Some cities hit you with strong vibes the minute you step out of the airport, and those vibes set the tone of your entire stay. But Tbilisi was an interesting one, because I really didn’t feel anything when I arrived here. Or ever, in the 7 nights I spent in this city. I was expecting some sort of strong, emotive, post-Soviet energy of a fledgling nation determined to get on its feet regardless of Russia’s endless attempts to undermine its sovereignty (or, you know, something like that) … but I felt nothing. Because, as it turns out, Tbilisi is a city with absolutely ZERO pretense.
For our last installment from Armenia, we’re going to our most famous site yet. Well, maybe it’s a little bit less notable than the Genocide Memorial or the Cascade in Yerevan, but it’s definitely one of the most iconic images of Armenia. Prior to my trip, I knew that if I went nowhere else outside of Yerevan on my trip, I was going to come here.
I’m talking about Khor Virap Monastery.
It’s not exactly a household name, but if you just run a simple Google Images search for Armenia, it’s going to be one of the first things that pops up. And it’s not far from Yerevan!
This started as a trip to a church in the southern part of Armenia called Noravank. Not a big deal.
We’re going to get there by the end of this article, but we’re going to take a detour to explain something interesting along the way first. So I’ll drop us into the story right around noon, when I was riding shotgun in a large van, speeding southward along the Armenian-Turkish border.
Lake Sevan is the life blood of Armenia. This is the biggest water source in a small landlocked country, so its value as a natural resource cannot be overstated. It provides 90% of the fish consumed by Armenia, as well as a huge portion of the water used for agricultural irrigation and generation of electricity. And if you look at a map of Armenia, it’s probably the first geographic feature that you will notice. Armenia is not a big country—for my American readers, it’s about the size of Maryland—so a lake this big is hard to miss. Exactly how big is it? It’s about 1,900 squares miles, or about 1/6 of Armenia’s total surface area. That makes it a little more than half the size of Lake Erie. And at 312 ft deep, Lake Sevan is actually quite a bit deeper than Lake Erie. Although, it’s a bit less deep these days than it used to be.
It was this event that prompted the creation of the term “genocide.” There wasn’t really a word for this before the world started to do business with what happened to the Armenians. I’m going to tell you this story now, and I’m sure you will start to notice some eerie parallels with the Holocaust. In fact, the two aren’t entirely unrelated. But before we dive in, I’m going to warn you, this will be disturbing.
Once we got a bit closer to the city center, the vibes quickly became more difficult to categorize. Fast forward a few hours and I was in my happy place: out on the streets with my camera. I was eager to jump to conclusions, but the further I walked the less I sure I became of what I thought I knew. Some times I would pick up Middle-Eastern vibes from open-air restaurants in city squares, other times I would get European vibes from the little Armenian bakeries tucked away somewhere on every block. And the architecture on those blocks sometimes seemed to be European-adjacent… but then on the next block the buildings were giant, brutalist concrete blocks, serving as a striking reminder of Armenia’s Soviet past.
First up is going to be Armenia. I think Bourdain touched on something very interesting in his episode here—when you think of Armenia, most of us think about an Armenian. That’s definitely true for me (what’s up Tyler!), but it seems that this is a more common experience than I had realized. Even if you don’t know an Armenian personally, you’ve probably heard of the Kardashians. Or how about the band System Of A Down? These are two great examples of Armenians in Western pop culture. Everybody knows an Armenian.