Mother Armenia & Military Museum, Yerevan
A giant socialist-era statue overlooking Yerevan
and symbolizing Armenia
at large; inside the statue's gigantic plinth is a military museum with a focus on the Nagorno-Karabakh
war of the 1990s, but it also still has an older WWII
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The size of the whole pedestal, and in part of the statue itself, can be understood better if you know and remember that it was originally a Stalin
statue that towered over the city. It was inaugurated in 1950 and apart from doing its usual intimidation job ... Stalin was almost never depicted as a truly caring father figure but rather as one to fear. the monument's official purpose was to celebrate the Soviet Armenians' participation in the victorious Great Patriotic War, better known as WWII
outside the sphere of the former Soviet Union
The pedestal's architect, Rafayel Israyelian, who also designed the Sardarapat
memorial, had the foresight of predicting that Stalin's glory may not last forever, and took care that the pedestal's design was, as it were, transferable. The interior was constructed to be reminiscent of a typical Armenian church, and it does indeed emanate a certain quasi-religious aura, which is more or less independent of the museum contents housed in its rooms. I've repeatedly encountered the claim that the interior is supposedly modelled on that of Hripsime church in Echmiadzin – cf. Sardarapat
– but having been to both, I cannot confirm that there is any overtly striking similarity.
The big Stalin statue on top was toppled in 1962 – in the process of the Khrushchev-era of de-Stalinization. It was as tragic as it was ironic that some of the workers were injured in the dismantling of Yerevan's Stalin statue, and at least one was even killed. So the great dictator's deadly reach hadn't gone away even nearly a decade after his own demise.
In place of Stalin, a new statue was erected in 1967, the present Mother Armenia, or Mayr Hayastan in Armenian. Her bronze hulk stands as tall (22 m) as her grim predecessor's, and involves even more symbolism. She has a huge sword at the ready, half as long as herself, held at a right angle in front of her, apparently ready to lash out. Given that her gaze is directed towards Mt Ararat
over in Turkey
, we get an impression of who is perhaps meant to fear her sword the most.
The military museum inside her enormous pedestal (which is even taller than the statue), was designed for such a museum purpose, but originally it contained only WWII
-related stuff. This has meanwhile be relegated to the basement part of the museum only, while the main upstairs part of the museum is now devoted to a more recent conflict: the war over Nagorno-Karabakh
fought with Azerbaijan
in the early 1990s and which ended in a ceasefire in 1994. Since then Armenia has been de facto in control of the Karabakh area, as well as a "buffer zone" of Azeri territory. In so far that's a military victory for Armenia, I suppose, and the inclusion of this particular war topic here at Victory Park thus only proper. From an Azeri point of view, however, you'd be almost guaranteed to get a different opinion on this. UPDATE: in the 2020 military confrontation Azerbaijan managed to claim back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, so now Armenia looks more like the looser, and many Armenians are not happy with the Russian-brokered “peace deal” that ended the fighting this time around.
The contents of the museum exhibition is as one-sided as the equivalent war museums in Stepanakert
itself; and it's ultimately also just as biased and reproachful as the relevant section in Baku
's Independence Museum
, only that the latter is so in exactly the opposite way round, of course. The absence of a "modern" balanced portrayal of the conflict may be criticized by some, but for the dark tourist it's almost like an extra bonus, an additional dose of twisted dark weirdness on top of the real tragedy of the topic.
What there is to see:
You can see the huge Mother Armenia statue from almost anywhere in the centre of Yerevan
(where the view isn't blocked by buildings). She towers high above the north-east of the inner city on a hill and an enormous pedestal.
When you get closer up (e.g. via Victory Park – see below
), the size of both the statue and the building that she's standing atop of are even more impressive. Mother Armenia's posture and facial expression aren't all that lovely motherly at all, but rather seems to convey something like "don't you dare!" – what with that enormous sword drawn and that icy glare out to the west.
Inside the pedestal, is a (deliberately) church-like central hall ringed by rooms that contain the main part of the Military Museum. There's also a photo of the statue of Stalin
that previously stood on the pedestal until it was wrenched off in 1962 and replaced by the present maternal statue in 1967.
The museum used to be one celebrating the Soviet Union
's victory in WWII
, in which half the Armenian soldiers that took part perished. But this is clearly regarded as not so important ancient history these days. And so the main part of the museum has been taken over by an exhibition devoted to the much more recent war with Azerbaijan
Of course, here this is called the "war of liberation in Artsakh" ... 'Artsakh' being the Armenian name for the region, whereas 'Nagorno-Karabakh' is a Russian-Azeri-Turkic hybrid word, which the Armenians hence prefer to avoid. Predictably, the whole portrayal of the war is totally one-sided here:
Much is made of the Azeris' "pogroms" against Armenians in Sumqayit
, which preceded the full-on war of the 1990s. Likewise, the enemy's bloody occupation of places such as Shahumian, Getashen and Artsvashen, which are – as is pointed out accusingly – still held by Azerbaijan's military. Not mentioned, on the other hand, is the fact that Armenia still occupies disproportionately larger parts of Azerbaijan's territory, namely the "buffer zone" around Karabakh proper, including the city of Agdam
(now a ruined ghost town
). UPDATE: in the renewed 2020 conflict Azerbaijan managed to claim back those territories, including Agdam.
The portrayal of Armenian and Artsakh soldiers is equally predictably heroic, especially the "heroes' deaths" died by many of them. A whole wall chart is devoted to heroic women volunteers who served in the conflict too.
Artefacts on display include the usual collections of light weapons, medals and uniforms, augmented by documents, maps and battle charts as well as dioramas. Of course there is a depiction of the decisive battle of Shushi
, in which Armenian forces (re-)took the town from the Azerbaijani army. It was a major turning point in the war, so it's no surprise to find it celebrated here.
But there are also a few more unexpected, odd items, such as a pair of boxing gloves, which apparently belonged to one of the "martyrs", or a whole array of items fashioned from shrapnel and bomb casings, including a cute metal camel! You may also raise a few eyebrows upon discovering a couple of swastikas here – but you have to remember that in Armenia the symbol didn't have the Nazi
connotations that today most people associate it with, which only came about through Hitler
's appropriation of the ancient symbol anyway. The swastika symbol can also be found on historic Armenian buildings, such as the main gate of Ani
The Karabakh section of the museum is no longer monolingual (as my 2008 edition guidebook still claimed). The Armenian labelling has meanwhile been supplemented by some translations into Russian and English. The latter are frequently rather patchy and broken, but perfectly good enough to get the gist.
When you've finished with the main exhibition you can also ask to have a look at the old WWII
section, which is now in the basement below the main part. Only a small sign on a pillar by the stairway leading down indicates its existence, and you can't just amble in on your own. You need to be guided through this section mainly because the museum warden taking you round has to switch the lights on and back off in the various rooms, which otherwise remain in the dark. This makes for a slightly North-Korea
-esque feel. The exhibition itself, however, is the usual Soviet
jumble of generals' busts, flags, uniforms, frontline charts, photos, paintings, model planes and the like. Nothing especially exciting – and all labelling is in Armenian or Russian only ... not that you'd be given much time to study them anyway, as the warden rushes you through rather quickly.
The museum's large object's are displayed outside: a couple of tanks, guns and other military gear, also including a large anti-aircraft missile pointing menacingly into the sky as well as a not at all heroic looking dilapidated jet fighter supported on a rickety set of pedestals instead of the wheels of the landing gear, whose tyres are missing, and the whole front wheel too.
What can make the open-air war gear a bizarre sight is the backdrop: the amusement park of Haghtanak (Victory) Park is right next door and its brightly coloured Ferris wheel makes for an odd contrast to the martial grimness of tanks and missiles. When I visited the place there were also a couple of polished veteran cars obviously being used in some kind of photo-shoot, which only added yet another level of weirdness of juxtaposition to the scene.
In front of the Mother Armenia statue and museum is a wide Soviet-style plaza around what once must have been an eternal flame, set in the centre of a big Soviet star in the middle of the square. Eternity is over, though. The flame is out.
From the edge of the plaza, high above Yerevan
, you get a good almost aerial view of the city, especially down Mesrop Mashtots Poghota and the opera. On a clear day you also get the prototypical backdrop of mighty Mt Ararat
in the distance – though in summer the haze of the dusty and smoggy heat usually makes its shape extremely faint and almost unrecognizable.
At the eastern end of Hahgtanak Park (Victory Park) on a hill to the north-west of the inner city of Yerevan
Access and costs: just about walkable; nominally free.
Details: There's no regular public transport up here that I am aware of, so it's most convenient to simply take a taxi (say you're going to "Mayr Hayastan)". The ride shouldn't cost too much. But if you don't mind a bit of walking, the Mother Armenia statue can also quite easily be reached on foot – especially if you make use of the Cascade to get from the cauldron of the city centre to the top of the rim of the hillsides to the north. The escalators inside the Cascade make the ascent quite comfortable. From the top by the 50-years-of Soviet-Armenia monument you need to head east to the park and walk the full length through it, past dilapidated fountains, forlorn statues and along cracked pavement paths leading through an overgrown woodland recreation ground and past the Soviet-era amusement park to the right.
Opening times of the museum: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: nominally free – though I was charged 500 AMD for a photo permit and 300 AMD for a little black-and-white folded leaflet of a single A4 page in English, which didn't really have anything to say that the exhibition didn't say better.
Time required: between something like 20 and 40 minutes for the main museum, plus a bit of extra time for the open-air objects and for admiring the big woman's statue itself as well as the view from up here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The nearby Haghtanak Park, or Victory Park, also sports a small amusement park, of the post-Soviet decrepit type that may amuse some dark tourists too, in as much as it provides a kind-of time travel opportunity back to Soviet
days of amusements. In the main, however, the park's Ferris wheel and swings form a bizarrely contrasting backdrop for the museum's grim outdoor hardware exhibits such as tanks and anti-aircraft missiles – it's not often that you get such things in the same frame as a colourful amusement park.
For more quirky aspects of Yerevan
you need to head back down to the city centre, e.g. via the Cascade.
Yerevan's principal dark site, the Armenian genocide memorial and museum
is located across the city centre on the Tsitsernakaberd hill. To get there from the Mother Armenia statue, you need a taxi – which is not necessarily easy to find in the vicinity of the statue. I had to head back almost as far as the top of the Cascade before I got one. So you could just as well take the escalators back down the Cascade and more conveniently find a taxi in the city centre ... or walk all the way, if you feel up for it.
The view from the hill that Mother Armenia looks down over her lands from also includes Armenia's "holy mountain" Ararat
, which is only 30 miles (50 km) or so away over the border in Turkey
, but so massive it towers over the entire region like a constant reminder of the historic rift between the two countries. In the haze of a hot summer day you can barely make out the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat, but after rain or in winter, it's the dominating feature of a view over Yerevan, more so than anything in the city itself.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Nothing in the immediate vicinity, unless you like your amusement parks decrepit and recreational areas overgrown. Better head back down into the centre of Yerevan
- Mother Armenia 01 - standing tall
- Mother Armenia 02 - with a huge sword
- Mother Armenia 03 - museum entrance
- Mother Armenia 04 - church-like interior
- Mother Armenia 05 - previous occupant of the pedestal
- Mother Armenia 06 - main Karabakh war section
- Mother Armenia 07 - liberation war of course
- Mother Armenia 08 - war gear
- Mother Armenia 09 - women volunteers
- Mother Armenia 09b - battle of Shushi depiction
- Mother Armenia 10 - made from shrapnel
- Mother Armenia 11 - shrapnel camel
- Mother Armenia 12 - Armenian swastika
- Mother Armenia 13 - it does not have the same Nazi connection in Armenia
- Mother Armenia 14 - gloomy WWII section
- Mother Armenia 15 - WWII relegated to the basement
- Mother Armenia 16 - open-air exhibits
- Mother Armenia 17 - weird juxtaposition
- Mother Armenia 18 - sorry old jet fighter plane
- Mother Armenia 19 - anti-aircraft missile
- Mother Armenia 20 - tank gun and fun fair
- Mother Armenia 21 - soviet flag and maternal statue
- Mother Armenia 22 - seen from the back
- Mother Armenia 23 - the whole ensemble
- Mother Armenia 24 - formerly eternal flame now out
- Mother Armenia 25 - view over Yerevan
- Mother Armenia 26 - Victory Park