Armenia’s Religious Character.

Let me tell you the story of “Saint Gregory the Illuminator” from Armenia. According to the legend, Gregory was born in a very well-off Armenian family. His father killed the Armenian king but also lost his life after that. Gregory’s biographer Agathangelos wrote that after his father’s death, Gregory-still a child-was transferred to, and raised in Christian Cappadocia.

Later in his life, when Gregory discovered the murder committed by his father, he decided to go to King Tiritades, son of the killed king, and offer him his services. Tiritates accepted Gregory, but soon a conflict broke out between him and the king, as Gregory-already a Christian-refused to bow to goddess Anahit (pagan Armenian goddess), according to the latter’s wish. Agathangelos wrote that King Tiritates tortured Gregory in every possible way, but he refused to worship Anahit. Eventually, King Tiritates discovered Gregory’s origins, as well as his father’s murder and decided to throw him into the “bottommost pit” (in Armenian “Khor Virap”-today a monastery outside Yerevan). The place was filled with dead bodies. So, Tiritates ordered his not being provided with food until he cannibalizes or starves to death.

The legend goes, that an old widow once saw a dream: Jesus Christ came to her and asked her to throw a little piece of bread into the pit every day and so she did, without telling anyone. Gregory stayed in the pit for 13 years. During that time Kings Tiritates’s kingdom and court was in chaos. Tiritates was in insanity. His sister asked that Gregory be approached, but everyone around was sure that he was already dead. The pit was finally checked and to everyone’s astonishment Gregory was still alive after so many years of starvation.

According to the legend Gregory agreed to visit the king, who was in madness already. They say he was eating not with humans but with swine. Gregory prayed and cured the king of his madness. King Tiritates asked Gregory to baptize him as a Christian and spread Christianity in Armenia. In 301 King Tiritates adopted Christianity as a state religion. And from that time on Armenians converted to Christianity. Gregory became the first Armenian Catholicos, and was called “St Gregory the Illuminator” ever since. So the Saint Gregory Armenian Church was named after him.

Armenia was the first country to officially embrace Christianity as a State Religion and that was in 301 A.D. Armenians are of course Christians by 94,5%, belonging to the Christian Apostolic Church. The truth is that one cannot consider this country without its religious character, its monasteries and chapels, many of which date back to the 7th and 8th century. Whether religious or not, the visitor can´t miss them. Reaching the Khor Virap monastery is not only worth it for the monastery´s historic background, but also the stunning landscape; a huge valley expanse takes the eye to the foothills of the biblical Mount Ararat, and weather permitting, one might be rewarded with the full view of it. We also managed to reach the churches of Echmiadzin (St. Hipsin and St. Shogakat) but there’s numerous Cathedrals in Yerevan too.

Yerevan is definitely a very interesting city; safe, clean and welcoming, with its discrete and kind citizens-with a kindness of their own. There’s booming artistic activity in the city, beautifully lit streets and squares (especially for Christmas) as well as an impressive variety of cafes and restaurants. Understanding the Caucasians might not be an easy task, I feel. You see, one cannot easily define the Armenians as Europeans neither can they claim that they are purely Asian; some western air once again seems to coexist and other times be in conflict with the not-so-long-ago oriental past (I purposefully avoid the term “eastern” here) but one thing is certain; this side of the map has definitely a story to speak of…

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Cairo, Egypt. Café “Riche”.

First time I visited Cairo, I was only eleven. Twenty six years after, I anticipated, being extremely emotional to see if things would look as “big” and exciting as they had before my childhood eyes. You see it was the first time I would ever travel abroad (had crossed the Balkans with mum and dad by caravan before this, but for some reason Egypt was meant to be “serious business” at that time!). No, the pyramids were not as massive as they had felt to be and Khan Al-Khalili was not the labyrinth I had encountered as a child, but Cairo itself still remains as “serious business” that will always hold a great piece in my heart and memories.

Traveling with literature is a big thing, as I see it. I discovered Lisbon through the eyes of Tabucchi, and Istanbul following Xanthoulis’s childhood memories. I had Naguib Mahfouz with me this time.  I tried to find his “Midaq Alley” but failed. Therefore, I managed to pay my tributes finding his favorite café in the city. The café “Riche” is only a few blocks from Midan Tahrir-central square in Cairo where all big things happened.

The café, which opened in 1908 in Talaat Harb Street no. 29-meeting place for intellectuals and revolutionaries-was to witness all significant historical events of the 20th century. Black-and-white pictures in wooden frames commemorate a past that has often revolved around the café’s guests. On December 15th 1919 a medical student, Iryan Yusuf Iryan, seated himself near the door and awaited the prime minister, a regular. When he arrived, so Iryan recalled later, “I exited the café and threw the first bomb at the car.”The prime minister survived, yet Egypt slid into a nationalist revolt against de facto British rule. Battles raged outside the café’s doors and revolutionaries sought refuge among coffee-quaffing bohemians. The Riche’s basement became their lair. It had several little-known exits that connected to tunnels, built a century earlier when the surrounding land housed a palace, some said to lead all the way to Tahrir Square. (The Economist. “A Riche History; The café at the heart of revolutionary Cairo” 17 December 2011).

Initially bought by the French Henry Recine and thereafter by the Greek Michael Nikoapolits who in turn sold it to George Avayanos, the café only passed to the Egyptian Abdel Malak Mikhail Salib in 1962. The until then upper-class clientele changed; Cairo had become home to newspapers and magazines, which made the café prime location for gatherings. In the meanwhile the cafe had hosted divas like Monira il-Mahdiyya and Umm Kulthum on its stage! It is said that several members of the resistance during the 1919 revolution met the basement to organize their activities and print their flyers but also served as a refuge to the many protesters in the city during the 2011 revolution.

Mahfouz had refused to publish his books in Egypt. But he never stopped writing. He based an entire novel, “Karnak Café”, on the Riche and its guests and the stories they told him. (For a while thereafter the café carried a sign saying “Karnak” above its door.) The book describes student activists who are arrested by security men, raped and tortured in prison and then forced to become informers—manipulated, violated and robbed of their dreams. “During my evenings at Riche coffeehouse,” said Mahfouz, who died in 2006, “I used to listen to many things which people repressed. Had I not written them, they would have been lost. So I wrote.” (The Economist. “A Riche History; The café at the heart of revolutionary Cairo” 17 December 2011).

Why God(s) should be kept alive.

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This year I was blessed enough to travel a lot. The compass kept pointing to the East. I knew very well that it was mysticism that took me to Asia as well as what we call: “the cultural gap”, that is, this impossibility of deep understanding – despite one’s struggle – of the eastern “otherness”. I happen to come from a country that despite its people’s pride, it suffers lack of identity definition both because of its geography and past. This might be a curse because it bears pathogeny on the one hand, but also a blessing because people from such countries might be somehow closer to crossing at least some “suspicion” over this impossibility on the other hand. Yet, western ideas about normality would prevail in everyone’s mind when a European: How inhumaine does it seem to the western eye to see someone incinerate their wife and arrange business on the phone at the same time, or how awkward is it to believe in 2.500 deities at the same time, consider cows to be sacred but still have them eat from rubish bins, how impossible to deify humans with such ease, love for the sake of institution and not for the sake of this “significant other”, spend half one’s meager income on offerings to the gods… Yeah, things are different to us: God is only one, love is for the one I love, and my enlightened Ego is the centre of the universe. In any case the west has been struggling to understand who this “stranger” who lives in the Eastern end is (usually ending up with nasty “superiority complex” conclusions) ever since the  19th century (and a lot earlier maybe – but let’s not stick to this) but I’m not sure if this goes the other way round. I don’t believe that the Asians ever got obsessed about discovering the West.

What about all this fuss with the god(s)? The West has long asserted its freedom from darkness by negating the existence of God. Humanity is progressing and science is providing answers to everything. We’ve got statistics to explain the human behaviour, technology to take us to other planets, and if God existed, pain, suffering and ugliness should not exist. Poverty and inequality should not exist either and children in the Third World should not be starving. If God created the world then who created God? Excuse me the language but this is all bollocks. The West has never been that ugly and miserable and the celebrated individual has never suffered that much, no matter how strongly it claims the glory and infinite capacity of the Ego. Yes, people in the East are poor but they are not unhappy. The only stain in their lives comes in the face of Globalisation. People in Cambodia would be a lot happier without the US dollar having invaded their market. Beaches in Vietnam would be a lot cleaner without tons of plastic bottles and plastic bags in their sea and their forests would still remain pristine without those massive skyscrapers, neon fun parks and hotel chains to cover western tourism needs in the middle of the jungle. You see, people there before the dollar had their gods and they are still struggling to keep them alive unless they finally succumb to temptation and turn them into cheap folklore for the tourists to take home. God is still important in Asia. One is faced with the love (S)He is embraced with by the people in the glorious temples rising literally from the chaos and anarchy of big cities, and He (or She) is there to structure and organize little communities in the countryside. God is Hope and faith to life, keeping people smiling and appreciating the very little they have, feeling blessed for another day to pass. But God is also another thing: it is the only resistance against this frenzy of malevolent neo-liberal (and neo-conservative at the same time) globality looming above their heads – ready to devour every trace of dignity that’s left to them when going to the supermarket, having to buy chips for 3,5 dollars a packet (average monthly salary in Cambodia is around 340 US). There’s probably a lesson for the rest of us to learn by the Asians. We kept God and philosophy separate. They didn’t. But we have science, we need no lessons to learn.

There’s probably no message to get across in this article – only a few scattered thoughts to share. I keep bringing Yann Martel – a very favorite author to my mind. In “Life of Pi” the little boy in Pondicherry keeps seeking God in all religions. During a family argument and despite his father’s objections, his mother claims (and forgive me for not reproducing): “Science can give answers about the world around us, but it is religion only that can explain the world within”..

Cambodia, Siem Reap; the temples of Angkor.

Angkor is a stunning complex of temples found in the North-west of Cambodia, proudly holding the title of the largest religious monument in the world with Angkor Wat in its heart! The ultimate fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion are a source of inspiration and profound pride to all Khmers (Lonely Planet, 2010). Construction works are estimated to have started in the early 12th century during the dynasty of King Suriavarman II. Angkor Wat was originally a Hinduist temple dedicated to God Vishnu ( Buddhism is the official religion today). The mountain-temple with its surroundings is a representation of the universe with Mt Meru (home to Gods in Hindu mythology) in its center. A surrounding moat that forms a rectangle of 1,5 km by 1,3km dimensions represents the oceans, while an 800m long series of bas-reliefs depicts in anti-clock-wise direction the celebrated scene of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (Gods and devils, holding the opposite sides of a gargantuan serpent are churning the oceans to extract the elixir of immortality, in a fierce battle). Angkor Wat, almost as large in expanse as many modern European cities, is not only to be admired for the human architectural and artistic ingenuity, but also for the jungle’s fecundity and power: the muscular embrace of century-old trees have entrapped the walls of the Ta Prohm temple ruins for ever, while the 54 towers of the Bayon temple are decorated with 216 gigantic carved heads of lord Avalokiteshvara glaring down at every angle of the horizon.
It seems that Angkor Wat is more than an emblematic monument appearing on the Cambodian flag, hotels names, beer and water bottles as well as innumerable products on the supermarket shelves. It is a symbol to hold on to, for a people who has gone through a lot: the Khmer Rouge is a dark page in their history, still bleeding as much as the memory of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, and if the Cambodians are not that smiley as other Asian peoples would be, is because of the memory of famine, a civil war, loads of decades of oppression and political instability in a country that managed to have parliamentary elections only in 2008. They say that quality of life has improved, but food is definitely not to be taken for granted for everyone here, inflation is extremely high and social inequalities very obvious.

Vietnam: Hoi An, City of Lanterns.

This is the most captivating, most picturesque, romantic and chic Vietnamese city – no doubt! The Thu Bon River used to be a glorious international trading port back in the 17th century. Traces of the Chinese, Japanese and European influence are omnipresent – “written” on the splendid, local architecture. We’re in the South now and the visitor can sense the difference in the air between the cities of he North and the Southern ones; communication can be a challenge; hardly do people speak English, but they are easier to approach, more friendly and welcoming. This is a city of good taste: Excellent cafes and restaurants,  a very interesting night market, food, crafts, arts and entertainment. Hoi An makes the traveler wish to pay their respects. Walks across the river can be rather annoying at nights – the river banks can get inundated with tourists but the lantern-lit Hoi An streets are not to be missed. The entire Vietnam seems to be an adventure travel experience, but Hoi An is the gentle face of it..

Vietnam, Cat Ba: The floating Van Gia village.

This was not in the guidebook. It was a discovery that gave us a very blissful afternoon! We had only heard of it and only assumed it exists on a kayak the same morning, rowing to the Monkey Island. The Van Gia floating village lies a few meters away from the southernmost port of Cat Ba island. We rented a little engine fishing boat for only a few dollars and the old gentleman who sailed it was so kind as to give as a full tour across the whole area. What we discovered was a real revelation! An entire autonomous community of 733 people sharing 176 households lives there, earning their livelihood almost exclusively by fishing. The houses look clean and well taken care off: the well-off households even have TV sets and are fully equipped but still humble and far from the tourist frenzy that seems to have somehow “corrupted” the locals-unsure of how to behave before this upcoming, rather violent tourist development. And this brings to the sad story: Vietnam is in S.O.S. The area of Halong Bay (gate to the islands which are supposed to be protected by UNESCO) is suffering from the greedy development of the hotel industry which is literally eating off what would otherwise be a real paradise: massive hotel constructions with absolutely no respect to the culture and natural surroundings, neon lights everywhere, noise pollution from bars and clubs, cheap drinking tourism and terror spreading over the nearby islands. Never before have I seen so much rubish in the sea and coasts. What’s even more alarming is that nobody seems to be concerned either on behalf of the authorities or the locals. It looks like a parody to see happy travelers swimming care-free among plastic bottles, sanitary napkins and plastic bags. It seems that the locals lack environmental awareness and business ethics, the government probably lacks ethics of any kind and the tourists visiting alike. It appears that the paradise will shortly be gone. I’ve got photos which I’d rather not show. I’ll just share my Van Gia shootings to wash bitterness away.

Vietnam: Everybody plays in Hanoi!

 Wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and don’t miss this miracle unfolding before your eyes! People wake up before the city does (shops, morning shifts etc.) and reach for the Hoan Kiem Lake to meditate, take their morning exercise, play: dance, yoga, cycling, fishing, aerobics, weight lifting, chess, massage! Same at dusk! Children inundate the streets to share their toys or improvised game. Children truly play here. You see, video games and technology have not really reached Vietnam yet. The locals are very humble people, very discreet and hard working. They love animals and respect plants. They seem to be tolerant to the western code and they will respect the visitors if the latter leave their attitude back home. It feels that to the Vietnamese there is ritual in everything. The Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Sword Restored”, is the liquid heart of the Old Quartier (Lonely Planet 2010) with its tiny but emblematic to the city Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower). There’s a beautiful legend around it: in the 15th century the Gods sent a heavenly sword to the emperor Ly Thai To, which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day while he was resting in the banks of the Hoam Kien lake, a giant tortoise swimming on the surface, grabbed the sword and disappeared into the waters! Now you know why the name!