Stephen M. Bland
Freelance Journalist, Award-Winning Author, Travel Writer, Researcher and Editor specialising in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
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The Cascade. Built to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet Armenia, the project was never completed, funds drying up after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Thanks to investment from a local philanthropist, work has now recommenced on this surreal and grand project.
Installation at the Cascade
Statue by Yue Minjun at the Cascade
City vista with Holy Mount Ararat, now in Turkey in the distance
Bearing her sword towards Turkey, surrounded by tanks and missiles, Mother Armenia looks out from a hilltop park.
Tsitsernakaberd – the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Between 1914 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire and its successor state the Republic of Turkey systematically exterminated 1.5 million Armenians. The twelve tilted slabs represent the provinces of Western Armenia signed over to Turkey by Lenin as part of the WWI peace deal.
Levon’s Divine Underground When Tosya asked her husband Levon Arakelyan for a potato cellar in 1985, little could she have imagined that he would keep digging for 23 years. The tuber pit turned into a man cave, and then into a mission delivered in dreams sent from on high. ‘All I wanted was a pit for potatoes,’ Tosya told me, ‘and from that the endless obsession with digging started. As a result, we came to have neither a good house, nor a pit for potatoes.’
Built in the first century & dedicated to the sun god Mihr. In the bathhouse, slave girls would wash the royals. Shame about the overly loud piped muzak for sale at the exit.
Eight kilometres from the Turkish border, Khor Virap was first constructed in 642. Declaring itself a Christian nation in the year 301, Armenia was the first in the world
Zvartnots ("Celestial Angels") Cathedral built 642-653 & once the largest church in Christendom had lain in ruins since the tenth century. Historians are in dispute as to how it was destroyed
Candles are lit in the main chamber. In caves outside chickens are still sacrificed
Two hulking bulls mark the hillside where Armenian forces repulsed the Turkish armies advance in 1918, saving the Armenian nation from annihilation. 1.5 Million Armenians died during WWI, largest at Turkish hands, leading to the coining of the phrase genocide
Beehives and honey sellers in the mountain pass.
Byurakan Observatory, the once grand Soviet observatory which discovered hundreds of galaxies has since fallen on hard times
Telescope at the Byurakan Observatory
Put out of commission by a lightning strike in 2014, the cable car linking Sarahart to Alaverdi used to carry 500 workers a day to the copper factory. With no money to repair the motor assembly and generator, the cars remain stranded.
The Alaverdi Mining-Metallurgy Factory. First established by King Erekle II of Georgia, copper smelting in Alaverdi dates back to 1770. When the plant closed in 1988 at the cost of 5,000 jobs, parts were sold off, including expensive filters which had mitigated the effects of caustic emissions. Reopened in 1997, sans filters, sulphur dioxide emissions continue to poison the town's 13,000 residents. The copper plant is by far the largest employer in a town with high levels of unemployment.
Jakob used to work at the copper factory. He spoke four languages, but mixed them into an unintelligible soup.
Courtesy of the entrepreneurial spirit of a local biznizman, as of 2019 Alaverdi would have a new attraction. A boon for connoisseurs, a window into the past, the Museum of Soviet Times is a sprawling jumble of artefacts that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Abandoned cable car as seen from the town of Sarahart, high atop the Debed Canyon.
High in the Debed Canyon, the Haghpat Monastery was founded by Queen Khosrvanuch in 976.
Intricately carved khachkar at the Haghpat Monastery.
This gravestone at the Sanahin Monastery - literally "older than that one" in reference to Haghpat - graphically portrays a road traffic accident, the tenth most common cause of death in the country.
The Writers’ Rest Home on the shores of Lake Sevan offered a retreat for men of letters during Soviet times. An exercise in abstract utopianism, two years after its completion its architects fell afoul of Stalin and were exiled to Siberia for fifteen years.
At an elevation of 1,900 metres, Lake Sevan offers a cool summer retreat for Yerevanites.
Artur has lived in a metal container on the side of the highway for twenty years. 'There are no shops here,' he explained. 'I make everything myself. Drink with me.'
The last settlement before the road ends at the foot of the Vardenis Mountain Range, the remote spa town of Jermuk in Armenia has been a popular destination since Soviet times. Its name literally meaning ‘warm mineral spring,’ there are two significant industries in town: bottled water and tourism, both of which are under threat from a proposed gold mine.
The abandoned Soviet-era Sports PalaceIn Jermuk, which also doubled as a theatre. The eerie silence was broken only by the scuttling of rats and birds nesting in the rafters. A bronze of an angry, muscular woman jutted from the front of the angular block.
Anna Shahnazaryan from the Armenian Environmental Front and a vocal ensemble gathered from across the country supporting the protests against the proposed Amulsar Gold Mine Project.
Blockades at Amulsar, July 2018: With developers Lydian International proposing the use of cyanide as part of the Amulsar Gold Mine Project, an extractor chute is already feeding dust and sludge from land with naturally occurring acid drainage into the expensively built Kechut Reservoir. Despite the fact that this body of water feeds Lake Sevan, the largest freshwater body in the Caucasus, Lydian denies any impact on the environment in this deeply interconnected ecosystem.
Church of the Holy Mother of God: built in 1828 to replace an earlier construction dating from the thirteenth century which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1826, the church is a checkerboard of orange and black tufa stones. One of the few churches to remain active during Soviet times, in the overgrown graveyard ancient khachkars compete for space with some intriguing more modern headstones, one of which bore more than a passing resemblance to Stalin. All share a downriver view of the sprawlin
The Writers House where Vasily Grossman stayed whilst writing 'An Armenian Sketchbook' in 1962.
The Iron Fountain designed by the Armenian architect Artur Tarkhanyan in 1982 used to be the centre of the University of Gyumri campus. After the earthquake of 1988, it was the only thing left standing. Thirty years on, people are still living in metal containers in a wasteland on the edge of town.
Eighty-one-year-old Gayane and eighty-seven-year-old Karmen have lived in the same half-collapsed block since the earthquake of 1988. Now a Russian oligarch wants to evict them to expand his luxury hotel.
People still live in this collapsed block. ‘The building crumbled during the earthquake, but it didn't fall to pieces like it is today,’ eighty-seven-year-old Karmen explained. ‘It was the people who moved in after the earthquake and took the beams from the roof to sell as firewood.’
All images copyright Stephen M. Bland