Thursday, 7 May 2015

Armenian News...A Topalian...Artsakh, Karabakh, Thomas de Waal, Turkey, Notes from History


Central Election Commission Publishes Preliminary Results

Washington, DC – On May 3, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic held 
parliamentary elections. Voters chose between seven political party 
lists and several dozen individual candidates competing for 22 proportional 
and 11 majoritarian seats, respectively. More than 70 percent of eligible 
voters turned out to elect members the sixth National Assembly of 
the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Artsakh.

105 international observers from the Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, 
France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, 
Russia, Spain, Switzerland, UK, United States and elsewhere monitored 
the process.

According to preliminary assessment by observers, the elections were 
free and fair, and reflected the democratic will of the people. In particular, 
the University of California Election Observation and Technical Assistance 
Team, comprised of elected officials, professional researchers and experts 
in electoral processes and human rights from the United States, Mexico 
and Brazil have concluded that the May 3, 2015 election was conducted 
 “with a fair and transparent system consistent with international standards”. 
The Team plans to issue a final report shortly. 

“The commitment of the voters and poll workers of Nagorno Karabakh
 would rival any country”, said Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, 
member of the team.

Another team member, Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas 
noted the high turnout characterizing it as “a good basis for Artsakh’s 
statehood that is on par with democratic standards.”

In its statement related to Artsakh parliamentary elections, the NKR 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that "the parliamentary elections 
have reaffirmed the fact that elections, as a key element for the 
functioning of any democratic system, have become an integral part 
of the political culture of Artsakh. Free, fair, transparent and competitive
 elections, being an inalienable mechanism of political processes in 
the NKR, are aimed at organizing the social life of the republic and 
forming the government by democratic means, which, in turn, serves 
as a basis for promoting human rights, fundamental freedoms and 
the rule of law."

According to preliminary results released by the NKR Central 
Electoral Commission (CEC) , five out of seven political parties 
crossed the five percent threshold to secure a share of 22 proportional 
seats. Those are: Free Motherland Party (47.5 %), Democratic Party 
of Artsakh (19.1 %), Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutyun 
(18.81 %), Movement 88 (6.93 %), and National Revival (5.8 %). 
Another 11 parliament members were elected through majoritarian system. 

RFE/RL Report
Mediators Downplay Karabakh Vote
Emil Danielyan

The United States, Russia and France have reacted cautiously to
Sunday's parliamentary elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that they
cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks
mediated by them.

In a joint statement released late on Thursday, the U.S., Russian and
French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group stopped short of
explicitly calling the vote illegal.

"In the context of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, we
recognize the role of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding their
future," they said. "However, none of our three countries, nor any
other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and
sovereign state."

"Accordingly, we do not accept the results of these `elections' as
affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and stress that they
in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome
of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement
to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," added their statement.

The mediators likewise acknowledge the need for "the de facto
authorities" in Stepanakert to "organize democratically the public
life of their population with such a procedure" when they jointly
commented on Karabakh's last presidential election held in 2012.

France - The French, Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents, Francois
Hollande, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, as well as the OSCE's
Minsk Group Co-Chairs, meet in Paris to discuss Nagorno Karabakh,

Azerbaijan strongly condemned the 2012 ballot and all other elections
held in Karabakh in the past. Azerbaijani officials have made similar
statements with regard to Sunday's elections.

The upcoming Karabakh vote is tightly contested, with about 220
candidates mostly representing seven political parties vying for 33
seats in the Karabakh legislature. The outgoing parliament is
controlled by a three-party coalition allied to Bako Sahakian, the
unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's president. Sahakian is not
affiliated with any party.

The three parties are challenged by four other local political
groups. One of them is led Vitaly Balasanian, a retired army general
who was Sahakian's main challenger in 2012.

Sunday's polls are expected to be monitored by about 100 foreign
observers acting in their personal capacity or as representatives of
non-governmental organizations. They include a team of French
observers led by Francois Rochebloine, a pro-Armenian member of
France's parliament. The delegation met with Sahakian in Stepanakert
on Thursday.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry warned on Friday that Baku will not
only ban those foreign monitors from visiting Azerbaijan but could
also launch criminal proceedings against them.

The Minsk Group co-chairs issued the statement after holding separate
talks with Paris with the foreign ministers of Armenia and
Azerbaijan. They said they stressed to both men the importance of
another meeting of the Armenian-Azerbaijani presidents which they hope
will take place later this year.

"The Ministers agreed to meet each other, together with the Co-Chairs,
to shape the agenda for the Presidents' discussion, and welcomed an
upcoming visit to the region by the Co-Chairs," read their statement.

Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev most recently met in Paris
in October. Both leaders gave positive assessments of that summit
which was aimed at kick-starting the Karabakh peace process.

However, tensions in the conflict zone were reignited in November by
the shooting down by Azerbaijani forces of an Armenian combat
helicopter near Karabakh. Also, there was a renewed upsurge in deadly
truce violations in the conflict in the first quarter of this
year. The mediating troika implicitly blamed Azerbaijan for the
escalation in late January.

According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Edward
Nalbandian told the co-chairs on Wednesday that Baku is ignoring their
calls for bolstering the ceasefire regime. Nalbandian also complained
about continuing bellicose statements made by Azerbaijani leaders.

In a speech in March, Aliyev again declared that Azerbaijan will
eventually gain control over not only Karabakh but also Yerevan and
other "historic Azerbaijani lands" in Armenia.

James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, described the talks with Nalbandian
as "productive and positive." "Armenia is open to opportunities for
[Karabakh] peace," he wrote on Twitter.

"With [Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar] Mammadyarov, we spoke
about key issues to be discussed between the Presidents of Armenia and
Azerbaijan," Warlick said in a separate tweet.

Mammadyarov's office did not issue statements on the Paris meeting. 
Over 100 intn'l observers to monitor polls in Karabakh

Over 100 international and 110 local observers are going to monitor
the Sunday parliamentary elections in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), has learned from the country's Central Election Commission.

"The accreditation still continues, so their number will be declared
later today," Srbuhi Arzumanyan, a spokesperson, told our
correspondent, adding that they now have registered delegations from
the United States and Germany.

The official campaign of candidates finished Saturday. According to
the Nagorno-Karabakh Electoral Code, the day proceeding the voting is
declared a day of silence.

The spokesperson said she knows that 90 journalists from over 40 local
and international media outlets will be covering the elections.

Seven political parties and 46 candidates are campaigning for the 33
mandates in Nagorno-Karabakh's National Assembly. The parties running
for election include Free Fatherland, Democratic Party of Artsakh,
Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaksutyun, Movement 88, and
Peace and Development.
It appears that the elections in Artsakh will be in line with
democratic principles: Mexican observer
2 May, 2015

STEPANAKERT, 2 MAY,. Professor Garcia Rodrigo
Gomez and candidate of sciences Carlos Antaramian have arrived from
Mexico to conduct an observatory mission during the subsequent
parliamentary elections to be held in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on
May 3.

As "Armenpress" reports, in an interview with "Artsakhpress", expert
in political culture Garcia Rodrigo Gomez mentioned that he was
visiting Artsakh as an observer for the first time ever. "I haven't
noticed anything special yet. Everything is on the right track, and it
seems as though the elections will be democratic. I must say that the
members of the commissions are experienced," the Mexican professor
said, adding that he liked Stepanakert a lot and that it is a very
clean city.

Carlos Antaramian is visiting Artsakh for the third time. "I'm
participating as an observer for the first time. It's very important
that the elections in Artsakh are being held at a high level and will
be in line with democratic principles," Antaramian said, adding that
he has great expectations from the elections. 

Huffington Post
May 4 2015
By Carly Ledbetter

It seems that Kim Kardashian is having a major effect on yet another
"sexiest" list.

According to a new survey by MissTravel, a destination dating website,
its customers say the world's sexiest women are from Armenia and
the world's sexiest men are from Ireland. The travel site polled over
110,000 Americans to determine who they thought was sexiest; last year,
Australian men and Brazilian women topped MissTravel's "hot" charts.

We can't help but wonder if this new awareness has anything to do
with a certain curvy Armenian-American recently visiting her ancestral
homeland for an episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."

Scroll down to see what nationalities made this year's list:

The sexiest nationalities for women:

10. Lebanese 9. Bulgarian 8. Filipina 7. Brazilian 6. Australian
5. English 4. Colombian 3. American 2. Barbadian/Bajan 1. Armenian

The sexiest nationalities for men:

10. Spanish 9. Danish 8. Nigerian 7. Italian 6. Scottish 5. English
4. American 3. Pakistani 2. Australian 1. Irish

And if you want to catch a glimpse of one of these hotties, we suggest
heading to one of the world's sexiest beaches for a steamy vacation.
Thomas de Waal: We are in new world from April 25

"I think we are in a new world from April 25," said British journalist
Thomas de Waal, who is also a senior associate at the Washington-based
Carnegie Endowment, specializing primarily in the South Caucasus

De Waal expressed such a view at the Reddit social networking and news
website, and in response to a query on Armenian Genocide and
Armenian-Turkish relations.

"The LA Armenian columnist Harut Sassounian has already written 'We
need to turn the page on genocide recognition and concentrate on legal
claims'. Well, we will see how that goes but that is an interesting

"As I said before, I think the main action is now in Turkey itself and
if Turkey opens up more to its past and to its minority populations,
that will have a really positive effect on the Armenian issue. That
means that the really important players here are the Kurds and the
Kurdish party HDP.

"They've reached out to the Armenians, issued an apology, restored
churches, some of them use the genocide word. If the HDP gets 10
percent of the vote in the June general election in Turkey, it will be
a force inside parliament, and a spokesman not just for Kurdish rights
but for other minorities as well. If it doesn't get into parliament
that will be a big setback for this vision in Turkey," the analyst

And to a question as to why, being an expert on the Caucasus,  he
decided to study the Armenian Genocide, Thomas de Waal responded:
"When you go to Armenia, on some days you look up and suddenly Mount
Ararat is up there filling the whole horizon. On other days it's misty
or it's out of sight, but it's still there. As someone who does the
Caucasus, I suppose I realized at some point that the Armenian
Genocide of 1915 and then the whole bloody history up until 1921 is
like Mount Ararat, you can't ignore it." 

Turkey: Few Traces of Armenian Past To Be Found a Century Later
April 24, 201
by Anahit Hayrapetyan

For Armenians, the towns of MuÅ? and Sason in southeastern Turkey, not
far to the west of Lake Van, hold particular historical significance.
But today, 100 years after the massacre of 1915, few ethnic Armenians
still remain there

In the medieval era, MuÅ? served as the central town of the influential
Armenian principality of Taron, home to Mesrop Mashtots, who invented
the Armenian alphabet in the early fifth century.

Sason, known to Armenians as Sasun, is the setting for the
8th-10th-century Armenian national epic, `The Daredevils of Sasun"
(also called `The Daredevils of Sassoun"), which tells how Armenian
fighters, led by the legendary ruler, David of Sasun (or Sassoun),
repulsed repeated Arab invasions.

Although both locations lost their prominence in modern times, they
remained important regional centers for Armenian culture until the
bloodshed of 1915.

Today, little sign of that past remains. The old part of MuÅ?, where
many ethnic Armenians once lived, has been partly destroyed, though
the walls of a women's hamam and an Armenian church still stand.
Khachkars, Armenian memorial cross-stones, stand near many Kurdish
houses. Stones with carved crosses often have been used for
construction materials. A graveyard can be found on a nearby mountain.

Recently, an Armenian club opened in MuÅ? with the name "Daron - Hay,'
a local Armenian rendition of `Taron-Armenian.' Members say they chose
the Armenian word `Hay' since the Turkish word for Armenia, Ermeni,
can be used as an insult.

Members say, though, that those attitudes are starting to change a
little. But still, despite a relative liberalization of government
policies in recent years, many ethnic Armenians in Turkey remain

The desire to retain an Armenian cultural identity, though, runs
strong. One Muslim ethnic Armenian told a visiting Armenian
photographer about his family's difficulty in finding their relatives
in Armenia, where they fled after the massacre of 1915.

But in both MuÅ? and Sason/Sasun, only the older generation of ethnic
Armenians speak Armenian. Youngsters say they try to learn the
language while attending school in Istanbul, where more opportunities
exist to study Armenian.

Istanbul and other larger Turkish cities also have drawn away most of
the local ethnic Armenian families who are Christian; a faith seen as
an integral part of Armenian culture. Many of those who remain are
Muslim, while others are mixed. A few have converted to Christianity.

Marriage is viewed as a key tool in preserving these families'
Armenian heritage within Turkey. To do so, some locals often even opt
for distant relatives as spouses.

Still, their focus remains on the future. One Muslim Armenian man
discussed the prospects for a bride for his son. The father's hope is
that she will be Armenian.

Editor's Note: Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist based
in Berlin and Yerevan.
May 1, 2015 5:33 pm
Maya Jaggi 

Thousands queued in Yerevan on April 24 for a concert in the Armenian
capital's Soviet-era opera house, after a last-minute change of venue
from a drenched Republic Square. Before the rain, the presidents
of France and Russia were among politicians who laid flowers at the
Armenian Genocide Memorial at a hilltop complex with an eternal flame
and a view of snow-capped Mount Ararat. The concert in the 1,200-seat
venue, broadcast live on state television, commemorated the start of
the genocide in 1915. The music not only mourned the dead but exulted
in the culture that survived.

For the Armenian violinist and conductor Sergey Smbatyan, 27, who
conceived the concert two years ago, it was "confirmation that we're
still here and are successful. We lost the land and 1.5m people" --
the number historians estimate were killed in 1915-18 under Ottoman
rule, or died on forced marches, or in concentration camps. The day
after the concert, Smbatyan says: "We played the music of Armenian
composers in the past 100 years, to show the treasure and value of
the nation whose soul they -- the decision makers -- tried to destroy."

"Music was always one of our nation's strengths," says concert
violinist Sergey Khachatryan, 30. "For a small country [of 3m],
we have a lot of musicians and amazingly beautiful folkloric music."

The folk music's unusual rhythms and ancient instruments such as
the duduk, a double-reeded pipe made from apricot wood, were adapted
for symphony orchestras after Russia's 19th-century conquest of the
Caucasus. Wherever he is, Khachatryan plays this music for an encore,
and will release a dedicated CD with his pianist sister, Lusine,
this year. Their paternal great-grandfather from Kars, in eastern
Turkey, was one of only two brothers to survive the genocide out of
nine siblings.

"Even for those not directly involved, it's a kind of wound inside
ourselves," Khachatryan tells me, between rehearsals. "We Armenians
should always remember. But it's not only our darkest moment; it's a
tragedy in world history. Not only Turkey, but other countries need
to take responsibility."

Khachatryan, who lives in Frankfurt, returned to the city of
his birth on the heels of another centennial concert in Toronto,
initiated by Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan. The Yerevan concert
is one of many planned around the world this year, aiming to use the
arts to raise awareness and official recognition of the genocide. The
country's pavilion at the Venice biennale is devoted to artists from
the diaspora. As Khachatryan says: "The one thing keeping us together
was, and is, culture."

As Hasmik Poghosyan, Armenia's culture minister, tells me at the
rehearsals: "We want to present the culture that existed before,
and a cultural renaissance that came after." The minister, who says
her grandfather witnessed the killings in Sasun, believes many artists
have been spurred by this painful history. "It's difficult to think of
a famous Armenian who hasn't been touched by it. It comes naturally,
from the heart."

April 24 1915 was when 235 blacklisted Armenian intellectuals
were rounded up in Constantinople. They included Komitas, the
priest-musicologist who inspired Armenia's greatest composer, Aram
Khachaturian -- and is the subject of a new museum that opened in
Yerevan in January. "We have a really strong school of composers,"
Smbatyan says. The repertoire included work by Avet Terterian,
Alexander Arutiunian and Arno Babajanian, whose elongated figure
plays a bronze grand piano outside the opera house.

The two-and-a-half-hour concert was played nonstop, with precision
and passion, aided by a relay of four conductors -- including Michail
Jurowski, who knew Khachaturian as a child in Moscow -- and the 24/04
World Orchestra. Wearing purple forget-me-not scarves and ties, the
orchestra was assembled for the centenary by Smbatyan and Gianluca
Marcianò, an Italian pianist who was until February principal conductor
of the Tbilisi State Opera in Georgia. It features 123 musicians from
43 countries and 47 orchestras, ranging in age from 20 to 62. The 22
local musicians are mainly drawn from Smbatyan's State Youth Orchestra
of Armenia, founded almost 10 years ago. A further 19 hail from the
diaspora, from Russia to Mexico. "There could have been even more,"
says Marcianò. "We got many calls from musicians asking to join."

This is the "project of my life", Smbatyan says in his office at
the Komitas Conservatory of Music. His paternal grandfather escaped
with his mother and two brothers from Van in eastern Turkey. "I even
know the exact address. He used to repeat it till the last days of
his life."

Most orchestra members were new to such works as the lyric poem
Shushanik by Edward Mirzoyan, a composer born in Georgia shortly after
the genocide. "I can't believe the pain in the score," Smbatyan says.

"But professionals can read the music and understand it without
biography. As a conductor, I believe in fewer words and more

Khachatryan played two movements of the 1940 Khachaturian Violin
Concerto he will perform with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London on
Sunday. The composer, who divided his time between Moscow and Soviet
Yerevan, "reinterpreted so much Armenian folk music in the concerto",
he says. "He wrote the second movement for a tragic movie about the
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. But the tragedy comes straight from the
Armenian soul."

Such sentiments are echoed by the Yerevan-born cellist Narek
Hakhnazaryan, 26, who grew up in Moscow and was the first Armenian
to win the Tchaikovsky Competition. "You can feel the depth of it
in all our composers." He played the Khachaturian Concerto-Rhapsody
in Yerevan, and will record it with a BBC orchestra this year. He has
dedicated all this year's performances to 1915, as the commemoration is
"very personal for me, and for 90 per cent of Armenians", he says.

"My great-grandfather's whole family was burnt alive: his parents,
sisters, brothers." His great-grandfather, then aged seven or eight,
"was the only one to survive because he was out of the house. He came
back and found them in the ovens Armenians use to make bread."

Such personal histories are made more painful by a denial that persists
in the face of meticulous documentation. Neither the US nor Britain
officially recognise an Armenian genocide. The day after the concert,
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey again dismissed "claims
constructed on Armenian lies". Concerts in the name of peace can seem
flimsy in the face of such realpolitik. Yet, urging the audience to
"remember and demand", this concert included a screen backdrop of
photomontage and film footage. The effect, combined with the symphony
orchestra, was profoundly moving. Scenes ranged from family portraits
of pre-1915 western Armenia, through horrific images of execution,
torture and starvation, to philanthropic orphanages and a kaleidoscopic
Armenian renaissance.

Some Armenians "hold on to this history, maybe too much", Hakhnazaryan
says. "My family was more pragmatic: always think of the future. But
we remember."

Music For Armenia, Royal Festival Hall, London, May 3,

Armenian Centenary Concert, Wigmore Hall, London, July 12,
03 | May 1,2015 | Social has published an article about the Armenian
khachkar (cross-stone), presenting its history and role in the life
of Armenians. In the article entitled "The Khachkar: A Cornerstone of
Armenian Identity" the website says 'The cross is arguably the most
familiar symbol of Christianity, but nowhere is this iconography as
crucial or culture-entrenched as it is in Armenia.'

"Wherever you go, thousands of khachkars, or cross-stones, pervade
the mountainous conscience of the world's oldest Christian nation,
providing a rare glimpse into the art of spiritual expression,"
the site says. Below is the full article.

The medieval monk Thomas a Kempis, on the subject of the Cross,
once remarked, 'In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life;
in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is
infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind;
in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue;
in the Cross is perfection of holiness...'

With all these attributions, it is little wonder then that the cross
could serve as a champion symbol of Armenian national identity and
union. Starting from the 4th century, the conversion of Armenians,
and the instatement of Christianity (and by extension, the Armenian
Apostolic Church) as a state religion in AD 301 issued a new era of
national consciousness. This burgeoning perception of Armenia as an
entity distinct from the surrounding Zoroastrians was consolidated
by several factors of the time: the invention of the Armenian
alphabet, the effacement of the former pagan temples, and Gregory
the Illuminator's evangelical reign as the first head of the Armenian
Church. The latter (now Armenia's patron saint) particularly catalysed
the movement, and in an effort to distinguish and preserve the Armenian
identity, ordered the creation of the first khachkar.

Upon initial inspection, the khachkar bears resemblance to other forms
of Christian art, namely the Celtic High Cross and the Lithuanian
KryždirbystÄ-. A type of relief sculpture, it features a variety
of floral, vegetative, and geometric motifs, as well as tableaus of
famous biblical scenes. Beautiful, yes-- but in order to understand
how a medieval stone became so charged with the Armenian spirit,
a lesson in iconology is needed.

The cross was not always a well esteemed symbol; it once represented
the basest form of execution, reserved for the disgraceful. The
resurrection of Jesus however, and the persecution of the early
Armenian Christians, transformed the cross into an image of
soteriological victory: an emblem of triumph over the mortal vale.

At the same time, mountain worship was prevalent. The mountain, as a
biblical location, connoted austerity, reverence, and closeness with
God. Moses, for example, communicated with God through the Burning
Bush on Mount Sinai. For the early Armenians, there was no better way
to claim this new Christian heritage than through the mountains, with
which their land was replete (Armenia's ancient territory included
several biblical mounts). Gradually, the mountain worship evolved
into a stone stela that could be conveniently erected near the home
or church.

When Gregory the Illuminator envisioned the khachkar, he believed
it had the power to impart holiness into the air by sanctifying
the immediate vicinity. Because religious and secular agendas were
intrinsically at odds, the Cross, by virtue of the khachkar, was seen
as a mediator between the Christian and the pagan. In turn, it began
to assume various ecclesial functions- as gravestone, hallowed effigy,
intervening spirit, talisman, and commemorative shrine of events,
among others. Thus it was only fitting that the khachkar turned into
a uniquely Armenian fixture in graveyards, monasteries, cathedrals,
residences, roadsides, and eventually, everywhere.

>From an artistic perspective, the creative medium of rock boasts
a powerful statement. Indeed, the rock has enjoyed several iconic
references in the Bible. Jesus in a famous discourse quotes, 'The stone
the builders rejected has become the capstone' and at another time,
tells Peter (petra being the Latin word for rock) that '...on this
rock I build my church....' Such strong imagery was necessary for the
Armenian Church's survival; qualities such as permanence, stability
and grounded faith were perpetuated by the physical three-dimensional
embodiment of the cross-stone. Of course, practicality would also
play a huge role. Armenia, with its vast mountain ranges and dormant
volcanoes, would have no trouble sourcing the slate and tuff, both
relatively workable, for construction purposes. In a region prone
to earthquakes, man-made structures would have to prove sturdy. The
rock, as a substrate of spiritual expression, signified the eternal
and the infinite, amidst an unpredictable future.

But the substrate, no matter how remarkable, is nothing without
the craftsman. In the case of Armenians, anyone with religious and
moral conviction could erect a khachkar. Moreover, khachkars were
commissioned for a number of social, spiritual, or individual reasons
- anything from the planting of a garden to victory in war. Some were
dedicated to saints, but all were meant as a source of pride for the
artist and the patron, the country, the church, and ultimately, God.

Today, that tradition continues. Using nothing but chisels and hammers,
local craftsmen fashion out intricate designs in stone. Many of these
master artisans, like Varazad Hambartsumyan, channel the spirits of
their ancestors. 'This is something our people have done for about
2000 years.' Indeed, modern khachkars continue to feature ancient
symbols and motifs such as the sun, the cross, and the wheel of
eternity. Others depict saints and biblical imagery such as the dove
and the grapevine. While there are many similarities, no two khachkars
are ever alike, adding to their unique character. As Hambartsumyan
shares, 'Khachkar is a prayer, khachkar is a sacrifice, khachkar is
our ancestors, khachkar is our identity.'

Connecting both the past and the present, the khachkar continues to
watch over the world's oldest Christian nation, making this unique
art form a true Armenian cornerstone. 

A Warm Welcome in the Caucasus Mountains
APRIL 8, 2015 

The clotheslines that extended from balconies in Stepanakert 
showed an extraordinary degree of precision, if not obsession. In 
this city of 50,000, families had ordered the clothes from smallest 
to biggest: pink toddler socks gave way to slightly larger red and 
black ones for children and adults, then underwear (sorted by color), 
and finally a sequence of ever-larger shirts, hung upside down with 
sleeves outstretched, like an army of invisible superheroes swooping 
down from the sky. 

Could it be that living in the limbo of a self-declared but largely 
unrecognized country drives people to seek order in other ways?
It was a thought that occurred to me after a weekend in the Nagorno
-Karabakh region, where about 150,000 Armenians (and a smattering 
of others) live over 1,700 square miles of mountains, rivers and valleys
 in the Caucasus Mountains. To the west is an easygoing border with 
Armenia; to the east is a disputed boundary with Azerbaijan, which
 sees regular sniper attacks and, last year, a downed helicopter 
incident .

The area’s complicated history goes back centuries. Most recently, 
a bitter war in the early 1990s, in which the Armenian-majority enclave 
declared independence from Azerbaijan (which months earlier had
 declared independence from the Soviet Union), drove out the minority 
Azeris, and sucked in ethnic Armenians fleeing the rest of Azerbaijan. 
A new constitution in 2006 declared it a sovereign state. 

Yet today , the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not recognized 
by any member of the United Nations; most sources, including Google 
Maps, place it squarely in Azerbaijan. And though it has its own flag 
and government, it is deeply connected with and dependent on Armenia, 
which supplies its currency and military, among other things.

The area’s tourism options, though, are rough-edged but spirited, and 
the region is generally considered safe for travelers — who, of course, 
should steer clear of that tense eastern border. And most significantly 
for me, during a recent off-season trip to the area, it turned out to be 
excellent for travelers on a tight budget.

My weekend there cost about 47,000 dram (almost exactly $100 at 
468 dram to the dollar), half of which was my portion of a six-hour 
shared taxi there and back from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Alas, 
I missed it at its lush summer best, but even in late February, its 
mountainous landscape was beautiful in its snow-dusted starkness.

I also was lucky enough to visit with two new friends. Sonya Varoujian, 
a singer who grew up in London and New York, and Goreun Berberian, 
a Syrian Armenian. Both are descendants of Armenians who fled the 
Ottoman Empire during the genocide a century ago. I was conscious 
that that meant I would be hearing just one side of a very complex 

In that shared taxi, we drove past apricot orchards and small towns 
where enormous storks nest on telephone poles and then into the 
mountains. Luckily, our driver, Yura, was amenable to a few stops; 
our fourth passenger, an Armenian soldier named Davit, was happy 
for the cigarette breaks.

So we stopped in a field to widen our eyes at the enormity of Mount 
Ararat, its two mismatched humps rising ethereally above the haze, 
and at Noravank, one of Armenia’s many strikingly situated monasteries, 
its stone churches matching the rust-colored cliffs it was nestled in. 
“It’s one of the newer ones,” said Sonya, which in Armenia means 
it was built just in time to be sacked by Mongols in the 13th century.

We were dropped off at Stepanakert, at a homespun hostel without
 a name; I’ll call it Seda’s Hostel, after Seda Babayan, the twinkly-eyed 
80-year-old grandmother who runs the place. (To reserve, call 
374-47-94-13-48 and hope you get an English-speaking grandchild.) 
The three of us were the only guests, and she charged us a total of 
8,000 drams to share a brightly painted but underheated dorm room.

Then it was off to meet Sonya’s friends, most notably Armond 
Tahmazian, a talented jewelry-maker who came from Iran in 1999, 
met his wife (an Australian-Armenian) here, and stayed. Armond 
welcomed us into his shop, Nereni Arts and Crafts, where he sells his 
own jewelry, the work of local artists and CDs by Armenian singers, 
including Sonya. Not for sale: the wooden bellows camera he said 
was the “first camera in Stepanakert” (How did he know? “It’s a small 
town.”) and an odd contraption that looked to me like a stubby World 
War I howitzer but turned out to be a rusty German sausage stuffer.

Armond served us his own homemade grape vodka, with small 
chunks of pickled beet as chasers. As Sonya translated, I quickly 
picked up on two elements of his personality. First, a wry humor.
 “There is a water shortage in Karabakh,” he said. “The main source 
of hydration is vodka.” Second, a deep sense of patriotism, conveyed 
in emotional soliloquies about the war. “To the boys,” he toasted at 
the end of one.

He would have taken care of us for the entirety of our trip, but I 
wanted us to escape and see the town on our own. So we went to 
Evita Café, a trailer on Alex Manukyan Street with a couple of tables 
stuffed inside, like a cross between a diner and food truck. I got to 
try the epitome of Karabakh cuisine: zhingyalov hats, paper-thin 
flatbread folded over a kaleidoscopic variety of greens, and toasted 
on a griddle. The cook, who is also an owner, told us there were 
11 greens in all: coriander, spring onion, spinach, lamb’s lettuce, 
beetroot leaf, dill, wild tulip leaf, three others Sonya couldn’t translate 
and one she could translate only literally, as “old person’s bellybutton.” 
The resulting battle on my taste buds ended in a surprising harmony. 

On Sunday after a stop at the market (sour “fruit rollups” called chir, 
300 dram and highly recommended), we headed to Shushi, a partly 
walled hilltop city that has seen plenty of sieges in its time, most 
recently its capture by the Armenians in 1992, a key and still celebrated 
victory of the war. (The Azerbaijanis refer to the town as Shusha; I 
am using Armenian names here, since they are the ones travelers 
are most likely to encounter.) The plan was to see the town and then 
have Sonya’s friend Sevak, who lives between Shushi and his village 
across Karkak Canyon, Arkateli, lead us on a hike.

Shushi provided an image for Armond’s war stories; on the drive up, 
we passed a memorial featuring the first Armenian tank to enter the 
city. We walked on Shushi’s walls, which are largely intact, unlike 
much of the city. Though it has been repopulated by Armenians and 
partly rebuilt — check out the new, virtually mint-condition State 
Museum  of Visual Arts, just 300 dram — countless traditional stone 
homes were destroyed in the war; their ruins dot the city. On one 
street, blocklong Soviet-era apartment buildings lined each side, one 
with the streetside wall blown out, the other decrepit but intact and 

That’s why the town’s two mosques stand out. Though Armenian
are Christians, the mosques used by Azerbaijani Muslims driven out 
a quarter-century ago are surprisingly intact and lovely. At the 
19th-century Upper Mosque, we peered through grilled gates and 
saw an elegant vaulted brick ceiling. I found out later that the Armenians 
had protected and restored the mosque — which was viewed as a 
poignant preservation by some, a publicity stunt by others. The even 
more beautiful Lower Mosque is also standing but is not in as good 

After sloshing through muddy, snowy roads, Sonya trying to describe 
how beautiful the town was in the spring, we met up with Sevak. He 
was an instantly likable man in his 30s with tightly cropped hair closely 
matching his heavy facial stubble. His passable English was charming, 
only slightly offset by phrases culled from video games, like “Need 
backup!” and “Fire in the hole!”

His friend Davit, a graphic designer from Stepanakert, also joined us. 
After buying elements for a barbecue — meat, big ovals of matnaqash 
bread and vodka (plus water, my idea) — we realized we didn’t have 
skewers. Davit simply walked over to a nearby apartment building, 
started shouting up to people on the balconies, and soon returned
 with skewers on loan from a stranger.

The plan was to hike down into Hunot Gorge. Far below, the narrow 
but spirited Karkar River rushed through; across, a hill was covered 
by slender trees that, leafless in winter, looked like porcupine quills. 
Snow-capped mountains stretched to the horizon. Beautiful to look at, 
miserable to conduct a war in, I thought.

I soon learned the plan was to go down to the river. “All the way down?” 
I asked skeptically. But Sevak knew the route, which was spottily 
marked by blue paint splotches on trees or rocks. (It’s part of what I 
would later learn is the Janapar Trail, which winds through back roads 
and villages and is almost certainly wonderful in the summer.) It was 
only occasionally difficult, involving brief spurts of clambering down 
rocks that made me wish I didn’t own the world’s cheapest hiking 

As we walked down the final slope to the river, a surprise: an 
abandoned village of stone houses in various states of ruin, but 
not from the war. “The people left in 1930s or ’40s,” Sevak told us. 
“Two or three people from my village were born there.” He pointed out 
another old house just across a stone bridge; that family, he said, 
harvested ice from the river in the winter and sold it throughout the 
year up in Shushi.

As Sevak and Davit got a fire going, Sonya insisted on leading 
Goreun and me, a tired and still-skeptical pair, across the bridge 
and down the river’s edge (and sometimes into it, hopping from 
stone to stone). My skepticism vanished at the end, when we 
found the astonishing Zontik, or “Umbrella,” waterfall — though t
o me the rock formation looked more like a bunch of giant mushrooms, 
drooping over a shallow cave. The rocks were covered in green moss, 
which split the water into tiny streams, forming a sheet of rivulets 
covering the entrance to the cave like a beaded curtain.

We returned to the scent of roasting pork, which Davit doled out to 
us with chunks of bread and shots of vodka. I was happy to hear 
that Sevak could be hired as a guide, though when I asked how 
friends could get in touch (since I had not revealed I was writing 
an article), he said they should just arrive and ask for “Sevak from
 Arkateli.” (I later got his email from his wife: .)

We departed the next morning, leaving me frustrated at our incredibly 
abbreviated visit to a beautiful and complicated place. Lesson: A 
day and a half is way too short to see an entire country, whether 
it is an actual country or not.

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