Part 1 – Asia (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia)
By Bill Altaffer, San Diego, California
It was the last week of August. Eight of us gathered in Baku, the colorful capital of Azerbaijan, for a custom trip that would begin in the Caucasus Mountains and end in Greece. Paul Schwartz of MIR Corporation, our excellent tour manager, would lead us on this journey covering a widely diverse group of countries and experiences.
The Caucasus are an interesting region as they provide an excellent vehicle for studying man’s early development as well as for witnessing the long-standing cohabitation of peoples of Muslim and Christian faiths.
This is a region featuring bitter ethnological and political struggles between different ethnic, religious, and political groups. The Ottoman slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians which coined the first use of the term “genocide” took place here. Even today, tensions between the different groups run deep. Part of this is due to the political geography of the Caucasus region which was the intentional result of Stalin’s foreign affairs plan (also followed in the “Stan” countries to the east), to create friction among displaced people by placing arbitrary borders on the map.
Current day Azerbaijan was created by “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a former Soviet republic on the west bank of the Caspian Sea. It has done an excellent job of overcoming its former dusty, desert image. It is a Muslim nation on the relaxed, casual side. I visited Baku 15 years ago. I was amazed at the dramatic changes it has undergone in such a short time, primarily as a result of the country’s oil wealth. These changes are immediately apparent in the multitude of ultra-modern buildings lining the new road from the airport, ongoing construction everywhere in the city, and the preponderance of expensive automobiles on the streets. For accommodations, there are now many multi-star hotels to choose from. Across the busy 6-lane street from our hotel, a slick, high-end shopping mall blocked our view of the Caspian Sea and marked the beginning of a wide, landscaped park that fronts the Sea for a good mile. Baku is a busy port with ferries departing frequently for Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. These trips take about 24 hours.
Venturing a couple of hours from the city, we visited Gobustan, a complex of prehistoric caves with thousands of well-preserved ancient petrogylphs. This was our first UNESCO site of the trip.
On returning to Baku, we visited its old town (Icheri Shere) inside 14th century walls and the Shirvan Shah Palace complex, our second UNESCO site. At the Azeri Carpet Museum we admired displays of Azeri, Caucasian and Iranian carpets with their vivid colors and bold designs.
The following day, we flew for over an hour to Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave of Azerbaijan surrounded by Armenia, for the day. “Nakhchivan” means “place where they descended” and is believed by locals to be the spot where Noah settled after his descent from nearby Mount Ararat. We were taken to a newly restored site claiming to be the tomb of Noah followed by a visit to a very interesting abandoned salt mine now used as a health spa. We walked half a mile into the mine where the main tunnel branches out into a number of very large rooms full of beds. No one occupies these rooms during the day but at night, many of the hundred-plus beds are used by people seeking therapy for respiratory issues through breathing the salty air.
From Baku we flew to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The city was founded in the 5th century. It is nestled in green hills on the banks of the Kura River, which starts in Turkey and enters the Caspian from Azerbaijan. On the highest hill, a large Mother Georgia statue surveys the city. In one hand she wields a sword for her enemies and in the other she holds a bowl of wine for her friends. Historically, Tbilisi has been home to peoples of diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. It is a charming city with beautiful old architecture (a mix of medieval, classical and Soviet structures), outdoor cafes and lots of atmosphere. One interesting aspect of the city is that it does not “get going” until some stores start opening at 11 AM and does not “shut down” until late at night. We stayed at The Marriott Hotel, which is very elegant and well-appointed. The breakfast buffet was so nice that photography was prohibited. Tbilisi is one of few places in the world where a synagogue and a mosque are located next to each other, but like the rest of Georgia, it is predominantly Christian.
Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century. The country is full of old Christian churches and ancient monasteries. Many are UNESCO sites. We visited two of these in excursions from the city, the Jvari Monastery and Mtskheta.
We also visited a cave town, Uplistsikhe, dating from before 1,000 BC. We drove to Gori, the birthplace and hometown of Joseph Stalin, where we toured a modest but interesting museum. It houses many photographs of Uncle Joe. Its grounds feature the humble house he was raised in (two small rooms) as well as his private train car. These are kept locked but a museum curator opened them for us to enter.
Our excellent local Georgian guide described growing up in Soviet times. She thought her family was vegetarian, but later learned that they had not eaten meat because they could not afford it. Now, it is a different story. The people of both Georgia and Armenia (our next country) are very proud of their history and culture as well as their high-quality fruits and vegetables. Even the air and water of both countries have a natural purity. The spring water of Georgia is world-famous. Georgia was the one country that we most wished we could have stayed in longer.
We drove a few hours on mountain roads winding through green forests to the border of Armenia where we met our next local guide, also excellent. The border crossing was easy. We made several very interesting stops at two old monasteries (both are UNESCO sites) and Lake Sevan, one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world and the largest in the Caucasus region. It is one of the three great lakes of the historical Armenian Kingdom, covers 5% of Armenia, and is highly revered by locals. It has a seaside atmosphere with numerous beaches and resorts.
We spent two nights in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It is a lively mix of modern and very old. Looming over it is Mount Ararat, its ice-covered peaks making a dramatic backdrop to the bustling city. The city was founded in 783 BC, earlier than Rome. Our hotel was close to the city center, an easy walk to the city’s large central square along bustling streets full of shops and cafes.
A highlight of our stay in Yerevan was the Matenadaran Museum, an archive that’s home to thousands of manuscripts, fragments of books, ancient records and documents in a number of languages. Its main point of interest is a collection of miniatures and rare, ancient book bindings, many of them restored. The room where these are displayed is small, with only a choice few items out to be viewed by the public. The oldest items on display are about a thousand years old with many others 600 to 800 years old. They were fascinating to see. The beautiful illuminated books, with their tiny, intricate drawings in brilliant colors and gold leaf are truly amazing.
A must-see in Yerevan is the Genocide Memorial located on top of a hill overlooking the city. It commemorates the million and a half Armenians who were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1918. The story of this genocide is little known elsewhere. The Memorial tells it in a truly moving fashion that left us very subdued.
In contrast, Yerevan is famous for its brandy. We had fun visiting the Yerevan Brandy Factory where we enjoyed a brandy tasting after our tour. Churchill allegedly ordered 400 bottles of brandy a year from this factory.
In all three countries of the southern Caucasus, we saw the remains of prehistoric man, the early Christian era, and all the stages of human development to the present. The historical clash of Christian vs. Moslem is apparent and will likely persist into the future of these ethnologically and politically fragile states. This was obvious when we drove to the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area of Armenia that resembles the Swiss Alps and also the site of war twenty years ago between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war resulted in the displacement of many people from both sides. As yet, there has been no formal ending to this war and ownership of the territory remains in dispute. Though it is part of Armenia, there is a border crossing into Nagorno-Karabakh where less than $10 buys a colorful visa allowing entry.
We spent two nights in Stepanakert, a friendly village-like city that was formerly a prime holiday destination for top Soviet officials. This Soviet influence remains apparent today. Approximately an hour outside of the city, we visited the monastery of Gandzasar. According to legend, it was built in 1216 over the resting place of John the Baptist’s skull.
The driving in this area is slow, with winding switch backs through beautiful wooded mountains with views below of small rivers. Of interest on the hills outside of Stepanakert are high, heavy-duty wires strung from hidden towers for the purpose of defending against invading helicopters.
We returned to Yerevan for one night before leaving the Caucasus region and the Asian Continent. Next stop: Eastern Europe.