Travel with Fear

Print Mount Ararat, from Armenia: Travels and Studies, by H. F. B. Lynch.

Below is an excerpt from an article written for the new monograph of work by Hrair Sarkissian, The Other Side of Silence. Edited by Omar Khoelif and Theodor Ringborg, the book is published alongside a touring exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation, Bonniers Konsthall, and the Bonnefanten.


from “Travel with Fear: Returning to Armenia with Hrair Sarkissian” (2021)

As I started work on this piece, a ceasefire was brokered in a territorial dispute between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan. The latter was ultimately recognised as the victor and the keeper of a region known as Nagorno-Karabakh. When I brought this up with Hrair over the phone, he warned me of any attempt to understand what had transpired. There were too many layers to comprehend on such a small part of the Earth. Armenian villagers were burning their homes before departing lands once gained in previous conflicts, but now lost. Smoke and fumes mixed with the heavy fog that weaves through mountains and across lofty plains that appear as more pronounced versions of landforms also once called Armenia, farther west in current-day Turkey.

Hrair had visited this nook of land before it got folded back into Azerbaijan. Front Line (2008) captures his half-born proposal to feature both sides of a convoluted border. He never set foot in Azerbaijan. At the time of his visit, Nagorno-Karabakh was not a hot spot as it appeared in late 2020. It was rather a Pyrrhic victory splayed out as landscape. To go to this part of Armenia from the capital, Yerevan, was also a bureaucratic hassle, a registered visitation of no more than four days. Nagorno-Karabakh was more a terminus or outpost than a place. A direct-shot minibus delivered registrants there via a steep road carved into a black-forest mountain. Front Line features hyperreal headshots of surviving soldiers whose maimed bodies and broken souls were left behind in the region they had nearly died for. Meanwhile, the rest packed up and moved to Yerevan. Alive, these forsaken veterans are monumentalised in the installation as if in a memorial garden. In contrast to the close-up portraits, there are also broad, deep vistas, unflinchingly banal at first glance, but so often how views of Armenia are taken in, from a fought-for foreground towards a horizon that declares its inaccessibility. That horizon is Azerbaijan, which can be a destination only of the mind. Fighting had made the foreground Armenian, but it had also hemmed that vantage point into a besieged island. The foreground is the fighting zone of the past and present. The foothold defended, fought for to the death, then abandoned. And subsequently, in 2020, delivered in slow-cooking flames.

New York Times coverage of Dadivank Monastery.
New York Times coverage of Dadivank Monastery.

A couple of months after the ceasefire, the New York Times published an editorial about a few of the buildings that Armenia had lost. It was titled ‘When an Enemy’s Cultural Heritage Becomes One’s Own’. Some structures go up in flames; others erupt as an international campaign. According to the writer, the ceasefire had converted the Dadivank monastery, now in the newest corner of Azerbaijan, into a threatened site of global heritage. The reader is alerted that a ‘predominantly Muslim’ victor was now in control of a shell of Armenian Christian culture. No longer sheltering a community, now only filled with grave meaning, the monastery is portrayed in the article as a monument. Structures are listed: ‘frescoed churches, a bell tower and numerous medieval inscriptions’.[i] According to the author, these structures have survived centuries of pugilistic non-Christians – Seljuks, Mongolians, Persians, Soviets – as if territorial control were about religion.

The photograph that attends the article features the monastery wedged into mountains that pour into cavernous valleys. Fog drifts. There’s an ancient wall, its volcanic rock and mortar fusing as a result of age, as if they ache to return to earth. A young man steps away from a tour group to pose for a snapshot. Across his arm span he stretches an Armenian flag. Just as for the writer, architecture for the poser is not shelter; it’s an activated mid-ground of a backdrop. Two months later, in March 2021, Yerevan-based reporting announces the appointment of a new acting abbot at the Dadivank monastery, evidence that it is still functioning. Its structures, it turns out, are more than a stoic assemblage of cultural heritage; its grounds are still tended to by monks, however few they might be, however many Russian peace observers will have to ensure their welcome in their new country. Despite an apparent breath of life, there are forces that still want to portray places like Dadivank as lifeless. Like the mapmakers for the ibis, onlookers want to chart and define the life signs.

The story of the Dadivank monastery recalled to me other portrayals of Armenian heritage through empty, vacated architecture – striking but taut, modestly compact, ecclesiastical buildings, some of which are still capped by their conical roofs. Over the centuries, some have succumbed to earthquakes, their deliberate lines and chiselled facades shaken into piles of rubble. For the learned, there is a distinction to be made between the ‘medieval’ and the ‘gothic’. Together the two categories tell a history that has unfolded over topography. It seems that, in the decades before the Armenian genocide, Europeans began to learn of, and define, the Armenians. They are mentioned on some of the most ancient maps, though by a name only used by foreigners. Theirs was the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Churches, some of the earliest, mark Armenian lands and previously Armenian lands, but nearly every one of these is portrayed as vacant and deserted. Among architectural enthusiasts, there is a chronic fascination with capturing architecture without people. These fit the bill. No people, not even signs of civilisation around them. A fake history of heroic, autonomous architecture. I suspect, too, there must have been a university lecture I attended about how elements of medieval and gothic construction moved from the East, say Syria, via Armenia, to Europe. Islam was feared at the gates of Europe, but architectural innovation was welcome to cross.

[i] Hugh Eakin, ‘When an Enemy’s Cultural Heritage Becomes One’s Own’, New York Times, November 30, 2020,