adviser of the Cultural Center of the Iranian Embassy in Armenia, has noted that the mosque was preserved and not demolished by the efforts of a number of Armenian intellectuals, especially Yeghiché Charents, the iconic Armenian poet.
During my visit, I also learned that when the Mulberry tree in the courtyard is in bloom each year, the mosque conducts a service in memory of Charents. They honor his memory because of his efforts to save the Mosque from demolition.
After the independence of the Republic of Armenia from the Soviet Union in September 1991, a negotiation began between Iran and Armenia to refurbish the mosque.
In October 1995, via a contract signed between the states of Iran and Armenia, the restoration job began under the supervision of Iranian and Armenian specialists in the field of cultural heritage, and with the financial support and capital from the Islamic Revolution Fund of Iran.
Today the Blue Mosque, with its fine looking structure, is a jewel in the center of Yerevan, on the very busy street of Mashtots — in full view. The historical monument is a vestige of the old Yerevan.
Right across from the Blue Mosque is the iconic “Pak Shuka,” or Yerevan’s “Indoor Market.” This cultural and historical monument was built during the Soviet era in 1952.
The building was designed by famed architect Grigor Aghababyan, whose 100th birthday was commemorated in 2011. The market was listed on the State List of Immovable Historical and Cultural Monuments of Yerevan as an officially recognized architectural structure.
When I visited Armenia for the first time in 2001, the Pak Shuka was one of the sites that we were ushered to. The façade is made from red-pinkish Tuff volcanic stone, with a metallic ornate half-moon gate.
At that time, there were stalls inside of the Pak Shuka that were occupied by local farmers that brought their wear, from Armenia’s sun-kissed fruit and vegetables to preserves and dried fruits, nuts, spices and herbs. The market also offers an assortment of meats, seafood, and poultry, along fresh lavash bread, and, of course, the ever-present sujukh — shelled walnuts threaded on a string, dipped in grape molasses, then hung to dry until a thick and tender coat covers it in the form of a sausage.
In its heyday, tourists experienced the true definition of Armenian culture and hospitality in the market, and were greeted by a myriads of friendly vendors offering samples. It gave us a special feeling.
During the last decade, the building was bought out by a wealthy Armenian businessman who evicted all the tenants and gutted the inside of the market and the building’s internal arches, decorative molds, and ornamentations. However, the façade was kept intact. A group of activists were against the renovation of the market, but the Pak Shuka was eventually turned into a supermarket by “Yerevan City.”
I decided to go across the street and do a little shopping at the supermarket. At the entrance, right before the “Yerevan City” supermarket, I noticed an independent stall where they were offering dried fruit, sujukh, fruit-rolls, nuts, and other condiments from fruit and vegetables. I was happy to see that, in that corner, the old taste of the market was somehow preserved.
At the main enclosed space of the market, there were a great number of shoppers. Merchandise were on display and the shelves were well stocked.
There were several cashiers working, but the lines were long. It took me more time than I had expected to stay in the line to finally pay for the few items that I had picked up, and then exited from the side door.
On my way home, I decided to take the bus instead of a taxi, like the locals. During the last two months that I’ve been in Yerevan, I’ve noticed that new busses have hit the streets. I crossed the street by using the underground pedestrian passage and stood in line at the bus station.
It was a great experience. While inside the bus, I definitely felt the newness of it. I even noticed that there were plugs to charge the cell phones. I arrived at my destination in no time and walked the short distance to my home, where I rejoiced about the things that I had experienced that day.
A few years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I received an email from a friend informing me about an underground structure that a man named Levon had excavated under his home in Yerevan.
So, after few years of delay, I finally had the opportunity to visit “Levon’s Divine Underground” on a very rainy Sunday in May. My husband, daughter, and granddaughter decided to visit that extraordinary site, as well.
The underground structure is called “Divine,” because Levon claimed that he was not working alone when uncovering it. According to him, there must have been a divine presence that helped him dig continuously. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to dig all that he dug with just a hammer and a chisel.
The underground cave is in Arinj, a well-known village that is about half an hour away from the center of Yerevan. It was an easy drive by taxi to the village, but when we arrived we had trouble finding Levon’s home, which is unknown to many taxi drivers.
When we arrived at the site, there were a few cars parked in front of the house. We thought that a few other groups might be visiting, but by the time we got out of the taxi, they had all left.
After knocking on the door, we were greeted by Levon’s daughter who invited us inside. She gave us a brief history of how her father dug the 72 foot structure deep down under their home.
She said the undertaking started with a simple request by her mother for an underground cellar in which she could store potatoes for winter. Levon built a small storage space for his wife in 1985, and then continued to dig for the next 23 years until his death in 2008.
As I mentioned he did the digging with only a hammer and a chisel. I should add that the bed-rock under his home was made of basalt, which is a kind of stone that is very tough to dig.
Levon not only dug stairs and little chambers, he also created some sculptures to give the space an ambiance. His daughter led us from one set of stairs to an open space and then up and down through more steps, nooks, and crannies.
We entered the grotto from the street. However, after crossing succession of steps up and down, we finally exited the labyrinth and ended up in their kitchen. I was stunned.
We couldn’t figure out how, in such a compact space, Levon was able to create an entrance from the street and an exit from the other side. It took us about 30 minutes to move through the underground space and home. We never felt the slightest hint of mustiness as we went up and down the stairs.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to visit another subterranean construction in Fresno, California. Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant who in the early 1900s had bought land to grow citrus. Soon after purchasing the property, Forestiere realized that his land was useless because it was sitting on a bed-rock. So he decided to dig, using shovels and other hand tools, to create a subterranean escape from the sweltering summer heat. He excavated for the next 40 years.
Forestiere’s underground space is horizontal and spans over 10 acres, with sky-lights and numerous grotto-like rooms and trees that he planted underground. His vision was to make the space into a resort, but of course it never materialized.
The fourth site I’d like to tell you about is the Erebuni Archaeological Museum, which is located in the outskirts of Yerevan. The museum was established in 1968. The opening of the museum was timed with the 2,750th anniversary of the city of Yerevan. The Museum stands at the foot of a hill, on top of which the ruins of Erebuni Fortress stands.
In 1940, a local man on the slopes of the hill found a chunk of basalt stone with a cuneiform inscription explaining that the city was built by Argishti the King of Urartu in 782 BC.
That piece of basalt stone lead to more excavations and the Erebuni Fortress was uncovered from under the dirt that had covered the whole area. The majority of the fortress was built from raw bricks. Some parts of the structure were reinforced and restored, and the fortress was turned into an outdoor museum. The citadel was encircled by strong walls, in some places built in three rows.
During excavations, archeologists have unearthed huge collections of jars, pitchers, bronze bracelets, glass, agate beads, and many other artifacts that tell us about the life of the citadel.
The most interesting fact, that the docent explained, was that water was supplied to the citadel by underground stone pipelines that were joined together. These types of pipelines had set a model to transport water in the centuries to come.
We didn’t get to see the ruins of the fortress, because there was confusion about how exactly to get there. The docent told us it would be better to reach the fortress by car, instead of climbing the stairs. However, the taxi driver couldn’t find a way to get to the ruins. But the information about the history of it all was priceless.