By Maral Firkatian Wozniak
The desolate landscape bears few traces of the sprawling, illustrious Armenian capital that once dominated the area. Ani was once known as the “city of a thousand and one churches.” Now the haggard skeletons of a few structures remain—the last reminders of what was once the center of Armenian civilization.
The medieval Armenian city was one of the stops on this year’s Young Professionals (YP) Trip sponsored by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), the humanitarian organization of the Eastern Diocese. A group of 15 people ages 23-40 took part in the program of travel and cultural immersion. FAR’s project director, Arto Vorperian, led the trip from June 17-30.
For the second time in the trip’s 18-year history, the itinerary included a visit to historic Armenian lands in eastern Turkey, where participants explored the ruins of Ani, visited the glorious Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island, and saw the immense fortress at Tushba. The trip included a visit to the Republic of Armenia, where the group toured some of FAR’s many projects and learned how they could get involved in strengthening their homeland. It also stopped in the historic Armenian region of Javakhk, Georgia.
Discovering historic Armenia
Departing from the city of Gyumri early one morning, the group traveled to historic Armenia by way of Javakhk. Since the border between Armenia and Turkey is closed, the group had to make a detour into Georgia. In Javakhk, they stopped at St. Kevork Armenian Church, where the local priest invited them for coffee and gata, and presented director Vorperian with incense and a blessed Armenian flag, which the group took with them on the excursion through historic Armenia.
They carried the flag as a reminder of the history of the land. Arriving in Ani, the group opened the flag before the altar of the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Cathedral, and burned incense in memory of the Armenians who once worshiped there.
The trip’s itinerary broadened the perspective of the participants, as they explored the lands of their ancestors and witnessed the remnants of Armenian influence lingering in the region. Vorperian pointed out that seeing the ruins first-hand helps build a better understanding of the rich contributions made by Armenians.
“You know about the genocide, but you don’t know about the country itself, the land we lost. When you see it, it really is sad,” he said. “It also speaks to the skill and artistry of the Armenian people.”
Group member Vahagn Yeranossian of Cleveland, Ohio, said that the trip to eastern Turkey elicited conflicting emotions in him. It was exciting to see sites like the Tushba Fortress and Akhtamar Island, but he found himself upset, too, because “this land was taken [from us] and it’s not being cared for.”
When visiting the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island on Lake Van, FAR’s communication’s officer, Tamar Gasparian, was taken aback that the local signs bore no mention of the fact that this was an Armenian church and the work of Armenian architects.
“For an Armenian like me, with a background in art history, it really doesn’t matter what they wrote on the signs because art speaks for itself,” she said. “All those reliefs and frescos on the churches are so obviously Armenian, and most of them have Armenian inscriptions as well. But still, complete and accurate signs are important, and I am hoping this will change one day.”
The FAR Young Professionals visited some of the oldest and best examples of Armenian architecture. Even as the structures deteriorate with age and abuse, their beauty shows through the crumbling stones. From the delicate bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from the Bible on the walls of Holy Cross Church to the brightly colored frescos on the life of Christ at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, the ancient artwork is stunning in its beauty and resilience.
Learning about FAR’s programs
In Armenia, the group visited FAR’s programs, including its Children’s Center, soup kitchen, the Octet Music School, and Gyumri Information Technology Center. Visiting such uplifting projects was an opportunity for the participants to see FAR’s work and to learn about how they could make a difference in Armenia.
At the Children’s Center in Yerevan, which provides shelter and counseling to children who have been orphaned or abused, the group met with the young residents and learned about the center’s services. Participants said that while it was painful to see children who had suffered abuse or abandonment, it was reassuring to know that FAR was able to do so much to help them. “I was happy to see the work that FAR is doing,” said Sedda Antekelian of Los Angeles.
Alexander Jahani of Green Brook, N.J., was so moved by the work of the center that he decided to remain in Armenia at the conclusion of the trip and volunteer at the facility. He has been working with the center’s staff to further develop its media center.
While witnessing how Armenia is being rejuvenated through the efforts of FAR, the Young Professionals were also able to visit several sites that serve as a testament to the country’s rich history.
At Khor Virab monastery, they descended into the pit where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years. To stand on that ground is perhaps the closest one can come to the origins of Christianity in Armenia. The group also visited the 13th-century monastery of Geghard, the churches of St. Hripsime and St. Gayane, and the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Before leaving Armenia, the Young Professionals group met with Deputy Minister of the Diaspora Vardan Marashlyan, who spoke about the ministry’s responsibilities and goals, and answered questions.
“I am very proud of Armenia,” said Chris Kesici of Asbury Park N.J. “Despite all of the difficulties Armenia has had since independence, it is a wonderful place.”
To learn more about the Fund for Armenian Relief, visit www.farusa.org.