Travel writer and photographer, Shueyb Gandapur, on his visit to Armenia.
Garik had been waiting for me, along with his new girlfriend, outside the arrival halls of Yerevan Airport, in his weathered VW Golf. I was finally on Armenian soil after a couple of failed attempts. It was the only country in the beautiful Caucasus I had left out when I was in the region nine years ago. That omission was dictated by my passport, because Pakistan holds the strange distinction of being the only country in the world that does not recognise Armenia, so there was no way for me to seek admission into the country.
The three of us sat down to find out the basics of each other's lives. Garik said that he provided tours to foreign tourists in his battered Golf, while his girlfriend, who had freshly arrived from her native Russia, as a mark of protest against her country's invasion of Ukraine, tagged along. Where do Russians feel at home away from home? In one of the former Soviet republics, of which Armenia is one.
Early next morning, the spot where I started my exploration of the city was the Martiros Saryan Park, and what a serene and pleasant start it was! A small garden, full of artists and painters working away on their masterpieces and attending to occasional customers from time to time under the soothing shade of trees. On the nearby benches, middle-aged men occupied themselves in games of cards and chess. Completely absorbed in their game, they were oblivious to being observed by a curious visitor. A little girl in a black hat climbed up the huge white statue of the man after whom the park was named, and waited for her mother to click her photograph. The use of the park by the artists of the city was very apt, considering the fact that Martiros Saryan himself was a renowned painter, who founded the Armenian national school of painting. I walked further along towards the heart of Yerevan's life, the Cascade Complex, and on the way observed an old woman flower-seller, sitting on a bench installed by Yerevan's Municipality, and immersed in solving a crossword puzzle, with no care about luring buyers for her flowers. I turned towards the giant stairway, the Cascade Complex. It connected downtown with the neighbourhood atop the hill. The Complex houses exhibit halls and museums on its multiple levels, along with gardens, fountains and sculptures, which offer a rich and fascinating recreational experience. Plus, there is the opportunity to give one's heart and lungs some workout with the climb up the many stairs. A sculpture in the garden below by the unmistakable Botero, of a bulky woman lying leisurely on her belly, smoking a cigarette, was what caught my fancy. The idea of sharing its picture with a liaison by WhatsApp backfired because she construed it as a dig at her own figure. When I returned, the flower-seller was still sitting on the bench, busy with the same crossword puzzle. Or maybe, she had picked up a second one, or a third...
Armenia has had a very tragic history. Once the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, it has been invaded and occupied by the large neighbouring empires of the Safavids, the Ottomans and the Russians, reducing it to its current small size, but still not relieving it of perpetual conflicts as it remains at loggerheads with its present next-door neighbour, Azerbaijan, over a piece of territory. It's due to solidarity with Azerbaijan that Pakistan has not yet recognised Armenia, though the party to the conflict itself has! During the First World War, Armenians faced one of the worst systemic exterminations of modern history, which forced a large part of its population to flee and seek refuge in other countries. I had been curious about this chapter of Armenian history, therefore I went to the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, where pictures and stories described the harrowing details of persecution and massacre suffered by Armenians at hands of Ottomans. The exhibits pointed to the hair-raising extremes of cruelty that humans are capable of committing against their fellow humans. There are many monuments to bone-chilling atrocities around the world, but the cycle of violence does not come to an end. One wonders if humans collectively are even capable of humanity. An eternal flame burns at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex to keep the memory of the victims alive. From there, I arrived in Kond, the oldest quarter of the city, which is a quirky gem with its narrow labyrinthine streets and old houses made of uneven bricks and wooden doors. The earliest inhabitants of the city mostly likely lived here. Today's Kond seems to be a neglected part of the city with poor infrastructure, but artists are painting its walls with interesting cubist and modernist art. Wandering around in its quiet streets, I noticed two little girls at a corner, enacting a performance that they were filming on a tablet's camera. I sat in a doorway to watch them. As they became conscious of a spectator, they smiled shyly but continued to perform, like true artists should. Armenia is also one of the bastions of Christianity with some of oldest monasteries scattered around the country. It was the very first state in the world that declared Christianity its official religion. I went on a tour of monasteries the next day. The Khor Virap monastery presented a striking backdrop of the snow-capped Mount Ararat, which lies across the border in Turkey. The mountain is the main national symbol of Armenia and is considered a sacred mountain by Armenians, but in the series of tragedies inherited by them, it is situated in enemy territory now. At the next monastery on that tour, called Noravank, a couple stood on an ancient wall, overlooking gorgeous mountain scenery, holding hands and lighting a stick which soon emitted pink smoke, revealing that their recently conceived embryo is going to be a girl.
Back in Yerevan, every night is a festive night at the Republic Square because of the daily musical fountain show. It never fails to pull crowds despite being a repeat display, like one of the famous musicals from West End that have been running for decades. The water of the fountains danced to melodious music as multicoloured lights created a magical atmosphere. The lights also illuminated the surrounding buildings, some of which housed government offices and others museums and hotels. The majority of the revelers of the night were locals, who sat by the edge of the pool and enjoyed the sights unraveling before their eyes, feeling safe and full of joy. Yerevan was feeling very much like a European capital, until Garik informed me of the power breakdown in the building I was staying at, which meant that I had to climb the seven flights of stairs with my two overworked legs. I was enamoured by Yerevan. One of its charms that touched my heart the most was the abundant fresh, cold and clean drinking water, flowing freely out of the many fountains dotted all over the city. Walking around in the summer heat and coming across a drinking water fountain at a street corner was a joy of another kind. Even more joyful—almost meditative—was to sit there and watch people come and get their fill of the most basic needs of life.
In so doing, they all looked so simple, so gentle, so modest and even vulnerable, when they bent down to bring their mouths to the water jet and gulped it down in between short breaths. I saw young and old lining up at the fountain to wait for their turn, sometimes offering it out of courtesy to the next one in line. I saw people on foot, on bicycles and even in their cars, stopping by the fountain jets to take a sip of the syrup of life. I saw mothers lifting their babies and boys lifting their pet dogs to bring them closer to the source of water. I saw that Yerevan valued and celebrated life.
Clockwise from top left: Graffiti art on the walls of Kond, the oldest neighbourhood of Yerevan; Flower-seller of Yerevan, solving a crossword puzzle; Men enjoying a game of chess under the shade of trees on a leisurely July morning; A man quenching his thirst from one of the many freshwater fountains in Yerevan.
Shueyb Gandapur is a chartered accountant by profession and an avid traveller and photographer by passion. He has travelled to over 85 countries on his Pakistani passport. He shares picture stories from his travels on his Instagram handle @ShueybGandapur.