Armenia: God's own country?
Simon Busch travels to the Caucasus to find an ancient nation where the biblical past still throbs with life
Young Armenian girl with a dove at a Tatev Monastery ceremony
It says a lot about Armenia that they recently found the world's oldest shoe there. The country feels half-stuck -pleasingly for travellers like me - in a distant, quasi-biblical past strewn with such evocative things as ancient footwear. Armenia's future might look highly uncertain, but let's start, as the Armenians often seem to do, by looking backwards.
This tiny Caucasus nation was, famously (and there is not much that is famous about the plucky place), the first to adopt Christianity when, at the beginning of the fourth century, St Gregory the Illuminator was released from 12 years' confinement in a snake-filled pit after curing the reigning King Trdat III of madness. In his ecstasy of gratitude, the king not only freed Gregory (you can still visit his place of confinement; you'd struggle to call it "bijoux") but converted his whole country to his saviour's religion. One does rather fear for the influence of new age ideas on our own Prince Charles.
This very early start in the "true faith" means that some of the monasteries dotted throughout Armenia, often in the most inaccessible of places, were founded when Christ's putative doings were not long gone from living memory. In Yerevan, the capital and itself one of the oldest cities in the world, the Matenadaran - a library - houses among its thousands of gorgeous painted scripts the Lazarian Gospel, the most ancient complete bible manuscript in existence.
The world's oldest shoe, found recently in Armenia
But back to that shoe. So well preserved was it beneath layers of venerable sheep's dung that you could probably have slipped it on and fitted right in at your average boho-chic gathering. Discovered in 2010, it was crafted some 5,500 years before; that means its lucky (not everyone then - as now - had shoes) animal-herding owner was trudging relatively comfortably around these rocky parts a whole millennium before the first stone was laid for the pyramid of Giza.
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Armenia, in other words, is old. Travelling around the country, it begins to feel in its entirety like some aged relic possessed of mysterious latent powers that might at any moment come to life. Its sparse, mountainous landscape feels like exactly the sort of territory from which prophets would spring. It is, in other words, the kind of place in which Dan Brown should almost certainly set a novel, were it not that that would instantly put me off going there.
We had scrambled up the steep slope to the cave in which the shoe was found after visiting the 13th century monastery of Noravank. Immediately, a parallel between the two sites suggested itself: both were magnificently positioned to offer a sweeping view of approaching shoe-raiders or infidels, as the case may have been. Indeed, judging by their architecture, Armenians seem to have spent much of their time trying to anticipate people coming to do nasty things to them.
Two women praying at an Armenian church
Noravank was remarkable within Armenia, apparently, for its two-storied church, St Astvatsatsin, but what I found extraordinary was the ethereally beautiful music I discovered suddenly flowing from one window with all the force and purity of a top of the range Germanic hi-fi system. Entranced, I traced my steps back to the church's entrance to discover that a quartet of singers - two men and two women - had established themselves in one cramped, dark interior and were practising hymns by the renowned Armenian composer Komitas.
Some of the best known Armenians - Cher, Charles Aznavour and the heavy metal act with a name sounding as if it's been badly translated from the Armenian, System of a Down - are musicians, and if there is an Armenian sound it is a lilting evocation of times long past but somehow still lingering on.
The medium par excellence for producing such a sound in turn is a 2,000-year-old woodwind instrument called the duduk. You may not have heard of these simple, oboe-like Armenian pipes made from apricot wood but you are sure to have heard one. Duduk music has been a keynote in some of the biggest movie blockbusters of recent times, including Gladiator, Alexander, the Chronicles of Narnia, Syriana and Munich.
Not very Christian
We heard the duduk being played live at the temple of Garni - the sole remaining pagan place of worship in Armenia, the rest having been torn down by early Christians in a not very Christian-sounding orgy of faith. What strikes you about the instrument - apart from its potential recruitment in the cause of schlockiness - is how melancholy it sounds and, in turn, how apt that sadly is for Armenia.
Melancholy seems to pervade the country like a spilt bottle of heavy Armenian wine. The greatest recent cause of that collective mood is the Turkish massacre - some call it genocide - of up to 1.5 million Armenians early last century: a crime no doubt made worse by the Turks' continuing refusal to acknowledge it. The moving Genocide Museum, in the capital, explains the enormity of the events.
Mt Ararat seen through a barbed wire fence from an Armenian town
Then there is the fact that the greatest symbol of Armenia, Mt Ararat - yes, the peak where Noah's ark came to rest - now belongs to Turkey. There it looms, all 5,000 metres of it, over the border near Yerevan: a more powerful object of nationalistic taunting it is hard to imagine.
On the other hand, there is the apparently sheer indestructibility of Armenian-ness. Arriving from cosmopolitan western Europe you're immediately struck by how similar all these fag-sucking people climbing in and out of battered old Ladas appear (as well as being impressed by the occasional radiant, olive-skinned beauty who seems to have stepped straight from the book of Genesis).
Extraordinary survival act
The Armenians represent an extraordinary survival act, emerging battered but not beaten from whatever a long lineup of historical thugs has tried to do to them. Their latest act of nationalistic self-assertion is one that would most obviously appeal to geography nerds. Armenia has built the longest aerial tramway in the world, a vertiginous 5.7km of it over a gorge to the 10th century monastery of Tatev.
You can see the point of the project, in a way. The cluster of beautiful buildings making up the monastery, including a very early university, is situated in such a wonderfully elevated defensive position that the monks probably spent a good portion of their existences schlepping up to it by mule.
Let's hope the tramway brings more people to Armenia. But I can think of another, equally good reason that exemplifies how you hope the place will remain: in the whole country, there's not a single McDonald's or KFC.
A priest of the Armenian apostolic church... It - and the Armenian people - represent an extraordinary historical survival act
Simon travelled to Armenia with the help of the Armenia Tourism Development Agency and BMI, which has four weekly flights to Yerevab from Heathrow.
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