Yerevan, Tbilisi. En route and back

Yerevan, Tbilisi. En route and back

I had a surprise trip to Tbilisi this weekend, accompanying a friend. I’m glad my father asked me to take the camera along, because I got some interesting shots along the way, and decided to come up with a “mini photo essay” to share.

I have a friend who once told me, “It’s impossible to take a bad picture in Armenia”. Well, she’s right. This is somewhere in the Tavoush marz, just one of a thousand and one amazing landscapes across the Homeland.

You know, it was only a day, and I have been to Tbilisi before, but I got unclear impressions, strange “vibes” from Georgia this time. First of all, I guess we Armenians have some reasons to be jealous of them, and that must have made itself felt in me. After all, Tbilisi seems to be a bigger, more vibrant city, with more foreign attention and investment. Plus, I am fond of the Georgian language, the alphabet in particular, which I learnt to read long ago, and I suppose I feel some sort of attraction for something so close, yet so exotic in many ways.

On the other hand – and this turned out to be the stronger impression in the end – it’s not like we Armenians don’t have a rich culture and history ourselves, and that our economy or prospects are zero. Perhaps our situation is a little bit more demanding, but that’s just the challenge of it. The Georgians seem politically or socially better-off sometimes, but at other times it seems like they are either going to explode or implode or both… Hmmm…I think I better stop right now before I hurt myself or others. It’s just that I get overly fascinated and into things sometimes and believe me, the Georgians are a fascinating bunch.

I was disappointed to miss out on the ongoing protest rally against Saakashvili, though; I guess they stopped. But when would be better to pitch tents and shout slogans other than this past weekend, the anniversary of last year’s Ossetian war? I thought the opposition’s major qualm was the war itself, and the way Saakashvili went about it.

This is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. The Georgians are a part of the Orthodox communion (including the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, etc. and yes, the Russians too), and they have a national church much like us Armenians, a guardian of their culture, a major aspect of the national identity, the whole deal. They seem more involved in religious practice, however, such as how people make the sign of the cross most every time they pass by or even see a church. Is it a stricter version of Christianity, or is there just showoffy superstition? The Georgian church architecture is clearly similar to ours as well. But this very impressive edifice – and it truly is beautiful – was built over an old Armenian graveyard. I’d seen the bones and remains of tombs when they were still constructing it a few years ago. So, some more mixed feelings there.

But I took this photograph specifically to display the contrast between a magnificent return to the old, and the gaudy expression of the not-so-old, namely the lights on the TV tower in the distance, which twinkle in various patterns throughout the night. There’s more of that sort of thing, with wild colourful lights and paint on ancient bridges or balconies of century-old buildings. It’s a little bit too much, in my opinion, but there you have it. And it made for a good photograph with contrasting subjects, which is something I am very fond of.

Maybe the TV tower is more of a representative of the Soviet days, something which present-day Georgia is heavily trying to downplay and… well, “overrun” might be one way of expressing it. The current leadership leans very much to the West: the United States, Europe and NATO. The Russian influence and heritage is invisible. I noticed that street signs or signs on shops and other establishments did not have any Russian versions at all, only Georgian and English. I kind of like the trilinguality which is widespread among most educated Armenians today, and I expect most educated Georgians are yet trilingual, but I know that the emphasis is primarily on the national language. That might manifest itself disadvantageously in future.

There was a crowd at the cathedral that night, because none other than the Catholicos of the Georgian Church, Ilia II, was present. Throngs were lined up just to see him, touch him, receive his blessing. It was quite moving, actually, and I thought of our Armenian Catholicos. I am something of a fan of his, and I maintain that our Church today probably needs someone like him, someone not quite inspiring confidence as being holy, but rather a man of action. It would be nice if he did have that somewhat more pious image, though, much like Catholicos Vazgen of Blessed Memory, love and respect for whom is mirrored in the Georgian people’s relationship with Ilia II.

This is a general view of the older part of Tbilisi from across the river. The contrast in this image is between the ancient fortress and churches, old buildings, structures which might collapse at any moment, new and ongoing constructions, all in one vista. Rather much to take in all at once, but representative of what this place has been through, and continues to experience.

The dome in the centre and slightly to the right is an Armenian church, one of only two functioning ones remaining in Tbilisi. This city – Tiflis, Tpghis, Tivliz, as it was and is variously known to Armenians – was a major Armenian cultural and political centre until the Russian Revolution, by which time 60% of the local population was Armenian. The Soviet years were bad for all, but independence has brought on a lot of nationalism. Anyone who isn’t Georgian in today’s Georgia has something of an uphill struggle, the Armenians included. Now, it’s not like Armenia is free from nationalism itself – far from it – but in such a multi-ethnic setting as Georgia, one overly dominating culture to the detriment of others is particularly discouraging. There was a great deal of construction and renovation going on at both churches, however, and I couldn’t help but think that this was a positive sign for some sort of renewal, or at least maintenance, of the Armenian heritage of Georgia.

This church in particular is well-known and beloved, for it contains a monument below

and the grave within

of none other than Sayat Nova, the renowned troubador and minstrel of the 18th century, who lived and worked in Tbilisi, and sang, among other things, ballads and love songs, in Armenian, Georgian, Turkish/Persian. He is something of a symbol of unity for the Caucasus peoples. Well, he was anyway, and someday he will probably be used in that role again. There just isn’t much of that unity going on at present, that’s all.

This shot was another one of contrasts that I couldn’t help taking. A modern-day café in an old Tbilisi neighbourhood, with an even older church in the distance, and the Moon (how ancient can one get?!) peeping through shifting clouds. This neighbourhood has changed much like the clouds do, although some things stay the same for longer periods of time, as the church has been. But I also like to think that there is something quite permanent and beautiful ever-present, just like that almost-full Moon.

Like I said, I got mixed impressions from Georgia this time. I found myself somewhat uncomfortable. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Let me put it this way: when I entered the Armenian church, the sense of familiarity was very strong. It was also pleasing to see the church quite full, unlike the practice of our compatriots in the Homeland, or even elsewhere in the Diaspora. I think the Armenians of Georgia feel the pressure a bit more, and are feeling it more lately, so attending mass might be a reaction to that sort of thing, and to the Georgians’ own more austere religious practices.

But that sense of relief occurred when we crossed the frontier into Armenia as well. Really, I was surprised at myself. Why was I feeling so out of place in Georgia? It’s not like I was far away, or in a place too different from Armenia. And in fact – and I mention this as a stark difference with my last road trip to Tbilisi three years ago – the Georgian side of the border was very welcoming indeed, well-equipped, and well-organised, quite impressive in fact. It is now the Armenian side which seems lacklustre, though it was, as I say, quite the opposite not too long ago.

Well, back on the road in Armenia, and it looks like the Hanrapetakan Kousaktsoutiun and the Vallex mining company are working hand-in-hand in what I know to have been renamed as Lalvar, but which is still apparently being referred to as Allahverdi.

I feel sorry for the people living there. The place is gorgeous, but it must be tough under the shadow of noxious clouds, as well as that of heavy handed authoritarianism.

An hour down the road, and someone in the car was craving McDonald’s. I said that it would be impossible, but we’ll find something, maybe buy some bread and cheese, perhaps a shawurma place. Who knew Vanadzor boasts a “knockoff franchise”?

In truth, the fries were actually really good. Oh, and of course, we have to have a shashlik sandwich/burger, don’t we? It wouldn’t be an Armenian thing otherwise, McD’s might actually sue.

And I saw this in Yerevan the next day –

We are really going to end up in trouble one of these days!

Finally, a picture not so much of contrasts, but of various subjects, that I’ve been meaning to take all summer.

A showcase of the last hundred years of Armenia’s history. An old black building dating from Imperial Russia, covered by an advertisement banner for a bank which took over perhaps the only one that survived Tsarist times into Soviet Armenia. In the foreground, a larger-than-life statue of Stepan Shahoumyan, Lenin’s right-hand man in the Caucasus, all being imposed upon by a gigantic modern building that has slowly climbed its way into the sky, heralding the dawn of a new era in the twenty-first century.

It was quite a weekend, and we’ve had quite a hundred years this past time, hayer jan. We can only look forward to what comes next.