Countries are often known best by their capital cities, the epicenter of a region’s culture, economy and nightlife. When we think of France, Paris is first to spring to mind. For England, it’s London that makes the charts. For Lebanon, it is Beirut’s astonishing beauty we think of foremost. Thus, for Armenia, it is no surprise that the city embedded in the minds of those who know of the country’s existence is Yerevan. Yerevan, with its lovely cafes, the splendor of the city square, the roaring nightlife and beautiful Opera and Cascade, captures the hearts of many. The city is the Armenian Paris, beloved by both locals and foreigners alike, facing the majestic twin peaks of our Mount Ararat.
It appears as if Yerevan is the only city worth visiting in the homeland, however. Yet, with the European build and modern splendor of the capital attracting one’s attention, the true treasures of Armenia remain shrouded in mystery. The wealth that humbly bows to the artificial might of Yerevan is often overlooked. The multi-coloured duf stones used in the erection of Gyumri’s buildings go unseen, alongside the arching pillars and remnants of a once thriving city still reeling from a nearly 24 year old earthquake, struggling to pick up what has survived from the rubble.
The small towns dotting the country with their varied backgrounds and dialects are stones left unturned. Who would have known that many of those villages are in fact populated with the descendants of former Sasuntsis, survivors of the genocide of 1915? Fewer still would know that a passion for soccer drives the children around the country. The cave dwellings that were inhabited until nearly 50 years ago go unnoticed.
The horses of Artsakh, coveted by Azerbaijan, can be found in the wilds of the Syunik region of Armenia Proper as well. The liberated lands of the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh are as mountainous as the rest of Armenia, albeit with a richer natural diversity. Waterfalls pour into pools of crystal clear water, gurgling into the rivers crisscrossing to and fro. For a landlocked country simply a speck on a globe, Armenia has a rather astonishingly fertile landscape. Rumor has it that the waters of Jermuk can cure any ailment, a marketing heaven for attracting tourists year-round. The locals might feel an affront if their theories are not put the test at least once by every visitor to the region, however far-fetched they might appear to be.
Mount Ararat may be beyond our borders, but scaling Arakadz with its four peaks is a rather exhilarating challenge, rewarded by a hot plate of khash, the regional specialty. For the foolishly brave, a lake with temperatures that could freeze a cold blooded animal lies atop the mountain. The local Yezidi population, however, seems to have no problems in conquering the icy depths of this particular body of water. Climbing the Ughtasar Mountain would uncover ancient treasures in the form of petroglyphs depicting our ancestral history. Venturing into the Syunik province would also reveal one the oldest Stonehenge structures known to the world, a possible example of one of the oldest astrological observatory. An older version might have been discovered in what is today known as Turkey, dating back 11,000 yours at least.
One of the most breathtaking views of the land can be found from the Tatev Monastery, a world unto its own, protected by the steep slopes of our mountains and the deadly cliffs it overlooks. Within the embrace of the Artsakh province, tales of miracles and heroic figures are woven and heartily relayed at Kantsasar, the 13th century monastery that became a beacon of hope during the liberation war. Further into the region, one can find the excavation site of Dikranagerd, one of the four cities with its namesake. The road to this ancient city leads through towns built around the ruins of once incredibly engineered fortresses, with great walls extending over the mountains and deep into the valleys.
Yerevan may be the hub, often the only city most tourists see, but the astounding wealth of Armenia lies beyond those borders, within the true Armenia!