Marietta Shaginyan

Walks Through Armenia


Written: 1927;
Published: A New Life Begun: Prose, Poetry and Essays of the 1920s - 1930s, Progress Publishers, 1987.
Translated: Paula Garb;
Transcribed: for in February, 2002.


At four in the morning it is still dark outside, although stars are already expanding like circles in water around a falling stone: in just a second they will vanish completely. A monotonous ringing can be heard from around the corner. Large, gray animals that look like a pile of stones liven up, stand up, shake themselves, and quiet shadows load large boxes on their backs; in a minute a caravan will parade down the street. Camel after camel, shuffling their hooves, leave behind them huge flat prints the shape of pancakes. Each is attached to the other by rope. Not one animal in the world, except the camel and birds, have such a keen sense of a straight line. Perhaps this sense has been trained by the rope that is the caravan chain. As they shake their heads the camels make the crude and strange bells hanging from their necks ring out the doleful music of drifters.

The caravan goes through Erivan from the Ararat valleys, along the road to Kanakir. It takes bees to their "country home." The boxes contain beehives where the sojourner bees wait patiently; they do not like the heat. At the end of June, when the beat becomes unbearable in villages near Erivan, beekeepers put their bees on camels and send them off to the mountains.

The last camel shuffled out of town and the morning begins. A rose-coloured tint touches the Ararat. Overhead is a naked, still wet blue cloudless sky. People are beginning to appear on the streets: waterers. Three times a day, sweating to death, they fill pails of water from sidewalk ditches made in Erivan as in oriental cities. The ditches murmur to the right and left of crosswalks but do not make the place cooler. The waterers pour water from the pails onto the streets until the layer of dust turns to mud: within an hour it will again become dust.

All the soil here is volcanic: the dust is acrid and makes breathing difficult, the dirt is like glue. Watering the streets was started since the establishment of Soviet government and is done in a strange way. It is not clear why an ordinary barrel with a water spout is not driven through the streets, or why a hose is not used? The people who do this terrible job look tortured. And so the labour safety authorities have found a solution: once a week, on Wednesdays, the streets are not watered. The Tantaluses take a breather and the people sneeze.

The morning is filled with the drawn-out voices of vendors advertising their wares, scurrying carriers with wooden backpacks, and a donkey loaded with fresh greens. The city rises with all its inconspicuous features, uncomely at first sight, brownish from tuff rock used in construction, flat-roofed, scrubbed up by the Soviet sanitary culture, and filled with tall waste bins--just like Moscow. Despite all its outward modesty Erivan is the world's most captivating city.

To appreciate the beauty of its crooked streets due to be pulled down, its arches, and its extreme provincialisms you have to live here a long time and learn to observe. You won't understand anything here with ordinary concepts of beauty. Whoever comes to Armenia from picturesque parts of the Caucasus, from the Black Sea, or from Georgia is disappointed. Such people expect at least to see the same huge conglomerations, effects and abundance: cliffs, ravines, luxuriant forests, the bright glow of greenery--in other words, an ornamental land. Instead they find themselves in desert expanses that are so vast that even large objects tend to get lost.

It is like moving into a flat without furniture. But if you watch for a long time and get a feel for this scantiness, Armenia begins to look like a beautiful ancient carpet that has gathered lots of dust. Erivan charms you like this dingy carpet. Look until you can see the pattern through the grime and the colours become distinctly seen. Sandy, smoky, pale blue, and ash gray, but they are at least not artificial, they cannot be removed any more than it is possible to take away from this harmony the secret of its style.

The outskirts of town, the Muslim neighbourhoods, look like a cemetery. The roofs have been pulled off, the houses are dilapidated, the structures smell of dust, the clay is chipped and the whitewash pealed. All this is going to be pulled down. Also doomed are the small side-streets with their high-walled homes whose windows do not face the sidewalks, and the Muslim women wearing veils bent under the weight of water pitchers. They will all disappear and become things of the past; the precious arches and niches fixed in the walls will be taken apart. The city is being planned anew; it is being rebuilt.

The one who heads this demolition is a tall and gray-haired man who wears brown glasses, and who is called "people's architect of Armenia". He has the wisdom of a reaper who mows and mows, cutting the wheat-ears, making the grain immortal, reviving it the next sowing season.

Academician Tamanov, one of the most popular figures in Armenia, gave up his vice-presidential post, fame as a superb architect, his customary environment and comfort to take up the extremely difficult job of building a new country in a remote provincial area and despite the bitter complaints of those whose gardens and orchards are being razed and homes pulled down. He began by selecting good architects to work with him and by organising a workshop where specialists would collect and study with thoroughness and appreciation, through the prism of ethnic instincts every detail of the fanciful Armenian architectural style.

From its very outset the Armenian "Renaissance" has been on the right track. There was the temptation of taking a purely aesthetic approach to Armenia's past. The intelligentsia that came to Erivan essentially found itself in an outdoor museum of endless ruins; surrounded by history, it would have been easy to be content with describing, collecting and cataloguing, the esteemed work done before the Revolution by the persistent staff of the Echmiadzin.

What was correctly decided instead was to promote living culture and not just get up a lifeless museum. Tamanov mercilessly replanned Erivan and other towns and villages. Numerous "museum" streets and buildings have been marked for destruction. He will cover Armenia with convenient residential well-planned settlements whose locations have been rationally chosen. Yet none of the elements of Armenian architecture will be lost--the arches, corner decorations, the sad and gently proportioned covered niches, the distinctively laid stones, love for the semicircle, and clear-cut ornamentation that tends to be designed horizontally rather than vertically--a style typical of peoples who build with wood and work on wood. They will all be revived in new structural ensembles just as wheat-ears are revived from grain that has been sown.

The wise blend of ethnic style and modern techniques is already evident: Tamanov has built a powerful hydroelectric power station on the Zanghi River. This station now serves Erivan and in the future will supply energy to factories and neighbouring towns as well. The hydroelectric power station stands over the river in a ravine made of hexagonal basalt columns. These huge posts do not in any way overshadow the magnificent basalt slabs used in the structure. The impressive yet exquisite building contains all the elements of Armenian style-the excellent use of space, precision stone laying, niches that are modest but all the more expressive for it. All in all it is a familiar, musical, and organising landscape in the integral unity of its style.


[1] The official name (till 1936) of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, one of the Soviet republics.-ed.