A Crash Course in Armenian History

The two days I spent in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, were Feb. 25 to 27, 2015. But it didn’t feel that way.

Everything I did and everywhere I went seemed suffused with the past; my trip turned, unexpectedly and unintentionally, into a crash course in Armenian history. I ate and made friends and drank beer and listened to music, and didn’t spend much doing it.

But what I’ll remember most is not what happened during my trip, but what had happened before. Perhaps that was inevitable in a region that has seen so much dramatic and often tragic turmoil over the centuries.

Before my two-week trip to Georgia and Armenia, I could tell you very little about the past of this landlocked Caucasus nation a quarter the size of Pennsylvania. I didn’t even know Yerevan was the capital; when I memorized every sovereign nation’s capital as a kid, the city was still part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

I was, of course, broadly familiar with the Armenian genocide of 1915 (ceremonies marking its 100th anniversary are set for April 24) and the ensuing diaspora that created large Armenian-American communities in Los Angeles and near Boston, where I grew up with a handful of children whose last names ended in -ian. But that was it.

Here are a few places I went that gave me, by the end, a much deeper, yet still quite superficial, understanding of a complicated country. Needless to say, lingering in museums and discussing national identity makes for a very inexpensive way to travel. (Not to mention reading: Vasily Grossman’s “An Armenian Sketchbook,” is highly recommended.)


You would have to be a centenarian to have firsthand memories of the Armenian genocide, during which Ottoman Turks massacred 1.5 million Armenians and drove out many more.

And yet it seems even young Armenians have absorbed a collective memory, perhaps in part thanks to the Armenian Genocide Museum and adjoining Tsitsernakaberd Memorial, my first stop in Yerevan. Several members of the Kardashians, one of the most prominent Armenian-American families, visited last week. Alas, the museum was undergoing a major overhaul, leaving only a temporary exhibition open.

Small though it was (and largely in Armenian), the exhibition’s English-language telegrams and newspaper articles were more than enough to provide a sobering introduction to what happened in Western Armenia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1915.

“Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful Armenian populations,” read a telegram from the American embassy in Constantinople to the State Department in Washington, “and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.”

I was equally riveted by the story of Musa Dagh, a mountain at the edge of the Mediterranean, where, in 1915, hundreds of Armenians holed up and fought off Ottoman attacks for over a month before being rescued by French warships. I later found out that the 1933 fictionalized novel version of the story, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” was inspirational and influential to European Jews living in ghettos during the Holocaust.

The memorial adjoining the museum consists of a nearly 150-foot-tall stele rising to a sharp point and cleft to symbolize the splitting of Western and Eastern Armenia, and 12 massive slabs representing the former provinces of Western Armenia that tilt inward over an eternal flame.

At first, I thought I had happened upon a major memorial service; three buses had disgorged soldiers bearing banners and carnations, and they marched in groups to the eternal flame. Yet no Armenians I spoke to, including a museum official, considered it extraordinary; apparently this was just an average Armenian day.

(Note that the temporary exhibit is now closed until April 24; the museum will open to the public on the 25th, at about two and a half times its original size.)

Syrian Influx

Armenian cuisine is not widely celebrated, but in recent years the restaurant scene in Yerevan has gotten a boost from an unlikely source. Not all Western Armenians who fled the genocide made it as far as now-vibrant Armenian communities of Los Angeles, Moscow or Marseille. Many sought refuge in Aleppo, Syria — and many of their descendants have since fled the current war and returned to their ancestral homeland. (Or at least the eastern side of it.)

The resulting Syrian-Armenian restaurants have taken Yerevan by storm, providing an uptick in spice and complexity with a mix of Syrian classics and Western Armenian dishes. I ate in three. The first and most obscure was a tiny lunch spot called Halepi Chasher. (That spelling might be inexact; the sign and the menu were only in Armenian script, but it means “Dishes from Aleppo.” The restaurant is tricky to find even by address, because it’s not on a street: this is its approximate location.)

Many dishes sounded familiar when the waitress read them aloud: falafel, for example, and fattoush, a traditional Levantine salad. But mante did not. Luckily, I went for it, and it turned out to be a devastatingly delicious soup of broth, tomato and sour cream studded with crispy, tiny boat-shaped meat dumplings. I later ate with Armenian friends-of-friends at Derian Kebab, a far livelier spot with an English menu and glorious meats. My final night in Yerevan I went alone to a higher-end place called Anteb. (All these meals were cheap; “higher end” means I spent about 4,850 dram, about $10.)

I had to be told that Anteb referred to Gaziantep, Turkey: and that the city had been a center of the Ottoman Armenian population. My mind started whirring. I had been to Gaziantep four years ago on a mundane but wonderful mission to write about pistachios. I had never even considered that the conservative Muslim city had once been largely Armenian Christian. I still think about that trip often; now I will think about it more.

Soviet Armenia

More than drab Soviet architecture and a corny amusement park in Victory Park, it was a curious museum that brought Soviet-era Armenia into sharp relief — a museum about a filmmaker whose exhibitions had little to do with film. The Sergei Parajanov Museum celebrates the Armenian director whose best-known work is “The Color of Pomegranates,” released in 1969 and well-received around the world. (Obviously, I hadn’t heard of it.)

His life span (1924 to 1990) mirrors, almost precisely, the existence of the Soviet Union (1922 to 1991), and his successes and struggles — ably explained by an English-speaking guide for 2,500 dram — seemed intimately associated with it. An Armenian born in Georgia and trained in Ukraine, his filmmaking was regularly disrupted by the Soviet government and authorities eventually imprisoned him from 1974 to 1977 for his work and outspokenness, though the official charges included homosexuality and trafficking of artwork..

Our guide explained that Parajanov channeled creativity that was stifled in his films toward his collages, which he made out of just about anything from hairpins to dolls to ladies hats to religious items. If you value creativity and mold-breaking over technique, you’ll like this place. Parajanov even used nails and foil yogurt caps to make portraits of his fellow inmates in prison, and they’re darn good.

His life story also reminded me of another tragedy of Armenian history, the devastating 1988 earthquake. The house the museum sits in was to have been Parajnov’s retirement home; construction stopped because of the earthquake, and he never moved in.

Long History

History museums in small countries are often fascinating but esoteric (so that’s what ancient Cyprus was like!). Perhaps that what I was expecting when I visited the History Museum of Armenia, but I soon realized the world, or at least Eurasia, is reflected through this country’s tortured story.

Even its collection of ancient objects is world class; Armenia has yielded rich archaeological findings. Hey, it’s the world’s oldest surviving leather shoe, a right-footed moccasin dated to 3500 B.C.! There are astonishing wooden burial chariots found when Lake Sevan receded and a stone hearth with “circular depressions for ritual bloodletting.”

But things start to get really good in the last two millenniums, as Armenia becomes the first officially Christian nation (A.D. 301) and invents its own alphabet a century later (405), but then succumbs to a mind-boggling array of outside powers.

Name an imperialistically inclined Eurasian people, and they’ve probably have taken over at some point: Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, Russian Bolsheviks. Which makes it all the more miraculous that the Armenian culture, religion and alphabet have survived to this day.

The New York Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *