Antoine Terjanian's letter 06: Sound and light show in Gumri

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Saturday, August 17, 2002
by Antoine Terjanian

I have been very busy and did not have time to write, but I had a delightful week. Great project ideas and meetings with such exciting people, Armenians, young and young at heart. I will share with you my impressions of a visit to Kyumri (sometimes written Gyumri or Gumri).

Kyumri used to be Armenia’s second largest city before it was destroyed by the earthquake of December 1988, for which we have collected money in Ottawa and across Canada. If you remember, the Soviets had called it Leninakan then, changing the name from Alexandropol, which was given to the city by the imperial Russians. It is now called Kyumri again, but was historically called Ko-Mayri, in memory of some famous words pronounced in battle by Prince Vahram Pakhlavouni, in 1047, before the fall of Ani (80 kms away) to Alp Arslan’s Seljouk Turks. Prince Pakhlavouni, although very brave (he died sword-in-hand in that battle together with his son Krikor), did not use very polite words when he met face to face with a huge Turkish bashi-bouzouk who was hurling insults at him. Prince Pakhlavouni, picked-up a spear aimed it at a spot between the eyes of the bashi-bouzouk and threw it at him shouting: ‘ays al ko mayri’ (and this one for your mother). Ko-Mayri became the battle cry of the Armenian troupes and they were able to repel the invading Seldjouks then, but as we know, not for very long. Some of the people who escaped from Ani ended-up building the new settlement: Ko-Mayri.

I visited the tomb, 8 kms north of Kyumri, where Prince Vahram Pakhlavouni and his son Krikor are buried. They lay peacefully in front of the beautiful church of Marmashen Vank, which was recently renovated thanks to a grant by the Italian Government. The tombstone is cracked and I would not have been able to decipher the inscriptions had I not had the help of this wrinkled-faced old Armenian villager, Seriosh, who guards the church and the surrounding park at the corner of this beautiful creek (Azat) with lovely water falls, and the Akhourian river. I went swimming under one of the waterfalls. It was great! Seriosh seemed very knowledgeable and he told me so many anecdotes about that part of Armenian history, and about the Pakhlavounis that I had never heard before. I will share one of them with you.

Apparently the Pakhlavounis were very famous in that period. If you remember the Katoghigué and Ketcharis Churches that we visited in Dzaghgadzor, these were also built by some other Pakhlavounis. The ancestor of the Pakhlavounis was a very smart peasant with an appetite for good food and a good sense of marketing. He liked so much the ‘Tertanoush’ that Movses Koshkerian used to bring to church; he stole the recipe and started commercialising the pastries under his own family name, calling it «Pakhlava». As we now know, pakhlava was adopted by many cultures in the region, but by then, the Pakhlavounis had become very rich and their descendants became brave princes, who gave us beautiful churches. Unfortunately, only the main church chapel in Marmashen was renovated. Two other beautiful chapels destroyed by the 1988 earthquake stand next to it, but the walls of the houses surrounding the vank (monastery) can hardly be distinguished from the rubble. From the Vank, I can see the remnants of the Vahramabert fortress on the Akhourian river, one mile away.

Huge Russian machines are used to extract the re-inforcing steel from the concrete walls that were dumped nearby after the 1988 earthquake. The steel is being recycled. Can you imagine, 14 years after the earthquake, half the population still lives in «domigs», those little metal containers brought by the rescuers in December 1988 to house the people whose apartment buildings were destroyed. There is so much to be done, but there is hope. A large part of the population is unemployed, but they have creative ideas to attract the tourists and let them spend the night in Kyumri, instead of just coming over looking at the ruins and driving back to Yerevan (less than 2 hours away).

There is a beautiful 19th century Russian fortress in Kyumri (Sev Gol). It is perfectly round and beautifully preserved. It resisted all Ottoman and Persian attacks, and was not affected by the1926 nor the 1988 earthquakes (read about Gyumri). It dominates Kyumri, next to the huge monument to «Mayr Hayastan».

The unemployed but educated youth of Kyumri got together and formed a co-operative to create a «sound and light» show and the representation of a historical battle around the fortress during the beautiful and cool summer nights in Kyumri. The tickets are inexpensive (10 USD) and the show is definitely worth to stay-over for. So when you come to Armenia make sure you do not miss this unique show. You arrive at dusk to the bottom of the ramp leading to the fortress; you can hear from afar the davouls and zournas of the Turkish army besieging the fortress. Once you get there, some bashibouzouks check your tickets and let you through to climb the ramp on foot. You can see the bivouacs of Turgut Bey’s army, they are preparing for the final assault on the fortress …tonight…

Through the smoke you can see some soldiers gathered around a crazy looking Kurdish clown who is entertaining them, berating the “…chicken Russians and their Armenian vassals who are hiding in the fortress with their women, and dare not come down to fight like men…” According to the young interpreter-guides accompanying us, the clown is shouting in fluent Kurdish and Turkish… The scene is obviously taken from Raffi’s “Khente” (did you read the book ?– if not, you can read or download a beautiful English translation here).

We are now halfway up the ramp, in the no-man’s-land. We can hear both armies hurling insults and trying to intimidate each other. The last bashi-bouzouks we meet ask us to explain to these ‘giavours’ (infidel Christians) when we get up there, what they will do to them tomorrow once they take the fortress. It is definitively scary!

As we go further up we can see the beautiful monument to «Mayr Hayastan», standing high and proud above the smoke next to the fortress… Is this real? Will the Turkish army leave the monument untouched?… I remind myself this is just a sound & light show.

When we arrive at the fortress’ door we are greeted by this beautiful Armenian maiden, Sara. She is just gorgeous. She insists and repeats her name to us ‘Sar-a’ with one ‘r’, ‘mer lerneri bes’ she says; she has a pictogram to prove it. We are shown our seats inside the fortress by some elderly ladies who offer us ‘sourj’ (Armenian coffee) and later read our fortune in our cups. They are a bit jealous of Sara’s beauty and we learn that Sara is the Russian commander’s mistress. We learn about the history of the fortress: The city is now called Alexandropol. We learn that the few Russian troupes and the brave Armenian volunteers defending the fortress are exhausted, that they used the last water they had to, in legendary Armenian hospitality, serve us sourj. We learn that they sent volunteers to try and bring some water from the Akhourian but none of them returned. We learn that a crazy Armenian volunteer, Vartan was sent through the besieging Turkish lines to inform Count Smirnoff, the leader of the Russian armies in the Caucasus stationed in Kars about their desperate situation. Then we hear the Kroonks (cranes) fly over the fortress. Sara gets on stage and sings Gevorg Emin’s famous poem (Kroonk Kna, hayots tashdi, dzaghigue dar bantoukhdneri…. Per mer hayots, bantoukhdneri, ou yed tartsir, parov tarnass). She hardly finishes her song when there is an agitation among the defenders. We see the crazy Kurdish clown, he is Vartan, and he made it back through the Turkish lines. But he does not bear good news. Count Smirnoff cannot help relieve the besieged and has ordered the Russian garrison to abandon the fortress through the secret tunnel leading to the Akhourian River.

The Armenian volunteers have decided to stay and fight and will cover the Russian retreat. The Russian commander wants Sara to come with him. She gets on stage and sings this beautiful song. She is torn between going with her lover to safety and comfort and staying with her brethren to fight and die. I let you guess what she decides*… A few trumpet bursts signal the Russian retreat. After they leave their flag is lowered, and the Yerrakouyn is hoisted to face Turgut Bey’s hordes. The Kyumri folk-dance ensemble performs ‘Sartarabadi bar’ (war dance) on stage. We can now hear the ‘zoulgouts’(wails) of the Turkish women, from below the ramparts, encouraging their men for the final assault. We are summoned to the ramparts to help defend the fortress. The view is breathtaking. There is a huge number of Turkish infantry attacking with ladders and shining swords… Where did they get so many actors to play the role of Turkish attackers? Are there so many unemployed in Kyumri? Did they actually invite a Turkish crowd from across the border to participate in these games?…. I am a bit scared, but keep reminding myself that this is just a sound & light show…. Some Armenian defenders come to us and offer us rifles: for 200 drams (50 cents) we can actually take 3 shots at the Turkish attackers. For 5 dollars, we can blast them by firing the big cannon at them. I tried that, it was less personal, but what a trip it is when you see the Turkish attackers fly-off with their ladders….

The battle lasts as long as the tourists are willing to pay and shoot. Then suddenly there is this big noise. The platform on which we are standing near the ramparts is shaking like mad. I hold on to the ramp. We are told it is an earthquake. The attacking Turks are as petrified as we are. They take off leaving behind their ladders…. We are told this is the worse earthquake to hit the region. The fortress stands, but Alexandropol is destroyed. The Turks are gone but there is a lot required to build Ko-Mayri again. Sara and Vartan are there to lead the effort and inspire us**… Later on they may get married, and we’ll all gather to hear Aida sing Nigoghos Tashdjian’s Lorke, and we’ll all dance.

Sorry folks, this sound and light show is not staged “yet” in Kyumri. It is the product of my imagination. But I know we can do it, and I will work on it with all those interested. I am convinced the local hotels can fork-out some funds to help set it up. After all they will benefit from tourists staying overnight in Kyumri. Will the Mayor of Kyumri and the Governor of the Shiragui Marz offer the fortress to the youth co-operative to stage the show? Perhaps they can clean it up and transform it into a museum with paid and guided visits during the day? Would Kouyr Arousyag and her wonderful orphans help? Perhaps they can sow the costumes, sing, and perform?? What a job-creation idea? When revenues from the tourists cover the debt incurred for the purchase of sound and light equipment, the Kyumri actors will start getting paid. Does any of you know how whole villages in France and Italy participate in running their sound & light shows?

So many ideas… Let us get moving on this one too.