The Armenian flag is made up of three distinct color stripes. The red at the top evokes the blood of the more than one million Armenians killed in the 1915-17 genocide.
The orange at the bottom signifies the courage of the Armenians, it is also said that the fertility of the country's soil. In the middle, blue translates the most common look of the sky above the nation.
Days followed. All of them with a blue sky from edge to wick, as sunny as you can imagine but frigid to match the beginning of winter in which we were there.
We left the capital Yerevan around 8:30 am pointing northeast. After a strategic passage through Dilijan and an unavoidable visit to the old monastery of Goshavank, we head south.
Shortly after crossing the invisible threshold separating the provinces of Tavush and Gegharkunik, we passed Tsovagyugh and reached the northern and narrowest corner of sevana lich, the supreme lake of the Caucasus.
Sevan's Enterprising Fishermen and Fishmongers
On either side of the road are stalls selling the catch of the day. Several of them have owners or employees at the door displaying large specimens of trout fished in the lake, with an emphasis on the Sevan trout (the ishkhan), an endemic species.
Only the wind blows strong. Fed up with the icy harshness of the gale, certain fishmongers decided to put mannequins in their place. Some of the dolls wear costumes. Others keep their arms open to hold fish. When Christmas approaches, a few appear in the scarlet costume of Santa Claus.
Fishermen in the area have long enjoyed the abundance of fish in the lake and passing drivers on the M4 and M10 roads to make a living.
They often overfish. The Armenian government detects this and imposes ban periods. Fishermen protest and do everything to break the bans. In recent times, they also wish that the Armenian authorities had prevented different damages caused to the lake.
The Blue Eye and the Shortsightedness of the Soviet and Armenian Authorities
In the time of Greater Armenia, when much of present-day eastern Turkey was Armenian territory, the “Armenian Sea” was considered one of the nation's blue eyes. The other was Lake Van. Maxim Gorki described it as "a piece of heaven fallen on the Earth between mountains".
Having lost most of its territory to the Turks – Mount Ararat included – Armenia found itself without the vast Black Sea coast and without access to the sea. Sevan's importance has greatly increased, as has intensified the abuse of the lake.
During the Soviet period, similar to what happened with the sea today Uzbek of Aral, the government of Stalin approved a megalomaniac project by an Armenian engineer named Sukias Manasserian.
Manasserian proposed to drain the lake in 50 of the 90 meters of its depth and the use of this watery immensity in agricultural irrigation of the Ararat plain and in the generation of hydroelectric energy, counting on the retention of the Hrazdan river that comes from the north bottom of the river where we were walking. , in six different dams.
Inexhaustible Fountain of Irrigation and the Beach of the Armenian Nation
At that time, in addition to a livelihood, Sevan was also the nation's recreational and bathing hub. During the summer, the maximum temperatures in Armenia remain for months on end well above 30°C.
The lake attracted a crowd of holidaymakers little or not aware of the consequences of Manasserian's projects and eager to decompress on Sevan's shores and waters. More and more hotel complexes were built. The lake's fame soon attracted visitors from neighboring countries compatible with Armenia.
From 1949 onwards, the inevitable evils of Soviet engineering were felt. The reduction of water and human action in general led to a progressive eutrophication of the lake and a drastic decrease in biological diversity.
In 1964, the Soviet authorities realized that by maintaining that course, Sevan would end up as the Aral Sea.
Somewhat Late and Staggering Resolutions
Until 1981, it was decided to divert the course of two additional rivers to the lake, even though there were already almost thirty rivers and streams that supplied it.
Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the destructive earthquake of 1988, the last of the tunnels that would ensure the diversion of the Vorotan River was only completed in 2004. Thereafter, the level of the lake rose again but not the water. consistently what was planned.
Other ecological problems were already in the pipeline but Sevan has always preserved part of its natural monumentality: 1900 meters above sea level, 5000 km2, the equivalent of 1/6 of modern-day Armenia. We continued to explore what was possible for us.
The Statue and Old Legend of Akhtamar
With Tsovagyugh already behind us, we come face to face with an unusual monument to pride and Armenian nationality: the statue of Akhtamar, evocative of Tamar, an Armenian princess who lived on the island of Akhtamar in Lake Van.
The Armenian national legend says that Tamar fell in love with a peasant who, attracted to her, swam every night to the island, guided by a light that the princess turned on.
One night, however, Tamar's father discovered the affair and decided to end their relationship.
She waited for her daughter to turn on the light and turned it off. Without the reference, the boy swam aimlessly to death, preceded by a scream of akh tamar (Oh Tamar!).
After the Turks took over Lake Van and the island of Tamar, the Armenians decided to erect a statue in honor of the legend. And they did it by the lake that they still preserve. We find her highlighted on top of a rock plinth, as one would expect, the figure of the princess holds the light that guided her lover.
Sevanavank's Riverside and Religious Corner
A few more minutes pass. We arrive at the Sevanavank peninsula, famous for housing one of the countless secular Armenian monasteries, also at the mercy of megalomaniac Soviet contracts.
Originally, the church duo Surp Arakelots e Surp Astvatsatsin that make up the monastery was erected on the shore of what was a small island.
With the artificial drainage of the lake in about 20 meters, this island became the peninsula that we then shared with dozens of Armenian believers moved by that lacustrine interaction with God.
Outside the churches, there is a mini-fair of religious items and souvenirs.
A lady wrapped in a voluminous coat of gray and white knit is impinging rosaries. Nearby, two other enterprising Armenians keep four or five white doves in a cage and earn some dramas providential photographs of visitors to the lake with the peacemaking adornment of birds.
We take one more turn, always beaten by gusts of wind that stir the local atmosphere, between the almost oil blue of the lake and the sky above.
From Armenian Repast to Far Noratus
On the way back, we settle in the restaurant of a hotel in the area and experience the successive delights of Armenian cuisine. We are accompanied by several Iranian families who often cross the Agarak – Norduz border to discover their Christian neighbor to the north.
After the meal, we returned to the van in which we were traveling, led by Vladimir, guided by Cristina Kyureghyan. Vladimir proceeds along the southwestern shore of the lake, through a succession of meanders, some farther away than others from the fresh water.
we passed through vacation homes, by hotel infrastructures closed for the low season and by others that remain as architectural ghosts given over to abandonment and erosion.
Fifty-five kilometers later, we glimpse a sea of yellowish houses almost all with blue tin roofs.
We were at the entrance to Noratus, a village where nearly seven thousand souls live but best known for the eccentricity in which their dead lie.
We wind our way through the alleys of the large village with our destination already marked. Vladimir and Cristina had visited Noratus numerous times. The reason was always the same: the old Armenian cemetery in the village.
The Majestic Cemetery of Noratus
We enter the precinct with the afternoon walking towards the end. The sun, soon to set, orange an immensity of tombs and tombs sculpted according to the previous wishes of the deceased or of the families and of khachkares, funeral cross stones carved with incredible detail and art with rosettes, lattices and botanical motifs.
The medieval cemetery of Noratus is now home to the largest current grouping of khachkares from all over Armenia. This was not always the case. The Armenians complain that this is because their Azerbaijani arch-enemies destroyed hundreds of them in Old Julfa, Nakhichevan province.
Some of Noratus's tombs were crowned by bona fide busts of the deceased and buried. Others, which are familiar, preserve an obvious Soviet profile. They add images of fathers, husbands and children – several of them perished during World War II – printed in black and white on large slate headstones.
Faster than we expected, the end of sunset announced the night and led us to leave the cemetery. We reverse the path to the lakeside and point back to the capital Yerevan with the last death throes of the sunset gilding the same gravel beaches and stillborn resorts we'd passed hours before.
The Bathing Ancestry of Batumi and Sochi
During the Soviet era, Sevan was a favorite bathing destination not only for Armenians, but also for Georgians and even wealthier Russians.
In recent times, the resort of Batumi, on the Georgian coast of the Black Sea and Sochi, situated a few hundred kilometers to the north, in the Russian Krai of Krasnodar, has proved itself to be rivals of another class.
The water level of Lake Sevan can even gradually return to the original. Its quality leaves a lot to be desired.
In June 2019, the BBC revealed to the world that a tide of green algae, fed by a combination of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, in areas burned by summer fires and in household effluent, was taking over the lake. Algae consumed the waning oxygen. And they spread toxins that made the lake not only sterile but harmful.
Armenian environmental organizations claim that, as with the Aral Sea and Lake Baikal, NGOs, United Nations agencies and even private donors must intensify efforts to force Yerevan to take drastic measures.
Armenia emerged just a few months ago and in exemplary form from a political conflict that could have escalated into civil war. It remains to be seen whether the relative democratic stability in which he is now navigating will allow him to save the last of his “blue eyes”.