An Open Letter to Gyumri from Armen Sarkissian, President of Armenia
When you read these words, thousands of people, near and far, familiar and unfamiliar, will be paying tribute to the memory of the victims of that great tragedy that befell you, the earthquake of December 7, 1988. I will be among them, looking back intently on that horrific day when time stood still at exactly 11:41 am, changing your destiny forever.
But here we are thirty years later and one cannot look back without also looking forward. There can be no other way for you. You have too much to offer your country and the world. Too much old-world history to share with future generations. Too much pride and optimism with which to forge ahead into the future—renewed, restored and reinvigorated. I know this, not through the stories of others, but through my own experiences with you over the course of my life.
I was just a child when, in 1960, my father, a young but talented architect, introduced me to you. We explored the Akhurian River and the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital city of Ani just across your border. My father marveled over your distinctive architecture, from the black and red tufa stone arched buildings to yards, churches, and decorative details from both the good and bad Soviet times.
He wished me to know you, Gyumri, because his ancestors are connected to you. They originated in the province of Erzerum, from the town of Dsitogh. These are the same people that resettled on your lands in the 19th century, fleeing persecutions of Ottoman rulers on historical Armenian soil. He took me to your ethnographic museum Dzitoghtsyan House (Museum of Urban Life and National Architecture) which chronicles the life and times of a people from whom many of your inhabitants descend. They speak the language of our family’s forebears—rooted in classic Western Armenian. This surely accounts for the disproportionate number of writers and poets that you have produced, like Avetik Isahakyan and Hovannes Shiraz. You are also home to the great sculptor Sergey Merkurov and Georgi Gurdjieff, the philosopher and composer. Even your traditional dress and folk dances can be traced to your position along the road from Erzerum, as a link connecting past to present.
My father also explained to me that you are a city of masters, an Ustaneri Kaghak he called you. To this day, you boast the finest of master craftsmen working metal, wood and stone. These ustas (proud masters) still use the traditional techniques and methods that add an authentic quality to your wares that cannot be found anywhere else—in or outside of Armenia.
How could I know then that, 28 years later, the Gyumri of my father would be overcome by disaster. It was a shock to the core that my father was spared, having passed away only four years after that first father-son bonding excursion that opened my heart to you.
Right after the earthquake, I, along with many of my colleagues, rushed to help you. We were not sure the government could do enough because of the scale of the disaster. There are no words to describe what we saw. But beyond all the destruction and tears, the beauty of Gyumri that I once saw in the eyes of my father somehow remained in my own mind’s eye.
Eight years later in 1996, I returned to you, this time as your Prime Minister. Still, the remnants of your trauma were all around you. So I expected you to greet me with bitterness because our government, with its own setbacks due to war and the early pains of independence, had clearly fallen short of the attention you deserved. Yet, much to my surprise, you welcomed me with warmth and gratitude. Many of the survivors invited me to their porta cabins with a graciousness and hospitality I can never forget. Their offers of cake and drink, the songs they sang and poems they recited—against such stark and meager conditions—spoke volumes about that famous Gyumretsi generosity that will be your ultimate redemption.
Today, I am the President of Armenia, but Gyumri, I continue to think about you—first and foremost as an Armenian, as a person who knows well what Gyumri is, who the Gyumretsi is. Yes, I have had the privilege of visiting many of the world’s old and new cities, all of which have their charms and attractions. But it is your unique character and purity of spirit that calls me back to you time and again.
This is why I challenge any foreigner who visits you—as well as our compatriots from Armenia, Artsakh and the Diaspora—to try and not fall in love with you.
I would like them to experience your tastes and smells, your distinctive customs and delicious cuisine, and the wit and wisdom of your people. I would suggest that they attend one of your churches in the morning, as I often do, followed by a visit to the market. I often stop for a cup of coffee in the café, discussing the good and the bad in the world with friends. When possible, I join them on the shores of the Akhurian River, a place that holds cherished memories of a young son and his father connecting with their ancestral past.
I also try to visit your old world craftsmen: blacksmiths, woodworkers, and potters. Then, of course, I am off to the old inns, where the language and conversation of Gyumri flourish, speaking the unique dialect and expressing your traditions and pride in the city.
Can you wonder why it is a source of pain and shame to me that less than 30,000 tourists visit you each year? That number should be tenfold! I believe it is everyone’s duty here in Armenia and in the Diaspora, to do all we can to return you to your longstanding glory.
Of course, some would ask how you could accommodate as many as 300,000 tourists without first spending the money to create more restaurants, cafés and hotels. To that, I respond by suggesting day trips as a start. This alone will encourage investors to build, renovate and definitely restore your historic district. You see, it is your old-world authenticity that puts you at an advantage over Yerevan and other cities.
After all, the Yerevan of today has lost a large part of its history and heritage due to modernization. With the old city in Yerevan all but vanished, we must look to you, Gyumri, to fulfill our yearning to understand and appreciate our heritage. Many of your buildings are old, but they are historical-cultural buildings, each one very valuable, possessing its own specific attributes. I, for one, intend to take part in any building’s reconstruction. I encourage others with the means and opportunity to join me.
These days, anyone from Yerevan can take a drive on the North-South highway, reaching you in as little as 45 minutes. So I ask myself, why on earth can we not take our children and family on a day or weekend excursion to Gyumri, when more than one million tourists from Armenia visited the Republic of Georgia last year alone? Consider too that a $500 USD vacation in Georgia multiplied by one million people generates $500 million in tourism revenues. Such ample resources could restore you, Gyumri, to greatness in record time.
I believe that our fellow Armenians will not only experience great satisfaction exploring all your cultural attractions but also enjoy the inner gratification of having contributed to your rebirth, brightening your color, restoring your energy and changing your mood.
Yet today, you still carry a heavy burden—with 30 years’ worth of wrinkles on your forehead to prove it. But paradoxical as it may seem, destruction always makes room for something new. Each time I return to you, I see something new in the faces of your young people, on your repaved streets, your new shops and cafés, restored landmark buildings, old theaters, and museums.
Your journey of recovery gets shorter with every passing year. And I intend to go the distance with you.