Gyumri: Two Decades After the Earthquake

Gyumri center

When an earthquake strikes, it can garner a lot of attention in the days and weeks that follow. I can clearly remember being glued to my television set watching the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan a couple years ago and the tsunami that followed.

But what happens in the years that follow the earthquake?

What happens once the rest of the world stops paying attention and the city and people affected by the quake have to recover and rebuild?

I asked myself this as I visited Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia. You probably haven’t heard of Gyumri. And you probably don’t recall that it was hit by a massive earthquake back in 1988. I certainly didn’t.

But before I get to the earthquake, a little about Gyumri.

The region around Gyumri is thought to be the oldest in Armenia, with excavations in the old part of the city revealing a settlement dating all the way back to 3000 B.C.  More recently, Gyumri was the site of a Russian military outpost in the early 19th century, when Tsar Nicholas I visited and renamed the city Alexandropol in honor of his wife, Alexandra. It served as an important trading post between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Asia and was once the third largest city in the Caucasus after Tbilisi, Georgia and Baku, Azerbaijan.

And then December 7, 1988 happened.

It was “only” a magnitude 6.8 quake, but the damage was devastating. Over 50,000 people died and thousands more were left homeless. The recovery cost was estimated to be greater than the cleanup after Chernobyl.

If that wasn’t enough, just three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Armenia a newly independent country – and a country at war with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Just off Gyumri’s main square stands a lasting reminder of the earthquake’s damage: the St. All Saviors Church, which is still under restoration. A small billboard in front of the church shows before and after pictures.

Gyumri, Armenia

Gyumri, Armenia

Across the square stands the Yot Verk Cathedral which was not as heavily damaged and already completely restored.

Gyumri, Armenia

And several blocks from the main square stands the 19th century St. Gregory the Illuminator Church whose dome caved in during the earthquake. I walked by a couple times without even realizing a church once stood there – as a neighborhood church that served the working class population, the church still awaits renovation.


Gyumri, Armenia

Walking around the old part of town, I passed numerous buildings that still lay partially in ruins, either awaiting or currently undergoing renovation – 24 years after the earthquake.

Gyumri, Armenia

Gyumri, Armenia

And when I saw piles of rubble like this, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were remnants of the earthquake as well.

Gyumri, Armenia

Heading out of town, a friend pointed out shacks that were originally intended as temporary housing, but that people still lived in as recently as a few years ago. And on the outskirts of Gyumri stand multiple apartment buildings, begun in the years following the earthquake but never completed when Armenia’s economy struggled in the post-Soviet years.

Gyumri, Armenia

But then there are the buildings that survived. The 18th and 19th century buildings in the historic Kumayri district of Gyumri that amazingly made it through earthquakes in both 1926 and 1988. The buildings made of black and red tufa that make the architecture in Gyumri (and elsewhere in Armenia) so interesting and unique.

Gyumri, Armenia

Gyumri, Armenia

While I have sometimes described cities as being “a mix of old and new,” Gyumri presents an eclectic mix of old and older – a combination of damaged, destroyed, renovated and under construction. The city hasn’t fully recovered from the 1988 earthquake, but it hasn’t given up either – it is still fighting to spring back to life.

It isn’t always pretty, but it is full of charm and character.

Have you ever visited a city that’s been severely damaged by an earthquake or other natural disaster?

9 thoughts on “Gyumri: Two Decades After the Earthquake”

  1. Pingback: martyr’s ancestors | memories of my ghost sista

  2. When I went to Zakynthos a couple of years ago, there just had been big forest fires because of the heat and it was surreal to drive through a landscape with sometimes green gass to the right and nothing but ashes to the left.

  3. Really interesting, it appeals as somewhere I’d like to see. Here in NZ it’s almost two years since the big quake in Christchurch. We detoured into the city last month during a road trip down south and spent a couple of hours walking around the red zone. The scale of destruction is still very obvious though a lot of cleanup has happened. It will take a very long time to rebuild; bureaucracy, engineering and insurance processes all playing a part. At least the aftershocks have now settled down a bit.

  4. That is a very interesting post. It really highlights the financial devastation that natural disasters can have. Such a shame that Armenia still can’t afford to fully restore its buildings.

  5. I remember the earthquake from the news coverage. Never realised Gyumri took the brunt of it. It is true how quickly we forget once the initial news is over.

  6. Thanks for this story Katie. I’d never heard of Gyumri before and it just hits home that this is why I travel – to learn about things that don’t appear in my tabloid newspapers at home or in the ninety-second ‘World’ segment on the TV news. Sounds so cliched, but it really is a big world out there 🙂

  7. It is so sad that sometimes old cities just can’t make it thru the ages and catastrofies:( Thank you for a wonderful review, it feels now like I’ve been there myself. Shivers still go down my spine.

  8. I read about that earthquake and it seemed to be really terrible, even in Tbilisi I saw couple of buildings still destroyed after it… I was thinking of going to Gyumri when I visited Armenia but eventually decided against it as it seemed to be just too depressing…

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