Armenian Augustrudion

August 2003ce


(2 a.m. Yerevan airport, 40 degrees Celsius – crowds of men beating on the glass and yelling their heads off)… of course I’d very much wanted to avoid the hassle of travelling all the way to Newport passport office, but being the forward-thinking Mother I always took her to be, Dorian knew I’d never get in this place without looking like my passport photo, and I’ve been waiting years for this. I have to see this country whence George Gurdjieff brought so much of his mystery. I have to visit these people whose genocide Turkey so ruthlessly implemented only for the whole world to ignore and deny. Indeed, I have to see the magnificent Tzitzernagaberd monument to the genocide that has crowded my mind these past years.

Right now, however, I’m stuck behind a guy they don’t wanna let in and I ain’t nervous one jot. Passport photo’s gotta big beard just like I gotta big beard – Armenian visa still incomprehensible but totally intact… 45 minutes later my suitcase is last to come up the chute, which has broken three times and two separate couples are crying that all their swag was totalled when their bags burst. I pay the airport tax to one guy, then another, who says first guy was bogus. I use the tiny shopping trolley that holds my huge suitcase to batter open the broken electric doors and cleave a way out into the sweating night between braying short-haired males who tug my hair and scream hysterically to each other about my appearance. Bad time for a big beard, say Zareh and Alina, who greet me like a long lost brother. Shoulda been here in ‘92 after the fall of Communism – beards were really in then. Damn.


MONUMENT TO THE GENOCIDE. Visible from many different parts of Yerevan, Tzitzernagaberd at sunset somehow reconciles the ziggurats of the Sumerians with the fire temples of the Zoroastrians. However, this ain’t my photo as there was scaffolding all over it. Damn.

Downtown Yerevan is anarchic but very cool and I immediately feel at home with Zareh and Alina Tjeknavorian, and Alina’s all-smiling brother Mher in whose home I shall be staying. Yerevan feels like the outskirts of Athens, except for the beautifully illegible Armenian neons, but I still read Russian well and the translations are easy to make sense of. I’ve been waiting to see Tzitzernagaberd for a long time, and a decade of pouring over my maps of the Trans-Caucasus has made this country more mythical than Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Zareh is a film director who sent me his documentaries and a massive 120 page letter after reading THE MODERN ANTIQUARIAN. His delightful missus is a beautiful ex-drummer and linguistic genius with a Russian education and such utter devotion to her country’s tragic/heroic past that within two days of hanging with them, I shall be calling her ‘Ms. Armenia’. But she tells me Tzitzernagaberd is being fixed up this summer, though when we see it rising from its hilltop ridge, even the scaffolding cannot help but look beautiful to me.

Alina tells me Armenians have appropriated ‘merci’ for thanks instead of the real Armenian ‘Schnoragollatzoo’. What? She repeats it and the whole word gets sucked out of Mher’s Lada 1600 and disappears into the ether. In England we say ‘Ta’ because it’s even shorter than thanks, says I. Alina winces and tells me I’ll get good mileage out of using ‘Schnoragollatzoo’ and I tell her ‘ta’ for that information. Zareh Tjeknovorian is something else and I don’t know what, but he’s actually from the same planet as me and it’s a moving thing. He’s a fucking poet, a Metalhead AND a Krautrocker, and a de-coder of stuff. I tell him my two code words for life and he’s so down with them in 20 seconds that the poetry of our conversations over the next ten days will be transmitted directly to interplanetary headquarters for inclusion in their Year Book. Damn!

The View from my Yerevan Window

The View from my Yerevan Window

Mt. Ararat from my bedroom window

The family apartment in Yerevan is old but large and roomy (and just survived the 1988 earthquake which shooooook the entire neighbourhood), but my 3.30 a.m. arrival finds Zareh and Alina sleeping in the airless living room with her mamma, whilst Mher and his wife have been forced into the same bedroom as their three little (exquisitely beautiful) kids. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets at night and I’m immediately at home – this is just like staying with Dorian’s Greek family in downtown Athens. Hell, they even have the same mutual hatred of Turks. I fall asleep in the stillness of the (now) 35 degree Celsius heat and wake up early in shock to see Mt. Ararat out of my bedroom window. NOW. I’m really far from home. All that flying over Hungary and Rumania and the Black Sea really paid off! Zowie! Within the hour, the heat haze has consumed Ararat but I know she’s there and my head is blown. This is what I’ve been waiting years for.

They forewarn me that the water supply is shut at 10 a.m. every morning and only re-instated around 6.30 p.m. It’s already 10.30 a.m. and they’re right. I’ll shower tonight. Our driver has been organised by Zareh especially for this trip. Uncle Vanya (name changed) worked for the Soviet Armenian KGB, then switched to the secret police after Communism’s fall, until the extortion and low pay became too much. He reminds me of a smaller and more swarthy Keith Moon and will navigate us through the storms of Armenian protocols. He thinks I should sit in the back so the police stop us less often. Uncle Vanya’s only English is a portmanteau cobbled together from two of Zareh’s most key phrases: “Fucking beautiful, man!”

Lada 1600s and the Black Youth

Everyone drives Lada 1600s here. I just counted 50 vehicles (including buses) and 37 were Lada 1600s. Only two colours available – off white or beige – except for the occasional dark green one for the real individuals. They are modelled on early ‘70s Fiats but the Armenians are so up with them you can fix them beside the road any time. Opened the window one day, the handle fell off. Man beside the road fixed it within two miles of driving. Another time, I got back in the car and the whole seat collapsed on to Ms. Armenia’s knees – bungied it together and fixed it next day at the one-stop-one-size-fits-all-road-repairers. I’m gonna buy me a ‘noff-white’ Lada 1600 soon as I get back to Blighty, and travel around with 200-weight of apricots crammed into the back seats like any self-respecting Armenian should. Damn!

On the outskirts of each village, I keep noticing stone shrines covered in blood, headless birds, indefinable entrails, beside which stand pretty rag-tied clouty trees. What the fuck..? This is the Black Youth, explains Zareh. Because Armenia took Christianity on in 301, way before Rome, there are lots of pagan elements reconciled into their religion. Got a good job prospect or a chance of a date, do a matagh sacrifice of a bird or animal to Tukh Manukh the Black Youth. Tukh Manukh’s an adolescent God figure somewhere between Mithra and the young Jesus Christ. But his appetite is hearty and he constantly needs those blood sacrifices. Vestiges of Zoroastrianism abound through Armenia, and even the equivalents of ‘Welcome to Dorset’ signposts are magnificent cosmic portals loaded up with gorgeous greetings in both Russian Cyrillic and Armenian Mashtotsian. At one point, as we pass Mashtot’s birthplace, I get the full story of how, in the 6th century, Mashtots invented that curvy alphabet right out of nothing, then spoilt it all by doing a similar one for the Georgians.

Welcome to Dorset

WELCOME TO DORSET at the Goalposts of Mithra

Dudu the Idiot

All over the country, symbols of Communism lie scattered and (not quite) destroyed. Armenians had the energy to topple every Soviet statue but not the technology to obliterate them all. Best bit of graffiti ever? It’s sprayed on an enormous plinth that once held a statue of Lenin – the kid with the spray gun simply wrote: “Graffiti”. Right On. Elsewhere, another giant statue of Lenin was dragged into a side street and left there to be dealt with later. Much later it would seem. On the northern outskirts of Yerevan, a low hilltop stands rich and cheesily splendid amidst the dusty destruction. A neo-classical be-pillared mansion is accessed by a linear avenue, all surrounded by high walls. This be the home of Dudu the Idiot, the only gangland leader-cum-politician who has been cool enough/crass enough to have retained his gangster nickname into political office. His face is all over the posters hereabouts and his favourite pastime is shooting endangered goats from a helicopter. But he has to get permits from the ecology minister to do it.

Surprisingly (unsurprisingly?), there’s still a lot of Soviet pride hereabouts and no-one notices my alarm when they inform me that the Metsamor atomic power station looming 4 miles ahead was built to the same blueprint as Chernobyl. Bombing towards it through the dust, I get my camera out for a quick snap and Uncle Vanya gets clucky and pulls up hard. No no no, you get arrested for this. I crane my head around and say to Zareh, you gotta explain to Uncle Vanya clearly that no Westerner is gonna back-off from the opportunity to snap Chernobyl’s twin sibling. Zareh explains that the 1988 earthquake had shaken Metsamor so much they’d had to switch the thing off. Atomic power stations ain’t meant to be switched off, said Moscow, don’t even think about it. We’ve already done it, they replied. People moved away from the meltdown that never came. When the Georgian blockade in the mid-1990s reduced Armenians to one hour of electricity per day, everyone was doing the ironing, TV watching, cooking, all at the same time and overloading the circuits. Switch Metsamor back on said the people. These things were never meant to be switched either off or on again said the advisors in Moscow – you former Mithraics are playing with fire. Of course, they switched it back on anyway and waited for the second meltdown, which never came. So after this story, we drive slowly up to the entrance (still 2 miles away) and I take the snap casually (averting my eyes from a particularly bloody Tukh Manukh), say ‘Merci’ to Uncle Vanya and we sod off. ‘Schnoragollatzoo’, corrects Alina.

For the next three hours, we’re walking upon the dusty Neolithic hilltop from whence that atomic power station took its name – Metsamor is also the first metal-working place hereabouts, though I’m more impressed by the endless shavings of gloss black obsidian tools that crowd this hilltop, alongside the two types of thick crust Neolithic pottery – red and black – which I greedily stuff into pockets until I realise it’s every-fucking-where. The Soviet museum has no air-con of course but we suffer a full sweltering hour of the excellent tour. Then we sit outside for one of Alina’s wonderful Armenian picnics of herbs, lavash bread, beef tomatoes and goat’s cheese. The little boys playing in the dried river bed look so charred I hear Dorian’s mantra in the back of my head: “I do hope they’re wearing sunscreen!” When we return with white dust-coated sandals, I’m put out because the water hasn’t been switched back on yet. It’s 45 degrees Celsius as usual.

Next day, we visit the Armenian ‘Vatican’ on the hilltop at Etchmiadzin. When the ground under the altar started to subside in the early 20th century, attempts to shore it all up revealed a Mithraic fire temple from 1000 BCE. It didn’t seem to have phased the Armenian priests at all, indeed one of them proudly pointed out the great monolith on which Noah is said to have done Tukh Manukh after he descended from Mt. Ararat.

Next, it’s up into the hills for three hours to visit the lost citadel and megalithic necropolis of Ujan, Uncle Vanya and Zareh only start howling and beating the vegetation with sticks after a screaming Alina spots the first yellow snake – very poisonous, very deadly. Negotiating the Bronze Age walls around to the dolmen is slow and arduous but now its becoming clear why the Arartian Plain was the crossroads of prehistory. With Ararat looming to our south-west, this flat expanse of Armenia Endless was the obvious route for anyone going anywhere at all. From this Gods’ Eye view, it suddenly amazes me that Christian Armenia was not long ago subsumed into some huge Pan-Turkic Islamostan, and I thank divine providence that I’ve been allowed this glimpse of forever.

from Ujan across the Arartian plain

With the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat away to my west, it was only here at the citadel of Ujan, two hours’ climb above the Arartian plain, that I realised why this great flat and featureless landscape had for so long been the crossroads of all early civilisations.

Returning down the mountain, we’ve been invited for dinner at the local farmhouse, the farmer and his wife almost beside themselves that someone has come from England just to see Ujan. The farmhouse kitchen is very large for such an undecorated home. But the family is so poor that they’ve been here for 37 years with cement floors without so much as rush matting, still unpainted plaster ceiling, still unpainted walls. The family came here from western Armenia during the genocide, and Turkey has never allowed them to re-visit their old lands west of Mt. Ararat. The farmer turns the TV up louder instead of off. That’s because it shows they own a TV, says Zareh. Why would Armenian farmers paste Mars Bars wrappers neatly (but unframed) upon their walls? Because it shows they’ve had contact with Western culture, says Herr Director. Oh yeah, and though Zareh had forewarned me about the endless vodka toasts I’d have to endure, we’re on the fifth and I’m seeing stars and saying ‘merci’ to anyone who’ll listen. Schnoragollatzoo is drifting further away everyday and Ms. Armenia is pleading with me to attempt it, so I refuse even to say ‘merci’ and say ‘Ta’ instead and (playfully) tell her to lump it. The farmer’s wife has collected everything left uneaten from the table and packed it up for us to take back to Yerevan, including one month’s supply of the fresh feta their goats just pumped out. Man, I love these beleaguered people and I have tears in my eyes, so it’s a good job they accept the Western metaphor of my eternal Raybans at 11 pm.

Just before we enter the capital again, a wailing and a blue-lighted cavalcade of motorcycle outriders megaphones us to eat the dust and we pull over just in time to avoid the 7-car-convoy taking Dudu the Idiot to his Yerevan office. Uncle Vanya splutters out something that needs no translation.

Zorats Karer at full moon

On a hilltop one hour north of Iran, the holed-stone avenues of Zorats Karer attest to the resilience of Europe’s megalithic cultures.

Zorats Karer & the Iran Highway

The highway to Iran is full of 16-wheelers crawling in convoys that would be impassable in Northern Europe. However, it’s Mher’s weekend off and he’s driving us, so he overtakes five lorries at a time, sending oncoming traffic into the dust and fields, and gaining us precious time. Until the road runs out, that is. Out of nowhere, barriers across the whole highway signal the end of Armenia and the start of a bizarre annex controlled by Azerbijan, which forces all Armenians to do a 90 degree left turn up a dirt road into the hills. Hell, this is nowhere near Azerbijan says I – ah, says Zareh, this is the work of the Bolsheviks umpteen years ago and it don’t matter one jot that it’s closer to Syria because the whole deal was kosher’d before our mums and dads were even conceived.

Dammit, this place has me flummoxed. If Loki himself had been in charge of the ur-construction of this land he couldn’t have come up with a more convoluted method to screw the people. Now I need a piss badly, but everyone’s doing Tukh Manukh by the roadside stand-pipes so they can wash the blood off and I have to wait. We need petrol but Mher won’t buy more than two gallons at a time in case it isn’t petrol! Finally, running on empty, we pull up to a rusty petrol bowser guarded by a chained and staring Armenian shepherd dog. A toothless and staring guy armed with a big old funnel and a Russian can marked BEHZUH (benzine) comes out and sells us a gallon. Twenty kilometres down the shattered road, Mher is hitting the dashboard with frustration… was that petrol shit, I whisper to Zareh? No, it’s excellent and Mher wishes he’d bought more.

One hour north of the Iran border, I take a piss by the highway as a convoy of Iranian truckers pass by and stare at my be-shorted longhaired blond form. Two miles further south, we see the megaliths of Zorats Karer spread out a half mile to our right. They ride the crest of three ridges and come together in a great chaotic oval. Getting closer, I can see the stones are huge and full of holed stones right along their 150 metre avenues. Dammit, I’m bewildered. We spend three hours here, and I’m no longer phased by the huge lizards. Then, we take the unadopted idiot bastard road into Sisian at much less than 10 m.p.h. (no shit) and check into the Soviet hotel (£4 single room, £5 double room, £7 super-lux with living room and bath), then go out to eat at a beautiful restaurant. It’s situated in a river gulley in the gloaming and we drink Kilikia beer and Mulberry vodka, and I pay the £9 bill which even shocks Mher for its cheapness. Then, we return drunk to Zorats Karer and take photos in the Full Moon. That’s right, brothers and sisters, Zareh the super Druid has organised it so our trip hits Zorats Karer on the Full Moon. Zareh tells us all to stay close to each other as this is wolves and bears territory, but the photos are amazing and we’re so drunk we keep losing it. Back in the hotel, I’m the one with the super-lux room, but I can’t have a bath because the water’s been turned off… Next sunny mid-July morning, we discover the 104 bedrooms of the Soviet hotel were filled with us and one other guest. There is no tourist season in Armenia, moreover, this is a really poor area where some people lived in Neolithic caves until Stalin forced them out in the middle of the 20th century.

Goris Housing Development

GORIS HOUSING DEVELOPMENT A fine journalist I’d make – when an old woman struggled up the trackway walking her mule. It was so hard for her, I could not intrude by taking a photo.

About 9 pm and still 4 hours away from home in Yerevan, and with the light fading fast, we turn off the highway towards Angheragot where there’s said to be a megalithic temple buried under the village cemetery. This is all protracted, of course, as there are no signposts and we only discover we’ve overshot when the hill people moving their 400 strong herd of skinny-skinny cattle alert us to the fact, by which time we’re caught up in the cattle. However, we can take the cattle road instead and soon we are bumping and bouncing into the village like the aliens we clearly are. In the cemetery at twilight with suspicious locals hassling Zareh and Mher, I count 26 fallen megaliths and note a Bronze Age tomb being used as a Christian shrine. Let’s go, I’m nervous (for a change). At 1.20 a.m., a very attractive woman makes us eggs on a lonely desert roadside griddle still 90 minutes out of the city, and I wonder how I’d feel if this were Dorian’s job.

Sleep and a shower

Last day before leaving, the whole of the back door is gone. The Lada is temporarily trashed, but Zareh has organised a new driver who appears with a smart Lada 1600 belonging to Zareh’s composer father. Wow, after ten days in Armenia, a Lada that has been really well looked after looks almost like a limo. My expectations have already slid down a couple of notches, and I’m thinking that – from my own reactions – Americans and Western Europeans will get used to this (including the petrol shortages) when they finally have to.

I’m getting stared at in Yerevan centre more than I did in the villages. But the whole family comes out for a celebratory meal and we drink endless toasts to this marvellous land and its incredible people. By 11 p.m., we’re drunk as knobbies and staggering down to the bus stop, but we become unnerved when the bus crashes into a wall just behind us, disgorging screaming biddies and furious blowhards offering the driver out. Eh, let’s get taxis for once, says Alina’s darling momma, and soon a dark green Lada 1600 pulls up. The taxi driver is a cultured man with amazing bone structure, who hopes his son will one day become famous for playing the Armenian flute. He fires up the cassette player and out into the night drifts thee most haunted sound I ever heard. We surge up past the Tzitzernagaberd for the final time, playing the music of an unguaranteed forever, and I hope Armenia survives the next century in better shape than the Turks, Georgians and Azerbaijanis have let them survive this past one. Tomorrow, I fly back to Britain and should not return stinky! So I drunkenly stagger into the shower. But though it’s past midnight… the water’s still turned off.