Thursday, 01 January 2015 00:00

Armenia's Heritage

Written by  Denise Mattia

Europe-Armenia
“We have food, wine and festivals and families with strong ties to their heritage and tradition,” stated Mekhak Apresyan, Deputy Prime Minister of the Ministry of Economy, Tourist Department for the Republic of Armenia. “We want to share these with visitors making Armenia their destination,” he said, adding, “the country is stable and safe.”
In 2013, Armenia’s tourism and technology sector grew by 13%, “conditioned by increasing the quality of services and skills,” said the Deputy Prime Minister. The banking sector is open to foreign competition. The country has improved its investment, trade and fiscal strategies since gaining independence from the Soviets in 1991.

During a recent FAM trip to Armenia, JAX FAX was among a small group of travel agents and tour operators who arrived in Moscow, having flown Comfort Class from New York’s JFK in a Boeing B777 operated by Aeroflot (www.aero
flot.com), a global SkyTeam Alliance member. Although there’s a 2:10 flight with an earlier connection to Armenia, the evening flight allowed the group to converge at Moscow’s Sheremet International Airport to conduct a site inspection of the modern facilities before embarking on a three-hour business-class Aeroflot flight to the Zvartnots International Airport in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Located minutes from the center of Yerevan, the Panorama Resort offers stunning views of the historic city and the biblical Mt. Ararat from affordable, fully furnished, luxury suites. The Panorama’s president, Artak Daldumyan, General Manager, Tigran Sinanian and staff welcomed 13 guests not as tourists but with the warm, gracious hospitality shown to family. A reception in the resort’s dining room included a few dishes we’d share in restaurants in the coming week - roasted beef, pork or lamb, kabobs, stuffed eggplant and delicious yogurt, tomato and cucumber salad, fresh greens, bread, cheese and fruit. We’d also learn that in Armenia it’s customary to propose a toast when raising a glass of excellent Armenian wine or aged cognac - a custom everyone adopted with enthusiasm.

CULTURE AND HISTORY
Armenia was the first nation to embrace Christianity as a state religion, despite having been conquered first by the Romans, then the Persians, the Arabs, Mongols, Turks and lastly the Soviets. From the first century through the end of the Middle Ages, the country was a generating force in Christian art and an important center of architecture, sculpture and manuscript illustration. Today, Armenia’s treasures include preserved artifacts at the Erebuni Museum and monasteries and churches, many of which are short distances from Yerevan and are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Panorama staff provides guests with a driver, car or van and an expert guide to the sites.
According to our guide, Sonya Abrahamyan, the early 4th century structure of the Echmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest in the world. Its angular shapes and conical domes, suggesting Persian or Syrian influences, ushered in classic Armenian design. The present building was restored in the 15th century. As there are no pews in the bays, only a few supplicants sat on chairs during our visit, most stood and some knelt in prayer before paintings of saints or the holy family. Priests chanted Sunday High Mass at the central altar. while hooded seminarians participated in the adjoining chapels.
A quartet of rich voices singing Armenian ballads a-cappella rang throughout the existing walls of the 7th century Byzantine temple at Zvarnots. Collapsed since the 10th century, the site, excavated in 1901, revealed exterior foliate decorations and an interior design in the shape of a Greek cross.
Armenian dances, performed vigorously and passionately by men, are one of the oldest, authentic forms of artistic expression. During many of our dinners, a small orchestra played the Doudouk (an indigenous wind instrument), the Kanon and Oud (string instruments), while traditionally costumed vocalists sang of love and everyday life. Energetic dancers joined the ensemble, and soon families and guests participated in the performances, including the Deputy Prime Minister at the Old Yerevan Restaurant. According to custom, the louder the music the more enjoyable the evening, which can last well into
the morning.
Not seeing the light of day for 14 years, the dungeon at the Khor Virap Monastery, where Grigor Lusavorich (later St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned in the third century drew us to the saint’s eerie cell. A steep ladder provides visitors with access to the large, bare room.
We passed through the mountainous, gray landscape on our way south, where a mining industry is developing. The area is rich in zinc, lead, coal, copper, clay, silver, gold and platinum. The 5,500-foot descent into the lush Ararat Valley was the closest we’d come to the famed mountain, now a Turkish possession. Here, the draw for visitors at the two-story Noravank Monastery is the enigmatic narrow stone staircase on the facade of the 17th century Astvatsatsin church.
A maze of caves and cavities hewn from the spectacular cliffs make up the mysterious complex at Geghard, 25 miles east of Yerevan. The sides of the rocky walls bear low bas-reliefs of Armenian khatchkar (crosses). Dozens of the ornamental reliefs adorn narrow niches high on the hillside as well. A path deep inside a narrow cave revealed four massive columns supporting a wide-domed vestry with an opening in the center to admit light. A quartet of men and women sang Armenian hymns, adding a Medieval atmosphere to the scene. At the bottom of the mountainside women sold souvenirs, sweet bread (lavash) and sweet sujukh (grape molasses and walnuts). Buying a tasty treat from one vendor caused irate cacophonies from her competitors. Purchasing wedges or small lavash from each appeased all.
Not to be overlooked is Yerevan, a colorful, vibrant city with museums, cafes, restaurants, clothing and jewelry stores and a large bazaar that rivals most major cities. Exchanges throughout Armenia charge a steep 20% commission.
Armenians will never forget the loss of 1.5 million lives during the genocide of 1917-18. The memorial site, located to the west of the city center, is a stark reminder of those who were killed at that time. For more information, visit www.armeniainfo.am

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