From crescent moons to Armenian crosses. (November 2014)


We arrived early in Tabriz, after the overnight train from Tehran. Our driver and guide, Aydin, picked us up from the station and after a brief stop at our hotel we were back on the road again.

It has been suggested by some that Tabriz is the famed biblical ‘Garden of Eden’. I find that hard to believe as it is in a rather arid mountain zone with little greenery. It may however be true as I am sure that that the world’s climate was a little different back in the days of the Old Testament.

Tabriz is the largest city in the northwest of Iran and with cold winters and temperate summers, it’s a popular summer resort town.

During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Tabriz was a target of Iraqi air strikes, especially the industrial zones, the oil refineries and later the residential area.

Our first stop was Azerbaijan Museum designed by the Frenchman, André Godard, the same architect who was responsible for the museum in Tehran.

Maqhbarat-o-shoara or Mausoleum of Poets, constructed in the 1970s, celebrates the lives of some important poets, mystics and scientists from the Tabrizi area. There is a graveyard close by, dating back to Medieval times, that contains some of their graves.

It was Friday so a visit to the Jameh or Friday Mosque seemed appropriate. It’s always crowded and you sometimes feel that you are imposing when you visit any mosque on a Friday. I don’t think for a moment that we blended in, but we certainly weren’t made to feel unwelcome.

The Arg-e Tabriz, unlike the Jameh Mosque, was only a lifeless shell, with just the southern part remaining. Built in 13th century this grand mosque has been damaged by the Ottoman Turks, and most recently by the Iranian Revolutionary guards.

There has been an attempt to restore the parts that are still standing, as evident by the butterfly shaped plaster moulds affixed to the repaired areas. The idea is that if they crack at the weakest point, then more work is needed.

We took a trip to the mountains on the Tabriz Telecabines. The residents, and in the summer the tourists, love to go walking and climbing in the mountains. The cable car gives them a great opportunity to escape the city and get into the rugged mountain range that is the backdrop to Tabriz.

On Saturday life returned to the city, after the quiet of Friday and we started to explore again. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, constructed in 1465, it was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1779, leaving only the entrance.

A cheap reconstruction began in 1973, where the original indigo blue tiles were replaced by paint. Unfortunately these below average renovations are still going.

Iran has an abundance of historical sites, many of them world class, and an increasing number have been designated World Heritage by UNESCO.

However, and it’s a big however, litter remains a real distraction to what you see. It’s everywhere, not so much in the streets of the cities but surrounding the all important tourist attractions.

This was very evident in Kandovan Village, also known as Kanvān, a settlement of troglodyte homes carved out of the rock and about an hours drive from Tabriz. The village is similar to Cappadocia, in Turkey, which is in far better condition. Kandovan is littered with plastic bags and bottles and has a long way to go before it gets the tick from UNESCO.

The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz is one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East and one of the world’s largest covered bazaars. So it’s no wonder that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I love trivial information, and our guide Aydin was a wealth of it. He told us that most houses have two knockers on the front door. The one on the right is for the men to use and the one on the left is for women. This alleviates the embarrassing and culturally difficult issue of a woman answering the door to a man who is not a direct relative.

More symbolism was hidden in the number of bolts contained in the door hinges of a mosque. Apparently the door of a Shiite mosque has three, while a Sunny Mosque has five.

Leaving Tabriz we travelled north along the Silk Road. There was even a caravansary along the way to remind us of the history we had seen over the last two months.

Our trip took us along the Arax River to the Monastery of Saint Stephanos, a World Heritage Site since 2008.

The monastery was built in the 9th century and rebuilt in the Safavid era as a result of another horrendous in earthquake.

The Arax was one of the first rivers we had seen that seemed to have a decent level of water.

As we were to find out later, this wasn’t the case as it’s been dammed upstream and is now only a trickle, compared to what it was in the past.

We left Iran without any issues – that was after waiting for the officials to finish their lunch.

That wasn’t the case with Armenia, as our e-Passport hadn’t registered and we had to redo it the old fashioned way, by filling out a form at the border.

In Armenia we were picked up by Artak the driver and Roza our guide.

As we drove through the mountains towards Kapan it was obvious that we were back in a former Soviet country.

The roads were rough and the villages were poor.

Even at the border the presence of Russia was evident, as there was a large photo of Vladamir Putin adorning the wall in the customs hall.

As we drove through the mountains Roza explained that Armenia has an abundant supply of minerals, especially in the Kapan region. In fact the bronze that was used, by the French, in the Statue of Liberty came from Armenia.

Armenia is a country steeped in history, and tragedy, with Kapan having many memorials to attest to that.

They have been violated by just about every country in the region, over the course of their 6,000 year history. The Greeks, Pantheons, Byzantines, Seljuks, Turks and Mongols, and more recently the Azerbaijanis, have all had a go.

The reason for the last conflict is far from black and white.

In ancient times Armenia was many times larger than it is today. It stretched from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.

It was the called the Kingdom of Van and then Medes. After their moment in the sun came invasions from Cyrus the Great and then Alexander the Great.

Mount Ararat, the famed landing place of Noah, was once in Armenia – it’s now part of Turkey.

Armenians have been fighting for their independence for most of their history.

In Kapan, near the main bridge, there’s a monument to a local hero and 18th century freedom fighter Davit Bek. In usual fashion he is sitting astride his steed and charging into battle.

There is another smaller statue in the park of a local soldier, Senior Sergeant Hunan Avardis (1914-1944) who sacrificed his life for his comrades in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 (WWII). He was awarded the Order of Lenin and made a Hero of the Soviet Union. His monument was erected in 1959.

Just out of town is the memorial to Garegin Noshed (1886-1955) a military strategist and a key political and military figure in the First Republic of Armenia. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Republic of Mountainous Armenia, an anti-Bolshevik state that lead to the inclusion of Armenia into the Soviet Union.

High on the hill outside Kapan is a large memorial park that commemorates those who died in the Great Patriotic War and more recently in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are graves there of soldiers who died in border skirmishes as recently as 2004.

Apart from the more recent monuments, most were built in the 1970s. Because during the Stalin era local patriotism was never condoned – it was all about Mother Russia or nothing.

On the grey and gloomy afternoon we were there, I discovered a half empty bottle of vodka, sitting next to an old Soviet tank. I assumed that this was left by some inebriated locals, but I was told this is a common way to honour the fallen.

Christianity spread into the Armenia as early as AD 40 and in AD 301 King Tiridates III (AD 238–314) made Christianity the state religion. In fact Armenia was the first country to do this.

Symbolism is in everything Armenian.

The churches and monuments have symbols that are part of their medieval history. New monuments or buildings contain materials from older structures, thus maintaining an unbroken line of historic continuity.

We visited the new Armenian Apostolic Church, that was built in 2011 and uses local basalt rock. It has a cruciform interior with a high spacious dome.

As our guide Rosa explained, every aspect of the design and decoration has a meaning.

Even the cross is unique to the Armenian Apostolic Church, as it depicts Christ as having the duality of a living and spiritual being.

As we have seen throughout our travels the pomegranate plays an important part in culture, as it is regarded as representing growth and fertility – this was also evident in Armenia.

Again this symbolism was found in the 10th -11th century Vahanavank Monastery, that’s about seven kilometers from Kapan and built by Syunik’s ruler Dzaghik’s, son Vahan.

There were stone crosses or Khachkars, engravings and steles all with special meanings.

Restoration began in 1978 but sadly ended, before their completion, twelve years later.

It was a foggy day in Kapan and the mist added a somberness to our photos, highlighting even more the tragedy of Armenia’s history.

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