With the Gulf War imminent, the USSR collapsing, a barely-twenty-year-old Englishman sets off on a quest. He wants to see Armenia, the source of longing and loyalty for those he had met on his travels in the Near East. He is fascinated by the Armenians, the “intriguing footnote in the history of other peoples,” the “cipher to understanding the region.” From London, he passes through 17 countries in southeast Europe and the Middle East. Bribing his way through recently-Communist states with American cigarettes, dining in seedy restaurants, talking to armed pimps, drinking vast quantities of arak, staying in dingy hotels and generous homes, and—like something from a gothic story—in a presbytery in Transylvania, he is Armenia-bound at an acutely dangerous time: Armenia is reeling after the 1988 Spitak earthquake and facing a full-blown war with Azerbaijan.
Foreign travel accounts of modern Armenia would make a compact bookshelf. Besides the ethnic Armenians, such as William Saroyan, whose trips were like homecomings, and the Russians, such as Vasily Grossman, who were on home ground as Soviet citizens, the bulk of these texts are by authors who ventured into Armenia as part of their visits to the USSR, or “Russia”. They included the prominent journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, and playwright Arthur Miller with his wife, photographer Inge Morath. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, contemporary Western chroniclers visiting Armenia, do so the way Marco Polo did—on a multi-stop tour. On this imaginary bookshelf, Philip Marsden’s The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians, which was awarded the 1994 Somerset Maugham Award, is in a category of its own. Atmospheric, gripping and revelatory, I recently re-read its second edition (2015) with the author’s foreword and postscript.
Visiting Venice in 1909, Henry James noted: “There is nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude is completely impossible.” No such risk for Marsden. Though the Armenians were “hovering at the edges of a lot of stories that I was interested in,” when Eastern Europe opened up for the West in early 1990s, he says, like most in the UK, Marsden had “a very hazy notion about who [Armenians] are… so it did have that sort of freshness and a sense of territory… which I can go into and roam around without feeling that there’s [lots] of scholarship and other people who’ve done similar things… Here was an experience of people that have gone through something that was not part of my life and my past.”
The territory was, indeed, free in the pre-Kardashian, pre-2018-Velvet-Revolution, pre-Biden-Genocide-recognition, and pre-2020-Artsakh-War world. Nevertheless, the book follows a long and strong tradition of travel writing in British literature. Colonial and imperialist outlooks of past generations aside, contemporary voices, such as Patrick Lee Fermor, among others, transform the reader through their ability to capture a sense of place and sculpt clearly defined characters.
Booker prize-winning author George Saunders advises emerging writers in The Guardian to “always be escalating”. Marsden’s narrative is nothing but a continuous series of escalations, until its crescendo in Armenia. It starts bleakly in the Anatolian desert. Marsden finds a bone, which he thinks belonged to an animal, but the local shepherd tosses it aside casually: “Ermeni”. This triggers Marsden’s decision to travel to Armenia. In this work and others, his device for storytelling is the journey: “As a writer, what you’re doing is finding the best way to get the story across to others…. You follow your own journey towards the story and ask people to come along with you.” Before he set off – without any knowledge or expertise, he learnt Armenian, “which opened a lot of doors, because not many who aren’t Armenian can speak Armenian.” Later, he found connections and help in what he calls “the Armenian network”.
In her obituary of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, referring to his adoption of the English language, called Conrad “our guest”. Marsden, though a writer in English, is our guest. Neither an Armenian, nor on a tour of “peripheral” Europe, he immerses himself in Armenian culture, history and art, moving through the dispersed communities on a pilgrimage. Though its title is confusing, implying a place, yet also a people, the book does what it says: delves into the seemingly exclusive club of a nation at the meeting point of cultures. Marsden pens both the natural and the man-made world without sentiment, yet with wonder, painting crisply rendered portraits of his interlocutors, hosts and heroes – from Joseph Emin to Monte Melkonian. They are incongruous and determined representatives of a collective image, from which—and this is squarely the failure of Armenian historiography—notable women are patently absent.
In the pantheon of non-Armenian writers on Armenian themes, Marsden carves his own niche by neither centring on Armenia, nor focusing on “the old country”. The Crossing Place somewhat bypasses the two mainstays of Armenian-related writing: Ararat and the Genocide. Actually, it transpired during the interview that the thought of climbing Mount Ararat did occur to him - more for the dramatic effect it would give the story, but “It’s a book about people and there are no Armenians on Ararat. [It] is a mountain to be looked at, rather than climbed.” He also grappled with “the great shadow” of 1915, but there is too much beyond it. To him, it was always about “this extraordinary network of communities that predated the Genocide and went right back to the Middle Ages.” What is perceptive is that “editors and writers feel their pens falter over the page at “Armenian genocide”, obliged to qualify the words, to tone them down, or simply to delete them.”
Other than the few pages on dualism and the early Christian sect, the Paulicians, where my attention slipped, the narrative is fast-moving, and the book is consumed by the author’s affection and compassion during his numerous encounters.
Born near Bristol in 1961, Marsden received a degree in anthropology and wrote for The Spectator. He started, as he says, as “a gawky 20-year-old” on his first foreign trip to Ethiopia – a country he would return to and write about repeatedly. This became a catalyst to his writing and “travelling obsessively”. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, his work has been translated into 15 languages, including Eastern and Western Armenian, Russian and Chinese.
Ever drawn to the fringes, he lives on the edge of England, the Cornish coast, with his wife, two teenage children, a dog and boats. I spoke to him via Zoom from his home near Falmouth, where he spent childhood holidays sailing. He is generous with his time and genuinely interested, smiles and talks fast. Nowadays, he is focused on environmentalism, getting satisfaction out of growing acorns, planting trees and doing conservation work. “[T]here is an urgency and I feel compelled to… do what I can.” Is there time, I ask? He despairs, like many, but “The issue and what can be done about the future of the planet is not in our hands though we contribute to it, but the other side of it is what it means to the individual. A lot of what we do is about trying to find meaning.” Recently, he has been writing about the British Isles and is working on a book about mining. The day we spoke, he saw the uranium mine, where Marie Curie obtained her first samples of radium.
He has been compared to iconic travel writers Bruce Chatwin and Nick Danziger and is perhaps best known for The Bronski House (1996), described as “hybrid fusion of fiction, memoir, history and travel.” The theme of exile is a common thread between the two books. “The condition of exile,” he says, “is actually a sense that we all as humans have something missing, you know, we’ve lost something, we go through our lives trying to recreate something which may have been in our childhood… like the Garden of Eden, that we’ve been driven from our place of Paradise, …our place of innocence into the world.” He adds a proviso: “If you’re Polish or Armenian, history shapes your life in a way that it doesn’t to us Brits.” Indeed, reading The Crossing Place now, a reader will trip up on the shards of history every few pages. One moment Marsden is journeying with a North American lawyer involved in the lucrative business of adoption of Romanian infants to the U.S., the next, he is in “the crumbling mess of the Soviet Union,” where Moldovans flock into the bus every weekend to see their families on the Romanian side of Stalin’s border.
As for the Armenians, he thinks it admirable that they have flourished, rather than merely survived in the diaspora–an extremely different experience from his own, “of being a middle-class English bloke in England, the most uninvaded, unthreatened …country.”
And yet, this audacious route, whose success is by no means a foregone conclusion, includes turning-points such as the Mourad-Raphaelian school in Venice, poet Daniel Varoujan’s alma mater. After Marsden’s visit, it closed—due to lack of finances (read students)—despite its status as the most august of all Armenian colleges for over 160 years. Nowadays, “il Collegio Armeno” is a (mostly closed) holiday accommodation. Similarly, in Romania, Marsden was seeing the country’s “last Armenians”. The elderly community members bemoaned the fact that the new generation no longer spoke Armenian. There is consolation: Varujan Vosganian, Marsden’s guide in Bucharest, has subsequently written a highly acclaimed memoir about his Armenian roots, translated into English as The Book of Whispers. En route, Marsden enters Odessa (“languished in a post-Soviet daze” and “choked by its own decay”), as well as Crimea, as Osip Mandelstam did on his own voyage to Armenia in 1930. But if the subsequent fate of Crimea dates the book’s first edition, that of Syria dates the second one. From our vantage point, the Middle East—he saw Jerusalem, Beirut and Istanbul, to name but three—seems like a relic of La Belle Époque.
One is shocked into contemplating the near decimation of the Syrian Armenian community since the 2015 publication. Marsden’s research (unfailing) and adventurousness (unflinching) take him through the ancient Armenian village of Kessab on the Turkish border, now painfully familiar through the #SaveKessab online campaign. The Battle for Kessab by Charles Glass, published in Granta Magazine in 2015, documenting the destruction of the Cultural Center and all property in Kessab’s churches, makes for a depressing update, as does the destruction of the Genocide Memorial in Deir ez-Zor. Another casualty of the civil war is Baron Hotel, where Rockefeller, Roosevelt, T. E. Lawrence and Agatha Christie have all stayed. In Aleppo, Marsden met with the now-deceased Armenian owner and admired the atmosphere in peace. Now, this home away from home for Western visitors, a shadow of its former self, has all but closed in order to accommodate refugees.
At the infamous spot on the death marches to the desert, Deir ez-Zor, the author struggles to comprehend the numbers of the deportees who perished at that prosaic, pleasant place. He is struck by the “madness of having to prove it happened” in the face of denial or silence, the madness of believing it happened in the absence of graves, and the enormity of the task to overcome the multiple losses – of people, of culture, of land. His partisanship, noted by reviewers, is preceded by his own. On the Turkish-Syrian border in Cilicia, he realizes: “…I had become partisan. I couldn’t help seeing this country as somehow usurped.” He has taken the risk of talking about a taboo subject, Armenian terrorism, though still not critically enough for some.
One takes slight heart that thousands of Syrian Armenians have now found a new life in Armenia. Among them was writer Toros Toranian, Marsden’s endearing host in Aleppo. He died in Yerevan this summer. The “repatriates” have changed the culinary and linguistic landscape and provided fragile padding for the dire demographic state. However, since last year’s 44-day war and the newest wave of immigration from Artsakh, disheartening news dominates again.
I asked him whether he had plans to go to Iran, given its sizable minority of Eastern Armenian-speakers. “I wanted badly to… reach Isfahan in particular,” he says. “One of the themes of my journey was the constant quest for visas. When I left London, I didn't have a single one. In numerous cities, I visited numerous embassies – the Soviet visa and the Iranian ones were the hardest. The Iranians were always charming, so charming that you weren't immediately aware they were saying 'no'… I remember a letter from the London Embassy saying of course you can come to Iran; we will give you a guide and a driver... I knew the constraints that that meant. I managed to travel freely and alone in every other country. I didn't want to go to Iran like that.”
And what of Armenia? The closer he got, the more conflicted his feelings became. As he said in the book, “I was haunted by the image of a flame and the Armenians spinning around [Armenia] like moths… I now felt by turns drawn in and repelled by it.” The scene that he remembers best from the day that he arrived in the capital Yerevan in May 1991, was of a funeral of a fedayee (an irregular army fighter). Less tragic is an inspired description of a cobbler’s hut with “an improbable medley of images”: a print of an Aivazovsky painting, a plastic cast of Sevak, a calendar featuring His Holiness the Catholicos, “and a Russian girl with agricultural breasts.” The conversation in the booth? On “meat shortages and the Azeri embargo and then, quite naturally, about Vartan and the Persian Wars of the fifth century… of General Andranik, buried in Père Lachaise…” [before the transfer to Armenia].
Otherwise, Yerevan, disappoints him. It is more Soviet and less Armenian, with its grim blocks of flats, where “people seemed less housed than packaged,” so our guest does what every traveller worth his salt should do. He leaves the capital city in order to understand the country. Not before he stands mesmerized at the unobstructed view of Ararat from the steps of the Matenadaran: “Like all good Armenians, I too had developed a passion for the mountain.”
In Etchmiadzin, he reckons the Armenians are deeply pagan – something which another English travel writer, Colin Thubron, also observed in Among the Russians, the account of his 1981 tour of the USSR. While in Dilijan, post-Soviet Armenia seemed pre-Medieval, as described in the book: “There was no talk of ideology anymore. No more banners professing the liberating benefits of a utilitarian age. There was just a dull confusion.”
“Our guest” depicts the harsh post-Soviet reality. In the village of Gogaran, in what was known as the “disaster zone” following the earthquake, people lived in temporary housing with plasterboard walls on a wooden frame. People still live in temporary housing in what is still known as the “disaster zone”. On the bright side, the magnificent Tatev Monastery, which had greatly impressed Marsden, in a rare bit of good fortune since, has acquired a picturesque route to it via a record-breaking cable car over the gorge.
Towards the end of the book, it seems, his willingness to be hostage to tumultuous circumstances had got the better of him. He writes of profound tiredness “from all the half-destroyed places,” from thousands of kilometres, from borders, “tired of keeping going.” Still, the Armenians carried on. Women, especially, mothered, partnered, cleaned, cooked and later, as in David Bek, on the border (left in a perilous state after Azerbaijan’s 2020 attack), helped organize resistance. The Crossing Place, though buoyant and amusing at times, is wrapped in pain, induced by the perpetually recurring nightmare that is the pattern of our history, which, as one character says, is “a burden to bear”. Another says, “You know, it’s a full-time job being an Armenian…”
Who are the Armenians, then? Bafflingly contradictory: shy on the one hand, pugnacious and defiant on the other. Marsden quotes Michael J. Arlen’s idea from Passage to Ararat that to live as an Armenian is “to become something crazy. Not crazy in the colloquial sense of quirky or charmingly eccentric… or even certifiably mad. But crazy: crazed, that deep thing – deep where the deep-sea souls of human beings twist and turn.” Marsden’s Armenians are “restless, fidgety” people, they settle like gold dust on the crust and in the crevices of the world. Yet there is no one big idea, central feature or core to being Armenian. They straddle borders and—typically for marginal peoples—in a particular brand of rootlessness, belong to no tradition.
In a most piercing revelation, Marsden probes the relationship between our angst and art. “Armenian art is obsessively reductionist,” he writes, contemplating the intricacy of lattice-like khachkars. “Such passionate precision is vaguely unsettling. Something anxious lies behind it, perhaps the persistent anxiety of invasion…” This impulse may explain a Yerevan lawyer’s Guinness book record: he memorized names and addresses of thousands of families in order to reunite them with their lost children after the 1988 earthquake.
Few things convey that craziness better than the paradox of pining over “old Armenia” that most Armenians have never seen, the seeming solidity of an Armenia that “only exists in [their] imagination.” The Armenians he met “…have been affected more by exile—by the loss of their land—than by the land itself.” Hence, perhaps, the attachment to the morbid, which reverberates throughout the book. For example, witnessing spontaneously organized displays of mourning in diaspora communities, he recalls “the idea of morphic resonance, the shared impulse of migrating birds” and wonders “whether the Armenian genius now gave its best to the expression of grief.” Or, at an Armenian wedding—his first—in Bucharest, he writes: “All the gatherings I’d attended had concerned death in some way – funerals… commemorations of the earthquake or massacres, laments for Karabakh. And each carried with it all the others, so that each expressed that ever-present Armenian legacy and became a kind of well-rehearsed festival of loss.”
He quotes poet Gevorg Emin’s thought that the Armenians and their past are like a peacock and his fan: “All that was most impressive was behind them.” He is adamant, however: Armenians are not an archeological specimen. “They’re so tough, these people. My God, they are tough,” says one of the characters, and, as if seconding an earlier observation, adds, “Every two or three generations, something happens: the earthquake, Stalin, the Turks. Sometimes I wonder why the Armenians are not crazy.” Rather than define Armenianness, Marsden acknowledges the complexity of the issue. “I had the sense of trying to pull myself up to a raft that was breaking up; bits kept coming away in my hands and I couldn’t tell yet whether I was on board.”
Maybe, like Yehudi Menuhin said, quoting Laozi to Herbert von Karajan in a filmed conversation during rehearsals, “…it is the intangible which creates the essence of a thing and not the tangible. …not the spokes of a wheel that make the nature of a wheel, it’s the space between them; …not the walls that make a house, it’s the space within [them]…”
Language is what makes him write, Marsden tells me. But a writer must acknowledge what cannot be verbalized—the space before language. Which Marsden does in the village of Sarahar— in a profound, stunning passage that confirms his virtue as a stylist of lyrical prose. Or again, staying in the mountains of Syunik with fedayees – one of whom was named Hamlet (a ubiquitous Soviet (non)Armenian name): rifles to one side, babies on a blanket, just before they burst into a group a capella love song, the author glimpses what he’d been searching – “raw and untampered”, present in villages “with their perpetual patterns of fertility and fighting…”
Aram Pachyan, one of the stars of contemporary Armenian literature, was asked in 2014: “What is missing in Armenia?” Pachyan replied: “Progress and people. People, who are continually leaving.” Yet Marsden is awe-struck by the historic mobility of the Armenians, the “fantastic nonchalance when it came to crossing borders,” and how they had not adapted, remaining Armenian wherever they went. He has been infected by that peculiar obsession for looking for Armenian fingerprints, recording our compatriots’ achievements everywhere – Andre Agassi, Garry Kasparov, Mikoyan of MiG, first yoghurt makers of the US, Gurdjieff and the first café owners in Paris. “They should have been destroyed, written out of history by its worst horrors. But they have survived.” Instead of a footnote to the story of the region, he muses in the book, “the Armenians can be read like a kind of subtext.”
His books are classed as “travel literature”, but he would not re-categorize them as, for example, “narrative fiction”. Nor does he write them thinking about which category they belong in. To borrow another celebrated travel writer Jan Morris’s words about a different book, it is demeaning to categorize The Crossing Place as travel writing.
We end our interview remembering his ominous expression, “inherited fear of lost land,” and the 2020 Artsakh War last September-November. His face visibly changes on my screen: “I just felt… I didn’t realize how sort of personally I would feel that, that loss…” Reviewing The Crossing Place in The Independent in 2011, Michael Sheridan called it “not so much a journey as a haunting.” Today, it reads like a prayer.
*The revised edition of the book was published by William Collins Press in 2015.
See our "Et cetera" section here.