The Armenian homeland has long felt like our own little corner of the world that most of our non-Armenian friends and acquaintances would be hard-pressed to locate on a map. Nevertheless, Armenia has indeed had its fair share of notable visitors, and not just famous Armenians, such as Charles Aznavour and Patrick Fiore from France, or Cher, the Kardashians, William Saroyan, and Serj Tankian, to name but a few from the U.S. Throughout its history, Armenia has welcomed some of the biggest names in science, culture, religion, politics, and entertainment. Chances are, their presence in Armenia will come as news to many, along with the satisfaction of knowing these influential people have the name Armenia not only stamped in their passports, but also in their memories of a place and a people that always impress.
William Saroyan is hailed as an American born national literary treasure and, as such, many Armenians have no idea of what a frequent visitor the novelist and playwright was to his ancestral home. In fact, he felt so connected to Armenia that he even requested that part of his ashes be buried there after his death. But he is far from the only famous American author to have made the trek. Just a year after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck made a trip to the Soviet Union as a Goodwill Ambassador aimed at thawing relations after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is said that during his time in Yerevan, Steinbeck took part in the 250th anniversary celebration of Sayat-Nova, had his portrait painted by the master Martiros Saryan, and was hosted in the gardens of fellow writer Hovhannes Shiraz.
The following year, writer and poet John Updike also stopped by as part of a tour of Soviet cities he made with fellow novelist John Cheever. The trip resulted in Updike’s collection of short poems “Postcards from Soviet Cities,” one of which was entitled “Yerevan.” In it, he describes Yerevan as: “A shelter made of tuff stone where east meets west, watched over by Mount Ararat floating above it”—an apt description to anyone who has visited the city. One of the most memorable author visits of the independence era was Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho in 2004 to launch the Armenian translation of The Alchemist. The Writers’ Union Hall was filled like no time since William Saroyan’s talk decades prior. Coelho described his visit by saying “Armenia wrote a novel in my heart.”
A young Alexander Pushkin was traveling through the Caucasus to pay a visit to his brother stationed in Erzurum. As he was journeying through the mountains south of today’s Stepanavan in the Lori region, the great poet came across some men with an ox-cart pulling a load. Pushkin inquired as to what their cargo was, and to his horror received the response “the slain Griboyedov,” who they were taking to Tiflis for burial. Pushkin was a friend of Griboyedov and had drawn inspiration from his work as a comedic playwright, in addition to serving as a diplomat. The chance encounter in the mountains of Armenia would become memorialized in various formats, including a monument on the site at what is now called Pushkin Pass and in a painting by Martiros Saryan.
Lake Sevan is a renowned jewel, which, for centuries, has attracted nature lovers seeking a respite from the hectic pace of everyday life. In the 1920s, the Sevan Writer’s Resort was built there, later enhanced in the 1960s with an avant-garde structure, which has become a modernist icon. An early notable visitor was the poet Osip Mandelstam, who described his experiences in Journey to Armenia, his last work published before his arrest by Stalin. In 1957, the Resort also hosted the Chilean poet and later politician Pablo Neruda, who wrote “Sevan’s pure waters mirror Armenia’s unforgettable blue sky.” He called Yerevan “one of the most beautiful cities I have seen,” its tuff stone buildings giving it “the harmony of a pink rose.” He also declared his visit to Byurakan Observatory as unforgettable, where he “saw the writing of the stars for the first time.”
One of the most famous couples to visit Armenia, who happened to be practically unknown there at the time, were the existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They dined on Sevan trout at the Writer’s Resort, and de Beauvoir described the landscape as “a pinkish, chaotic desert with a bright blue lake in the middle of it.” They also paid a visit to the Catholicosate at Etchmiadzin, and de Beauvoir assessed Armenia’s people as: “Seeming full of life—black-mustachioed men with velvety eyes; dark haired, olive-skinned and often beautiful women.”
Armenia has a reputation as a little country capable of big things in science and technology. Thus, it has been visited by some of those fields’ greatest minds. In 1971, a groundbreaking gathering was held at Byurakan Observatory on Mt. Aragats attended by many of the later 20th century’s greatest physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers. The acronym CETI was created to symbolize the conference’s subject matter, “communication with extraterrestrial intelligence,” later amended to SETI (“search for”) which has become an internationally well-known term. The organizing committee included astrophysicist Viktor Ambartsumian and popular scientist Carl Sagan, who described Byurakan as “a turning point in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” Another participant described it as making SETI a scientifically respectable pursuit, bringing it beyond simplistic sci-fi notions of aliens and UFOs. Other notable attendees included Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, and Nikolai Kardashev, known for his namesake scale of cosmic development. Concepts discussed included methods to search for and send signals to the stars, the design of new telescopes to explore further, and concluded it was possible that the universe could have a million technologically capable civilizations within.
In more recent decades, Armenia hosted Donald Knuth, known as the “father of algorithm analysis,” who paid tribute to the inventor of the Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots by kneeling before his statue at the Matenadaran Institute. Co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak visited in 2011, where he visited with local tech companies and was seen riding a Segway around Republic Square.
While Yerevan might not be Hollywood, New York, or Paris, that hasn’t prevented it from attracting quite a few stars of the entertainment world. That is in no small part due to the persuasiveness and influence of Armenians around the world, who each serve as goodwill ambassadors promoting it as a must-see destination. Naturally it was through the Kardashians that rapper and producer Kanye West visited, stopping by TUMO to see its music program first hand and later giving an unforgettable surprise concert at Swan Lake. Conan O’Brien dedicated a hilarious episode of his late night show to his travels in Armenia, inspired to visit by his American-Armenian assistant Sona Movsesian. It was Serj Tankian who first called the late Anthony Bourdain with the idea to do an episode of his travel cuisine show on Armenia, which included an excursion to Artsakh. Former UFC champion fighter Ronda Rousey has trained under Armenians for many years and showed her solidarity with them by visiting Armenia in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, along with using her platform to bring attention to Armenian issues. Exactly a year later, one of the world’s biggest movie stars George Clooney visited Yerevan to take part in the inaugural awarding of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. Yerevan has come a long way since actress and singer Cher visited back in 1993, at a time when it was plunged into darkness and cold as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. Coincidentally, her trip was covered for People magazine by Susan Cheever, the daughter of John, who made the same trip three decades earlier with John Updike.
American Political Figures
When one thinks of American political figures with ties to Armenia, the late U.S. Senator Bob Dole towers above all others. After being seriously wounded in World War II, he credited Armenian surgeon Dr. Hampar Kelikian with not just physically saving his arm, but also inspiring him to overcome the disability mentally. In 1997, Dole planted a tree at the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial with the daughter of Dr. Kelikian in his memory. Dole’s first visit to Armenia had been in 1989 when he was sent with his wife Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole on behalf of newly sworn in President George H. W. Bush to deliver humanitarian supplies to Armenian earthquake victims. While Bush was still president-elect, his son and future governor of Florida Jeb Bush had volunteered to make a Christmas Eve flight, where he met with survivors and handed out toys with his 12-year-old son George.
Civil Rights Leader Rev. Jesse Jackson also made a visit where he not only focused on bringing aid and hope, but also met with Catholicos Vazgen and pushed the Soviet authorities for religious freedom. At one point, the activist side of Jackson pushed him into a heated exchange with an official over the issue of jailed Armenian dissidents. The highest ranking U.S. official to visit Armenia to date has been the Secretary of State. The first was James Baker who visited Armenia in February 1992 as part of a tour of newly independent Soviet states. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made two visits to Armenia in 2010 and 2012, with aims of encouraging the ultimately failed Armenia-Turkey Protocols and to urge a settlement to the Karabakh conflict. A lesser-known fact is the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice to visit Armenia Antonin Scalia, who participated in a USAID-funded legal conference in 1995 aimed at structuring a balanced judiciary within the recently independent government.
International Politicians and Leaders
Armenia has been visited by foreign heads of state in order to build or reaffirm ties between nations. Presidents of France have a long tradition of visiting Armenia, from Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron. One of Macron’s visits was for the La Francophonie Summit in 2018, for which Yerevan hosted 54 heads of state including Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, whose father and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau also visited in 1984. An encounter between the artist Mariam Aslamazyan and Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi inspired the leader to visit Armenia as part of her tour of the Soviet Union, during which she visited the Matenadaran Institute and Holy Etchmiadzin. Another prominent woman from India to also visit Armenia was Mother Teresa in the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian earthquake. Other religious leaders are the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Pope John Paul II, as well as Pope Francis in 2016.
Armenia provided the royal treatment to visitor King Abdullah II in February 2020 just days before the global pandemic, while King Philippe of Belgium and his family enjoyed a winery trip and kite-surfing on Lake Sevan during a private family vacation in 2018. Charles, The Prince of Wales also made a private visit in 2013 as part of a charity project to preserve architecturally significant buildings in Yerevan, during which he enjoyed traditional Armenian cuisine at Dolmama restaurant.
One unlikely leader to have visited Armenia was President of Turkey Abdullah Gul, who attended a football (soccer) match between Armenia and Turkey in Yerevan as part of what was heralded as “football diplomacy” in an attempt to bring about reconciliation between the two sides. Going against custom, Gul refused to make the typical diplomatic visit to the Tsitsnerakaberd Genocide Memorial. No doubt uncomfortably for him though, the football match was played at Hrazdan Stadium just meters down the hill from the memorial, which was lit up and clearly visible from the venue.
Directors and Actors
Andrei Tarkovsky, a giant of not just Russian but world cinema, partly shot his film school thesis, the featurette The Steamroller and the Violin in Yerevan in 1960. Due to his friendship and association with many Armenians, he made multiple trips back in the years to come. Some of his Armenian adventures included a road trip through Syunik where he marveled at the province’s beauty, and taking a swim in the Hrazdan Gorge with actor Sos Sargsyan, who had just appeared in his film Solaris. Other notables include British movie legend Michael Caine.
A counterpart to Sevan’s abode for writers is the Composer’s Union Resort in Dilijan, which was the brainchild of composer Edward Mirzoyan. It soon became a popular retreat for musicians from all over the USSR and beyond. During its heyday in the 1960s-1980s, the retreat was the site of almost unbelievable sounding encounters of great minds, such as soccer games featuring Arno Babajanyan and ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, refereed by composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
Benjamin Britten visited with his partner tenor Peter Pears during which the composer performed his song cycle The Poet’s Echo, which was dedicated to his friends the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who had extended the invitation to join them in Dilijan. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, parts of the campus have fallen into disrepair and are in need of serious investment to be saved.
Contemporary Musical Artists
Armenia has also hosted its fair share of modern rockers as well, most notably Elton John. The “Rocket Man” made a humanitarian visit to Armenia on behalf of his AIDS Foundation during which he visited a recently opened rehabilitation center for children with disabilities and also spoke out on the importance of ending the stigmas on AIDS and LGBTQ issues. Ian Gillin of Deep Purple and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are rockers who have made repeated visits to Armenia, stemming from their involvement with 1989’s Rock Aid Armenia to support survivors of the Spitak earthquake. They have remained deeply connected to Armenia ever since, for example in 2011 they attended the opening of a music school in Gyumri which they helped to renovate through the proceeds of an album released by their supergroup WhoCares. During another trip in 2019 they were serenaded by the Naregatsi Art Institute’s folk ensemble playing “Smoke on the Water” on traditional Armenian instruments, a song which had famously been re-recorded for Rock Aid Armenia.
It’s also worth noting that Cynthia Lennon and Patti Boyd, former wives of the Beatles’ John Lennon and George Harrison, visited Yerevan in 2009 for the grand opening of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. Their husbands’ music has a special nostalgia in former Soviet states like Armenia. Although the Beatles had been banned during Soviet times, their music was smuggled in the underground as a lifeline to western culture. Appropriately, Armenia has also been visited by Peter Gabriel, whose inclusion of the duduk in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ has made it a staple of movie and TV soundtracks ever since. He was there to celebrate the birthday of duduk master Djivan Gasparyan.
The Festival Circuit
Armenia is a hub for international festivals and has attracted many a famous entertainer in film and music to its venues. Going into its 20th year, Armenia’s own Golden Apricot International Film Festival annually hosts noted guests of honor. Past years have included actresses Jacqueline Bissett and Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Paul Schrader known for such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, and director Sean Baker who has featured Armenian characters in his films. Darren Aronofsky and Terry George have also attended this prestigious annual film-industry event.
In 2017, American actor, director, and producer John Malkovich arrived in Yerevan for the fifth Aram Khachaturian International Festival. He performed the “Report on the Blind” chapter from Ernesto Sabato’s On Heroes and Tombsnovel and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Alfred Schnittke with the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia. During his stay, he visited the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and had an official meeting with the Armenian president.
Armenia’s annual Jazz Festival has also brought legends from that genre, including pianist Chick Corea, bassist Marcus Miller, and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. The Yerevan Perspectives International Music Festival has organized concerts featuring singers Joe Cocker, Lara Fabian and George Benson, soprano Renee Fleming, and tenors Andrea Bocceli and Placido Domingo. The jazzy French singer Zaz also headlined when Armenia hosted Francophonie 2018 and returned this summer for one in a series of concerts put on by the newly-founded Haya Festival which also included rapper 50 Cent. This year, Yerevan hosted the Starmus Festival, during which it enjoyed a concert by co-founder of the band Queen and astrophysicist Dr. Brian May. Over the years, some of the big acts that played in Tbilisi or Moscow occasionally made a side trip to play Armenia, but the vast majority of these live appearances were made possible through the initiative of Armenian-created festivals, connections, and relationships with notables both locally and in the Diaspora.