Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, was devastated by an earthquake in 1988 which crushed parts of the city, killed 50,000 people and made many homeless. Whilst Lonely Planet suggests it is now on the ‘upswing’, judging by the lack of tourists, there is still a long way to go.
There are two major attractions.
The first was Dzitoghtsyan Museum or Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life. Here a brilliant guide with excellent English guided us through several rooms with exhibits coving the cultural, architectural and religious aspects of the city. Some of my favourites included: musical instruments including the duduk featured on the soundtrack of the film Gladiator, intricate party invitations, and puppets hung from the ceiling with seven feathers for the seven weeks of Lent. Gyumri was famous for arts and crafts, with rooms dedicated to traditional trades using tin, silver and gold, with jewellers, joiners and dressmakers also featured.
For some inexplicable reason, a terracotta warrior greeted us at the entrance to the Gallery of the Aslamazyan sisters, Mariam and Eranuhi, born near Gyumri in 1907 and 1910. Mariam painted in darker, brighter colours and was often referred to as the ‘Armenian Frida Kahlo’, whilst Eranuhi preferred paler tones. Both travelled extensively, unusual for Russian females at the time, and there were portraits of people from Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka etc. as well as of the nearby Mount Ararat during various seasons.
In the historic area, the pedestrianised Abovyan Street began with a 12-foot bottle of red Armenian wine, and a statue of a national hero, Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American investor and philanthropist. Many of the restored buildings had delicate iron grills covering windows and doors and intricate gutter tops.
Amenaprkich or All Saints Church, built in black and apricot tuff (a type of rock made of volcanic ash), towered over Vardanants Square. It had been heavily destroyed in the earthquake and photographs showed ‘before’ and ‘after’ whilst a statue commemorated the earthquake and fallen roof. Inside we could see that the restoration had just finished, although the church has yet to be reconsecrated.
Below the church was a small park with fountains and a colossal statue of the Armenian hero, Vartan Mamigonian. He sat astride his horse, holding a cross and sword, leading the Armenians against the Persian Empire. Our guide told us that the position of the horse’s legs indicated whether the person died in battle, of wounds incurred afterwards or of natural causes.
Gyumri is often regarded as the ‘capital or city of humour’ and in 2021, the youths of Gyumri decided that as there was the Wailing Wall in Israel, and the Happy Wall in Denmark, there should be an Anecdotes Wall in Armenia. A wall on Central Square had several boards full of jokes and sayings in both Armenian and English – for example, a pilot from Gyumri writes his will: ‘When I die, do not open my black box’.
Horses and carriages around the square waited in vain for tourists and the only other thing of note was that my husband spent 1000 Dram or £2 on a haircut in the Lux Barber Shop. It opened in 1941 as a place for local men to relax, read the newspaper, and talk with friends, while having a shave all in the company of caged budgerigars. Despite the passing of time, and the earthquake, it still stands and is Gyumri’s, if not Armenia’s oldest barbershop.