It's almost ten in the evening when, wandering around in the Armenian, we come across an eight-year-old boy selling his art. He has a whole portfolio of drawings for sale, most of them depicting Mount Ararat. Sacred to Armenians, the mountain is actually in Turkey now. On a clear day, however, you can espy its majestic peak from Yerevan. The Bible story and the Armenian tradition about Noah's ark landing on Ararat after the Flood is known to everyone here, of course, including this little boy. He explains that we can pay whatever we think his drawings are worth, the works being in any case an excellent investment - he's certain to become famous, at which point his drawings are bound to cost a pretty penny. He seems to have been born with the instincts of a successful merchant. Locals say that where there are Armenians, Jews have nothing to do - and vice-versa. "If we see you tomorrow, we'll buy a drawing," we say. After making a few more feeble attempts to close the sale, the boy vanishes down a lane. The next evening at around the same hour he appears out of nowhere in a completely different quarter of the city. He breaks into a genuine grin of joy and wonderment. I still have his view of Ararat, blue with a white cap, birds in flight and the sun beyond.
Yerevan seems strangely ultramodern if you first encounter it through its airport. Few cities in this part of the world have such an extensive airport boasting the sort of high-tech security system you might expect to see in the latest action thriller; when you fly out the index fingers of your right and left hands get scanned and serve as a replacement for an old-fashioned boarding card. The city itself, judged by its façade, seems to have lost itself. This is especially true if you take into account the astonishing age of the city; founded in 782 BC, Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. The streets are devoid of this rich history, though. With the exception of a few sadly dilapidated 19th-century buildings, Yerevan's past seems to be limited to the Soviet era and the current building boom that borders upon hysteria. If you ask the locals what happened to the historic structures, they can't seem to come up with much of an answer. There just aren't any. They were torn down. But if you ask about the new buildings, they'll go into detail without concealing the role of the Armenian diaspora in the city's boom. Since the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923, perhaps eight million Armenians live abroad. As the locals put it, those with relatives in foreign countries are doing well; those who lack them are out of luck. New construction is everywhere, but it's a bit spooky to find that the windows of the more luxurious buildings are almost never lit; the fancy apartments within have been purchased by diaspora Armenians who visit Yerevan only once or twice a year.
Republic Square is in the heart of the city. A monument to Stalinist monumentality, it may not be beautiful but it is certainly impressive. It's also one of the few places in the city that's been thought out architecturally. This is especially evident in the late evening, when the square is lit and traffic has died down. The buildings are of local stone and glow with a golden warmth when lit. By day Republic Square is jammed with cars, their drivers rarely exhibiting particular concern for pedestrians. The National Gallery and the History Museum of Armenia are found here, as is the best hotel in town - the Marriott, one wing of which is devoted to Ararat brandy, the best known Armenian brandy and one of the country's major exports. The Marriott's lobby and outdoor café are perfect places to relax for an hour whilst getting a glimpse of what's going on in today's Yerevan. Oligarchs arrive in style, their entourages of bodyguards in tow. Everybody knows their plate numbers and give way on the roads. As in other countries where "it's all sorted out," the police rarely pull over cars that are so blessed, even if they exceed the speed limit by multiples. The rules are cruel but clear. When evening falls, however, the fountains of Republic Square dance and change colours like dresses, repeating the performance night after night at eight, transforming the square into a place where families and lovers love to stroll.
Mother Armenia and contemporary art
The most talked about project in town (with the possible exception of talks with Turkey to normalize relations) is the Cafesjian Museum of Art, which opened its doors last year and immediately attracted international attention. The Cafesjian is in central Yerevan near the Soviet-era Cascade that joins Victory Park with the city centre. Like most buildings in Yerevan, the Cafesjian is built of local stone. Richly decorated with Armenian designs, its monumental extravagance was described by The New York Times as "a mad work of architectural megalomania and historical recovery, is one of the strangest but most memorable museum buildings to open in ages." The core of the holdings is the personal collection of its patron, Gerard L. Cafesjian, an Armenian-American millionaire who is now 84 years old. His holdings include 5,000 works of art, primarily paintings, graphic art and sculpture from the second half of the 20th century. Cafesjian also has one of the most extensive collections of glass art in the world.
The Cascade complex was designed by the architect Alexander Tamanyan in the 1930s. His idea was to join the northern and central districts of Yerevan with a vast green zone, waterfalls and gardens cascading between them. The project didn't materialize for quite some time, the plans later being modified and expanded to include sculpture gardens, stairways, lifts, etc. The final version called for a cascade of 572 steps leading downward from the statue of Mother Armenia that was unveiled in 1967. Construction of the Cascade itself only began in the 1980s, interrupted by the earthquake of 1988 and abandoned during the collapse of the Soviet Union. For years the Cascade languished unfinished, and it's said that Cafesjian's agreement with the government required him to construct his museum required him to complete Tamanyan's dream. To fully enjoy the strange flavour of this place, it's best to start out at the feet of Mother Armenia. From the base of the statue you can explore an exhibit of Second World War military hardware and a Soviet-era amusement park. The view from Mother Armenia reveals a rather chaotic, rapidly growing city dominated by construction cranes. Descend past the construction sites to the Cafesjian and its sculpture garden. This is an utterly different Yerevan. The width of the steps is 50 metres and in near the museum the surroundings are transformed by greenery, the gardens in stark contrast to the landscape beyond. The sculpture garden at the foot of the cascade is as impressive in its scope as it is in its monumentality, its formal gardens and open spaces designed to provide a perfect environment for viewing large-scale sculptures by artists like Fernando Botero, Lynn Chadwick, Barry Flanagan and Jaume Plensa. Nearby there's an array of recently opened cafés, one of them even offering the authentic macaroons that so delight the French.
All of this is still the façade of the city, however; Yerevan's real heart is within, beating in lively places like Malkas Jazz Club. After the nightly jazz session the club's owner, Armenia's jazz legend Levon Malkhasian will take to the piano for a quarter of an hour or so, his charisma suffusing the space and his playing making time twist and disappear in a labyrinth of improvisations. The piano comes alive, melts into Malkhasian's hands, and having heated the audience up to the point of catharsis... he vanishes as swiftly as he appeared. At age 15, Malkhasian heard the Canadian Jazz master Oscar Peterson play and devoted his life to jazz from that point on. He never learned to read music, only listened and played.
Noah's ark and whispers as shouts
Besides seeking the soul of Yerevan within, visitors should look for the real Armenia outside the capital. The country being quite compact, nearly all of its major attractions can be seen on a day trip. Of Yerevan is oddly lacking in ancient history that's visibly survived, that certainly cannot be said of Armenia. Like many another nation whose origins stretch back into the mists of time, Armenian history is shrouded in legend. Their legendary patriarch was Hayk, a descendant of Noah according to Moses of Chorene. The Greeks first mentioned Armenians in the 6th century BC. A visit to the Matendaran in Yerevan is an absolute must; it holds the largest collection of medieval manuscripts on earth, its greatest treasures gospels from the 10th and 11th centuries as well as a 15th-century calfskin book of hours. This last work was found by two women in an Armenian monastery in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The 632-page book being too heavy to carry, they cut it into two. One was buried and the other taken to Georgia. Years later a Polish officer found the buried half and sold it to a fellow officer in Baku. It took many years for this precious work to return to Armenia, the two halves again reunited.
The Temple of Garni, the sole example of Hellenic architecture in the country, is about an hour's drive from the capital. Built from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD, it served as the residence of the Armenian kings. An earthquake in 1679 partially destroyed it, and the structure wasn't restored until the 1970s. The temple is at the rim of the Azat Valley, and there's a small café next to it where they'll set up a table for you at the very edge. The view is indescribably wonderful, the sense of serenity disturbed only by wasps. About seven kilometres further the road runs into a cliff. There's nowhere else to go, passage blocked by a massive wall of stone. One of Armenia's most revered holy places is located here. According to legend, the Geghard Monastery dates to the 4th century. It's cut into the cliff, blending seamlessly into the landscape. Walled on three sides, its fourth wall is the vertical land. The primary space for worship was constructed in 1215, but it's worth climbing to the next level to a tiny chapel, perhaps eight square metres in size. There are four columns and a dome nine or ten metres in height open to the light. It's like a sculpture cut into the cliff. The tiny interior contains only a few prayer candles and the light entering from the outside world. It's best to try to experience this place when no one else is around. The acoustics in the chapel are phenomenal, whispers sounding like shouts. The slightest sound reverberates for several seconds. The impression one gets is of being in another world, and not even the most experimental technologies could possibly replicate the feeling. The chapel's miraculous qualities are enhanced by the sense that such a site would be swarming with tourists were it anywhere else, while here you can really rather easily be completely alone. The chapel is over 1,697 years old. A number of classical concerts have been recorded here, and it's considered one of the most ancient studios ever used for the recording of modern music.
The rim of the Kasagh River canyon offers another unique place to visit, a small monastery about five kilometres off the main road. Even in the middle of the day there's almost no one around. The Sagmosavank Monastery is almost at the edge of the canyon. You can hear the river far below and it seems as though the canyon is a gap between worlds. The experience both entrances you and lets you feel free as a bird.
The palaces of the oligarchs and the duduk
Another day trip worth taking is to the slope of Mount Aragats, where by a serpentine road you can reach another Soviet relic, the Cosmic Ray Institute Observatory. From an altitude of 3,000 metres you can survey the desolate area, the deserted volcanic landscape populated only by lonely shepherds on horseback watching their flocks. There's the wreck of a Soviet car that's been stranded for eternity. You may not meet anyone at all on the road, which is open until October, when it begins to snow. Narrow and somewhat treacherous, a patchwork of repairs and little avalanches, it was mostly empty when we got here before the snows did. A small café was open because it was also the residence of the owners. They told us that it was actually hopping in summer when people had a hankering for khash. No ordinary soup, khash is rather a ritual unto itself. Its praises put into song since the dawn of time, khash is prepared all night by boiling the innards and leg of a cow until the water becomes a thick consommé. Tradition dictates that no spices be added during cooking so that each person savouring the dish can add them according to his or her taste. It's always served hot, or else it'd be inedible. Here, too, it's delivered in a clay pot with glowing coals. The wind is blowing through cracks in the café and the aluminium spoon is stone cold, and this is a great time for khash. So is a hangover, as khash is a cure. A plate of garlic, lavash and salt accompanies the dish. The locals tear the lavash and add it to the soup, making it even thicker and more satisfying. The Armenians like to eat heartily and the portions served can't possibly finished by one person. The peak of Mount Aragats is surrounded by dark clouds as we descend and it may be that we're the last visitors to the café this season. Life appears again only on the Yerevan road, when our driver points out a veritable palace, an oligarch's kitschy interpretation of Versailles. Its gardens are dense with replicas of ancient sculpture; our driver says that acquiring them is the hobby of the oligarch's wife. On the other side of Yerevan another oligarch has constructed a palace akin to something out of the Raj. It's a clear evening and the silhouette of Ararat accompanies us everywhere. Admiring it, the sense of the enduring is the same as it was in the ancient monasteries, which will probably still be the same when the oligarchs' playthings have crumbled into dust. Armenia has a soulful depth like the sound of a duduk. It draws you in and makes you want to return again and again.
Keywords: essence, Yerevan, Armenia