What do Cher, the Kardashians, Andre Agassi, Charles Aznavour (& even Steve Jobs) have in common?
The Kardashians at the Armenian genocide memorial

What do Cher, the Kardashians, Andre Agassi, Charles Aznavour (& even Steve Jobs) have in common?

PURPLE SHADES - Letty Jacinto-Lopez (The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2020 - 12:00am

The answer to that titular question is that they are all Armenians!

Cher, the Hollywood singer and actress, continues to reinvent herself in her risqué fashion style and music concerts. The Kardashians have become a byword in reality TV, celebrating their opulent lifestyle and complicated dalliances. Andre Agassi is a celebrated tennis legend; the late Charles Aznavour was a popular French balladeer who earned a strong following with platinum hits like She, Hier Encore (Yesterday when I was Young), and was a strong advocate of his ancestral homeland, Armenia.

And who doesn’t know Apple computer founder Steve Jobs? His adopted mother Clara Hagopian was Armenian, but Jobs welcomed everything Armenian into his life, including speaking the language fluently.

With that, we began our interesting tour of Armenia, arranged by Arlina Onglao.  We drove from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia — about five hours — stopping at an Armenian bakeshop that lured us with the smell of freshly baked lavash made from flour, water, salt, and sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds.  They were fired in a deep cylindrical clay stone oven called a toneer.  The dough is slapped against the wall of the toneer. The bread was hot, filling and totally satisfying.

How can you spot Armenia on the world map?  It’s the only country shaped like the profile of a young girl.

What caught my eye? Religious estampitas of the Mother and Child — a sometimes chubby Mary was shown with the Infant Jesus holding the Armenian native fruit, the pomegranate, or baby Jesus holding a globe, a crucifix or simply with hands posed in greeting.  They were completely different in style, color, garments and facial expression, yet recognizable to all religious groups.

We went to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, or the Matenadaran (“Mat” means manuscript, while “Danaran” means place), where you can really appreciate the Bible as a book.

Prepare yourself to be dazzled by this repository of ancient manuscripts that cover a broad range of subjects: theology, history, medicine, literature, art and cosmography — the sea, earth and universe.  This museum-cum-institute holds one of the world’s richest written collections dating back to thousands of years ago.   

I was captivated to see works of the early scribes, who used ink dyes from natural stones like lapis lazuli, malachite, and gold.  The red ink came from worms or scaled insects called cochineal (from the pulverized bodies of insects), while book covers were made of carved ivory dating back to the 6th century.  Goatskin was used for the pages.

Armenia 101

In history, the Armenian kingdom was described as spanning “sea to sea,” covering the green parts of Turkey down to Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and the Black, Caspian and Mediterranean Seas.

Armenians didn’t participate in the holy synods in Calcedonia and Nicea.  They are Christians belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is one of the oldest Christian churches.  They were founded in the 1st century AD and, in 301 AD, became the first branch of Christianity to become a religion.  The head of their church is called Catholicos, who resides in Echmiadzin, near Yerevan.

Armenia gained independence from Russia in 1990 when their churches and monasteries were reopened.  Armenian monks are found in St. Lazarus near Venice, in Israel (the Holy Land), and in Turkey.  They speak Russian and English, too.

We were introduced to the duduk, an Armenian wind instrument that sounds like an oboe, made from apricot wood. It is described as producing sad, solemn sounds that are truly haunting. I heard an Armenian say that it is like being transported back to a “windswept Caucasian hill 2,000 years ago.”

The Armenian version of chicken salad

Armenian food

An Armenian meal usually starts with mezze — appetizers made of cheese, cut vegetables and cured meat. Manti is soup with dumplings shaped like little boats stuffed with ground lamb or beef and topped with fresh yoghurt. They were golden, crunchy and tasty.

Traditional dishes include Basturma, cured meat served with Armenian red wine; Khoravat, barbecued meat grilled over a wood fire so it has a smoky flavor; Kashlama, slow-cooked lamb or beef served with vegetables; Dolma, meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves; Su Boreg, a boiled phyllo dish; Harissa, or chicken porridge; and Gata — not our coconut milk but sweet bread or puff pastry stuffed with nuts.

At Lake Sevan they served us fish kebabs that were marinated with spices and grilled. And, like in Georgia, they also have the Churchkela (a string of walnuts dipped into fruit juices) and the Tklapi, or fruit lavash made from fruit puree, sun-dried on a clothesline and rolled up into paper-thin sheets.   

Sculpture by Jaume Plensa

Mt. Ararat & Noah’s Ark

The national symbol of Armenia is Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood.  It is depicted on their coat of arms.  Our guide, Ani Manoukian, told us that visitors like releasing doves in the hopes that they will fly to Mount Ararat. 

Noah supposedly died at the age of 950, 350 years after the great flood.

You can actually climb up the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts (CCA) or The Cascade, a museum built ziggurat-style (meaning it’s a pyramid-shaped with two to seven tiers).  You can ascend stairs to reach each level.   There’s a well-manicured garden with bronze sculptures by world-renowned artists/sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Jaume Plensa, Fernando Botero, etc.

Author Letty Lopez at Ararat mountains from the Khor Virap Monastery

Philanthropist Gerard Cafesjian built The Cascade as a poignant memorial to Armenia.

I loved the tragic but brilliant love story preserved in Noravank Monastery, designed and built by Momik, the architect. “Anything he touched turned to magic,” and Momik fell in love with a princess who reciprocated his feelings. The father of the princess agreed to their marriage, provided Momik built first “a temple of incredible and unmatched beauty.”

Momik went to work, cutting chunks of rock and carving them into building blocks. He was soon putting finishing touches on the dome while crouching on the very top of the temple when, suddenly, Momik was pushed off by a jealous suitor of the princess.  Momik plummeted to the ground, clutching the last block of the dome in his hands.  That stone became his tombstone.  But the beauty of Noravank never died.

Echmiadzin Museum

Biblical artifacts

You can find relics traceable to Jesus and other biblical artifacts at the Echmiadzin Museum, a mouthful to pronounce.

Among the reliquaries we viewed were the Holy Lance (Geghart) that pierced the side of Christ; the true Cross of Jesus; wood from Noah’s Ark; and relics from the apostles Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Andrew and George, including Ananias  (a disciple of Jesus mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles). He was sent by Jesus to restore the sight of Saul of Tarsus and provide him with additional instruction on the way of the Lord. He baptized Saul, who became known as St. Paul.

The Armenian Genocide took place in 1915 during World War I. Leaders of the Turkish government set into motion a plan to expel and massacre Armenians living in Turkey, executing intellectuals, burning homes, pillaging villages, raping and killing women and children and sending them on death marches through the desert without food and water. 

By 1920, millions of Armenians perished, with many more forcibly removed from Turkey in a diaspora that scattered Armenians to neighboring countries in Europe and others to faraway America, China, India and Australia.

A memorial sits on elevated ground with an arrow-shaped granite structure reaching up to the sky symbolizing the survival and spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people.  Next to it is a circular structure where an eternal flame burns. Armenians and visitors alike leave flowers in memory of those who were killed and who were kicked out.  The motto is “I remember and demand,” because to this day, this genocide is not recognized by Turkey.

Armenia in film

There is a beautiful two-part film on the plight of an Armenian family who settled in France that starred Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale entitled Mayrig and Rue Paradis.  Even in exile, they kept sacred their love for Armenia, working and raising their son with honesty, integrity and unstinting love. 

Another film, Ararat, traces the genocide and how generations of Armenians kept the memory alive in their hearts.  Author William Saroyan was an American-Armenian novelist, playwright and short story writer.  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the Oscar for the best film adaptation of his novel, The Human Comedy.  He wrote extensively about the Armenian immigrant life in California.

Our guide Ani Manoukian aroused feelings of empathy within me when she said, “Anywhere in the world, where there is an Armenian, there is a common pathos we share.  We draw this collective sigh of longing for home.  Armenia is where our heart is, forever and lovingly entrenched.”

With that, Ani took us to La Folie for more traditional Armenian cuisine.   We said “Bari!” which means “bon appétit.”

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