ANCA Eastern Region Exec. Director Michelle Hagopian offers insights on her first travel to Armenia and Artsakh, joining Baroness Cox's on her 80th trip to the region

September 26, 2013

Michelle Hagopian with Lady Cox at Khor Virap.

Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region (ANCA ER) Executive Director Michelle Hagopian is in Armenia accompanying Baroness Caroline Cox on her 80th trip to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.

A member of the British House of Lords and leader of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), Baroness Cox was honored at the ANCA Eastern Region Banquet in 2012 for championing the cause of Artsakh freedom for over two decades. Lady Cox had asked Hagopian to join her on her 80th humanitarian mission to Karabakh during the banquet last year.

Following is a daily travelogue of Hagopian’s first pilgrimage to the Armenian Homeland. Images from her trip are posted to the ANCA Facebook page. You can also follow Hagopian’s insights on the pages of The Armenian Weekly.

Day 1: Thoughts on Independence Day in Yerevan

I’m lucky enough to be accompanying Baroness Caroline Cox – a humanitarian and huge champion for Armenians who is visiting Armenia and Artsakh for the 80th time – on what is actually my first trip to Armenia. I still can’t believe that’s an actual reality but I’m trying to embrace this experience as much as I can.

I’m only here one week and the first two days have proven to be worth the long trip to get here. We’re staying at the Ani Plaza Hotel in Yerevan, a great location, and we spent Independence Day the right way.

After breakfast, we journeyed to Khor Virap, one of our most ancient and beloved sites. I’ve had Khor Virap as my desktop background on my computer for years, yet nothing compared to the beauty and awe as we drove up the path to the monastery. It literally took my breath away (so far, this entire visit has essentially taken my breath away).

The site was crowded because of the holiday, but we were able to sneak in line to experience the dungeon that St. Gregory the Illuminator suffered and survived in for 15 years so many decades ago. Our group – 6 of us today – all went down, and let me tell you the Baroness is very agile for being a septuagenarian. She led us all over Khor Virap, from the dungeon ladder steps to the steps of the church. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

To see Mount Ararat so clearly and so close was indescribable. We looked through binoculars and could see the Armenian-Turkish border and the patrol tower that the Turks occupy. I understand our geography and the history, but to see it in person is not the same. To see how close Armenians are to Turks rattled me a bit, even though this was not new information.

After Khor Virap, we journeyed to Geghard to pay our respects to another historic Armenian church. A few of us were (and are) still so jetlagged that we nodded off on the bus, which was reserved for our group only. The Baroness invited both colleagues and friends she has met through her work over the years on this trip, and it’s remarkable to see the range of people she has reached through her generosity. There are folks here from the U.S., Britain (where the Baroness lives), Burma, Germany and more.

When we arrived at Geghard, I was taken aback by how secluded it was. What a great hidden treasure in the terrain of Armenia. I tend to get motion sickness, and to be honest once I saw what we’d have to drive through, I wasn’t totally looking forward to it – but I was completely wrong. Every journey is worth it when you’re visiting your roots for the first of many times.

Geghard was gorgeous. The church was busy (again, the holiday), and we saw at least three wedding caravans come up to the church. What a perfect day – both symbolically and weather-wise – to tie the knot. Cars were honking and people were yelling their congratulations as the soon-to-be couples walked up the stone steps.

Our group went to the second floor of Geghard and found a lovely five-woman choir singing traditional Armenian hymns. They were spectacular. Growing up in the church, I’ve heard and grown accustomed to our music, liturgy, etc. But it’s a different experience to hear the harmony these five women created in a space that was so acoustically perfect. I took as much video as I possibly could, but that experience is one that cannot be replicated.

As we left the church and walked among the merchants selling fruit and bread in their stands on the side of the road, I already felt fulfilled. As soon as I saw Mount Ararat in person, I felt fulfilled. We drove back to Yerevan to get ready for an Independence Day reception at the Karen Demirdjian Sport and Music Complex, which was widely attended but was by invitation only. Lady Cox was kind enough to get her entire group tickets to the event.

The reception was a huge soiree with music, food, drinks and good company. President Serzh Sargsyan was there and addressed the crowd, and then music and video slideshows followed while everyone mingled. I saw a few colleagues – ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian and ANCA Western Region Board Member Nora Hovsepian – among the crowd. We all went through the line to toast the dignitaries (President Sargsyan, his wife, the president of Artsakh, etc).

We concluded the day with dinner and drinks, and it didn’t hit me until then how much we had done in one day, let alone on Independence Day. Hands down, the best Armenian Independence Day I’ve experienced (what could be better than being in Yerevan?)

It’s been an adventure so far – I look forward to sharing more with you as I join Lady Cox and my new friends this week!

Armenian Independence Day Reception hosted by President Sargsyan.

Day Two: A Journey to Amberd and Byurakan

Baroness Caroline Cox asked me to join her on her 80th trip to Armenia and Artsakh back in December 2012 at the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region (ANCA ER) Banquet in New Jersey. I was flattered and immediately said yes, not knowing of course whether or not I could see the plans come to fruition.

Thanks to my superiors and colleagues, the trip has indeed come together. And I’ve been here since Sept. 20 with the Baroness and her crew, some from her nonprofit – Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) – and other friends whom she’s met in her travels. I’m so fortunate to be here.

Today, we had a late start and left the hotel at noon. But before that, I woke up early to check out Vernissage, an outdoor market where you can buy literally anything (I went to pick up some souvenirs). I took a cab from the Ani Plaza Hotel not realizing it was only a 15-minute walk, but I took a leisurely stroll back after I spent an hour there. It was a treat to see all the Armenian merchants spending their day together – most seemed to be family, or friends at the very least, and played cards and smoked cigarettes to pass the time together.

I perused for a while and used the little Armenian I do speak to converse with the locals. Much to my surprise I pulled it off quite well, but they also understood basic English. It’s a learning process to be certain. I also was able to read Armenian to add more money to my SIM card so I can access Internet from my phone. It’s the little things that boost one’s confidence, isn’t it?

Michelle Hagopian in front of Amberd Fortress and Vahramashen Church.

I met the group at noon and we took our bus into the mountains outside Yerevan. We were journeying up to Amberd, a historic 7th century fortress located 7,500 feet above sea level – and it showed with my ears popping the entire ride up Mount Aragats. The fortress is at the confluence of the Arkashen and Amberd rivers in the region of Aragatsotn. Along the way, Baroness Cox provided us with snippets of Armenian history and her journeys through our land.

As we approached the fortress and the Vahramashen Church located nearby, I saw cows, pigs and horses all around us as other visitors snapped photos with the scenic background behind them. It was typical mountainous terrain – rocky, brown grass, steep – yet it was so breathtaking and silent that I truly felt at peace. Living just outside of Boston doesn’t provide many moments of solitude, so I’m taking advantage of those moments on this trip, especially thousands of feet above urban life.

We all climbed over jagged rock and down the stone steps to the fortress and the church, which has withstood so many years and so much history. Candles were lit inside and some of the locals were saying prayers. Several of them recognized Lady Cox and thanked her endlessly for her generosity to our people. One woman took a liking to her that the Baroness provided her card so she can contact her directly. Everywhere we’ve been thus far, Armenians have realized who Lady Cox is and immediately introduce themselves and thank her. It’s very moving.

After Amberd, we drove back down the mountain to Byurakan, a village in the same region on the slope of Mount Aragats. It is the site of the Byurakan Observatory, which we were going to visit in the evening, but the weather proved to be problematic to see any stars. We went to a friend of Lady Cox’s in Byurkan whom she met 21 years ago during the dark days of the Artsakh War. He and his friends prepared a fantastic khorovadz (Armenian barbecue) for our group as a thank you to Lady Cox on her 80th trip to Haiastan.

The group toasting with our hosts in Byurakan.

We feasted on chicken, pork, roasted potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes and other vegetables (all of which were grilled right in front of us), salads and bread. We enjoyed tea, coffee and fruit for dessert as well. While our hosts prepared the meal – and let me help rotate the meat – our group did many cheers with cognac and vodka (not for the rare drinker) to our heroes of the Artsakh War, some of whom were among us. It was a recurring theme for the night as at least 15 toasts were made throughout the four-hour visit.

The hosts were gracious to Baroness Cox and she was in return, as always. She presented a bottle of liquor to one host and a plaque to another – Stepan, who has been a pilot for her for years, particularly during the Artsakh War. It was a wonderful evening filled with spirit, hospitality and delicious food.

Lady Cox has thanked all of us in her group for joining her at least a dozen times each, which just goes to show how appreciative she is of others even though we should be celebrating her and her good work. Always humble and grateful for every experience, she is a testament to the good in humanity. It’s a pleasure to accompany her on this trip and to know her.

Tomorrow we head to Artsakh – can’t wait to see the beautiful countryside I’ve heard about for so many years and to witness the historic land that has endured so much.

Day Three: Traveling to Artsakh with a Stop in Noravank

I’ve been traveling with Baroness Caroline Cox and her colleagues in Armenia since Sept. 20. Some members of the group, along with the Baroness, are staying until the 29th, but I have to depart early on Sept. 27. As such, I need to get as much out of my two full days in Artsakh as I can.

On Monday the 23rd, our group left Yerevan to travel to Artsakh for the next few days. We figured it would take about six hours to get there, but with several stops the trip ended up being nearly 11 hours total.

We were supposed to take a helicopter to Stepanakert provided by the Armenian government as a gift to Baroness Cox for her 80th trip here, but the weather proved unfavorable. As cool as that would have been, I’m happy to have had a chance to drive through our stunning countryside.

Candles at Soorp Karapet Church.

Our first stop was a quick restroom break and to stretch, but our second was spectacular. We drove further up into the mountains to Noravank monastery, a church from the 13th century near the city of Yeghegnadzor by the Amaghu River. There are actually two churches on site – Soorp Karapet and Soorp Astvatsatsin – both of which are built in the traditional Armenian way. But the landscape around the monastery is what makes the site even more remarkable.

Our group spent at least an hour there admiring the architecture, the landscape and the history. There were many tourists there as well, some from as far as China. Baroness Cox has been there a half dozen times at least but still regards it as sacred and one of a kind. I could see why – it was easily in the top 3 of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It was so peaceful and silent up there that you could hear the bees buzzing around you.

After Noravank we drove a bit further to Parvani restaurant near the Arpa River where the owners prepared a tasty lunch for the group. It was such a unique place in that we literally dined on the river above it on a terrace that jutted over the water. Our hosts were so gracious and provided us with too much food – a common theme in Armenia and in the Diaspora among Armenians – but we enjoyed every bite. Baroness Cox then proceeded to share a few stories with us about her travels to Artsakh, which has happened at every meal so far on the trip. This is definitely a group of people who delight in telling and sharing stories, which I find refreshing.

Following lunch we continued on our drive and as we inched closer to Artsakh, the weather started becoming drearier. We drove cautiously (but not too cautiously…this is Armenia after all) through fog and rain before coming upon thunderstorms and more fog for nearly four hours. That part of the trip was tedious as I tend to get car sick, but everyone has been gracious enough to let me sit in the front seat the whole way as I’m Armenian and it’s my first time visiting the homeland. Nobody wanted me to miss the scenery. Speaking of scenery, there was a lot of it – cows and sheep being herded across the road as we drove, stray dogs roaming around and plenty of fruit stands along the way.

I’ve traveled quite a bit – mostly around the U.S. – and have seen many gorgeous places. But I’m not sure any quite compare to Armenia and Artsakh. Granted, I haven’t yet seen Artsakh in the light of day (that’s tomorrow), but I can imagine its beauty already. We are truly lucky to have a motherland so unique and cherished that even non-Armenians come here to experience all it has to offer.

The group listening to a story shared by Baroness Cox

We ended the day with dinner at the Nairi Hotel in Stepanakert, where we are staying this week. It’s definitely different than Yerevan, but the hospitality and charm is still present all the time.

I’ve come to appreciate sleep on this trip as I’ve never traveled overseas and have never experienced an eight-hour time difference and jet lag like this. Looking forward to a good night’s sleep and a new day in Artsakh tomorrow!

Day Four: The Opening of the Stepanakert Hospital

What a day it has been. It was our first full day in Artsakh and it has been remarkable.

We started the day by attending a formal affair – the opening of the new Stepanakert hospital. I didn’t know what to expect but as we pulled up and I saw dozens of balloons, nurses, doctors, photographers, etc. I knew we were in for a fun day. As we walked into the middle of the courtyard, a line of nurses and students were holding balloons and the band started up for Baroness Cox – it was like traveling with a movie star, which this whole trip has been like.

Our crew walked in just before Artsakh’s president Bako Sahakyan and other dignitaries did. We settled in to take photos and video of the ceremony, and I had a fantastic view to catch Lady Cox in action. She speaks so eloquently and even when translated her passion and faith shines in every word.

Michelle Hagopian at the opening of Stepanakert’s new hospital.

We took a tour of the hospital after the ceremony, and it was very interesting to see how completely state of the art it was considering it was built around the old hospital, which was affected by the Artsakh War. To see how our people have struggled and rebuilt during such difficult years was reaffirming and uplifting.

It also proves why the need to recognize Nagorno Karabakh’s self-determination all over the world is so crucial. As ANCA Eastern Region Executive Director, a big part of my job is to ensure we are working hard through our grassroots network to recognize Artsakh throughout the U.S. In fact, Maryland’s governor just referenced Artsakh freedom in a proclamation for Armenia’s 22nd Independence Day.

Our victories in the Diaspora affect everything, just like our victories in Armenia and Artsakh affect the work we do in the Diaspora. It’s even more important that we keep sight of things like Artsakh’s freedom when people like Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continues to threaten to take over both Artsakh AND Yerevan. We must ensure that the U.S. and the Minsk group co-chairs condemn threats such as this.

As Armenians, we can never settle for what we have. Because we’ve experienced so much difficulty and struggle, we must continue to keep our freedom close to our hearts and minds. And that’s why I went on this trip – to do what I can to build relationships with those who have been undeniable allies to our people. Like Baroness Cox, who is the biggest champion Artsakh has. And, of course, to witness firsthand the people who have fought for our freedom and thank them and help them in any way I can.

So as we toured the hospital, I kept all that in mind. Afterward, we went to the museums of the fallen and missing soldiers of the Artsakh War. Both of these museums were started by mothers who lost sons and daughters in the war 20 years ago. Their courage and resilience showed in their faces – they were so welcoming and loved having us there. Their families held the front line of freedom for our people and these memorials serve as a way to remember and honor their bravery. The women presented us each with a book of the museum and Baroness Cox received a medallion as well.

We then journeyed to Shushi, the historic town that overlooks Stepanakert and is just a 20-minute drive away. The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was the main purpose of our visit, and it did not disappoint. It was probably the most stunning church I have ever set foot in.

The group in front of St. Ghazanchetsots Cathedral

I could feel the history inside. During the Artsakh War, Azeris used the church to store deadly weaponry because they knew the Armenians would not bomb a church. It was strategic and appalling – as I looked around, I couldn’t imagine such a breathtaking sanctuary being used for evil. But it has withstood war, and it symbolizes the liberation of Shushi and our people during the war.

Our group stayed there for more than an hour just soaking in the peaceful atmosphere. We even went into the basement behind the alter where a clergyman gave us a brief history of the church and the acoustics in the basement – there’s a spot in the middle of the room that echoes your own voice around the entire room (both bouncing off the walls and coming down through a hole in the ceiling). It’s so unique. These are the kinds of things one remembers on a trip like this.

We came back to Stepanakert and rested before going to an outdoor public children’s concert, which was lovely to see because thousands turned out for the event. And we ended our day with a three-hour feast at a local restaurant, celebrating two birthdays in our group of 13. As we drove back to the hotel, a fireworks display that resembled one in the U.S. happened after the concert. It was the perfect cap to a wonderful day.

Stay tuned for more updates as we continue in Artsakh tomorrow!

Day 5: The Re-Opening of the Dadig and Babig Monument

Today was my last full day with the group – I leave Thursday morning to go to Yerevan because I fly back to Boston on Friday morning. Our meeting with the Nagorno Karabakh President – Bako Sahakyan – is pushed back tomorrow to 5:30 p.m., which I was originally supposed to attend before heading to Yerevan. But silver lining: with that change in plan, I am able to get to Yerevan sooner to see Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial dedicated to the victims lost in the Armenian Genocide.

Our group is visiting the memorial sometime this weekend, but since I leave early many people strongly encouraged me to make time to visit it myself. I’m really looking forward to doing so – the photos and videos I’ve seen from friends and family are always so moving. I can’t wait to see it in person and experience that memory.

Michelle Hagopian in front of the Dadig/Babig monument at the reopening ceremony

We woke up this morning and headed to the reopening of the “We Are Our Mountains” (otherwise known as Dadig and Babig) monument. Apparently when the monument was complete there was never a formal ceremony celebrating and announcing it to Stepanakert. Lady Cox was dressed in her finest, as were the rest of us, and it was so cool seeing the city turnout for this event. Similar to the hospital opening, there were balloons and music and dancing, speeches and tons of press there.

It’s easy to see just how much the people of Karabakh care about their home. They have been active in every event we’ve attended, out in the streets as we drive by. I’ve seen the spirit and courage of these people in the two short days I have been here. It shows in their kindness and hospitality, whether by offering to make your stay at a hotel better or welcoming you into their museums and memorials. It’s remarkable.

After the reopening ceremony, we journeyed to Gandzasar monastery up in the mountains of Karabakh. The church is believed to be home to relics of St. John the Baptist.

Our buses stopped short of going all the way to the church at the top of the mountain, and some of us walked up the steep incline to get a different perspective of this experience. I was weary at first – being pretty out of shape and in thin mountain air – but it was very worthwhile to hike 45 minutes and see the church as the end point.

We then toured the monastery and received a brief history from a Der Hayr while surrounding the alter. The church looked similar to all the ones we’ve seen, but each one is also unique in its own way. You would think I’d be churched out by now, but it’s a treasure to see each one because it is a piece of our history. It’s well worth the journey to each sacred site.

After seeing the church, we checked out an undetonated bomb that is lodged in the stone wall surrounding the building. It was a remnant of the Artsakh War and most people walk by it without realizing it exists. Baroness Cox insisted we take a group photo in front of it, which she does every time she’s at Gandzasar.

Feeling rejuvenated from our pilgrimage up the mountain, we set off on a five-mile hike down the mountain. We walked more than two hours to a picnic camp ground for another khorovadz (Armenian barbecue), right along a river. It was a gorgeous day here and as we walked down, I couldn’t help but wish I could bottle up everything I was feeling and save it for later. The breeze that hit us at the right time. The smell of the forests. The views of mountains that seemed to sprawl endlessly. I wanted to remember every moment, not just today, but every day of this amazing trip.

We walked along the river and several stray dogs joined us for our walk, which was a nice treat. We gave them water and later food at the picnic. I was a few seconds away from taking one home with me.

Members of the group outside Gandzasar monastery. Our host, Aslan, is in the checkered shirt in the middle.

Our meal was hosted by a hero of the Artsakh War, yet another friend of Baroness Cox. His name is Aslan and he was so gracious to our group. Over grilled meat, vegetables and bread, everyone in the group introduced themselves as this was the biggest our group had been all week (17 people). Many, including me, got up to give a toast to great friends, the people of Karabakh and our hard-earned freedom.

It’s empowering to see the people who have fought for Artsakh and live to tell the tale. I’ve been in the company of former soldiers who were either pilots or who were on the ground just 20 years ago. To think that Azerbaijan is still violating the ceasefire and threatening our people is appalling.

This trip has given me faces to put to the issues the ANCA works on every day. I’m in a unique position as a guest of Baroness Cox’s because I hear the inside stories. Things like how she is on Azerbaijan’s black list because of her valiant work in Artsakh. It’s unbelievable how resilient this woman is and to see the number of people she has impacted. As Aliyev continues to threaten Armenians, we are not deterred because we have endured so much. And it’s hard to realize in the Diaspora how impacted our brothers and sisters in Armenia and Artsakh are from the repercussions of war, but being here has given me a fresh outlook.

I finally am seeing that the work I and countless others are doing both in the U.S. and abroad is significant. Not that I didn’t think it was before, but meeting the people whose lives have been displaced by war and struggle humbles you and makes you proud to be Armenian.

This journey has been life changing – I am privileged to be able to document it thus far and look forward to sharing more even upon my return to the U.S.

Day Six: Departing from Artsakh and Paying Tribute to our Martyrs at Dzidzernagapert

Today was my last day in Artsakh and it’s currently my last night in Yerevan. I leave tomorrow morning and I have mixed feelings about it – am I glad to return home and get back to a semi-normal sleeping schedule? Yes. Am I happy about leaving the homeland? Not really.

Michelle Hagopian with Baroness Cox and the necklace she gave her as a gift

I had one final breakfast with Baroness Cox and the team this morning at Nairi Hotel in Stepanakert. Last night – my final night with the group – Lady Cox gave me a necklace with the Armenian letter “M” (for Michelle) that she had had blessed by a Der Hayr at Gandzasar on Wednesday when we hiked to the church. I was so moved to receive such a meaningful gift – every time I wear it I will think of the phenomenal woman who gave it to me and the unforgettable experiences I’ve shared with her and the Armenian people.

As I waved goodbye to the entourage gathered outside the hotel, I looked toward the mountains of Artsakh and braced for a six-hour cab ride to Yerevan. We left at 10:30 a.m. and didn’t get to the hotel until 5:30 p.m. because of a stop at Tsitsernakaberd (the Armenian Genocide memorial) in Yerevan. I couldn’t leave Armenia without visiting and paying my respects to those we have lost nearly 100 years ago. We didn’t make it in time to visit the museum, but I will save that for my next trip.

Our schedule changed late last night – our group was supposed to meet with the Nagorno Karabakh President in the morning today, which was what I had planned on staying for and then would head to Yerevan afterward. But that meeting was moved to later in the afternoon and I switched my plans to allow for a visit to the memorial and to relax a bit before waking up early on Friday morning.

I found the memorial striking. My cab driver got out of the car to accompany me and take photos of me there, which was so thoughtful. It was everything I had seen in photos and video, yet I was not aware it was so close to the city itself. For the longest time I had envisioned the monument miles away from urban life so that those who visit experience solitude.

But I found its location fitting. I had one of the most stunning views of Mount Ararat, and today was so clear that I could see all of it for the first time on this trip. To overlook Yerevan and the entire landscape framed the memorial in the best way possible. Music was playing and wreaths were laid out on the walls of the monument, with flowers surrounding the flame in the middle. I was overcome with emotion to think of the sacrifice and struggle we have endured to be where we are today. I got chills taking all of this to heart in such a powerful place.

Hagopian visiting the Armenian Genocide memorial Dzidzernagapert, with Ararat in the background.

After Tsitsernakaberd, I was happy to return back to the Ani Plaza Hotel, mainly because I knew I would have clean water again. In Artsakh, I experienced a shock to the system even though I drank only bottled water and used that for brushing my teeth too. I think I accidentally slipped up and swallowed some water while showering or the water used for our tea wasn’t completely sterilized after boiling. Regardless, the last few days had been a challenge.

And it made me think – I am only experiencing a few days of discomfort and sickness. What about Karabakh natives who have to deal with contaminated water day in and day out? It made me realize how fortunate we are in the West to have basic things like clean water, where we don’t have to think twice about brushing our teeth with tap versus bottled water.

But it also made me realize the importance of ongoing and expanded U.S. aid to Artsakh, something the ANCA works toward every year. Annually, Artsakh only receives about $2 million in foreign aid from the U.S. government. We continue to work to increase that.

That’s why the ANCA’s work matters – when you see the people this affects, it makes you understand what you’re doing in a more dynamic way. We need all the help we can get. I hope, if nothing else, this blog has given you a different perspective of Armenia and Artsakh. Perhaps something that will inspire you to reach out to us (email me at michelle@anca.organd join our grassroots effort. Our efforts are only as good as those we are representing, and that is both you here in the Diaspora and our family and friends in the homeland.

I leave tomorrow morning for the U.S. and I look forward to documenting this trip further. In the meantime, please consider the issues that face our people and how you might be able to contribute to our cause.



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