Armenia - A Very Brief History

  • Armenia has an ancient cultural heritage. This is one of the oldest countries in the world. The first Armenian states dates back to 860 BC(Urartu), and the sixth century BC (the Satrapy of Armenia). The Kingdom of Armenia reached its height under Tigranes the Great, in the first century BC. In the year 301 Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. It lays claim to the oldest cathedral in the world. Over time, the ancient Armenian kingdom was split into western and eastern sections divided by different empires. this culminated in the rule of the Ottoman and Persian empires, with both parts repeatedly ruled by either of the two over the centuries.
  • By the nineteenth century, Eastern Armenia had been conquered by the Russian Empire, while most of the western parts of the traditional Armenian homeland remained under Ottoman rule. According to Wikipedia, 'During World War I, 1.5 million Armenians, living in their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire were systematically exterminated - the Armenian genocide.
  • Eastern Armenia became the First Republic of Armenia after the Russian revolution, but was then subsumed into the Soviet Union. The modern Republic of Armenia became independent in 1991 during the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

Facts and Factoids

  • The total number of Armenians in the world is 10-12 million, whereas the population of Armenia is around 3 million. Many Armenians fled their homeland after the genocide in 1915.
  • Armenia is the home of the apricot
  • The village of Areni is home to the world's oldest winery. It has produced wine for over six thousand years.
  • Armenian cognac is also famous.
  • Armenian Lavash bread is on the UN culture list.
  • There were lots of storks, their nests on the top of telegraph posts - they're the national bird and they're sacred.
  • Armenia is is known as The Land of Stones, as there are a lot of mountains and a lot of stones...

What to See in Armenia?

A scenic overload of mountains and monasteries, accompanied by herby salads and lavash bread. here are my two trip:

Getting into Armenia

We head diagonally across the Black Sea from Kiev (it looks pretty blue today) and across the Caucasus Mountains to Armenia. It’s really windy up in the sky and our plane is bouncing over the snow-capped peaks. Naturally, we are diverted by air traffic control and spend a further twenty minutes jolting around in circles before we finally land. I’m not sure why. There are only four planes at the airport. It turns out that all the men in leather jackets reeking of tobacco and being very loud were Armenian. When we arrive at Passport Control they try every trick in their armoury to get ahead in the queue. Most of them just sidle alongside or even walk rapidly up the edge. No-one challenges them, until one man actually clambers under the ropes alongside the designated  queuing path. The attendant sends him back firmly. He just grins.

The Train That Isn't

This is my second trip to Armenia. Read about the first one here. I’m supposed to be picking up the Golden Eagle train to travel through the Caucasus this time, but apparently the Azeris have scuppered this plan. Relations between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan have been fraught for years and the two countries are technically still at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, (read more about this here). And the Azeris have suddenly decreed that our train may not enter Azerbaijan if it has been to Armenia. So, the train is waiting on the Georgian border and we have to do our sightseeing here and then travel by bus on Thursday, to meet it. I assume the same rule doesn’t apply to people.

Geghard and Garni, Armenia

This is a ‘luxury’ tour and we’ve all been issued with audio devices, so we can amble around, while the poor guide is speaking and wondering if he is just talking to himself. We head out of town, a return visit for me to the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple.  Both are more notable, as far as I am concerned, for their settings, than their architectural interest.

They are both spectacularly set in different rocky gorges. It’s still glorious weather, an Indian Summer is forecast for the Caucasus and Central Asia and there is golden autumn colour in abundance. Mount Ararat, draped in snow, sits to the right for the whole of our drive. It is the principal national symbol of Armenia however, after numerous border changes, it is now actually located within Turkey. There’s a widely-held belief in Armenia that Noah’s Ark is embedded in ice atop Mount Ararat. Despite many expeditions, said ark has never been found, (our guide says that photographs have even been taken from space to assist the search), but that doesn’t stop it appearing on Armenia’s coat of arms.

Our visit has a suitably touristy finale with Armenian dance and music.

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan, the capital nestles in the valley below. It hasn’t changed much in the last eight years. It’s still not hugely interesting, there isn’t much left that’s old and Armenia is still the poor relation in the Caucasus. There are a few more Armagnac factories on the drive from the airport. The crane is still in place at the top of the huge Cascades stairway. The traffic is still awful. And the genocide museum is still incredibly moving. We lay white flowers around the eternal flame that burns above the city.

In the evening, dinner with Jennifer who lives in Boston. She is really good fun and I met her on my tour to the Balkans two years ago. By some serendipitous occurrence our paths have crossed for one night in Yerevan. We only discovered this via Facebook. Amazing! Really good to catch up.

Black Van, Armenia

Now I’m retracing my steps past Mount Ararat and along gleaming Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from the Van in Turkey). The two little monastery churches on the peninsular are still scenic and it’s still hard work, climbing the 200 odd steps to reach them at an altitude of 1900 metres.

Haghhartsin

There’s a stop at a village called Dilijan, which is billed as a reconstructed street. It’s more of a little tourist trap with shops jammed with souvenirs and a ‘masterclass’ from a ceramicist, in the hope of inducing us to buy his pots. The foliage here is just beginning to turn and there are dappled patterns all along the hills, below the snow painted peaks. Then a monastery new to me. Haghhartsin, with its twin spires and several churches stands in another gorge, stunning with the autumn foliage. It has been restored, with money donated by the Emir of Sharjah. This is somewhat surprising, as he is a Muslim. But he is said to have found the site to be exceedingly beautiful - he also visited in the autumn.

The bus wends its way along the Azeri border - a hotbed of tension - even away from Nagorno-Karabakh. The hills are green and smooth here, rolling away in huge velvety folds. There are some abandoned (and roofless) houses. We have already suffered the inconvenience of having our train hijacked. Our local guide, who has much to say about the injustices perpetuated by both the Turks and the Azeris has numerous stories of people who have been denied entry to Azerbaijan because they have Armenian connections. The most bizarre involves an American woman whose first husband was Armenian. She has since remarried, but is still not allowed in. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if we will be permitted entry having spent three days in Armenia. But first Georgia.

A five night extended weekend trip. It was the last time the company ran this tour - there was no demand for Armenia, they said. A shame. It's a pretty and tranquil country.  The mountains are beautiful and you can always use them as a fallback,  when the monasteries begin to pall. There are a lot of monasteries. The weather was gorgeous and the architecture perfectly framed.

Yerevan

Yerevan, the capital. It is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, constructed 29 years before Rome. No prizes for guessing why they call it the "Pink City". Many of the buildings are constructed of rosy hued tufa stone. Highlights are: the genocide museum, Liberty and Republic Squares and the Cascades open air staircase area, (still being constructed with two cranes at the top). Cognac distilleries proliferate. its famously good here - they're even allowed to call it cognac. And, although this is a predominantly Christian country there is still a significant Moslem population, attending mosques.

As usual, I'm drawn to the indoor market. A riot of colour, spice hillocks and sticky dried fruits.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Armenia is realtively small and most of our exploration is done in day trips out. The must see is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the city known as both Etchmiadzin and Vagharshapat. The original church dates to the early fourth century- between 301 and 303, according to tradition, built by Armenia's patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator, following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III. It was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the conversion from paganism to Christianity. Etchmiadzin is said to be the oldest cathedral in the world. Gregory built it where he dreamed that fiery hammer descended from the sky.

The music was sublime and the Patriarch himself was there, celebrating mass. He had a very kind face.

Garni

The Graeco-Roman Temple of Garni. This imposing and beautifully situated (on the edge of a cliff overlooking a ravine) Ionic style building, is the surviving only pagan temple in Armenia. It was probably built by King Tiridates I, in the first century AD, as a temple to the sun god Mihr. After Armenia's conversion to Christianity, it was converted into a royal summer house for Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. According to some scholars, it wasn't actually a temple, but a tomb and that's why it survived the destruction of pagan structures. It had to be restored after it collapsed in a 1679 earthquake.

Close by there's adventure to be had. A scramble down the Garni Gorge to some basalt pillars. Not quite as exciting as The Giant's Causeway but enough to warrant its title, "Symphony of the Stones."

Lake Sevan

Serene Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from Lake Van in Turkey) is known as 'The Jewel of Armenia, for its sweet water and two scenic churches and a fortress. This is the largest lake in the Caucasus and comprises one sixth of the area of Armenia. It's fed by 28 rivers and provides 90% of Armenia's fish. It's even got beaches, overcrowded in summer.

The most famous cultural site is the picturesque Sevanavank monastery on the peninsula, once an island. There's also Hayravank, on the western shore is, and further south, Noratus Cemetery, has the biggest open air collection of ancient Armenian Khachqars (cross stones) and tombstones

Zvartnots Cathedral

On the outskirts of Yerevan, near the closed border with Turkey, are the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral. It was built in the seventh century and is noted for its unique circular structure. Mount Ararat looms in the distance. It makes for a perfect picture postcard photo. It's in Turkey now, though the Armenians point out that it used to belong to them and still should do.

Geghard Monastery

Now we're out on the road. Medieval Geghard Monastery is in the Kotayk province of Armenia; it's one of the most visited monasteries, partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The curving path up, through the welcomearch, is lined with stalls. Women selling decorated roundels of Armenian Lavash bread.

Khor Virap Monastery

Another gloriously scenic sight, more tantalising (for the Armenians) views of Ararat, which is almost in touching distance here. Khor Virap Monastery is a pilgrimage site, on the Ararat plain. The ruined monastery was host to a theological seminary and was the residence of the Armenian Catholicos. Khor Virap is most notable as the prison of Gregory the Illuminator by King Tiridates III of Armenia, before he was converted. Saint Gregory subsequently became the king's religious mentor, and they led the proselytizing activity in the country. Armenia was the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation in AD 301. The first chapel was built here in 642.

Noravank Monastery

Now we're well into the mountains, stunning views and chill alpine air. Noravank, another impossibly picturesque twelfth-century Armenian monastery in a narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River, near the town of Yeghegnadzor. It's a winding and dramatic approach. The complex includes the church of S. Karapet, the S. Grigor Chapel, and the Church of S. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). The latter is diminutive and extraordinarily appealing.

Tatev Monastery

Ninth century Tatev Monastery, the most scenically placed of them all, in south eastern Armenia. The 'ensemble' stands on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River. Like Machu Picchu the view is best from above

You can read about my second trip to Armenia on the Golden Eagle Luxury train here.

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