Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tuesday, May 24th, Yerevan, Armenia


On the last day in the Central Caucasus region,  we began by visiting Mesrop Mashtot's Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.  It holds one of the world's richest depositories of medievil manuscripts and books which span a broad range of subjects, including history, philosophy, medicine, literature, art history, and cosmography in Armenian and many other languages.

Shortly after Armenia had a language (4th century AD), scholars started translating key Assyrian (a dialect of Akkadian, an extinct East Semitic language) texts into Armenian. The Bible, writings of great earlier scholars from around the world, gospels, songs and poems, and the decrees of the Armenian Apostolic Church were all translated and produced in illustrated calfskin parchment paper.  The depository for these text for 1500 years was the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (where we were on Sunday).  Through many invasions, the manuscripts were protected by the monks and locals.  The Museum here in Yerevan was constructed to house that collection, and many thousands of additional manuscripts contributed to it.

Later, the group drove to Lake Sevan (largest high altitude fresh water lake in Eurasia).  Pat and I bailed on it, and walked through the town to see some local sites.  Tops on our list was the inside galleries of the Gerhard J. Cafesjian Museum in the Cascades, which we had found closed yesterday.  While photos were prohibited, the exhibits were well worth the diversion on a rainy day.

I'm closing with a link to a collection of photos taken by one of our tour guides in Georgia (Giorgi Dartsimelia),  Most of the photos you've seen so far feature the members of our bus, and here is a chance to see the complete group.  To see his collection, and a few photos taken of the Depository this morning, click on:  Tuesday, May 24th  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Monday, May 23rd, Yerevan, Armenia


Today, we drove to the Geghard Cave Monastery for another "hard to believe they did this" experience.  It was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave, much of the site is carvd into the side of a mountain.  Originally named Ayrivank (Cave) Monastery, it was renamed the Monastery of the Spear when the Spearhead which pierced Christ's side was stored here for a thousand years (then moved to the Cathedral of Echmiadzin).

Chapels and the addition of Khachkar Crosses (Carved stone cross scenes) came in the 13th century, and pilgrims and tourists have made it one of the most visited religious sites in Armenia.

The Temple of Garni down the road a bit is one of the oldest pre-Christian sites in Armenia.  Looking like it belongs in Greece or Southern Sicily, the Temple was built in 77AD by Tridates I, and was dedicated to the Sun God (Mihr or Mithra) of the Zoastrian-influenced Armenian mythology as a symbol of friendship between Armenia and Rome.

Perched next to a cliff overlooking a vast river valley, it was protected by fortress walls in the fourth century when it was converted into a summer house for Trdat's sister (Khosrovidukht).   Some think its use as a tomb earlier kept it from being destroyed by Trdat when he converted the country to Christianity.  It collapsed in the 1679 Earthquake, and was rebuilt in the 1960s.

We returned in the late afternoon, rested up, and headed down the street to a popular public square called the Cascades.  We had been there a few days ago, and did not get a chance to go inside, or up to its balconies.

A partnership between a private foundation (Gerald Cafesjian Foundation) and the city government, the museum has placed quite a number of sculptures in the seven levels of the structure.  We plan on going back tomorrow, as the main museum is closed on Mondays.

Our group then met at the best restaurant we've eaten in on the entire trip (Charles), and celebrated one of our last nights together.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on:
Monday, May 23d, Yerevan,  Armenia

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday, May 22nd, Yerevan, Armenia


Two more travel days remain (Monday and Tuesday).  We've had to be flexible with our plans to see Armenia from our Yerevan base, as the road conditions have been unclear.  Armenia hasn't had the national income necessary to maintain its roads, and it has an impact on our access to some of its key tourist sites.  And figuring out the conditions isn't easy either.  The most confusing is the report that some villagers have blocked the road to two of our key sites in a dispute with the government. That makes guessing whether the clouds will block the view of Mount Ararat a much easier challenge.  But we hear tonight that the dispute has been resolved, and we're headed to the monastery and temple tomorrow.

No matter where we travel in this area, we can probably find Mount Ararat on the horizon.  We certainly did today, as our destinations were right on the Turkey border.

Khor Virap is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Armenia.  Its notoriety comes from the fact that Saint Gregory the Illustrator was imprisoned there for 14 years by King Tridates III.  Here's the backstory.

Upon the assassination of his father (Kosrovo  II of the Parthians), Tridates (Trdat) the infant is taken by troops loyal to his father to Rome, and his older sister (Khosrovidukht) to Cappadocia.  The man behind the assassination was Ardashir I, the first king and founder of the Sassanid Empire.  Ardashir convinced Gregory's father (Anak) to murder the king, promising to return control of the region to the locals.  Once the deed was done, the locals turned on Anak, and killed all but Gregory (who as an infant was taken by his caretakers to Cappadoccio).

Thirty five years later (in 287AD), Roman Emperor Diocletian rewards his brilliant young general to the throne of Armenia, and soon after a guilt-ridden Gregory joins the army and works his way up to secretary to the King.  Christianity had a strong footing in Armenia by the end of the third century, but the nation by and large still followed pagan polytheism.  Trdat was no exception, and he too worshipped ancient gods.  During a pagan religious ceremony, Trdat ordered Gregory to place a flower wreath at the foot of the goddess Anahit in Eriza.  Gregory refused, proclaiming his Christian faith.  This act infuriated the King.  His fury was only exacerbated when several individuals declared that Gregory was, in fact, the son of Anak, the traitor who killed Trdat's father.  Gregory was tortured, and finally thrown in Khor Virap, a deep underground dungeon.

During the years of Gregory's imprisonment, a group of nuns, led by Gayane, came to Armenia as they fled the Roman persecution of their faith.   Trdat heard about the group, and the legendary beauty of one of its members (Rhipsime).  He had them brought to the palace, and demanded to marry the beautiful virgin.  She refused.  The King had the whole group tortured and killed.  After this event, he fell ill, and (according to legend) adopted the behavior of a wild boar, aimlessly wondering around in the forest.  Khosrovidukht (his sister) had a dream wherein Gregory was still alive in the dungeon, and was the only one able to cure the King.  At this point, it had been 13 years since his imprisonment.  The odds of him being alive were slim.  They retrieved him, and despite being incredibly malnourished, he was still alive.  He was kept alive by a kind-hearted woman, who threw him a loaf of bread each day.

Trdat was brought to Gregory, and was miraculously cured in 301AD.  Persuaded by the power of the cure, the King immediately proclaimed Christianity the state religion.  Trdat also made Gregory the first Catholicos (Pope) of the Armenian Apostic Church.

Three hundred years later, Nerses I had the Cathedral of Echmiadzin built (visited yesterday), and dedicated a chapel in it to Saint Gregory (the Illustrator).  Saint Gregory's remains are at Zvartnot's Temple (also visited yesterday).

After lunch, we visited Noravank (new Monastery), located 122 km from Yerevan in a narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River.  The gorge is known for its tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs directly across from the monastery (kinda like Zion National Park).

The monastery is best known for its two-story Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church, which grants access to its second floor by a narrow, stone made staircase jutting out from the face of the building.  Above the doorway in one of the sanctuaries, God is depicted (highly unusual in churches).

 To see all of the photos taken today, click on:
Sunday, May 22nd

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday, May 21st, Yerevan, Armenia


We began the day at the Cathedral of Echmiadzin, the oldest in the world.  It's the Armenian Vatican City, built in 301AD, and holds the spear which its is said pierced the side of Crist while on the cross, the bones of John the Baptist, and a piece of Noah's Ark.

Several years ago, we were fascinated by an ancient Silk Road city we found in eastern Turkey city called Ani.  One of the largest cathedral's design was centuries ahead of anything I had ever seen.

The support columns were huge, the domes were expansive, the height mystifying, and the volume overwhelming.

Today, we visited the Zvartnots Temple just outside Yerevan.  It was designed by the same architect, in 652 AD, and was reportedly the tallest structure on earth at the time.

Though mostly destroyed by earthquakes in 930 AD, it contained the same great architectural prowess.

Returning to Yerevan, we had lunch in the City's Cascade Park,

and later visited the Armenian Genocide Museum, and the National Art and History Museum.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on:
Saturday, May 21st

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday, May 20th, Yerevan, Armenia


In the past two days, we've spent our last day in Georgia, crossed over into Armenia, and traveled to its capital, Yerevan.

On the way out of Georgia, we drove out to South Ossetia (you remember the war there in the late 1980's), and stopped into the town of Gori.  Some of our travelers thought it wrong to visit the Stalin Museum, but we wanted to learn more about how the locals view their once leader.  Built a year after he died, this hometown boy's collection of railroad car, birth home house, and every photo imaginable was very informative.  I was surprised to learn how handsome we way as a young man, and that he began his career as an underground journalist.  He was literally underground in 1905-07 publishing a monthly organizing tabloid in a cave beside a deep well until a curious policeman noticed an unusual lateral draft of air near the bottom of the well.

Next, our bus took us to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe.  Pre-Christian Georgia was called Kartli, and this complex of caves was its capital.  From the 6th century BC to the 11th century AD, it held off would be conquerors and challengers to its leadership, and housed thousands of residents.  Pat and I chose only to climb up to the first level, and got lost coming back down.  We saw a terrific video in the museum back at the gate, and will try to locate it for a future post.  This was an important early civilization's origin, and deserves a complete presentation of its value to us.
On Friday, we drove to the Armenian border, and dragged our bags out of Georgia and into our seventh country.  The day was consumed by visits to the Haghpat, Sanahin, monasteries (including seeing two chapels dedicated to the first Bishop of the first country to declare Christianity as its state religion (Gregory and Armenia in 301AD).  We also stopped by the check out a MIG-21 on display in tribute to the town's more recent favorite son, Artyom Mikoyan, who designed Russia's first jet fighter.

And finally, one the way into Yerevan, we came across a huge cross on a hill, constructed in 2001 from 1700 metal crosses to celebrate the 1700 year anniversary of the proclamation of the country's Christianity.

I preferred the one sculptures nearby which depicted and honored the unique letters in the country's alphabet.

To see all of the photos taken in the last two days, click on:
Thursday, May 19th
Friday, May 20th

And to watch a video I made of a terrific dance and musical group we were treated to at dinner on Thursday night, click on:

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wednesday, May 18th, Gudauri, Georgia


Pat's mom had a cousin, whose idea of touring was going to every single church in the area (Rome).  It felt like that today.  First, we stopped at the Jvari Monastery, an imposing structure overlooking the Kura and Aragvi Rivers. 

Second, we drove to Mtskheta (UNESCO World Heritage), which was the capital of the Eastern Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd Century BC to the 5th century AD. As the center of the Iberian civilization, it was significant both spiritually and culturally. Georgia's conversion to Christianity took place here in 337AD. 

Third, we went to Ananuri, another old partially renovated 14th century church.  But I stayed in the bus, and read about Georgia.  No photos of this one.

But, on the way to the next church, we encountered several large flocks of sheep, goats, and cows being herded up to the mountains pastures.  The road was narrow enough without all of them blocking cars and trucks both directions. 

Finally, we drove up the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Russians to export the resources of this area.  We took our bus 40 kilometers out of town, and then climbed into jeeps to continue the last seven kilometers straight up, to arrive at 7,216 feet above the town of Kazbegi (10 miles from the Russian border) to see the Tsminda Sameba Church.  It contained the original black Madonaa and child (burned a bit), but still impressive.  Unfortunately, we couldn't photograph it.

To see the photos taken today, click on:

Tuesday, May 17th, Gudauri, Georgia


Today, most of the day was spent in our bus, and on the train during Tuesday night.  But don't despair.  Pat's daily journal always spices up these posts, and she comes through again.

We awoke to a sunny day!  The mountain peaks gleaming in the blue sky.  What a difference the weather makes.  After breakfast, we drove about 10 miles further up the road – seeing more mountain peaks.  There are wild flowers too.  A mountain azalea (sulfurous yellow), buttercups, a small light yellow purple rhodias, apple and plum trees.  We see cows, pigs, goats, dogs (big), and ponies on the road.  

Back towards Svanetia, another turnoff takes us to a ski lift.  Up 1800 meters to a 360 degree Caucasus Mountain Range panorama, a breathtaking experience.

Back into town, we hike up a steep, rough “cobbled” street (i.e. split, oval, river stones) to one of the stone defensive towers.  Built in the 11th century, there is a series of “rooms” with steep, rickety ladders to climb between.  Pat opted out, but I and some others made it up 3 to 4 floors before bailing out.  It was pretty scary and dusty.

We had a leisurely lunch on the patio/bar with the mountains as a backdrop.  More yummy salads, katchapurri, and lots of eggplant. 

We began our five-hour bus ride back down the mountain to Zugdidi.  But this time it’s sunny, so the greenery, geology, and hydrology (several waterfalls) are much more visible.  The country is totally hydro-electric powered with power to sell to Russia. 

Our white bus is in a race with the other (red) bus, and they are complaining about always following us – and our blocking the view.  So we joked about it all day – seeing snow leopards, moose, bear, etc.

The ten of us in the white bus are a good group.  Bob from New York is quite a jolly helpful guy.  Zofia, a Polish research physician living in La Jolla.  Plenty of other interesting folks whose conversations and life stories are enjoyable and fascinating.  We arrive back in Zugdidi for dinner, take a short tour of a small palace and church, and board the 10:15pm train back to Tbilisi by 6:30am..  This time, we have Johanna (and her wine) in the same car.

Ps. We just learned there is a short flight from Tbilisi to Mestia for $30 one way!!!  Here's a cool video of a winter train ride through some of the same territory.

To see the photos we took today, click on:
Tuesday, May 17th

Monday, May 16, 2016

Monday, May 16th, Mestia, Georgia


After breakfast on Sunday morning, we deposited in our hotel storage the biggest of our luggage bags filled with stuff we could do without for four days.  We'd be back on Thursday night, after taking two trains and multiple bus rides to visit the northwestern and northern regions of Georgia.  We're half way through it, and currently in Mestia, a town high in the mountains with some unusual towers.

But let's recount the past two days.  After breakfast on Sunday, we drove two hours out to the semi-desert area southeast of Tbilisi to visit the David Gareja Monastary.  A very different terrain, populated by sheep and not much else, the Monastary is one of the most important religious sites in Georgia.  It is a complex of 12 cave monasteries founded by a Syrian Father, David Gareja, in the 6th century AD.  Home in the 12th century to 1200 monks, it was sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Tamarlane in the 14th.

Returning to Tbilisi in the late afternoon, we visited a local synagogue, and spent some time at some souvenir shops before a 7pm dinner.  Afterwards, our bus drove us the train station were we boarded sleeper cabins for a "night train to (upper) Georgia".

Arriving in Zugdidi, we transferred to a new bus, and drove for five hours to the town of Mestia up in the Caucasus Mountains of the Svaneti region of northwestern Georgia, about 23 kilometers from the Russian border.  After lunch, on a rainy afternoon, we visited the local museum - opened especially for us - and then did some more local shopping in the city square.

A few minutes ago, we were treated to a great rainbow across the town in front of our hotel. We're mostly exhausted from the train and bus ride, and are hoping it's heralding a brighter day tomorrow, when we return to Tbilisi on the bus and overnight train again to head off on another long bus ride to yet another mountain site.

To see the photos taken in the past two days, click on:
Monday, May 16th

And to follow our adventures, remember that we have created a Google Map.  Click here to see it  It may take a while to load, and be sure to use the "+" and "-" arrows on the right to enlarge and shrink the screen.  You can also move the map around with the left and right arrows on your keypad. The Blus lines indicate where we have been.  The yellow lines are where we are still to go.  Each placemark balloon contains the itinerary.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saturday, May 14th, Tbilisi, Georgia


Today was a tour of Tblisi, a city on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, north and south, east and west.  Five thousand years old, it's been invaded by Arabs and Persians, Mongols and Central Asians.  Only really controlled by its own people briefly in the 12th century and for the last 25 years, it seems to be blending foreign investment and local entrepreneurial spirit well.

The usual fortress wall surrounds an old city, outside of which is everything 20th century. Unique architecture and art abound.  Mountains frame, and rivers wind throughout  There are churches for everyone, closed by the Russians, and reconstructed well since independence.

We rode across the City, high above the river, in an arial cable car.

Once on the mountaintop, we walked to the "Mother of Georgia" statue.  Holding a sword in one hand, a wine bowl (biala) in the other. Sounds like she's willing to fight for her agricultural heritage.

Built by the Soviets (there's one in every territory the took over), she really stands for the variety of Buntucki, Tubals, Mushkai, Kashkai, and Maskhi who walked this part of the world over the past eight thousand years.

We had lunch in the old city, at the Marakesh Express (great humus), and are skipping dinner tonight to go to the Opera House to see the Georgian Ballet.

To see the photos we took today, click on:
Saturday, May 14th