'Tsavt Tanem' — I take away your pain

Fabian Muir

2018 - Ongoing

Armenia, the constant victim. At least this is how history seems to judge this tiny nation in the Caucasus, which has borne the brunt of many of the disasters — both geopolitical and natural — that have riven that region.

At times Armenian culture seems built on suffering, almost as if it thrives on it. A common term of endearment, ‘Tsavt tanem’, means ‘I take away your pain.’ The duduk, Armenia’s ubiquitous woodwind instrument, moans a doleful dirge that seems to echo centuries of struggle.

The last hundred years alone have seen conflicts with Turkey and the genocide of 1915, subjugation by the USSR and its eventual collapse, the loss of large swathes of territory (including the national symbol, Mount Ararat), the devastating earthquake of 1988 that killed tens of thousands, and the unresolved ‘frozen’ conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh with post-Soviet Azerbajian. This is a disproportionate level of turmoil for a nation of barely three million, but perhaps it is the price to be paid for its location on an historical crossroad and the fractures of a tectonic plate boundary.

Yet somehow it tenaciously survives, even as contemporary Armenia struggles with its domestic politics while also being squeezed between a strident Turkey in the west and an aggressive Azerbaijan in the east. Indeed, there is a sense that this devout land of countless churches is now far more willing than previously to assert itself.

This series seeks to take the viewer on a journey across an emerging Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh — burdened by history, forever caught betwixt and between. Surveying the tense borderlands with Turkey and Azerbaijan, the 1988 earthquake zone, and the Soviet legacy, the images meditate upon some of the touchstones of Armenia’s modern history, while questioning the future awaiting this geopolitically critical yet frequently overlooked nation. So often it has been shaken by forces beyond its control, but perhaps a future beckons in which it will no longer be the constant victim after all.

The grant would be used to continue and resolve the project.

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  • A forlorn Soviet totem pole once used as a town gate now stands sentry on the permanently closed Armenia-Turkey border ./. A cross stands as a statement of intent directly on the Armenia-Turkey border. Here, the border is nothing but a slim stretch of the Aras river — so narrow, in fact, that a Turkish minaret on the other side can be seen in the image, a virtual stone's throw from the cross.

  • A horseman rides amongst monumental letters of the Armenian alphabet in the countryside of central Armenia. Armenians are proud of this unique alphabet, created in 405 AD by Mesrop Mashtots, and believe their ancient ‘living’ alphabet is the highest testament to their culture ./. A dog shows feist in a rural location in central Armenia. Roaming dogs like this one are omnipresent across the country and are generally good natured, however they will not shy away from confrontation either. Perhaps they are an unexpected but pertinent symbol for modern Armenia, whose people no longer seem willing to back down as they once did at many critical moments in the past.

  • Reflection in a puddle amongst urban ruins from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. While the conflict has been ‘frozen’ since the 1990s, the frontline between Armenian and Azeri forces remains hot, with shooting between the two sides taking place almost daily. Armenians feel it important for Nagorno-Karabakh to remain independent from Azerbaijan, not only because they consider the territory an Armenian heartland, but also because it represents one of the rare occasions in modern history when Armenia has prevailed over an adversary. ./. A Soviet-era fountain on the outskirts of Gyumri, where up to 50,000 people lost their lives in the earthquake of 1988. Locals make wry observations about the survival of this structure when all else around it collapsed.

  • An engraving on a tombstone in Spitak, the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake, portrays the event and the hour when it struck ./. Ruins from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict with Shushi's Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the background. The similarity between the damage inflicted by nature and that inflicted by man in unsettling. First consecrated in 1888, the cathedral has had a chequered past, including decades of neglect during the Soviet era and its use as an armoury by Azerbaijan forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, when it was ‘repurposed’ to store Grad missiles for the bombardment of nearby Stepanakert. Since its restoration and reconsecration, it has come to be regarded as a symbol for Armenian rebirth in Karabakh, even while much of the surrounding township of Shushi remains in ruins.

  • The doorway to a church built of tin in Spitak in the north of the country. The church was originally constructed hastily as a temporary measure in the wake of the earthquake, but has ultimately been left standing as a memorial to the victims of the disaster ./. Armenia has its own form of Orthodox Christianity, the Armenian Apostolic Church. Here, a woman exits the crypt of a female saint in a small church in Echmiadzin. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the 4th century, and overall its people remain very devout, with religion playing a significant role in society as it continues to grapple with the many issues and tensions still confronting the country.

  • A mix of emotions — hope, anguish, loss — seems etched into the faces of women worshipping on the left side of the nave in Echmiadzin Cathedral. First built in the early fourth century, it is considered by some as the world’s oldest cathedral ./. Clergy sing on the opposite side of the nave in the Cathedral.

  • An etching of an earthquake victim in the cemetery of Spitak, which was the epicentre and lost almost a third of its population in the disaster. It was once a significant industrial centre but has never been able to restore any kind of prosperity in the aftermath ./. A congregation consisting entirely of women prays ardently in Shushi. Many of them would have lost close relatives in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

  • Cemetery in Spitak. The vast majority of people buried here were victims of the 1988 disaster ./. View of Mount Ararat with a somewhat dystopian vista of the capital, Yerevan, below. Armenians consider Mount Ararat the centre of one of several lost heartlands and have made it their national symbol. Now located in Turkey, Ararat’s massive peaks stare down permanently upon the southern part of Armenia, a constant reminder of what has been lost and causing considerable rancour amongst the Armenians.

  • The Bash Aparan monument in central Armenia. Constructed in Soviet Armenia in 1978, it commemorates the 1918 battle of Bash Aparan against Ottoman Turkey, which helped halt the Ottoman invasion and is considered a key moment in the formation of the First Republic of Armenia. The Republic would be short-lived, however, ending with Soviet annexation in 1920-21 and ushering in a further 71 years of Soviet rule / Soviet tenement block and Sunday washing in Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh.

  • A school destroyed during the Nagorno Karabakh conflict now stands as a monument to the territory's riven past ./. An operational school in central Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh.

  • A decapitated Micky Mouse in an abandoned Soviet-era amusement park in Gyumri bears further witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union ./. A chopping block in the market of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh hints at a more visceral edge to the people living in this contested region.

  • Shadows of Yerevan locals are cast against the wall of the capital’s Soviet-built viewing platform of Mount Ararat ./. Soviet workers still stride towards the great utopia in front of a derelict factory in western Armenia.

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