ARMENIA-The stone spire of the oldest church in Yerevan sits in a tiny courtyard almost entirely obscured by encroaching sidewalk cafes and construction barriers. Walking along a back alley to enter through the gate, visitors are greeted by street dogs and old women sweeping up and selling candles.
The scene is typically Armenian in that things old and poor sit a little forgotten among gaudy new cafes. But what I learned in my August trip to the tiny republic is that, while the world seems to have overlooked Armenia, its people have perseverance and faith that are ultimately unforgettable.
“Armenians as a whole are very hospitable and we have so much history,” said Ani Movsisyan, a 22-year-old Armenian. “We have a lot to offer the world.”
Keeping the ancient alive
One of the Armenians’ greatest gifts is the ability to persevere in the face of incalculable odds. From 1915 to 1918, more than one million Armenians died in the century’s first genocide, carried out by Ottoman Turks. A multitude fled to other areas around the globe. In 1922, Armenia joined the Soviet Union in a bid for protection and endured 70 years of Soviet oppression. In 1988 an earthquake flattened Armenia’s industrial capital city, Gyumri. Today, as a capitalist Christian democracy, Armenia struggles to emerge into the modern world.
The Cafesjian Family Foundation in Minneapolis is one organization dedicated to helping Armenians do just that while promoting Armenian interests worldwide. Gerard L. Cafesjian, an Armenian-American and a former executive of West Law in Eagan, Minn., created the foundation in 1996. Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, has been a friend of Cafesjian and his wife, Cleo, for more than two decades. Dease serves on the foundation’s board of directors, a relationship that has led to collaboration between the university and Cafesjian on several projects.
As a writer for The Armenian Reporter, a weekly newspaper the foundation has acquired, I had the opportunity to travel to Armenia last summer, where I worked with journalism professors Wendy Wyatt, Mark Neuzil and Michael O’Donnell on several media projects. Before the trip I knew nothing about Armenia, yet in exploring the country I developed an intense appreciation for the place and its people – an appreciation I hope to share with more Tommies as the collaboration among St. Thomas, the Cafesjian Foundation and Armenia continues.
“There will be opportunities for students and faculty to visit the Republic of Armenia,” Dease said, “and engage in project collaboration to bolster print and broadcast journalism, to support the development of an independent judiciary and the rule of law, to assist in the development of such alternative sources of energy as wind, solar and hydrogen power, to facilitate the publication of ancient Christian theological and liturgical writings, and to aid in the development of entrepreneurship and commerce.”
Surviving the Soviet demise
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Armenians had a homeland for the first time since 1395 (with the exception of a brief period between 1918 and 1922 after the Ottoman Empire fell and before Armenia became part of the Soviet Union). But the country faced myriad problems. For two years the nation was without regular energy supplies, resulting in vast deforestation as people cut down trees for fuel.
“When there was a nationwide power outage from 1991 to 1993, my father used to attach the TV to the car battery so everyone could watch TV in the garage,” said Movsisyan, who works for the Cafesjian Museum Foundation and also studies marketing economics at a university in Yerevan. She lives in Etchmiadzin and rides the bus to Yerevan each day, where she does human relations work for the foundation. During our visit, her work included translating and giving tours to the St. Thomas contingent.
Stories like hers are common among young Armenians. Movsisyan’s colleague, Lilit Matevosyan, 21, said her grandfather used to take her to government protests on his shoulders. As a recent university graduate in economics, Matevosyan said if she could change one thing about Armenia, it would be the political corruption.
“There are a lot of people here without jobs because the oligarchs give important jobs to their unqualified friends,” Matevosyan said. “We have an unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, and even though the economy is growing, it’s only a few people who are benefiting.”
Dealing with such inequalities each day takes a lot of faith, something most Armenians seem to have in abundance. In
A.D. 301, Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity as its state religion. Just across the Turkish border looms Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah’s Ark came to rest. Armenia’s current boundary comprises only a small percentage of the nation’s ancient area. It is a landlocked, mountainous region roughly the size of Maryland, with a population of about 3 million.
Yerevan is a living experiment in rebuilding a political economy. The beautiful stone museum of legendary artist and film director Sergei Parajanov looks out over the debris-strewn Hrazdan River canyon and Hrazdan Stadium, the nation’s largest football (soccer) venue. On the opposite hillside stands a statue of Mother Armenia that in 1967 replaced a statue of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. On the street below, an old Soviet-era truck chugs along next to a new BMW, a blunt juxtaposition of poverty and luxury.
Within this complex social structure, religion is a unifying factor, with 94.7 percent of Armenians professing faith in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“The Church plays an important role in my life and the lives of most Armenians,” Movsisyan said. “Sundays are about church and family, and if they can’t go to church, lots of Armenians have areas in their houses where they pray.”
While many Armenians assert the importance of the Church to their culture, they acknowledge that its influence was limited during the Soviet era, when there were 10 clergy for all Armenians and baptisms took place in secret.
Elyssa Karanian, 22, is an Armenian-American journalist and researcher living and working in Yerevan. Karanian’s experiences in Armenia and the United States lead her to believe that the Church plays a larger role in diasporan communities (groups that have been dispersed outside of their traditional homeland) than it does in Armenia itself.
“I think the years of Soviet rule did quite a bit to diminish the Church’s role in Armenia,” Karanian said.
The face of faith
Whatever the role of faith in Armenia might be, it is impossible to deny its presence. Armenia prides itself on being the first nation to adopt Christianity as the national religion. Legend says that in the third century, St. Gregory the Illuminator refused to renounce his faith and was tortured by the Armenian King Trdat IV. The king eventually threw Gregory into a deep pit reserved for criminals, where Gregory was expected to die. The official history of the Armenian Church says that Gregory survived in the pit for 13 years, until he healed King Trdat from a distance. The king then brought Gregory out of exile and converted the nation to Christianity in A.D 301.
Today people can visit the pit at the 17th century monastery of Khor Virap. Armenians lovingly refer to it as the “Holy Hole,” but claustrophobics beware: A chapel was built above the pit, and visitors have to enter the room through a tiny crawlspace. Above ground, the views from Khor Virap are more impressive. It sits in the shadow of Mount Ararat, and although the border with Turkey is closed to Armenians, the mountain is a national symbol and is on Armenia’s coat of arms.
“The Church seems to be embedded in our culture,” Movsisyan said. “Anywhere you travel in Armenia, you will come across the splendid testaments to this in churches, monasteries, temples and khachkars [traditional stone crosses] that are all carved with great masterfulness and endless faith.”
Khor Virap is just one example of the faith incarnate in Armenia today. Another is the 13th century Haghartsin monastic complex. It sits near the town of Dilijan in the northeast province of Tavush, where stunning views of the forested mountains prompt Armenians to refer to the region as “little Switzerland.”
In a courtyard at the monastery, women bake loaves of a doughnut-shaped sweet bread called katnahunc. A woman uses a wooden paddle to pull 60 loaves a day out of a wood-fired brick oven, while her granddaughter hides behind mountainous bowls of dough. The loaves are sold to tourists and pilgrims. Behind the main chapel, a twisted 700-year-old tree specific to the region scrapes the sky with its scraggly branches.
In the courtyard of the ancient little church in Yerevan, where skeletons of old Soviet buildings are surrounded by construction cranes, Mount Ararat looms in the distance, I have to believe Movsisyan is right about Armenia having much to offer. America is enduring nothing today that Armenia hasn’t experienced, and in collaboration among students, citizens and believers we have the potential to achieve the sort of economic and political renewal that will force people to remember from whence they came.
“[Our faith] has always played a vital role in preserving our nation and our state,” Movsisyan said. “In times of foreign invasions, in times when we had no state, our religion and strong belief kept us alive and united.”