I love stumbling on festivals or community celebrations while travelling – it’s happened to us more than a few times and it’s always a lot of fun. More than that, it’s usually a great way to learn something new and get an insider’s perspective on the local religion or culture.
During our time in the Caucasus we had a chance to celebrate a few special events, including Orthodox Easter Sunday in Yerevan and Georgian Independence Day in Tbilisi. The timing was sheer luck. On both occasions, we were outsiders: tourists dropping in on days usually spent with friends and family. Both were joyful, festive events that we were generally familiar with, and we were excited to see how things were done on the other side of the world. We had no trouble finding our place in the celebrations, and we felt warmly welcomed and included.
Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is marked annually on April 24, and this year, it happened to fall just after Easter while we were still in Yerevan. Deciding if and how we should engage with this day was a little more complicated than the other events we had participated in.
Genocide Day is not a celebration – it’s a sombre occasion. The Armenian Genocide itself is still a divisive, sometimes heated issue. I knew a little bit about the history before I arrived in Armenia, but I had no idea about the controversy that still surrounds it. That’s not really what I want to focus on in this post. I don’t have anything to contribute to that topic – I haven’t done any in-depth research; I only know what I learned in Yerevan. What I can offer is a reflection on what it’s like to be in Armenia’s capital city on Genocide Remembrance Day as an outsider – and why I think all tourists visiting the country should take the time to learn about the tragic events of 1915-23.
UNDERSTANDING THE PAST: WHAT HAPPENED ON APRIL 24?
The date April 24 has never meant anything to me. As an Australian, it’s April 25 that holds significance. There’s a particular ritual associated with this day that I sometimes participated in when I was younger. I would wake up at 4am and along with my peers and teachers, walk down to the war memorial near our primary school. Before the sun rose, we would bow our heads as someone played the Last Post, an evocative trumpet arrangement, on a bugle.
April 25, Anzac Day, is when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the people who lost their lives in war, conflict and peacekeeping missions. The date is auspicious: It marks the anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli in 1915. The dawn service as it’s known is symbolic of the Anzac soldiers landing at Gallipoli under the cloak of darkness. I didn’t know it when I was young – and I wouldn’t learn until much later in life – that the Gallipoli Campaign fell just a few hours after another awful, lesser-known episode in world history.
On the eve of the battle, just a few hundred kilometres away in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), a group of Armenian intellectuals were reportedly rounded up for deportation. This marked the beginning of a horrific nine-year campaign to ‘cleanse’ the Ottoman Empire of Armenians, an ethnic group who had lived there for generations. Western Armenia (Eastern Turkey), the Armenians’ ancestral homeland, was targeted. An estimated 1.5 million people were killed and many more injured, orphaned, forcibly removed from their homes or had their livelihoods destroyed. Corresponding attacks on the Armenian way of life have been described as ‘cultural genocide’.
Never heard about this awful chapter of violence and intolerance? You’re not the only one. To the best of my memory, I never learned about the Armenian Genocide in school or heard much about it through the media. When it comes to history, there are plenty of things I don’t know about and plenty of reasons why I might have missed something – but in the case of the Armenian Genocide, there might be more nefarious explanation.
As if the event itself wasn’t enough, the Genocide has been all but forgotten outside of Armenia. ‘Genocide denial’ on a state and individual level has devastating consequences for Armenians. Today, only a tiny handful of countries acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. Some reject that it ever happened; others take issue with the semantics.
I cannot imagine what it’s like to have such an important part of your nation’s history whitewashed. Against this backdrop, April 24 takes on new significance as a day when Armenians unite to remember in the face of adversity.
WHAT’S IT LIKE IN YEREVAN ON GENOCIDE REMEMBRANCE DAY?
On our day trip to Tatev Monastery, we met a fellow Australian traveller with roots in Armenia. She was back for the first time in her adult life and had aligned her travel plans so that she could spend Genocide Day in Yerevan. April 24 has special meaning for her – her grandparents were orphaned in the Genocide. It’s a significant chapter in her family’s history and has undoubtedly shaped her identity. For us, it was totally different. We don’t have Armenian heritage or any personal connection to the country. I had never even heard of Remembrance Day and I had no idea of what to expect. I was, in the truest sense, an outsider.
On our first day in Yerevan, I noticed signs around town notifying tourists that certain attractions would be closed on April 24. At first I thought this was due to Orthodox Easter, but I later learned it’s because Remembrance Day is a public holiday. In the lead up, we started seeing people on the street sporting t-shirts with political slogans. I did some research online and learned about the purple forget-me-not, the floral symbol of Genocide Remembrance. Once I knew what to look for, I started seeing flower stickers and pins around Yerevan too, as well as banners and flyers advertising events, including an orchestral performance.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit excited about spending Genocide Remembrance Day in Yerevan. As I said, we hadn’t planned it (we didn’t even know it was a thing), but it seemed like it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the Genocide. We tried to buy tickets to the orchestra performance but it was sold out. We looked online for other events being held in Yerevan and realised that there was a public march we could participate in instead.
I usually stay away from political marches and rallies, but I was confident that this one would be peaceful. We decided we would go along and scope it out. We left our apartment on the morning of April 24 and I immediately felt a pang of anxiety – was it just me, or was everyone on the street dressed in black? I thought neutral colours would be appropriate so I was wearing a white shirt. I felt self-conscious, but I was just being paranoid. By the time got up to Tsitsernakaberd, the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, I realised that people were generally dressed in everyday attire and a range of colours. Still, I’m glad I chose to wear something plain.
The Genocide Memorial is set on a hill – usually you can drive all the way up, but today the roads were closed. Our Uber driver dropped us off at the foot of the hill where a crowd of thousands was already waiting. Young people, families, school groups and community groups were all gathered. Some people were taking photos; most were holding tulips or bunches of flowers. A couple of florists set up on the footpath were doing a good trade. A few security staff patrolled the crowd. We walked around for a little while, not really talking to anyone but just observing. After about 15 minutes, the throng started moving and we were swept up in the uphill march to Tsitsernakaberd.
It turned out to be a long walk. The sun was out in full force and people occasionally stopped to refill water bottles at the pulpulak fountains set along the garden path. We had to fully commit because it wasn’t really possible to turn back. We knew we were headed for the Memorial, but apart from that, we didn’t really know what was happening. We decided we would just move with the crowd. Music played softly from loudspeakers overhead and most people walked in silence. The flowers they carried were downturned as a sign of respect. A few people stopped to take photos of the crowd; others recorded the march on their mobile phones.
It wasn’t long before we could see the Memorial’s distinctive concrete arms ahead. We approached via a long concourse, and here the crowd paused. Thinning out to an almost single file, the procession slowly continued into the Memorial structure, each person taking their turn to lay flowers around the eternal flame that burns in the centre of the Memorial. The flowers were already stacked waist-high. We realised that we were part of just one procession – thousands of people had already been to the Memorial that morning. I paused at the back of the crowd to take a few photos. I was cautious not to photograph anyone’s face as I didn’t want to be rude.
As people started to trickle out of the Memorial, more entered to take their place. We followed the crowd down the other side of the hill where a fleet of buses were waiting to ferry people back to the city centre and Yerevan’s suburbs.
Reflecting on the morning, the march had been reverent and peaceful. We felt safe at all times. We tried our best to hold back and not be too intrusive, especially when it came to taking photos. At the start of the day I was anxious, wondering if it was our place to participate in the march. As it turns out, no one really noticed us or paid us much attention. If anyone did pick us as tourists, I’m sure they would have been pleased to see us there acknowledging the event rather than feeling annoyed or offended.
Later that day, we heard news about the crowds at the march and other events that had taken place in Yerevan and around the world. We learned that on the evening on April 23, another march by candlelight had taken place in the city. Apparently this had involved some participants burning Turkish flags. It was a sign of how quickly things could turn from peaceful to political. We were glad we hadn’t been there that night.
In the days after April 24, the flowers laid at Tsitsernakaberd are collected, their petals laid out to dry on white sheets. Later, they are used to make paper products. We missed out on this event, but this story by Kami recollects her experience of the ritual. You may want to investigate it if you’re in Yerevan in the days after April 24.
CONFRONTING THE PAST: HOW SHOULD TOURISTS ENGAGE WITH THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE?
If you do happen to be in Yerevan on April 24, I highly recommend going along to Tsitsernakaberd and participating in the march if you feel comfortable. For us, it was a safe, positive experience and we felt proud to stand with Armenians on that significant day. It gave us insight into how everyday people commemorate the Genocide, mourn the dead and remember what the nation lost. The march gave us a deeper understanding of the Genocide itself and it’s an experience we will never forget.
I strongly believe that anyone who visits Armenia should take the time to learn about the Genocide. The Genocide Museum-Institute is naturally the best place to do this. The story of the Genocide and its aftermath is told through photographs, didactics and multimedia set out in a sprawling, easy-to-follow timeline. Some of the materials are understandably provocative and graphic, so be prepared for that.
The Genocide was a devastating chapter in Armenian history but unfortunately not the only hardship the nation has faced. Armenia still grapples with extreme poverty and ongoing conflict in some parts of the country. There are a few practical ways tourists can positively contribute to the country’s development: Supporting local businesses is a good place to start. Social enterprise HDIF sells a great range of fairly traded souvenirs so tourists can support rural artisans. OneArmenia has some great resources for travellers, including the Inside Yerevan map and a trekking app.
Finally, on a practical note, it’s good to know that April 24 is a national holiday in Armenia and so many attractions, restaurants and shops in Yerevan are closed – including the Genocide Museum-Institute itself.
Most people will find the Armenian Genocide and any events associated with it confronting and difficult to deal with. But in my view, that is a huge, crucial part of travel: opening your eyes to experiences, perspectives, and occasionally even historical events that you hadn’t considered before.