“No one loses to Gibraltar.” That was how my guide put it when dejectedly addressing the issue of the national football team, which has in fact lost to Gibraltar. And then there was the problem of the trash overflowing on every street corner. Why, he wondered, had his city outsourced its waste management to a foreign company from a notoriously dirty city? The mind boggles.
Armenia is a troubled country. It is landlocked and surrounded by enemies. To the east, a stalemate war with Azerbaijan over a disputed territory keeps the border closed and militarized. To the west, the closed border with Turkey is a constant reminder of the territories and people Armenia lost, as well as Turkey’s continued denial of its role in that tragedy.
Rather than try to overpower its neighbors, Armenia tends to rely on soft power to sustain itself. In 301 AD, King Trdat tactfully converted his nation to Christianity – the first ruler to do so in the world – helping to ensure his people’s survival in a changing world. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians took up some of the highest governmental posts in Constantinople and worked as mercenaries and businessmen, earning great success. Today, Armenians are masters of chess on the international stage, and the diaspora is represented in the West by figures such as Cher, Kim Kardashian, and the late French singer Charles Aznavour.
I arrived in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, early, after a sleepless night bunked above a pair of chattery babushkas aboard the train from Tbilisi. The central district of Yerevan is called Kentron, where modern European-style buildings mingle with interesting mid-twentieth-century architecture that was built before the Soviets learned how to make ugly buildings. Much of the city is built from a local stone called pink tuff, which gives Yerevan a unique beauty as well as its nickname, the “Pink City.” In the evening, the streets and squares of Kentron fill with people enjoying the shopping and the restaurants, or hanging out in the parks and posing for selfies in front of the city’s countless fountains. In Kentron, you can feel like you’re in any major city, and it’s easy to forget about Armenia’s woes.
Nevertheless, atop a hill – still within central Yerevan yet separated from Kentron by a deep gorge – is a somber memorial. I headed here on my first day in the city. A taxi dropped me off at the top of the hill and I entered first into the museum, which is sunken into the hillside and accessed from the top. I followed the horrifyingly graphic timeline on the wall, led downward both figuratively and literally with the Armenian people into one of the lowest points of their history. The museum details stories of a hardworking and successful people betrayed by its allies, violently harassed, slated for extermination, and finally herded into the Syrian desert to die (a century later, it’s hard not to see modern-day parallels). The bottom of the museum presents the international response – or at times the lack thereof – to the Armenian Genocide. Despite the Turkish government’s denial of its involvement, the term “genocide” itself was coined to describe this very event, though in their own language, the Armenians refer to it simply as the “Great Catastrophe.”
Back outside the museum, on the hilltop, the atmosphere is not so desolate. Hundreds of peaceful fir trees fill the park, each with a plaque engraved with the name of the person who planted it as way of expressing solidarity. In recent years, people as diverse as Vladimir Putin and Kanye West have visited the memorial, but some Armenians that I met made sure to remind me that it has never been visited by an American president. Politics – in this case, America’s relationship with Turkey – is often prioritized over humanitarian disasters in small countries. That may soon change, though; since I returned, sudden changes in the relationship with Turkey have prompted Congress for the first time (October 2019) to make progress toward officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide on behalf of the United States.
Finally, I reached the memorial itself, a humble collection of concrete structures commanding a view of the city of Yerevan. The tallest structure is like a thin needle jutting up into the sky, but on closer inspection it is actually sliced down the middle into two free-standing halves. One half represents modern Armenia; the other half represents the vast land of “Western Armenia” that was taken from them and now lies, within view, across the Turkish border, devoid of Armenians. The smaller structure next to the needle consists of twelve slabs arranged in a circle and angled inward. As you walk around the memorial, strains of melancholy music escape through the gaps between the slabs, drawing you inward. Passing into the center, you step down into a shrine, where the music echoes ominously around an eternal flame. Countless Armenians have laid flowers beside the flame to honor their ancestors.
From the memorial, you have a clear view across the entire city toward another memorial hill, and perhaps the most important hill to the Armenians. Tradition holds that Mount Ararat is the place where Noah’s ark landed. The Armenians trace their ancestry back to a descendant of Noah named Hayk, and therefore call their country Hayastan (Հայաստան). As the central and highest point of the Armenian Highland, Mount Ararat features prominently in the national consciousness and looms large over the Yerevan skyline. The fact that it actually lies in modern-day Turkish only makes the Genocide Memorial even more poignant. Though, that doesn’t stop the Armenians from using its likeness on everything from bank notes to brandy bottles.
On my descent from the Genocide Memorial, I passed across across the gloomy hillside that had been blackened by a wildfire a few weeks earlier. But as soon as I crossed the bridge over the gorge, I was back in the happy commotion of Kentron. A wedding party spilled out of a historic church and people passed the afternoon in shaded parks sipping coffee from the ubiquitous roadside coffee vending machines.
Opposite Kentron from the Genocide Memorial, yet another hill offers a more cheerful way of seeing the city. Here, the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, otherwise known as the Cascade, begins in a busy park lined with restaurants and filled with unusual sculptures. From the park, a massive stone stairway leads up the hillside, passing through several tiers filled with still more sculptures and fountains. I wisely opted to take the escalators – the height of the hill is deceptive from below. Stepping off the last escalator, though, I found myself in another nicely-landscaped tier but not actually at the top.
The Cascade, it turns out, was a Soviet project that died before it was completed. Mr. Cafesjian, a wealthy diaspora Armenian and art collector, later came along and beautified the partially-built structure and filled it with pieces from his collection, but that project also stalled with his death. So, the stairway ends abruptly, leaving an abandoned, seemingly-under-construction pit between the top step and the monument at the summit. Such a glaring imperfection does not seem to bother the Armenians much, though – the Cascade is a beautiful spot to enjoy the evening like a local and watch the sun set over the city skyline and Mount Ararat.
The time eventually came to head home. Squeezing between rows of parked tour buses and vans on a late Sunday evening, I emerged onto the huge square facing the national museum. The ground was still wet with the spray from the fountain show that had just ended, and the square was relatively quiet for the time being. I made my way along the southern end of Abovyan Street, searching for the spot where I might find the bus to the airport. I knew it should stop somewhere near here, but I couldn’t be sure. The policeman I asked said simply, “Abovyan Street,” and a tour guide standing beside her promotional sign concurred. So I made myself comfortable on the steps of one of the curved pink tuff facades that ring the square, and scanned around for my ride.
As I sat, thinking about everything I had experienced in the South Caucasus during the last few weeks, an echoing noise drifted across the square, growing louder each second. I discerned a drumbeat, and soon a smoky red glow appeared in the street opposite the roundabout. The commotion entered the square and marched up the steps of the national museum, drawing the attention of everyone still milling about at that hour.
Wary of an impending protest, I quickly recalled that the last time I had this feeling, in Tbilisi a few days prior, the gathering had turned out to be a movie filming. The police in the square didn’t seem to be taking any special precautions, so I relaxed and took in the spectacle. The longer I sat, the more distinct the noise of the crowd became, and soon I could make out the chant clearly: “Ha-ya-stan! Ha-ya-stan! Ha-ya-stan!” That triggered my memory – the British guys I had had breakfast with in the hostel that morning had said something about going to the football match. Evidently, the home team had been victorious, and the descendants of Hayk were relishing in their defeat of their former Ottoman compatriots, the Bosnians. Armenia may still be troubled, but perhaps at least the Gibraltar debacle has been redeemed.