Ararat – the name has its own musical rhythm and it is one that all Armenians know. Anyone who stays in the country’s capital city, Yerevan, will see this mountain. Loftily far away and nearby at the same time, like some tasty forbidden fruit, this volcanic beauty raises its two peaks over the Ararat valley. It feels like you only have to reach out your hand to touch it. But the idea of touching this mountain must remain an unfulfilled wish. Because this symbol of Armenia is actually on Turkish soil, and Armenia does not have diplomatic relations with Turkey.
The mountain that belonged to Armenia for many hundreds of years has been a witness to some dramatic history. After the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman era (1915 to 1923) and the Soviet annexation of a part of Armenia, Ararat mountain, along with surrounding border regions, became a part of Turkey – this was as a result of the Turkish-Russian Treaty of Kars signed in 1921.
To this day, the Republic of Armenia, which became an independent state after the demise of the Soviet Union, has not recognised this treaty. And Ararat has always been depicted in Armenian coats of arms, since the founding of the first independent Armenian state, the Democratic Republic of Armenia, during Soviet times and then this century too. In 1921, the Turkish government protested about this symbolism but the then-Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, Georgy Chicherin, replied: “The moon is depicted on the Turkish flag, but the moon is not Turkish territory”.
So for many Armenians, the mountain remains a symbol of their country, gathering the Armenians spread far and wide around the world beneath its slopes like a mountainous mother. The name of the mountain goes back to stories about the creation of the world and translated it means “the place of creation”.
Ararat is considered a holy mountain, the place where the biblical character Noah harboured his ark. But the name also comes up before the Christian era, often as the home of mysterious creatures known as vishaps. These legendary serpent-like beasts apparently lived on Ararat, as every Armenian child is only too well aware from countless tales about them. Vishaps are supposed to embody chaos: They were thousands of years old and they fought against the sun and against harmony. When they were angry, they caused thunderstorms and their blood was so poisonous that any weapons that came into contact with it, even once, became invincible. In pre-Christian times, sculptures were raised to honour the vishaps. These vishapakar, or vishap stones, are up to five meters high and you can still gaze in awe at some of these stone pillars on Ararat’s slopes.
Mount Ararat is also meaningful to the Turkish. The mountainous landform is a symbol of the victory of the country’s nationalist revolution, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the resulting founding of the Republic of Turkey. But as is generally accepted, cultural symbols can only be sustained after they have become enmeshed in a people’s history and folklore, treated with love, reverence and forbearance by many generations.
The mountain Ararat is just such a beloved symbol to all generations of Armenians. The mountain is sung about, painted, honoured with poetry and is often connected with both commercial projects and political perspectives. One of the oldest Armenian lullabies features Ararat as the wise protector, advising the child to be patient, confident and well-behaved. Just like a mountain, a human radiates with the energy of the sky and earth. So one must always be grateful for the gift of life even if there is loss and loneliness in that life. The moral of the song is that every living being’s existence is absolutely unique, just like a mountain.
Another thing that is special about Ararat is the mountain’s exposed and lonely location. It is not often that one sees the whole of a mountain, exposed. Usually you only see a chain of hills or cliffs climbing upwards. But Ararat sits on a plateau all alone, where there is no other mountain range, not even a small hill. One can admire the twin peaks of the mountain in their full glory, from their tops to their slopes. The higher peak, the Greater Ararat, sits at 5,137 meters above sea level while the other peak, Lesser, or Little Ararat, is at 3,896 meters.
Of course, this isn’t the tallest mountain in the world but to Armenians, it is the most beautiful, rising almost as if from out of nowhere. As if it had grown from out of the earth, or perhaps, vice versa: As if it had climbed down from the heavens and grown into the ground.
That is why one shouldn’t be surprised to find Ararat everywhere in Armenians’ daily lives. There’s a city, a district, hotels, a football club, newspapers, drinks, cigarettes, various groceries and companies all named in the honour of this mountain. Additionally Ararat is a popular first name for boys and one of the first words that school children learn when they start to read and write.
For Armenians, Ararat is not just a mountain, imbued with myths and legends and connected meaningfully to their political identity; the mountain is also an everyday friend. It is photographed and admired, and you drink your morning coffee with the mountain. Because you can catch a glimpse of Ararat from almost every window in the capital city, Yerevan. Indeed, apartments that have a better view of the mountain are considered to be worth more on the real estate market. In fact, whenever developers announce a new building they don’t immediately talk about the comfort of the new accommodation. No, they put a greater value on the apartments’ view of the mountain. If you go past the school of music in Yerevan you will even hear the young vocalists warming up, singing with stretched syllables: “Ah-rah-rat”.
The view of the mountain from Armenia cannot be compared to the view you get from Turkey. Ararat shows its loveliest side to the Armenians. It seems easy for many to question the finality of the loss of this mountain: After all, what is a century when compared to an eternity? A century is just a tiny grain of sand in all the time since creation.
Ararat is a symbol of loss but also a sign of daily gains. How can the mountain not belong to us when it is so close, so noble, so smooth, snow-covered and shining? Sometimes the outlines of Ararat are blurred by mist, other times the mountain shows itself completely, in all its unimaginable beauty.