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The homecoming

Armenia's mountains and monasteries put a visitor in touch with her ancestral land.

September 26, 2004|Aline Kazandjian | Special to The Times

Yerevan, Armenia — One last flight of stone steps taunted me, the only obstacle between me and the ruins of Kobayr, a 12th century church complex. What were my medieval forefathers thinking, building churches atop soaring mountain peaks? Were they trying to get as close as they could to God, who rarely seemed to answer their prayers? Perhaps, for when I got to the ruins and stood in front of the fading frescoes of Christ and his disciples painted on the remaining half of the church's dome, it was like standing in heaven.

My husband, Harry, and I, joined by our friends Nora and husband Thomas, and my sister Arda and her husband, Roland, were finally realizing our long-held wish to visit Armenia together.

My roots run deep in Hayastan, as we call our country. In the late 19th century, my paternal grandparents fled Ottoman persecution in what is today eastern Turkey (but was historically Armenian territories); they settled in Egypt. In 1915, my maternal grandparents escaped the Turkish massacres of Armenians and also started their lives anew in Egypt.

At 15, I spent a month in summer camp in Armenia before returning to Cairo, my birthplace. That trip left an indelible impression on me, and my memories of the wild mountains of the Lori district in northern Armenia were so vivid that I named my first daughter Lori. I still live in Egypt and am part of the Armenian diaspora of 4 million.

"Oh, it has changed so much -- you have to see it," said friends who visited Armenia after its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. The changes would be fascinating, I was sure, but I also wanted to see the homeland I had known briefly in my youth.

Now, almost three decades after my first visit, I was back in Lori. My memory had not deceived me. Mountains unfolded as far as the eye could see. Goats grazed at the mouth of a cave on a crest a little farther down the peak from where I was standing, and the Debed River snaked its way through the valley toward Georgia, where it would pour into the Black Sea.

From where I stood, the view was serene, belying a history of disasters both natural (a 1988 earthquake killed 25,000) and man-made.

We flew into Yerevan, the capital, through Vienna. It was the best connection we could find from Cairo, but it put us into the city at 5 in the morning. I was half asleep as we took a cab into the city, but my first view of Mt. Ararat awakened my senses. The mountain is sacred to Armenians, who believe that Noah's Ark came to rest there. Today it falls inside Turkish territory. Yet Ararat is so connected to our identity that for the next few days I would sometimes turn to look for it as if to reinforce the fact that I was finally in my homeland.

Thomas, who had visited the country regularly since the early '90s, was our "head of mission" and had planned our 12-day stay with his customary professional approach. He and Nora, who was our food and entertainment expert, helped us rent an apartment in Yerevan, from which we had a magnificent view of Mt. Ararat.

Cafe culture has changed Yerevan, a city that has grown rapidly to about 1.2 million residents. Where once there were parks and promenades, now there are bistros where patrons sit shoulder to shoulder to socialize.

We enjoyed one balmy evening at Amrotz Restaurant, which has a terrific view of Ararat. We ate khorovatz, or grilled lamb or pork, and danced to the fast rhythms of Armenian music and drank Russian vodka.

Another night, we sampled the Paplavok Jazz Cafe, which also has live music. While we were checking out the boisterous crowd, to our surprise we saw our cousins from the U.S. sitting a few tables away.

Yerevan's arts scene also spills onto the streets, where you'll find numerous sculptures and artworks: the overpowering giant statue of Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia) watching over Yerevan from atop a hill in Victory Park; Botero's cat at the foot of the Cascades area; and, in metal, the fidgety figure of Garaballa the flower vendor on Apovian Street.

Armenians make good use of metal and stone. Although the buildings of the '70s -- from the Soviet era -- are horrid matchboxes, the city's older buildings have a classic austerity. The more recent architecture makes use of the indigenous duf, a pink-tinted stone, which when playing off glass facades gives the city a contemporary look.

Trips to the countryside

During the day we would head out of Yerevan to explore the countryside. We hired a minivan with a driver, and by the end of our stay we had explored much of Armenia's estimated 11,490 square miles.

Although none of us would describe ourselves as devout Christians, we spent most of our time in churches and monasteries, which gave us better insight into our homeland and its 3 million people.

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