Four nights in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, provided plenty of opportunity for sightseeing in the city as well as day trips out.
With 12 administrative districts, and a population of just over a million, thousands live in what are known as the CCCP Apartment Blocks. The four, 16 storey, lift-less blocks were designed to honour the Soviet Union so that people flying in from Moscow, would see the acronym CCCP, Cyrillic for USSR. Unfortunately the USSR collapsed before they finished the last two blocks and letters.
Genocide Museum and Memorial – You will not be in the country long, before someone mentions the genocide: the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1922. At the huge museum we were pleased to have a guide, who summarised the vast volume of documents, photographs, and films in each of the 30 different areas. Outside, a broad path with a 100m-long concrete wall, inscribed with the names of massacred communities, led us to the eternal flame, surrounded by flowers and flanked by 12 basalt slabs leaning over it. Nearby was a 44m-high spire memorial which can be seen from afar as the complex is built on Tsitsernakaberd Hill. We returned through gardens full of fir trees planted by visiting dignitaries, and our guide mentioned the name Caroline Cox, an unfamiliar name to us. Google told us later that Baroness Cox criticised the government’s treatment of Armenians in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993. We also discovered that whilst the British government states the ‘massacres were an appalling tragedy’ they do not recognise it as genocide.
Matenadaran – Mesrop Mashtots is known not only for creating the unique Armenian alphabet, but also the Georgian and Caucasian alphabets. It therefore seemed appropriate for his statue, teaching the alphabet to a disciple, to sit outside the Matenadaran, or Museum of Manuscripts, with the statues of six other great scholars. Our guide, a serious young man with a head full of facts and numbers, took us around glass cases bearing colourful manuscripts from as far back as the 5th century, with one having the script covered over in the 10th century with colourful illustrations. A large 600-page book had been made from cow skin (one cow per page) and next to it was one of the smallest manuscripts made from the skin of a new born lamb. There had been three roles in the creation of the books: the monk who wrote the manuscript on a board which dangled from the ceiling so it could be easily adjusted for the sun, the illustrator and the book binder. As well as books with ivory and silver covers, there was a display of the ingredients used to create the colours including cochineal beetle, hedgehog bile, and lapis lazuli. A final magnificent arched room explained the history of the grand building, and displayed photos of famous visiting dignitaries. Whilst this was an interesting visit, the volume of information was a little overwhelming, and photos were not allowed.
The Cascade – this modern, giant outdoor stairway made of limestone was our favourite sight and one we returned to. 572 steps on the outside took you through gardens and fountains on six levels and on a clear day, provided stunning views of a snow clad Mount Ararat. An alternative route to the top was an interior escalator (both up and down) and Cafesijian Centre for the Arts. Interesting sculptures and art works by international artists were everywhere, and at the top was a special exhibition of pieces made from Schwarzkopf crystals. At the bottom of The Cascade, a sculpture garden contained more fabulous sculptures, including three bronzes by Botero, a wire mesh teapot and a life-size lion made from rubber tyres.
Mother Armenia – high above the Cascade stood the 22m-high bronze of Mother Armenia, whose sword points in the direction of Turkey. Her face was modelled on that of a 17-year-old girl the sculptor, Sergey Merkurov, spotted in a store. Mother Armenia replaced a statue of Stalin which when it was pulled down, killed two men in a freak accident, and it was said he was still killing, even after his death.
Military Museum – outside the Museum was a MiG fighter and tanks as well as an eternal flame for the unknown warrior, and due to the high vantage point next to Mother Armenia, there were good views of the city. Our hearts sank when we realised there were six floors, but spirits quickly lifted on being told the exhibits were restricted to the ground floor. Military history is not my favourite subject and the rather dull exhibits consisted of photographs of freedom fighters and tales of the conflicts with Azerbaijan. There was also a complicated explanation about the liberation of Shushi (a place, not the Japanese dish), and an operation in 1992 known as ‘Wedding in the Mountains’. The single Minister of Defence, Vazgen Sargsyan, promised that when the battle was over, he would marry in the white church on Shushi. The museum building was erected during the Stalin years when religion was frowned upon, and so the architect got permission to build a museum, although it was in the shape of a church with carvings around the door similar to those found in a church.
Republic Square – is the main centre of Yerevan and is surrounded by former and current government buildings, History Museum, National Gallery and Marriot Hotel. In the evening we watched what our guide called the Singing Fountains. The fabulously choreographed fountains with coloured lights, had interesting accompanying music which bizarrely included Queen’s ‘We are the champions,’ ‘Live and Let Die’ by the Beatles and rousing renditions of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
There is lots more to see in the city which is eminently walkable, and we didn’t need to take the Yerevan Metro opened in 1981. However, our guide told us a great story about the building of it when the Mayor had to seek permission from the Kremlin. He was told the city was too small and needed 1 million people, so he incorporated outlying villages into the city boundary. A subsequent application was refused on the grounds of cost, so when Khrushchev visited, they ensured his vehicle was constantly held up in traffic jams, knowing he had kidney issues which required regular meal times and medication. However, once again it was refused until the Mayor applied to build an ‘underground tram’ rather than a metro. Whether this is a true story or not, we enjoyed it.