Body and soul in Armenia

In AD301, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion. Indeed, many think of it as Christianity's real birthplace.

I have just walked through the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia's capital Yerevan, which is the oldest state-built church in the world, constructed between AD301 and AD303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

I have listened to the hooded bishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church chanting and watched the faithful light candles; an old man with 19 medals and bars of ribbons in contemplation before a painting of the last supper, a young boy kissing a khatchkar, a carved stone Armenian cross.

And, in a museum through a door at the back of the cathedral, I am now standing in two of the most remarkable rooms I may ever visit.

In a flat, understated voice, the nice young guide takes me around it, briefly describing items.

First she points to a relic of St Stephen the Protomartyr, the first person to be martyred for his ministry in Christianity. In this context, the word "relic" means a small piece of his actual remains.

She then moves to a relic of St Luke, and there is one of St George and one of St John the Baptist.

She moves to two separate relics of the cross of Jesus Christ - shards of wood believed to be from the actual cross on which Christ was crucified.

And then to a cabinet which contains a piece of fossilised wood from Noah's ark.

It is the last, to a greater extent, that has brought us here, and we have been teased today by glimpses of Mt Ararat, the snow-capped volcanic mountain on which, the Bible says, Noah's ark was eventually grounded after the great flood, animal cargo and all.

This belief has lent its theme to Travel Directors' tour of the region, In the Shadow of Noah's Ark.

It includes travel through Iran, Armenia and Georgia, with Yerevan as one of the tour's main stops. There are three nights here and there is plenty to occupy the days, and the mind.

Today we have visited the tomb of St Hripsime, in a church built in AD618 on the foundation of a previous pagan temple.

I have seen tombs of Catholicos, the patriarchs of the Armenian Church, and visited Vagharshapat, 18km west of Yerevan, which is the spiritual centre for Armenians.

We drive 45 minutes out of Yerevan, into green mountains terraced by the hooves of animals grazed over thousands of years, of small orchards in the original natural environment of the apricot, and visit Geghard Monastery, with its Christian temples carved out of the mountain and where sheep and roosters are still sacrificed and their meat prepared with blessed salt.

We visit the village of Garni, with 4000 years of history, and dine on local fare - Armenian cheeses, herb salads, paper-thin lavash bread and a fish caught for us and cooked in spices on coals.

Garni has a first-century temple set dramatically over a river gorge, and third-century baths and mosaics for its king.

You cannot think of Armenia, or Yerevan, separately from its religious history. It is intrinsic to the place.

Equally, it is impossible to grasp Armenia without considering its geography. For it has Georgia to its north, and Russia overshadowing above that, Iran to the south and Turkey and Azerbaijan flanking either side.

There are fractious borders which the Russian army guards for Armenia.

There are also disputed territories, and throughout Armenia's museums there are maps which show it as quite a different shape by including land that Armenians believe to be rightfully part of their country. Historical Armenia, as they refer to it.

And lurking behind that, and also manifesting from this political geography, is something else which pervades the Armenian consciousness.

Between 1915 and 1918, in a country of just three million people, there was a genocide conducted by the Turks which saw 1.5 million people killed and another 500,000 forcibly deported.

Two-thirds of the population gone. Towns of 40,000 people were wiped out over a few months. The Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan tells this devastating story.

Every family in Armenia is touched by the genocide, says Inga Sargsyan, who is showing me around the city.

For all this, Yerevan is a winsome and rather beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined streets and a clean, elegant architecture that relies on a local volcanic stone which varies from dark grey to beige, to almost-orange and pink, put to good effect in simple but striking design.

There are coffee bars and good restaurants, and the late-night jazz scene is big. The Opera House usually has performances going on and much of the daily conversation is about the great poets, writers, artists, thinkers, scientists and intellectuals of Armenia in general and Yerevan in particular. There are statues of them throughout the city.

Mesrop Mashtots, a monk, theologian and linguist who, in AD406, invented the Armenian alphabet, deciding on 36 letters (though three were added later) is a national hero.

It was important for the written history and culture of a country that had been invaded by Persians and Byzantines, points out Inga.

Mashtots is as alive in the national consciousness as sports stars might be in other cultures. There are sculptures of him in many places in Yerevan.

He sits in stone outside Matenadaran, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, which is one of the world's great stores of manuscripts and books, many hand-painted on skin with pigments often derived from semi-precious jewels. Some 17,000 manuscripts are kept here.

Yerevan's excellent History Museum of Armenia continues to peel the layers off this country, with artefacts ranging from a rock carving of a deer from 5000BC to the oldest shoe in the world, of skin and lace and dated at 3500BC, to many clay vessels bearing the swirling symbol of eternity and dated to 2400BC, and then leading into beautiful historic jewellery for which Armenia is also renowned.

There is a model of the solar system, in bronze, from perhaps the 12th century BC showing, significantly, the Earth as round.

More than this will be revealed on Travel Directors' tour, which also has a strong emphasis on the local cuisine.

The trip will also visit one of the most memorable and interesting art collections I've ever seen.

Yerevan's Cafesjian Center for the Arts was founded by businessman, philanthropist and collector Gerard L. Cafesjian and is dedicated to bringing the world's best contemporary art to Armenia and showing the best of Armenian culture to the world.

Cafesjian Center for the Arts / Picture: Stephen Scourfield

It is an extraordinary collection, housed in The Cascade in Yerevan, a museum and cultural centre which is built in layers into the slope of a hill, dramatic architecture providing perhaps as much art as the exhibits.

And here the historic and the contemporary come together. For though the Cafesjian centre has been hailed as one of the most interesting and radical museums to be opened in years, The Cascade was originally designed by the architect Alexander Tamanyan, who lived from 1878 to 1936.

He aimed to join the northern residential and central cultural parts of Yerevan with a big green area of gardens and waterfalls, coming in layers down the hill.

His plan was shelved and mostly forgotten until the late 1970s, when new ideas were added such as a monumental stairway and a series of escalators inside.

Construction began in 1980, during Armenia's Soviet period, but abandoned after a big earthquake of 1988 and the Soviet Union's break-up in 1991.

Mr Cafesjian, in league with the city council and Armenian government, revived it in 2002 and seven years of construction followed.

At the base, there's a landscaped walking area, with restaurants, cafes and bars.

Anna Shevchuk will lead Travel Directors' inaugural In the Shadow of Noah's Ark tour and is here to settle the precise itinerary with the man who conceived it, Tony Evans.

She thinks the Cafesjian Center for the Arts is a good place to end a day that will have also have presented a sometimes difficult history.

To use her word, the art is "optimistic".

And so too is the whole feel of The Cascade. Elegant and strikingly beautiful women, for which Armenia might also rightly be famous, promenade beside men that have a stoic quality. Both by day and by night, Yerevan is safe to walk.

Today is warm, the trees green, and I pass a couple, both sitting reading outside a cafe.

She has jet-black "big hair", an elegant long cream-coloured dress and wears a gold Armenian cross on a chain.

She is engrossed in a book with Ruben Sevak's name on the front - I'd guess at some of this revered Armenian writers' lyrical poems. Sevak is considered one of Armenia's greatest poets of the 20th century.

The woman's partner, by comparison, is short-haired, thick-set, wearing an Ajax AFC soccer shirt and engrossed in a football magazine.

Armenia has a truly extraordinary past, but Yerevan today has a healthy air of normality about it.

fact file

Travel Directors' The Treasures of Persia and the Caucasus is a 27-day tour through Iran, Armenia and Georgia. Starting on May 13, 2014, it includes flights through Dubai with Emirates, connecting to flydubai, and starts in Shiraz.
Travellers then continue to Isfahan, Tehran, Tabris and Goris before crossing the border to Armenia. There are days in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, an insight into the world's first Christian country.
In Georgia, the home of the world's first wine-making, there are intimate food and wine experiences before returning from Tbilisi. The tour starts from $14,957 per person, twin share, including all flights, accommodation, meals, tour leader, local guides, tips and taxes.

Phone 9242 4200, call at 137 Cambridge Street, West Leederville, or visit

Emirates flies three times a day between Perth and Dubai, connecting to more than 120 destinations.

Visit, travel agents, or phone Emirates' Perth ticket office on 9324 7600. It connects to the flydubai network which flies to 57 destinations in 33 countries.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Emirates and Travel Directors.