Armenia: Haunting, Spiritual, Beautiful
“Laughter relieves us of superfluous energy, which, if it remained unused, might become negative, that is, poison. Laughter is the antidote.” – George Gurdjieff
The music was haunting, spiritual, beautiful. “What are you listening to?” I asked Ruth, who was sitting in the living room. “The Gurdjieff Ensemble, you should watch and listen to this,” she responded. I had heard of Gurdjieff, the Armenian born philosopher, mystic and spiritual teacher but I had no idea that he also composed music. Ruth, of course, knows that in less than a year our company will, for the first-time ever, cycle in Armenia as part of the 2024 Trans-Caucasus Cycling Adventure. And so, I went over to listen to and watch the video.
I have never been to Armenia, though I have heard much about it. During my university studies at McGill, I befriended a fellow newcomer from Lebanon, of Armenian origin. We found a common language, which was not difficult as both our families suffered from the 20th century’s two most horrific attempts to eliminate whole communities. We shared a bond that came from being surrounded by survivors. After McGill, Ara and I went our separate ways only to reconnect years later here in Toronto. By now the Soviet Union had fallen apart and Armenia has become an independent country. Ara, now a successful businessman, was very involved with the Armenian community here in Toronto as well as in rehabilitation efforts back in Armenia itself. He would often tell me about his beloved Armenia and the reasons that our company should make a point of cycling there. “You will not regret it”, he would insist.
Over the years TDA added a number of new trips but somehow Armenia wasn’t yet part of our repertoire of tours. Until this year. Miles, our Operation Manager, went to Armenia to scout a route and in his report from the trip he wrote, “Armenia is truly an incredible destination, not only for cycling, but for its history, culture, culinary richness and geography.”
According to Britanica.com, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who grew up in the mountainous plateau of Armenia, taught that, “human life as ordinarily lived is similar to sleep; transcendence of the sleeping state required work, but, when it was achieved, an individual could reach remarkable levels of vitality and awareness.” In 1919 he established a school in Tbilisi, Georgia (the next country the cyclists on the Trans-Caucasus Cycling Adventure will be cycling after Armenia) called the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. He eventually relocated the Institute to Paris and to this day there are followers of his Fourth Way. “Combining the three commonly known ways of enlightenment — physical, spiritual, and emotional — The Fourth Way presents a new way of reaching enlightenment, a more effective combination of the three known ways.” I doubt that I or any of the other participants will find enlightenment on our cycling tour in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey but biking in the area will certainly give us a better understanding and context to Gurdjieff’s philosophy and his perspective on life on this planet.
Interestingly, after cycling in Georgia the riders will be riding through Turkey and the first rest day in that country is in the city of Kars. According to Wikipedia, “Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which, from 1878 to 1918, was the administrative capital of the Russian-ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire. It contained extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains, and was inhabited by a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men, and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory were home to an extremely diverse population: although part of the Armenian Plateau, Kars Oblast was home to Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans, Doukhobors, Pryguny, and Subbotniks.” Wikipedia further explains that Subbotniks (Sabbatarians) is a common name for adherents of Russian religious movements that split from Sabbatarian sects in the late 18th century.
Reading all about this made me wish I was sitting across from Ara. I owe my existence to a family of Sabbatarians in Slovakia, who literally risked their lives during WWII and saved my father from certain death. Now I think of Ara and I wish that I could hear his thoughtful laughter and talk about the Gurdjieff Ensemble and our lives. Unfortunately, my friend Ara passed away a year and half ago. He was a great friend, a family man of integrity and passions. I have no idea whether he studied the Fourth Way but what I do know is that he had lived with “a remarkable level of vitality and awareness.” The last time I saw him, he told me, “I have no regrets. I had a good life.”
And now, as I write this with the Gurdjieff ensemble playing on the screen, displaying the landscape behind and around the ensemble, on the plateau in the Karahunj prehistoric archeological site in the Syunik province of Armenia, I am wondering why it took us so long to bicycle in this part of the world. In any case, if you haven’t done it yet, watch and listen to the Gurdjieff Ensemble playing traditional Armenian and Middle Eastern instruments whose repertoire includes music from the Middle East, ancient and medieval Armenian folk and spiritual music, troubadours songs from the Caucasus and others. It may even prompt you to sign up for our tour.