Despite Ages of Captivity, The Armenians Persevere, The New York Times 1976

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We are lunching, a Russian business acquaintance and I, at this touchingly downatheel Moscow hotel, strictly for locals (it’s called the Minsk). I am slightly giggly from quaffing vodka on an empty stomach—and probably from being seated too close to a motley group of earnest musicians who are playing a 1950’s medley for these husky, miniskirted girls and their immaculately attired beaus prancing around the floor within inches of our table. We are sharing one of the few available tables with a short, darkcomplexioned man in an open shirt who smiles at us from time to time.

“He’s an Armenian,” my Russian friend informs me. “They are a very sympathetic people.”

In an instant the Armenian is telling us (in Russian, which my friend interprets for me) about his country, the smallest of all the Soviet republics—not much bigger than the state of Maryland and with considerably fewer inhabitants (about 2.5 million in 1970). In another instant he has gone off to his room, to return almost immediately carrying a paper bag containing a small bottle of Armenian cognac.

He pours hefty snorts for us, so we begin a succession of toasts. Meanwhile, our new friend is telling us, tears in his eyes, that he left his beloved country 10 days earlier so that he could visit his son the physicist, who works in Moscow. He is homesick, and glad that he will soon be returning to Armenia. Have some more of our cognac.

Later, my Russian friend—a square young man, properly cravated —adds to his characterization: “They’re all crazy, the Armenians. A sympathetic people, but crazy. You’ll see.” For as it happens, we are leaving the very next day for Erevan, capital of Armenia.

The journey from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport to Erevan takes three and a half hours aboard an IL‐18 prop plane, which made this passenger yearn for the quiet smoothness of jet craft (a jet was available for the return flight). We were fed aboard the IL‐18, greasy chunks of chicken handed out picnic style. Mine was rubbery and leaped into the seat rack all by itself—well, in any case, it got there. The toilet lacked paper, towels, and running water. It was, all told, a rigorous introduction to the great Russian heartland.

On the plane, though, and at the Erevan airport, I began to notice the striking contrast between the relaxed Armenians and the reserved, often gruff Russians who are their masters. “I feel as if I’m in a foreign country when I come here,” my Russian friend remarked. And that, precisely, is the point.

The Armenians are entitled to pursue their daytoday interests, to breed, even to prosper. On the surface, Armenian culturemusic, dance, the plastic arts—thrives. But the Armenians are a captive people; they are expected to think and talk and vote by Moscow time. The only independent Armenian state in modern history was snuffed out by Lenin in 1920.

And yet, there are those who are grateful to the Russians. Several Armenians I met said as much: “It is the Russians who have protected us from the Turks.” The Turkish pogroms of the 19th century, in Armenia, culminating in genocidal deportations and mass killings during World War I, are the Armenian version of the Jewish Holocaust. The history of those traumatic years is bound to come up in a conversation of any length; it’s in everybody’s books and paintings, and a monument to the Armenian holocaust dominates the capital, along with Mount Ararat.

I could see the famed mountain on clear mornings from the balcony of my hotel in Erevan. It Is almost a required backdrop in paintings and prints, the inevitable trademark on local products (including the potent, velvety cognac produced from vineyards in the Ararat valley). Ararat is the Hebrew word for Urartu, an ancient kingdom Inhabited by the predecessors of the Armenians, also a. mountain warrior folk. The sacred mountain stands in the center of historical end traditional Armenia, but today it is in Turkish territory.

The Bible says that Noah’s Ark ended its voyage there: “And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the Mountains of Ararat” (Genesis viii: 4). Assured that the floodwaters had receded, Noah disembarked with his family and livestock and proceeded to repopulate the earth. Legend had it that bits and pieces of the ark could be seen on the top of the mountain right down to modern times. I myself saw a respectable chunk of Noah’s wooden boat in a reliquary in the cathedral museum at Echmiadzin, Armenia’s traditional religious capital.

Only 12 miles from the modern, broadlaned capital of Erevan, Echmiadzin is the Canterbury to Erevan’s London, or the Kyoto to its Tokyo. Armenia was the first nation in the world to emb:ace Christianity as a etata religion (A.D. 301), and the Echmiadzin Cathedral and monastery were founded at that time. Like all ancient Armenian churches, the cathedral is characterized by a disarmingly naive, coneshaped steeple. With a minimum of ornament, the building (put up on the site of a pagan temple) is a solid stone construction, its arches sober romanesque curves. It is part of a large religious compound. Another large building here is the official residence of the supreme Catholicos. There are other living patriarchs of the Armenian Church (in Beirut and Istanbul), but their own Vasgin I, 130th in line from the very first spiritual leader, is considered by Soviet Armenians to be first among equals.

The Echmiadzin Cathedral has been rebuilt several times, following destructive invasions. Part of the earliest fifthcentury church still survives, now incorporated into more recent additions. But the church retains the original form of a cube, the conical roof set over the central nave. The, remains of. the pagan temple can be viewed under the main altar.

The cathedral also has its own small museum, containing a rich collection of ancient manuscripts and religious objects—chasubles, altar covers, even a spear purported to be the one that pierced Christ on the cross. And here I saw the piece of splintered driftwood found on Mount Ararat and considered to be a relic of Noah’s Ark. An English ‐speaking guide at the museum told me that the original piece of wood was larger than this sliver (the size of a large cigar), but a piece had to be broken off to be given to Catherine II of Russia, in return for which she gave the cathedral silver chasuble (on view here).

The town of Echmiadzin is on the scale you’d expect to find in Armenia—low buildings, leafy trees, attractive public squares. Outside the cathedral compound there are a number of other old churches. (If there are any similar churches in Erevan, they are carefully hidden.) Two particularly beautiful Echmiadzin churches are St. Hripsime and St. Gayané, both seventhcentury. Other superb and humble churches can be seen in the fertile vineyard and fruit orchard center of Ashtarak (Karmravor and St. Marine), at Mughni (St. George), at Biurakan (Artavazdik), none of them far from the capital.

Another sacred site provides an opportunity for an even closer approach to eternal Armenia—the Armenia of the early Christian years, of the centuries of warfare and plundering. For there is no doubt that Armenia survived through its religion. Monks created the Armenian alphabet, a beautiful and unique script, at the beginning of the fifth century, and in their fortified monasteries resisted successive hordes of invaders, copying and often hiding and thus preserving not only Armenia’s heritage but rare texts from Greek and other cultures. Armenia has lacked mountain hideaways.

We visited one such in a drive of less than 30 miles from the capital, on roads that, if they are not always good or even tarred, are a fitting introduction to this wild, hilly country of scrub vegetation, goatherds, peasants with multicolored caps, shirts and dresses. The car was occasionally blocked by flocks of sheep or goats. Then, deep inside a canyon, we reached Ghegard, site of the extraordinary Ayrivank monastery nestled in the gorge, below a crest of precipitous cliffs. Thanks to this remoteness, the Ghegard community has survived 1,000 years of bloody Asia Minor history.

At the entrance I watched local peasants leading lambs on rope leashes into the monastery compound. The animals were destined for sacrificial deaths. After being blessed they were taken out to the surrounding hills for slaughtering and roasting, the heads are returned to the monastery as a gift to the church. Later I saw half a dozen roastlamb barbecue picnics on the slopes just outside the monastery walls, the local people singing and dancing to the strains of Armenian tunes, a repetitious trilling reminiscent of Greek folk music. I also heard the piercing cries of newborn babies and discovered the crowded baptistery.

Ghegard means “spear”—the spear which wounded Christ. When Christianity reached Armenia in the fourth century the pagan temple on this site was replaced by a primitive church carved out of the rock. I met the head of the monastery, the velvet ‐ capped, brownrobed Bishop Vahan Terian, who speaks English. He showed me pagan carvings of a snake on ancient stones which were reutilized to build the Christian church.

Today the monastery’s main church building is a 13thcentury rectangle in the Armenian fashion, topped with the usual conical dome, protected by the steep rise of jagged rock above and, on the valley side, by fortified ramparts. But between the conical church and the cliffs, a series of remarkable halls—whole churches—have been hewn out of the basalt mountain. The 13thcentury architects carved their way into a room, then shaped its contours, chiseled its wall and ceiling decorations, its altar.

Some 4,000 Armenian churches and other landmarks are now on the list of protected historical monuments; 40 or 50 churches and seven monasteries are still in use.

I was anxious to visit the famous Matenadaran—”Manuscript Repository” —which contains a priceless collection of illuminated manuscripts spanning 15 centuries. It turned out to be a solemn and solidlooking building on a treecovered hillside above Erevan’s Lenin Prospect. The Matenadaran includes a research institute, reading rooms for scholars and vast underground storerooms. Its top floor has been opened as a small museum (from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. every day except Sunday and Monday; English guide available if advance notice is given of your visit).

Outside, a large contemporarystyle sculpture honors Mesrop Mashtots (361441), who created the Armenian alphabet. The repository contains 10,500 Armenian manuscripts out of the 25,000 believed to exist in the world.

“We were always considered orientals by the occidentals, and occidental by orientals,” a Soviet Armenian tells me. Life as well as art seems distinctly Mediterranean here, despite the absence of seacost. Summers are hot but dry. winters crisp; spring and fall can be ideal visiting times. The darkcomplexioned, wavyhaired people with their expressive features may remind travelers of Greeks (certainly not of blond Russians). Armenia is a sunny country, hot and dry, whose landscape is reminiscent of Israel. And there are more significant parallels: the centuries of persecutions and massacres which scattered the population across the seas, so that an estimated half of all Armenians live outside the boundaries of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. A segment of Armenia’s diaspora, like Israel’s, actively supports the motherland. Erevan’s museum of art, for example, contains works donated by Armenians living in the United States and other countries.

The memorial to Armenia’s own holocaust—the 1915 massacre of close to one million Armenians in Turkey—dominates the capital from the summit of a hill which has been transformed into a park. Built in 1965, the memorial consists of a slender pylon and 12 huge inclined slabs of basalt, set in a circle. Inside there is an eternal light and taped background music by Armenian composers. I was told that the 12 slabs represent the Armenian provinces of Turkey which were wiped out, the pylon the rebirth of the Armenian people.

Erevan is a city of contrasts, but not surprises. It is as old as Babylon—older than Rome, founded by an Urartu king eight centuries before Christ. The ruins of his citadel can be visited on a nearby hill. Other vestiges of its old glories were destroyed by Tamerlane in the 14th century and by other conquerors before and after him.

What remained of the old city has been razed in the name of progress, and when I came upon a surviving row of old wooden or clay houses on unpaved roads—shantytown is more like it—I was unable to regret the loss. The city, whose population is now upwards of 800,000, has been rebuilt in the rosy volcanic stone called tufa, which adds a festive air even to Lenin Square, an otherwise sobering mass containing the headquarters of the Central’ Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia as well as the post office, the art museum and the top ‐ class Hotel Armenia. Intourist quotes a 22‐ruble daily rate for a single room with breakfast in a firstclass hotel such as the Armenia or the Ani in Erevan. At the Ani, an Intourist service bureau can arrange day trips to major sites and reservations in typical restaurants. The Moscow‐Erevan round trip by air costs 68.50 rubles (about $96). Car rental runs from about $11 a day (for an adequate Volga) to $14, plus about 18 cents a kilometer.

The monumental architecture here is somehow less displeasing than its counterpart up north in Russia. When it is good,.as in the Hrazdan sports stadium, which seems to have been scooped out of the valley below the 1915 memorial, it can look very good indeed. At the central market on Lenin Prospect the outsize Stalinera facade has been livened up with a colorful rooftop array of cutout farm animals, fruits and vegetables which seem to have come out of the Disney factory. Inside, the market is a living museum of the fertile Ararat valley. It’s also the only market I have ever seen where every vender is required to wear a clean white skullcap.

Implausible quantities of 84‐proof brandy and gargantuan meals enhanced by pickles and spices are standard fare. The main dish is invariably lamb, broiled over a wood fire. Even breakfast is an openended affair, which may begin with smoked sturgeon and Belulga salmon, ham and cheese, proceeding through a wheatandchicken porridge, blinis (thick meat pancakes), cottage cheese smothered in heavy cream. The coffee we’d call Turkish and they would not. “Do you always eat such breakfasts?” I asked Armenians sitting near me in the hotel restaurant. “Yes, especially in the mornings,” came the reply. But starting a conversation means accepting the inevitable invitation to toast Soviet ‐ American, Armenian‐ American friendship with cognac, no matter that the clock has yet to strike 9 A.M. “Armenians do two things when they meet at the beginning of the day,” I was told. “They say, ‘Good morning.’ And then they toast each other with brandy.”

I spent a morning in Erevan’s art museum—State Picture Gallery is the official translation—which possesses outstanding examples of Armenian art through the ages. Ancient paintings resemble Byzantine, Russian and Greek icons—stylized features, deep oval eyes, elongated fingers. Alas, the paintings of more recent times resemble everybody else’s art. I saw Armenian Delacroix, Armenian French‐Impressionism, Armenian Schoolof‐Paris. At best, Armenian art combines traditions of east and west, just as Armenia itself is a little of Europe in Asia. There is also a good early Kandinsky here, and in the foreign rooms, works of Bassano, Donatello, Michelangelo, Della Robbia, Tintoretto.

My final sortie was to Lake Seven, a 37‐mile drive on a divided fourlane highway from Erevan. (On major roads such as this one, direction signs are in the Latin alphabet as ‘well as in Armenian and Cyrillic—otherwise not.) Sevan Lake, over a mile above sea level, covers a surface of some 400 square miles. It is a delight to the eye. The surrounding chain of hills turns mauve as the sun sinks to the horizon. There are bathing beaches,. small boats for hire. A Hovercraft baptized “Rocket” takes tourists on an hourlong excursion around the lake for 90 kopeks ($1.50). The most photographed sights here are a diminutive church with a charming redtinted conical roof, perched high above the shore, and a writers’ rest home down below whose windows make a. dramatic 360‐degree sweep around the lake panorama.

I ended that day at a hotelrestaurant high above the lakefront called Ach! Tamar. As usual In Armenia, a story came with dinner:

Tamar was a beautiful young village girl who lived on this side of the lake. She had a boyfriend in, a village on the opposite shore who would swim over to see her each night after dark, while Tamar stood on the short with an oil lamp. One night the boys from Tamar’s own village discover’ I what she was doing. They seized tier on the beach and blew out her lamp. Tamar’s young man, who no longer knew in what direction to swim, sunk under the water, exhausted. His final cry was “Ach! Tamar.”

I took away with me a package of Armenian cigarettes called “Ach! Tamar.” The label portrays Tamar in a diaphanous robe blown out by the wind.

Soviet society, says Saul Bellow (in his new novel “Humboldt’s Gift”) is the most boring in history. “Dowdiress shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party congresses, et cetera.”’

But somehow the Armenians have overcome the worst of this, or learned how to deal with it, as they have dealt with it, as they have dealt with their previous conquerors. I wasn’t bored in Armenia.

By Herbert R. Lottman The New York Times 1976

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