In 2014 our son-in-law Michael turned 50. To celebrate that milestone, he gathered his sons, wife, and in-laws for an unforgettable trip to Yerevan, Armenia so he could trace his roots. He’s an Australian, all right—just listen to any sentence he utters and you’ll know that—but he’s even more. He’s a French Armenian Australian.
We had such a good time on the 2014 excursion that in 2016, when he offered us another trip, we quickly agreed. After the first visit he opened an office here; the business has grown rapidly. It was time for the CEO to check up on its progress. In addition, he and Candy took some time off on the weekend for a sight-seeing tour with the parents.
Armenia is not today as it was in days of yore. It’s a small Christian country—it was once ten times larger–landlocked and surrounded by the Islamic countries of Turkey on the West, Georgia on the North, Azerbaijan on the East and Iran on the South. In 1915 the Young Turks ruling the crumbling Ottoman Empire decided Armenians should die and Armenia should disappear. To that ghastly end they slaughtered up to one-and-a-half million people. The Nazi Holocaust has so dominated Western history that this earlier one has been largely forgotten—and is still largely denied by Turkey.
So the killing began. They went for the men first. Then the women and children. In one fatherless home the mother, looking into the pitiless future, sent her thirteen-year-old daughter away to fend for herself, hoping she could survive. And by the way, she added, do your best to find refuge for your younger nephews and nieces as well. Somehow she did that. Then she had to save herself.
A Muslim wedding party processed through her town Harput that day. Ester tried to blend in. A kind woman in the party, knowing she didn’t belong, befriended her, took her into her own home for a few months. The safety didn’t last. Word came down from on high that any Muslim found harboring an Armenian would be killed and their house burned. She had to flee again. This time she found refuge in a mission run by some Christian nuns from Denmark. (At the time in World War I Denmark, like the United States, was neutral, so the orphanage was safe.)
This genocide began in 1915, but the aftershocks lasted several years. My source says there were about 150,000 Armenians in the province when it started; only 8,000 to 10,000 survived. As with the country at large, after the men were killed, the abducting, raping, and killing of the women commenced.
Ester was one of the threatened females. The missionaries who took her in protected, raised, and educated her. In 1920 she married another survivor, but within a couple of years the ruler, Ataturk, ordered most of the remaining Armenians out of country. The young couple fled on foot to Syria, carrying their baby. The young father didn’t make it. Ester buried him under a tree beside the road. Somehow she and the baby made it to Syria and onto a French ship bound for Marseille, France. There Ester eventually remarried and bore three more children.
That baby in Ester’s arms when she fled Armenia? Her familiar name was Kathy. She grew up in France and married and in time she and her husband moved their four children to Australia. There she gave birth to her last born, a son. We call him, Ester’s grandson, Michael. Our Michael.
You imagine how this story hits Joy and me. Without first that compassionate Muslim woman in the wedding parade and then those Christian missionaries from Denmark, Ester most likely wouldn’t have survived and we wouldn’t have Michael.
So as he was discovering his roots in our 2014 visit, we were giving thanks. We visited the genocide museum and began getting acquainted with this remarkable little country. We had a lot to learn; most Americans have no idea where Armenia is, and its history has been lost to us. We also met some of Michael’s cousins, descendants of another survivor of the genocide. On our visit this week we deepened our ties, grew in our affection for the country and the people we’ve met here—and grieved that our bent world still tolerates the horrors of war.
As I said, this was a working visit for Michael and Candy. Just months after our 2014 trip here, Michael opened this branch office of his company, Praemium, which offers software for corporate financial advisors (you can check it out at www.praemium.com). Its home base is in Australia but it has a second major office in London and other offices elsewhere. Starting with two initial employees in April 2015, Praemium-Armenia now already has a staff of 24 with a total of 30 expected by the end of the year. We had met the manager, Arthur, when he hosted us on our last visit. He’s the person primarily responsible for this rapid growth in less than two years.
Fortunately, the office closes on weekends, so the Ohanessians arranged for the Lawsons to enjoy some great sightseeing. Here are some of the highlights:
*Saghmosavank, the 14th century monastic complex pictured above, is just an hour or so out of Yerevan. It enjoys one of the most stunning settings we’ve seen, perched above a breathtaking canyon that invites comparison as a smaller version of America’s Grand Canyon.
*An unforgettable Armenian meal. Praemium’s office manager Arthur treated us to this feast at the home of his longtime friends.
They work in Yerevan; this home is their weekend retreat. They designed it, oversaw its construction, and now open it for special occasions—like our visit. Throwing caution to the wind our gang partook generously of cream of mushroom soup, red bean salad, beetroot and walnut salad, fresh vegetable plate, pickled vegetable plate, cheese platter, dolma (stuffed vine leaves). chocolate cake, fruit platter, various kinds of bread, tea, coffee, wine and mineral water. And this is just what I remember!
*Ashtarak, a village just 30 minutes away from Yerevan, is the home of Karmravor, also known as the “Church of Holy Mother of God,” a 7th-century Armenian Apostolic church. (And yes, it is as small as it appears here.)
*Here we also visited Spitakavor, a small 14th-century cruciform type church that takes its apricot-orange color from the tufa stones it was built of. Only the walls remain, everything else has collapsed.
*As you have probably deduced, a tour of Armenia is a tour of churches. The country is proud of being the oldest Christian nation and treasures its remaining church buildings. Some of them are still active.
As you can see in this picture, the number of congregants is small and the style of worship quite different from ours, but we were moved nevertheless.
*A special treat was a visit to a traditional house where a special folk show had been organized for our little group. A half-dozen teen and pre-teen girls in national Armenian costume sang and danced and introduced us to other traditions of this amazing country—including another unforgettable luncheon.
Finally, lest you think that international travel is without its quirks and frustrations, I add this: Our flight from London to Yerevan took us by way of Moscow, a first for all of us. The way over was trouble-free. So was the return, although we wondered for awhile. Aeroflot (Russian Airlines) doesn’t use enclosed ramps at this airport–at least for the flight from Yerevan. Instead, passengers are crammed into a bus for the long, long ride to the plane. I don’t understand it. Our gate was as far on one end of the terminal as possible; our plane stood as far at the other end as possible—and then farther, way out on the edge of the outermost.
Then once aboard, we sat. And sat. And sat. The flight attendant told us we were being delayed by “flight preparations.” Then she told us again. And then again. Finally, those preparations apparently being completed, she announced another delay. De-icing the wings (couldn’t this have been done as part of the “flight preparations”?). All that remained was the long, long taxiing to what felt like the other edge of the outermost. Only then came the takeoff.
Which is to say, we were in Moscow considerably longer than we had intended. I suspect it’ll be awhile before we go back for another look.