A gasp goes up from the pilgrims gathered on the rampart of Khor Virap monastery as the clouds part, revealing Ararat in all its majesty. The scale of the mountain is unexpected, rising from a green plain of vineyards and lakes to over 5,000m, filling the horizon. For Armenians this is the symbol of their nationhood – representations of the snow-capped peak appear on everything from banknotes to chocolates. Also surveying its glittering mass is Manvel, Guardian of the Holy Pit in which St Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years in the late third century. After assisting a stout emigrée wedged in the narrow descent to the shrine, Manvel re-emerges into the sunshine, adjusting his luxuriant moustaches. He points out the putative landing site of Noah’s Ark to a group from the Armenian diaspora, but his eyes are full of sadness. For the mystical mount is no longer part of the country, but on the far side of the border, closed since Stalin ceded the territory to Turkey in 1932. It seems unlikely that he, or any of his compatriots, will be permitted to ascend even its foothills.
The pilgrims reboard their coach for the capital, Yerevan, and the National Museum of History, where a length of petrified wood held to be a remnant of the Ark is displayed alongside a relic venerated as the lance that pierced the side of the crucified Jesus. With their departure, silence returns to Khor Virap, the ancient abbey church illuminated only by the guttering flames of candles and a single shaft of sunlight from the dome. It is one of more than 3,000 in the country, some carved out of the living rock, many occupying dramatic sites in the mountains.
The Armenians’ name for themselves is Hay, descendants of Hayk, great-great-grandson of Noah. Three million of them inhabit a landlocked Transcaucasian country the size of Belgium in a landscape of steppes, mountains, forests and alpine lakes. If the feel is Old Testament, that’s because, in AD301, it was the first state to adopt Christianity as the official religion. To the 8m or so members of the Armenian diaspora it remains a holy land to be revisited as often as possible. What is new is the inflow of western visitors come to explore a culture that reflects the passage of myriad invaders. “Armenia is the beneficiary of the Arab Spring,” notes Caucuses specialist Amelia Stewart of Original Travel. “For adventurous travellers it offers an imaginative alternative to the Levant.” Armenians are responding by opening a string of hotels characterised by indigenous charm and expatriate know-how. The latest, Historic Yerevan, was launched in the capital last September by the international carpet dealer James Tufenkian, complementing Avan Dzoraget, his 34-room riverside boutique property near the Georgian frontier (pictured right and above left).
Yerevan’s grand Soviet-era hotels have also undergone a transformation, most spectacularly the former Hotel Armenia, a magnificent colonnaded 1950s monument by Mark Grigorian reborn as the Marriott Yerevan (pictured on next page). Its balconies overlook the action on Republic Square, centre of the modern capital. From a Brazilian party in its mirrored ballroom, glamorously attired guests are spilling out for pomegranate splits at the hotel’s new ice-cream parlour. Meanwhile, I am enjoying fruit vodka cocktails at the pavement café out front, watching a passeggiata of girls in sprayed-on dresses strolling arm-in-arm against a backdrop of musical fountains in the courtyard of the National Museum of History. Armenians dress up and dress well, with not a tattoo or piercing in sight; such adornment is considered anshnork or “common”. Visual sensibility is highly developed here, nurtured by imposing landscapes and a tradition of illuminated manuscripts, which have inspired distinctive approaches to contemporary painting, sculpture and architecture.
Outside the capital, some visitors are drawn to deer stalking and wild boar hunting, others to nature watching – there are leopard, lynx, brown bear and porcupine to be photographed, and the midnight howl of the rarely seen grey wolf to be heard. At the remote monastery complex of Noravank (pictured on opening spread), in the southern mountains, the talk is of a “holy bear” resident in a nearby cave, supposedly drawn by the odour of sanctity (or possibly the recycling bin). Our own lunch of barbecued chicken and plums poached in local wine was taken in a restaurant inside a cave in the same gorge, reached by slat bridge over a torrent. An adjoining cavern has been discreetly fitted out with carpets on the floor and walls and a divan for private assignations.
Armenians are relatively free of western concepts of tourism and express unselfconscious devotion to their heritage, wearing traditional costume at every festive opportunity. Bread is baked in tubular ovens, the flat dough pasted to its hot sides. Cheese sandwiches rolled from the resulting lavash are the first course of every meal, often followed by barbecued pork or grilled lake trout. The accompaniment may be peach wine or the host’s home-brewed apricot vodka, said to kill all harmful bacteria. Even more powerful is the 20-year-old Dvin cognac, a glass of which reputedly adds a day to one’s life.
There is generous hospitality to be found in the poorest villages and even local officials can be obliging. The mayor of Shaki will happily return the river, ordinarily diverted to a hydroelectric station, to its original course in order to show off the spectacular 18m waterfall to visitors. Grand touring by car can verge on the surreal. At Sanahin, the house in which the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Anastas Mikoyan, was born is decorated with a real MiG-21, designed by his brother and seemingly poised for takeoff.
In a landlocked country subject to repeated invasion, and still beset by substantive diplomatic differences with two of its four neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey, the spiritual and physical refuge of the people has been the fortified monastery and castle, with a prevalence of hidden chambers and passages. After braving the new cable car over the Vorotan gorge near Goris – at almost 6km, the world’s longest aerial tramway – I find the tranquility of Tatev monastery disturbed by archaeologists investigating a secret chamber beneath the scriptorum, judged to have served both as an escape route and a hiding place for priceless manuscripts. “The desire of the barbarian invaders to destroy these came from the belief that an Armenian with a book is more dangerous than one with a gun,” laughs my friend Irina.
Indeed so. The education system remains disciplined and comprehensive, with chess recently added as a compulsory primary school subject. Expat Armenians, many of whom are based in France and the US, command senior positions across international business and finance and are generous in their support for their homeland. American billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, the son of Armenian immigrants, has sponsored numerous public programmes designed to ease the country’s recovery from economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet empire. Nonetheless, abandoned factories and plants still disfigure the northern Debed river valley.
Climbing Mount Aragats to inspect the 9th-century fortress of Amberd, I pause to watch Yazidi cowboys corralling their herd. They are a semi-nomadic people, fire-worshipping Zoroastrians with a language of their own, their burial places marked by stone horses. In contrast, khatchkar cross-stones are found in the Christian cemeteries, each telling a story: engraved on one I see the image of a wedding party attacked by invaders. It marks the resting place of the young bride and groom.
Armenia’s prosperity is shaped by trade. Today this is largely confined to the export of fruit and cut diamonds. Signs of its past wealth are evident at a caravanserai on the Silk Road, though – along which precious dyes, horses, carpets and more once travelled. Sheltered below the apex of the Selim pass, it is almost perfectly preserved, the windowless gloom of its interior alleviated only by twin skylights. The stalls in which camels were tethered remain and the niches where their owners rested. Now it is heavy trucks from Iran that labour up the corniche, overtaken by minibuses full of Iranian visitors, hijabs abandoned, heading for the chic Golden Tulip hotel in Yerevan (pictured on previous page).
Drawn back to Ararat, I return to Khor Virap to bid farewell to the Guardian. At the foot of the hill a bird seller offers me a white dove to release as an offering. He is in the mshtakan biznes – “eternal business” – he says. And so it proves. Released up at the monastery the dove ascends into that divine blue sky – before returning to the vendor.