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It should have been a simple transfer.
We flew from Lapland to Armenia. The trip was fine and our fellow passengers are good company. Since we have our own chef on board, the food is good. One of the benefits of having a private jet is that the pilot was able to fly back and forth along Mount Ararat (14,000 feet high)so that passengers on both sides of the plane could get a good look at the mountain. Yes, the very same Mt. Ararat where Noah's Ark is said to have landed after the Flood where there probably has never been greater joy in any disembarkation, ever.Some rainfall.
When we arrived at the airport in Armenia we were met by a not so small army of uniforms of all colors. One person took the passport and passed it on to another person who opened it and passed it on to another who passed it to someone in a booth. The passports then disappeared. Some of us waited for more than an hour for the return of the passports. By the time they released us and our bags and we took an almost hour bus ride to the hotel, turning our leisurely cocktail hour and dinner turned into a late night.
The next day we boarded a bus to see the Garni Temple. The Temple is from the 1st century and is the only remaining example of "Hellenistic" architecture (however it is really not that old as it was destroyed in an earthquake and restored in the 20th century). During the interim centuries, nearby villagers helped themselves to the stones, including stones that had inscriptions. The story we were told was that when the villagers were told that the temple would be reconstructed, everyone returned the stones they'd been using as boundary markers, etc.
The Temple is on a hill alongside a lovely valley. A well-known Armenian musician entertained us with the music of Armenia on a traditional instrument. It was lilting, haunting, beautiful.
We went from there to The Monastery of Geghard, built in the 4th century.There were several rooms carvedout of solid rock that created a very eerie feeling while walking through them in semi-darkness. We were unexpectedly surprised in the middle of this darkness by a group of six women: a choral group whose singing was, well - heavenly, whether they sang from the Liturgy or from folk repertoire.The Monastery had been restored a number of times in the past because of damage from the many conquerors that swept thru Armenia over its long history. In fact, the nation has a history of being conquered. Each time that happened the boundaries of the country changed, until the present era which started in the 1990's when the Soviet Republic collapsed and Armenia regained its freedom.
I did not realize that within the recent past Armenia had its own version of the Holocaust when it lost more than half of its population to Turkish genocide. The recent occupation of the Russians left scars as well. Architectural scars are just one of them, with shoddy construction everywhere accompanied by building design referred to as Commugothic. Unfortunately, the County had become economically reliant on the Russians and when they left the result was even worse scars with poverty and slums everywhere in the countryside (cities like the capital, Yerevan, are slightly better off). Yerevan is known as the "Pink City" because of the volcanic stone used to construct its buildings. Unfortunately, from a distance the City looks like it consists of square mud huts.
Armenia prides itself on becoming the first declared Christian nation (301 AD). In the afternoon we went to the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, called the Mother Church of Armenia.The grounds, which not only contain the Mother Church and related admin buildings but also a large seminary to train Armenian priests as well as a general college, are extensive and quite beautiful. Young men in priestly robes as well as students are walking or sitting outside on benches just about everywhere. The Cathedral itself, however, seems primitive for the seat of a dominant religion. It is massive but without the grace of similar sites in the East and West.
We toured two museums on site, modern structures that contained Armenian church items collected through the centuries. In addition to a number of painted icons, there were various relics from saints and from Christ. They purport to have the spearhead that was used to pierce the side of Christ as he hung on the cross. There are others (including the Vatican) who also claim to have this spearhead but the one in this museum has a cross cut out in the head (obviously a later addition) but is said to be the only one that can be definitively dated in the first century AD.
I was looking out of the window this morning and it dawned on me that one of the differences between traveling with this tour versus our own hired guide is that on this tour we are not virtually dragged to local souvenir shops or handicraft factories. Here we are in Armenia and we will leave without seeing a carpet manufacturing site.
We leave for Mongolia in the morning - another long flight preceded by a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call.
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