I'm sitting in my first class sleeper train compartment from Yerevan to Tblisi. The first class compartments are for two passengers, second class four, and then third class is the ordinary seats you're used to seeing on a train. I wasn't paying much attention when I booked this, though. It is supposed to be the night train, arriving in Tblisi, Georgia, sometime before noon. Sleeper compartments are more expensive, but I look at them as my hotel room for the night. However they recently changed the times and it didn't dawn on me until after I bought the ticket. The train now it leaves at 3:15 pm. This means I will be getting into the train station between midnight and 1 am. So, what the heck am I to do in the middle of the night once I get to the city? I guess I'll find out!
The last several days have been my last in Armenia. I arrived on the marshrutka from Karabakh Wednesday afternoon. For most of it, it was my least comfortable marshrutka ride so far. I got stuck in the back row of seats next to a guy who wanted to spread out half into my seat. I fought off channeling the old days of riding in the back seat of my parents' car to visit grandparents. "Mom! Tony's touching me!" or "He's on my side of the seat, Mom!" Partway through, a passenger got off, though, and I leaped at the chance to move my seat. The ride was scenic - especially Karabakh's portion of hairpin turns and switchbacks. Once again, we had kids on board whose stomachs couldn't take it and they hurled a number of times on the ride. At least the mom was prepared with grocery bags to use as "barf bags"!
I checked into my hotel in Yerevan, sorted my clothes and turned in a huge batch of laundry. I decided to take this chance to wash everything over the next two days. I also went online, caught up with my blog, and got ahold of Sigrid to see if she'd have any time to finally get to the Genocide Museum. By the time I got sorted out, all the museums were closed (most close at 4 pm). I did get to the train station to buy my ticket for this ride. Once back at the hotel, I planned my next day and a half of sightseeing.
Thursday began with me finally getting to the Manuscripts Museum. The building is a huge, 4-story structure. However, most of it is devoted to preservation and restoration work. Only two rooms of the building are actually for visitors. There was quite a variety packed into those two rooms, though! Everything from strips of birch tree bark with early Russian religious writings through Islamic manuscripts to Renaissance era map atlases. The highlight of the museum is its medieval era illuminated manuscripts. The pictures in them were still bright and colorful. I took numerous photos (without a flash) and no one objected.
Next up was the State Museum of History. I was told "No photographs!" There was an unsmiling Armenian matron on hand in each room to enforce it and redirect you if you appeared to want to explore the museum out of the proscribed order. To spite them, I decided to see the second floor before the third. You are supposed to start at the top and work your way down. It is arranged chronologically, earliest upstairs to modern stuff on the ground level. The second floor, where I started was the medieval and Renaissance era artifacts. Almost none of the information was in anything but Armenian or Russian. It was mostly bright glazed ceramics from Persia or other Middle Eastern sources. Pretty to look at, but not what I'd really came for.
The third floor had the Bronze Age artifacts from the early kingdom of Urartu. Armenians trace their descent from that kingdom. There were huge, inscribed bronze shields, helmets, axes and maces, and even bronze scale armor. One thing that surprised me was the ritual burial wagons. Theses were not designed to move, but to bury an important person inside. They had two reconstructed from fragments there and I SO wanted to take a picture of them. But Olga was keeping a stink eye on the decadent Western tourist, so I held off. However, when I got to the massive stone blocks inscribed in cuneiform, an Italian tour group provided the distraction I needed. God bless my kin from the "old country," but they tend to travel in packs and make a scene in museums or at historic sights. All of the Armenian former KGB matrons closed in around them like sharks. They were sure they would do something wrong, so I was left momentarily unobserved. My camera was out in a flash, and with my body shielding what I was doing, I snapped a few shots. The Italians made enough noise to mask the "beep-beep" of the camera's auto-focus. Who knows? Maybe after I finish teaching I have a future with the CIA!
The bottom floor was a snore, being mostly carpets with no English explanations. Oriental carpets are neat, but really? How many can you look at? I checked out the gift shop, but didn't find anything interesting. For lunch, I decided to try out a supposedly American style restaurant with free (but weak) Wi-fi. The receptionist at my hotel, Lilit, said it wasn't that good, but it was close and I was hot, so I ducked into its air conditioning. The food wasn't great, so I probably should have listened to her. She was incredibly helpful to me over the course of my two stays there - negotiating my taxi excursion to Garni and Geghard, writing down in Armenian what I needed for my train ticket for the cashiers at the station, and giving me insight into Armenian culture and current trends.
After lunch, I took the 25-cent subway ride and 1.50 taxi to Erebuni, a hill on Yerevan's south side that contains the ruins of a Bronze Age citadel. My guidebook had slammed the fort's museum, but they must not have visited it since its upgrade. I found the exhibits interesting and thoroughly described in about five languages (including English). Turns out that Lilit had done the Italian translations for the museum in a previous job. There was a reconstruction of a Urartu chariot, along with ceramics, weapons and armor, actual frescoes cut free from the ruins of walls, and more.
The highlight, of course, was the climb up the the ruins of the citadel on top of the hill. Although Erebuni is not the most picturesque set of ruins I've visited,it is always cool to poke around buildings, walls and artifacts 3,000 years old. The walls were reconstructed by Soviet archeologists, who then poured a layer of concrete on top to hold it all together. They're about eight feet high through most of the complex, but I found portions where I could scramble on top of them and give myself a better camera angle. For the most part, I had the entire complex to myself. I took my time, looking out over Yerevan spread out beneath me, and tried to picture it in its glory.
Museums are hard on my back, for some reason. I think it is walking along for hours with a slight hunched over pose to look at items in glass cases. So, three museums in one day pretty much wiped me out.
Lilit had arranged for my last half day in Yerevan to be less stressful. She said I could stay in my room and not check out until it was time for my train. So, after breakfast, I walked about a mile or so to the Blue Mosque. Built in the 1700s, it is the last functioning mosque in the city. The fiercely-Christian Armenians endured centuries of rule by Muslim Turks, Arabs, or Persians, when there were many more mosques in the country. The mosque's courtyard was a peaceful enclave off of a busy street, with trees and gardens. The tiled dome and minaret were a splash of bright blue amidst the gray and apricot colored stone of most Yerevan buildings. Although the mosque itself was closed, it was neat to wander inside the courtyard and photograph the buildings.
Next, I hopped a cab for my long-delayed visit to the Genocide Museum. When Sigrid and I had tried to visit last week, it had been closed for a holiday. I arrived before it opened and waited around until 11 am. There was a huge group of Americans from various Masonic lodges visiting, all decked out in suits and ties. Although the museum staff tried to rope me into a group tour, I broke free immediately to visit it on my own. The main part of the museum consists of two rows of impressively laid out glass cases with various documents, photographs, books, newspapers and magazines. They all document the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians that was carried out by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. There are reports from ambassadors, military personnel, aid workers, and even official Turkish government drafts that document the atrocity.
Why did they do it? First off, the Turkish government has never officially acknowledged or apologized for the massacres. This is unlike Germany, which HAS come forward and tried to make amends for Nazi persecution and execution of Jews during the Holocaust. At this time in Turkey's history, it was suffering a long decline from its Renaissance era power. They were losing provinces left and right. They had already lost the Eastern part of Armenia, and the other world leaders were clamoring for them to surrender the Western part so Armenia could have a unified nation. As you can imagine, the Turks weren't crazy about chopping off another chunk of their empire. So, some within the government thought that if it was the Armenians that were the problem, they could solve that. "No Armenians, no problem." So, they sent out their troops to round up all the Armenian men and take them into custody. The Armenian women and children were forced to march out of their villages into the deserts of the Middle East. There, thousands died of starvation and disease. The men, on the other hand, were simply taken to remote locations and shot. The museum documents all this mainly through observers from all nations - European, eastern and American. Although the museum is smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.,the effects the same. The thing I wondered after my visit was not how this could have happened. Instead, I wondered how many other times in history did this happen, undocumented, without the modern media of the world to call attention to it? How many other empires and kingdoms have slaughtered people because of their race or culture? It is kind of chilling when you think about. Do those dead photographed and enlarged on the museum walls have countless silent sisters and brothers in mass graves on every continent?
Perhaps this is too morbid a thought to ponder on a sunny train ride through the Armenian hills. It is what the museum made me think, though, which is perhaps the true purpose of these types of monuments.