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National Geographic: The Rebirth of Armenia

For 3,000 years Armenians
survived conquerors, calamities, and diaspora. Defiance and a long memory
continue to sustain them as they rebuild their Caucasus homeland.

"You are looking at the great Armenian paradox," Jivan
Tabibian said. We stood at the second-floor window of the Foreign Ministry
building in Yerevan, watching clouds scuttle across Mount Ararat’s ice-capped
16,854-foot (5,137-meter) crown. Tabibian, a diplomat whose portfolio includes
ambassadorships to four countries and two international organizations, was
discussing a policy initiative when he abruptly fell silent, gazing at Ararat.
It’s impossible not to be distracted by Ararat in Yerevan. Despite its enormous
mass, the great peak seems to float weightlessly over the city, engaged in
permanent dialogue with Little Ararat, its 12,782-foot (3,896-meter) neighbor.

The vast snowy brow of Ararat glowers, pronounces,
with hallucinatory power. Its name is derived from that of a Bronze Age god, Ara,
whose talismanic cult of death and rebirth mirrored the seasonal transitions of
Ararat from lifeless winter to fertile spring. Little Ararat, by contrast, is an
exercise in calm, rational idealism, a volcanic cone so perfectly shaped that it
suggests not so much what a mountain is as what a mountain ought to be.

You can’t ponder the two Ararats for long without
drifting into philosophical reflection, and the Armenians have been pondering
them since the birth of civilization.

The philosopher in Jivan Tabibian maintains that his
people’s identity is inextricably bound to the experience of loss, to the serial
reorderings of the map that have often stranded their most hallowed landmarks in
someone else’s state. Like the Monastery of St. Gregory the Illuminator deep in
the hills of Nagorno-Karabakh, Mount Ararat lies outside the contemporary
Armenian Republic, beyond the closed frontiers of a hostile Turkey.

"The paradox embodied in that mountain," Tabibian
said, "has to do with our sense of place," the concept that is so essential to
most national identities. "We are not place bound"—an impossibility, given
Armenia’s ceaseless traumas, metamorphoses, and peregrinations—"but we are
intensely place conscious."

Later I repeated Tabibian’s enigmatic words to Vartan
Oskanian, the Republic of Armenia’s foreign minister. And he too offered a
philosopher’s reflection on Ararat. "Every morning we look at it," he said.
"It’s only 25 miles (40 kilometers) from this building, and we feel we can
almost touch it. But we can’t go there. Ararat is our pride and our frustration.
Our history. The unfulfilled dreams that drive us."

Get the whole story in the pages of

National Geographic

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