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A VISIT TO THE CAUCASUS

The Caucasus, or to be more precise: the southern Caucasus, namely Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, has been of great fascination for many travellers since the 19th century. Pushkin paid a visit, and so did Lermontov, two of Russia's pre-eminent poets of their time, and their compatriot and writer Alexander Griboyedov was even buried there (in Tbilisi). 

So it was with some excitement that I boarded the plane to travel to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, in summer 2002, to begin a two-week tour of these three States. From Baku, I continued with the overnight "American Express Train" to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and from there overland by 4x4 to the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. 

First stop: Baku

The official reason for visiting Baku was to attend, and cover as a press officer, a conference on religious freedoms there. The event was no spectacular success and the only noteworthy element may have been the presence of Azerbaijan's heavy-handed and authoritarian president at the time, Heydar Aliyev. 

Baku is the scientific, cultural, and industrial centre of Azerbaijan. It lies at the Caspian Sea and made its name mainly during the outgoing 1800s, when oil was discovered at its shores. Many grand turn-of-the-century villas were built by oil barons, and outside of town old drilling rigs are still silently nodding away.

The Maiden Tower from the 12th century in Old Baku is the capital's official symbol.

Overnight train travel from Baku to Tbilisi. 

Second stop: Tbilisi

In Georgia, I was to visit the border monitoring mission of an international organisation based there, which since has been closed down. At the time, however, international border monitors would regularly hike or ski across the mountain ranges bordering the Russian Federation, especially the regions of North Ossetia and Chechnya, to observe the movements of people across the green border. 

Tbilisi was the headquarters of this organisation and only a little time was dedicated to discovering the city but I managed to visit the old town by foot and some of the surroundings by car. At the time, Georgia hosted a great number of Chechen refugees and an undercurrent of political tension was tangible, mainly related to the fragile relationship of the Georgian central authorities with the two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Visiting the old town of Tbilisi at the time meant like going back in history.  Potholed cobbled streets were leading past ancient dilapidated houses built at the turn of the (20th) century, and greenery was sprouting uncontrolled everywhere. There were not a lot of people out and about but the summer heat meant that what life there was, played out in the open. The Soviet past was not present in the old town, and small details even reminded me of Georgia's ancient connections with Western Europe. 

One outing from Tbilisi led us to South Ossetia, where we met journalists and members of civil society organisations working on democracy building. South Ossetia at the time was a separatist province considered by Georgia as part of its heartland; however, since 2008 it is under de facto control of Russia. The way to South Ossetia led past Gori, Stalin's birthplace, and across a small river that constituted the unofficial "border" but was mainly used by the locals to wash their cars.

On the way, we dropped by the Stalin museum in Gori.

It is a rather grim reminder of the Soviet personality cult.

Back in Tbilisi, we pay a visit to some of Georgia's orthodox churches in the region, visited by many for Sunday service and, of course, for weddings.

Here comes the bride.

A view onto Tbilisi from Mtatsminda Pantheon, where Alexander Griboyedov was buried after he was killed by a mob in Tehran, where he was Russian Ambassador.

Overland by car from Tbilisi to Yerevan.

Third stop: Yerevan

The office of the international organisation I was supposed to visit, was located in Yerevan, Armenia's capital. Driving from Baku to Yerevan would have been a much more direct choice but due to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute over an area that both countries claim as theirs, no direct border crossings were possible. Hence the (welcome) detour via Georgia.

The drive to Tbilisi led me past imposing Lake Sevan, the largest lake of Armenia and indeed the Caucasus region (see also first image above). The scenery was very impressive - a mountain range in the east, the lake in front of it, and the long road stretching into the far distance.

The Armenian church claims to be one of the oldest - if not the oldest - Christian community in the world outside of Israel. There are dozens of churches and monasteries in Armenia, the most famous being the Etchmiadzin Cathedral.

There is constant renovation work going on in Etchmiadzin, and gold smiths are busy replacing the fine gold plate on the colourful iconography found everywhere on the monastery complex.

Etchmiadzin is not only visited by believers. Young people fetch water at the wells on grounds...

... and military delegations pay visits to the monastery.

We also visited one of Armenia's smaller and more industrial cities, of which I unfortunately did not record the name, it could have been either Vanadzor or Tsakhkadzor.

Old Soviet-built cars were still ubiquitous in Armenia at the time, and the industrial complexes seemed to have little concern for the environment.


Some street photographs in the town.


Armenia has in 2003 a thriving NGO community, working on everything from freedom of speech to democratic development, to the strengthening of environmental legislation.

These two women were working for a local human rights NGO.

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