Books, Lost Stockings and Babushkas
18.09.2012 - 18.09.2012
View In search of the Golden Fleece on Grete Howard's travel map.
Matenasaran Manuscript Museum
The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts holds one of the world's richest depositories of a collection of nearly 17,000 manuscripts and 30,000 other medieval documents and books which span a broad range of subjects, including history, philosophy, medicine, literature, art history and cosmography in Armenian and many other languages.
The English speaking guide did not turn up as promised at 09:30, so Jenna did her best to explain the exhibits to us. Only one room was open to the public, which was just as well, I didn't fancy trawling through 30,000+ books.... A large group of German tourists plus a bus load of French more than filled the room, making it difficult to get to see the exhibits. So glad we're not in a group.
The oldest book in the museum is from the 5th century, and the oldest printed book from just a mere 30 years after the very first book was printed in Venice. When you think how old those colourful illustrations are, and how painstakingly each had to be produced by hand, it becomes quite overwhelming. I am fascinated with the Armenian alphabet with its 39 characters, some of which may have a slightly different intonations as far as the Armenians are concerned, but sound the same to me. Jenna has been trying to teach me a little every day, but I am struggling to get my tongue around some of their sounds. They also don't have different words for he and she, so Jenna often gets confused, and as a result so do we. Musical notes are also different in Armenian to the ones at home.
The road to Lake Sevan was surprisingly good – wide, smooth and comfortable. Sevan is the second largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca in South America. At 1,900m above sea level, the air is much cooler than back in Yerevan – which was just as well for climbing the 321 steps to the top of the peninsula.
Originally made from three churches in 874, the monastery was built on an island. Receding waters in the mid-twentieth century created the current peninsula (see explanation below). Two churches remain, St. Arakelots and Astvatsatsin. The island monastery was, used both for worship and pilgrimage, and as a place of exile for Armenian noblemen who had fallen into disgrace as well as sinner monks to cut them off from as many worldly pleasures as possible.
Further along the peninsula is a couple of Cross Stones at the site of an ancient chapel, with a tree where devotees have tied handkerchiefs and bits of cloth in order to make a prayer and wish for good luck. I have to say the bits of stockings amused me.
In 1910 one of the civil engineers behind the interventions that caused the Aral Sea disaster, suggested the lowering of Lake Sevan's surface to 45 metres and the use of the water for irrigation and hydroelectricity. The Armenian Supreme Soviet approved the plan without consulting the local people, and major work started in 1933. The water level then began to fall by more than one metre per year to a total of 19m. An ecological disaster like in the Aral Sea was avoided when the Stalinist era ended in 1956 and the project and its consequences were reviewed thoroughly. There are current plans to bring the water level back up by several metres over the next 30 years.
Numerous beaches line the lake shore. The resorts are popular with young Iranian tourists who come here to party – drinking, dancing and generally letting their hair down (literally for the women) without the restrictions of their homeland. Exiled Iranian bands come here too to hold performances for Iranian youth who travel across the border. The Ayatollah regime have gotten wise to this, and occasionally make raids and arrest the 'offending' youths.
I was really excited to be served the famous Sevan Lake Trout for lunch, and baklava for dessert – another favourite.
From the vegetation sparse area of Lake Sevan, we made our way through a 2382m long tunnel and came out the other side to a thick forest with rich flora and fauna. It looks like the trees are trying on their autumn fashions, with a few red and yellow dresses here and there.
Spectacular hairpin bends brought us down to the spa resort of Dilijan. Called by locals the "Little Switzerland" of Armenia, the forested town has some great examples of traditional architecture of the region with a street having been preserved and maintained as an "old town Dilijan", complete with craftsmen,s workshops, a gallery and a museum.
Only the ceramics workshop was open (I think the phrase “It's closed” is the refrain for this trip...). It was run by a mother and her son (or 'his' son as Jenna explained) – the mother was the archetypical Russian babushka, rotund with all her front teeth capped in gold (a sign of wealth in the old days). We bought a mask for our ever-growing collection.
The Dilijan Resort Hotel is a strange mixture of upmarket luxury, run down shabbiness and retro chic. From the elegant and spacious lobby, you have to take the steps either up or down to reach the lifts on the mezzanine floor. Same when we arrived at 'our' floor, we were half a floor up. Must make it difficult for the porters with all the luggage. The room is large, with a very 60s coffee table and a huge balcony overlooking the forested hillside. Always eager to please, Jenna left us with her and Artijom's telephone number – just in case we decided we wanted to do something or go somewhere this afternoon. We did want to do something – have a drink on the balcony and just chill, enjoying the fresh forest air.
An 'interesting' coffee table...