Exploring New Horizons…Armenia Trip review by Ihab Zaki
After a long anticipated period, close to 3 years, I finally got my act together and visited Armenia, escorting one of our groups that were touring there for 1 week. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this country, but something about it had always appealed to me. Maybe it is its ancient Christian heritage, maybe the resilience of its people to survive as a special ethnic group with its own language throughout millennia, or maybe it was the vision of their traumatic genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915, followed by Soviet rule and now their emergence (in 1991) as an independent country. I never knew how powerful the Armenian kingdom throughout its glorious past, nor did I realize its tremendous influence on the crossroads of various empires and civilizations, such as the Parthian, Persian, Seljuk and Mongol.
We arrived late at night into Yerevan and were met by our guide Anna who greeted us with a smile and the 16 of us, all anticipating a wonderful adventure, boarded a large, comfortable bus and headed to our lodgings. I knew I was in for a delightful surprise as soon as we arrived at our hotel, the Marriott, in the heart of the city overlooking the majestic Republic Square. Surrounded by elegant architecture constructed with red tufa stone and an abundance of beautifully-lit turn of the century buildings, the square is the true heart of the city of Yerevan, a growing metropolis of about 2 million people! Our tour began the following morning as we set out into the beautiful crisp fall weather (in the mid 60’s and sunny) with our capable lecturer Professor Gregory Areshian on a stroll to visit the grand building that houses the National Museum overlooking the main square. For the next 2 hours we were given a comprehensive overview of the marvels of Armenian history and archaeology. Then after a lovely lunch we had some free time to explore the huge open air market called “Vernisage” where we browsed through art work, antiques, carpets, and silverware. Next morning, we drove through beautiful landscape under the shadow of the impressive Mt. Ararat to explore the Roman temple of Garni; later we toured an Armenian monastery perched on a cliff. After a wonderful lunch, we journeyed back to Yerevan for a sobering visit to the Genocide Museum. To lighten the mood, we took a fun tour of a cognac factory followed by wine and cognac sampling, which relaxed everyone and gave us a good start bonding together as a group! We wished we could take some home with us, but knowing that in a few days we’ll be crossing to Iran, it was not possible.
Our third day took us again through many mountains and valleys in the Armenia Highlands to visit some of the country’s impressive monasteries and cathedrals. We began with a tour of St. Hripsime in the town of Ejmiatsin where in 304 AD the Armenian Church was born. Our next stop was Zvartnots Cathedral, where we were serenaded by an all girl choir singing some beautiful melodies from the Armenian church repertoire. Later on we paid a visit to the magnificent building housing the famous manuscripts. Our next two days took us to the northern part of the country through some of the spectacular vistas of Armenia, soaring peaks and rushing rivers as well as many forests covered with trees with stunning fall colors. We made several stops at monasteries, each in its own beautiful setting, one on Lake Sevan, another overlooking Mt. Aragats (Armenia’s second highest peak) and we ended in a small cozy hotel along the river bank where we enjoyed a delightful dinner, accompanied by some great wines. We returned to Yerevan passing by more monasteries and through small villages and we were treated to a family-hosted lunch at a home in one of the villages. We feasted on homemade food and got a glimpse into the dwelling of a middle class family in modern time Armenian.
Our days were always thrilling and filled with informative knowledge given to us by Anna and Professor Areshian, whom I would not hesitate to consider one of the most knowledgeable scholars of the ancient world and its antiquities. He took us through the old empire’s timeline, events and anecdotes in the most captivating manner! We had returned to Yerevan with an appreciation for what we had seen and learned and an eagerness to continue the journey. After partaking in another of Marriott’s lavish breakfasts, we packed our bags to start the drive south. I must say that between our lunches and dinners, we had experienced a wonderful array of Armenian dishes and cuisines. The planning of meals was perfect, as we dined in typical, charming restaurants, always with appetizers, cheeses and delicious salads followed by a main course. The owner of the local agency joined us on many occasions and was extra generous in offering us wine, beer and local cognacs and everyone in the group agreed that her constant attention to the group made us feel very welcome in her country.
The day we left Yerevan to head south was another one filled with adventures, the highlight being our visit to Dvin, the site that Gregory has been excavating for many seasons. He gave us the royal treatment which included a fabulous orientation followed by a snack at their dig house. From here we drove to one of the most impressive monasteries in Armenia, Khor Vorap which is at the foot of Mt Ararat, very close to the Turkish Border. We finally glimpsed Ararat’s peak without a cloud, and stopped to take endless photographs before continuing on.
Lunch was a treat as we picnicked on BBQ pork at a cave within a spectacular gorge with a gushing river passing through it! Afterwards Gregory had a another surprise for us - a special visit to an active excavation site in a Neolithic cave where prunes, grapes and seeds that date as far back as 4000 BC have been discovered, along with skeletons and various artifacts. As we climbed to reach the cave he gave us insights on the fascinating details of the excavators’ current work and future plans. Most of the site and its discoveries have not been published as of yet but the National Geographic Society has allocated funds to continue work in that unique area!
We finally arrived in a charming mountain town called Goris where we had our last night in Armenia at an alpine-looking lodge with beautiful décor and very inviting rooms. Nellie, the owner, joined us for dinner which was a true farewell event. We all partook in the savory Apricot-Vodka and cognac and the group was animated as they toasted their wonderful week in Armenia. On the last day, we left Goris and climbed through lush forests situated on stunning mountains to elevations as high as 8000 feet. Following the Arax River, we continued on to the Iranian border crossing at the town of Meghri. An uneventful passage landed us into Iran and from there we met our guide Seyed and our capable Iranian driver Bahram with his large bus. They took us on a long drive as we continued along the Arax River (which in that stretch divides Iran from Armenia and Azerbaijan).
That said I hope I have whetted your appetite and made you curious to see this amazing country for yourself. Now is the time as it has not yet been “discovered” by commercial tourism and you feel as if you have the place to yourself.