It is easy to describe where modern Armenia is. Go to Turkey, go to the far-eastern end and you will find Mount Ararat. Go up and over Mount Ararat, and when you come down the other side you will be in Armenia. It lies in the centre of the mountainous regions of the South Caucasus, with Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east.
But it is Christian and proudly so, having adopted Christianity in the year 302, ten years before the conversion of Constantine. And because it is Christian, it is also quite distinctly ‘European’. It has a population of around three million, of whom a third live in the capital, Yerevan (or Erevan).
Yet historically, Armenia was very much bigger, and modern Armenia is only the eastern part of ‘Greater’ Armenia. Up to 1915, Greater Armenia included much of what is today eastern Turkey, and Mount Ararat, the sacred mountain of the Armenians, lay in the centre of the country, rather than, as today, in Turkey. But how did it come to be divided up?
Here we will look at the history of Armenia. We begin in the Neolithic when it was an outpost of the great Mesopotamian cities; we then ask the question: Were war chariots invented in Armenia? We then skip over the Urartu, whom I am keeping for a future article, and we then look at the origins of Christianity; and finally we visit modern Armenia and the henge-like memorials of the Armenian Genocide.
Shengavit, a Neolithic city
In my youth, when I first studied World Prehistory, I learnt about the Kura–Araxes culture, named after the two great rivers which rise in Armenia, flow north and then turn east and flow out through Azerbaijan into the Caspian Sea. The culture spans the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age from 3500-2500 BC, and marks the spread of the early cities from Mesopotamia up into the Caucasus highlands. A number of these cities have been discovered in Armenia, of which the best known is Shengavit.
Shengavit lies in the suburbs of the capital city of Yerevan, where in the 1970s the Russians decided to build a big hospital. The archaeologists protested that it was the site of an ancient hillfort, but it is elevated on a low hill making it ideal for a hospital, so the Russians went ahead. Nevertheless, the hospital only destroyed a quarter of the hillfort, and parts of the rest have been excavated revealing a tightly packed Neolithic city – some of the walls can be seen in the photo of the hospital on the opposite page.
Recently, however, the excavator Dr Hakob Simonyan discovered what he thinks may be a Neolithic temple. It consists of a semi-subterranean room. In the photo, the steps leading down can be seen bottom left. In the far corner was a low altar with a crude decoration on the front and a hole in the centre, which may have held an idol.
In front of it was one of the clover leaf-shaped terracotta hearths which may have had a ritual function. Then, in the opposite corner, in the bottom right-hand side of the picture, are two bins in which the ashes from the sacred fire were placed.
How far was Shengavit a proper town? There is no palace – yet – but there is a temple, or at least a large shrine. It is a large walled settlement which lasted for over a millennium, starting around 3,500 BC and ending around 2,600 or even as late as 2,000 BC. It is beginning to look like a proper town.
Bronze Age chariots invented here?
In the 2nd millennium BC a new style of fighting was introduced – fighting from chariots. Chariot-fighting is found from Greece (see Homer’s Iliad) through Egypt and Mesopotamia to China: but where did chariot-fighting come from? The Armenians would like to believe that it began in Armenia.
Armenia throughout its history has always looked in two directions: to the south and the west lay Mesopotamia and the headlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, while to the north lay the steppes of Russia. In Armenia, the two very different traditions met and flourished.
The biggest collection of early wooden vehicles are those discovered on the shores of Lake Sevan in Lchashen (pronounced ‘Lakashen’). Lake Sevan is said to be the third highest lake in the world, but 90% of its water is lost through evaporation, so the great planner and master-designer Joseph Stalin decided to lower the lake and expose the fertile lake flanks for agriculture, and at Lchashen he also exposed a very extensive barrow cemetery, whose contents included a number of cart burials. But because the land had been flooded, the wood has been preserved, so the National Museum in Armarna in Yerevan has the finest collection of Bronze Age wagons in the world.
Admittedly none of them are war chariots, they are in fact catafalques – that is, wagons on which a dead body was placed and then dragged to the burial ground where body and wagon were buried.
However, the bronze sculpture below, probably the top of a wooden stave, shows a two-wheeled chariot with warriors riding the chariot. Is this evidence for the early use of war chariots in Armenia?
Armenia – the first Christians?
The real glory of Armenia came with the advent of Christianity, for Armenia claims to be the first Christian country in the world. This was due to St Gregory the Enlightener (AD 257-337), who came to convert the country, was imprisoned, worked miracles, converted his captors, and then in 301 Armenia became formally Christian, ten years before Constantine formally acknowledged Christianity in Rome. The next couple of hundred years saw the flowering of Armenian Christianity.
Many churches were built throughout Armenia in a style similar to that of the Greek Orthodox churches: in a cruciform shape with a central dome. The earliest surviving church is said to be that at Kramravor, shown bottom left: the red roof tiles are said to be original. One of the best known is the church of St Hripsime, shown bottom right. Hripsime was a beautiful virgin, and the Roman emperor Diocletian lusted after her, but she escaped with her fellow virgins to Armenia, where she was eventually captured and suffered a martyr’s death. The church erected over her tomb is one of the earliest as well as one of the most solid of Armenian churches, having survived several earthquakes more or less intact.
Not all the churches, however, were built in the Armenian style. One of the most spectacular churches was the Zvartnots Cathedral, built between 643 and 652, but destroyed by an earthquake – or possibly the Arabs – around 930. It was excavated, together with the adjacent palace and winery, from 1901 to 1907. Today, Zvartnots tends to mean airport, because the Yerevan airport has been built adjacent to it, but it was built in a circular style and may have been three stories high.
In 690, Armenia was captured by the Arabs, and for two centuries or more church-building ceased. However, there was a revival in the 12th century, and a further revival in the 17th century, when many churches were repaired and rebuilt. In the Soviet era, the Armenian church managed to survive comparatively well, but following the end of the Soviet Union in 1990 there has been a major revival, and the churches in Armenia are now definitely flourishing.
Modern Armenia emerges
The Armenians are amongst the great survivors. They have several times been on the point of being wiped out. The trouble is that the Armenians were scattered throughout Anatolia – they formed a substantial minority in places such as Constantinople, Smyrna, Adana, and Trebizond, and particularly in Van where they were a majority. But they were Christians rather than Muslims and they were the professionals – the doctors and the lawyers – and often envied for their skills. At the height of the Ottoman Empire they were tolerated, but from the mid-19th century enmity worsened, and when the Great War broke out the Turks joined the German side. The Christian Armenians were seen as a deadly threat, and it was decided to eliminate them. They were sent on marches to join far-distant camps, and over a million perished. It is one of the great, largely unrecognised disasters of the First World War.
After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, Armenia nearly vanished from the map. Then in 1918 they won a magnificent victory over the Turks at the Battle of Sardarapat. The monument to the battle, with two Urartian bulls facing a carillon, is shown above. A new independent country of Armenia was proclaimed, though it was soon swallowed up in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In a way, Armenia flourished under the Soviets: the Armenians are by nature enterprising, intelligent, and hard-working, so they soon became the star pupils in the Soviet Empire. Yerevan, the capital, expanded rapidly under the leadership of one of the world’s great architects, Alexander Tamanian. When Christopher Wren rebuilt London after the Great Fire, he was constrained by the medieval street layout and had to be content with just building 90 churches and a cathedral. Tamanian was able to knock down nearly all historic Yerevan and lay out a masterplan for a whole city, so that today if you want to see Soviet architecture at its best, go to Yerevan. It is at least half successful.
After WWII, Yerevan expanded still further under the Soviets to become a city of over a million inhabitants, and thus received the rewards that the Soviets gave to those cities that exceeded the magic million mark: a crematorium and an underground railway – a single- line metro with at least one Moscow-style underground station.
Admittedly, Armenia still has problems: it has no oil and no minerals, and it is very different from its brash neighbour, the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, with its rich oil wealth. It has to live by its wits, and with the support of the many Armenians now living in America, it has become a very Westernised country.
Armenia is well worth considering as an off-beat holiday destination: fly to Moscow, and then get the regular Siberian Airways flight to Yerevan. Nina Dadayan at Armenia Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org) looks after English travellers, and Deirdre Holding has provided an excellent guidebook on Armenia in the Bradt series. Hakob Simonyan was our mentor in Armenia, and Armenuhui Simonyan was our translator. We had a wonderful visit: for further details, see www.armeniapast.com.
Images: Andrew Selkirk, unless otherwise stated.