Armenia. Georgia. Azerbaijan. The three contiguous countries in the Caucasus offer distinct histories and cultures, dramatic scenery, trendy and traditional foods, warm hospitality, affordability and safety.
And if you go, you’ll be a star at cocktail and dinner parties, because how many people do you know who have been there?
About half the population of Armenia — 1.5 million people — resides in its capital, Yerevan. Although today it is rich in museums, restaurants, modern hotels, clubs and galleries, it has a history that stretches back to 782 B.C. and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth.
In Yerevan and throughout Armenia, women still bake lavash in a tonir, a clay bread oven; musicians blow into an ancient, double-reed instrument called a doudouk; and world leaders are aficionados of Armenian brandy, which they sometimes offer one another as gifts.
Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301 A.D., and it is unlikely that you will tire of visiting Apostolic Orthodox churches, because they are architecturally distinct and magnificently situated.
If you arrive when the voices of a chorus echo through a dark church, with a shaft of sunlight streaming in through a window, or you see a priest blessing a baby’s eyes, nose, ears, heart, head, feet and mouth during a baptism, you may be moved to tears.
You’ll find cross stones, or khatchkars, throughout Armenia, and no two stones are alike. They were built to celebrate a victory, protect a field or commemorate an event. In the old cemetery in Noratus, one cross stone tells the tragic story of a l3th-century wedding that was interrupted by a Mongol invasion; it records the murder of the bride and groom on the most special day of their young lives.
The Armenian people have a long history of incursions, attacks and conquest by other nations. Everywhere you go, you will hear about the genocide where more than 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1920. (Turkey still denies that the killings and forced exiles that began in 1915 amounted to genocide.)
The Monument to Armenian Genocide tells the horrific story and is a testimony to the Armenians’ strength and resilience.
In Georgia, one-third of the population of 4.6 million lives in Tbilisi, the culturally rich capital, and two-thirds of the country is mountainous, which makes for spectacular scenery.
Georgia adopted Christianity in the fourth century, and the country prides itself on its religious tolerance and being home to Jews for more than 2,500 years.
Many sites are associated with Georgia’s most famous women: St. Nino, who spread Christianity in the fourth century and carried a unique cross made from grapevines that were bound with her own hair, and Tamar, a 13th-century queen who was so powerful politically and militarily during the Golden Age of Georgia that she was called King Tamar.
One town, Gori, houses a controversial museum dedicated to Georgia’s most infamous man, Joseph Stalin, who was born there, and, as head of the Soviet Communist Party and commander of the troops, bears responsibility for millions of deaths by starvation, murder and forced labor in the Soviet camps known as gulags.
Two highlights in Georgia are cities carved out of rock.
In the Middle Ages, Vardzia was an elaborate monastery that contained 600 caves and was entirely hidden from view. It housed churches, wine cellars, horse stables, treasures, manuscripts and icons, in addition to monks.
A few monks still live there and, in the Church of the Assumption, visitors have the rare opportunity to see a mural of the famed queen Tamar, who was instrumental in the construction of the wealthy monastery.
Uplistsikhe, a city hewn from rock, is one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia, and much of the lofty site remains a mystery. In the second millennium B.C., it was home to pagan sanctuaries where star gods and the sun goddess were worshipped.
Perhaps the site developed as a religious center or a cemetery. Excavations from the fourth century revealed a bakery, a Greek-style theater and Roman decor. Starting in the mid-seventh century, Georgian kings sought refuge in Uplistsikhe from the Arab invasions.
Today, climbing first up the hill and then ascending the steps that lead to sanctuaries and ritual centers, you’ll feel the power of the ancient climb toward the heavens and gods.
Azerbaijan is a modern, oil-rich, largely secular Muslim nation. Women make up the majority of university professors and many others are doctors and serve in the parliament.
The country warmly welcomes visitors at its borders but questions them about anything suspicious — like subversive literature — they may be carrying from Armenia. Although Azerbaijan, like the other nations of the Caucasus, is peaceful and safe, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still locked in a dispute over the territory of Karabakh.
In the countryside, you will marvel at the Qobustan Museum where thousands of Upper Paleolithic petroglyphs have been preserved in the surrounding hills and mountains. Several of them seem to depict the Yalli dance that is still done in Azerbaijan today.
You walk through history, past images of lions, horses, boars, stylized women, shamans, headless figures and dancers.
It is a short ride to a site with mud volcanoes, where the bubbling of mud pots greets you; it is the only sound in the otherwise silent hillsides.
In Baku, the capital city of 4 million that stretches along the Caspian Sea, you will marvel at the stunning, futuristic architecture — including the world’s first flame-shaped skyscrapers. The flame shape, called buta, is a symbol of the city, and refers to the Flame Temple of the ancient Zoroastrians who worshipped there.
The subway building is a glass pyramid, and 12th-century castle walls coexist with KFCs, mosques, carpet stores and malls lined with shops that would be at home in Beverly Hills. Some of the wealthy inhabitants hire stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Shakira to perform at weddings, and Baku has become the Caucasus’ biggest tourist destination.
Writer Judith Fein is the author of “Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.” Her website is globaladventure .us.
If you go
Small group tours are available with Original World Travel to many of the Caucas locations. See originalworld.com for more information.