We partnered with Hyur Service on a day trip just outside of Yerevan. While Hyur Service sponsored our trip, all opinions are our own.
We hadn't prepped much for our trip to Yerevan and Armenia, but we did have a tour booked with Hyur Service on our first full day in town. Hyur Service comes highly recommended on TripAdvisor and the Armenian woman we met in Jerusalem also told us about them. Such great praise meant we just had to try it out!
We are not generally people who take day tours on mini buses or in large groups, so we had a bit of trepidation as we set out from our apartment in Yerevan to our meeting point at the Hyur offices. When we first arrived at the scene, we saw lots of tourists milling about, a full size bus and two minibuses parked and waiting on the street. We both looked at each other and wondered if we should back out. Minibuses and large buses usually mean guides with flags, microphones and name badges for the participants - nothing we enjoy. We decided to forge ahead and met with our guide, Datev, to check in. To our great relief we were not issued any name badges or ID and she did not wield a flag. She did have a microphone, but only while on the minibus. Things were off to a good start. We loaded onto the minivan - along with a large Chilean group, two gals from Italy, two guys from Italy, one fellow from Ireland and an older man from Iran - and headed on our way.
First Stop: Matenadaran (Manuscript Museum)
We like books as much as the next person, maybe even more, but the idea of going to a manuscript museum was a little less than exciting for us. But, we are so glad this was part of the tour. The minibus drove up a fairly steep hill and parked in front of an imposing building called Matenadaran. This building houses old Armenian, Persian, Arabic and other manuscripts from ancient times to more recent. The building is beautiful and is adorned with statues of Armenian luminaries including the largest statue of the creator of the original Armenian alphabet, Mashtots (side note, Zac and I both just love to say his name and think about Tater Tots and Mashed potatoes combined).
We were whisked upstairs to the main manuscript hall and handed over to a museum guide. The place was crowded with other tour groups and the noise level was prohibitive at some points. It was difficult to hear our guide providing the details of the manuscripts and their importance, but what bits we could hear were incredible. These manuscripts are beautiful, complex and still used for study. This ended up being far more interesting than either of us would have imagined. We spent probably one to one and half hours here all told and then headed out to the village of Echmiadzin to see some significant churches.
Next Stop: Churches of Echmiadzin
We had some difficulty hearing Datev while we were on the bus. There were other people speaking and the microphone was not so strong. We were in the back of the bus and had lots of other ambient noise to deal with as well. What we could hear was that we were headed to a series of three churches (one of them is actually a Cathedral) in the area of Echmiadzin.
Our first stop was the beautiful Church of St. Hripsime. Apparently, St. Hripsime, along with her three sisters, was an early practitioner of Catholicism. She was also reportedly one of the most beautiful women in Armenia. The king at the time, King Trdat, wanted to make her his wife but because he was a Pagan and she a Christian, Hripsime turned him down. And well, he didn't take is so well. Hripsime was stoned to death and martyred on the spot where her namesake church now stands. In fact, there is a tomb where she is reportedly buried in the lower level of the church though no one has ever tested whether or not she is really there.
It's a beautiful serene place and is apparently one of the first examples of a central domed church. Datev took us around the building and spoke of the important details and more about Hripsime and her sisters. The stoning/martyrdom would follow them as well, and the other church on our tour was dedicated to one of them.
Saint Gayane church was our next stop. Apparently, while her sister Hripsime was being tortured, Gayane told her to keep strong and hold to her beliefs. Again, the King did not care for this advice and Gayane was then tortured and martyred in the location where her eponymous church now stands. This is another great example of an Armenian Apostolic church and carries some of the same motifs as that of Hripsime. One thing that really stood out to me was the lack of adornments on the church buildings themselves. Gayane and Hripsime churches are exercises in restraint. The buildings contain few design flourishes when compared with other churches and there are no frescoes inside. The walls are basically the same brick as seen on the outside and there are a few stone carvings here and there, particularly at the altars. There are paintings of icons around as well, but still nothing ostentatious or lavish. There is also a tomb in the lower levels for Saint Gayane.
I had a difficult time understanding a lot of what Datev was saying about the construction of the churches and some parts of the stories of these martyred women, so some of the points are not terribly clear. I was intrigued enough with their story to come home and look it up online (you should too, it's quite interesting) and learned that there were an additional 38 nuns who were also martyred (thanks Wikipedia). You might be wondering what became of the King who caused these martyrdoms? Well, he ended up converting to Christianity and brought Armenia along with him.
After some time on our own to wander around the church and get some photos, we were back on the bus and headed to the Mother Cathedral of Echmiadzin. This cathedral complex was unlike any of the other churches we saw on this tour. The difference strikes you right when you pull up to the gate. There's a huge entryway that greets you as you cross into the complex. And it is a complex. There was a lot of hustle and bustle going on during our tour which made it difficult to hear the full description of what was really going on there. What I did understand is that the complex is not only home to the cathedral itself, but also to a seminary; and apparently a really difficult one at that.
Datev told us about the hierarchy that exists amongst the priests in the Apostolic church and how married priests can only rise up so far within the organization (despite their education), while unmarried priests can ascend as high as possible. It felt like we were standing amongst a venerable institution as we listened to Datev explain the buildings, the relics and additional details before we headed on the the cathedral. The buildings on this "campus" are quite beautiful and also include a newly constructed building to house additional manuscripts to support the Matenadaran. The students will be able to access these texts for study. We headed on through the campus (the streets are in the shape of the cross) and stood in front of the cathedral. It did not look like the other churches we had seen earlier in the morning. And wow! It's so different inside.
The Mother Cathedral is adorned with beautiful frescoes and crystal chandeliers. There are multiple highly carved 'thrones' that were gifts from the Armenian diaspora. There were many people in devotion and lighting candles while we were there observing the beautiful interior. Zac and I took a moment to rest and reflect and take in the beauty of this church. As we sat there looking out at the people and the surroundings, we both found ourselves being told to move or do something with our legs. You see, we both had crossed our legs, which is apparently not ok while sitting in the church. It took us a few seconds to realize that this is what the priest was trying to tell us before we uncurled our legs. We later asked Datev about this (since it was so surprising to us) and she simply said "we would never think to sit like that in the church. It's just not done. But they are a modern church and shouldn't have told you to change." Take this as your etiquette lesson the next time you find yourself in a church in Armenia!
Next Stop: Lunch Break
It was about 2pm by the time we were finished with photos and taking our time in the Mother Cathedral and I think we were all ready for a little lunch. At the beginning of the day Datev passed around a menu with four options. We each selected an option if we wanted to partake. Lunch was not included in the tour price but we decided that food would be a good idea so signed up. There's no pressure to do so, as the Chilean group abstained from the restaurant food and ate their own lunch on the minibus. We walked into an interesting setup. Lunch was being served in some sort of cultural center that seems to assist children and engage in traditional crafts. There was the restaurant which had several large tourist groups inside, studios/educational rooms and a shop where you can buy some Armenian crafts.
Tourist restaurants are generally not known for being the best food. And while lunch wasn't the best meal I've ever eaten, it was good. It also gave us an opportunity to get to know some of the people on the trip. This is where we learned where everyone was from and what brought them to Armenia in the first place. We were having such a good conversation that we lost track of time and Datev had to come rouse us to pay the bill and move on to the next and final destination.
Next Stop: Zvartnots Temple/Cathedral
With full bellies we all piled back into the minivan and headed about 20 minutes back in the direction of Yerevan for our final stop on the tour - Zvartnots Temple. Aside from being a really fun word to say, we had no idea what was in store for us. Ruins. Zvartnots is a 7th century temple/cathedral that was destroyed in the 10th century either by an earthquake or by "muslims".
Datev mentioned something about the building not being very earthquake proof and there are theories that say that it was an earthquake that was the temple's undoing. Whatever is was, you can imagine the grandeur that was this building even as you stand amongst its rubble. There is a museum on site as well that provides some explanation and history of the site and includes some original artifacts as well - a sundial and very small mosaic fragments. As interesting as this was, our favorite part of the museum was a wooden reconstruction of the three storied building. It wasn't just the model that was exciting for us, but the fact that you can open it up and look inside! This provided a few great photo ops for us and we were giddy as we left the museum and headed back out into the open air section of the ruins. There were two dogs on hand that had everyone petting and cooing as we headed back to the minivan for our trip back into Yerevan proper.
Last Stop: Yerevan
It was a quick ride back into Yerevan and several of our tour mates departed the minivan at their hotel instead of Hyur's offices. The rest of us disembarked where we had started the tour several hours earlier (about five - six hours in total) and thanked Datev for a great day. We did enjoy our trip with Hyur and saw things we would not normally have gone out of our way to see. It was a good way to begin in our time in Armenia and get a small taste of what Yerevan has to offer.
Thanks again to the support of Hyur Service for this opportunity! Hyur Service offers more than just day trips from Yerevan. They coordinate private tours, facilitate apartment and hotel rentals and so much more!