Armenian Food, Culture and History Hidden in Edinburgh

There’s an inexplicable building in central Edinburgh. Along a well-heeled avenue lined with boutique cafés and elegant galleries, it is marked by a faded, chipped sign that nobody can read. Affixed above a closed-up shopfront that is quickly being claimed by ivy, the sign reads “Галерея Нагорный Карабах,” which translates roughly to the “Gallery Nagorno-Karabash”. More curious still, this place has a twin. Just a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament, the same faded red letters hang beneath the parapets of a former police station, this time spelling the equally baffling “Гастpoнo Maxтaмap.” This was the home of the one-of-a-kind Armenian restaurant, the Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile, and its cranky proprietor, Petros Vartynian. The story of this man and his restaurant and gallery is a strange world of its own, where urban legend meets world history to produce one of Edinburgh’s most unique spaces.

To get a table at the restaurant with the unusual name, you needed the dedication of a monk. According to one reviewer, it took a month of phone calls to arrange a booking. Making the pilgrimage to the place on your appointed day was equally challenging. Petros refused to give his guests directions, yet if you arrived even a minute late you would be turned away without a second thought. If you endured these trials and were allowed in, you were greeted by a spectacle befitting the restaurant’s name. In a wide, candle-lit dining hall sat two long tables, adorned with mismatched cutlery. The walls were garnished with stylised posters from the Armenian tourist board. A giant moose head glowered down at guests from one end of the room. None of the reviews I have read say it explicitly, but each implies that only one group was allowed in at a time. This was an intimate experience.

Petros himself was the only staff member in the entire building, yet he filled the cavernous space with life. He seems to be everywhere in customers’ testimonies: cooking, berating and singing all at once. By all accounts, his hospitality was impressive. He managed to produce ten-course banquets of Armenian cuisine which were always well-received, albeit from a set menu. Yet his personality was even more memorable than the meals. Petros was a cantankerous and demanding host, becoming irritable when guests didn’t help him with the washing up, or didn’t join in with his spontaneous folk dancing tutorials. And, despite the abiding sense that he was inviting you into his own home, he would almost always refuse to tell you his name.

The name of the curious restaurant comes from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar. Located on a lake and ringed by mountains in modern-day Turkey, the church has sat in this spot since the Middle Ages. Although the cathedral itself has endured, Petros likely never lived to see the eponymous monastery. It was destroyed in 1915, amid one of the darkest chapters in modern history.

In the early months of 1915, in the tumult of the First World War, rumours of treachery were swirling through the Middle East. Two enormous, ancient empires— the Russians in the east, and the Ottomans in the west— were locked in a devastating stalemate over the Caucasus region. By 1915 the Ottomans were on the back foot; in the early months of the year, Russian troops inflicted a series of devastating defeats on their forces. The Russians might not have been so successful, however, without the support of Armenian rebels. These volunteers betrayed their imperial masters, instead fighting alongside Russia in the hope of escaping Ottoman rule. The imperial response was swift and devastating. The Ottomans turned the full, crushing machinery of the imperial state against its own subjects. Armenian villages were burned to the ground, and those who endured the fires and the fighting were rounded up and marched into the desert to die. Few survived.

This was nothing short of an attempted genocide, and a tragedy that lives on in the collective memory of Armenians like Petros. According to several accounts, he refused to serve Turkish coffee; one patron told Edinburgh Live that when they asked for Turkish coffee, “In a sudden rage (Petros) unceremoniously threw out the entire group, ignoring their apologies and protestations.” Petros was by all accounts an eccentric host, but the Armenian people carry a national pain that outsiders can only guess at.

The genocide did not just entail a loss of people; it was a loss of a homeland as well. Armenians were driven from the territories they had called home for centuries, keeping only a fraction of the land they had inhabited before 1915. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross was no exception; the cathedral building was looted and the monastic complex razed to the ground. The expulsion of the Armenian people from this holy site was confirmed shortly after the end of the war. The Cathedral found itself within the new state of Turkey, now controlled by a hardline nationalist government in Ankara.

Precisely because of this, however, the Cathedral endured as a symbol of the lost homeland. Its power was such that when, in 2013, Turkey allowed the Cathedral to be used to conduct baptisms for the first time since the Genocide, over a thousand Armenians from across the world descended on Aghtamar. Its place as part of the homeland had not diminished in the preceding century, making Petros’ choice of a name for his restaurant a deeply political one: he made it a memorial to the suffering of his people. 

When the First World War was won, and the Ottoman Empire defeated and dismantled, the surviving rump of Armenia passed to a new master. Russia, now re-organised as the communist Soviet Union, was equally transformed, from liberator to dominator of the Armenians. In 1923, Armenia was incorporated as a Socialist Republic, nominally autonomous but in reality, under the rule of Moscow. It was this new, Soviet world— a world of sharp-cornered concrete and pastel, geometric art— that Petros almost certainly came of age. The Armenian culture he venerated and reproduced in his restaurant had a distinct Soviet tint to it; according to a now-deleted post by Edinburgh blogger Johnny McFarlane, “a ghetto-blaster in the corner playing what sounded like red army choir music from an old, scratchy cassette… The whole place had a Soviet era, beyond the iron curtain feel.”

The appreciation of Soviet-era culture of Armenia, however, did not equal uncritical veneration of the USSR. In 1923, Armenia had suffered the indignity of further territorial losses at the hands of Stalin, who was seeking to heal the centuries-long rivalry between Turkey and Russia. The mountainous Armenian region of Karabash was transferred to the neighbouring Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The move caused an outcry among Armenians, but there was little they could do to oppose the change. Even in its early days, the Soviet Union was an almighty machine which would have tolerated no organised opposition from the tiny rump of Armenia. While they could not retake their lost territory, however, Armenians could lay symbolic claim to the land of Karabash. Given the symbolic weight of the name Petros chose to give his restaurant, it seems likely that the naming of his gallery was one such act of reclamation, an act of silent opposition to the policy of the Soviet government.

By the time of writing, Petros has disappeared. Online reviews for the Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile stopped regularly appearing in 2008, even though individual bloggers occasionally claim to have dined there as late as 2012. When you call the restaurant’s old number, however, the phone line cuts off immediately, and the Register for Scotland now lists the building as derelict and unsafe— although whether that was ever inaccurate is up for debate. Sometime after, the Gallery Nagorno-Karabash also ceased trading, and relentless flora started to reclaim its walls. The only signs that it was ever operational are a wooden seagull hanging in a window, and a hand-written sign reading: “No Bikes.” All that remain are his abandoned shop-fronts, cryptic monoliths without even their proprietor to explain them.

The last person to have a recorded encounter with Petros was an Armenian tourist in 2014. As stupefied by the Gallery Nagorno-Karabash as any local, he approached the little shop front. It was adorned with dusty, fine carpets, and by the doorway sat a little old man, drinking coffee and watching the world pass him by. The tourist couldn’t remember if he’d told them his name. The old man told his fellow compatriot that he dreamed of moving to Odessa — the Ukrainian port-city which was a popular spa town in the Soviet era — to warm his bones. Perhaps he made it: there is no record of his death in the National Register of Scotland.

Enormous numbers of Armenians were killed or displaced in the twentieth century, creating one of the world’s largest diasporas. Petros is a member of a nation that lost so much, both in lives and in territory. Because of this, it is both poignant and unsurprising that he created a home away from home, in a very literal sense. He was mad enough to cultivate a place, sealed off on the wrong side of the world, in which the very air hummed with history: both the good and the painful alike. Perhaps this meaning is why they’ve remained untouched for all this time. Both the restaurant and the gallery have become prime pieces of real estate, but according to an Edinburgh resident who claimed to be familiar with Petros, “there’s no way he’s selling them.”

Today in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, a grand sandstone staircase ascends through the centre of the city. If you climb the whole way, and stand at the zenith with the statue of Mother Armenia to your back, you are faced by the twin peaks of Mount Ararat, the mythical home of the Armenian people. Mount Ararat is controlled by Turkey, and yet has remained a potent symbol: of the lost homeland, the nation that remains, and the history that created both. Thanks to Petros Vartynian, these monuments that remain are a small part of Edinburgh and Armenian history, and their story deserves to be told.

[Aran Prince-Tappe, he/him]

[Image Credit: Nasser Ansari]

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