We departed Armenia and the Caucus Region. It was a full and moving journey for us all and has become an integral part of ourselves. I can say that the depth of all we learned and witnessed grows more deeply within me every day, and I feel so fortunate to have shared it with my fellow Delegates.
Sincerely, Susan McCraw Helms
This, our last day before departing for home, began with a visit to the Vernisage Art Market and the local vegetable market where the Delegates were able to buy gifts for friends at home. We then traveled out of town to visit The Diaconia Charitable Fund, located on 15 hectares of land with 75 homes.
We were the first group from the U.S. to visit and we were treated royally. Our host and founder of the organization, Baru Jambazian, explained that the Diaconia Charitable Fund was established to work with survivors of the 1989 earthquake as well as other families impacted by war, poverty, and misfortune. The Fund has built homes, provided health care, food aid and mental health access, founded workshops to teach skills, and provided support for disabled children and talented young artisits and musicans. We were treated to a wonderful lunch, during which we were entertained by a number of the children, and we visited a family who lived in the settlement. We were all moved and impressed by the Fund’s efforts. As we had already presented our Mary Pomeroy Awards, we took up a spontaneous collection and were able to present a gift to Baru to help continue the work of the Fund.
Our last visit of the trip was to the home of Mrs. Hripsimeh in Ashtarak, located on the southern slope of Mount Aragats. Mrs. Hripsimeh lives in a 170 year-old home, the oldest in Ashtarak. At one time, Mrs. Hripsimeh hosted a cooking show on Armenian television, and she provided us with a cooking class in her garden, teaching us how to make summer dolmas, lentil soup, and a delicious sweet. We were then guided into her wine cellar for a gorgeous meal which included the dishes we had watched being prepared.
[Cathi Smith, Recorder]
After a tour of Yerevan, we left the city center and traveled to Zvartnots Cathedral, a UNESCO site which includes the ruins of the 7th century cathedral which in its day was the largest round church in the world. We were treated to breath-taking views of snow-covered Mount Ararat to the south across the border in Turkey and Mount Aragats to the northwest.
We continued on to Echmiadzin, founded as Vargarsapat in the year 117 as the capial of Armenia. Echmiadzin is now home to the spiritual center of Armenia and the seat of the Patriarch. It too is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes the first Christian church built in the world (4th century). The center which includes the current cathedral (7th century) is vast, larger than the Vatican in Rome and has an exceedingly wealthy treasury.
As we returned to Yerevan, we stopped to visit The Armenian Genocide Memorial. We ascended the path to the museum and memorial, passing a grove of trees each of which was donated by a supporting-nation of the world.
The Memorial is haunting in its stark elegance. While genocide has long been a gross failing of humanity, the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks was the event for which the term “genocide” was coined. According to scholarly estimates, over 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1914 and 1918.Thousands more were deported to Syria and faced starvation in the desert. Others fled and their descendants now make up the Armenian Diaspora which is composed of more people than inhabit current Armenia. Armenians march to the Memorial on the eve of every April 23rd, in memory of those massacred. April 24th is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
This evening we attended our Farewell Dinner in Armenia and awarded our Mary Pomeroy Awards. Again, our decision was a difficult one, and we decided to present two. The first award was presented to to Maro Matosian and The Women’s Support Center. The Women’s Support Center is a highly protected domestic violence shelter in Yerevan. Maro could only allow three of the Delegates to visit in order not to attract unwanted attention. The women in the shelter are given support, training and basic tools with which to earn money to support themselves and their children. The second Mary Pomeroy Award in Armenia was given to The Human Rights Common Platform.
[Mary Rohman, Recorder]
Our first visit of the day was to meet with representatives of The Armenian Young Women’s Association (AYWA) which “is a non-profit, non-governmental organization comprised of young women united in their determination to improve the status of women in Armenia, regardless of political affiliation, educational/cultural background, ethnic origin or religious outlook. AYWA's missions to lead social change and to achieve equality of opportunity and reward for all Armenian women, is an integral element in transforming into a just and productive society for all.” Their mission is to “increase the role of women in Armenian society” through economic entrepreneurship and leadership development, social enterprise and micro grants focused on vulnerable groups, and business start-up assistance. AYWA’s outreach also includes health advocacy and community organization assistance for women between the ages of 13 and 40.
They founded the Women’s Entrepreneur Network and will host the International Women’s Congress in Armenia in April 2019.
From AYWA, we went to meet with representatives of the Human Rights Common Platform. In a country scourged by conflict, genocide, and severe social and political restrictions, The Human Rights Common Platform, founded by Tatev Tatulyan in 2014, is a social, non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Yerevan that focuses on supporting, raising awareness and advocating for human rights, peace and equality for all Armenians through community activities, arts events, film and education programs, and by collaborating with other international organizations.
Their stated goal is to “create a platform to encourage democratic participation, to develop civic consciousness, human rights values and to reach social justice for all.” They focus on LBTQIA rights, women's rights, art and activism. This group of young volunteers impressed us all and was one of the recipients of our Mary Pomeroy Award.
We then went on to meet with the Public Journalism Club (PJC), a non-governmental organization, co-founded by Seda Muradyan in 2011, “to promote freedom of expression, diversity and pluralism, build a media literate society, facilitate the development of a stronger civil society and support processes aimed at the democratization of the region and establishment of a dialogue, mutual understanding and peace”. Their vision is for a “democratic Armenia which enjoys peace, welfare and an active, well-educated and competitive civil society cooperating with mass media to become a real watchdog while state structures have transparent activities and accountability”. Seda hosted a round table discussion for members of the Delegation and her fellow PJC members.
[Cherie Riesenberg, Recorder]
Our first full day in Yerevan, Armenia, was a very full day. We started with a short walking tour of Republic Square.
We had seen the square the previous evening lighted up with music echoing, but the full majestic view in bright sunlight was dazzling. We were then scheduled for an Embassy visit with Erika King, the Cultural Affairs Advisor, but John Bolton was visiting the Embassy, so Erika was kind enough to arrange for us to meet her at the “American Corner” in a public library where we learned about the Embassy’s mentoring program for women.
We then visited the History Museum of Armenia, another of the majestic buildings on Republic Square, where we were guided through a treasure trove of very old relics. After lunch, we visited the Anania Shrakasty Lyceum, a private secondary school where CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service) was the mission. This special school is a member of CIS (the Council of International Schools), which emphasizes critical thinking skills and offers an International Baccalaureate program. Student Council members provided a guided tour of their school and articulated the goals and mission of their experience enthusiastically.
Our next stop was Saint Mary’s Health Clinic, which serves a vulnerable population of poor and disenfranchised women. Several organizations cooperate under one roof to offer many different services including reproductive services, plastic surgery, massage, psychological services, dermatological, and gynecological services.
Our last activity of the day was a delightful “speed networking activity” arranged by Erika King of the U.S. Embassy. Erica had assembled many professional women representing a variety of humanitarian and business enterprises. The discussions were riveting, and once again, the Delegates found it hard to move from one person to the next as planned. It was a thoroughly positive experience.
[Sharon Richardson, Recorder]
We leave for Armenia. Crossing the border was an interesting several-step process, including saying goodbye to our Georgian guide and driver. Our guide and dear friend throughout our stay in Georgia was Sopho, whose patience, knowledge base, and good humor was a delight. Our dear driver was Giorgi.
After passing through Georgian and Armenian passport controls with a walk and bus ride in between, we boarded our bus for Armenia and met Lipo, our driver, and Anna, our guide. The scenery changed radically very soon after entering Armenia. The surrounding hills were covered with forest in autumn hues. While driving, we started learning about the Armenian economy, environment, and culture from Anna. Armenia’s only open borders by road are the northern border with Georgia and the southern border with Iran. The western border with Turkey and the eastern border with Azerbaijan are both closed. In 2008, Hilary Clinton was encouraging the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border; however, Turkey wanted Armenia to deny the genocide and give up their disputed territories. Armenia strongly declined on both counts so the border remains closed.
Our first stop in Armenia on our way to the capital, Yerevan, was the Haghbat Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site from the 10th century. Armenia was the first official Christian country. We saw our first example of a khachkar at the Haghbat Monastery.
A khachkar is the intricately carved stone cross for which Armenia is known, and the one at Haghbat Monastery is from the 13th century and is believed to having healing abilities. The color that was used to originally decorate the cross is now more expensive than gold. There were gravestones all over the monastery grounds, especially by the church entrances and in the narthex. There is the belief that the sins of the people who died would be forgiven by people walking on their gravestones. The Armenian Church is simpler in decoration than the Greek or Georgian churches. It is believed that this will allow for fewer distractions from prayer. It also provides less for invaders to steal.
After lunch and Armenian coffee (never ask for Turkish coffee in Armenia), we traveled to Lake Sevan. Lake Sevan is the second largest alpine lake, second only to Lake Titicaca in Peru. The water from the lake was used for massive irrigation and hydroelectric projects during the Soviet period until it became evident that the water level was decreasing too radically. On a positive note, the drop in water level allowed for the discovery of evidence of a highly developed Bronze Age culture.
We arrived in Yerevan in the late afternoon, checking into our hotel which sat majestically on Republic Square.
[Caroline Olstad, Recorder]
Our day began with a visit to the Bodbe Monastery where Saint Nino (“The Great Enlightened”) is buried. The Bodbe Monastery is the largest in Georgia housing approximately thirty nuns. The original building on the grounds was built in the 8th century. Georgian kings have been crowned on this site which looks out over a beautiful valley.
We then continued our journey back to Tblisi, stopping to visit Nukriani Community Organization en route. We were hosted by the Director, Maya Bidzinashvili. Maya sold her dowry to establish Nukriani in 2006 to create employment opportunities for women in the area by involving them in her workshops which teach them traditional handicrafts upon which they can build a small business of their own. A number of the women she works with were there to greet us and treat us to a lesson in making “churchkhela”, a traditional Georgian delicacy of walnuts dipped in boiled-down fruit “molasses”.
We arrived in Tblisi in the early afternoon with time to pack for Armenia and that evening celebrated with the women we had met at our Farewell Dinner at which we presented our Mary Pomeroy Awards for Georgia. It was extremely difficult to decide among the very worthy organizations with which we met. It was decided to present two awards which went to the Nukriani Community Organization and Women for Tomorrow.
[Darcy Olstad, Recorder]
Today we departed for Signagi, known as “The City of Love” for it many marriage chapels and its great beauty. Signagi is in the heart of Georgia’s wine country. Saint Nino was said to have made a cross of grape vines and bound it together with her hair, symbolizing the sun’s rays. And indeed, we had a perfect day to visit Pheasant’s Tears winery. We strolled through the vineyard and toured the buildings housing the quervi buried to their necks in the ground where the natural Georgian wines were fermenting. The winemaker, John, described the unique process producing the wines, and we sat on the terrace overlooking the vines as we tasted the many varietals.
That evening, we were treated to a true Georgian “supra”, a feast to end all feasts, with toasts in abundance. The polyphonic singing group, Zedashe, sat and ate with us and broke into song and dance throughout the meal. Zedashe was formed to preserve and perform traditional Georgian chants and songs. Georgian vocal music has been passed down by ear for hundreds of years, possible since the 5th century BCE.
The founder of Zedashe and our host at the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant was Ketevan Mindorashvili (front, right in photo), who played the panduri (beautiful traditional lute) and sang. Zedashe has toured all over the world and will be touring in the U.S. in 2019.
[Carolyn Moats, Recorder]
We left this morning to return to Tblisi. We stopped in Gori, the site of the museum dedicated to Josef Stalin. We visited Stalin’s private train car and the home in which he was born, both of which were on site. Stalin was afraid of flying and always traveled by train in which he was the only one allowed to use the toilet or have a chair with arms. He did have two additional sleeping rooms for secretary or family, but all the facilities on board were very sparse.
His birthplace proved to be a rented room over his father’s cobbler shop. This stop was very difficult for the members of our group and was short. It is important always to be aware of history but difficult to view any honor paid to Stalin. Cathi Smith related that Mary Pomeroy, one of the Delegation’s founding members, had lunch several years ago with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, after she defected to the U.S.
Our second stop was to visit a sandstone cave city, Uplistsikhe (meaning the Lord’s Castle). It lies near the town of Cory and requires 91 steps to ascend to the site and 80 to descend. It was built during the 4th century BCE.
The residents of Uplistsikhe honored pagan gods until the 14th century when a small church was erected. There is evidence of a three-tiered society. Servants, those who served the priests, and the nobility all lived here but in very separate sections. There is still evidence of the wine preparation area, burial area, jail, high priest’s throne, sacrificial animal altars, and living quarters. The views across the valley as well as the site itself were spectacular.
We arrived in Tblisi that evening and stayed overnight.
[Darlene Miller, Recorder]
We awoke to the hotel window vista of the mountains. The sun rose like a spotlight on Mt Kazbegi with the light inching down to the peak where the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church sits. A caravan of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) bumped us up the deeply rutted, dusty, narrow road on the steep edges of the mountain where we hiked up steep rocky paths to the terrace of the 6th century stone church. From the terrace we could see the rivers and town in the valley. The church was perched in a high place to protect church treasures from the frequent invaders of Georgia. Out of respect for the Georgian Orthodox religion, we donned head scarves and "skirts" to visit the Georgian and Russian icons hung on the walls around the central altar.