A Pink City, Pomegranates and a Pig: Exploring Armenia

A Pink City, Pomegranates and a Pig: Exploring Armenia

is a small, mountainous country nestled between
, Georgia,
Azerbaijan and Iran.
Many people would struggle to locate this ancient land on a map,
let alone know anything about its rich history, culture, landscapes
and people. It will no doubt come as a surprise then, that one of
the most famous families in the western world, the Kardashians, are
half Armenian – like me.

The Armenian diaspora numbers somewhere between six and ten
million. Following the 1915 Armenian Genocide its citizens spread
all over the globe and, while I was born in Britain,
my mother grew up in Lebanon
and my grandmother in
. Until a few weeks ago neither my mother, my grandmother
nor even my great-grandmother had ever set foot on Armenian soil;
it was a mythical place, one that we only experienced through
photographs, nursery rhymes and food.

As a small nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Armenia
has been ruled by Arabs, Greeks, Mongols, Persians and Romans. At
one point Armenia was also one of the great powers, with an empire
that stretched all the way to Rome. But the country suffered at the
hands of the Ottomans and during the 20th century was under soviet
rule. Modern Armenia has only enjoyed independence since 1991; a
baby in real terms, getting to grips with its newfound autonomy.
That said, while contemporary Armenia is young, it is also an
ancient country.

The capital, Yerevan, was founded in 782 BC and today is a pink
city full of roses. Buildings are nearly all constructed out of
volcanic tufa stone, a warm shade of coral, and wild roses sprout
up on every street corner. I was half expecting to be met with an
abundance of pomegranates – a national symbol – but it is mulberry
trees that line the streets in June. Far in the distance, the
biblical Mount Ararat, the summit of which Noah’s ark rested after
the flood, looks calmly over the city.

Despite now being a landlocked country, Yerevan is full of
water, with decorative fountains appearing in the centre of the
dozens of squares that are spread across the city sourced with
Armenia’s own spring water. My favourite is decorated with the

signs of the zodiac
in Charles Aznavour square, named after the
French-Armenian singer. Among others is Swan Lake, which gained
notoriety when Kanye West fell in it during an impromptu
performance held when the Kardashians visited the city.

Without a metro system or reliable public transport, travelling
by foot is the norm, but taxis are favourable in the sweltering
summer heat. All I wanted to do in Yerevan was buy a taraz (a
traditional Armenian dress) and eat jingalov hats, a type of
flatbread stuffed with seven herbs native to Armenia, which
originated from the region known outside Armenia as Nagorno
Karabakh – a contested enclave inside Azerbaijan. We easily found
the bread in a café on Teryan Street thanks to a recommendation
from Tatevik, who led the tours we took outside Yerevan with the
wonderful Hyur Service. The dress was a little harder to find.
After all but giving up, I caught glimpse of a red gown hanging
from a stall at the Vernissage market on our penultimate day in
Yerevan. The market is a huge open-air outlet full of carpets,
dolls and paintings. Pomegranates can be seen on every stall and
all the wares on sale exude the spirit of Armenia.

While Yerevan is undeniably charming, it is beyond the capital
that we discovered the real beauty of Armenia. Not far outside is
Etchmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world. We also visited St
Hripsime church where we learnt about the namesake saint, one of 35
Roman Christian virgins who had fled pagan Rome
and settled in Armenia. Tiridates III, king at the time, who was
likely Zoroastrianism in account of recent Persian invasion, was
struck by Hripsime’s beauty and wanted to marry her. She refused
and the king had all of the women killed. Legend has it that after
this rejection the king suffered from madness and turned into a
pig. He was then saved by Gregory the Illuminator and made
Christianity the state religion in 301 AD. It is these tales that
make up the rich tapestry of this little-visited country.

Meanwhile, high in the mountains, Geghard monastery is
breathtaking. Founded in the 4th century at the site of a sacred
spring inside a cave, it is partially carved out of a mountain and
feels like a mythical building from a film. On our visit men played
the duduk, a traditional Armenian flute at the bottom of the road
leading up to the monastery, while locals sold dried fruit, jam and
gata (a sweet bread).

On our way back from Geghard to Yerevan we stopped in the
countryside to see lavash (a soft, thin unleavened bread) being
made, which we ate with fresh herbs, halva (confectionary made out
of sesame and sunflower seeds) and cheese. So simple, yet so

On what was probably the sunniest day of our trip, we visited
the last remaining pagan temple, Garni, dedicated to the sun god
Mihr. Beside ancient places, we also discovered many gems inside
the galleries of Yerevan. A favourite was the Sergei Parajanov Museum, full of
weird and wonderful artworks by the late artist. The house museum
was full to burst with whimsical collages that juxtapose religious
themes, Armenian history and Parajanov’s own

Thanks to Instagram,
I managed to connect with in-the-know locals while I was in Yerevan
who took me out in the evening, hitting up nightspots like trendy
Simona bar.
We ate Armenian food at restaurants by the Cascade and Cafesjian Centre for the Arts
– a giant stairway that leads up to dozens of contemporary art
galleries and is surrounded by sculpture at every level. On our
final day we climbed to the top of the Cascade where we were able
to overlook the whole of Yerevan with the mountains framing the
city in the background like a photograph.

So, now you know something about Armenia. And hopefully it’s not
just about the Kardashians.

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