Armenia is one of those places that is not easy to get to. There are very few direct international flights to this small landlocked country and two of its four land borders are closed. Of its four neighbours, it has good relations with two: Iran and Georgia, a soured past relationship with Turkey and is almost at war with Azerbaijan.
One of the most extraordinary things about Armenia, however, is that it even exists at all. And its continued existence on this planet is a testimony to the tenacity of its people.
It is a small country of 12,000 square miles, roughly the size of Belgium and with a population of just under 3 million. The capital, Yerevan, with a population of around a million, is by far the largest city in Armenia and is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Other major cities are Gyumri and Vandzor. It also boasts one of the highest large fresh-water lakes in the world – Lake Sevan – at an altitude of 1900m above sea-level and famous for the trout caught there.
The Armenians have a truly ancient ancestry and a boast a formidable archaeology. The world’s oldest winery is located in a cave at Areni dating back 6000 years. The Armenian people can be identified as the “Urartians” often mentioned in Turkish archaeology (though few people in Turkey would admit as such) and along with the Hittites, and a few others, these were the ancient populations of Asia Minor.
The present day territory of Armenia was part of the Roman Empire under Pompey. Later, it was assumed into the Persian Empire under the Sassanians and successively formed part of the Byzantine Empire. Then, in the 9th and 10th centuries the Armenian Kingdom was ruled over by the Bagratid Dynasty – which was to be one of the most powerful Armenian Dynasties and which laid the foundation for the great Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia which stretched from Mersin on the Mediterranean, through Van to present day Armenia. It encompassed much of what is nowadays Eastern Turkey and existed until the arrival of the Ottomans in the thirteenth century. And there it remained for over six hundred years.
After the first World War, for a short period from 1918 to 1920 there was a fledgeling Armenian State which even engaged successfully in several battles against the Turks, but it was assumed into the Soviet Union in 1922. And there it remained until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1992.
Though few of them have ever been there, the spiritual home of all Armenians is Mount Ararat – now in Turkey – and, Armenians look yearningly from their homes towards its snow-covered peak. It is for this reason that, in the 1920s when the architect Alexander Tamanian was commissioned to recreate the urban area of Yerevan, at the heart of his design was the wish that everybody should be able to see Mount Ararat from their house.
The language spoken is Armenian, which is an Indo-European language, loosely related to languages such as Greek. The alphabet is entirely unique and consists of 39 letters. It was invented in 405 AD by Mesrop Mashtots. An interesting feature of the alphabet is that the last 9 letters also double as the digits 1-9.
The Armenian for “Armenian” is “Hay” (possible derived from Hayk who was one of the legendary forefathers of the Armenians) – and their name for the country is “Hayastan”.
The religion is Chrisitian and the church is the Armenian Apostolic church – an example of what is known as an autocephalous church, meaning it appoints its own head and is not subject to an external patriarch (ie in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem or Alexandria).
According to tradition, the roots of the church go back to the 1st Century AD when two of Jesus twelve apostles – Bartholomew and Judas Thaddeus came to preach in Armenia between AD 40 and 60. (Hence the name Apostolic church). Bartholomew was flayed alive and is therefore often depicted as a skeleton holding his own skin.
Incidentally, there is a curious connection here with Lipari in Sicily since the islanders maintain that Bartholomew’s coffin was lost at sea in a shipwreck and was then washed up on the shores of Lipari – of which he is now, understandably, the patron saint.
Judas Thaddeus on the other hand is the apostle who is sometimes identified as the brother of Jesus and, in the Roman Catholic Church at least, is the patron saint of lost causes.
However, the religious leader credited with converting the Armenian nation from paganism to Christianity was Gregory the Illuminator – later Saint Gregory.
It was under the King Tiridates III who ordered that Gregory – as the son of his father’s enemy – to be kept in a snake pit on a plain near Mount Ararat for 12 years. Gregory survived the ordeal, a miracle was proclaimed and Tiridates was persuaded to convert the nation to Christianity. In fact, Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity – in 301AD.
The location of the snake pit is now in the courtyard of what is now Khor Virap monastery and can still be visited. (And indeed was visited a few years ago by Pope Benedict on his visit to Armenia). The modern centre of the Armenian Church, however, is at Echmiadzin – 40km West of Yerevan.
There is a large Armenian diaspora diffused throughout the world – notably in the United States and France. But also in Turkey, Syria, Jerusalem and Iran – and also Manchester. Many of these sprung up as a result of the genocide in 1915, but some of them are far older – including apparently, the Armenian diaspora in Manchester.
In Iran, the Armenian community is concentrated around Isfahan where they were brought in the 17th century by Shah Abbas. Being Christian, he reasoned, they had good connections in Europe and the Christian world – and therefore they would help Persian trade. In fact, even today, Armenians around the world are still known as great traders.
The historical event that most of us first call to mind when we hear mention of Armenia is that of the Armenian Genocide. It is a difficult subject to discuss but still very much an unresolved issue in the hearts and minds of Armenians.
Until the years leading up to the first world war and the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians had lived more or less peacefully throughout Anatolia. There was a large Armenian population in what is now the East of Turkey and also in Constantinople. The Ottomans had governed ethnic minorities under a system known as ‘millet’ – which meant that each ethnicity were allowed to rule themselves under their own leaders. It should be noted however, that there was a vast difference in wealth between the majority of the ethnic Armenians who lived in often dire conditions in Eastern Anatolia and the wealthy Armenian merchant class living in Constantinople.
However, throughout the nineteenth century, Christians under the Ottomans – especially in the Balkans, and of course, notably in Greece, were fuelled by feelings of nationalism and uprisings against the Ottomans which in turn of course led to the foundation of a fledgling Greek state in 1821. Throughout this time, the Armenians were largely passive to this new nationalism. But with the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, this system of millet began to fragment.
Furthermore with the victory of the Russians in Russio-Turkish war in 1878, large swathes of Eastern Anatolia fell under Russian rule. During the discussions leading to the treaty of Berlin, the Armenians were largely excluded on the grounds that they did not represent a “country”. At this time, Gladstone, lobbied by the Armenian community in Manchester, was a high-profile supporter of the Armenian cause, though Disraeli was unsympathetic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, the Armenians themselves began to nurture a nationalistic fervour and there were some high profile assassinations in Istanbul traced to Armenians. This was the spark that ignited the tinder and a widespread revolt against the Armenian population ensued, gathering pace throughout Anatolia until it resulted in what we now call the Armenian Genocide.
It unfurled in two phases – the forced deportation of women and children from Eastern Turkey to the Syrian dessert where they were left to die and the wholesale killing of the male population.
Final numbers are impossible to know but it has been estimated that around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians died in this way between 1914 and 1923. Turkey has long denied the genocide and has refused to label it such. Its refusal to do so has been the main source of opprobrium between the two countries ever since and the reason behind the continued closure of the land border between Armenia and Turkey. It has been tacitly suggested that of the problems for Turkey would be that, if it were forced to admit to the genocide, it would be liable to compensation and reprisal of land to the Armenians. For a country that jealously guards it territory, this is evidently just too much of an obstacle in the face of truth.
On a more positive note, it’s worth mentioning something about Armenian cuisine. Essentially, it’s very similar to Mediterranean cuisine – not particularly spicy but with a prevalence of vegetables, rice and bread. The Armenian lavash bread is one of the UNESCO intangible artefacts.
And we should also remember that Armenia and Georgia both vie for being the birth-place of wine making and Armenians cite the the Areni cave mentioned earlier as their claim to the trophy.
Whilst on the subject of alcoholic drinks, we should also mention Armenian Brandy. William Churchill was particularly fond of the hooch and the story goes that in an agreement with Stalin, the Russian leader promised to send Churchill a monthly supply of brandy. After a few months, Churchill noticed that the quality was going downhill and asked Stalin to investigate. The supplier admitted sending inferior quality brandy and was promptly shipped away to a Gulag. Churchill intervened again and asked for the supplier to be freed from the Gulag – on the condition he began to once again sent him only the best quality brandy.
Finally, it’s worth saying something about Armenian sport and culture – the latter being one of the country’s greatest exports. I think it goes a long way saying the the national sport is chess – which is a compulsory subject in school.
Armenian composers and musicians have been famous throughout the centuries. And Armenian folk-dance is colourful and brave. Perhaps the most famous of all composers is Aram Khachaturian. The French singer Charles Aznavour was of Armenian descent – as indeed is the singer Cher. The national folk instrument of Armenia is the duduk, of whom the most famous player is Djivan Gasparyan. The other great hero of Armenian music is Komitas. He was an Armenian, priest and composer born in 1869 in Western Turkey. He was orphaned at a young age and as a teenager went to study in Echmiadzin. It was during these years he began composing and collecting Armenian folksong. In 1910 he settled in Constantinople but was arrested for being Armenian in 1915. He managed to escape and move to Paris, but he remained afflicted by what he had witnessed of the genocide and he died in a psychiatric ward in 1935.
All of this is testament to a feisty country with a huge heart which no visitor can fail to be impressed by. A journey to Armenia is not taken lightly. It is perhaps not the top of our “”bucket-list” travels or our check-list of things to do before you die. But nevertheless, I can assure you, the memories of a visit to this extraordinary country, far outlive all the fleeting moments of snapshots clicked in the age of instagram.
Esplora Travel run small group tours to Armenia and if you would like any further information on them, please do not hesitate to get in touch.