Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter in Yerevan

Today is Easter in Armenia.  This year, Orthodox Easter, which is based on the lunar calendar, happens to fall on the same Sunday as in the Catholic and Protestant churches.  A further coincidence is that it is also on April 24th which is Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, which by itself would be one of the most important days on the Armenian Calendar.  When I was here five years ago, an Armenian American couple told me that younger Armenians aren't very religious but that the Armenian Church is the center of their history and culture and this, together with the Armenian genocide, is what binds the Armenian Diaspora together.

This morning I decided to walk a few blocks from my hotel to an old Armenian Church to observe the Easter service. Around the church were many elderly women selling candles which were not carried into the church, but instead were lit and then consumed in fires near the entrance in remembrance of Christ.  The thought occurred to me that in previous eras the candles were probably burned inside the church but that the smoke made it difficult to breath and that it also discolored the walls and ceiling.  Some enterprising patriarch probably decided to move this ritual outside for reasons of health and historical preservation.  In Western Europe, many churches now have electric candles for the same reason and one simply pays a few cents to light the artificial candles. From an outsider perspective, the Armenia service wasn't significantly different than a Catholic Easter service, with the devout lined up in front of the priest to be blessed and to receive the sacrament. When finished, many walked around the inside of the church touching statues and paintings of the saints and crossing themselves.

The Armenian Church is one of the original Christian Churches, having arisen from underground and with Armenia having become the first state to officially adopt Christianity in 301 A.D. Since then the country and its faith have been inseparable. Also, Armenia, together with Georgia and Russia formed the Eastern frontier of historic Christianity.
On my previous visit I had a weekend for sightseeing, which included a half day at the "Mother Sea of Holy Etchmiadzin," the equivalent of the Catholic Church's Vatican, which I found extremely interesting. The key information about Etchmiadzin is on the Church's website at the following link: I especially recommend the pages on the Church's history and on the 132 Catholicos or patriarchs that have succeeded Gregory the Illuminator, who founded the church

On my last trip I also visited the ancient Hellenic Temple of Garni, built in the 2nd Century BC and nearby Geghard Monastery which stems from the 7th Century which are described in the following links:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Life in the former Yugoslavia

This week I've been in Belgrade, capital of what used to be Yugoslavia and now capital of Serbia.  I've been in the region many times before but the political boundaries have changed so often in recent years that it is difficult to keep up. Whereas the entire area was formerly the country of Yugoslavia, today it is Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo with their respective capitals of Belgrade Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Skopje and Pristina. ( You have no doubt heard the term Balkanization: well this is what it means. The last three of these countries, plus Belarus, are the only European countries I haven't yet visited.

All of the Balkan countries are struggling to varying degrees to throw off the shackles of their former dictators and their communist economic systems. Most soviet-era factories stand empty and free market principles are still trying to take hold. Most people still reside in large tenements apartment and would either like to move elsewhere or are hoping that things will miraculously change overnight at home.

While Belgrade has a few charming areas and a lot of construction going on, the overall impression is still gray and drab. Old buildings which could be grand, look tired and are in need of plaster and paint. Sidewalks need repair and most shops don't entice.  The primary tourist destination is the Kalemengan Fortress ( which overlooks the confluence of the Sava River into the Danube and is quite interesting.  For cafe society, common throughout the Balkans, the downtown pedestrian zone has some appealing tables where one can sit, sip, chat and ogle for hours for only a few dinar. And the Skadarlija bohemian area has some good restaurants and an upbeat atmosphere with numerous small orchestras playing Gypsy and Eastern European music for tips.

But there are other cities and areas in the former Yugoslavia that I much prefer to Belgrade. The most attractive cities for tourists are of course those along the beautiful Dalmatian Coast of Croatia such as Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik.  Tourists swarm from Northern Europe to these ancient cities and nearby resorts that begin in Istria just Sourth of Trieste and run all the way down to Dubrovnik.  And well-healed Europeans, and even a few Americans I know, have their eyes on Dalmatian properties for their retirement years, and are thereby driving up the prices.      

Slovenia has had the greatest success in becoming main stream Europe and its Alps are a great holiday destination for lovers of mountains and nature.  Gertrud and I spend a week there last summer and fell in love with Bled.  We were in a wonderful small hotel with a balcony overlooking Bled Lake and had a hard time leaving because it was so romantic and tranquil. 

Lake Bled from our hotel window

In 2002, shortly after I retired from the Foreign Service, I was asked to return to the service for two months to fill a staffing gap at Embassy Sarajevo.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short working vacation and became very attached to Sarajevo which had such a proud history of religious tolerance before World War I (Sarajevo is where Prince Ferdinand of Austria was killed to start the war) and such an unfortunate history after the break up of Yugoslavia  ( Both Serbia and Croatia coveted Bosnia and Herzegovina to further their own national ambitions.  Lovely Mostar in Herzegovina with its famous bridge is also a wonderful city that has apparently risen up out of the ashes of the war.  Gertrud and I visited it during the late 1960s shortly after we were married and I visited it again from Sarajevo in 2002 to see the war damage to the city and bridge. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus"

Yesterday, in conjunction with work in Nicosia, I made my first ever visit to "the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" which is only recognized as such by Turkish Cypriots and the Country of Turkey.  The rest of the international community considers the entire Island to be the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), evidenced by the fact that the ROC has been granted membership in both the United Nations and the European Union. Most Cypriots simply refer to the disputed area as "the North" which comprises about a third of the country and which depends heavily on Turkey for political, military and economic support.   However an estimated 30,000 Turkish Cypriots commute between the North and Greek-speaking Cyprus each day and are paid in Euros. 

The North is separated from the rest of Cyprus by a buffer (called the green zone) which also runs through Nicosia  The North's flag is usually flown in tandem with the Turkish flag. There is a large replica of it on one of the mountains in the Kyrenia Range where it can be seen from long distances to serve as a symbol of Northern pride.

The only routes in and out of Northern Cyprus are via boat or plane from Turkey or through one of several crossing points from Southern Cyprus. I crossed at the Nicosia check point and expected that it would be much like it was to cross from West Berlin into East Berlin at Check Point Charlie in the 1980s.  It turned out to be much easier, perhaps because I was in a vehicle with US Embassy plates. When we approached the barrier we simply held up our passports and they waved us through. The North looks pretty much like the South with the most obvious differences being the flying of the Northern Cyprus and Turkish flags and shop signs with Turkish language and Turkish Lira prices.  The North has some beautiful mountain trekking destinations and beach resorts which are popular with Turkish tourists. The following link discusses the problem of Cypriot identify for ethnic Turks and contains a photography of the gigantic replica of the Northern flag

Since the Internet contains a great deal of information on the wars and politics of Cyprus, I won't bother to go into it and will instead refer yo to the following links. The first one from YouTube focuses is on
the buffer zone and shows some of the ruins still there from the 1974 war.  The US Government still has ownership claims on some ruined properties in this area.
With regards to the history and culture of the island, I was here about 5 years ago and had time to visit some of the island's ancient sites. Among the highlights were communities in the Trodos Mountains where there are 10 Byzantine churches on the UNESCO world heritage list.  Kykkos Monastery, the best known of the many Greek Orthodox monasteries in Cyprus, is also located in these mountains.  Former Archbishop Makarios who was also the first president of Cyprus, was an apprentice priest in this monastery and was buried at Throni which overlooks Kykkos. The island's combination of beautiful beaches and fascinating history makes is a beloved tourist destination for many Europeans, especially the Greeks and the British who colonized it in the 1800s at the behest of the Ottoman Government. Below is the official tourism site for Cyprus.