We had two tourist destinations in mind for our brief stay in Armenia. Both were religious in nature, and for a nation which prides itself in being the very first Christian nation, this seemed wholly appropriate. The first destination was the site of the oldest church in the oldest Christian state, and the second was Armenia’s closest point to Mount Ararat.
“But why did you come to visit in January?” I was asked several times. “Armenia is so much more beautiful in June.” It probably is. I’m sure that my next trip to the Baltic States would be much better in June than in February as well, but the simple fact of the matter is that I cannot visit 15 countries in one month. Much of what Armenia has to offer the late-spring/early-summer tourist would have to go unseen this visit, I thought.
So, back to the two destinations. One can make the argument that they are the frontrunner Armenian tourist draws, regardless of the time of year. Take Etchmiadzin Church, for instance. The earliest traces of Christianity found in Armenia are from 40 AD. Next, Church Numero Uno goes up in 301 AD. That’s a
difference in years less than the Declaration of Independence to our present-day: not a very long time. There are some really old stones that went into the building of the place, but this isn’t even what was most fascinating for me. Allegedly, the spear-tip (stabbed into Jesus to confirm that he was dead on the cross) called the “Holy Lance” is on display in a back-room museum in this church. I got to see it, for 1,500 Armenian Dram (or roughly $4.00). There is a really interesting side-story to the “Holy Lance” history. I’ll be happy to share what I know with you, if it interests you. The town of Etchmiadzin itself was shuttered for winter, and Jon and I didn’t have the heart to look for a lunch-place amid the blowing garbage and packs of stray dogs.
In Armenia, there are two main categories of taxi-drivers; those registered with the government, and those not. The ones that are have white license plates. They are cheaper around town, because they have a meter that runs 100 Dram per kilometer (roughly $ 0.25). The ones with yellow license plates charge you about twice that for the same distances in town, but they’re the best ones to negotiate cab-rides with when going longer distances. We flagged one of these for the drive to our second destination, Khor Virap. This Armenian town would be our best vantage-point for seeing Mt Ararat. The weather was foggy, and we didn’t hold out much hope for getting a good look at the fabled mountain, but we had to try. How often is one in Armenia?
The plan was to go down to Khor Virap, get a bite to eat at a café and visit the little church overlooking the Armenian-Turkish border. (Mt Ararat is actually 13 kilometers into Turkey.) Well, the plan was a bust on several counts. There was a haggard, dirt-poor little village of maybe 1,000-1,500 residents, which offered nothing in the way of cafés, restaurants or the like. The monastery on the hill opposite Mt Ararat was closed for winter although we climbed up to it nevertheless, and an old woman occupying the cold, wind-scoured stairs muttered something unpleasant at us as we passed by her. Most disappointing for me was the lack of visibility toward the west. I am going to affix a picture for you from the internet, so that you can see what the view sometimes looks like, including the very point where Jon and I stood and waited in vain for the fog to clear.
Mt Ararat and Khor Virap monastery. Picture borrowed from Concierge.com
During the ride back to Yerevan, I succumbed once more to my eternal curiosity and asked our driver why it was that Khor Virap’s little town was so squalid. Considering the volume of tourists which pass through that same place year in and year out, it stands to reason that some of that tourist money would stick. Enterprising folks are often drawn to such areas where people with leisure-dollars go. The driver gave me one of those slow, exaggerated but oh-so-meaningful shoulder shrugs, the one that says, “Oh, you know how it is…” I do. Whatever enterprises did at one time exist were probably sucked dry by people in power-positions (police, small-time gangsters, etc) so often that the incentive now no longer really exists, not even to open a falafel stand.
So there you have it: Go to Khor Virap on a crystal-clear day in June, and pack a lunch.