Friday, July 14, 2006

Half Full or Half Empty? Armenia’s Silver Cups

Being welcomed as a guest in Armenian homes was the most pleasant aspect of our book project. And it’s in those private spaces that the best of Armenia can be found. But the privacy of those beautiful, warm homes is also a troubling sign. It’s become a way of “inner emigration,” a method of shielding away the troublesome interactions of a too-often harsh outside world. Disillusioned with corruption, politics, and the depressing public spaces in Armenia, perhaps it’s only natural that so many people want to “cocoon” inside the comfort of their homes.

When the subject of politics and the state of Armenia would arise, my friends would wave their hands in frustration and say something along the lines of, “Don’t bother even talking about it. It’s useless. I live my life, I work at my job, and I take care of my family as best I can and just try to provide a good home.”

It sometimes seems Armenia can be everything you want it to be, good or bad, depending on what you want to see. Affluent people will tell you how happy they are to be in Armenia, how everyone should pitch in to improve the country, and what a spiritual, cool, and fun experience they are having. Many others will lament Armenia’s widespread corruption, the hardships of daily life, and their desperation to escape by any means possible. Bitter frustration and hateful apathy lie at the other end of Armenia’s spectrum. Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, optimist or pessimist, examples of both can easily be found by anyone visiting Armenia.

We encountered two optimistic and creative individuals in Yerevan when we visited the home of Mamikon and Paitsar Mkhitarian. One of Mamikon’s specialties is creating silver drinking vessels designed in ancient, oriental styles, embellished with animals and mythical figures. They are cast in beautiful silver and intricately decorated; they are pieces of extraordinary art.

“This is technically wrong,” he said, pointing to the legs of a large goblet, also called a rhyton. “They’re not supposed to have legs. A cup bearer would bring the drinking cups, hold them for the drinker, and take them away. They were never intended to be set on a table.”

The Mkhitarians started building their home in Yerevan’s Kond district about 11 years ago. Yes, they started in 1995, one of the worst years in the history of post-Soviet Armenia. But it seems they discovered a solution for the miseries of the “dark years,” by keeping busy at their craft.

“Now they rush to build new houses in this area,” says Mamikon. “At that time, when I was building, many Armenians were leaving without any hope for this country. But look at it now.” He gestures toward the newly-built houses that now surround his home, some of them so close that they block the once scenic view of Old Kond.

The upper floors of his home are not completed. “Building materials’ prices went way out of control. Wood prices skyrocketed.” But though the upper levels are still under construction, the first floors were beautiful.

The Mkhitarians call their home “Mkhitarian Arvestanots,” which would translate in English as “Mkhitarian Studio.” Mamikon’s wife, Paitsar, weaves elaborate carpets and paints. Their sons, Haik and Vardan, are young artists, displaying their family’s talents with their own projects.

I had to wonder how they live and do daily chores together when both Mamikon and Paitsar are so creative and are so much into their arts. When do they find time for the mundane tasks of keeping a home? Almost everything in their home is handmade, created by Mamikon and Paitsar.

Pomegranates on a table are a typical home decoration. But this was an unusual house. Thus, as you can see in the picture, dried fruits and nuts filled an ornamental basket on the floor. The house was filled with creative touches and artistic decorations. And so much of Mamikon's work reflects Armenia's history. If you look at the top of the carved wooden columns, you can see the traditional ram's head design used in Armenian homes thousands of years ago. He explained it was a good luck symbol, and then he smiled, perhaps being hopeful that the old adage will come true.

Mamikon also explained that he was planning to make connections with the reviving wine industry in Armenia, and hoped to find ways to include his art of making decorative wine-drinking cups in ancient style into marketing campaigns for wine in Armenia. The wine industry in Armenia is still developing, though with a careful eye on neighboring Georgia which has a well-established wine culture.

Mamikon’s amazing silver cups and goblets, along with his knowledge of the history of wine and drinking customs, inspired us to do research about ancient drinking rituals, and we include a chapter about Armenian beverages and drinking customs in our book.


Read about wine, cognac, toasting customs, and ancient Armenian drinking rituals in the new book ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE
by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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Anonymous Donald Harris said...

Hi Irina,

I read your article about the silver wine cups -- and saw your great picture of them.. How can I purchase some? Can they be bought on line?

I am an Armenian-American who was doing some research on Apricot Jam --korisov tsirani -- and came across your writings -- which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I have just been given a jar of apricot preserve by Kariné Macri of Harvest Song Ventures in Great Neck NY. It won a top award at the Fancy Food Show in NYC.

My wife and I had a memorable time in 2001 taking the pilgrimage from Istanbul / Constantinople to Etchmiadzin. All of the Armenian part of my heritage had been ignored as I was growing up, so the trip It enabled me to connect to my roots. As it turned out, my son Christopher and his wife Rian were subsequently stationed with our embassy in Yerevan.

Now my sons and I and our extended family run a web business bringing the best of Spanish food to America.


Donald B Harris

3:04 PM  
Blogger Irina Petrosian said...

Hi Donald,

I'm glad you enjoyed reading our Armenian Food blog. If you'd like to learn more, please consider our book, ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE.

Unfortunately, Mkhitaryan Studios isn't online yet. But here is the contact information that we are able to share with you:

Mkhitaryan Studio
Kond 1, House 25
Yerevan, Armenia 375002

Telephone: 53-99-97, 58-76-13

Please note that only the Mkhitaryans' sons speak English. Russian and Armenian are the languages spoken at home.

Best wishes,


"Food is the portal to Armenia's past and present-day food culture."

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Donald and Irina,

Here is Mkhitaryan Studio web link

2:27 AM  

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