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Travel: Christmas in the Caucasus
ARMENIA IS THE smallest country in the Caucasus. But it holds the distinction of being the first country in the world to officially accept Christianity as its national religion in 301 AD. In the course of over 1,700 years, its people have built hundreds of churches and monasteries perched on cliffs and mountains, the defining geographical feature of this landlocked country. And each of these places of worship offers spectacular views of peaks, canyons and gorges basking under Armenia’s clear azure skies.
Scott Dunn, the luxury travel operator, has an 8-night tailor-made Essential Georgia & Armenia itinerary that takes you through these two neighbouring Christian countries to visit these religious sites, as well as their capitals and towns. The millennium-old churches were typically built on highlands where they were less vulnerable to attacks. So getting there takes time and effort. But, as many tourists have discovered, they’re worth the journeys because they offer unparalleled insights into the early centuries of Christianity in the region.
One of Armenia’s most spectacular sites is the Khor Virap Monastery, an important location in the history of the country’s religious development. Here is where Saint Gregory the Illuminator – responsible for converting Armenia from paganism to Christianity – was imprisoned for 14 years for refusing to carry out a pagan ritual ordered by the king. Later, however, the king went mad. And the king’s sister had a dream that only Saint Gregory would be able to cure her brother. The saint was retrieved from his dark underground dungeon and taken to the palace, where he miraculously cured the king. Moved by the power of faith, the king proclaimed Christianity as the state religion and spent the rest of his days converting his people either by both persuasion and force.
Khor Virap is a monastery complex with plain-looking buildings surrounding the famous underground dungeon. Inside the chapel, a stairway beside the altar leads you to the dark claustrophobic pit where the saint was held. It tends to be crowded, mostly with Armenians paying their respect – but your patience will be rewarded.
Religious significance aside, Khor Virap is also popular for its stunning location. The monastery offers an uninterrupted view of the majestic Mount Ararat, the towering 5,137m mountain where Noah’s Ark landed after the floods and important battles between Armenia and other countries were fought around. Although the mountain was annexed by Turkey in 1921, it remains a part of Armenian myth, imagination and culture.
There are several other iconic religious landmarks that Scott Dunn takes you to. These include the 4th century Geghard monastery, a cave monastery carved inside a mountain rock to keep it hidden from invaders. Here, they have arranged a choir to perform haunting hymns inside the chambers because of the gorgeous natural acoustics.
There’s also the extraordinary pagan Temple of Garni built in the 1st century before Armenia became a Christian country. It remains the only standing Greco-Roman colonnade structure in all of the former Soviet countries.
But to focus on the past is to ignore the vitality of Armenia today. When the Berlin Wall crumbled in November 1989, Armenia and its neighbour Georgia – both then members of the Soviet Union – had to slowly pull themselves out of the rubble and shake off the stubborn dust to become the economic star performers they are today. After 70 years of Soviet repression, a devastating earthquake in 1988, a war with next-door neighbour Azerbaijan in the 1990s, and continued tensions with another next-door neighbour Turkey, Armenia has defied the odds to attain a projected GDP growth of 6 percent in 2019 – higher than any of its neighbours or European countries. Its tech and finance sectors are booming, and tourist numbers have increased every year since independence.
In 2018, peaceful anti-government street protests organised by the millennial generation resulted in the removal of the old guard believed to be as corrupt as the Soviet-era leaders. The fiery journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan was elected as Prime Minister, and a sense of hope and optimism permeated the nation.
A stroll through the Yerevan Cascade and its surrounding areas, a popular shopping and dining district in the capital centre, confirms this. The Cascade itself is a giant stairway of 572 steps encasing the Cafesjian Center For The Arts, which showcases large artworks by well-known local and international artists such as Fernando Botero, Alexander Calder, Yayoi Kusama and Do-Ho Suh. The art complex is flanked by restaurants, cafes, galleries and fashion boutiques, collectively projecting a mood of joie de vivre far removed from the gloomy days of Soviet rule. The gay atmosphere can also be felt at Yerevan’s open-air public markets, such as the popular Vernissage, where one finds all manner of beautifully handmade souvenirs such as ornate jewellery, kitchenware, textiles and lamps.
With Christmas around the corner, the mood in the city will continue to be buoyant. Armenians are profoundly proud of the fact that they are the first nation to embrace Christianity, and typically celebrate Christmas with pomp and circumstance. The many rituals, such as fasting and feasting, typically last for a week and are practised according to centuries-old customs. Notably, Christmas in Armenia does not fall on December 25, the birthday of Jesus Christ. Instead, the Armenian Apostolic Church observes the period between December 29 and January 6, the climactic latter marking the date of the baptism of Christ and its attendant feast.
Festivities aside, no visit to Yerevan would be complete without a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex. Though it is the 2,8000-year-old city’s most heartrending site, with old photographs of men and women who were killed by the Ottoman government from 1914 to 1923, its towering obelisk and solemn stone pillars surrounding a perpetually burning fire are also the city’s most elegant. In October 2019, the memorial became one of the most photographed locations of the month when celebrity Kim Kardashian – whose father is a third-generation Armenian-American – visited it to pay her respects to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the genocide.
‘CALIFORNIA OF THE CAUCASUS’
Crossing the border from Armenia into Georgia, you leave behind one post-Soviet country for another. But what’s surprising is how different the people of the two countries are. If Armenians are a resilient bunch determined to put their harsh history behind, Georgians seem almost effortlessly optimistic in spite of the past. They may briefly criticise the Russian autocrats who led their country to ruin – but they quickly move on to talk about the good things in life, such as food, wine, architecture and the arts.
It is this natural bonhomie that endears Georgians to you instantly. Even during the Soviet era, Georgia was dubbed the “California of the Caucasus”. As our tour guide Maia explained: “The Russians tried many ways to oppress the people, but we always found ways to be happy and optimistic – and this completely confounded them.”
The country has an enviably fertile landscape that produces all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and its wine-making expertise is among the world’s most sophisticated, drawing apprentices from all over the world.
Both Georgia and Armenia are also something of a vegetarian’s paradise. Every meal here is accompanied by several vegetable dishes: spicy spinach sprinkled with nuts and fleshy pomegranate seeds, three varieties of mushrooms cooked with garlic and oil, plump tomatoes and beetroots chopped and stirred with a variety of fragrant herbs. Unlike in Singapore, the vegetable dishes here typically outnumber the meat dishes by a ratio of 3 to 1.
In terms of religion, roughly 84 percent of the Georgians identity themselves as Orthodox Christians while another 8 percent categorise themselves in other Christian denominations. Hence, like Armenia, Georgia boasts centuries-old churches and monasteries built on elevated grounds boasting panoramic views of the mountainous landscape.
One of the most extraordinary is the Gergeti Trinity Church. Located near the village of Gergeti in Kazbegi, the 14th century church stands at 2170 metres above sea level and overlooks the vast majesty of the Caucasus Mountains. Because of the sheer effort it took to carry building stones up to the top of the mountain, this beautifully-weathered church has also become something of a symbol of Georgian optimism and determination.
During Soviet era, the Russians banned many public religious ceremonies, so the Georgians celebrated them in stealth. Post-Soviet era, the Georgians revived all their local rituals and Christmas traditions with a vengeance. During Christmas time in early January, in accordance to the old Julian calendar (a 46 BC calendar proposed by Julius Caesar), various streets in Georgia will be lined with lights and decorations as thousands of people participate in a march called the Alilo. Many will dress as shepherds, carry crosses and collect donations of food and money for the needy. Small children will join in, some wearing angel costumes or the stikari, a church gown in white, red and gold, to help canvas donations.
True to its spirit of independence, the Georgians also have a Santa Claus who looks quite different from the commonly red-and-white clothed one. He is called Tovlis Babua (Grandfather Snow) and is dressed in a regal all-white heel-length cloak made out of sheep wool. Like Santa, though, he is old with a long white beard, and favours well-behaved kids.
THE CULT OF STALIN
Georgian optimism aside, one thing that confounds the visitor is how, despite 70 years of oppressive Soviet regime, many Georgians remain enthralled by the cult of former Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin. Stalin came from a poor family in Georgia, but ruthlessly climbed his way up to become the leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s to 1953. He helped establish the union of republics as a major world power that would one day rise to become one of two superpowers in the world – the other being the United States.
His dictatorship also saw tens of millions of people taken to the Gulag concentration camps where many died, as well as the Great Purge of the 1930s with waves of horrific executions and imprisonments. Yet many Georgians revere him as a self-made hero, socialist trailblazer and champion of the working class – a fact that baffles other Georgians who are repulsed by his atrocities.
Nowhere is this division more jarring that at the Stalin Museum in Gori, the birth town of Stalin located an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Tbilisi. This monument of hagiography houses hundreds of objects such as clothing, busts, medals and even crockery and furniture pieces. There are numerous photographs of him posing with major Russian or world leaders. And there are several beautiful paintings that depict him speaking passionately to peasants, farmers and railway workers, or interacting with angel-faced children who stare up at him adoringly.
The museum’s own tour guides are instructed to speak of him in glowing terms, telling the story of how a cobbler’s son, several times arrested and jailed for his youthful activism, defied the odds to create and lead an ideological empire. There is no mention of the Gulags or the reign of terror – or even the fact that Stalin was cruel to his own people of Georgia, persecuting and killing over 400,000 of them.
At the museum’s entrance – and even in the streets – a souvenir store sells mugs, bags, pens, plates and lighters with his image. And, according to one museum guide, this is the most visited museum in all Georgia, with over 160,000 people passing through last year – most of them Russians and Chinese, for whom the cult of Stalin also runs deep.
Outside the museum, you are relieved to be greeted again by the beautiful Georgian buildings, clean streets and azure Caucasian skies. More than anything else, it’s the natural bonhomie of the people you are happy to re-encounter – and that is what keeps Georgia on your mind long after you fly home.
This writer was a guest of Scott Dunn and Georgia National Tourism Administration. Scott Dunn offers an 8-night tailor-made ‘Essential Georgia & Armenia' itinerary from S$5400 per person. This is based on two people sharing and includes accommodation on a B&B basis, private transfers and daily experiences. Visit scottdunn.com/sg or call (+65) 3165 4050.