Step 1: reading to go
I can say that Armenia has come to make part of my academic life quite early and I can say that, however indirectly, I owe something to it: in 1998/99 I spent a year in Lisbon with a generous stipend of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. But for the rest, I might have been inclined to believe that the most distinguished Armenian is Lando Calrissian, the ruler of a mining colony in Star Wars.
This is how I decided to travel to Armenia in the summer 2015, making it a part of my Ibn Battuta Reactivation Project, the life-long grand tour, the travel in search of knowledge, divided, according to my strict schedules, into 6 episodes each year. And as always, I started by searching for something that might connect the new territory with the rest of my intellectual empire.
Initially, the image I had was of course based on the legendary vision of Armenia as "the advanced post of civilization". Soon I realized this is indeed a part of our colonial structures of knowledge: Armenians are "the most civilized among the Orientals". I'm quite surprised that a glance at JSTORE made me realize that a great deal of texts on Armenian culture, history or literature, still occupying the highest ranks by relevance, had been written in the first half of the 20th century, and they build up and transmit the legend. On the other hand, the genocide is not a business of mine. I cannot study it, I'm unable to write on it. In spite of the consciousness that I step onto a ground soaked with blood, intellectual and artistic success stories are what I'm after. And this is where I found the first difficulty.
As an early attempt, I searched through the contemporary world literature key. Is there any Armenian novel I could bring into a comparison, something that might exemplify the transcultural state of mind? A priori, I suppose the Armenians might be just the right kind of people to enter my perspective, but the text didn't jump immediately on the screen, and I'm still searching for it. Where is the great transcultural novel of the Armenians? The first feeling I've got as far is that I step, quite on the contrary, into fields of exasperated and ossified identity.
In the meanwhile, there is something else: a historical work by Sebouh David Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: the global trade networks of Armenian merchants from New Julfa. It's about silk trade in Isfahan, but there is something else that intrigues me: a society that operates without any state among the imperial powers. This is a kind of parallel history I'm after, and a glance on Armenia and Armenians beyond the colonial structures of knowledge.
Step 2: reading through stones
Are Armenians the Christians of Persia? At the first glance into the Echmiadzin or Etchmiadzin (several variants of spelling seem to be admitted), the decoration derived doubtlessly from Muslim aesthetics strikes me.
Yet this is not the only example. The Persian spirit can be read in tiny and apparently insignificant details, the forms of angels, the shape of arches, even the treatment of the lions and lion hunting.
For the little I've seen, I've built up a great sympathy for the Armenian Church. In a striking contrast to the Georgian clergy, aggressive and defensive at the same time, the Armenian priests seem humble, reserved, and simply humane, far from any temptation of adopting Byzantine poses. Once again, all what I could read about it in English dates back from the pre-genocide period: in Yerevan I've bought a fresh reprint of the classic work The Church of Armenia by the Patriarch of Constantinople Maghakia Ormanian, published for the first time in 1910. Forming my opinion mainly upon this single book, that naturally reflects a parti pris, I've imagined the Armenian Church as close to the apostolic source of Christianity as it is possible to be. The naked stones of the churches I've seen, blackened with time (with the exception of Noravank monastery that must have been restored recently), the scent of incense, even the vegetation invading the roofs, everything contributes for the impression of antiquity, authenticity and unaltered tradition.
The beauty of the Armenian mass, entirely sung, is yet another story. Again, what distinguishes the most distinctive traits of the Armenian music is their simple, genuine, primordial character. I think about this mass, sung by a naked human voice, so distant from Western instrumental tradition, and at the same time I think about duduk (or tsiranapogh), the simple flute made of apricot wood, listed as Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
Yet with all this weight of things primordial, the country appears to the visitor as a reality out of time, lost in its past, lacking any present. The corroded skeletons of Soviet factories haunt at the bottom of pristine mountain valleys. The cities, including the peripheral districts of Yerevan, built invariably of the local orange or dirty pink volcanic tuff, give the impression of yet another kind of ruins. And once again, the grandiosity of the Soviet architecture has something Persian in it, yet not like in Echmiadzin. Perhaps something Median. Everything seems to sink deeper and deeper in time under the glance.
It has long been my dream to come here. The gavit of the Sanahin monastery may have been the visual reference that actually brought me to Armenia. And as it always happens, the reality runs short of the dream. The monastery, as I came, was being "animated" by a group of students distributing leaflets and trying to explain to the guests "the importance of this place for the Armenian identity". The adoption of the Western paradigms of how things should be in such a place is clear, even if those young people still find it considerably difficult to speak English. They make me think about the young Moroccans I once saw "animating" the Habous quarter in Casablanca, with their unavoidable opinion poll at the end of the visit.
Yet the stones speak for themselves, by split moments of illumination, by sun beams on the capitals of the pilasters in gloomy halls darkened with age. Except for a few paraphernalia on the stone altars, the churches are empty, filled only with fine clouds of incense smoke suspended in the air, even in apparent absence of any cult activities. For the rest, the state of picturesque disrepair of this UNESCO monument, with its overgrowing vegetation, is striking. I suppose it will not last for long, and at any eventual second visit I won't find it any more. This is a space in transition, half suspended in time and evoking those primordial sources of Christianity, half modernized, losing its living spirituality to become a secular monument, a temple of art, or perhaps of this abstract and void "identity" the students were speaking about.
Noravank is already what I suppose Sanahin will be soon: a well preserved, carefully restored UNESCO site. The stones of the monastery, at least for the artistically crucial parts, shine with their original orange and pink coloration. Overgrowing weeds are nowhere to be found, and there is a tiny museum exposing a couple of manuscripts and a curious frottage work by a Japanese artist Kunito Nagaoka who produced a fine "print" of the textured surface of a khachkar on precious paper, rubbing it with charcoal.
Also Tatev is a site in expansion, mainly due to its modern "wings": a cableway connecting it with the village of Halidzor on the other side of a mountain valley. Yet inside the former spirit of monastic existence is still alive, with bee hives on the roof and a provision of wood for the winter in front of the main church.