Located at the foot of the biblical Mount Ararat, Armenia is considered the cradle of civilization; this “open-air museum” where you can find the world’s oldest shoe and wine-press, is also home to the world’s longest aerial tram. This millennial land boasts 10 climate zones and a diversity of untouched landscapes to enchant even the most avid traveler.
The capital city of Yerevan is a bustling cosmopolitan center where the cafe culture rules. Its thriving arts and culture scene offers the full range of concerts, festivals and more. From great jazz to world class symphony and ballet; from state-of-the-art technology to ancient archeological sites — you can enjoy it all here. In Armenia, a whole new world is yours to discover!
Humans have inhabited the Armenian Plateau and Caucasus region since over 100,000 years ago; drawings in caves and on rocks attest to their existence. 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 around 980 BC. Various rulers built capitals in the area, such as around Lake Van in the thirteenth century BC and Erebuni, built by Argishti I in 782 BC, the ruins of which are preserved today in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Legend says that the Armenian patriarch Hayk defeated the evil Assyrian ruler Bel in an epic battle to win his people’s freedom. The land Hayk’s people occupied came to be known as Hayastan, the name still used to this day. Under King Tigran II of the Artashesian dynasty, in the first century B.C., Armenia encompassed lands stretching as far east as the Caspian Sea and as far west as the Mediterranean Sea.
A former republic of the Soviet Union, Armenia is a unitary, multiparty, democratic nation-state with an ancient and historic cultural heritage. The Kingdom of Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its religion in 301 AD. The modern Republic of Armenia recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church, the world’s oldest national church, as the country’s primary religious establishment. Armenians have their own unique alphabet invented by Mesrob Mashtots in 406 AD. The current Republic of Armenia is a landlocked mountainous country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, it is bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south.
Armenia is a small country at the junction of Europe and Asia that has had an outsized influence on the world, in light of its long, rich history and large diaspora. Over 1700 years ago, the independent Armenia became the first country to make Christianity its state religion, and Armenians bravely clung to that faith and other aspects of their identity in passing through numerous periods of foreign rule, under Persians, Russians, Ottomans, and others. Armenia, independent once more and developing rapidly in many regards, stands ready to welcome back ethnic Armenians from abroad as well as invite people who are not Armenian at all (at least not yet) to experience an ancient culture flush with modern excitement.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915 was only the largest and most systematic of several massacres endured by Armenians under Ottoman rule. There was already a small Armenian Diaspora abroad when this series of unfortunate events took place, and Armenian resistance in their heartland, just as in the face of earlier existential threats, proved to be stiff, so this, fortunately, would not be the end for the millennia-old Armenian ethnicity. It did, undeniably, serve as a turning point in Armenian history and informs much of the Republic of Armenia’s foreign policy to this day. Numerous other countries have officially recognized what happened to Armenians behind the veil of World War I as a “genocide.” The idea of “Armenia” certainly survived, even if some of its staunchest adherents tragically did not.
Armenia is forging ahead toward a bright tomorrow, notwithstanding both the triumphs and the troubles of yesteryear, with a bright flag to match. The Armenian Volunteer Corps exists to introduce people eager to share their skills with an ever-enthralling country that could use them, seeking to brighten Armenia’s future and individual volunteers’ futures simultaneously. Come move mountains, for Armenia and for yourself!
The antiquity and uniqueness of Armenian culture only become more apparent the more of the country you see and the longer you stay in it. Not only was Armenia the first country in the world to make Christianity its state religion, but it was also the first country to secede from the “mainstream” of organized Christianity and found its own national church– long before the Reformation and even the Great Schism. Of all the visual arts, Armenia is most celebrated for its architecture, and most examples of older Armenian architecture are churches. It is common to find them high up, meant to be built as close to Heaven as possible and offering a wonderful view of the surroundings to even the most dyed-in-the-wool atheists.
Regularly found in, on, and around churches are specimens of the most distinctive Armenian artistic contribution of all: the khachkar. Khachkars, literally meaning (and perfectly described as) “cross-stones,” can be as small as a single brick, can be somewhat larger so as to take up most of a gravestone, can get still larger to take on the scale and approximate function of a cartouche from ancient Egyptian tombs, and can even be found so large as to be taking up most of the facade of a building. Armenia today boasts master craftsmen specializing in making crosses and other elaborate shapes in stone, and these artisans utilize practically identical methods to make legible inscriptions when the pictures alone cannot tell the whole story. So associated with Armenians is this art form that their discovery in a certain locality is definite proof that Armenian Christians once lived there– proof which modern-day authorities in those territories may hide or destroy for political reasons.
On the matter of inscriptions, Armenia’s early attachment to Christianity directly inspired the creation of its indigenous script circa 405 C.E. Without writing of their own, texts on religion (and all other areas of the growing knowledge) were inaccessible to all but the most learned Armenians. This same script is credited with keeping specifically Armenian learning and even ethnicity alive through the centuries of foreign domination, when assimilation and annihilation constantly loomed as distinct possibilities. Today, the Armenian script can be read throughout the Republic of Armenia (often in conjunction with the Latin and Cyrillic scripts, for multilingual support) and is widely known among the Armenian Diaspora. On a side note, although it is not known with certainty, Mashtots, the man who invented the Armenian script, is reputed to have created the Georgian alphabet, too; if he actually did single-handedly invent two national scripts that have been in continuous use for over 1600 years, Mashtots would be one-of-a-kind in human history.
Armenia’s holidays include many that would be expected in view of its Christian status, but there are also some that are entirely Armenia’s own. Armenia celebrates Easter, and it does so with eggs– but the eggs are dyed in a way that they are not elsewhere. Armenia celebrates Christmas, and it does so with tall trees and rows of lights– but their Christmas is celebrated in early January rather than late December. A unique Armenian holiday comes in July, when it is generally so hot that you may suddenly wish for someone to approach you and throw water in your face. That is exactly what may happen on Vardavar, when people have water fights for fun. Water fights may not be so much fun depending on how you are dressed and what you are carrying, so Vardavar might not be the wisest day to head outside unless you are ready to wet and get wet. It is perfectly comparable to the American Halloween in one way: It is mainly for children and those raising them, but single adults looking to get in on the fun are entirely free to do so. Another unique Armenian holiday is akin to St. Valentine’s Day. It is dedicated to St. Sarkis, the patron of love and youth. Instead of giving and getting chocolates filled with added sugar on the holiday itself, Armenians eat a heavily salted cookie on the eve of the holiday, which is held to bring on a dream of one’s future spouse that night. People throughout the world fantasize about marriage possibilities, but Armenians have a specific day when they are supposed to have a dream in which “the one” will appear.
Armenia has been the stage for still more remarkable innovations. It was long believed that the wearing of shoes was one of the very many breakthroughs in human development first made in ancient China, but a shoe older than any Chinese one was found in Armenian lands. The general area of Armenia, adjacent to the “Fertile Crescent” usually recognized as “the cradle of civilization,” was one of the first in the world to develop advanced culture and was a center from which it radiated to other regions (scholars have dubbed this the “Near East diffusion”), so it is reasonable to ask how many peoples started wearing shoes through Armenian influence, directly or indirectly. Today’s Armenians are extremely proud of their wine, enjoying a healthy rivalry in this regard with their Georgian neighbors and undeterred by competition from the Napa Valley and certain French departments, and there is ample reason to believe this pride is itself nothing new. The Areni winery, unearthed in 2007, is the oldest in the world by a substantial margin, dated to 4000 B.C.E., making it about 1000 years older than the second most ancient, from the West Bank. Wine is said to get better with age, and by this criterion Armenians can stake an objective claim to having the world’s finest.
Armenia’s cultural treasures have not escaped the notice of the United Nations. Armenian cultural assets have been added to the lists of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage elements. One such site is the Tatev Monastery, which stands out all the more because of its recent upgrade: Guinness World Records names its aerial tramway, constructed in 2010, as the longest non-stop double track cable car. Another UNESCO-protected site is the Zvartnots Cathedral, replete with Hellenistic columns. The Zvartnots Cathedral cannot be beaten among Armenian tourist attractions for its accessibility from abroad, since it is not surprisingly extremely close to Zvartnots International Airport, the main gateway to the country.
On the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list are foodstuffs, a telltale component of any culture. Lavash, an Armenian flatbread, has made the list, and it is a staple of Armenian cuisine. If you do not have ancestry from Armenia or a neighboring country, the thought of stuffing vegetables with various fillings may not sound very appealing, but after you have tried Armenian dolma for yourself there is no going back to the thought that stuffing vegetables is revolting. Khorovats is often translated “Armenian barbecue,” and it is a festive food that can take on a variety of forms. Meat is generally served on a skewer, and the most common type is lamb. The types and numbers of vegetables on the skewers with the meat are a matter of personal taste. In the drinks department, apart from the wine already mentioned, Armenia is also famous for brandy. One Armenian kind of brandy was so prized in the scarcity-plagued Soviet Union that it was reserved for the leaders of the Communist Party, and Sir Winston Churchill became a lover of this same elusive brew from Armenia after trying it at a conference near the close of World War II.
No thorough discussion of a country’s culture would be complete without mention of its “national costume.” Armenian traditional clothing is collectively known as “taraz.” As is sadly the case for traditional clothing in much of the world, especially the more urbanized parts, taraz is a rare sight typically reserved for special occasions when worn at all. The costumes worn by practitioners of Armenian folk dancing, kochari, approximate the everyday clothing from centuries ago and are thus the best examples of taraz’s survival today. Because Armenians have such a lengthy history and have long been dispersed over a wide area, the traditional clothing was far from monolithic, taking on influence from– and giving influence to– neighboring peoples and being more or less luxurious to reflect differences in social standing. Clothing in any given area tended to be “Armenian” enough, though, that it also could function as one of the several devices to prevent absorption by other peoples. Today, “other peoples” visiting Armenia are probably about as likely as ethnic Armenian visitors to suit up in taraz and pose for group photos “dressed like Armenians.”
|Culture is intertwined with climate, since what people can grow, hunt, or pick on the land, what the weather dictates they wear, and what they generally see when they look around will together determine their way of life. Climate is yet another way in which the Republic of Armenia’s small size belies just how much is packed into it. The Köppen climate classification system favored by scientists splits present-day Armenia into 10 distinct climate zones, with the highest of its many peaks qualifying as “polar, tundra” and an area along its long border with Turkey registering as “arid, desert, cold.” To speak of an “average” climate for Armenia, it is fair to say it has four seasons, is dry, and is “continental,” meaning summers can get quite hot and winters are liable to be literally freezing. Because of this tendency to extremes, you could find yourself in July wiping the sweat from your brow on a 40-degree Celsius day and muttering that Armenia is in the “Middle East,” only in January to be shivering on a night 5 degrees below 0 and saying with just as much conviction that Armenia remains in “Russia”– Armenia, betwixt and between, once again.
There is a space larger than and, in fact, containing the Republic of Armenia called the “Armenian Highlands,” and from this we can draw two instructive conclusions: the historical territory of Armenia was more extensive than the current one, and, more relevantly for climate, almost all Armenian land is quite elevated. Armenia’s largest body of water, Lake Sevan (so big that together with its basin it takes up about one-sixth of Armenia’s territory and so economically important that it accounts for about 90% of Armenia’s fish caught annually), is as a direct result of this generally great elevation one of the highest-altitude lakes in Eurasia. If you go on one of the hikes Armenians love to engage in themselves, you will be struck by how many flowers there are and the brilliance and variety of their colors. If you venture higher still, you may notice much of the greenery disappearing and your environs getting considerably rockier; inadvertently, you could shift from “hiking” to “mountain climbing.” Try to watch your step and appreciate the scenery at once!
If you are at all near an Armenian village on a hike, you will likely encounter a shepherd and his flock grazing. Armenians are famed for their hospitality, so you should not be one bit surprised to receive an invitation from that shepherd to his village. The homes in the village are built of locally sourced materials, superficially humble but upliftingly suffused with the affection that could make any house feel like “home.” In that village, you will see livestock roaming fairly freely at times, being herded effectively at others. Many of those animals will be sheep, which are at the center of a new development in rural Armenia: a “Sheep Shearing Festival” bringing together the best at their craft from various rural localities in the country for a grand gathering– to which visitors from urban Armenia and even other nations are cordially invited.
In these high villages, in other rural areas, and on larger-scale farms integrating industrial techniques, you will note Armenia’s purposeful management of agriculture. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are all cultivated responsibly. Armenia’s fragrant national fruit, the apricot (by no coincidence whatsoever, classified under the Latinized scientific name Prunus armeniaca, “Armenian plum”), is so widespread that it takes little effort to locate it in the wild, and it is perfectly safe to pluck the fruit right off the branch and put it right in the mouth. Armenians would be loath, however, to put wild grapes right in their mouths, no matter how appetizing they may look, because doing so prior to priestly intervention would violate their long-held late summer tradition “Grape Blessing Day.” On this occasion, a priest blesses grapes and thereby makes them fair game for both direct consumption and use in viticulture. Armenians are likewise known for producing– and consuming– pomegranates, but please rest assured that Armenia is otherwise not such a “seedy” place.
Armenia is far from being the most water-rich country on Earth, but it is reasonably rich in water resources when considering how little precipitation it gets per annum. It has numerous rivers, including the mighty Hrazdan flowing through Yerevan. The main indicator of its relative water wealth is the superabundance of pulpulaks, public water fountains often fed by mountain springs. The overwhelming majority of foreign visitors to Armenia should be accustomed to seeing fewer public water fountains in the streets and having to turn them on to use them. Water arcs continually from pulpulaks, so people just have to get in front of them and start drinking. It takes just a little bit of practice to master how to hold a bottle so that you can fill it up with the arcing water. Most Armenians have become experts at this.
|Armenia has contributed its share of luminaries to the world. In words and pictures, please consider just a small sampling of them.
When you look for a contemporary famous person of Armenian descent, Serj Tankian separates himself from the pack because he is just so loud– in a good way! Heavy metal is not everyone’s cup of tea and it has fallen in popularity since the 80s and 90s, but Serj Tankian’s System of a Down has endured into the present from its 1994 founding in what was then a much more crowded field for heavy metal bands. Tankian shows virtuosity at multitasking in the many hats he wears for his band, being its lead vocalist, primary lyricist, keyboardist, and occasional rhythm guitarist. Because Tankian is the group’s lead vocalist, it is justifiable to call him the face of System of a Down, and he makes no effort to hide or deny that his face is Armenian. The Levant has long hosted a large Armenian community, with their members generally being labeled “Syrian Armenians,” and Tankian hails from a Beiruti family of them. As proof of how much he has done to advance Armenia and how long he has been at it, it was already over a decade ago that he was awarded a medal by the Armenian Prime Minister for raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide. That is one topic more people of all ethnicities should try to be “louder” about, in ways all their own if heavy metal does not float their boats.
It is a testament to how special a person must be if he or she can be referred to by a mononym– a one-word name– and immediately be known practically everywhere in the world. That continues to be the case for the Armenian-American Cher, who, though at this point she is decades past her heyday, is still an icon. She burst onto the scene over 50 years ago as the fresh-faced wife of Sonny Bono, part of a pop and entertainment duo, but she “believed in life after love” enough that after breaking up with him she went on to even greater success. She crossed over to acting, and her film Moonstruck is arguably the best romantic comedy of all time. To those of you who don’t agree: “Snap out of it!”
In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the Armenian-American Kim Kardashian (from the Los Angeles area where so many Armenians now reside) might have posted yet another picture to Instagram, and over one million people might have dropped everything else to see it, as if it were something special. For Kim Kardashian is a maven of turning perception into reality. Some people do not understand the appeal, shaking their heads at her as someone “famous for being famous” and lacking any discernible talent remotely commensurate with possessing a fraction of her wealth. If someone objects to this viewpoint on the grounds that Kim is, after all, “pretty,” it is appropriate to pay Armenia as a nation a compliment in saying that beauties in the league of Kim Kardashian and roughly resembling her are a dime a dozen in Armenia, though not one of them is nearly as heralded. How, then, did she become so notable? Kim’s genius lies in her marketing, leading so many admirers to an inflated opinion of her other qualities. She has built a veritable powerhouse brand around herself and much of her family. With the way the world is currently evolving, “influencers” on social media may soon become much more numerous and impactful, and Kim Kardashian may go down in history as the first of their kind.
Though architecture is the visual art for which Armenia is known best, the Armenians produced a stellar painter in Ivan Aivazovsky. He belonged to the Armenian community on Crimea under the Russian Empire, and he was baptized there under a name making his Armenian origins much more apparent, Hovhannes Aivazian. He must have spent hours staring at and sketching the waters right off the Black Sea peninsula where he grew up, since he developed into a supremely skilled “marine artist,” painting sea scenes of all sorts that, based on the time when they were produced and the strong emotion they evinced and evoked, fit neatly into the “Romantic” style. He won admiration for his artworks in the Russian Empire and in the West of which the Russian Empire was only occasionally acknowledged as a member. The case of Ivan Aivazovsky makes for an interesting comparison with that of Ivan Isakov, an ethnic Armenian who became Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union. Present-day Armenia is landlocked, and Armenians historically have not been closely tied to seafaring, but Aivazovsky and Isakov prove that Armenians who grow up near the sea and develop their talents in and around it can become recognized masters of the water.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is an Armenian sportsman of the first order. As of this writing, he plays for Inter Milan, a highly successful and valuable Italian club famed for its “ultras,” diehard fans just as likely to boo one of their own team’s overpaid, underperforming players out of the stadium as they are to start a wild brawl with supporters of the other side. If Mkhitaryan has earned the approval of such fans, he must be pulling his weight! The other European clubs that have paid dearly for the services of this gifted footballer include Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund and the EPL’s Manchester United and Arsenal, so the list of teams he has played for looks rather like the list of the most valuable football clubs on Earth. Even Armenians will concede that the big paydays and plaudits for playing football at the club level are not to be found in Armenia, but in international play Henrikh Mkhitaryan has proudly represented his homeland. He currently stands as Armenia’s all-time top goalscorer in international matches. In 2022, he retired from the Armenian national team, which is understandable given his club commitments and that 33 officially counts as “old” in elite football circles. In 10 or 20 years, you could see him stalking the sidelines as the man in charge of Armenia’s national team, and if he proves to be as adroit a manager as a player the team could do something amazing.
Andre Agassi is another accomplished athlete of Armenian heritage (his father was one of the many Armenians born in Iran). He was an electrifying tennis player for almost all of the 90s and into the 2000s. He ascended to the world No. 1 rank in the sport, won eight major championships, and even won an Olympic gold medal in men’s tennis for the United States. His play and personality combined to make him a magnet for endorsement deals; he partnered with Nike for almost 20 years. It must be admitted that scores of men fantasize about being sports heroes and possessing oodles of money as means to the end of marrying a supermodel, and Agassi achieved that, too, tying the knot with Brooke Shields. Away from all the daydreams, adversity, as they say, is what introduces a man to himself, and it was Agassi’s response to adversity which perhaps makes him most noteworthy. After reaching a No. 1 ranking in 1995, personal problems and uninspired play saw him sink to No. 141 (i.e., beyond the point of total obscurity) just two years later. Around this same time, critics mocked him for his trademark long hair falling out altogether, which rendered him bald. He rose again to No. 1 in the world in 1999 and was a regular winner for a few years thereafter, until the undefeated Father Time forced him into retirement.
Charles Aznavour was an ethnic Armenian born in France about a decade after the Armenian Genocide. France even before the genocide was an attractive destination for Armenians in search of a refresh for their lives, with Armenians generally finding “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to be more than just an empty motto in France, and Aznavour acquired fame and fortune in this setting, being claimed by France as enthusiastically– and as rightly– as by Armenia. His sales speak for themselves: Aznavour had over 60 records go gold or platinum in his illustrious career. He was sometimes spoken of as “France’s Frank Sinatra,” but that might not be the best appellation outside the realm of music, since Aznavour was even more noted for humanitarianism than “Old Blue Eyes.” Aznavour did his part to contain World War II’s tragic analogue to World War I’s Armenian Genocide, since he sheltered Jewish people from Nazi occupiers and French collaborators, and much later in life he sprang into action to aid in the wake of Armenia’s devastating 1988 earthquake. The people he touched through his music and deeds could be found worldwide, as evidenced by his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the fact his final performance took place in Osaka, Japan just months before his 2018 passing.
One of the running themes on this list is that many of the most famous Armenians were not born in politically Armenian territory, and that theme continues with Aram Khachaturian. He was born and raised next to Armenia in a land that actually has an Armenian-majority region, Georgia. He showed musical talent from a young age, and he received formal training in the composing and conducting of classical music. His work is structurally superior in a way that transcends borders, politics, and such, so he was able to stay in the good graces of Soviet authorities for almost the entirety of his career, in an era when censorship and even purges were commonplace. Armenia’s “national anthem” when it was a “Soviet socialist republic” was composed by Khachaturian, but when Armenia was again fully independent it opted to replace this hymn with an anthem that would have been too nationalistic to pass muster with apparatchiks. Khachaturian deserves respect for skillfully navigating an environment in which being an artist was dangerous and for glorifying Armenia within the strict limits imposed.
|Yerevan is Armenia’s current capital. Armenia literally had a dozen capitals prior to Yerevan, but it is hard to imagine Armenia’s capital moving anytime soon, barring an epic calamity or a conscious desire to develop other areas of the country more rapidly. Yerevan is a “primate city” par excellence, being over 10 times more populous than the second city Gyumri.
While Gyumri itself was once named after V.I. Lenin (in Soviet times, it was called “Leninakan”), Yerevan used to have “Lenin Square” as its heart. The square remains at Yerevan’s center, but it has been renamed “Republic Square,” with its gigantic statue of the mastermind behind the USSR having long ago been torn down. Much impressive Soviet architecture continues to rim the square, but it is truly the presence of throngs of Armenians in the here and now that brings the place to life. The square can seem boring early in the morning when just about no one is around, but its vibrancy increases exponentially as the day progresses and climaxes at 9 PM, at which time its fountains begin “singing.” Water sprays approximately in tune with the music and in tandem with lights. It jumps impressively into the air and, sometimes by design, sometimes due to the vagaries of the wind, can end up wetting spectators who stand too close. And, since it is no exaggeration to state that Republic Square is the very center of the very center of Armenia, it should come as no surprise that it lies in close proximity to many establishments at which people can wet their whistles or whet their appetites.
Lenin was not the only Soviet “big man” who was turned into a “huge man” in statue form to watch over Yerevan, since for over a decade there was a bronze of Stalin high in the hills. Stalin was condemned as a malignantly narcissistic butcher within just a few years of his death, so it was with Soviet state sanction that his statue was torn down and replaced with one more attuned to the specific location: Mother Armenia. With sword in hand, never diverting her gaze from the sprawling Yerevan below, she is simultaneously the personification of Armenia and its guardian. It is only appropriate that she is located within Victory Park, a recreational and educational area commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory in a fight for its life during World War II. Hitler recommended nothing better than servitude for the Slavs, and it is hard to imagine that he had anything more honorific than that in mind for Armenians, so it was only right that the Armenians joined with their “comrades” from the other constituent republics of the USSR and helped beat back what was for them yet another existential threat.
Not far from where Mother Armenia stands (guard), pedestrians visiting Yerevan for the first time may be highly impressed at the art museum in the ritzy “Cascade” neighborhood, since it also stretches high into the sky in an artistically bold display, in a form much like a pyramid. It has hundreds of steps on the outside and gardens on strategically placed levels. If one prefers to travel upward on the inside, he can see various artworks while ascending through a series of escalators. All the way at the top, whether one chooses to climb up using the inside or the outside of the structure, there is a magnificent view of Yerevan, a command center from which one may feel like a lieutenant to Mother Armenia.
In various places in and around Yerevan, on some days much better than others because of weather changes, you can look up and see what has been the most enduring symbol of Armenia: Mount Ararat. This endures today as a symbol of Armenia despite the fact that, by just a handful of miles, it is outside Armenia’s boundaries and within Turkey’s. In pagan times, Armenians imagined that their gods lived up there. In the Bible itself, the holy book of the religion Armenians would end up embracing to replace their paganism, Noah’s Ark is reported to have come to a rest atop Mount Ararat when the waters of the Deluge began to subside. Ararat has two peaks, “Greater Ararat” and “Little Ararat,” and it is to be wondered if any Armenians living centuries ago, when there were two distinct areas with heavy Armenian populations called “Greater Armenia” and “Lesser Armenia,” saw divine consonance between the nature of the mountain peaks and the nature of the Armenian states.
But if you just crane your neck a little bit more and in a slightly different direction you will spy yet another symbol of Yerevan betokening its “protected” status. Erebuni Fortress is in the hills around a residential area of Yerevan, and it is a holdover from the aforementioned pagan times, when Armenian statuary very much resembled that of the Babylonians. To gain access to the hill containing the fortress from the streets of Yerevan, one must pass through a museum containing all sorts of curiosities unearthed from the immediate vicinity. There is no controversy about items in the museum being “stolen” by “imperialists” and “colonizers”; many of the items may come from a time so remote that “Armenia” had not even come into existence yet, but the local inhabitants acknowledge the contents of the museum and the fortress to be as “Armenian” as they are, ultimately. Nor is there any mystery about how the name “Yerevan” came to be; by a series of minor phonological shifts occurring naturally over the course of centuries, “Erebuni” could easily transform into “Yerevan”– and that is exactly what it did.
Any visitor to Yerevan should be sure, firstly, to give his neck a break after looking up so much and, secondly, to venture far from Republic Square. Having done those two things, the visitor is unlikely to come away disappointed, as so many of Yerevan’s copious attractions lie on ground level and away from the very center of the city. It is all the easier to access what Yerevan has on ground level if you temporarily travel underground, since Yerevan has a subway system that was built under Soviet auspices and functions more than adequately in the present. At 100 drams for one ride, the subway is uber-cheap– in a way that Uber isn’t! The Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (just “Opera,” for short) is one building that visitors to Yerevan should be sure to check out, since it is a rounded structure with liveliness and beauty all around it on the outside and it does, naturally, sporadically host breathtaking performances on the inside. Matenadaran is another can’t-miss, a first-class research institution carrying and displaying some of the most ancient manuscripts in the world. Side streets which no commercial guidebook would cover in detail may be, alas, where you have the most fun and learn your most lasting lessons in Yerevan. After all, they hold plenty of local color and host plenty of human drama. They may very well shed the most light on what it means to be “Yerevantsi,” a person from Yerevan.
Yerevan beckons. Once you have answered its call and had your fill of its wonders for the time being, venture beyond the city limits and explore what else Armenia has on offer. Leaving might be the hardest part.