Published: March 2004

The Rebirth of Armenia

By Frank Viviano
Photographs by Alexandra Avakian
Soldiers serve as honorary godfathers for 200 children being baptized at Tatev Monastery, part of celebrations in 2001 marking Armenia's 1,700 years as a Christian nation. Mass baptisms became a familiar scene in Armenia in the years following the country's independence from the Soviet Union, which tried to muzzle religion during its 70-year rule. For more than a decade the Armenian Apostolic Church allowed such communal ceremonies in order to accommodate the large numbers of Armenians returning to their religious roots, but last year the church announced that it no longer sanctioned mass baptisms.

We had purchased four maps, with four radically different versions of the route to Amaras, on the assumption that one of them might bear some slim connection to reality. Gevorg Melkonian, a veteran guide to the remote backcountry of the Caucasus, pulled the car over every half hour, and we stared at the maps in turn, trying to make sense of our location.

It was a hopeless task. All four maps were exercises in fiction, and every road sign had been blasted into illegible shreds by shrapnel and tank fire. In the end we relied on dead reckoning, lurching south at a seven-mile (11-kilometer) an-hour crawl through occasional mud holes so deep and slick that Gevorg's Russian-manufactured four-by-four spun in 180-degree fishtails.

At the village of Majkalashen, a lone farmer turned up mounds of rich black soil amid vineyards in April bud and cottony orchards of flowering apricot, his waist and shoulders hitched to a plow mule. The landscape might have been lost to time had it not been for an International Red Cross marker less than 300 yards (270 meters) from the farmer. "Minefields," Gevorg explained.

This is the insurgent nation of Nagorno-Karabakh: forever Armenian in the eyes of its 130,000 embattled residents. A breakaway province of Azerbaijan, according to international law. An independent state since 1991 by its own unilateral declaration, diplomatically recognized by no foreign government. And the setting of a six-year conflict that killed as many as 25,000 Azeris and 5,000 Armenians before an uneasy truce, still broken regularly by gunfire, was declared in 1994.

This is also the template of Armenian history, a 3,000-year chronicle of defiance and survival.

Two hours beyond Majkalashen we crested a ridge and wove down earthen switchbacks into the Amaras valley. The fourth-century Monastery of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenians, stood above a creek bed, utterly deserted, engulfed in the silence of gnarled mulberry trees.

We climbed through an aperture in the bullet-riddled stone rampart that surrounded the monastery. The rampart's inside wall had been fitted with cells for the monks; it took very little imagination to visualize them steadily transcribing texts and teaching the classics of antiquity to novitiates. The monastic complex at Amaras housed the first school established by Armenians in Karabakh, a foundation shrine of their educational traditions and written language.

The monastery's later annals are a catalog of desecrations. It was sacked by Persians in the fifth century, Arabs in the seventh, and Genghis Khan's Mongol warriors in the thirteenth. A century and a half later came Tamerlane, riding a furious wind of conquest from Samarqand to the Mediterranean; determined to outdo the Mongols, he razed the entire complex and had its stones thrown into a river. According to oral tradition, the surviving monks waited until Tamerlane was out of sight, then pulled the ruins from the water and rebuilt their monastery, stone by stone.

I took the tortuous road to Amaras because its monastery had played a key role in the Armenians' distant past. But Nagorno-Karabakh also spoke directly to the 21st century. The rebellion against Azerbaijan was the first of the deadly conflicts to erupt in the ruins of the Soviet Union as its empire disintegrated, the first post–Cold War war, fought on the battlefields of ethnic nationalism and antipathy that have redesigned the world's map in the past decade.

In Stepanakert, Karabakh's largest city, Azeri forces had hit the central high school with "19 missiles, 4 heavy artillery shells, and 9 bombs," Karen Andreyan, the principal, told me. We visited a classroom where 15-year-olds in a compulsory military training program demonstrated their speed taking apart and reassembling Kalashnikov assault rifles. They were down to an average of 20 seconds.

Andreyan was proud of them. But he was prouder yet that the school had remained in operation throughout the war. "We taught literature classes, music, math, science, history, and geography in underground tunnels."

A very old story, Armenians will tell you. Armenia's early contemporaries—the Hittites and the Chaldeans, the Phoenicians and Phrygians, the Lydians and Medes—vanished long ago. But the Armenians are still present. The longer I traveled among them, the more I recognized that my journey was an inquiry into an ancient drama—the cycle of disaster and regeneration embodied in the tale of Noah, whose ark, According to the Old Testament, came to rest in Armenia after the Flood.

At every turn in the Armenian landscape, the echoes of that primeval drama can still be heard. History for Armenians has never been a matter of detached experience, lost in the currents of change. It is an unbroken cultural memory that reaches back three millennia, an identity so tenacious that it has weathered every imperial rise and fall from Babylon to perestroika.

Inscriptions in old Persian make the earliest recorded allusion to a land known as Armina in 518 b.c. But under their own name, the Hai (even today, in Armenian, the nation is called Hayastan), they had settled in what is now known as the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia centuries earlier. Legend has it that the Hai are descended from a renowned archer, Hayk, a great-great-grandson of Noah who escaped the doomed city of Babel before its celebrated tower fell.

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