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by Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers’ Tales)

Republic Square

Republic Square has a beauty that touches one’s soul. The hues of serene pink to soft orange of 19th century edifices in locally-mined stone called “tuff” take on a different persona with the rising sun, in mid-day’s bold light, and during evening shadows. This square is Rick’s and my spectacular debut to Yerevan, the capital, which rests in a valley with the Hrazdan River winding through it.

Biblical Mount Ararat

But, more city sites are on hold as Mount Ararat beckons, the traditional landing place of Noah’s Arc after the flood. A taxi swifts us 30km south of Yerevan where we summon stamina to climb the steps to the 7th century Khor Virap Monastery. From this viewpoint our eyes affix on the 5,137m (16,854 ft) snow-capped Ararat across the Turkish border. Once located in Armenia, this biblical mount came under Turkish control during the 1920 Turkish-Armenian War. Expeditions for ark relics have gone on for centuries, and although discoveries of petrified wood have not been validated as arc remnants, it is surreal to gaze upon this legendary mount.

Museum of Armenian History

Back in Yerevan a must see is the State Museum of Armenian History. The prized artifact is a 5,500 year-old shoe, the oldest leather shoe in the world! Found in a cave in 2008, the exceptional preservation was due to the dry-grass-stuffed shoes being encased in layers of sheep dung. I envision the wearer tightening the leather laces crossing on top of this moccasin-type shoe, and stepping out for some purpose during the Copper Age.

Other show-stoppers are Bronze Age chariots and wagons discovered when the water level of the country’s Lake Sevan was reduced, revealing an extensive cemetery. The largest has solid oak wheels, and flexible branches forming a semicircular roof. My love of archeology is well satiated.

The Cascades fat cat

“This could only be a Fernando Botero!” I exclaim as we near the cheerful fat cat sculpture …and it is! More of this Colombian’s work, along with works of other internationally and locally renowned sculptors dot gardens fronting the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. I relate to the complex also going by “The Cascades” as we climb the 572 outer steps of the museum structure. The steps are interspersed by platform levels with fountains and more impressive sculptures, and from which we access the inner contemporary art collection.

Mother Armenia statue

Our next site is the 23m-high statue of Mother Armenia, a massive sword held defensively in front of her. She replaced a Stalin statue in 1967, yet her plaza home appears Soviet-classic with old tanks and aircraft.

“Are we still in Armenia?” I ask Miriam, our guide, at the sight of Greco-Roman colonnades of Garni Temple, our first stop on a day-trip.

As we climb the steps to the temple’s inner sanctum, Miriam explains, “Garni was dedicated to the pagan sun god during Hellenistic times. Later it became a summer home for the country’s royalty, until destroyed in a 1679 earthquake. Reconstruction took place mid-20th century.”

Geghard Cave Monastery

We next arrive at the canyon setting of Geghard Monastery. My heart thumps in the shadowy cave church where pilgrims fill vessels with holy water from the same spring as Gregory the Illuminator when he founded the monastery in the 4th century. Some churches within the complex are entirely dug into the cliff rocks, from small sizes to large elaborate structures. The main free-standing church was built in 1215.

Armenian sweet bread

On the monastery grounds tantalizing scents waft from tables where ladies sell baked goods side-by-side with religious items. “My husband would never forgive me if I left without “gata”,” Miriam chuckles while purchasing two rounds of Armenian sweet bread with walnut filling. To our delight on the drive back to Yerevan she divvies up one for us! Delicious!

Lake Sevan view from monastery

Another day a taxi transports us to freshwater and fish-rich Lake Sevan, perched1900m (6,234 ft) above sea level. The town of Sevan bustles with activity as we make our way past souvenir stalls and up the long flight of steps to a monastery with a panoramic view of the deep-blue lake. On the way down a seller cleverly holds up a moonstone necklace so it picks up the light just right – so, of course, it comes away with me.

Republic Square by night

Each evening before settling into our cozy hotel room, we make our way back to Republic Square to join the flood of people perched on ledges and benches around the lit-up fountains. Our visit to Armenia was a whirlwind of historical, cultural riches, friendly locals…all now tucked in memories.


PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1 Republic Square
2 Biblical Mount Ararat
3 Museum of Armenian History
4 The Cascades fat cat
5 Mother Armenia statue
6 Garni Temple
7 Geghard Cave Monastery
8 Armenian sweet bread
9 Lake Sevan view from monastery
10 Republic Square by night

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