He’s got Armenia under his skin, and we get a guidebook

By some measures, Matthew Karanian was a Connecticut Yankee: a 34-year-old litigator in Hartford, American-born and bred. But he had a wild idea. So he took a summer off, headed for the rustic land of his ancestors, and soon found that Armenia was rearranging his life.

Now, 18 years after that first visit, Karanian is an expert on the place. His self-published guidebook, “Armenia and Karabakh” (320 pages, $24.95), has just gone into a third edition. It’s based on more than a dozen visits to the country, including a residency from 2002 to 2006. The photographs are by Karanian and Robert Kurkjian.

If you live near the California Armenian enclaves of Glendale or Fresno -- or it you’ve met Karanian -- you may already know that Armenia is a landlocked, mountainous country almost the size of Maryland; that it lies south of Georgia, east of Turkey and west of Iran; and that it broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991. But Armenia is still terra incognita to many Americans.

And as Karanian acknowledges, the country faces plenty of challenges. The population, just under 3 million, is decreasing, partly because jobs are scarce. The country’s border with Turkey is closed amid tensions that date to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915 under the Ottoman empire.

Armenians and others commemorate the genocide yearly with a worldwide day of remembrance on April 24. The Turkish government maintains that those 1.5 million deaths were part of the chaos of World War I, not a genocide.


Meanwhile, a border now separates Armenia from the Armenian culture’s most revered geographic feature, Mt. Ararat. The mountain stands in Turkish territory but is visible from much of Armenia.

On his first visit to Armenia, Karanian recalls, the capital, Yerevan, was without electricity for most of every day. But the rugged beauty and depth of culture, he said, “just turned my life upside down,” yielding a stronger sense of ethnic identity and uncovering lost family history.

Karanian knew his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. about 100 years ago. But it wasn’t until his book research began that he learned his great uncle, Mardiros Kheranyan, was a much-admired cartographer who charted the towns of historic Armenia in painstaking detail.

Now Karanian lives and practices law in Pasadena but makes yearly visits to the old country. Every year, he says, he sees better roads, more motorists willing to stop for pedestrians and more global brands, though no McDonald’s yet.

In a two-part interview in early April (first in person and then online), Karanian took on 10 questions.

How many Americans visited Armenia last year?

Not enough. That’s why I published the book. There were about 850,000 tourist visas issued for Armenia in 2012. More than half, maybe up to 70%, were issued to Diasporan Armenians. And for the past several years, roughly 15% of all tourist visas were issued to Americans.

What will I find on the sidewalks in the center of Yerevan?

There are so many sidewalk cafes in central Yerevan, sometimes it seems you can’t go for a walk without falling into one. But it’s a seasonal thing. In the winter the only thing on the sidewalk is snow.

If I’m walking those sidewalks in summertime, why should I be wary of children bearing buckets?

Vardavar is a great day to be a kid. This is an ancient holiday, and the essence of it is children dumping buckets of water on strangers. With impunity. The impunity part is key, and it probably keeps a lot of adults off the streets that day. Vardavar occurs once a year, on the 14th Sunday after Easter. I learned about the holiday the hard way, during my first visit to the country in 1995. Now I pay more attention to the calendar.

Armenian is the country’s first language, of course. But what’s second?

For most of the 20th century, the second language was Russian. But ever since the Soviet Union fell apart, Russian has been on the decline. English is the international language of business, and so English has been seeing increased use, especially among younger people. English has even replaced Russian as the second language on most traffic signs.

Where do you go for the best view of Mt. Ararat?

Ararat is huge! It dominates the psyche as well as the skyline. When I lived in Yerevan, my favorite place to view was from the balcony of my apartment. But for the best viewing, I recommend the vantage from the monastery of Khor Virap, which is just south of Yerevan and right on the frontier between Armenia and Turkey.

How’s the hitchhiking?

“You’re going my way, and the seat next to you is empty. Of course you should give me a ride.” This is what I imagine the elderly person is thinking when she steps to the edge of the traffic lane and signals for me to stop my car. Hitchhiking is common, and accepted, among people of all ages. I usually stop. This is mostly a rural thing, though. In the city, people who don’t own cars just take the bus.

If we can’t get to Ararat, what big, scenic mountain can we get to?

Aragats is a great place to visit during the summer, not just for the hiking, but also to beat the heat of the city. There’s snow on Aragats year-round, and you can climb almost to the top — 4,090 meters — without any special gear, as long as you’re in reasonably good shape. It’s a great way to impress your friends: I climbed the tallest peak of Armenia!

Armenia has more very old churches and monasteries than your average European nation. Which ones make most sense for visitors?

Echmiadzin is the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is Armenia’s national church. The structure dates back to AD 301, when Armenia became the first state to accept Christianity. So going to Armenia without visiting Echmiadzin would be kind of like going to Rome and then skipping a trip to the Vatican.

But my favorite pilgrimage is to the monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat, in the northeast. Sanahin was founded in AD 966. Haghpat was built right about the same time, in AD 977. They’re both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Odzun, a sixth-century church, is in the same region, all about a two-hour drive from the capital. But these are just highlights. There are too many ancient sites to mention. Armenia is a second Holy Land for Christendom!

Yerevan and northern Armenia get more attention than the south. If I go roaming in the south, what will I find?

Tatev Monastery, which was founded in the 9th century, is the cultural highlight of the south. It was built on top of a deep gorge to deter invading armies and a variety of other plunderers. But [more recently] the remote location mostly just deterred tourists. So a couple of years ago they built an aerial tram — the world’s longest — to make it easier for visitors to get there. The majesty of Tatev never ceases to amaze me. I would walk there if I had to. But taking the tram’s a lot easier.

I also love the geography of the south. The region around Spandarian Reservoir is gorgeous. I’m in awe of Karahunj — a celestial observatory that’s older than Stonehenge. And Shikahogh Reserve is a natural treasure, with a grove of 2,000 year-old plane trees.

Tell me about the old shoe.

I think there’s a secret contest, where all the countries of the world compete to have the oldest of something in every category. It’s a contest that Armenia is really good at, maybe because Armenia is itself so old.

In 2010, Armenia grabbed the titles for World’s Oldest Winery (6,100 years old, discovered in a cave) and World’s Oldest Shoe (5,500 years old, discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, near the winery). Must make all those 1,500-year-old monasteries feel quite young.

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