Posts Tagged ‘nagorno-karabakh’

October 7 – 8, 2009: After we stopped by the Foreign Ministry to get our

Wooden statue in Nagorno-Karabakh

visas validated (alas, no passport stamps) we spent some quality time being guided round the Artsakh State Museum. While most of the museum qualified as at least interesting, the most arresting exhibit for me was an ethnographic diorama, which demonstrated that at one time women were not allowed to speak to a man without prior permission, including their husbands!!! They wore their scarves over their mouths to reinforce the prohibition, which explained the otherwise rather odd face of the woman in an iconic wooden sculpture we would see later. The sculpted woman was a lot smaller than the man, too.

Gandzasar monastery

My disgust at this custom could explain why I retain no memory of our subsequent visit to Gandzasar monastery – although my photos show an unusual central tower. It might be that it was one church too many. Or it could be that I was finding the tour a little trying. The family group was not melding too well with the rest of us, and this got worse when one of them, an Iranian-American architect from Los Angeles, got aggressive over possession of the front seat on the coach. Then the guide insisted on playing Armenian music very loudly over the coach’s sound system. Beside being (for me) just a headache-inducing loud noise, this meant that she didn’t have to lecture, or initiate a discussion, which I regretted. I had met someone who had been on the same trip the week before, and he had enjoyed interesting discussions between diaspora and non-diaspora Armenians.

However, after another late and lengthy lunch the day improved. Back in Stepanakert some of us investigated a crowd on the outskirts of a park to find a lively group of children putting on a concert of music and dance. No-one seemed to speak English, but the Australian woman (S) from the tour was able to find out that this was a display by pupils from a nearby Music School. She was subsequently interviewed for a local radio program, and we seemed to be welcome additions to the audience.

Later, as S and I walked through town in search of an internet cafe, we were waylaid by a couple of university students, who said they wanted to practice their English. We were happy to oblige, until it turned out that they really wanted to talk about God. Before religion intruded into the conversation,  I was able to establish that although we had traveled from Yerevan to Stepanakert, they weren’t able to travel from Stepanakert to Yerevan, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Young dancers in Stepanakert

Dinner only emphasized the split in the group, with the Iranian family at one table, and everyone else split between two more. And the next morning the dispute over the front seat actually turned, briefly, physical. Our guide seemed too inexperienced to know how to handle the situation, but fortunately no-one was hurt.

The weather had become damp and misty overnight, and we could barely see the buildings in Shushi, our last Nagorno-Karabakh stop. The elegiac atmosphere could hardly have been more appropriate, as this was a ghost town, devastated by the fighting in the 1990s. We left for the border in a somber mood.

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October 6, 2009: Tuesday morning I set off on the Hyur tour to Nagorno-Karabakh. For once on a tour I was in a distinct linguistic minority – everyone else in the group, except for the Corsican chef, spoke Armenian – they were all from the diaspora. True, the other solo female, a therapist from Australia, turned out to speak western Armenian, and had a little difficulty with everyone else’s eastern Armenian, but she could manage.

The land called Artsakh by its inhabitants spent a long time as part of Persia, passing into Russian hands in 1805, after which many Muslim inhabitants left for Persia, and Persian Armenians moved to Karabakh. Stalin, in one of his many divide-and-conquer map-redrawing exercises, moved the area from Armenia to Azerbaijan in the 1920s, and Azeri settlers started moving in. When Karabakh voted to join Armenia after independence in 1989, Azerbaijan responded with force, helped at first by the Soviets and then by the Turks. Five years and 30,000 lives later, an uneasy ceasefire was declared. Now Karabakh is still officially part of Azerbaijan, but can only be visited from Armenia.

Back in 2006 I had passed through another non-country resulting from Stalin’s gerrymandering – Transnistria.  There Moldova, itself once part of Romania, claimed sovereignty, and only Russia recognized the break-away republic. I had been on a bus headed to Chisinau in Moldova, but still had to bribe the border guards to get in. Nothing I saw encouraged me to linger. I hoped that Karabakh had been doing better.

Khor Virap

We actually spent most of Tuesday in Armenia proper. Our first stop was foranother look at Mt. Ararat, still lost in haze, and the border with Turkey. Talks about finally opening the border were underway while I was in Armenia, although apparently the Azerbaijanis were insisting that their issues should be settled first, and demonstrators in Yerevan’s Republic Square were collecting signatures on a petition opposing better relations until Turkey acknowledged the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. I believe the border is still closed.

Khor Virop is almost as significant to Armenians as Mount Ararat, and photographed better. Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity, in 301, thanks to St. Gregory the Illuminator, who spent 12 years imprisoned in a dungeon below where the church now stands. I enjoyed a number of the carvings at Khor Virap, but I’m too tone deaf to really appreciate the a capella female chorus that performed inside one of the churches.


Around this point, I began to suspect that I was getting churched-out, although our next stop, Noravank, was different enough to hold my interest. One of the 13th century churches is a two-story affair, with two steep exterior staircases forming a triangle outside. I stayed at ground level, and watched those who ventured up inching their way gingerly back down – well, except for the kids, who had no trouble at all.


After a late and lengthy lunch, with more tough barbecue, we made one more stop before the border, at Karahunj, Armenia’s Stonehenge. I hadn’t heard of it, and was surprised by a field of huge stones, said to have been arranged around 5,500 B.C.E. as an astronomical observatory. Unfortunately, the temperature had dropped, and with a fierce wind blowing I sought shelter beside one of the stones rather than listening to our guide.

While we had to stop at the border, our guide took care of the formalities (Hyur had taken a copy of my passport when I paid for the tour). We finally reached the Heghnar hotel in Stepanakert, and dinner, at 8:45 pm.

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