“Sometime this week, an Armenian will treat you to a cup of coffee.” These were the words of our first tour guide in Armenia during the Faith Travel Association’s product development trip to the country in September.
As our guide shared the story of a people who have suffered persecution, genocide, and various invasions throughout their history, she also highlighted the rich culture and genuine hospitality of the Armenian people. Despite facing challenges, Armenians have always been willing to welcome a stranger into their homes for dinner or buy someone a cup of coffee at a market or café.
And so began the journey for the five tour operators and me in this new-to-us country. The trip was organized by FTA member Solimar International and funded by My Armenia Program, a cultural heritage tourism initiative implemented by the Smithsonian Institute and funded by USAID.
Armenia lies in the mountainous Armenian Highland region between Europe and Asia and is bordered by Turkey and Iran to the south, and Georgia and Azerbaijan to the north. Despite the unrest in two of the neighboring countries, Armenia remains one of the safest countries to visit, earning the best travel advisory rating by the U.S. State Department.
For the faith traveler, Armenia has much to offer. As the first Christian nation, officially named so by King Trdat III in the year 301 A.D., the country provides many destinations of interest. Travelers can visit sites related to two of Christ’s apostles, Bartholomew and Thaddeus, who journeyed throughout Armenia sharing the news of Jesus. Groups can also visit many monasteries in breathtaking settings to experience where Christianity took hold in Armenia and has flourished ever since. In addition, visitors to Etchmiadzin, the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, can visit the world’s oldest cathedral as well as the adjacent museum housing some of the most important religious relics in existence.
Armenia is home to approximately 4,000 monasteries, many in remote areas atop mountains or carved into granite walls. The monasteries were purposely built in these places to provide a distraction-free environment for the monks who lived there, allowing them uninterrupted time for prayer and meditation.
This iconic monastery has as its backdrop the magnificent Mount Ararat, the location believed to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. It was here that the conversion of King Trdat III took place after Gregory the Illuminator, a Christian who was held prisoner here for more than a decade for his religious beliefs, was able to cure the king of an illness. We were able to descend into the actual pit where Gregory was imprisoned, now part of the present-day church.
Because the road to Tatev Monastery is especially narrow and curvy around the mountains, the best way to reach it is via the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest reversible cable car. Constructed in 2010, it is 5,752 meters long (over 3.5 miles) and suspended more than 320 meters (1,050 feet) above the gorge. The ride takes 13 minutes and is narrated in three languages: Armenian, Russian, and English. The views from the cable car are spectacular, but those with a fear of heights might find this short journey quite challenging.
Tatev Monastery was built in the 9th century, and I found myself amazed at the thought of constructing these buildings in such a hard-to-reach location near the edge of a cliff. Services are still held in at least one of the churches.
Noravank Monastery is a group of 13th-century buildings surrounded by soaring walls of red stone. This property includes the three-level Mother of God Church, cave dwellings where the monks lived, and an ancient church built completely underground in a cave.
The monastery also has an impressive collection of khachkars, or cross stones, many of them designed by the famous 14th-century Armenian architect and sculptor, Momik. These intricately carved stone “signs” were used to identify buildings being used as churches in the early days of Christianity in Armenia. Even after actual church buildings and monasteries were constructed, the tradition of the cross stones continued and still does today.
The buildings that compose Geghard Monastery were built between the 4th and 14th centuries, with some of them carved into the massive stone mountain walls—all isolated and nestled in a green valley.
Because we visited here on Sunday, we were able to attend part of a mass. Two observations came to mind: This church, like all that we saw in Armenia, was rather plain, with a simple altar and little to no artwork, color, or stained glass. Also, Armenian churches are devoid of seating; all participants stand for mass, even though the full service lasts for about three hours.
Our guide explained that the plain, undecorated style of Armenian churches was influenced by the country’s history. Because Armenia was often invaded and conquered by others, the practicing Christians simply did not have time to create ornate décor before the next invaders arrived. And with this tradition of simplicity, the people grew to cherish this style as a better way to concentrate on God while worshipping rather than focusing on distracting decorations, images, or art.
On our last day in Armenia, we traveled to Etchmiadzin, considered the Vatican of Armenia and the center of the Armenia Apostolic Church. Although the cathedral was closed for renovation, we enjoyed a guided tour of the museum, which houses several important religious relics, including the spear used to poke Christ’s side while he hung on the cross and fragments of Noah’s Ark.
While Amalia Stepanyan of ESI DMC Armenia agrees that Armenia’s faith destinations are top-notch, she says the country offers so much more.
“Armenia is situated in the cultural, historical, and religious intersection between Europe and Asia. The country offers UNESCO World Heritage sites that have religious and historical significance, boundless natural beauty and breathtaking views, delicious food with national culinary traditions, rich cultural heritage, and hospitable people.”
Our cultural experiences included the following:
The Areni Cave Complex is an active archeological site where several important Copper Age artifacts were discovered. In 2007, a burial site was found, including a skull with a partially intact brain—the earliest on record. Then in 2008, archeologists discovered a leather shoe dating back 5,500 years, the oldest ever found. In 2010, evidence of a 6,100-year-old winery was found in the cave.
After visiting that ancient winery, which is the oldest in the world, we enjoyed lunch and wine-tasting at Momik Winery, a small business owned and operated by a husband-wife team. Sitting on the covered patio of the winery building with sweeping views of the vineyards, we had a tasty meal and sampled four different wines, all delicious.
We traveled to Khachik, a small town near the border of Azerbaijan, to experience the Gata Festival, which celebrates gata, a famous Armenian pastry. The festival included Armenian music and folk dancing and a wide selection of foods and crafts sold by local vendors. Several group members joined in the dancing and sampled the food, and all of us felt welcomed by the people of Khachik.
This Greek-style pagan temple, built in 77 A.D., is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Armenia. When the country became Christian in 301 A.D., King Trdat III began destroying all pagan temples. Only Garni Temple was spared—at the request of the king’s sister, who loved visiting this classic structure because of its picturesque setting in a valley overlooking a deep gorge below.
Our group participated in a master class in ceramics led by Gohar, a local artist who is mute. Known throughout Armenia, Gohar communicates with her parents by writing, and the parents in turn talk to the visitors. We took a tour of the artist’s workshop and had a chance to paint our own ceramic angels under the supervision of Gohar.
The best experience of all
Near the end of the trip, I decided to stroll through Vernissage, the open-air market in the heart of Yerevan. This famous market offers row after row of vendors selling handcrafted items, food, and clothing, and it’s definitely a must-see.
As I passed by a stand with scarves and jewelry, one of the three women working there summoned me to try on a scarf. In her limited English, the young saleswoman, Ester, explained how the artist, Marine, makes the scarves as well as the jewelry, which she crafts from brass and crushed granite. I ended up buying both a scarf and a necklace, and the four of us laughed and communicated as best we could, sharing photos of our families as mothers do. When Marine suddenly jumped up and enthusiastically spoke to me in Armenian, Ester explained in English: “She says, ‘I will treat you to coffee, my friend.’”
That simple invitation led to a wonderful time of sharing with these charming women and made me realize, despite the hardships of their history, what a warm and welcoming people the Armenians truly are. While I enjoyed the country’s wealth of religious and cultural sites, natural beauty, and outstanding food, building bonds over a cup of coffee with these new friends was an unexpected and unforgettable experience.
And so the tradition of Armenian hospitality was extended to me, just as our tour guide said that it would be.
Top photo: Khor Virap Monastery near Mount Ararat
Photo by Kay Saffari