Ship Shape: Cilicia completes second leg of its historic journey around Europe

The crew of the sailing ship Cilicia returned to Armenia this week after completing the latest leg of their epic sea voyage.

The replica of a 13th Century Armenian merchant vessel has arrived in Great Britain, where it will spend the winter.

The Cilicia docked at Portsmouth harbor on the southern English coast on August 19. The city’s Mayor and around 100 members of Britain’s Armenian community gathered on the quayside the next day to welcome Karen Balayan, the captain, and his crew.

Baroness Caroline Cox was also present to greet her friend Zori Balayan, the writer and Nagorno Karabakh activist who is a member of the Cilicia’s crew. The flags of the United Kingdom and Nagorno Karabakh flew beside each other on the ship’s mast.

Cilicia’s arrival in England completed the second stage of its journey, which had begun in the Italian city of Venice in April. Cilicia started its voyage from the Georgian port of Poti in July 2004, tracing the mediaeval trade routes of Armenian merchant sailors.

The third stage of its journey to 21 countries will resume in 2006 when it leaves Portsmouth for Amsterdam then heads north through the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg in Russia, the final destination.

Each leg of the trip has cost around $100,000 in sponsorship, but the ship’s presence in ports throughout Europe has generated considerable interest in present-day landlocked Armenia. The crew dresses in Armenian costumes from the period when they arrive in each port, creating a buzz of curiosity among local residents.

For Balayan, the historical experiment also restores links between Armenia and countries in Europe more than six centuries after the decline of the Cilician Kingdom in what is now modern Turkey.

The ship’s voyage is the culmination of a 20-year dream to revive Armenia’s sea-faring traditions. Balayan founded the Ayas Nautical Research Club in 1985 and decided with fellow enthusiasts in 1990 to build an exact replica of an Armenian ship, using the techniques available at the time to their mediaeval ancestors.

They pursued their dream through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic hardships of Armenia’s early independence. Finally, the Cilicia, measuring 20 meters in length and 5 meters in width, launched in Lake Sevan in May 2002 and began its journey in the Black Sea two years later. (Click here to see previous ArmeniaNow reports of Cilicia’s history.)

“Many people didn’t believe that it would happen, but we always knew that the day would come when we would sail,” recalls Balayan.

Cilicia visited Ayas, the Cilician port after which Balayan named his club, during its voyage along the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

“The ship came to its motherland after 20 years and for me, emotionally, it was the most important stop. We all sat on the deck in silence and tried to understand what we had done,” he says.

“Ayas was the main harbor of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. We were the first Armenian boat back in that harbor for hundreds of years.”

During this leg, Balayan and his 14-member crew navigated from Italy to England via ports in Spain and France. They spent up to seven days at sea between each stop, relying on the wind to power the Cilicia at a typical speed of just 4 knots.

They expect to arrive in St Petersburg to coincide with festivities to mark the year of Armenians in Russia. Balayan says that the ship will return to the Black Sea via the river waterways of Russia, before crossing overland from Georgia back to Armenia.

The overland journey from Armenia to the Black Sea in 2002 produced one of the most unexpected meetings of the expedition. As they moved the ship along narrow mountain passes, they encountered a replica of a Viking ship heading in the other direction that a Swedish crew was bringing to the Caspian Sea.

“I could not believe I was seeing a Viking ship in the mountains of Georgia and you can only imagine the faces of the Swedish crew when they saw our ship,” says Balayan.

Zori Balayan was met in Portsmouth, as he was at a previous stop in Italy, by police officers acting on an Interpol complaint from Azerbaijan demanding his arrest. The authorities in Azerbaijan allege that Balayan was involved in a terrorist bombing of the metro in Baku in 1994.

The officers left after he showed them a letter signed by the general secretary of Interpol, which stated that the agency considered the complaint politically motivated and that it had removed Balayan from its wanted list as a result.

Balayan says that he is suing Azerbaijan for damages totalling $178 million – one million dollars for each of the 178 countries on Interpol’s alert network. He says the Azerbaijani authorities are trying to take revenge for his prominent role in Karabakh’s struggle for independence.

“Azerbaijan sends a telegram everywhere I go, including this time in Portsmouth. The police came, looked at the letter and left,” he said.