For a brief 35 minutes, it was as if the closed border between Turkey and Armenia did not exist: a direct flight took off in Yerevan and landed in Van, the first of its kind. It was an unprecedented journey from one current capital of Armenia to another, more historical one.
The flight was taken on a Georgian Airways plane on May 30th, and including the delegation of the Pan-Armenian Games which was led by chairman Ishkhan Zakaryan, according to Yerevan-based newspaper, Hraparak Daily. Though the two cities are only 131 miles apart, it would normally take at least two flights and several hours for a traveler to reach them.
The Turkish-Armenian border has remained shuttered since 1993, after Turkey closed it in support of Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and while flights to and from Istanbul and Yerevan operate on a regular basis despite the closed border, the possibility of the flight route might signal a new era in relations between the two countries, or at least with one of its regions that holds significant importance to Armenians worldwide.
After landing in Van, the committee met with the city's co-mayors Bedia Özgökçe Ertan and Mustafa Avcı, who belong to HDP or the People’s Democratic Party and were recently elected in April. HDP is a pro-minority party of which Turkish-Armenian politician Garo Paylan is a founding member.
Hraparak also reported that Zakaryan invited the mayors to the opening ceremony of the Pan-Armenian games, which begin on August 6th. The Pan-Armenian games are held in Yerevan every four years, and include competitors among the far reaching Armenian diaspora and Armenia who participate in basketball, volleyball, and football tournaments, among other competitions.
Ashot Soghomonyan, a lecturer in the Department of Turksih Studies at Yerevan State University and owner and operator of Kilikia Tours which organizes tours and pilgrimages to Western Armenia, was also on the flight. He posted about the excursion on the Kilikia Tours Facebook page, where he shared several photos and other details, including possible plans to continue flights twice a week.
Van was a center of social and cultural life for Armenians. Once home to a significant indigenous Armenian population before the Armenian Genocide (and part of Historical Armenia), it remains an important place for the worldwide Armenian diaspora, many who have made pilgrimages to the city in recent years. Of particular relevance is Lake Van, the center of several Armenian kingdoms dating back to around the 6th century. Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, houses a 10th century Armenian church called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. In 2010, the first mass in 95 years took place at the church, with an estimated 5,000 people in attendance. After a four year suspension due to security concerns, the mass reconvened last September.
The distinctive Van Cat which inhabits the region is also a major cultural symbol.
A previous attempt in 2013 at organizing flights between the two cities failed, after BoraJet, the company handling the flights, canceled them, citing a low number of passengers during initial runs.
However Armenian tour agency Narekavank who was meant to be operating the flights along with a Van-based travel agency, said the cancellation was the decision of Turkish aviation authorities.
"The organizers were keen on staying away from politics,” Narekavank said in an issued statement. “It is very sad and discouraging that Turkish authorities were not able to do the same, and eventually let politics interfere with this promising initiative.”
Abdullah Tunçdemir, the director of Ayanis Tourism Agency, told Hurriyet Daily News in 2013 that the flight was an important step to reviving the local economy.
“The Armenian and Iranian markets are so close to us but for years we did not have the chance to open the doors for these countries as locals,” Tunçdemir said. “We had arranged our package tour and they are all in vain now. We avoid politics here, the reason is only trade, economy and the peace between people.”
Elsewhere in the region, neighborly relations are growing: Baghdad has launched a bus route to Armenia via Iran in a bid to “develop international transportation and open up to neighboring and regional countries”.
As for traveling between Yerevan and Van in half an hour, the possibility of continued flights suddenly gives a bit more credence to the ancient Armenian proverb, “Van in this world, paradise in the next.”