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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cognac and Culture Clash on Armenia Trip

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YEREVAN, Armenia -- I missed Alexy II's address at the Cathedral of Gregory the Illuminator on Sunday because Armen's car broke down.

We hitched a ride the rest of the way and were just in time to catch a glimpse of purple and gold brocade tea cozies bobbing up and down as the Russian patriarch and his bishops waded through the crowd and back onto their bus.

Armenians celebrate their 1,700th year of Christianity this week and cardinals by the coach-load have been arriving in Yerevan to offer prayers, blessings and candle-lit masses. Even the pope is stopping off on his way back from Kazakhstan to congratulate his Armenian counterpart, Garegin II.

It was a race against time to finish building the Cathedral of Gregory the Illuminator in time for this week's celebrations. Work began two years ago, and today the building is more or less complete.

Only the six cranes lined up around the back and the giant crater that will soon be a parking lot show how pressed they were for time.

Armen and I joined the line to get into the cathedral with hundreds of old ladies who had draped lace handkerchiefs over their heads. Inside, the building was very plain -- no stained glass windows, no heavy triptychs depicting the 12 stations of the cross, just two dozen wooden benches and an altar covered in dust sheets. "It's terribly modest," said Armen.

Back at my hotel, I bumped into an American-born Armenian from California named Ted. Ted had come to Armenia to find his roots -- his parents, Armenians living in Constantinople at the turn of the 19th century, moved to Missouri in 1915 to set up a dry-cleaning business.

Was he enjoying his trip, I asked. "Oh yes," he said. He had done a lot of sightseeing and he was practicing his Armenian, which no one seemed to be able to understand.

So why did he look so depressed? "It's the people on the tour bus with me," he said. He had planned to fly to Armenia with half a dozen other American Armenians. But after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the rest of the group got cold feet.

Ted's now the only American on the tour. The others are Armenians from Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

"All they talk about is money," Ted said. "How many carats their diamond necklaces are, how many cars they have. One woman told me the only way someone could get the six thick gold bracelets off her chubby arms would be to chop her hands off."

Perhaps a trip to the Cathedral of Gregory the Illuminator would be the perfect antidote to all their riches, I suggested.

"Culture?" Ted sighed. "I don't think so. They're just here for the cognac and the souvenirs."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.