The illuminating facades that still encompass the interior decors of one of the world’s oldest Cathedrals remains engraved in my mental hard drive. Reading about a certain historical landmark and actually witnessing it in person are two very different dynamics. Some of you may recall reading about the cultural and social experiences that one might categorize as unusual or unique in my last article titled Homage to Kingsley Drive. This article will yet again delve into another experience that much like the days in that inimitable apartment in Hollywood, I felt the rightful need to pay homage to.
It was during those early years where one would conceptualize the notion that a person growing up in a place called Little Armenia would belong to two different worlds. Having been raised in the heart of Los Angeles; the term “home” often times entailed two different meanings. For all my life, I reserved the title home for the gum-ridden streets of East Hollywood. Until this day I find myself romanticizing about those streets as if I were painting a literary picture of Paris or London. However, just as it does for me, the term home for so many other people living in the United States does indeed carry a bilateral definition.
The other home which was barely touched upon in Homage to Kingsley Drive is the land where my ancestors and forefathers lived on for numerous centuries. This home is nestled in the South Caucasus inside an extremely difficult neighborhood. Unlike the home in which I grew up in as a child, this figurative second home has indeed had a troubled past; often times with lousy tenants who commonly ravaged and left the house in complete mess and disarray. However, with a great amount of remodeling and changes in ownership over the decades, the present-day Republic of Armenia is in a far better place than it was a hundred years ago.
Being a romantic can have various positive (and sometimes negative) attributions. For starters, a romantic’s imagination can serve as a canvas for extraordinarily limitless amounts of passion and dedication where those imaginations can thrive. For as long as I can remember, the concept of “Armenia” was always a romantic memory and concept. Though I had never set a foot on the soil of the motherland, stories and accounts from family members and friends of the old country helped illustrate this romantic image of a land thousands of miles away; so foreign but yet familiar in odd ways.
It is said that before a person can go about studying the histories of different peoples and cultures; it is imperative that he or she discovers his or her own history first. For the common Armenian-American in Los Angeles; the topic of Armenian history is often times short and vague, consisting of stories of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War; the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century and the reassurance to non-Armenians that all our present-day misfortunes are intertwined with the scattering of Genocide survivors and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though these historical lessons are valid and important; there was a side of Armenian history that I always found fascinating; often overlooked by so many Armenians living in the Diaspora.
Ancient history, linguistics, anthropology and culture have always stood at the forefront of my intellectual curiosity as a romantic and a student of the past. In school, we learned about the various empires that ruled the known world during the age of antiquity. One common recurrence that was difficult to ignore in the maps of those ancient empires was the land titled “Armenia.” Prior to the age of Wikipedia and the internet; the only source available for researching the land of Armenia was through various academic publications that were commonly rented from libraries and local Armenian bookstores.
In the summer of 2007, I took a totally unorthodox initiative in signing up for study abroad program in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. For most young American college students, destinations such as Spain, Italy or France would seem like rational locations for studying abroad. However my unconventional decision was a product reflecting all the romanticism that had conquered my imagination for as long as I could remember. Sure, I would have loved to live in Madrid for a couple of months; “studying” during the mornings while drinking Sangria during siesta and partying at discotheques until sunrise. However, none of these other places could offer me what Armenia offered. Though the history of Rome can never be matched (historically speaking,) I was neither Roman nor Italian; and though the opportunity to immense myself in the streets of the Eternal City would have been absolutely magnificent; I felt as though it was imperative to visit and explore my own past before embarking on journeys elsewhere.
Yerevan was and still is a truly unique city. Commonly nicknamed “the pink city” during the Soviet times, this tiny little capital in the South Caucasus was where I would spend nearly three months during the summer of 2007. Being just 19-years-old, I had never lived alone; let alone lived by myself in a foreign country. I can remember clearly the unexplainable emotion that ran through my soul during the first couple of mornings during my stay in Yerevan. For the first time in my life I would walk in streets where every single living and breathing soul shared a common heritage and ancestry with me. It was also an eerie feeling as well. Having lived all my life in a melting pot of a city like Los Angeles; I found myself in the presence of a completely homogenous reality. From the police officers patrolling the roads with their pointy Soviet-era hats to the young street musicians outside a café asking for donations; it was unlike anything I had experienced before.
The land of Armenia, as seen on those ancient maps in history books, is no longer as big as it used to be. Present-day Armenia is only a microscopic size compared to the land geographically labeled as “Greater Armenia” by historians. Regardless of this unfortunate reality; I commonly reminded myself that the mere existence of an Armenian Republic (given all her past troubles) was something I shouldn’t take for granted. The curriculum during the study abroad program included Armenian history, language and politics. As mentioned earlier on in the article; it’s one thing to read about history through words in books; however to actually witness it with your own eyes is vastly different and satisfying. I could spend countless hours typing about the breathtaking sceneries of the Armenian countryside; or the sheer awe I felt standing in front of a reconstructed Pagan temple from the 2nd century; however, I would like to focus on two particular incidences during my trip that would serve as the perfect ingredients for the recipe of this homage. The first deals with the confronting the past; and the second will focus more on appreciating the future.
Thriller at the Border & Coming to Terms with the Past
During the final years of the decaying and crumbling Soviet Union; ethnic tensions arose throughout the USSR. With the concept of statehood looking inevitable; the various Soviet Republics looked at the possibility of gaining independence; and even some sought to add a bit more territory. From 1988-1994, ethnic Armenians in the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh demanded for independence and autonomy from Azerbaijan. Their demands were unfortunately met with violence which paved the way for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The war was bloody and full of heavy casualties on both sides. Though a ceasefire was ultimately reached by the two sides in 1994; the political impact of that particular war is still visible not only with Armenia’s relationship with Azerbaijan; but with neighboring Turkey as well. As a Turkic-speaking Islamic country, Azerbaijan was (and still is) seen as a sister country to the Republic of Turkey. As support for their blood-relatives during the conflict, Turkey decided to permanently close the border with Armenia with aims of suffocating her politically and more importantly economically.
In the midst of the scorching July heat; our study abroad group would have the rare opportunity of visiting that controversial Turkish-Armenian border. Patrolled mainly by Russian and Armenian soldiers; this militarized land separating two historic foes served as a unique occasion of seeing the ancient Armenian capital city of Ani; which stood directly in front of us at the border. Across the Aras River and located on Turkish territory; the once powerful and almighty capital of Ani looked like a ghost town. She looked hungry and full of thirst; starving for some remembrance and recognition of her past; which had for so long been ignored due to earthquakes, invasions, vandalism and destruction by foreign occupants.
Having studied a great deal of Armenian history, I knew very well how beautiful Ani once was. As a major hub for merchants and travelers during the age of the silk route; the capital was a prominent and metropolitan city that served vital for trade and commerce from Asia to Europe. Seeing the city from a far distance was a memory that I will never forget for perhaps not-so-joyous reasons. You see, that hot July day at the border further exemplified the sad reality that so much of our history was lost and neglected in Turkey today. There I was, at one of the most hostile borders in the world; mesmerized at ruins of a city that absolutely nobody on the other side cared for.
With signs in Russian reading “No Photographs,” my stubbornness came into fruition as I was destined to take a picture with my Nikon camera. Let’s not forget that this was before the age of the Smartphone and the convenience of modern-day photography with a phone . Right as I took out my camera, I remember one of the Russian soldiers yelling “niet photograph! niet photograph! (No pictures, no pictures!)” The last thing I wanted to do was cause problems at that that precise moment and at that precise location. Though I failed to take a quick picture of the ancient capital; I found myself feeling grief for the ruins that lay in the distance. There she was, alone and scared; naked and abused, and there was nothing that I or any of us could do to change that.
On the drive back to the Yerevan, I remember being overwhelmed by what I had just witnessed and experienced. There I was, subdued by great emotion at the fact that something so close was so unobtainable and unreachable. Having studied all those maps of ancient Armenia, I was immensely saddened at the inevitable reality that much like the ruins of Ani, numerous other historic churches, fortresses and artifacts throughout Eastern Turkey will one day go ignored and unappreciated. Though this feeling of helplessness was unavoidable; I convinced myself that as long as Armenians exist, so will the history. As decedents of genocide survivors, keeping anything we can is a testament of will and survival. We’ve survived and persevered through many dark chapters. We’ve been subjects to every major empire in history; from Roman to Ottoman. Our will to survive gives me hope that through our will and dedication; the ruins of Ani will never be forgotten even when they no longer reside on Armenian territory.
A Cascade of the Future:
One of my favorite pastimes in Yerevan was walking around the streets aimlessly with no destination in mind. Periodically I would photograph Yerevanians doing normal things. Whether it was a child riding his bicycle in courtyard of the Opera House or couples strolling around Lover’s Park; my intrusiveness and photographs would ultimately serve as nostalgic memories of my summer exactly a decade ago.
As pertaining to the future, I specifically remember speaking with a couple of children on one of my many strolls of the city. Noticing that I wasn’t exactly dressed like I was from Yerevan; the kids began asking me questions about who I was and where I was from. Questions ranging from “have you been to Disneyland?” or “are you going to stay in Armenia permanently?” I noticed something very special in these children. Perhaps it was the innocence in their eyes or the smiles on their faces; I came to visualize the future of the Armenian people by just interacting with these kids for that short period of time.
Many tourists who have visited Armenia commonly criticize the older generation for often times appearing pessimistic or not-so-welcoming. I expected this prior to my arrival purely based off historical reasons and how those elements contributed to the inevitable pessimism that one of would experience. Often times it is said that the pain and suffering of the Armenian people can clearly be seen on the faces of the people. Most of the older generation of Armenia lived through communism and were not so fortunate as today’s youth. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a devastating earthquake in 1988 and a conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, living during the early 90’s in Armenia was indeed tough. Often times referred to as the “dark and cold years,” the older generation endured many hardships; so it came to no surprise that many of them did not seem so optimistic of the future.
However, the old generation will one day be replaced by the youth of today. Though I have not visited Armenia in nearly a decade; I do keep up with everything that’s going on in the country. Being a relatively new country (about 26-years-old,) everything is always changing in Armenia. With the age of the internet and advancements of technology, places like Armenia is experience a technology boom like no other. You see, the concept of an Armenian Republic within itself is something of a miracle. Given all that has happened to us in the past; the mere existence of a country called Armenia gave thousands of Diasporan Armenians a reason to invest and even relocate. This free and democratic republic is today experiencing the effects of a smaller world through technological advancement. That, coupled with the rising number of ethnic Armenians relocating to their homeland due to the civil war, has initiated a new chapter for the Armenian people.
Those children that I mentioned earlier on this portion are now probably in their mid-teens. Some of them are probably finishing up high school and most (I hope) probably envision themselves attending universities and further solidifying the hope which I felt in those eyes all those years ago.
To finish up this homage to the homeland; I would like to leave you with yet another memory which would sadly be my last. During my last night in the city; I decided to climb up the Yerevan Cascade; a giant stairway leading to a wonderful view of the entire city and Mount Ararat. Knowing that it would be busy during the day, I decided to make an evening out of it. Stopping by a local liquor store on my way there, I purchased a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes. Breathless and full of emotion, I finally reached the final steps. With Yerevan’s beautiful lights glaring at me like I had never seen before; I sat there completely mesmerized. Listening to my favorite Armenian artist Ruben Hakhverdyan while taking sips of the sweet Armenian wine, I realized how much I was going to miss all of it. Transitioning from Los Angeles to Yerevan was not easy; but I enjoyed every minute of it.
Though I have not visited in a decade; I do hope so in the near future. It brings me an immense amount of joy when I hear about positive experiences of tourists visiting (and even moving to) the homeland. That particular trip was indeed a study abroad experience that taught me a lot about not only the people of Armenia but also the positive direction I hope it will ultimately take.
Much like my homage to Kinglsey Drive; this was my homage to the homeland.
Thank you for Reading.