Posts Tagged ‘The Caucasus’

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You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Sep 29, 2011
by Gareth James
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These three newly independent countries comprise the strategic Caucasus region that runs from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, bordering the Russian Federation in the north and Iran and Turkey in the south. At various times, it has been invaded / occupied by the Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and of course Russia, amongst others. Today, the big geopolitical issue is pipelines which take oil from the Caspian and beyond to ports in the Black Sea and hence by sea west, thus avoiding overland routes through Russia.

Azerbaijan has a long-time dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh but gets on with everyone else. Georgia’s relations with Russia remain fraught but fine with the rest and it has had the roughest independence ride. Armenia has its dispute with Azerbaijan and ongoing tension with Turkey over the genocide of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. You’ve got to watch what you say round here!

The three countries have a combined population of c.18m – Azerbaijan’s 9m are mostly Muslim, Georgia’s 5m are almost entirely Orthodox Christian and Armenia’s 4m belong to the independent Armenian Church. Georgia and Armenia were the first countries to adopt Christianity (and possibly the first to make wine). All three countries are littered with Soviet apartment blocks and much of the water and gas pies run over ground, bending and twisting over entrances and round corners.

We started in oil rich Azerbaijan, seriously excited about hosting Eurovision 2012 even though they haven’t quite laid the foundations of the venue on the waterfront. In many ways it retains a Soviet character – but with added bling courtesy of its oil revenues. Oil is nothing new here; they’ve been bringing it up for over 130 years and just over 100 years ago provided 50% of the world’s oil. There are very old and very small drills in the city, though much of it has now moved offshore into the Caspian Sea. Despite the fact it is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are few mosques and few obvious signs of Islam in appearance or behaviour. The food and wine was OK but a bit samey and not overly exciting, though they did make jam out of absolutely anything, including walnuts and roses, and eat it by the spoonful with their tea!

The capital Baku is one big building site with a particularly iconic building nearing completion – a hotel that comprises three giant glass ‘petals’ which you can see from absolutely everywhere. It’s a nice enough city, well at least at its centre, with a walled old town, art nouveau buildings from the early days of oil and a long prom with modern buildings vying for your attention whilst lovers stroll, holding hands. The highlights of our visit were the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old town, a Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the pre-historic petroglyphs at Qobestan along the busy oil coast. We won’t talk about my brush with the police for pointing the camera a little too close to the Presidential Administration Tower……

We travelled overland to Sheki in the mountainous north where the Christian heritage is evident through Albanian churches (no relation to the country). The journey took us through semi-desert, fertile valleys, wooded hills and pastures – a topographical tour in not much more than six hours. The highlight of Sheki was the 18th century Khan’s Palace, a riot of colour and glass inside and out, inside a walled compound on the mountainside. The following day we crossed into Georgia.

I fell in love with Georgia very quickly. This may have been because we started in wine country and within a couple of hours of arriving we were treated to a delicious feast with local wine at a home stay; I’m easily bought! The food in Georgia was in fact spectacularly good and the wine was excellent. We gorged on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, cheesy bread, stuffed vine leaves, dumplings filled with meat which you got to once you’d drained them of a consommé-like liquid and all manner of meats, cheeses and salads.

It was a long journey to Tbilisi, broken up my visits to a walled hilltop church, a fortified cathedral and a fortified convent. Tbilisi is buzzing with life; you’d never know the Russians invaded just three years ago. It has tremendous energy and a sense of renewal, and not just in new building like Azerbaijan. Though much of it is still very run down, it was fascinating to explore with a very moochable old town; though not a very pedestrian-friendly city elsewhere. It is dissected by the River Mikvari, with the old town rising and clinging to one side as far as a mountaintop fortress. Its iconic new building is a glass pedestrian bridge. At night, Tbilisi is beautifully illuminated.

The city contains two stunning collections of treasures – the gold of pre-Christian Georgia and more recent religious icons and jewellery. It’s only mosque is unique as Shiite pray on the left and Sunni on the right, both in the same building. Our visit to the new Holy Trinity Cathedral was timed to coincide with the Patriarch (head of orthodox church and state) formally welcoming the Archbishop of Cyprus (another head of church and state). With a convoy of black limousines and lots of men-in-black, it was all very exciting (though more in keeping with a US presidential visit than a pair of clerics!). The speeches were highly politicised.

Out of town, we headed north to Mtskheta for another fine hilltop church and another fortified cathedral and to Ananuri for a stunning walled compound of three churches sitting on a small hill at the side of a reservoir. Back in Tbiklisi, our visit to the lovely Open Air Museum had a bonus as the Georgian state dancers (on perpetual tour to make money) were making a rare visit to Tbiisi for filming, so we got to see them for free with the added fascination of watching the rehearsals and the process of filming. The love affair with Georgia lasted until our premature departure. Our guide Anna was exceptional and there was a great feel to the place. I suspect I shall be back.

Despite the fabulous mountain scenery, with autumn colours already in evidence, dark clouds, a relentless number of run-down Soviet apartment blocks and more austere dark stone churches and monasteries, (we visited 5 en route to Yerevan) the first couple of days in Armenia didn’t excite – not until our first dinner in Yerevan with lovely folk music followed by a visit to Republic Square and its nightly performance of dancing illuminated fountains with a Charles Aznavour soundtrack (an Armenian exile) lifted my spirits.

Armenia appears to be the most run down of the three, except in Yerevan, which is much brighter and airy with wide tree-lined streets and lots of open spaces and street cafes. The genocide of over 1m people hangs heavy over the country; there ate 2.5 times as many Armenians outside the country as inside it – one of the world’s largest diaspora.

Yerevan sits at the foot of Mt Ararat (made famous by Noah!) and when it isn’t cloudy it towers over the city. There are few great buildings, but within the city there is a superb archaeology collection and a spectacular selection of manuscripts. There’s a lot to be seen within an hour and most of our time was spent on trips to a Greco-Roman Temple, Cave Monastery / Churches, a mediaeval burial ground with 900 tombstones and the centre of the Armenian faith at Echmiadzin. Our tour leader is responsible for the relationships between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, so here we were greeted by two bishops and given a private tour of the residence of the Catholicos (heads of church and state) as well as the cathedral and museum.

Armenia grew on me as the sun began to shine, Mt Ararat revealed itself and the food and wine got better! I admired the spirit of the people and their resilience during a mostly tortuous 20th century.

A trip of huge contrasts – landscapes, architecture, heritage & religion – which was always fascinating and often thrilling. Georgia is the jewel in the Caucasus crown and it won’t be long before they’re coming in droves for a long weekend; beat them to it!

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