Barev, Armenia!

A beautiful land with a harsh history.

When I told people I was going to Armenia with Heifer, the most frequent response was, “Wow, um.. where is that?”

So – first the geography lesson: Armenia is just east of Turkey and bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan on the East and Iran to the South. Which basically means Armenia is a raft of Christianity in a sea of Muslim countries (Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD). And that has pretty much defined and shaped its turbulent history through the ages.

Armenia is a mystical place – filled with monasteries, pagan temples, prayer stones and churches, most tucked away in wildly remote places to protect them from destruction. (It didn’t.)

Noravank Monastery, in a gorgeous bedrock canyon that reminded me of Utah.

These Christian monuments are the pride of Armenia, as well as testament to a seemingly endless parade of invaders: conquering Persians, rampaging Mongols, invading Turks, totalitarian Soviets, as well as the ravages of devastating earthquakes. For over 600 years, Armenians knew themselves to be a distinct people, and yet were not a sovereign country. Faced with hostility from all sides, Armenians held fast to their identity and managed to survive into the modern era with a faith as deep and constant as the obsidian stone that is part of this beautiful landscape.

Even Armenia’s beloved Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed, is now part of Turkey.

Although the Kardashians are undoubtedly the world’s most famous Armenians, they are not typical of the Armenian character (sorry, Kanye) – although I did see an awful lot of beautiful women in the modern capital of Yerevan. Actually, it’s a bit hard to get a firm grasp on the Armenian character because it’s full of such deep contradictions.

Armenians are enormously proud, highly educated (with a literacy rate of almost 100%), and hospitable beyond your wildest expectations. In centuries of life along the Silk Route, Armenians became known for their business savvy in commerce and trade, and they interacted easily with almost every European and Asian culture. But Armenia’s psyche is indelibly haunted by the memory of great loss (1.5 million annihilated in 1915 alone) and like all the Caucasus’s states, the people have experienced centuries of brutal conflict that staggers the imagination and continues today.

Woman deep in sorrow at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Armenian people are tough; they’ve had to be to. But they are also joyful, sweet people who love to garden, to eat, to talk and to welcome visitors — particularly if you’re one of the 8 million Diaspora Armenians who’s coming back home.

An Armenian rule: If you walk by when someone’s baking bread, you have to eat some. (Oh, twist my arm!)

Armenia was a part of the Soviet Socialist Republics for more than 70 years, and has only been independent for 21 years. Like Romania, Armenia’s economy was far more robust and productive under Soviet rule, and the country is still struggling to establish a modern economy with almost no natural resources (and with its two borders with Turkey & Azerbaijan closed). While the capital of Yerevan is bustling, elegant and thriving,  in the countryside there is little besides subsistence farming to support the villagers, and the poverty rate approaches 35%. Many men have immigrated to take jobs in neighboring countries; in fact, three times as many Armenians now live outside the country as inhabit it.

But Armenia is hardly depressing. For one thing, the country is beautiful. The food is incredible ( a big fat blog on that later), and the people are totally endearing.

Even their blooming Christian cross never features a Christ, because Armenians believe in the rising.. not the suffering.

And that’s as good a prescription for moving forward as anything I can imagine!

Categories: Armenia, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

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32 thoughts on “Barev, Armenia!

  1. Add me to the list of people asking “where’s Armenia”? Thanks for the lesson. What do they speak? A Arabic dialect or is it more Russian based?

    • I love your questions, EOSR — Armenia has its own language, not based on any other, that’s been around for over 1600 years! It is one of only 13 distinct alphabets in the world and it’s got 39 letters, which makes it one of the most difficult languages to learn (we have a measly 26 in English). I couldn’t really understand anything — particularly the written language. But most folks also speak Russian, since they were a Soviet republic for 70 years … and now many people want to learn English, too!

  2. graciousanddangerous

    Thank you for this educational post. I only learned of Armenia when I was googling the Kardashians. At least now I know more about the country and its culture. Fascinating!

    • And in the coming weeks, you’re going to learn even more about Armenia, GAD — it’s a really fascinating country!! Thanks so much for reading!!

  3. Pingback: Brevah, Armenia! | Home Far Away From Home

  4. Didi

    When I was a kid…the admonishment at dinner was eat all you dinner…remember the starving Armenians. I had no idea who or where they were. Now I know. Thanks Betty!

    • Didi — that was such a powerful international cause for most Americans at that time — and oddly, was one of the first times that Dan West, founder of Heifer, developed a passion for international aid. So.. you could say it all started in Armenia! Stay tuned for more stories — I loved this country!!!

  5. Judy Huynh (friend of Jackson Kaguri)

    I was in Armenia last November with a group of AVCs (Area Volunteer Coordinators) for Heifer. I loved it! In fact, I did two programs on Heifer in Armenia last week. Please tell Anahit, Liana and the rest of the people in the Heifer office “hello” for me. And tell them to send more photos of Maria; she’s such a beautiful baby!
    I love reading all of your blogs, but the ones from Armenia will be especially interesting to me, as will next month’s when you go to Vietnam, where my son lives.

  6. Judy, How great is Anahit??! I absolutely loved the whole team and spent a lot of time with Vahe… and all the beneficiaries. Can’t wait to write about it!! (And I leave for Vietnam in two weeks – so those posts will be coming up, too. So jealous that your son gets to live there … what a gorgeous country!!

  7. Anne Orndahl

    Betty, thank you for another wonderful, enlightening blog! Who knew that the Armenian language is so complicated? I loved learning about the early history of Armenia, and their uplifting Christian faith.

  8. kategreer

    Beautiful! I would never have thought of visiting Armenia until now!

  9. Your descriptions and images remind me so much of Armenia’s neighbor, Georgia, where I spent time traveling for CHF International, a worldwide development agency. This part of the world is filled with deep & complicated history, beautiful religious icons, cave-dwelling monks, rich textile traditions, and stories of suffering. I look forward to your stories from the trails of the Silk Road!

  10. etexbill

    Fascinating! Beautiful photos. I love reading your blog.

  11. Judith Gibson

    I am so glad I joined your blog recently…address taken from the last magazine. Wonderful!!

  12. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a map of the world with no country names on it, and see how many you could name ? I know I’d be embarrassed by how few I could name.

    Thanks for helping me place Armenia on the map and learn more about the country.

    • Dearest Sybil, Thanks to EOSR, one of my readers, I spent a fun but humiliating day with puzzles online doing exactly that — trying to put all the countries into their continents. It was incredible how much I didn’t know about Europe … and Eastern Europe?? fuggetabutit! I loved Armenia and can’t wait to write more ….

  13. Thanks for another eye-opening post Betty! Being the first to officially adopt Christianity I can only imagine the hardships and atrocities these people have endured over the centuries, especially given their geographical location. It’s great that we have someone like you however to share all the positive, wonderful facets of this part of the world, and always inspiring to see people in difficult living situations still making the effort to be kind and hospitable.

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Thanks, FF … one of the things I love doing the very most is learning about the history and particular unique qualities of a country and then seeing how it really impacts and informs that country’s experience, as well as its issues with poverty and hunger. I love the way Heifer programs are so customized to take that into account, given their 98% staff from the country itself. I’m so happy you’re reading …

  15. How lovely – information mixed with passion mixed with humanity mixed with geography. Not just wonderful, but educational, too 🙂

  16. Sharon McBride

    I too was fortunate enough to be on the Armenia study tour with Heifer International and so blessed to have had the opportunity to meet Anahit, Vahe, Lianna and the other wonderful Heifer staff. The one thing I found very interesting (among thousands of things) were how happy and giving the Armenian people that lived in the remote areas with little in the way of material things were. We were offered tables full of delicious food at every sparse little home we visited, the people were so kind and although none of us spoke the language we were able to communicate with each other. The contrast was the people in the city of Yerevan, which had more in the way of material things, no one smiled, no one seemed happy. I guess it is true that joy comes from the inside not from outer circumstances. Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures with us Betty.

    • I had the same experience, Sharon — and I’m so happy you also met Anahit and Vahe — aren’t they amazing, committed people?? And the hospitality/food thing in Armenia is phenomenal … just wait for my post on food!!! I miss it already … thanks so much for writing!!

  17. The Armenian Quarter here in Jerusalem’s Old City I know. But your wonderful post makes it clear how much I still have to learn about Armenia itself. Thank you for your impressions and information.

    Shalom from Dina (Heifer Ranch volunteer 1996-2002)

    • Shalom, Dina — would love to hear what you think of the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem!! I am married to a Jewish man, and I can’t get over how similar the two cultures are!

      • Betty, I hope someday soon you and your husband can visit here, although unfortunately there is no Heifer in Israel. Meanwhile, you could look at some of my 15 blog posts about the Armenians of Jerusalem, both Orthodox and Catholic:

        What similarities do you see between Jewish and Armenian culture?
        I can’t say that I know any Armenians personally. But the few I’ve talked to briefly make me wish I did.

  18. They believe in the rising, not the suffering. They are a formidable people, then.

    While I was reading your post, and grasping every single detail about the country you have so beautifully described, I couldn’t help but commend you on the way you make a tour an interesting one. I’d subscribed to your blog when I was pregnant, now my little girl is 3.2 months, and this is my second visit since because of the busy-ness. But gosh, all that I must have missed here!

    Armenia fascinated me when I first found out about them and the strife that has riddled their history. What struck me as marvellous about them was their will to go on.

    Wish to see more of the world with you.

  19. Dear P.I — well, I am jealous of you with a little girl of 3.2 months (i adore that you counted the .2 a true new mom!!) … my daughter is 21 now and I would give anything to be able to re-live the whole journey of raising her, so enjoy every minute, read when you can, and there’s lots more about Armenia coming!!! Glad to have you along, xoxox b

  20. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 Armenia Round-Up - Heifer BlogHeifer Blog

  21. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 Armenia Round-Up | Volved

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