According to the glorious Biblical history, the Garden of Eden was in Armenia – finding its place as the centre of the world.
The Garden of Eden, this ever-lush orchard in an eternal spring, stirred by gentle breezes and alive with birdsong, had a profusion of multi-colored and scented flowers and fruit. Peaceable animals lived there, and there were gold and precious stones in abundance.
The pomegranate, the forbidden fruit of paradise (according to some Biblical readings), is the symbol of Armenia. Like Mount Ararat, it is depicted everywhere.
Noah, as the Bible tells us, saved what remained of the “fruits of paradise” from the Flood by placing them in his ark, which came to rest on the slopes of Mount Ararat. Like Ararat, Noah’s name and image are seen everywhere. According to Biblical theory, Noah’s three sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth – came down from Ararat and repopulated the Earth, each founding one of the three continents known to the medieval world. Haik, the eponymous ancestor of the Armenians, according to tradition he was the grandson of Gomer, himself a grandson of Noah and son of Japheth. Eighteenth-century scientists, seeking the origin of languages, attempted to create a classification and attributed them to the three brothers, sons of Noah.
Armenia’s history is a long and turbulent one, with its phases of dependence and independence, divisions, persecutions and forced migrations. But Armenia is also a land of contact and circulation, and above all exchange – whether material, spiritual or religious, artistic or ideological, and in times of both war and peace. Located between the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black Seas, at the crossroads of the great civilizations of East and West, Armenia and its people were very early participants in the history of Europe.
Country: Republic of Armenia (Hayastan)
Capital: Yerevan (established in 782 BC)
Territory: 29800 km2, most territory ranges from 1000 to 2500 m above sea level.
Location: Transcaucasia (South Caucasus), bordered by Georgia on the North, Azerbaijan on the East, Iran on the South and Turkey on the West.
Administrative Divisions: 10 Regions, the capital of Yerevan and Mountainous Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh).
Population: 3 million people (plus 6 million Armenians in the Diaspora).
Ethnic Groups: Armenians 98%. Minorities: Russians, Yazidis, Assyrians, Greeks.
Religion: Christian, Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia is the first country in the world to officially embrace Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD.
Language: Armenian (the Armenian Alphabet was created by St. Mesrob Mashtots in 405 AD).
Spoken Foreign Languages: Russian, English.
Currency: Dram (exchange rate 1 USD = 480 Dram).
Time: GMT +3
Traveler Safety: Armenia by any comparative measures is a very safe country.
The Cradle of Civilization:
Human beings have inhabited the Armenian Plateau and Caucasus Region since over 100,000 years ago. Little is known of them, however, drawings in caves and on rocks attest to their existence. The area, situated between some of the Old World’s major water ways, is generally considered the cradle of civilization. Additionally, the Bible records that Noah’s Ark came to rest on Historic Armenia’s Mt. Ararat, and there are many references of his descent from the mountain after the Great Flood.
Archeological and historical facts point to the development of civilization in the region with the formation of the Urartu kingdom around 980 BC. Various Urartu rulers built capitals in the area, such as around Lake Van in the thirteenth century BC and that built by Argishti I in 782 BC, the ruins of which are preserved today in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The first mention of Armenians in historical writings is found in inscriptions at Behistun, near the city of Kermanshah in modern-day Iran, which date to 600 BC.
Birth of a Nation:
Legend says that the Armenian patriarch Hayk defeated the evil Assyrian ruler Bel in an epic battle similar to that of David versus Goliath to win his people’s freedom. The land Hayk’s people occupied came to be known as Hayastan, a name still used by Armenians to this day. This legend is but one example of Armenian’s rich, storied past, where Armenian heroes fought nefarious invaders and overlords to gain freedom for their people.
These legends are not far-fetched, and these tales correlate with historic events. Throughout its history, Armenia has come under the attack of warring peoples who sought to absorb the land and its people into their dominions to exploit the country’s resources. Though its mountainous terrain helped protect Armenia from such invaders, it also kept pockets of Armenian clans detached and unable to front a united resistance. In the centuries to come, the emergence of strong Armenian rulers, the adoption of Christianity as its state religion, and the advent of the Armenian alphabet would foster a strong Armenian national identity.
From Sea to Shining Sea:
The Artashisian Dynasty was established in 189 BC in Armenia. Tigran II, the heir to the throne, was named king of Armenia in 95 BC following the death of his father. Having studied warfare and diplomacy under Persian noblemen, Tigran II expanded the borders of Armenia to their greatest size in history. Under his leadership, Armenia came to encompass lands stretching as far east as the Caspian Sea and as far west as the Mediterranean Sea.
Mashtots Creates the Armenian Alphabet:
As the Armenian Church developed, Armenian priests sought to acquire knowledge and contribute such wisdom for society’s benefit. Due to the lack of an Armenian script, their teachings were conducted in foreign languages, mainly Assyrian and Greek. The need for an Armenian alphabet arose amongst scholars. A devoted monk named Mesrob Mashtots began studying languages in the latter part of the 4th century AD. He focused his attention on the pronunciations of words Armenians used with the intent of creating a distinct Armenian alphabet. With the help of his students who traveled all over Armenia, he gathered the sounds that Armenians used in their speech, and in 405 AD introduced the thirty six characters that make up the basis of the Armenian alphabet.
Onslaught of Invaders:
The Armenian Plateau and the Caucasus have always been at the crossroads of civilization, both geographically speaking as well as culturally. From ancient times, people have crossed this region, which served as part of the Silk Road, to get from the East to the West and vice versa. As far back as the Roman Empire, Armenia was of geopolitical interest to the Assyrians, Parthians and Romans. After Christianity spread through much of the West, Armenia came to be seen as an ally to the West, and thus Arabs and Persians began invading the country, forcing it to become a buffer zone between the East and the West. Arabs took control of Armenia in the 7th century, and it wasn’t until the Bagratid Dynasty was established in the 9th century that Armenia was able to break free of Arab rule.
The Bagratid Dynasty was responsible for the second Golden Age of Armenia, a time when peace brought prosperity to the land and its people. Many monasteries, considered to represent the pinnacle of Armenian architecture, were commissioned by the Bagratid rulers for construction in Armenia and Georgia. A monk named Gregory wrote a book of prayers in the monastery of Narek on the shore of Lake Van. The depth and beauty of his prayers were unparalleled in the world. Peace and prosperity were shattered by the arrival of Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, who were proceeded by other Turkic tribes from the East. The Seljuk Turks fought against the Persians, using Armenia as their battlefield and wreaking havoc on the country. The last Armenian kingdom was forced to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where it survived until the 14th century in Cilicia.
With the onset of the Mongols in the 13th century, successive waves of invasions continued to devastate the country. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, Armenia too was overtaken in the early 16th century. The Persians persisted to lay claims on Armenian soil, and Shah Abbas drove the Ottomans out of Tbilisi, Yerevan, Nakhichevan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. He also force marched tens of thousands of Armenians, noted for their artistic and business skills, out of their ancestral homeland of Nakhichevan from the prosperous city of Julfa to Esfahan. In the mid 1600’s, The Ottomans and Persians settled their differences by dividing Armenia among their two empires. However, with the Russian Empire rise in power, the Persian Empire’s stake in the region diminished in the 19th century, when Eastern Armenia was ceded to Russia under the Turkmanchai Treaty.
Armenia’s First Independent Republic:
With the help of their Russian allies, Armenians in Eastern or Russian Armenia were able to ward off Turkish attempts to overrun the country and unify Turkey and Azerbaijan. After several decisive battles, Armenian irregular troops and freedom fighters such as Drastamat “Dro” Kanayan and Andranik Ozanian were able to push back the Turks. As Armenian refugees, escaping from the massacres in the west, fled to Eastern Armenia, starvation and disease became rampant. In the face of overwhelming difficulties, Armenia declared its independence on May 28, 1918. Armenian leaders continued to press their nation’s plight to the world powers; however, their pleas fell on deaf ears as successive peace treaties reduced the size of the new republic. While the Armenian Republic struggled to establish civil institutions such as a state university in 1919, their efforts were undermined by two new powers in the region – the Republic of Turkey, established by Turkish nationalist and general in the Ottoman military, Mustafa Kemal, and the Bolsheviks, who had engineered the Russian Revolution. The Western powers’ apathy toward the Armenians and the Turkish and Russian desire to expand their borders meant that the fledgling republic’s days were numbered.
By November 1920, just over two years after Armenia established its independency; the Bolsheviks attacked and occupied the Republic of Armenia. At the same time, Turkish troops in collusion with the Soviets attacked and captured the Armenian cities of Kars and Gyumri. The Soviets established peace with Turkey by ceding the remaining Western Armenian provinces of Kars and Ardahan, leaving Armenia the eastern province of Yerevan and returning Gyumri. Although people rebelled against Bolshevik oppression, Armenia was powerless to the newly formed Soviet Union. Between 1921 and 1936 Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were incorporated into the Union as the Trans-Caucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. In 1923, the USSR further capitulated to Turkey’s demands by transferring the Armenian provinces of Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan, thereby giving Turkey a border with their Azeri cousins. These land transfers brought on waves of violence to the Armenian inhabitants of area. Yet again, Armenians were forced out of their ancestral homes or left to face persecution and death.
In 1936, a new Soviet constitution was adopted, whereby the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was separated from the Azerbaijani and Georgian SSRs. Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh, however, remained under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani SSR as autonomous administrative regions. Despite these difficulties, Armenia experienced a long period of industrialization and relative prosperity within the Soviet structure. Soviet Armenia became a center of scientific research, manufacture of products ranging from textiles to technological goods such as transistors and semiconductors, and attracted tourists from all corners of the Soviet Union. These prospects coupled with the Diaspora Armenian sentiments toward their homeland helped officials draw Armenians living in other countries to Soviet Armenia.
The Independent Republics of Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh):
On September 21, 1991, nearly a year after most eligible Armenian citizens turned out to vote for the independence of their state, Armenia declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union. This made Armenia the first Soviet Republic to do so before the official disintegration of the USSR later the same year. Not unlike the first Armenian Republic of 1918-1920, the new state was confronted by hostile neighbors in the west and the east. Turkey and Azerbaijan imposed an energy and transportation blockade on landlocked Armenia, leaving only the Georgian border to the north and a small border with Iran to the south as means to transport much needed goods, including humanitarian aid, into the country.
Despite the rival nations’ efforts, their attempts to strangle the fledgling democracy did not take hold. Due in large part to Armenian perseverance, as well as the aid provided from European and American nations and the Armenian Diaspora, Armenia withstood the tough first years of its statehood. The transition to democracy and a free market economic system has not come easily to any of the Newly Independent States and Eastern European countries emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Armenia’s experience is no exception. However, Armenia continues to strive for these ideals as it builds its nation’s republic. In 2001, Armenia celebrated the tenth anniversary of its independence and welcomed international dignitaries such as Pope John Paul II as it commemorated the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia.
If independence posed hardships for the new Armenian Republic, Nagorno-Karabakh’s existence was at best perilous. Under Azeri rule during the Soviet period, the Armenian majority population of Nagorno-Karabakh suffered religious and cultural persecution and infrastructural negligence at Azeri hands. Armenian churches and graves were defaced; the people’s language was forbidden; the enclave’s schools were under-funded and its roads left in disrepair. Slowly, the Muslim minority hoped to squeeze out the indigenous Armenian population through its campaigns, which were in violation of human rights.
In the late 1980s, as Gorbachev’s reforms took effect, ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh exercised their rights by voting to separate from Azerbaijan and reunite with Armenia. This civil action was met by brutal government-led pogroms against Armenian communities in Azerbaijan. Threatened by another genocide, the Armenian nation was forced to take up arms and fight back. In full-scale armed conflict between 1991 and May 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians from all walks of life bravely defended their right to self-determination. As a cease-fire was called, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other concerned states sat down at the negotiation table. Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh seized the opportunity to set up a de facto government independent of Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the help of the Republic of Armenia, and to a large part Diaspora Armenians, the independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh began to rebuild a country that had long endured neglect. While its official status remains unresolved and no government in the world recognizes its sovereignty, Armenians firmly assert their right to self-determination by living and working in Nagorno-Karabakh.
About 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Armenian Christians, having derived their faith directly from Christ’s apostles. The Christian faith has shaped Armenian culture so intimately that it permeates the very landscape at virtually every corner of the country. Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.
Christianity was first introduced in Armenia by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century AD. At this time, paganism was widespread and practiced by the kings of Armenia. Temples dotted the country, and one symbol example of that era, a Greek-style temple in the village of Garni, was restored in the 1960s and still stands.
Pagan practices did not deter Christian missionaries in spreading the word of God to Armenians. Among them was Gregory, the son of Partev Anak, who was baptized a Christian in Caesaria, a city in Cappadocia. Gregory was thrown into a pit by the Armenian king Trdat III, where he survived for 13 years only by the grace of a kind woman who secretly fed him. King Trdat fell in love with a Christian nun named Hripsime. When she refused the king’s proposal of marriage, the king had her and her entire order put to death. Thereafter, the king went mad, and only after the king’s sister released Gregory from captivity to heal her ailing brother did the king regain his sanity.
King Trdat was baptized by Gregory and converted his entire kingdom to Christianity in 301 AD, making Armenia the first nation to accept Christianity as its state religion. Gregory came to be known as the Illuminator and was named the first Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church. After seeing a vision of the descent of the Only Begotten Son, pointing to a site in current-day Echmiadzin, St. Gregory the Illuminator built the mother cathedral of the Armenian Church. In future years, churches were built near the Echmiadzin Cathedral in honor of the martyred nun Hripsime and the head of her order, Gayane, who were canonized. The church of Khor Virap (meaning Deep Pit) was built on the spot of St. Gregory’s captivity.
As Armenians began to practice Christianity, many churches and monasteries were erected, some on the foundations of pagan temples. Armenia’s innovative architectural traditions can be seen in the church complexes as precursors to the Gothic form. Although it is a distinct church, the Armenian Apostolic Church is in communion with the church universal and in the family of churches such as the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Indian Malabar churches.
Traditionally, the Armenian Church recognizes the Catholicos of All Armenians as its leader. He resides in Holy Echmiadzin, where St. Gregory the Illuminator established the Armenian Church in 301 AD. A National Ecclesiastical Assembly consisting of lay and clergy representatives of Armenian communities around the world elects the Catholicos. There are four hierarchical Sees in the Armenian Church: the Catholicate of All Armenians in Ejmiatzin; the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia; the Patriarchate of Jerusalem; and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Church entered its most recent era of leadership on October 27, 1999, when Armenian Christians chose His Holiness Garegin II as leader of their worldwide church following the death of Catholicos Garegin I.
Small Roman Catholic and Protestant communities also exist in Armenia. Catholic missionaries began converting Armenians in the Ottoman and Persian empires in the early modern era, and American Protestant missionaries were active in the nineteenth century. The Kurdish population is mostly Yezidi. A Russian Orthodox community also serves its community.
From ancient times, Armenians have cherished their artistic traditions, which reflect a unique culture and landscape. Aspects of everyday life are expressed in the most artistic fashion, in needlework, embellishments, carvings and design.
Architecture is one of the most interesting art forms in Armenia, as, for example, churches bear artistic illustrations in frescoes and reliefs. Sculpting is everywhere – in nearly every city, town, and village in Armenia.
Armenia is often referred to as an open air museum. Tourists find over 4,000 historical monuments throughout Armenia, covering various periods of the country’s history from prehistoric to Hellenistic times, and from the early to medieval Christian era. The Armenians created their masterpieces during rare periods of peace and relative prosperity over the centuries. Within Yerevan alone there are more than 40 fine arts museums and galleries.
Armenians love music, and they have been creating exquisite compositions for centuries. Sharakans are traditional Armenian liturgical songs, which are experiencing a revival today. Distinctive musical instruments are used to play Armenian folk songs. Sayat Nova, Komitas, and Aram Khachaturian are among Armenia’s best-known musicians and composers. Contemporary music comes in the forms of jazz and pop. The Sayat Nova Conservatory helps polish future generations of Armenian musicians. Frequent concerts make for delightful evenings at the Philharmonic, Chamber Music Hall, Opera and Ballet House in Yerevan.
Literature has always played a vital role in Armenia’s cultural and national identity. Before the Armenian alphabet was developed in the 5th century, Armenian tales were passed down by oral tradition and written in foreign languages. Armenian manuscripts, beautifully illuminated with miniatures, combine Armenia’s literary and illustrative traditions. Christian culture and the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots, so thoroughly expressive of the language that it has withstood the centuries without any essential changes, gave new stimuli to the development of unique cultural traditions. There is no better place to view this literary and artistic history than Yerevan’s unique Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Manuscripts), which houses an extraordinary collection of 14,000 complete manuscripts, fragments and miniatures. The oldest parchments date back to the fifth and sixth centuries. The majority of manuscripts are research works of ancient scholars on theology, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, geography, history, medicine, poetry and music.
Armenian painting blossomed in the 19th century. Artists from that period, such as the portrait painter Hakob Hovnatanian and the seascape artist Ivan Aivazovsky, continue to enjoy international reputation. In the 20th century, Martiros Saryan captured nature’s essence in a new light, and Arshile Gorky greatly influenced a generation of young American artists in New York, while Carzou and Jansem found fame and fortune painting in France. A visit to Saryan Park will bring you in touch with today’s Armenian artists.
Carpets & Rugs:
The Caucasus region and Armenia in particular have been cited by scholars as the place where rug and carpet weaving originated. Armenians continue this tradition, and one can find many shops specializing in fine new and old rugs and carpets. At the weekend flea market, rug sellers lay out their eye-catching merchandise filled with appealing colors and designs. At the same market, you will come across loads of charming handicrafts that will be hard to resist purchase. Visitors to Armenia find handmade crafts, Armenian gold, precious and semi-precious stones which inspire jewelers in many regions. Obsidian stone is used for jewelry, desk accessories, and decorative items. Carpet making is not only a fine art, but Kilim weaving, for example, is applied to clothing items, bags, and home furnishings. Wood carvings replicate the ancient stone crosses (khachkars) found throughout the country, and no two are exactly alike. Armenian crafts couple elegant utility and delightful whimsy in textiles, ceramics, metal and woodworking.