Armenia (IV) – History in 3D (Lake Sevan – Haghpat – Sanahin – Dzoraget – Bagratashen)

Lake Sevan – Dilijan / Monday 2nd May 2018

Driving out of Yerevan, we got a brilliantly clear view of Mt Ararat – this time without clouds obscuring its peak – absolutely stunning – and a lovely ‘last memory’ of Yerevan.

Our first stop this morning was Lake Sevan. I was quite eager to see the place where the ancient burial chariots (from the museum on our first day in Yerevan) were found. Lake Sevan is the largest lake in the Caucasus. At 5000 square kilometres, about 7 Singapore-s can easily fit into it!

On the banks of Lake Sevan, was a statue of Akhtamar. As the legend goes, Princess Tamar was in love with a commoner. Each night, they met on an island, with Tamar holding up a light to show him the way as he swam to her. As these star-crossed lovers stories go, her father found out and was furious. His henchmen smashed her lamp, and her directionless lover drowned. In his dying breath, he sighed, “Akh, Tamar” (“Oh, Tamar.”). Even in English, the poem by Tumanyan sounded quite tragic, no doubt aided by Katar’s most expressive reciting of it. For some light relief, she went on to ‘The Dog and the Cat’ – also by Tumanyan – which provided a backstory on why cats and dogs don’t get along 🙂

It was a lovely, blue-skied day and the impossibly azure lake reflected the sky.  We had to climb some (quite a few actually) stone steps to get to the Sevanavank monastery. The monastery was originally on an island – which became a peninsula when the water level dropped (and revealed the treasures beneath).


Katar told us that the Sevanavank monastery was meant for errant monks who were sent here from Etchmiadzin in a bid to correct their ways. They lived an extremely austere and isolated life – no meat, no wine and definitely no women (and here we were traipsing all over it) – though I wonder if the island becoming a peninsula made it easier for the errant monks to ‘get away’. Their main work – besides reformative prayer – was to write lines…they copied manuscripts. The monastery is still active and we could see the newer quarters just below the old church. Wonder if the current monks are also errant…

IMG_9185Many portraits later (for future profile pics), it was time to move on. After about half an hour or so, we reached Dilijan – aka the Switzerland of Armenia. I could see why – the mountainside wooden chalets with their balconies looked quite Swiss. Katar said that of Armenia’s population of about 3 million, more than a third live in Yerevan – making many parts of Armenia sparsely populated. The government is trying to develop Dilijan as a financial and business hub. The Armenian Central Bank, for example, has its headquarters in Dilijan – a futuristic-looking glass building.

Dilijan also has the first international school in Armenia – the United World College IMG_9198(UWC). The students’ living quarters looked like a resort – took some quick pics from the car to show the Js back in Singapore. Katar was surprised to hear that Singapore had two UWC campuses.

We weren’t supposed to stop in Dilijan, but Katar thought we might like to do a quick look-see – so we hopped out and went down some wooden stairs to Sharambeyan Street – an old cobblestoned street lined by wooden buildings – one of these was Revik’s woodwork studio; the very focused Revik was quite happy to have us take photos as he went about his work.

Our drive after this took us through some magnificent mountain roads along the Pambak Range, and many a stop was made. By now, we didn’t even have to ask to stop. With all our stops though, we were getting close to lunch time and were quite hungry. At a petrol station loo stop, we succumbed to a packet of chips (which Katar said was safer than some of the sausage rolls and pastries on display – not that we needed much persuading).

At the foot of the Pambak range, there were several Moluccan villages – where the Moluccans had set up home after they were deported from Russia.

Haghpat, Sanahin – and the Copper Mine

The roads got more and more mountainous, with a hairpin bend every minute – or less. We drove up one mountainside, then down into a gorge to the town of Alaverdi, stopping for lunch at a place called Atorick – there was the usual lavash, salad, soup, and for mains a yummy grilled pork. Dessert was halwa…but quite different from the Indian variety – this one was made of flour, butter and sugar – and tasted surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) good! By now, our Armenian had improved by leaps and bounds and we were ‘bon appetit-ing’ (bari akhorjak) and ‘thank you very much-ing’ (shat schnora galem) in short order. We also had our first Armenian beer at the Atorick – it was a nice, light brew.

There were two monasteries to see here – both UNESCO World Heritage sites […I think maybe from now on, I’ll just specify if something is NOT a World Heritage site, since pretty much everything we’ve seen has this hallowed status.] – Haghpat, halfway up a hill on one side of the gorge, and Sanahin almost directly across from Haghpat, on an opposite slope, with the gorge between them.

As the story goes, the Queen asked a master church builder to build a monastery (for her 2 sons’ wellbeing) in the area of today’s Sanahin village.  [As we’d come to hear over the last couple of days, most Armenian monasteries and churches were built by royal decree. To sign off on the completed church/monastery, there often was an engraving on the outer wall of the church, depicting the king/queen handing over a model of the church to a church bigwig – like the catholicos or a bishop. There usually was a miniature model of the church as well – sort of the ‘architectural plan’ in case the church was destroyed (Armenia is earthquake-prone) and needed to be rebuilt. In the case of Haghpat, the wall engraving depicted the 2 princes holding a model of the church.]


Anyway, back to the story – the builder commissioned to build the monastery, came along with his son as an assistant. As some point, father and son had a falling out – and the son went off to build his own monastery. This came to be known as the Haghpat monastery. The son, to prove a point, completed it in double quick time. His dad heard about the progress his son was making and went to visit – he was suitably impressed. Amends were made, and the son went back to help dad complete his monastery. This monastery was called Sanahin – which translates to ‘this one is older than that one’ – just a little reminder to the son, maybe?

From Haghpat, there was magnificent view of the Debed Gorge. In one of the chapels there were many khachkars and even more tombstones covering almost the entire floor. As I tried to pick my way between them and over them, Katar said that they were flat on the ground as a sign of humility and that we are supposed to walk on them (!); at both Haghpat and Sanahin there were some tombstones that were quite small – and I wondered why children were buried in a monastery. It turns out that the size of the tombstone represents how important the person was!

Haghpat also had a cavernous room called a scriptorium – the holes in the ground were used to store manuscripts, keeping them safe from the weather and any other dangers. In Sanahin, Katar pointed out niches in the walls which were seats where novice monks sat while their teacher paced in front of them with the lessons for the day.

By the time we got to Sanahin, the light was lovely, streaming through the arched _0ST6788windows in the wall. Katar gamely stood in the spotlight for us as we experimented with back-lit and side-lit portraits.

Sanahin’s other claim to fame is that it is where the Mikoyan brothers were born. The older brother, Anastas, was thought to be the ‘second most powerful person in the Soviet Union’ after Khruschev; he was involved in the negotiations surrounding the Cuban missile crisis.

The younger brother, Artem, collaborated with Mikhail Gurevich, to invent the MiG fighter planes (Mi – from Mikoyan, and G – from Gurevich). There is a Mikoyan museum at Sanahin but unfortunately, there was no time to visit it.

On our drives between Haghpat and Sanahin, we passed by a most soul-sapping vista. Alaverdi used to be the Soviet Union’s major source of copper. The mines and factory still stand – and still function. It was a scene out of some dark sci-fi movie or some landscape from hell – the grey-brown buildings, smoke spewing from a mountain top chimney, turning everything a horrible grey. It was utterly depressing. Just driving past it, I felt miserable, especially after all the zen-ness of the monasteries; I wondered how the people working there felt…or maybe, living there, one gets oblivous.

The homes nearer the Haghpat side were very Soviet era – grey, rundown apartments. The occupants seemed to mirror their homes; on more than one balcony, I saw tired-looking individuals often with a cigarette, gazing into the distance. [In an earlier conversation, Katar had said that smoking rates in Armenia were very high – third highest in the world and more than 50% of the men smoke.] The Sanahin homes seemed a little less depressing; some of the blocks had a new-ish coat of paint – and there were more children out and about.

The copper factory


It was on to Dzoraget for the night. Our hotel, the Avan Dzoraget, was on the banks of the Debed River, which flows from Armenia to Georgia. It reminded us a bit of the Kichu Resort we’d stayed at in Bhutan – though at the Avan we couldn’t hear the river from our room.

The Avan Dzoraget

The weather had gotten quite cold by now – we decided to open the bottle of brandy that we’d received from Katar (part of a ‘welcome pack’) when we arrived in Yerevan. We can double confirm that brandy keeps one warm Very Well. Dinner was lunch – the leftovers that is. I have to say we’ve been doing quite well in keeping our dinners light (with the exception of that surfeit of lamb dinner). Strangely, despite all the walking, I was a couple of hundred steps short of 10,000 – a testament to the good roads in Armenia! I decided to see if vigorous arm-shaking could fool the FitBit, ignoring all the eye-rolling and insults that came my way – yes, the FitBit can be fooled.

Famous Armenians and Radio Yerevan / Tuesday 3rd May 2018

After breakfast, it was time to drive along the Debed River, following it to Georgia. Katar entertained us with Radio Yerevan jokes. Radio Yerevan was popular during the Soviet era and the jokes went something like this:

Q: Could an atomic bomb destroy our beautiful Yerevan?  A: In principle, yes. But Moscow is by far a more beautiful city.

Q: Why is there no flour in the market? A: Because they began adding it to the bread.

Jokes done, Katar announced that since it was our last day in Armenia, it was time for a test. Whaat?

First question – name some famous Armenians. All I could think of was Komitas. And then Tumanyan (the poet) and Tamanyan (the architect who ‘designed’ Yerevan). Shobs came up with Mashtots. Katar clarified – “famous Armenians around the world”. Hmm – we still couldn’t remember the name of the Armenian brothers that built Raffles Hotel in Singapore. I said Kim Kardashian – but I don’t think that was the kind of ‘famous’ Katar was referring to. Katar then said, “Cherilyn Sarkissian” – but of course – Cher! Then there was Yousuf Karsh – the portrait photographer whose Churchill portrait made him famous  (one of the few Armenians whose name doesn’t end in ‘-yan’ or ‘-ian’), and the individuals (can’t remember their names) who invented the MRI and ATM machines. I managed to jump in with Saroyan (the author) and Mikoyan (the MiG man) by this time.

We were soon at the border crossing point, Bagratashen. A last we-fie was taken, goodbye hugs exchanged with Katar at the immigration point. Mello drove us across to the Georgian checkpoint for Part 2 of our journey.

What a wonderful few days it’s been – truly educational. Strangely I never enjoyed history in school…it might’ve been different if history classes were held ‘in the field’ with ‘local guides’…

Last 2 days
Our route from Yerevan to Bagratashen

For more images from the Armenian journey – please click here.


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