Archive for the ‘pictures and quotes’ Category


About halfway from Yerevan to the 13th century monastery of Tatev, there are large gates on an alpine mountain pass that signal the beginning of Persian territory – or at least, the end of Russian natural gas delivery, and the beginning of Iran’s in the southern province of Syunik. Another 50km and we would’ve been in Iran.


To get there we drove past the border with the Azeri controlled Nakhijevan region, where sniper fire at night led to building these 15 ft sand walls along the road. Stalin, in his wisdom, gave Nakhijevan to the Azeris in the 30s. The Azeris have apparently broken the ceasefire 300 times in the last week, but no longer on this highway, thank God. Further down the road we also saw tank outposts.



We didn’t take many pictures on the road – so you’re missing the many many villagers trying to sell homemade vodka (we bought the apricot kind – really amazing stuff!!), and also all the people picking mushrooms in the mountain plains after a couple days of rain. Buckets and buckets of mushrooms for sale on top of the hoods of Ladas and Volgas.



There’s an Armenian saying that goes: “if you don’t want to have a baby, just kill the stork”. There are plenty living on the power lines of this town.


The ancient mountain plain of Sisian – evidence of human culture since 12,000 BC.


David and Kajia, some university friends from Canada, joined us on our journey.


Karahunj is a megalith site that some scholars claim is 7,500 yrs old. The Petroglyphs however date back to 12,000 BC. One of them shows the first depiction of human dancing.



Rachel is trying to make a fire the old way.




DSCF3879To get to Tatev Monastery, we took the longest cable car in the world, which dips up and down twice.


Here’s a professional photo from the other side:


Tatev is a 9th century monastery – the spiritual centre of Armenia during the middle ages. It produced scholars, philosophers, painters, etc. who kept Armenia from joining the Roman Catholic church. During one of the Persian invasions, the route up the mountain to the monastery was cut off. Luckily the monks had dug a tunnel all the way to the bottom of the mountain – needless to say, the Persians were in awe at how long the monks held out.


The monk’s cells face the sheer cliff. Here’s a bread oven. The bakers get the best view of all!


Everyone told us that Tatev was a mystical place with strong “energy”. Our favourite place, however, was Noravank, built in the red canyons further north.



Maybe this was because we could finally hike a bit, and climb up to a cave in the cliffs.





I loved the architecture of Noravank. I felt like the scale was perfect, and there was a heightened sense of other-worldliness. All of the details and carvings seemed to fit the place and the site so well. This is definitely my favourite church in Armenia.






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khor virap One look at a cloudless Ararat confirmed our itinerary today: we were off to the spiritual birthplace of modern Armenia, the ancient city of Artashes founded in 180 BC, now known as the monastery of Khor Virap. Legend has it that Hannibal himself founded this city while fleeing his Roman conquerers.

khor virap - hayk margaryan

photo: Hayk Margaryan

Situated right on the border with Turkey in pristine apricot growing territory, Khor Virap was the site where Armenia’s patron saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years in a cellar. After healing Tiridates III, the pagan king converted to Christianity and became the first to declare it a national faith in 301. To get there, we drove 45 min south of Yerevan past various Russian military outposts (why wouldn’t Armenians defend their own border?) and defunct factory towns built by the Soviets.  The complex seen today was re-built, like many ancient sites, after massive earthquake in the 17th century. DSCF3177 DSCF3174   DSCF3175 At night, you can see the lights of American “listening posts” on the slopes of Ararat. In the daytime, the nearby Turkish minarets remind you of the cultural divide. DSCF3149 (2)   DSCF3124 (2)   DSCF3122 Alasdair gets involved in some repair work. He’s fascinated that grown men also like digging in the dirt. DSCF3123 (2) One man gets creative with his moustache for a bit of extra photo income with tourists: DSCF3126 DSCF3147 (2) DSCF3146 (2) The sanctuary doorway is just as intricately carved as one of the many khachkars. Almost every church we’ve set foot in has a dome that is supported by pendentives, a technique first invented my Justinian’s architects in the Hagia Sophia. Armenia Christians traditionally baptize their children after 40 days, and is the first time the extended family sees them. There were two baptisms in the couple hours that we visited Khor Virap. Even recently built churches in Armenia have intricately carved stonework you would expect from medieval craftsmen. Jane and Alasdair enter the chapel and cellar where St. Gregory was imprisoned. A ladder with 40 rungs leads to the bottom of the cellar, where a large picture of Gregory and his trials fills the small space with its bright colours. Next to the chapel, our taxi driver Ashot shows us the monastery bread oven, where lavash flat bread is slapped against the walls. DSCF3138 DSCF3113 DSCF3112 DSCF3140 (2) DSCF3107 (2) Jane was expecting to “climb the mountain”. I can’t say this pilgrimage was very contemplative. DSCF3108 DSCF3160 (2) DSCF3094 DSCF3098 DSCF3099 (2) DSCF3100 (2) Ashot helps us out with the kids. Another way to make money off unsuspecting tourists is to hand their kids doves and charge them for “letting them go”. DSCF3163 Alasdair holds a pigeon:

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We haven’t seen you in a while. At sunset:

ararat after snow

ararat - after snow 2

ararat - both peaks

And sunrise:




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Colombian Dreams


Dear Mother Dorothy in front of the buganvillas - Bogota, Colombia

Dear Mother Dorothy in front of the buganvillas – Bogota, Colombia

My parents, Harold and Dorothy Siebert, have stories to tell. They now live on the paradise of Pender Island, a stones throw from the ferry route to Vancouver Island, BC. Twenty years ago we lived in Colombia, a country then ripped apart by civil war and drug cartels. In Medellin, murder was the leading cause of death for males. We lived in Medellin when drug lord Pablo Escobar declared an all out war on the government, police, and foreigners. Crazy.

Dear Mother Dorothy just gave a talk to friends on the island, and warned me that I shouldn’t open the script unless I had lots of time to reminisce. She’s written a great book about our experience there – hopefully published soon. I don’t have time now to go into stories, some of which I have talked about here already, but here are some pictures of those years.

10  we bought the jeep

4 farmland

18 Alta Vista

My first school – Colegio Alta Vista, on a coffee plantation, Bello – Medellin.

22 family 89

matthew - new tribes

Hiking in Villavicencio

12 Youth

Colombians, always ready for a laugh. 





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Here is my current routine in Yerevan:

6 am –  harsh neon of my alarm clock stares me in the face. I turn it away to shine on the wall. Warmth of a nearby Gazprom fuelled heater makes the walk across faux hardwood to the shower very comfortable. The whirr of a water pump is activated every time you turn on the water – nice hot water, bolshoe spasibo Gazprom (which now owns 100% of natural gas in Armenia as a “strategic cooperation”).

6:30 – My strategic cooperation continues, this time with some Armenian coffee – finely ground beans in boiling water, and unwashed eggs cooked in unpasteurized New-Zealand imported butter, maybe with some incredibly salty cheese. All dairy products from Armenia have a slight “goat” flavour to them. I grab a piece of mouth watering brandy flavoured sausage.

7:00 – the US assistant secretary of state is visiting, the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region with Azerbaijan is heating up, and drama between the ruling Republican Party president and the opposition is waning. Armenia is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the genocide April 24th, and  Turkish President Erdogan says he is willing to acknowledge facts put forward by an impartial panel of historian, and schedules a remembrance of Gallipoli for the same day.

7:30 – Jane and I put on light jackets, and triple unlock the heavy front door of our apartment. Jane presses floor “0” in the elevator – the ground floor. Ashot, our taxi driver is waiting in front of the grocery store.   “Vonces Jane?” he asks “Good” she says. “Lav Em,” I say. On the ten minute ride to school, we discuss how there is no snow this year, the economic situation in Armenia, and some travel options for the long weekend. He recommends raspberry tea to get rid of my cold. We discover that a decent “middle class” salary in Yerevan is 300 to 400 American dollars. I am paying him half of this every month.(“This jobs in Arrmenia is nothing doing”)Our ride takes us past some of the most imposing “borg” like clusters of Soviet apartment blocks. About eight or nine 15 story buildings rise from the rock strewn landscape – they are so tightly packed that no light comes through, making them look like one massive alien imposition. The taxi slows down for the traffic cameras on the highway.  At our turn-off on one side of the highway (north to Georgia) is a gaudy classical “greek” style house, complete with statues of hoplites, built by the guy who owns a monopoly on all construction materials in Armenia.

You would think the guy who has a monopoly on all construction materials would have a little more taste.

You would think the guy who has a monopoly on all construction materials would have a little more taste.

On the other side is the “American style” community of Vahakni – a gated community of huge houses with the token lawn (finally exposed as the wasteful and frivolous expanses they are) We drive down a pot-hole ridden back road to the school. Last year the owner of the front “road” to the school blocked it and asked $100,000 ransom. The slow winding path and white mini-vans reminds me of school in Colombia.

Vahakni - a couple square miles of Illinois prairie - strangely transplanted in the Caucasus. (Ararat in the background)

Vahakni – a couple square miles of Illinois prairie – strangely transplanted in the Caucasus. (Ararat in the background)

8:00 – I greet my Iranian co-worker at the main doors. On a clear day, the double peaks of Ararat loom in the distance. Aragatz and other snow-capped ranges surround us. Jane is off to school smiling and doesn’t look back. Today she is going on a field trip downtown and using the metro to go to a fire station. I go to the staffroom and try to figure out a hot water dispenser with Russian writing on the buttons. In the hallway I chat with the director about his 30 years experience in international schools. I write an email about an upcoming school ski trip.

9:13 – Desks in a rectangle shape, I have my 12 year old class re-enact the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. They’ve been assigned Ancient Greek characters from Plutarch’s Lives and they will have to discuss the Persian and Peloponnesian wars from their perspective.

10:00 – On break, I walk down the 100ft. high school hallway and greet the Spanish, Russian, and Armenian language teachers. The Russian class made a doll they will burn to bring on the Spring season (like “old man” filled with fireworks in Latin America). One of the math teachers has a PhD and works as a researcher at the university in the evenings. Loud yelling by the Cuban-American ensures everyone gets to class on time. The British and Canadian teachers say “excuse me?”

11:08 – In Literature (13yr old), we discuss superstitions in literature class and stage some “tableaux” scenes. I wonder whether To Kill a Mockingbird with strike a chord with the eight students in my 13 year old class. The cross-cultural discussions are always stimulating, as I learn just as much from them.

11:57 – My Armenian students are chatting about the worst of Eurovision, and playing “Rabiz” music for me on their laptops. I try to discuss prejudice toward Turkish and Azeris. I discover that one of them read Pride and Prejudice for fun last year.

12:30 – Ashot takes Jane home with Rachel and Alasdair. The police have visited Rachel and fortunately not asked for copies of our passports.

12:45 – I eat lunch with Armenian colleagues. One is a refugee from Syria. She has been here for 2 years. “The rebels started kidnapping Armenian kids to support their war against Asad” she says. When I ask her how her relatives survive, she says “by stealing”. She explains that she would like to go back, but that the religious tensions have been raised due the war, and Christians are no longer seen as equals.

1:20 – Religion in Rome and the rise of Christianity. I’m fascinated by the discussion about Jesus’ teachings – only of my students is familiar with them. None of them agree with loving your enemy – especially not the Azeris or Turks.

2:15 – read Greek Myths.

3:00 – I’m impressed by this 12 year old class. However, most of them are embassy kids and will be leaving after their 2 or 3 year terms. We plan persuasive speeches based on characters from Plutarch’s lives.

3:45 – school’s out. I mark assignments and then read some news from Canada.

4:00 – Ashot picks me up. He knows people in the army but is reluctant to talk about Nagorno-Karabakh. I stop by the supermarket and change some US dollars into Drams. The local fruit-seller rips me off, but I don’t argue with him. I pick up 25 cent bread and then take a look at the selection of Armenian brandy – Winston Churchill’s favourite.





4:30 – My kids jump all over me, play hide-and seek, and then we have a wonderful supper from Rachel – rice and baked chicken, and a lovely pudding made of chocolate imported by Rachel (with a slight tinge of goat in the milk). We Skype with family and friends from Canada. I read the kids stories.


7:30 – Kids are in bed. Rachel is watching a hilarious episode of “Outnumbered”. I check out some possible destinations for the long weekend next week.

Geghard, or "spear" monastery, founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century.

Geghard, or “spear” monastery, founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century.

geghard portal



Garni Temple, down the road from Geghard Monastery.

I’m trying to slog my way through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is more enjoyable than I expected (and is technically part of my planning, which is what I love about teaching history).

Various forms of eastern techno music interrupted by dogs barking outside. Time to walk back across the hardwood floors to my Gazprom heated room.

10:00pm – right now it is 12 noon Winnipeg.

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I accidentally said the filioque. It’s an Anglican service, but out of respect for the generosity of using the Armenian Apostolic church of Zoravor, no one says it.

We are in Zoravor Astvatsatsin Church downtown Yerevan, rebuilt in 1693 after an earthquake. Armenian worshippers continuously light candles in the narthex while the 20-odd Anglican worshippers sing “Be Thou My Vision.”

The massive stone columns and walls of the Roman basilica are like a cramped version of a medieval hall, with a couple rows of pews, and a large Persian carpet in front of the altar.

Father John Barker delivers an evangelical and theologically orthodox sermon. He is employed by the Diocese in Europe, and is the first Anglican priest in Yerevan in 10 years. Previously, Anglicans had a priest at the Etchmiadzin seminary, but no one was found to fill the academic role.

I’m not sure whether to walk backwards out of the church slowly, as all the Armenians around me are doing. Apparently the Anglican liturgy is almost identical the Armenian Apostolic. When I look up early church architecture on Wikipedia, the first example is a 4th century Armenian basilica. (The Romanesque arches are complimented by some interesting honeycomb details, reminiscent of Islamic corbels or muqarnas. I noticed in the older 7th century Etchmiadzin cathedral that some of these honeycomb patterns were definitely pre-Islamic.)

At the 6pm service there are a handful of Americans, Indians, and British. We are the only family with children there, and all Alasdair wants to do is walk up and down the tiny spiral metal staircase to the choir loft. After the service, we drink tea and eat cake behind St. Ananias’ chapel. We’ve already been invited to a reading group – not necessarily for lent, and not necessarily devotional material.

We’ve only been here once, but I  think we’ll be sad to leave this new church when we go to Georgia next year.

Basilica with smaller chapel for the Ananias reliquary to the left.

Basilica with smaller chapel for the Ananias reliquary to the left.


The narthex - usually full of burning candles.

The narthex – usually full of burning candles.

church painting


church painting 2

zoravor 2


St. Ananias’ Chapel.



St. Ananias’ tombstone. The door to the chapel is kept open 24hrs.

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The "mother church" - Etchmiadzin, a 20 minute drive from Yerevan.

The “mother church” – Etchmiadzin, a 20 minute drive from Yerevan. (Wikipedia)

Inside Etchmiadzin - the main portion of this building was constructed in 483 AD.

Inside Etchmiadzin – the main portion of this building was constructed in 483 AD. Holy oil is prepared here for all Apostolic diaspora churches. In the back of the church is a museum with relics: a piece of Noah’s ark, the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, a piece of the true cross, a piece of St. Peter and Ananias, etc. (Wikipedia image)

The first look at a foreign politeia is clouded by abstractions and generalizations, some of which continue in their imaginative force until eventually they are accepted as true. In this respect, there is no difference between the account of a native and a foreigner. The stories we tell ourselves limit our horizon and become our homeland.

Statue of Marshal Bagramyan, famous Soviet General who led in battles of Kursk, and operation Bagration to defeat Nazi occupation.  Later, he served as a logistics coordinator for the North Vietnamese.

Statue of Marshal Bagramyan, famous Soviet General who led in battles of Kursk, and operation Bagration to defeat Nazi occupation. Later, he served as a logistics coordinator for the North Vietnamese.

At first blush, uncanny similarities present themselves between Xenophon’s account of Armenia in his Anabasis (400 BC), and the word on the street from Ashot, our taxi driver. Tales of tribes, kingdoms, rivalries, monopolies, and warring empires remain true in Armenia today. The president would like a congressman fired, a handful of families control all imports for various industries, Armenia aligns itself as Satrap to the Eurasian (ie Russian) economic zone, while the gigantic US embassy building (3rd biggest after Baghdad and Kabul) becomes an icon of a waning empire.

The Armenian Parliament, built by the Soviets.

The Armenian Parliament, built by the Soviets. Armenia is a Republic in the same way that Russia or the later Romans were a Republic.

The book of Daniel 6:1 (just before he gets thrown into the lion’s den, ca 590 BC)

It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred twenty satraps, stationed throughout the whole kingdom,  and over them three presidents, including Daniel; to these the satraps gave account, so that the king might suffer no loss.  Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.

Lada vs Porsche

Lada vs Porsche

The Armenian Whitehouse.

The Armenian Whitehouse.

Xenophon recounts the adventures of 10,000 Greek mercenaries aligned with Cyrus of Persia, who are “going up” the hillside from Babylon, fighting the until they reach the shores of the Black Sea. Their famous cry “the sea, the sea”, which authors as various as Jules Verne and Iris Murdoch echo in their novels, is a triumph which is not available to Armenians today. Their country, once thought to be the West’s best hope of friendship to thwart Communism, was up-staged by Georgia’s growing economy, and is now a land-locked province with borders closed between the Azeris and Turkey. US diplomats now travel regularly to Georgia, where all Armenian imports from the west enter through the Black Sea. The peppers for our salad were imported from Iran.

In Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Greeks encountered numerous tribes, described alternately as fierce and hospitable, rich in livestock, making wine in cisterns, and eating various renditions of meat and bread and dried fruit. Our pantry, not to mention the character of the people, is strangely similar today. The distinctively Armenian cuisine we’ve encountered consists of various forms of bread, meat, and sheep cheese. The wine has a strange cistern-like taste, fermented slightly longer than usual sometimes (the white wine at the Lebanese place we went to last night had a distinct “toilet bowl” aroma- though it complemented the food well. Xenophon also noted the strange brew the Armenians made out of barley – something we now call beer (Ararat and Gyumri lagers are not bad).

Ashot, our taxi driver, is named after the famous medieval kings of Armenia. Tigran, owner of our new favourite pizza place, and sometime resident of Fresno, California, is named after Armenia’s most powerful king. His empire stretched from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, and was defeated only by Pompey in 66BC. Sargis, the school “fixer,” is named after the warrior saint appointed by Constantine to rule Armenia.

Tigran II, who ruled a kingdom "sea to sea"

Tigran II, who ruled a kingdom “sea to sea”


Roman arches - the distinctive mark of Armenian architecture.

Roman arches – the distinctive mark of Armenian architecture.

My Armenian students live in a world of clans and rivalries, which makes teaching about Greece and Rome a poignant exercise. It’s clear that they’ve learned from youth to distrust the “other.” As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, the discussion of stereotypes and empathy falls flat. Atticus Finch declares that “you never really understand a person until you walk around in their skin.” None of my student’s examples of empathy came from understanding the “other” in terms of class and clan. A derision of the lower class “qyartus,” or gangster wannabees, becomes the joke of every class.

Of course, they are only thirteen. However, during our “dress up as a Roman day,” it was clear that Spartacus was much less interesting than Julius Ceasar or Octavian. Our discussion of Roman slavery was slightly more lively, as we considered both the unnerving brutality toward them, and the possibility of their upward mobility. These students will never be wage slaves to their capitalist masters. Not having experienced the Armenian public schools, I wonder whether these student are more exposed to a liberal arts education under the wing of the US empire – which allows very few students to receive scholarships in elite colleges. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the general loss of freedom among the later Romans:

The sublime Longinus, who in somewhat a later period, and in the court of the Syrian queen, preserved the spirit of ancient Athens, observes and laments this degeneracy of his contemporaries, which debased their sentiments, enervated their courage, and depressed their talents. “In the same manner,” says he, “as some children always remain pygmies, whose infant limbs have been to closely confined; thus our tender minds, fettered by the prejudices and habits of a just servitude, are unable to expand themselves, or to attain that well-proportioned greatness which we admire in the ancients; who living under a popular government, wrote with the same freedom as they acted. ” (The Empire of the Antonines)






Armenia writer's union

Armenia writer’s union

At the same time, Yerevan is a cultural hub – the homeland of a diaspora greater than the population of the country itself – 10 million in total, 3 million in Armenia, and 1 million in Los Angeles alone. At the focal point of downtown lies the Opera house, reminiscent of the “beating heart” of the public square in the Tuscan hill-town of Siena, Italy.

Aram Khachaturian in front of the Opera House

Aram Khachaturian in front of the Opera House


A student at the Komitas Music Conservatory

Armenia shares with Russia the wounded pride of a once great civilization. Everyone knows the ancient heroes, including Soviet era leaders, such as General Bagramyan, who took responsibility for the carnage and ultimate retreat of the Germans in the epic battle of Kursk, and the subsequent Baltic operations. And what would MiG fighter jets be without the Mikoyan brothers?

The clan mentality extends to emigrants generations down the line – those include people like tennis player Andre Agassi, Canadian film director Atom Egoyan, and American singer Cher. Even Zach Bogosian, the first Armenian in the NHL, is a citizen of the honorary clan. Because of their conservative Christianity, they are not so sanguine about the infamous Kardashians. Knowing that Cher is Armenian, however, does explain something about current women’s fashion in Armenia.

Cher armenia

Cher: “When I came to Armenia, I was shocked to see that all looked like me.”


Walking toward our grocery store, the “Kaiser”

I haven’t had the courage take very many “People of Yerevan” portraits, though I did walk around with a camera on my neck, and that was cause for many suspicious glares. My wonderful co-workers at school and the friendly local grocers are lovely people, and our children continue to be fawned over in all settings – in taxis, on the street, in restaurants (every waiter has insisted on holding Alasdair and walking around with him). All public spaces are fair game for smoking, the most shocking instance of which was a fast food joint inside a clothing department store.

Last week we were invited to a birthday party in the gated “American style” village of Vahakni – where most of the diplomat families live. Rachel was able to meet some mothers and I spoke to various expats who recommended camping spots, vehicles, and travel in Georgia. One of the men is a marathon runner who ran a race in Georgia – the first 5 km of the marathon were straight up a mountain, along rocky paths. Skiing is a popular activity in Yerevan and Geogia, and I’ll chaperone a school day trip at the end of the month. For spring break we may visit lake Sevan by train. Fish barbeques are popular there, though many fear the radiation from the local nuclear reactor.

Because we live so close to Iran and we’re Canadian, I’m very tempted to visit. One of my Iranian co-workers from Shiraz went out of his way to explain the entire country’s tourist sites to me, and insisted that he travel with us if we visit. I haven’t had much support for this idea. I’m continually struck by the novel combination of Slavic and Persian influences – their features change from sharp to round, tall to short. In some ways I feel no culture shock, having lived in Colombia, where the Spanish had similar Arab and Bedouin looks and the smell of tall grass was usually mixed with choice garbage. For Rachel on the other hand, everything is new and there are no associations to make. Today we visited the Ver Nissage – an open market for artisans, carpet merchants and booksellers. I was immediately transported to the ferias of Colombia, with the woodcarvings, dolls, bull horns, and fake ornamental machetes. The only difference could have been the Armenian alphabet and the Russian dolls. Even their flags are a mirror image in colours.

During the course of the week, we had to call the Canadian consulate to ask about the strange police request for copies of our passports. Because they were closed, we had to call the British embassy. Instead, I just walked down the hall to talk to the ambassador. In turn, his advice was to call the parents of one of my students, who also worked at the embassy. And so I work in a very small world, in a very small country, with enormous cultural and historical riches.

The sacred/folk music hero, Komitas.

The sacred music composer and icon of Armenia, Komitas.


On Friday night, Families light candles and say prayers at  Katoghike (Holy Mother of God) a 13th century church downtown Yerevan.

On Friday night, Families light candles and say prayers at Katoghike (Holy Mother of God) a 13th century church downtown Yerevan. This chapel is all that remains from the Communist destruction of a large basilica in 1936. The “Catholicos” or head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, lives beside this new building, consecrated in 2009.

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