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Every summer for a week I go hiking with a group of friends. We used to just go to Yosemite, but then we went to Alaska and hiked the Chilkoot trail (I have walked from the US into Canada...not sure if I count as an illegal alien). We did Kilimanjaro a few years ago. More recently we have been in Eastern and Southern Europe: Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, Cyprus. This year it was Armenia.
I had no idea just how much history there was in Armenia. I had heard of the Armenian genocide, of course, but mostly because of all the fuss about Turkey making it a crime to even talk about it in Turkey.
I knew that Synopsys had a development group in Yerevan, as a result of acquiring Monterey Design Systems and then Virage Logic, both of which did much of their engineering in Yerevan. The first night we were there, we had dinner with a friend of one of our group, who had met since they both liked to chase total solar eclipses and so sometimes ended up on the same ship. He turned out to be Adam Kablanian, the founder and longtime CEO of Virage Logic. He and I knew lots of people in common, since at Compass Design Automation I'd run a library business too, albeit a few years earlier. He is a Syrian Armenian, brought up in Aleppo, although he normally lives in Los Altos Hills, and took us to a Syrian Armenian restaurant our first night. In another weird coincidence, that first night, he ran into a school-friend from Aleppo he hadn't seen for 40 years.
Adam told me that before Virage Logic was public, Synopsys tried to acquire them but Aart and him couldn't agree on a price. But Aart got convinced that a development group in Armenia was a good idea and consequently acquired the defunct Monterey to start one. Although I've heard from other Synopsys long-timers that this wasn't what happened. Eventually Synopsys did acquire Virage Logic, but by then it was a public company so there was a lot less debate about the price. It would be a reasonable premium on its share price.
The next coincidence was when we told him that our guide Ara was a Ph.D. archeologist who had decided to become a guide when he had children, since you can't make enough money as an academic archeologist. Adam said he must be the same guy that he'd used the year before when he went on a hiking tour of the country. So he whipped out his phone and called him up. He was indeed the same guy. He turned out to be the perfect guide, not just a guide to the hiking, but he knew the history of the country in depth, and even had pieces in the National Museum he'd recovered on digs he had been on.
Adam told us that when he came back to Armenia twenty years ago to set up the Virage Logic group in, I think, the late 1990s, there was just one restaurant in Yerevan. Now, at least in parts of the city, it is like wandering around Paris or Portland, with restaurants and bars everywhere. Adam took us to what he thought was the best Armenian restaurant in the city on our last night, and I have to say that the food is wonderful. In Yerevan it is more refined, but out in the country you get a different type of experience, with barbecued pork from a pig the guesthouse owner had raised, and butter they had made themselves, and vodka they had made themselves.
One weird coincidence was that we were talking about Anthony Bourdain since his Parts Unknown on Armenia had only been shown two weeks before. When we got to the guest house in Dilijian where we were staying the night, down a track off the main road, it turned out to be the place where Anthony had stayed when he was in that part of Armenia. We were sitting at the same table as he had filmed at, being served by the same couple. Early that evening, our phones lit up with a newsflash that he had been found dead, and later that he had killed himself.
In the above picture, on the left is a picture with Anthony Bourdain and guests from the TV show. On the right is a shot of us hikers, along with Ara our guide (on the right). Well, not me, I guess I took the photo. As you may know, I make a weekly video, What's for Breakfast?, previewing the 5 posts that will be coming up here on Breakfast Bytes the following week. That week I made it at that same table, during breakfast (missed a chance to pan over to me from the food).
Here's that week's video (these posts are all published now):
Oh, and I have to show you another Silicon Valley connection. I told you that this guest house was off the road down a track, in fact one with such a tight hairpin turn halfway up that the van couldn't get around without backing up a couple of times. But there was a Tesla charging station there. That set me thinking on where the most remote Tesla charging station in the world is. This one is clearly in the running.
Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world. The Armenian Apostolic Church became the official religion in 301. That's before Constantine was Roman emperor, who is generally considered the key catalyst of making the Roman Empire, and eventually Europe in general, Christian.
With that length of Christianity, Armenia is full of monasteries. Unfortunately, it also has a big earthquake every 100 years or so, the last in 1988 (which officially killed 25,000 but probably more). As a result, many of the monasteries are just ruins. Some got rebuilt, with the "new" monastery only dating back to 1400 or something.
The most impressive monastery is at Geghard. There are some outside buildings, but the amazing part are the three chapels inside. Each is estimated to have taken about 40 years to build. They were literally carved out of solid rock, starting from a hole at the top. All the carvings on the wall are just the original rock. The biggest chapel has 4 freestanding pillars which were made the same way, removing the rock around them leaving just the pillars. It reminds me of the supposed reply Michaelangelo gave when the Pope asked him the secret of his genius in sculpting David. "It's simple, I just remove everything that is not David." It's easy to build a huge decorated chapel in the middle of a mountain, just remove everything that isn't chapel.
Another thing, unique to Armenia, are the Khachkars. This is sometimes translated as "cross stone" which is what the Armenian means literally, but mostly people seem to use the Armenian word which is pronounced like "hotch-car". There are 15,000 of them all over the country. They should all face West, in much the same way as churches always have the altar in the East. Some, but not all, are gravestones, in which case the body is buried with feet towards the Khachkar so that it is "looking" at the decorative face.
In a post like this, I'm not going to attempt to give you a history of the country. It is one of those crossroads countries that armies have to go through to get to somewhere else. Plus they spent their time building monasteries not forts, so it was not very defensible. The countries that surround it today are Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Only the borders with Georgia and Iran are open. Georgia is Orthodox Christian, but the other 3 countries are Muslim.
At one point, the sea-to-sea era, Armenia ran all the way from the Mediterranean in the West, to the Black Sea in the North, and the Caspian Sea to the East. Armenia today is just 10% of that land area. The population is just 3M, of which 1.5M live in Yerevan. However, there are actually 9-10M Armenians in the world, 2/3 of which don't live in the country, they form the diaspora. When I was doing my Ph.D. there was even an Armenian restaurant in Edinburgh run by a very eccentric Armenian.
What does it mean to be Armenian? There is an Armenian language, but more to the point it has its own writing system (see the alphabet above). This was developed around 405 by Mesrop Mashtots, an ecclesiastical leader. Today it has 38 characters. This has clearly been one of the things that makes Armenians Armenian. If you can read the script, you almost certainly think of yourself as being Armenian, wherever you live (385,000 in the US).
Of course, Armenia became part of the Soviet Empire. Many of the remaining churches were destroyed during Stalin's period of leadership, although later the Russian's turned to restoring them, but without much competence, fixing up floors by pouring concrete over them, for example.
If you go to Yerevan, then get a guide to show you around the National Museum. You will get a lot of history in an hour or two.
The most recent bit of history is very recent. The Armenian Velvet Revolution (nobody was killed) took place in April and May this year. Using Twitter a huge crowd assembled, led by Nikol Pashinyan, to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. On the 23rd April he resigned. By early May, Pashinyan was the new Prime Minister, and we didn't have to worry about whether it was safe for us to go on our hiking vacation.
The Armenian Genocide took place in the early years of the 20th Century and especially during the years of the First World War. It was in Western Armenia. This was by then part of the Ottoman Empire, and not part of the country of Armenia any longer. Today, that area is part of Turkey. Probably one reason you have even heard about what is, in some ways, an obscure event in a small country far far away, is that it is still Turkey's official policy that it never happened. It remains a crime in Turkey, insulting Turkishness, to bring the subject up.
In Yerevan, there is an Armenian Genocide Museum, and outside an Armenian Genocide Memorial (that's the photo at the very start of this post). If you go to Armenia then you must go to the museum. As you move through the building, the story unfolds chronologically. If you are American, then you will immediately see a lot of parallels, at least we all did, to what happened with the American Indian population as the US expanded West. First life was made unpleasant, then men were killed and the women and children driven into poor land or even the desert where many starved. And those were the lucky ones. Rape, torture, and worse were common. As our guide in the National Museum said, "it was very well organized." It's not quite the way I'd have put it, but you get what she meant.
Go and visit Armenia. History, food, mountains, lakes, an interesting capital city in Yerevan. And even an EDA connection.
That's my story. Now you can watch Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (the whole program, 42 minutes):
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