Revival of Old Meghri

Interactive city budget
The program of restoration and conservation of public houses will boost tourism in Meghri.
Gayane Mkrtchyan
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Gayane Mirzoyan
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Meghri, one of the farthest located settlements in Armenia, resembles an open air amphitheater, where the many stairs of the Mets Tagh and the Poqr Tagh (tagh - district) wind up the hill, leaving the daily life of the small town at their footsteps.
Meghri invades your memories and stays in your thoughts. The spearheaded summits of the hazel-hued mountains embracing the town scatter in the sky and make people return to the place over and over again.

"Meghri stayed in my mind; Meghri as a feeling of south, and the east …. Meghri's attraction is in the air, there is gravity, something that calls you and drags you back. That's how I got there and got emotionally connected to it. That is why the first visit is important. A tourist visiting Meghri will keep it in his or her heart and will then share memories about it with others," says Armine Petrosyan, an architect profession.

Some thirty years ago Armine Petrosyan, then a graduate of university, landed a job as an urban developer in one of the leading urban planning organizations of its time, and joined the team, which was then working on the regional master plan of Meghri.
The Poqr Tagh and St Hovhannes Church are part of historic Meghri.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The narrow passes of the Poqr Tagh underline the uniqueness of Meghri.
“The first visit to Meghri is decisive. A tourist who has once been in Meghri will take the memories of the town to share them later with others,” Armine Petrosyan, an architect by profession, says.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The streets of Meghri hold memories, legends, and exert a huge force of gravity.
The senior residents of the district socialize in the evenings in front of their houses.
 
 
 
 
"We were frequent guests in Meghri in 1982 and 1983. We were developing a historical and cultural reserve of the town; we were visiting private houses, and were measuring buildings. I have measurement data for some seven dozen houses in my personal archive," Petrosyan says.

The Mets Tagh and Poqr Tagh of Meghri stand facing each other. The design of the urban landscape reminding a terrace makes the rooftops of the houses on lower levels the yards of those on the next level; the narrow streets and unique traditional balconies of the buildings add a special touch to the town.

Meghri is orange at dawn and hazel at dusk. The autumn sun and the lush hues of gardens make Meghri look an enchanted place. Housewives here dry the long rows of blood orange and figs in the yards and balconies of their homes hanging them on an open air like threads of jewels.

Armine Petrosyan explains the Mets and Poqr districts reveal landscape architectural style typical of Zangezur, where houses are traditionally built in rocks beeing connected with narrow passes.

"One's rooftop is another's yard and street. And it is one of the attractions of Meghri. Venice is another example. Every time you see this you ask: how was it built? There is a legend here. At the core of the program I work on today lies the idea of restoring the memory. Meghri is rich in symbols and that makes return people remember it," says Petrosyan.
Armine has no ancestry in Meghri, but spares no effort to save the residential buildings of the Poqr Tagh, which are of historical value. She believes owing to its urban environment the district can become a center of hospitality, environmental and agricultural tourism, folk tour destination, and a cultural hub. The plans include creation of parks, teahouses, local food diners, all of which are supposed to tell about the local traditions.

In 2004-2008 the Izmirlian Foundation purchased a house in the Poqr Tagh; owing to Armine the building today is the only operating guesthouse of Meghri, and holds the name "Areviq". The exploitation and maintenance of the reconstructed guesthouse is handed over to "Areviq" Foundation.

"But this is more a people's house. We try to revive the traditions related to this sort of public spaces. The Poqr Tagh has kept its architectural uniqueness. It is because cars have been unable to reach here, and the locale has not been distorted," Armine explains.

The building of "Areviq" once belonged to Mezhlumyans, the famous dynasty of doctors in Meghri. The Poqr Tagh has been populated with the well-off people of the town, and has once been the center of the settlement. Meghri's hospital, library, and the 17th century St Hovhannes Church have all been located in this part of the town.

The historic part of Meghri is home to 65 families. Many of the residents have renovated their houses, which has resulted in distortions of the old district's traditional features. And yet, even now, the classical décor of the window frames and doors, mostly wooden, lattice, and arched, is clearly detectable. The insides of the houses have wooden ceilings, and have always been known for richly embellished stoves.

According to government decision 2322-N from December 29, 2005 the Poqr Tagh of Meghri was included in the list of historic and cultural assets of Armenia under state protection and was classified as a national value.

The Izmirlian Foundation has started "Revival of Poqr Tagh District in Meghri" program, which aims at restoration and conservation of the local cultural heritage as well as at boosting the economic life of the town.

"As a result Meghri is expected to become a unique connection point between Armenia and the countries of the Arax valley attracting tourists from all over the world to see its historic and cultural assets, natural monuments, as well as to attend traditional and contemporary folk festivals, local customs and lifestyle," says Babken Babayan, Head of Project Implementation, Izmirlian Foundation country office.
 
 
 
 
The stairs next to “Areviq” guesthouse take to St Hovhannes Church located in Poqr Tagh up the hill.
 
 
 
 
Babken Babayan, the Program Director of Izmirlian Foundation, and Lusine Galajian, the Director of the Foundation, discuss the perspectives of the “Reviving Poqr Tagh” program on the balcony of guesthouse “Areviq”.
Unique arched windows are the visit card of historic Meghri.
 
 
 
 
Antique items decorate the guesthouse.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Mets Tagh of Meghri is visible from the cozy window of the guesthouse.
 
 
 
 
The guests staying at “Areviq” gather to dine in a traditional Armenian environment.
Ceramic salt sacks embodying female characters.
 
 
 
 
The open balcony of “Areviq” with a view of St Hovhanness Church.
 
 
 
 
Dried red pepper for winter meals.
 
 
 
 
According to the information from Meghri administration all in all there are 11 small hotels and guest houses, which offer 170 rooms with 171 beds, despite the annual average number of the guests reaches to 6580 people.

According to the State Committee of Tourism of Armenia about 220 thousand Iranians have visited Armenia in 2017, which is 16% more than in 2016 (around 185 thousands). The trend implies the Meghri region has significant potential of tourism development. However, it lacks capacities to lodge even the third of Iranian tourists. This is the reason people prefer other towns, or opt for direct travel to Yerevan when visiting the region.

"Tour agencies mostly want accommodation for up to twenty people, which we are unable to provide. There are maximum 8 to 10 beds at 'Areviq'; and yet we manage to welcome a lot of guests. In other words, we lack infrastructure. There are no investments; they say the reason is the distance and the fear the enterprises will not bring income," Babken Babayan says.

The revival program has four major components – development planning, district reconstruction, capacity building, and promotion of Meghri as a new tourist destination. Development planning means creating professional basis for providing hospitality services with local traditions in mind.

"Tourists will not remember the country if it does not impress them. We aim to breathe life into these houses, to revive the atmosphere, so that the visitors are willing to stay. First of all we need to recreate the environment, and then only think of attracting tourists. Tourists will respect us if they understand efforts are made to please visitors even when they stay for an overnight, and that we care about our heritage," says Armine Petrosyan.
The next component of the program implies reconstruction of the Poqr Tagh, which will include restoration of 19-20th cc. historic buildings of the district, as well as development of design plans and documentation for creation of infrastructures and improvements of the locale. It is anticipated that the reconstructed historic buildings will preserve their old architecture and fittings.

Lusine Galajyan, Country Director of the Izmirlian Foundation, mentions the full-scale implementation of the program requires six million US dollars investment. To get the funds, the foundation tries to cooperate with other international structures implementing tourism development programs in Armenia with an aim to turn Meghri into an attractive destination.

Another component of the program is aimed at capacity building of the local population, and envisions trainings in tourism industry intended for guesthouse staff, waiters, and tour guides.

Babken Babayan says first of all, the residents of Meghri will see the historic and cultural heritage and assets of their native town preserved, and second, people will get personally engaged in the town's development initiatives.
 
 
 
 
The view of Mets Tagh from the balcony of “Areviq” guesthouse.
The unique ornament on the guesthouse balcony.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The balconies of the Poqr Tagh – looking alike yet so different at the same time.
 
 
 
 
The narrow streets and the old balconies are typical of Meghri’s Mets Tagh; the town requires conservation and reconstruction, as well.
"The residents of the Poqr Tagh have been present at our visits; have heard our suggestions and have learned our vision of the future of their district. Some of the residents already work in the guesthouse. We expect more locals get employed in renovated houses intended to various purposes by the program – be those guesthouses, national food outlets, or crafts centers; there may be women's clubs, and joint ventures as well. The implementation of this program will dramatically change the lives of the local population," Babken Babayan says.

Lusine Galajyan says the program is social in essence, and is expected to become self-sustainable in future.

Izmirlian Foundation has been implementing various programs in Armenia for the last twenty five years, and they have been charitable without exception. This program is a social investment program, which envisions supporting Meghri in becoming a unique connection hub between Armenia and the countries of Arax valley to attract tourists from all over the region to see its historic and cultural assets, natural monuments, as well as to attend traditional and contemporary folk festivals, local customs and lifestyle.
The suggested development plan for Poqr Tagh by Izmirlian Foundation.
Another component of the program envisions Meghri as a potential tourist destination. Babken Babayan says the program encompasses the region as a whole, and will try to create conditions in Meghri for tourists to consider staying more than one night.

"We will explore the potential of the region; will develop new tourist trails, and new destinations. Meghri region is home to 'Arevik' national park, Shikahogh, there are plenty of amazing historic and cultural sites here. The neighboring villages will reveal to the visitors the everyday life of the locals and their customs. Villages will offer B&B options," Babayan shares.

Interest towards the Meghri region is getting bigger with the proximity of Iran. Armenian tourists get to the St Stepanos Monastery, Hovvi Church and St Mariam Astvatsatsin in Julfa, Iran, within just two hours after crossing of the state border between the two states.

"We anticipate that the flow of tourists will be in both directions – from Armenia to Iran and from Iran to Armenia," says Lusine Galajyan.

The program will help present Meghri as a pivotal settlement in the region, as the southern gate of the country opening to the west, from Iranian civilization to Armenian, a gate to the Armenian routes of the Silk Road.

The program is in line with the government's 2012-2030 strategy of sustainable development, which prioritizes the development of tourism and new job openings as the main boosters of development. According to Babken Babayan the program has the potential to be completed in three to five years on a condition other donor organizations join in.
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