Dilapidated minivans called marshrutkas are the preferred mode of travel in the Caucuses. They are cheap and fast and will take you across town, across the country, even across international borders. The downside is that they can get crowded. To make matters worse, Armenians have a strange fear of drafts, believing that a single gust virtually guarantees pneumonia. As a result, all of the windows are closed tight in a marshrutka, which makes it like a rolling sauna. This morning I took a marshrutka an hour out of town to Echmiadzin, the “Vatican” of the Armenian Apostolic Faith.
Founded in 303 CE by Gregory the Illuminator, the Church celebrated its 1700-year birthday a few years ago, making it older than the Coptic churches, the Orthodox churches, and certainly older than Roman Catholicism. The theological differences between the Armenian Church and the others hinge on how to resolve the paradox of Christ’s divine and human natures. (This was the Fifth century analogue of the debate that raged in the Twentieth century over the paradoxical twin natures of Certs: candy or breath mint?)
Along with the Armenian alphabet and Mt. Ararat, the Armenian Church is one of the pillars of Armenian culture. I fully expected everyone in Armenia to be shouldering huge wooden crosses and wearing thorny crowns, but a few decades of Communism seems to have dulled the Armenian appetite for religion. It is making a comeback though, as Echmiadzin is once again a major pilgrimage site.
The complex at Echmiadzin contains a seminary, the palace of the Catholicos, and Mayr Tachar, The Mother Church of Armenia. God himself showed Gregory where to erect Mayr Tachar by shining a ray of light on the exact spot. The Catholicos is the patriarch or “Pope” of the Armenian Church. Garegin II is the current Catholicos.
The marshrutka ride to Echmiadzin was quiet and uneventful. The landscape was unattractive– abandoned factories, cheesy casinos, and lots of sheep. I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t know which was my stop. It turned out my fear was unjustified. As the van pulled up in front of what I thought must surely be Echmiadzin, all of the passengers suddenly turned and gestured for me to get off. I’ve given up trying to blend.
I timed my arrival perfectly. The Sunday service was about to begin and the courtyard in front of Mayr Tachar was crowded with worshippers, tourists, and clergymen with bushy beards and hooded black robes. The interior of the church was beautiful. The voices of the choir echoed off of the domed ceiling, masterpieces hung on the walls, the heavy smell of myrrh hung in the air, supplicants lit candles, and pilgrims kissed the cross on the floor that marks the spot where the divine ray of light struck the ground.
At one point clergymen wearing hooded purple robes filed out of the church and crossed the courtyard to the palace of the Catholicos. A few minutes later they returned with Garegin II. The crowd was electrified by his presence. He laid his hands on everyone in his path. When he came to me we both hesitated and he moved on.
Listening to the music and seeing the people around me praying to the point of weeping, I could appreciate for a moment the sense of holiness that some of my fellow humans seem to possess. I imagined I could feel Saint Gregory’s ray of light shine into the deep hole in my heart. I got a little overwhelmed. I went outside and sat on the steps across from a woman with one leg, a fellow amputee.
Coming face to face with Garegin II wasn’t my only brush with fame this week. A few days ago the President of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, decided to pay a visit to the little art museum across the street from my apartment. When I got home from work I noticed the street was blocked at both ends by dozens of police cars. Another dozen police cars were in the parking lot in front of my building, and there were lots of big guys running around carrying machine guns and wearing camouflage suits.
It made me smile that I reflexively got my usual feeling of anticipation mixed with dread when Kocharian pulled up in a black BMW like Ronna’s. (Good thing those cars are rare!) I was surprised when he stepped out. He was short and had one of those reverse baldness patterns that make it look like he had a Mohawk. Still, he looked like a pretty serious dude. There were a few people on the street standing next to me who seemed mildly interested in seeing their president, but most people went about their business.
The next day I decided to look up Armenia in the 2005 Transparency Index to see if Kocharian’s government is as corrupt as everyone says it is. The Transparency Index defines corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain,” and measures public perception of the degree to which their government is corrupt. The scale goes from zero to ten, with ten being no corruption at all. A government with a score below five is considered to have a corruption problem. According to the scale Iceland is the least corrupt country with a score of 9.7. The US is the 17th least corrupt country with a score of 7.6. At 1.7 Chad is rated the most corrupt country. Sadly, Armenia is 88th out of 159 on the list with a shameful score of 2.7. It’s below Sri Lanka (3.2 and falling) but slightly above Zimbabwe (2.6). Of course this is only a measure of public perception of corruption. I suppose it could also be construed as a measure of public cynicism or in some cases public gullibility.
This probably isn’t related, but the night before I saw the president I was the only diner in a little bistro at the foot of the Cascade. A man walked in carrying a bag of bread. He showed the bread to the owner of the restaurant. I assumed he was a baker trying to make a sale; the owner didn’t seem interested. The curious thing about this “baker” was that he had a pistol tucked into the belt of his pants. I also noticed that he drove away in a black SUV, the car of choice for the Armenian mafia. I have been told that organized crime is out in the open in Armenia because it enjoys a cozy partnership with the government. At best the line between the two is gray.
Last week I asked Tag, my Russian tutor, about the proper way to greet the people in my apartment building who I occasionally bump into on the stairs. “Should I say ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ or just smile and nod?” I asked.
“Are these people you know?” She asked cautiously.
“No, but I assume they’re my neighbors.”
Tag explained that in Armenia one does not acknowledge strangers, no “hi,” no smile, no nod, no eye contact, nothing. She was pretty sure this was the case across the former Soviet Union. I couldn’t believe it, so I asked around. The opinion was unanimous. Apparently this is a habit passed down from the Stalinist era when people were afraid that their neighbors might denounce them just to settle a grudge.
Last week I happened to pass my landlady on the street. Excited, she tried to tell me something in Russian. As near as I could figure a notice had arrived saying that there was a package waiting for me at the post office. Why all the excitement? Apparently receiving mail in Armenia is unheard of. There is a post office, but no one seems to know what its purpose is. There are no mailboxes in front of apartment buildings, and there are no mailmen wandering the streets.
I instantly figured out that the package must be from my friend, Adele. An expert on post-Soviet culture, only she would know the magic incantation to write on a package that would guide it through the labyrinth of the Armenian postal system.
A few days later I showered, put on clean clothes, and reported to the post office. As instructed, I had my passport and my notice in hand. Entering the post office was like stepping into Kalfka’s The Trial, and I was Mr. K. In front of me a row of sour looking matrons sat behind barred windows with tiny slots for talking to their suspects/customers. I instantly recognized these women. They were the concierges who consistently refuse to let me into my own office building. They were the “docents” who suspiciously follow me from room to room in the museum. They were the former eyes and ears of the KGB. They were the front line of defense against the threat of an improperly stamped form.
I presented myself at the first window. Without looking up the drudge waved me to the next window. I went from window to window this way, skipping the ones that appeared to be selling cigarettes. Finally, a gruff woman disdainfully agreed to look at my notice. Did it have a valid stamp? Sadly yes, she would have to actually fetch a package from the back room. She came back a few minutes later with the package. But before she could hand it to me I would have to fill out a long form in Armenian. I shrugged my shoulders and asked if she had an English translation. She let out an exasperated sigh, took my passport, and filled out the form herself: visa details, purpose in Armenia, father’s name, etc.
I knew Adele would send a book. As a professor she wouldn’t be able to resist. I hoped it would be a Russian-English pocket dictionary. The “pocket” dictionary I bought here is the size of the OED. Instead it was a book called Passage to Ararat, a sort of Armenian version of “Roots.” I was grateful. Only the night before I had violated my newly imposed quota on the daily number of pages I could read.
I’ll end with a tip for you homemakers. (I’ll bet Martha Stewart hasn’t figured this one out.) I’m sure Yerevan is a dusty city normally, but there’s so much construction going on this year that the slightest breeze takes paint off of cars. I leave my windows open because of the heat. As a result, I can feel the dust crunching beneath my feet as I walk around my apartment. I mentioned this to my landlady and she gave me some furniture polish and a few dust rags. Yesterday I started polishing the book case, the piano, the cabinet, the table, etc. I got about half way through when I realized that by mistake I was using my suntan lotion instead of the furniture polish! SPF 30. It worked great.