Quake-hit city in Armenia tugs at the heart

A Gyumri church before and after the earthquake
A Gyumri church before and after the earthquake
The same church, modelled on Ani cathedral, today as restoration nears completion
The same church, modelled on Ani cathedral, today as restoration nears completion

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions.”

These words from “Hamlet” are well-worn, but they are tragically apposite for Armenia’s second city, Gyumri.

The sorrows began when an earthquake devastated the city in 1988 and then continued with the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later. This epic unravelling of the world’s biggest state gutted all industry in Gyumri that had survived the natural disaster.

Over the last generation, few cities surely have contended with such challenges. I travelled north from Yerevan, through a barren, stony landscape, to see how Gyumri was faring today.

What I found was a complex story of decline, poverty and hope. The poverty is more shocking than I had expected, but the signs of hope are real.

I’ll let the Armenians tell the story of that first hammer blow. This is from a text in Armenian and Russian on a commemorative plaque outside a central church:

“At 11:41 on December 7, on a misty and bleak December day in 1988, the mountains gave a start and with great force shook the earth.

“Towns, villages, schools, nurseries and industrial plants were instantly destroyed and more than one million people were left homeless.

“At this tragic hour, 25,000 people died, 140,000 were injured and 16,000 were rescued from the rubble.”

Before and after

Big events like Armenia’s earthquake rupture time. When the people of Gyumri talk about their lives, they often say that something happened “before the earthquake” or “after the earthquake”.

The point is that lives dramatically changed. There really was a before and an after. Even if your house was still standing, even if your whole family survived, you emerged into a changed world.

In Gyumri, I went to a bed and breakfast run by Artush and Raisa Davtyan. Artush told me that they had been at home with their two sons watching a Russian film on television when the earthquake struck. He remembers the floor of their stone-built house rising about half a metre as the shockwaves rippled through the building. Everyone in the family emerged unscathed and amazingly the house withstood the ordeal.

Before the earthquake Artush, now a tourist guide, was a scientist working in the physics department of a research institute. But the disaster just knocked the stuffing out of Armenia’s finances and after the earthquake there was no research work for Artush or his colleagues.

“Many people, they lost their jobs,” said Artush. “We had to work anywhere….I became as a common worker. I worked in the building companies. I was in Russia, I worked in Russia later and I came back. I started to work here to rebuild our city and I worked in foreign building companies and step by step, later, I worked in a hotel.”

Artush said that in the immediate aftermath of the quake Moscow promised a rapid rebuilding of Gyumri, along the lines of the heroic resurrection of Tashkent in Central Asia after its tremor in 1966. But times had changed and the Soviet Union was in terminal decline as a political entity. There was no repeat performance of fraternal workers arriving from other Soviet republics to rebuild a shattered city.

After the Soviet Union ceased to be, supply lines between the republics collapsed and there was a further giddy shrinking of the city’s economy.

Artush said that Gyumri’s textile factory had been the second biggest in the Soviet Union, employing 10,000 workers, mainly women. But with the end of the Soviet Union the supply of cotton from Uzbekistan stopped and the factory closed. He said a buyer of the plant carted all the machinery off to the Iranian city of Shiraz.

Today, most of Gyumri has finally been rebuilt. But work is scarce, wages are low and people are leaving in search of a better life. Studies have shown that nowhere in Armenia is depopulation so severe.

“Entire families just lock their doors and off they go to Russia,” said Artush’s wife Raisa. “The city is crumbling.”

Journeys by taxi turn into a running commentary from the driver on how the city is declining. On one taxi ride through Gyumri, the driver pointed to the left side of the street and said to me: “That was an institute – closed.” Then on our right: “All those shops – closed.” Back on the left: “That was a dairy – closed.”

I meet the mayor of Gyumri
I meet the mayor of Gyumri
The "temporary home" of Armen, his mother and a friend
The “temporary home” of Armen, his mother and a friend

“Temporary housing”

I went to see the mayor, Samvel Balasanyan, to get his take on matters. The mayor, a tall, broad-shouldered man who is one of Armenia’s leading beer magnates, told me in his office that the population of Gyumri had dropped from 225,000 at the time of the earthquake to 125,000 today.

He struck a philosophical note. “It is not like everyone leaves and forgets the city,” he said. “There are a lot of people going and coming back. And the other thing about people leaving is that life is going at its natural pace. If people have bad housing conditions or can’t find jobs it is very natural for them to leave.”

The mayor said that 2,500 families still lived in metal containers put up after the earthquake as temporary accommodation. He refused to be drawn on when the last of these families would finally get proper homes, saying it depended on finance.

Did he expect the exodus from Gyumri to stop at some point? “Yes, of course it will.”

During the interview, a city hall official named Armen Hovsepyan acted as my interpreter. It turned out that Armen was one of the unfortunates who still lived in a metal container. Indeed, except for four years when he studied in Utah he had lived in this “temporary dwelling” since he was a baby.

He said these containers were designed to last as homes for four years and they were poor protection against the elements.

“When it rains outside, it rains inside,” he said. “It is crazy cold in the winter.”

The day after my conversation with the mayor, Armen took me to see his home. Technically, it is two metal containers placed side by side. There is a sitting out area by the front door, a living room, one bed room and the kitchen. In the ceiling above the kitchen table a tear is clearly visible in the fabric. Armen shares this home with his mother and an elderly female friend of the family.

All around their house the urban landscape is an endless succession of metal containers still housing people.

At the time of the earthquake Armen was a four-month-old baby, living with his mother in a third floor apartment just metres from where he lives now. He is lucky to be alive. Rescuers got to him probably just in the nick of time.

“It took seven hours to get me out of the apartment, in freezing cold,” he said.

Although Armen has an American university degree, fluent English and a responsible job in city hall’s department of foreign affairs and tourism, his monthly salary is just 50,000 drams ($104).

Spices in Gyumri market
Spices in Gyumri market

Hope for Gyumri

I never asked Armen outright why he had come back, but I didn’t really need to. He has such an obvious love for his city. For me, extended travel only makes sense when you meet people like Armen, who love their patch of the earth. The fact that he was in Gyumri at all struck me as being part of the hope for the city.

One of the hats that Armen wears is as a volunteer at a charitable foundation, which is trying to raise funds to make Gyumri a better place and persuade people to stay. The foundation website is http://www.gyumriprojecthope.org.

At city hall, his main job now is to attract tourists and I doubt that Gyumri could find a better person to do this. Armen knows his city well and conversation about it just comes tumbling out of him.

Did I know, he asked, that Gyumri’s 19th century Church of the Holy Saviour, still being rebuilt after the quake, was a copy of the cathedral in Ani, the ruined Armenian city over the border in Turkey?

“The architect went every Thursday by horse and carriage to copy the details of the cathedral,” said Armen.

Ani, which thrived in the Middle Ages, is an enduring source of fascination for Armenians. The fact that, like Mount Ararat, it is on Turkish soil feels deeply wrong to them.

“Ani and Armenia are connected with underground tunnels,” said Armen. “My uncle knows one of the entrances.”

It was Armen who told me that Gyumri was the birthplace of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a 20th century mystic and spiritual teacher. Gurdjieff was an early example of a modern thinker who sought to take the wisdom of the East to the West. It seems absolutely right that he was from Gyumri, an Armenian Christian city with Kurdish Yazidi villages in the surrounding area.

There is a school of thought that Gurdjieff was a charlatan, but then the same could probably be said of many a spiritual teacher. He certainly attracted some interesting followers, including a senior officer in British military intelligence and a Harley Street psychiatrist.

With his shaven head, black moustache and piercing eyes, Gurdjieff was a striking figure even in the world of esoteric thought. His father, a cattle herdsman and bardic poet, is buried in Gyumri and Armen told me that some Americans come to the city solely on account of the Gurdjieff link.

For those with no interest whatsoever in Gurdjieff, does Gyumri make sense as a holiday destination?

I would certainly say it makes sense as part of an Armenian tour. If you stay in a cosy B and B, as I did, there is no shortage of creature comforts.

The city is not rich, but it has a welcoming feel, smart people and a bustling market. Step nimbly past the ageing Ladas driving by and you enter an outdoor market which is just as I like them. In my book, markets should be noisy and this one is. There is the whirr of coffee grinders and the banging of metal in shops selling wood stoves – you can feel the ancient lineage of this place.

This being Armenia, the fare on offer in late October included grapes, grapes and more grapes, nuts of all kinds, live fish, crayfish, Armenian cognac, pomegranate wine, spices, coffees, carpets and Turkish electric heaters.

I want to open up one final new thread, to give more substance to my assertion that there are real signs of hope in Gyumri. I went one day to see the work of a foundation financed by Diaspora money. The Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, funded by the U.S.-based Simonian Educational Foundation, opened a branch in Gyumri in September. It is doing impressive things with youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18.

They come after school, typically for two workshops a week, and can choose free courses from the four areas of animation, film-making, computer game development and web design.

When I dropped by, there were dozens of youngsters in the classroom and spanking new Apple computers everywhere. The manager who briefed me at Tumo was a feisty young woman who grew up in Los Angeles, Nare Avagyan.

After hearing so much in Armenia about emigration, it was a most refreshing change to meet a sparky young Californian who had come home to her Armenian roots. Nare has been living in Armenia since 2012.

The Tumo Center struck me as a good example of the American “can do” philosophy, allied to Armenian patriotism and Armenian American money – all in all, a potent mix.

Nare said of the centre: “This is huge because Tumo really changes a generation, because kids start young and they are exposed to so much that it really helps them unlock their creative potential.”

“All they need is motivation and a longing for learning and our doors are open to them, so any kid can come, register and take part.”

In Yerevan the Tumo Center has more than 6,000 active students, she said.

“In Gyumri we are at full capacity, near 1,000 students,” said Nare. “We also have over 500 kids on the wait list and, of course, we are going to do everything to accommodate them.”

The Tumo Center in Gyumri is in temporary accommodation in a technology park, but Nare said the plan was to renovate the city’s old theatre, a bigger space, and use that.

I have let this run because English-language articles about Gyumri are rare. And, as you’ve probably guessed, I rather like the place. I wish it well.

Armenia packs a punch

Swapping one indecipherable alphabet ...
Swapping one indecipherable alphabet …

image… for another indecipherable alphabet

Armenia is an ancient nation with much to offer the world, but it is grappling with some mighty demons.

I find that visiting Armenia requires of me a certain amount of emotional heavy lifting. I remind myself occasionally that I am not here to solve the country’s problems.

My purpose in this post is to start exploring these mighty demons, to resume my travel narrative and to give some initial impressions of Armenia.

One significant demon is the whole phenomenon of emigration. While Europe faces the conundrum of how to absorb great waves of migrants, Armenia has the opposite challenge – how to persuade people to stay. The population has shrunk from 3.6 million in 1991 to three million today. Less than a third of the world’s Armenians live in Armenia.

If you are in a tough neighbourhood, as Armenia is, a falling population is not what you want. Enemies, and the country does have enemies, can seize upon it as a sign of weakness.

When last in touch I was watching a wedding video on the Azerbaijan/Russia border. After that, my priority was to go to a real wedding, in Wales. I went back to Baku on the Caspian Sea, then taxis to Tbilisi, flight home for outdoor nuptials of friends in the Welsh sunshine and back to Georgia.

Shortly after my return to Tbilisi I met up with my godson Tom, from Melbourne, who joined me for some Caucasus travel. We took a marshrutka to Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

Going from Georgia to Armenia, the traveller swaps one indecipherable alphabet for another indecipherable alphabet. (Only Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus uses the Roman script and they got there by a roundabout route. The script changed from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s, to Cyrillic in the 1930s and then back to Roman in the 1990s. Pity the 20th century scribes of Azerbaijan!)

The Armenian alphabet was introduced in AD 405 by the linguist and church leader Saint Mesrop Mashtots in order to translate the Bible into Armenian. Yerevan’s main avenue is named after him and the general view is that Mashtots was one of the pivotal figures in Armenian history.

His alphabet provided Armenia with a cultural anchor of the highest importance. Armenians have been through trials which make the hair stand on end just to read about them and the patch of earth which they call their own has shifted and shrunk.

But the nation has endured, thanks in large part to a culture based on the book, something you can take with you to a new land. It has even exported its alphabet, since thousands of books written in the Turkish and Kurdish languages have used the Armenian script.

The Cascade in Yerevan
The Cascade in Yerevan


So, a new alphabet and for me a new city. Yerevan. This city is older than Rome, but you would never guess that to look at it. Today it is a bustling modern capital of 1.2 million people with a Western pulse and the most impressive traffic jams of the South Caucasus.

Yerevan had a Persian character and a mainly Muslim population until the First World War. It became Armenian in flavour after the exodus of Armenians fleeing the mass killings perpetrated in Anatolia by Ottoman Turks. (Armenia knows these killings as the Genocide and Yerevan is full of billboards marking the centenary. A later blog will focus on these horrific events because they loom so large in Armenia’s history.)

The architectural tone of Yerevan is 20th century and the building material of choice is blocks of pink “tufa”, rock made from volcanic ash.

After arrival we had a mini-tour of the city centre, kindly conducted by an Armenian. Vahagn Petrosyan, a professional interpreter, took us first to the Cascade, a giant stairway built in the 1970s with several levels of sculptures and fountains. By climbing the stairs, on a clear day you get views of snow-capped Mount Ararat, a defining symbol of Armenia even though it rises on Turkish soil. (Incidentally the border with Turkey is closed, so quick trips to nearby Ararat are out.)

Next Vahagn took us to the central Republic Square, where dancing fountains and music are the city’s signature attraction of an evening. Nothing old was on the itinerary, for the simple reason that practically everything old has been bulldozed.

“The city is nearly 3,000 years old, but few of the buildings go back more than 100 years,” said Vahagn.

The architecture is European, much of it early Soviet, but in Yerevan you suddenly know that the Middle East is not far away. As the vulture flies, the killing fields of northern Syria are not much closer to Yerevan (about 670 km) than they are to Tbilisi (about 810 km). But Armenia feels much closer, psychologically and culturally, to the Middle East than does Georgia.

Today Armenia is a landlocked country, but once upon a time, more than 700 years ago, it had a Mediterranean shore. The music and the food of Armenia are partly Middle Eastern in flavour. The oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, is important in Arab and in Armenian music.

War in Arab lands hits home in Yerevan, but does not seem to have been a big driver of emigration. Indeed, perhaps war has worked the other way – some Armenians from Syria and Iraq have settled in Armenia in recent years.

Yerevan has a distinctive quality of its own – lots of street life, classy jazz clubs, good people-watching.

A few months ago in a Tbilisi hostel I met a young Japanese man who had just been in Yerevan. He explained to a group of us why he had crossed all Asia to visit the city. At school in Japan, he said, his female geography teacher had impressed upon him that the women of Armenia were beautiful. For eight years he held the dream of going to Armenia to see for himself. Finally he got there and with their permission he photographed a number of Armenian women out and about in the capital.

It was a singular tale, but the Japanese traveller exuded the air of a man who had climbed his personal Everest and known the joy of fulfilment.

Admiring the beauty of the women is surely a part of the Yerevan experience. Some common sense is needed here – no city has only beautiful people. But there are enough women in Yerevan who turn heads that silence on this matter would be eccentric. Quite often you see the classic Armenian look – patrician nose, flowing black hair, perfect posture.

Armenian women, and their sisters in Georgia and Azerbaijan, have remembered what it is to be feminine. They also operate, at least in theory, on a values system which is different from the one which has evolved in the more freewheeling West. The sexual revolution ran out of steaminess somewhere before the Caucasus and their societies, Christian and Muslim alike, are conservative. An ice maiden hauteur can, of course, enhance the charms that nature has given.

Meghri in Armenia's deep south
Meghri in Armenia’s deep south

Road to the deep south

Anyway, we did move on from Yerevan, in case you were wondering, and we hit the road to Armenia’s southernmost point, to the border with Iran. We left the city in a shared taxi and very soon had a snapshot of the difficulties of life out in the countryside.

Our taxi ground to a halt, still in full view of Mount Ararat. All travellers on the road, the main artery to the south, were being obstructed by grape farmers, unhappy about the price they were being offered for their produce after a bumper crop.

About 100 people, farmers and motorists, milled around on the road. Police were present but refrained from strong-arm tactics. A man in suit and tie appeared and talked to the gumbooted farmers. I don’t know what he said, but after about 40 minutes at a standstill the traffic flowed again.

Protests by grape farmers in Ararat province are something of an annual ritual in September, when the grapes are harvested. Travelling through the Armenian countryside I did not pick up the whiff of prosperity. Lack of economic opportunity is clearly one driver of emigration.

We drove about 250 km through largely barren, sparsely populated hill country to the southern town of Goris, whose population has been steadily falling in recent years. Here we broke our journey and checked into a B&B buzzing with travellers from the Netherlands, Germany and China.

Most of us dined together. The Dutch tourists were two brothers, young adults, born of an Armenian father and Dutch mother and making their first visit to Armenia. They too were engaged in what I called earlier emotional heavy lifting.

I talked mainly to one brother, Levon Goceryan, born in Delft. He already had some opinions on Armenia.

“Their culture is about suffering. Nine out of 10 conversations with Armenians are about the Genocide,” said Levon. “What I miss is the future focus.” Well, you can’t be any clearer than that. Whether you have Armenian blood or not, this country certainly gives food for thought.

One of Levon’s themes was that Yerevan, unlike the big cities of Europe, lacked a youth sub-culture. He felt that Armenian youth simply copied their parents and this stunted innovation.

The next day Tom and I headed south again through the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus, in two marshrutki and a taxi, to the stunning town of Meghri close to the frontier with Iran.

Meghri is a perfect destination for lovers of the desert. It is girt by utterly arid lunar mountains, but the town itself is an oasis with extensive apple orchards. This is a landscape of western Asia. We found accommodation in a house with lime trees in the garden and figs drying on the balcony.

From Meghri we drove out to the border with Iran. This was an external border of the former Soviet Union and for all the world it still looks like a Cold War frontier, with high watchtowers and a barbed wire fence. Over on the other side of the river is Iran, neighbour also to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the southernmost point of my Caucasus journey.

Istanbul – dancing to the magic

The view south from Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn
The view south from Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn

There are cities that engage the senses so deeply that the visitor doesn’t need to DO anything. You simply dance in your mind to their magic. Istanbul is one such city, though it faces some stern challenges.

If a visiting Martian said to me “Earthling, take me to your three finest cities”, I know where we would go.

To Venice, a sublime Old World city. To New York, with all the gutsy dynamism of the New. And to Istanbul, the supreme hybrid city, standing astride Europe and Asia like a Colossus. There is no other city on Earth that bridges two continents.

The great cities draw you back. In early May I make my fifth visit to Istanbul and since my last time here 40 years ago the place has grown immensely.

The experience of riding through the western suburbs on the night bus from Bucharest brings out the country boy in me. The vast urban landscape first dumbs my mind and then I want to scream “You’ve got too big!”

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the population of Istanbul at the end of 2013 was 14,160,467 and it is projected to reach 16.6 million by 2023. About a third of the population lives on the Asian side, but this is still Europe’s largest urban agglomeration.

Later, seeing that the historic core of the city still weaves its charm, I regain some sense of calm.

In all three of my chosen cities, there is the powerful presence of water as a defining element in the landscape. A city needs that to achieve true greatness. None of them today is a national capital and perhaps that too is part of their secret. They don’t have to bother with all that national government business and can evolve and pour their energies with more freedom.

Didem, Istanbul's top belly dancer, steps out on stage
Didem, Istanbul’s top belly dancer, steps out on stage

All offer sensual experience in the fullest sense.

What visitors to Istanbul often remember years later is the mix of smells. The saffron in the spice market, the roast chestnuts or sweet corn on Istiklal Avenue, the city’s great pedestrian thoroughfare.

Some visitors, women as well as men, remember decades later watching the sinuous movements of an Istanbul belly dancer. At its best, and it is done well in Istanbul, this is classy entertainment.

The city is noisy, but its noises are varied and seldom grate, at least not on me. There is the mewing of the ubiquitous cats, the muezzin’s call to prayer, Turkish music on the radio, falling rain, hooting cars, chattering travellers. It can all be experienced as one mighty orchestra, with the different musicians playing their part.

This is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and even at midnight Istiklal Avenue can be bursting with humanity. As a money-making centre it is so important that it represents more than a quarter of Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product.

A cruise liner on the Bosphorus, seen through a window of Istanbul's Topkapi Palace
A cruise liner on the Bosphorus, seen through a window of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

There is a dark side, of course, as you would expect in a big complex city.

On my first evening, out strolling not far from the Bosphorus shore, I suddenly become aware of the clump of heavy boots behind me. I turn and see about 15 to 20 policemen, some with riot shields and truncheons at the ready, just metres from me and running in my general direction.

Within seconds they have passed me and gone into a nearby park.

There are other people in the street and I pick up that they are attentive but not frightened. I take my cue from them. Earlier I had seen a small left-wing demonstration near the city’s Taksim Square where riot police are present in their dozens. It is a day in the life of Istanbul.

There have been moments in Istanbul’s recent past when riot police were truly out in force. In 2013, for example, there were clashes sparked by plans to turn Gezi Park next to Taksim, the central square, into a shopping mall. Disturbances spread to a number of Turkish towns and cities and at least six protesters and one policeman died. Thousands were injured.

The government scrapped plans for the shopping mall after the protests, but the Istanbul residents I talk to are not complacent about the future quality of life in their city. A third international airport is under construction, as is the Third Bosphorus Bridge, now at an advanced stage. This project, at the northern end of the Bosphorus Strait, has entailed the felling of many trees. Some fear that these developments will put more strain on a metropolis already groaning with traffic.

My guess is that a long struggle lies ahead for those who want Istanbul to avoid being sacrificed on the altar of “progress”. It is easy to be pessimistic and I prefer a cautious optimism about the future of this great city.