Armenia, lying south of the great mountain range of the Caucasus, bounded by Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Iran and Turkey to the southeast and west respectively, boasts one of the world’s oldest histories. This unique country of highlands has undergone many changes throughout its history and modern Armenia comprises only a small portion of the big empire which extended from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
Legend has it that Noah’s Ark landed on the Armenian mountain of Ararat which makes Armenia the cradle of civilization. The kingdom of Urartu was the first state established in the Armenian highlands in 860 BC. This kingdom which was one of the largest in the ancient world rose to power in the mid-9th century BC but went into gradual decline and was eventually replaced by the Satrapy of Armenia. The Kingdom of Armenia reached its height under Tigranes the Great in the 1st century BC and became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion in 301. After the adoption of Christianity, the Armenian Alphabet was created in 405, by Saint Mesrop Mashtots.
This was followed by a gradual decline of the state due to the numerous invasions from different empires such as the Byzantines, Romans, Seljuks and Arabs. However, in spite of these occupations Armenians never loosed their identity always remaining faithful to their religion. The division into Eastern and Western parts by the Ottoman and Iranian empires in the 16th century completely took away the country’s independence. Over the centuries Armenia was under the rule of these empires. In the 19th century, Eastern Armenia was conquered by the Russian Empire, while the western part remained under the Ottoman rule. The greatest disaster in the Armenian history came with the outbreak of the first World War. This was what is known to the world as the Armenian Genocide. In 1915 around 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated, driven from their homes and marched until they died. Millions of Armenians emigrated and spread all over the world which caused the huge diaspora the country has nowadays.
After the Russian Revolution, in 1918 all non-Russian countries declared their independence which lead to the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia on May 28. However, this was a short-lived independence since in 1922 the country became a founding member of the Soviet Union. After 71 years of Soviet rule in Armenia, the modern Republic of Armenia declared its independence on September 21, 1991.
The restoration of Armenia’s independence opened a new page in its history creating a wide range of opportunities not only in the country’s internal life but also in the international arena. The modern republic of Armenia entered a new era of continuous development and started attracting more and more tourists who come to see the country’s rich culture and history reflected on each corner of it. The number of people visiting Armenia grew even more with the Velvet Revolution led by Nikol Pashinyan, which took place in April 2018 and passed into the world’s history as a successfully finished revolution without a bullet fired.
Armenian culture and traditions go far back in the history. It’s a land rich with cultural heritage reflected on every corner of it. However, what makes it especially unique is the diversity and mixture of modern and traditional elements expressed in many aspects of it. Armenian culture is steeped in the arts, architecture, literature, music, folklore, food and festivals. As a nation proud of their culture and history Armenians have cherished their artistic traditions and an impressive heritage has been passed down to us.
Architecture has always played a significant role in Armenian culture. It’s impossible to find a single city, town or a village without a piece of sculpture or a stone carving. The most remarkable heritage of Armenian architecture are the cross-stones, the famous Armenian “Khachkars” inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. These unique cross-stones which have been curved over centuries and can be found in every monastery of the country have become the symbol of Christian Armenia. Other prominent pieces of Armenian architecture are the temples, churches and monasteries with artistic illustrations in frescoes stretching back many centuries and it’s not strange that Armenia is often referred to as an open-air museum with over 4000 historical monuments throughout the country.
The first pieces of Armenian music can be traced back to ancient times, when Armenians started composing “sharakans”- traditional Armenian liturgical compositions sung during masses and celebrations. According to the historians, Armenians already had lyres, pipes and drums in the 5thcentury. Exquisite and moving compositions have been created by the greatest composers Sayat-Nova, Komitas, Sherami, Jivani. It’s impossible to imagine Armenian music without the deep sounds of duduk expressing the sadness of Armenian history. This double reed woodwind instrument made of apricot wood has been proclaimed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It’s worth mentioning Djivan Gasparyan, as a composer and musician known as the “Master of Duduk”. In the bloom of Armenian music, huge credits should be given to Aram Khachaturian, Armen Tigranian, Alexander Spendiaryan for creating operas and ballets of stunning beauty.
It’s told that Armenian national dances have their roots in the Pre-Christian period and were an inseparable part of ritual ceremonies. Among the most famous Armenian dances it’s worth mentioning Berd, Kochari, Lorke and Yarkhushta which are the true manifestations of Armenian spirit.
Armenian literature started blooming right after the creation of Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in 405. This crucial event was followed by the translation of Holy Bible and creation of many other religious writings by Koryun, Yeznik Koghbaci, Movses Khorenatsi which date back to the V century and together with an extraordinary collection of 14,000 complete manuscripts, fragments and miniatures are exposed in one of the biggest depositories of manuscript collections: Matenadaran. It was during this period when one of the most prominent Armenian historians Movses Khorenatsi wrote the “History of Armenia” which contains a significant amount of historical data not only about Armenia but also about other countries in the Western Asia.
Hundreds of Armenian poets and writers such as Grigor Narekatsi, Nerses Shnorhali, Hovhannes Tumanyan, Siamanto, Levon Shant, Khachatur Abovyan, Grigor Zohrab, Shirvanzade, Nar-Dos, Charents, Paruyr Sevak and many others have contributed to the formation of the rich Armenian literature which has passed down to us.
Art has always occupied a special place in the cultural image of the country. The first examples of church art appeared in the Vl century in form of miniatures – small colorful illustrations of religious content decorating ancient manuscripts. A plenty of wonderful art masterpieces have been created over centuries ranging from miniatures and portraits to landscape and abstract paintings. Armenian art reached its peak in the Middle ages, the evidence of which are the great number of unique artworks housed in the National Art Gallery of Yerevan. Aside from the National Gallery, there are more than 40 fine art museums and galleries within Yerevan where one can see the paintings of some of the most prominent Armenian painters Martiros Saryan, Hovhannes Ayvazovsky, Minas Avetisian, Arshile Gorky, whose masterpieces won’t leave anyone indifferent.
Armenian art encompasses a broad spectrum of traditions. Jewelry making, carving, weaving, pottery, lacemaking have been well developed for centuries. The art of gold and silver processing is told to be the most ancient branch of Armenian applied arts, the first examples of which date back to the II millennium BC. However, among all the branches, carpet weaving, perhaps, is the most developed one. According to the scholars, the Caucasus region and Armenia in particular are the birthplace of rug and carpet weaving. The oldest working tools and remains of fabric and material found during the excavations trace back to the III-IV millenniums BC. In the early middle ages Armenian rugs filled with appealing colors and designs were already famous in the international market. Armenians continue this tradition up to this day and one can find many shops selling new and old rugs and carpets.
Armenia is the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. However, Christianity was introduced into Armenia much earlier by apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century AD. During this period of time the main religion was paganism. Garni temple, dating back to the I century BC is the most famous structure and the symbol of pre-Christian Armenia.
As the two apostles came to Armenia, they started baptizing families, thus spreading Christianity throughout the country. In spite of all the obstacles, Christian preachers continued spreading the word of God to Armenians. Among them was Saint Gregory the Illuminator, who was imprisoned for about 14 years by the Armenian king Trdat and survived by the grace of a woman who secretly fed him. When the king Trdat went mad, the king’s sister released Gregory from the jail to cure the illness of her brother. In gratitude for being healed the king declared Christianity a state religion in 301 AD, making Armenia the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Thereafter, St. Gregory became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church – the supreme spiritual head of all the Armenians.
The spiritual center of Armenian Apostolic Church is Etchmiadzin cathedral built by Saint Gregory Illuminator after a dream where Christ Himself descended on earth and pointed the place where the cathedral was to be built. The name “Etchmiadzin” translates as the place where the Only Begotten descended. From its foundation the Holy Etchmiadzin, which is often considered the oldest cathedral in the world, has been the seat of the Catholicos, the supreme head of the Armenian Church.
With the adoption of Christianity, many churches and monasteries were built contributing to the bloom of the country’s architecture. Despite the fact that many churches and monasteries have been destroyed by enemies throughout the history, the country is still full of ancient monasteries and churches which reflect the uniqueness of the Armenian Apostolic church and its architecture.
According to the statistics, about 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Christians and followers of the Armenian Apostolic church. Yet, in the Armenian Constitution it is mentioned that people who live in Armenia have the right to change their religious belief and practice any other religion.
The original name of Armenia is “Hayastan” and the people leaving here call themselves “hay”. There are about 3 million people living in the country and it is mostly a mono-ethnic country since 98% of the population are Armenians. The huge Armenian diaspora spread all over the world is estimated almost 11 million people, about three times as big as the population living in Armenia. Ethnic minorities living here which consist of less than 3% of the population include Yazidis, Russians, Assyrians, Ukrainians, Kurds, Greeks, Georgians and Belarusians.
The Armenian language is an Indo-European language dating back to the early period of Indo-European differentiation forming a separate branch of the family. It is the official language of Armenia as well as of the Republic of Artsakh. It is also widely spoken throughout the Armenian diaspora. Armenian has its own alphabet, which was created after the adoption of Christianity by a devoted scholar Saint Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD. After traveling all over the country and gathering the sounds of Armenian speech he introduced the thirty-six characters of the Armenian Alphabet. Later, two additional characters have been added to it to write words of foreign origin.
Russian is widely spoken in Armenia as well, and about 40 percent of the population has basic knowledge of English.