Larry Stephens - In the Shadow of Ararat

Saturday morning the 11th of May found me at the airport in Moscow, preparing for departure for Yerevan. Following the security, check-in, and customs formalities, we passengers were directed into a rather bare "holding room" to await the signal to board our plane. I spotted a somewhat bewildered looking middle-aged couple whom I guessed to be Americans, and sure enough, they soon approached me and asked in "American" English if I could understand Russian and could tell them what was going on. No announcements were being made, no information or instructions of any kind were given, and they wanted some assurance that they were in the right place and had some hope of eventually getting onto the right plane! Imagine our mutual surprise when we found out we all are from Montana! Here in these far-off places I am used to people looking rather vague when I mention the name Montana and am quite satisfied if they have at least heard of the place! I'm certainly not used to running into people "over here" who are actually from there! They, of course, asked where I am from in Montana and when I told them my parents live in Kalispell, they said they had lived there for a number of years themselves! But more recently they have lived in Missoula. Well, actually in a little town which no one has heard of called Florence, they added. "I have an uncle and aunt living in Florence," I said. So we felt almost like kin! This couple is now living at the American Embassy in Moscow where she has a job in the health department. (He is retired.) We parted, finally, at the door of the plane and I spoke to them no more.
 
The two and a half hour flight to Yerevan was uneventful but my next adventure was soon to begin in the airport there. I had been told I could purchase a 21-day Armenian visa at the airport upon arrival, so was not anticipating any problems. However, the "hole in the wall" where visas were sold was unmanned when I got there. I waited around, assuming someone would surely soon come to assist me. Finally all my fellow passengers had gone through passport control and I was left alone there, waiting. One of the customs officials suspected what my problem was, and said he would go get someone to issue me a visa and finally returned with the proper official in tow. After awhile I had my visa and was set to go. By that time I could see Theo waving at me through the glass wall separating me from the arrivals lounge. I had to go to the baggage claims area to get my suitcase, but the place was completely deserted by then and there was no sign of my suitcase either! So wandered around looking for someone to ask about my suitcase and finally found (or was found by) a security guard. I told him my problem and he disappeared into a back room. To my relief, he soon returned with my suitcase in hand and led me to the exit door from the baggage claims area. But it was locked so there was no way out! He shook the door and banged on it and shook it again and yelled through it, but no one came to open for us, so finally he shrugged and said he would take me through another way. He led me on a merry chase, up some stairs and down long, dark corridors and around corners, and through various doors and down stairs again, and finally we came out into the main arrivals lounge of the airport. By then Theo was off trying to find out what had detained me.  He found me before long and we were soon on our way into the city to the brothers' bach.  
       
The bach, owned by one of our friends, an Armenian lady living in London, is a lovely place! It consists of the ground floor of a big, rustic old house with two-foot-thick walls! All the rooms are roomy and cool (at times damp and cold!) and the place is fully modern inside. The house is situated on a steep hill (of which there are many in Yerevan!) and the garage, on street level at the front, is actually under the house. The main door is on the side of the house, opening off of a very narrow alley that slopes up steeply from the street in front. Beyond our door this alley becomes a series of steps leading further up to other houses behind us. A door off the kitchen opens onto a large patio situated on top of the garage. The patio is completely covered overhead by a lovely grape arbour! Whenever weather permitted we ate our meals on the patio, looking out over a bit of the city with the beautiful, majestic, snow-covered peaks of Mount Ararat towering up in the background. 
        
Normally May is already hot and dry in Yerevan, they say, but this year was different. It was cool and rainy. Consequently, everything was green! Theo said he has never seen the grass and weeds so high and lush as they are this year. Usually by now they would be withered and brown. During my stay there, some days were beautiful, sunny and warm, but others were gray and rainy, with a chilling wind. Too often the mountains were shrouded in clouds, but some days they displayed themselves in all their glory, and at such times I found it hard to tear my eyes away from them! I've known the name Ararat for as long as I've known the story of Noah, and would never have thought my eyes would one day by gazing on the very peaks where the ark came to rest after the flood! Ararat is actually two peaks, but they are hardly twins as one is much larger and higher than the other. The smaller one is perfectly cone-shaped. For centuries, they belonged to Armenia, but now, to the sorrow of all Armenians, they are situated across the border in Turkey. They are no  more than 30-40 miles from Yerevan. Much of what is now eastern Turkey used to belong to Armenia. Understandably, Ararat is pictured on the Armenian coat of arms. It's said that one time a Turkish diplomat demanded of an Armenian official what right they had to show Ararat on their coat of arms, since it belongs to Turkey. But the Armenian in turn asked the Turk what right they had to show the moon on theirs! 
       
Three times during my stay there we visited an Armenian couple, Ashot and Anahid. This has been the custom each Saturday evening, and another couple also comes, good friends of theirs. Theo teaches computer classes and Ashot and the wife from the other couple have been his students, so that was their first contact. They first met Theo in November, I believe, and at that time Ashot was atheist, or claimed to be. Now he believes, and shows signs of having received a surprising degree of revelation! These visits nearly always give opportunity to share from the Bible and these people are keen to talk about (and hear about) spiritual things. Ashot, especially, is a deep thinker and groping for answers to life's many perplexing questions. The other man was injured ten years ago in the Karabakh war and a sizeable part of his skull is now a steel plate. He is somewhat handicapped as a result; use of his right hand is impaired, and also his speech. Both couples have three-year-old boys. And Ashot's old mother lives with them. Theo said grandma was almost hostile when they first started going there, but now she smiles from ear to ear when the brothers come. She sits in the background, only listening with one ear, or half an ear, watching TV at the same time, but something has made a big difference in her attitude, too. After the brothers had been visiting them for some time and they were starting to get something, Ashot asked if they couldn't come more often, so Thursday evenings were added to the schedule as well. On the Thursday evening when I was there a different couple was visiting. The man had been a classmate of Ashot's in school. He is now a maker of glass eyes! Apparently in the west they would sell for thousands, but there he is lucky to get a few hundred for them. This couple has two small children. They were friendly, but she was preoccupied with the children and he couldn't tear himself away from a computer game he was playing. Ashot's attention, however, was rivited on us and his interest, clearly, was in what we could share, regardless of what the others were interested in. Ashot and Anahid live in an outlying area of the city called Bangladesh. Supposedly it was given that name because it is so far from the center of the city and people knew that Bangladesh is somewhere far away. One time when Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union, some apartment blocks in the center of the city were slated for demolition to make way for something else and all the people who lived in them were evicted from their homes and relocated to this place called Bangladesh. That was quite a blow, of course. A home in the center of the city is prestigious and convenient and this was an awful come-down. Besides, Bangladesh is a poor and slummy district. One man wrote to Moscow and complained about how he had been driven from his home in the center of Yerevan and moved by the government to Bangladesh. The bureaucrats in Moscow thought that sounded very strange so they sent someone to Yerevan to investigate why they would send Soviet citizens to Bangladesh (thinking this meant the country of Bangladesh, of course!).  When they found out Bangladesh was only a district of the city of Yerevan, they had no more sympathy for the poor complainer!  
        
The first Sunday I was in Yerevan, Theo wanted to visit a church he had been to once before so we went for their nine o'clock service. They are Russians, not Armenians, and call themselves Molokans. Sometimes they have also been called Jumpers since some groups of them get quite excited when the "spirit" comes over them and they jump up and down in their services. The name Molokan comes from the Russian word "moloko," meaning "milk."  When they are asked about their name they refer to 1 Peter 2:2, "As newborn babes, desire the sincere word of the milk, that ye may grow thereby." The sect was founded in the 1800s in Russia by people who broke away from the Orthodox church, where emphasis is on rituals and icons, etc., rather than on the word. Any split off of the "Mother Church" was hardly tolerated in those days and these heretics were persecuted and ultimately exiled to the outer reaches of the empire. In that way, large numbers of them came to be in Armenia and other "fringe" republics of the old Tsarist Russia. There is more than one group of Molokans in Yerevan, we learned. The group we visited meet in a fairly large room or hall in a nondescript looking building that is not in any way marked as a church. Inside the room, also, there are none of the trappings of "church," such as pulpit, paintings, crosses, images, etc. About two hundred were gathered there that morning. The people sit on long, backless benches, men on one side of the room and women on the other. The men nearly all have long beards-after getting married, they don't shave. The women and girls have long hair and always wear a scarf over their head. When we arrived about ten to nine they were already singing, if you can call it that. It was more like a cross between chanting and humming. Sometimes someone would sing distinctly enough to make out some words, but then it was the same phrases repeated over and over, and the tune never seemed to vary. At times the tempo varied, but not the droning "melody."  This went on and on and on and from time to time more people would arrive and find a place on the benches. I don't know how they knew when they had reached the end of a "song" but periodically all would stop droning and during these pauses someone would say a prayer, or someone would stand up to read. Or sometimes they simply started singing again. One time a chapter was read from the gospels (without any commentary) and another time one of the Psalms was read. Then again a chapter, from one of the books of the Apocrypha. One time a man stood up to speak briefly, but he actually said very little. Nothing edifying or spiritual. After an hour went by everyone stood up and the benches were all gathered and piled up around the edges of the room, then everyone knelt down on the floor. Many, especially the women, prostrated themselves flat on the floor, and then nearly everyone started to pray at once, audibly, though it was not possible for me to hear what any one person was saying. Most of the women were soon moaning and keening (confessing and repenting). Finally, it was time to stop praying and everyone stood up. Most of the women had to wipe their eyes then (of real tears or imaginary, I don't know!).  This was followed by a little kissing ceremony. A select few-elders, I assume, formed a sort of circle at the front and then one by one they went around and kissed each man in the circle on the lips. After that a number of older ladies (maybe the wives of  these elders?) went one by one around the same circle and kissed each of the elders. Then a rug was laid down on the floor in front of the apparent leader of the group and two ladies came and prostrated themselves before him and then rose and kissed his hand and went back to their places. All were soon "singing" again, but there was a marked difference from before. The tempo and volume were greatly increased and here and there in the room a few started waving their hands above their heads and one or two were nearly jumping up and down. At eleven o'clock, the service ended. A few of the men greeted Theo and me as we were leaving.  Later, while we were walking down the street, a young man approached us and asked us to come home with him to drink tea, so we agreed to do so. 
      
This man's name is Sasha (short for Alexander) and he and his wife have two small boys. For some reason the wife had not been to church that morning but the older of the two boys had gone with his dad. We sat and visited with Sasha while the wife prepared tea. He is 29 and works with a group of Molokans doing remodelling jobs. Tea turned out to be a meal of macaroni cooked in oil, a kind of carrot salad, salty pickles and bread. The wife called us to the table and then excused herself and left and we didn't see her again. Sasha was very friendly and freely answered our questions about his life and about the Molokans. There are also groups of Molokans in America and Canada. He told us that there also they have their services entirely in Russian, even if many of the younger members in America hardly know the Russian language any more. That seemed odd to me, but then I thought that this group in Yerevan would hardly get anything more out of the service even though they understood every word that was spoken! 
      
On our way home from Sasha's we passed through a large area of the city where there had once been a lot of industry but now the factories are nearly all abandoned and falling into decay. Because of there being nearly no industry anymore, there is an acute shortage of jobs and the economy is in a bad condition. Armenia is a small, land-locked country with few resources and, the fact that most of its borders are hostile, makes it even more isolated from the world. 
       
While walking in the center of the city we passed through a park which turns into a huge open-air market on Saturdays and Sundays. Part of it is for crafts and souvenir items and the rest is for second-hand "junk!"  It was fascinating to see the incredible assortment of nuts and bolts and screws and pulleys and bearings and springs and metal parts of all descriptions all neatly lined up on a tarp on the ground or on a table, along with an assortment of electronic parts taken out of radios and televisions and computers, etc., and various and sundry car and machine parts and other stuff too diverse and numerous to mention. People were searching through all of this and then haggling over the price if they happened to find something they needed or could use. Likely one source of a lot of that junk was the abandoned factories where scavengers have dismantled whatever they could screw apart and cart away to sell. In the midst of this market we happened upon a young fellow with one leg, hobbling on crutches and begging. Theo told me he had invited this same beggar one time to attend his computer classes. He told him if he applied himself and learned then he could most likely get a job and would be able to work for a living instead of begging. Sure enough, he showed up for the next class and seemed quite keen. After class he asked Theo if he thought he could make $600 a month with a computer job. Theo couldn't promise he would make that much, but he could make a decent living just the same. The fellow never came back to class and Theo surmises he must make about that much begging, so he figured it wouldn't "pay" to study and work! 
      
On Monday morning we went in to the center of the city to catch a bus for Gyumri. The busses are actually mini-busses or big vans that hold about 16 people plus the driver. There is no time table. As soon as a bus is full, it heads out and another one pulls up and starts filling with passengers. Gyumri is a city to the north of Yerevan and the journey took about 2 and a half hours. A lot of it was very slow going as we climbed most of the way. The terrain is very rough with lots of deep ravines and the countryside is incredibly rocky. Few patches of ground were level enough or had enough soil on top of the stone to warrant clearing away the rocks to make a little field. Here and there we came upon a little flock of sheep or a few cows roaming and grazing, usually watched over by some old man. 
       
Gyumri, formerly called Leninakan, was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1988. In just a moment's time in midmorning of December 7th, about 26,000 people were killed. Soon it will be fourteen years since that catastrophe, but the city is still only partly recovered. Everywhere there are partially destroyed buildings still standing. Sometimes a whole wall is sheered away, leaving the inside rooms exposed. Sometimes, from without a building appears untouched, but the roof has collapsed and the inside structures are destroyed. Millions in aid were donated by a sympathetic world, but where has it gone? At that time, hundreds upon hundreds of huts were hastily erected around the city, in the parks and in other open areas, to provide make-shift, emergency shelter for the thousands left homeless. These are incredibly rudimentary and ramshackle and were never intended to be long-term homes, but now, fourteen years later, families are still living, or at least existing, in them, and will no doubt continue to do so until they rot into the ground! True enough, apartment buildings have been built as well. The thing that impressed me most, however, was not the buildings of Gyumri, but the streets! They are just full of great, gaping pot holes. What side of the street the traffic happens to drive on depends on where the worst holes are. It's like "slalom-driving" as the cars and buses swerve continually from one side of the street to the other in an effort to dodge the deepest craters! 
         
The brothers spend most of three days a week there in Gyumri and are in touch with some fine people. They have an assortment of English and computer classes and also meet twice a week with an English club which consists of a number of students who have amazingly good English. On Mondays it is a sort of Bible study, and on Tuesdays they meet to discuss various topics selected by the group. The Monday I was there, we read Proverbs 11 and the discussion topic that week was Dreams and Imagination! You can about imagine what most of these young people dream about! Going to America was by far the most common ambition. But one girl stood out to us. She said her dream is to so live that she would have no regrets at the end of life! With another English conversation group on Wednesday, we talked about folk proverbs or wise sayings. Each one present had to think of two or three such sayings and share them with the group and explain what they mean. Then we talked about them together. The brothers are still pretty much in the "getting acquainted" stage there in that city, but hopefully in time some of these contacts will lead to something more. One young fellow there stands out to me. His name is Movses and he is a lawyer. Another young man named Arnold asked us to come to his home to drink coffee one afternoon. He is one of the older children in a family of ten and they are desperately poor. He drives a taxi in the daytime (or, it seems, mostly just sits in his taxi waiting for clients) and his father drives it at night. Apparently that is all the income the family has. They live in a "bare-bones" apartment with very little furniture and a minimum of comfort. They, like many other people in Armenia, are refugees from Azerbaijan. They are Armenian but are not citizens of Armenia because they lived for generations in Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and thousands and thousands of Armenians who lived in Azerbaijan have been driven from their homes and property and are now living as stateless refugees in Armenia. For the most part, these people lost all they had and are now very poor and without work, and many of them are quite bitter and hardened. It is a pitiful situation! 
      
City water only runs an hour or two in the morning (if that). When it is running, people fill the bathtub and pails and basins in order to have a reserve! While we were eating breakfast on Tuesday morning, two different neighbor ladies came from the flats above us to get water. At that time there was water in the tap in our flat, but it didn't reach to the floors higher up! There had been no water at all the previous day or two, so they were without! The same situation exists in Yerevan as well, but there Theo has put in a holding tank under the garage floor which fills up whenever the city water is running, and he installed a pump, so they have water on tap all the time! 
       
By late Wednesday afternoon, we had finished our schedule in Gyumri and headed back to Yerevan. On Thursday morning we took a bus out to a small town about 20-30 miles from the city and visited a couple of schools. Theo had promised someone he would collect a computer monitor that wasn't working from one of the schools and see about fixing it. He also wanted to get acquainted with some of the school people there with the thought of a possible opening for the future. We met a number of people and found them very friendly. There was a lady on the bus going out who heard us talking together and began to speak to me in English. She works as an English teacher at one of the schools, so she took us there. She told me she had been in the states last summer, so of course I asked her where and believe it or not, she said Montana! She was in Bozeman for two months at the university on some kind of an exchange program, but she also travelled around and saw most of the state. She was surprised to meet a Montanan in Armenia! She had visited New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina and California as well, but she liked Montana the best, she said! (Was that just for my benefit, do you suppose?!) Actually, she said it with such conviction that I'm sure she meant it! She explained that the people in Montana were so human. Hmmmm. I didn't ask what she meant by that! I was obviously supposed to know! 
       
On Thursday afternoon while Theo was busy, I walked about 20 minutes from the bach to the Genocide Museum and Memorial situated on top of a high hill overlooking the city. It seems incredible, but in the year 1915 one and a half million Armenians living in the eastern half of Turkey were slaughtered by government forces, totally wiping out the Armenian population in Turkey where they had lived for centuries. Equally incredible to me is that Turkey still to this day denies that it happened, and it's allies (including my own country) seemingly tiptoe around the issue to avoid ruffling their feathers. I found the memorial quite moving. There is an "eternal flame" there and music is continually playing-rather mournful but poignantly beautiful classical music composed by Armenians, including one famous composer who managed to survive the genocide but then lost his sanity and lived the rest of his years in an asylum in France. While I was at the memorial, Theo was giving a Romanian lesson to a young Japanese man, Omoto, at the bach, and then he stayed for supper with us so I had a chance to meet him. I don't know how it happened that he ended up in Armenia, of all places! He teaches Japanese there in the schools, and for some reason he is quite keen to learn Romanian. He is a very nice young man.  
      
Friday morning we and a young neighbor man, Levon, who has been listening to the meetings, took a bus to an old monastery situated up on the brow of a hill twenty miles or so out of the city towards Ararat. This place, called Khorvirab, figures very prominently in Armenian history. Armenia claims the distinction of having been the first nation to embrace Christianity as the national religion. This is supposed to have happened in the year 301 A.D., so last year they celebrated 1700 years of Christianity. According to tradition there was a man named Grigor from Persia who came to convert the Armenian people to Christianity. His efforts were not appreciated at first and he was thrown into a dungeon where he remained for 30 years. According to legend he is alleged to have eaten nothing during those 30 years, but to have lived on prayer alone! This dungeon is located under the floor of the chapel in this monastery. Of course there were neither chapel nor monastery on the spot at that time, but they were built there later in commemoration of this Grigor and the years he languished in the dungeon there. We climbed down into the dungeon, of course! There is a very narrow passage or shaft leading down, with a ladder fastened to the side of it now, but no doubt Grigor was put down that hole without benefit of the ladder! Down below there is a dim electric bulb illuminating the small, round, somewhat bell-shaped room, and casting eerie shadows all around. The dungeon is completely lined with hewn stones which are now all black with soot from the millions of candles that people have lit and left to burn there. (That is a central part of Orthodox worship-lighting a candle is about the same as saying a prayer, I think.) Of course, Grigor would have been without the benefit of even that dim bulb. High up overhead, if you crane your neck and look in just the right spot, you can see a little sliver of daylight through a tiny hole up in the roof of the dungeon. That would likely have been all the light that cheered his solitude, and all his air came through that opening as well. Claustrophobia, anyone?! 
      
But the legend grows even more fantastic! The king is said to have been turned into a pig and this Grigor changed him back into a man again, with the exception of one ear. He is supposed to have lived the rest of his life with one human ear and one pig's ear! Out of gratitude to Grigor for having saved him from remaining a pig, the king embraced Christianity and forced it upon his nation as well. 
      
The monastery is now deserted, and has been for a long time, I assume. There are no monks nowadays in Armenia. The place is mainly a tourist attraction, even if it is a "holy shrine" of the Armenian church. There are small bushes growing out of the rocks along the path winding up the hill to the monastery, and on all the branches of these bushes people have tied handkerchiefs. Each handkerchief represents a prayer and apparently promises the owner of it some special blessing. A man was lurking at the gate leading into the monastery grounds with a cage of white doves, hoping to sell them to the people entering the place. The belief is that if you buy a dove and then think of a wish while releasing it from within the monastery compound, your wish will be granted. Of course the doves then return to their former owner, who then sells them again (and again and again)! 
       
Behind the monastery, just below the hill, is the strip of no-man's-land along the Armenian-Turkish border. The actual boundary is a little river meandering lazily along in the middle of this no-man's-land, and here and there on each side are guard towers. This is a closed, hostile border as the two countries are not on friendly terms. You can look across and see a town on the Turkish side and a ribbon of highway stretching along the base of Ararat with trucks and other vehicles traveling there. From the monastery you have a magnificent and unimpeded view of the mountains of Ararat just a short distance away, and yet so unreachable across that closed border.  Looking the other direction, back towards Yerevan, you gaze out over a broad, level valley-fertile and relatively free of stones. There are many vineyards, as well as fields. Farmers were already putting up hay, all by hand with scythes and pitchforks. 
      
One thing on the agenda for Saturday was an English lesson in the city, followed by a Bible read (the last half of Matthew 11). Levon and two ladies were present. Levon was also at the gospel meeting in the bach on Sunday, and a very religious lady who has been attending for a long time. On Monday morning, Theo left for Gyumri again and I made my way to the airport in the afternoon to catch my return flight to Moscow.