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 Café, 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.
Armenia became the world's first Christian nation in AD 301, of which Armenians are immensely proud. To accommodate their ardent faith — and perhaps to afford protection for towns and villages — they built churches in seemingly every corner of this country that lies today at the intersection of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Because of its position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Armenia has been encircled, invaded and occupied by many hostile neighbors. Romans, Byzantines, Persians and other regional powers all crossed over Armenian lands. Some, like the Arabs in the 7th century, stayed, occupying the land for almost three centuries.
In the early 1500s, the Ottoman Turks took over much of historical Armenia, most of which lies today within Turkey's borders, and the Soviets controlled the country for more than 70 years. In the years since 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought each other, and thousands have been killed on both sides.
Just as our ancestors were motivated to build churches in strategic locations, we too had our reasons for placing them so prominently on our itinerary: We would touch a powerful part of Armenia's past while enjoying the natural beauty of the countryside, its towns and villages.
Of the country's estimated 40,000 religious monuments, most have a unique architectural feature or an interesting story about Armenia's history and its intertwining threads of faith and politics.
In the south, for instance, we braved the poor roads (or our driver did) and tortuous mountain paths of the Syunik region to reach the 9th century Tatev monastery and fortress perched on a cliff above the town of Tatev, about 170 miles from Yerevan.
From a distance, we could see the church's typically conical dome bearing the cross, and beneath it a waterfall plunging down the canyon. The internal walls of its principal church, Pogos and Petros, or Paul and Peter, were decorated with frescoes that recently had been partially restored. Khachkars — rectangular slabs of stone carved with intricate crosses — adorn the church's outer walls and the compound yard. At the monastery's zenith, from the 10th to the 13th centuries, as many as 1,000 monks lived and studied here.
One of the monastery chambers has an immense arched opening that overlooks the canyon. In typical multipurpose fashion, Tatev was used as a fortress to ward off invading armies and as a religious center that nourished the Christian faith and propagated and enriched Armenian culture. The monks created miniature manuscripts, now kept in Yerevan's Madenataran museum, which document their studies in history, language, science and arts, part of the effort to keep their Armenian identity alive.
Monastic complexes Another day we visited the 10th century monastic complexes of Sanahin and Haghpad, built around the town of Alaverdi, about 110 miles north of Yerevan. Each has numerous buildings, asymmetrically arranged, and their main churches are of the cross-winged dome type prevalent in Armenian religious architecture.
The two sites have three-story bell towers crowned with columned belfries. In the library floors of each were underground caches for hiding treasures or important documents. Islamic and Zoroastrian (an ancient Persian religion) symbols decorate the walls at Haghpad and Sanahin, perhaps to appease — or confuse — the enemies.
Cherished poet Sayat Nova, whose romantic 18th century songs are still part of Armenia's musical lexicon, worked in a monastic cell in Haghpad, looking out from the high plateau to spectacular views of mountains and valleys, clearly an inspiration.
The most inspiring view we found was from the Khor Virab Monastery, 34 miles west of Yerevan on the Turkish-Armenian frontier. This is where the Armenians' patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator, was imprisoned 1,700 years ago by King Trdat III (or Tiridates) for preaching Christianity. He was released 13 years later after converting the king, who proclaimed Christianity as Armenia's state religion. The claustrophobic pit in which Gregory was held captive is accessible by ladder.
It was a crystal-clear day, and Mt. Ararat spread across the horizon.
"We shall go up there one day, yes?" Hovsep, our minivan driver, asked as we contemplated the mountain.
Maybe, I thought. But even if we don't, Ararat is with us as a symbol of Armenian struggle. We reach that summit, figuratively speaking, just by having survived 3,000 years.
A live band in back One of the tools of our survival was music and song. As we were on our way to Keghart Monastery, 30 miles east of Yerevan, three street musicians hitched a ride with us. As soon as the musicians settled in the back seat, they began playing Armenian love songs and singing loudly.
Nora laughed uproariously. "I had heard of taking along a radio or a CD player, but driving about with a live band? This can only happen in Armenia!" she said.
We dropped them off at a picnic area where they would perform for visitors in return for a few coins.
Keghart Monastery is a stunning complex of buildings founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator and expanded in the 12th century. According to legend, the spear that pierced Christ was brought here, although it has long since disappeared.
Portions of the numerous inter- connected churches are carved into rock on the side of the mountain. The acoustics inside one hall are such that a single person humming, which Thomas demonstrated for us, sounds like a chorus.
But to hear a truly heavenly sound, listen to the songs of the Armenian liturgy. In ancient times the use of elaborate imagery was prohibited in the church. Some say the songs of the Armenian liturgy, as if to compensate, are sophisticated compared with other Orthodox faiths. On Sunday we attended Mass at Echmiadzin, the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, was there, as he often is.
A picnic and wildflowers We didn't spend all our time indoors or among the ruins. One day we picnicked on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, about 30 miles northwest of Yerevan. Seas of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers lie in the shadow of the ruins of the 11th century Amberd fortress, which hovers majestically on the edge of the valley.
We also included a stop at Lake Sevan, whose turquoise waters and sandy beaches make you forget, if only for a time, that Armenia is a landlocked country.
There was one last place we had to visit before we left Armenia: Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial in Yerevan built in honor of the hundreds of thousands — Armenians say as many as 1.5 million — killed by Turks starting in 1915.
Through the openings between the stone slabs that rise around the eternal flame burning at the center of the memorial, I could see Ararat's snowcapped peak. An old woman aided by her daughter approached the flame, and I wondered who she was thinking of.
My thoughts returned to the mountains, to a miraculous homeland that has changed borders, flags, capitals — it even vanished as a political entity for 500 years — yet has not perished. It endures, and it gives me strength. I know I will be back.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Aeroflot, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, British, United, American, KLM and Air New Zealand. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $999 until Oct. 13, then $800 until Dec. 11.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 374 (country code for Armenia) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Marriott Armenia Hotel, Republic Square, Yerevan; 1-599-000, fax 1-599-001, http://www.marriott.com/EVNMC . Doubles from $139.
Congress Hotel, 1 Italia St., Yerevan; 1-580-095, fax 1-522-224; http://www.congresshotelyerevan.com . 126 rooms. Doubles from $108.
Ani Plaza Hotel, 19 Sayat-Nova Ave., Yerevan; 1-589-500, fax 1-565-343, http://www.anihotel.com . 194 rooms. Doubles from $102.
WHERE TO EAT:
Mer Tagh, 21/1 Tumanian St., Yerevan; 1-580-106. Its specialty is lahmajun, a thin pastry topped with minced meat and baked in the oven; 80 cents each. Khachabouri, a Georgian puff pastry with cheese or meat, is $1.50 each.
Aragast/Paplavok, 41 Isahakian St., Yerevan; 1-545-500. These two restaurants overlook a pond and serve Armenian and Western dishes, but go there for the music not the food. The first features a violinist and the second is renowned for its live jazz. Entrees around $5.
TO LEARN MORE:
Guidebook: "Edge of Time: Traveling in Armenia and Karabagh." Authors Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian offer useful information on traveling by car around Armenia and Karabagh.