Armenian Culture is Ancient and Cutting-Edge
Armenian culture impressed me as one of the most artistic and expressive I have encountered. If your spirit could use a rejuvenating boost of inspiration, travel to Armenia may be in order.
Armenian culture has an incredibly distinctive design sensibility and a joyful exuberance, despite a history of oppression and tragedy. With this guide, you have a road map to a culturally enriching and transformative experience! This land-locked country in Eurasia has a long history of creativity and innovation that spans from ancient Armenian churches to the cutting-edge TUMO educational center.
As one of the world’s ten oldest civilizations and the first society to officially adopt Christianity, Armenia’s history is steeped in mystic and artistic traditions, such as the ornately carved khachkars, or cross-stones; the soulful sound of musical instruments like the duduk; the vibrant colors and intricate patterns of the woven carpets; the elegant and imaginative calligraphy that adorned the country’s ancient manuscripts and is still widely appreciated as a graphic art. While its culture is ancient, the population is young (median age 36 in 2016), hip and largely English-speaking.
Armenian culture is a colorful blend of Eastern and Western influences and is rooted in its location at the crossroads between Asia and Europe. The Armenian people are deeply connected with the country’s geography, past and present. The mountainous landscape features the iconic profile of snow-capped Mt. Ararat in the distance, a national symbol of Armenian heritage despite now being in Turkey; alpine meadows are strewn with wildflowers in the spring; serene monasteries crown red rock canyons, and fast-moving streams tumble down steep ravines—Armenia was known in ancient times as Nairi meaning “land of the lakes and rivers."
Where To Stay and When To Go | Yerevan
Armenia’s compact capital of Yerevan is immaculately clean, verdantly green and within handy range of many nearby attractions, so you can base yourself here for your entire stay and not need to change accommodations. I stayed at the Silk Road Hotel, located a five-minute cab ride from downtown; the cozy boutique property features a stunning rug collection, a secret garden and a true experience of Armenian culture. Friends stayed at Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel, an upscale property in the heart of downtown Yerevan, facing the famous Vernisage outdoor craft market. Republica Hotel is also downtown and a few blocks from Republic Square, home to the History Museum of Armenia and the National Gallery.
The food is a delicious blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences and healthily-prepared. Ainteb and Teryan both offer excellent Syrian Armenian cuisine. Kharpert at Tufenkian Hotel offers modern renditions of classic Western Armenian cuisine. At Anoush at Republica, be sure to try the great home-made cheeses and Kalagosh soup to truly experience Armenian culture. Cafes to check out include Artbridge, a sweet little bookstore with yummy breakfasts, salads & sandwiches; The Green Bean, a vegetarian and eco-friendly spot below the Cascade, and Cafe Central on Apovyan St, which has an Old World atmosphere and pastries to die for.
I decided to travel to Armenia at the end of May and can recommend spring as a fabulous time to visit—the weather was glorious and the countryside was ablaze with swaths of poppies, cornflowers, orchids, irises and gladiolas. There is plenty to see and do to fill a two-week itinerary; anything less than a week is selling yourself short.
For excursions outside Yerevan, I recommend availing yourself of a professional guide who can do the navigating while also sharing knowledge of their country and culture. I used DA Tours for visits to Garni Gorge, and Geghard and Noravank Monasteries and was the beneficiary of their inside knowledge on spectacular back roads, secret parking spots, superb local restaurants, insightful legends and lore…not to mention hospitable & enjoyable company.
For a small country, Armenia has vastly too many sites to include in one article. My list of "must-sees" is based on the experiences I had that I felt gave me a meaningful connection to my Armenian hosts, and an understanding of their history and identity. Although you could see the sites I recommend in any order, the list was designed to present a progressive and deepening understanding of Armenian culture.
What to See In Yerevan
One of Armenia’s best-known places to visit, Yerevan is often called the “Pink City” because many of its buildings are constructed of local rose-colored tufa stone. I would use seven words to describe this gem of a city: Clean. Green. Spacious. Young. Friendly. Art-filled.
While in 2018 Yerevan celebrated 2800 years of existence, its architecture and infrastructure is decidedly 20th century, reflecting the city’s massive reconstruction during its early years as a Soviet satellite in the 1920s. For those whose vision of Soviet architecture is ugly concrete industrial blocks, happily, Yerevan architect Alexander Tamanyan’s style was Neo-Classical.
Tamanyan’s plan included broad avenues, which give Yerevan a feeling of spaciousness. Take a 2.5-mile walk on the city’s immaculate streets, beginning in the Shengavit District at the Komitas Museum, devoted to the Armenian composer & musicologist. Head to the main downtown area of Kentron and the impressive governmental buildings and plazas of Republic Square. Then go on to the Yerevan Cascade, a massive landmark that is equal parts sculpture-staircase-fountain and home to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, the rooftop of which presents a spectacular view of the city and Armenia’s beloved Mt. Ararat in the distance.
Yerevan has more than 40 parks and they are well-loved and well-used. I was told by an Armenian friend that this network of green places to pause was created to ensure that the citizens of Yerevan had frequent opportunities for encounters and conversations. That is what I call foresight by a wise city planner!
Visit Ancient Erebuni
The Fortress of Erebuni also offers sweeping vistas of the city and the surrounding countryside from its heights of 3,336 feet. The contrasting views in different directions seem to be a window into both Armenia’s present and its past, yet it is the aura of this ancient site itself that makes the hike worth it.
Erebuni was founded in the 8th century B.C.—about 20 years earlier than Rome—by King Arghishti, who was the ruler of the Urartu people, considered to be the ancestors of Armenians. The Uratians were conquered by an Iranian people in the 6th century, with the Armenian civilization emerging shortly thereafter.
In the early 1950s, archaeologists discovered basalt rock here inscribed with ancient Cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing. From this inscription, the Erebuni site was able to be dated. The inscription reads, "By the greatness of the God Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, built this mighty stronghold and proclaimed it Erebuni for the glory of Biainili (Urartu) and to instill fear among the king's enemies. Argishti says: The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainili, and ruler of Tushpa."
The ruins are not particularly well-preserved—in fact, the structures resemble an abandoned construction site and there is restoration work that is half-hearted. But there is no question that there is a palpable ambiance of Armenian culture here. On the late May day I visited, I practically had to myself the sprawling hilltop strewn with poppies. Amidst the songs of the birds and clouds that seemed at eye-level, there was something timeless and eternal at Erebuni.
After getting a glimpse into the cultural landscape and deep history of Armenia’s origins at Erebuni, there is really no other site that is more revealing about the psyche and soul of Armenians than Matenadaran. Both a museum and research institute, the Matenadaran is devoted to Armenia’s literary and spiritual history and contains 23,000 manuscripts and more than 500,00 other documents that address subject matter ranging from astronomy, geography, mathematics and medicine.
Matenadaran in Armenian literally means “book repository” and it could be argued that the somber gray basalt building safeguards the very DNA of Armenian identity—its alphabet and language divinely channeled in a vision by Medieval priest Mesrop Mashtots in about 405 A.D. There is a widespread perception that without their own distinct and unifying language system, the Armenian identity would have been vanquished by the non-stop series of invaders & oppressors who have sought control of this tiny but strategically-located country.
Matenadaran’s facade conjures the commanding presence of a Greek temple. Indeed, after climbing a steep hill, visitors are greeted by an imposing monumental sculpture of Mashtots, a pupil at his knee. Inside, the collections include gospels, medical treatises, musical notations, ancient maps, exquisite miniatures. No matter if you don’t understand the language—the sheer antiquity and beautifully ornate decorations of the pieces tell a story all their own.
Perhaps the most meaningful story conveyed by the Matenadaran is one that really comes alive behind-the-scenes. I was fortunate to be given a tour of the manuscript conservation department, headed by Dr. Gayane Eliazyan. In a laboratory-like setting, I watched the all-female staff expertly restoring fragile and priceless pieces of the past, and was awed as much by their ease at interacting so closely with irreplaceable remnants of their heritage as their technical skills. It was a lesson in being comfortably intimate with healing the scars that history can create while preserving the essence and beauty of one’s ancestry for future generations.
With the benefit of a skillful driver and four-wheel drive, take a 40-minute breath-taking excursion through the Garni Gorge, an amazingly wild stretch of scenery just 14 miles east of Yerevan. The Azat River runs through this deep ravine; in late May it was a mere stream but the water table was sufficient to nourish a profusion of wildflowers and verdant vegetation blanketing the steep canyon walls.
On the floor of the canyon, you can appreciate an art installation courtesy of Mother Nature: a rock wall that resembles an upside-down Giant’s Causeway. My guide Hakob Hakobyan explained that because the tubular-shaped volcanic formations protruding downward resemble a pipe organ, the site is referred to as a "Symphony of Stones."
Climbing upward at the other end of the gorge, we reached Garni Temple, which I had been told was the only pre-Christian religious structure still in existence in Armenia.
"Garni is one of the rarest and well-preserved pagan temples in the world, with a unique and mysterious atmosphere," Sona Margaryan, a Yerevan producer, told me. “The temple's architecture and surrounding natural beauty create a harmonious entrance into an idyllic world. The Garni Temple was built to celebrate the Armenian god of the Sun Mihr and is surrounded by scenic Khosrov preserve.
Music is integrated into daily life in Armenia—and I don’t mean listening to iTunes. People sing and play instruments everywhere, so I had become accustomed to impromptu performances. I was fascinated to watch the musician’s technique—duduk players use air stored in their cheeks to keep playing the instrument while they inhale air into their lungs. I was told the most important quality of the duduk is its ability to express the nuances and mood of the Armenian language.
After enjoying the ambiance at the temple, Hakob took me Sergey’s Garden in Garni, an idyllic spot where you can feast on a fabulous spread at picnic tables under the trees.
Next, we headed for Geghard Monastery a short distance away. Geghard means “spear” and the Medieval site is so-named because the weapon that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion was said to have been brought here by the Apostle Jude.
Given that Armenia was the first civilization to officially adopt Christianity, perhaps it's not surprising that the country is sometimes referred to as the “land of churches.” Armenia claims more than 4,000 places of worship, Geghard, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is partially carved out of the cliff face and was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a sacred spring that bubbled inside a cave. Locals say that the water that comes out of the solid rock in a chamber near the main entrance has healing properties.
Geghard is so popular with both Armenians and tourists that at the entrance there is a thriving market of locals selling home-baked Armenian sweet bread known as gata, emblazoned with the monastery’s name.
The complex has numerous churches which range from being little more than caves to elaborately-carved chambers with soaring ceilings and tombs inlaid in the floors. Hyak explained to me that an early king had begun the practice of royalty being laid to rest beneath the footsteps of their subjects, as a statement of being of humble service to their people.
In the gavit or vestry, I watched a young girl light a candle, clasps her hands, close her eyes and stand still in earnest prayer. Her mother looked on with pride and told me she had tried to have a child for 18 years without success and then...Maria arrived. The woman explained her daughter was named for Mother Mary, who she felt interceded on her behalf.
In Armenia, like many other countries, there are folk traditions associated with hopes & dreams. The origin of these rituals goes back to pagan times and often the reason for their existence is lost to time.
Towards the entrance of the monastery, there is a small niche embedded in a stone wall. According to folklore, if you can successfully throw a stone so that it lands in this small crevice, your dreams will come true. Oral tradition says this practice dates to pre-Christian holiday celebrations when single men and women cast a stone toward the ledge believing if it landed there, they would soon marry.
Whatever the original reasons for the custom, the message is to aim high, and make pursuing your dreams joyful!
Many of Armenia’s churches and monasteries were constructed in remote places to avoid pillaging by invaders. The isolated locations are often stunningly beautiful and enhance the aura of the divine. One of the most spectacular for both its design and setting is Noravank Monastery, about two hours southeast of Yerevan, very close to the border with Iran. The drive is enthralling for its biblical-looking scenery; in late May the sweeping, majestic mountains are blanketed in swathes of technicolor alpine flowers. I think someone would have to be inhuman to not be moved by the landscape’s grandeur and starkness.
"When I first saw Noravank many years ago, I was awestruck by its beauty, and somewhat shocked by its place in the landscape,” Henry Astarjian, a member of the diaspora and Boston area investment advisor, told me. “The monastery is small. It is delicate and sculptural. It is welcoming and neat, as a holy sanctuary should be. It reflects the gentle sensibilities of its designer, the 13th-century monk who is simply known today by his first name, Momik."
"At the same time, Noravank sits in the most rugged piece of God's earth imaginable, surrounded by ominously stacked rocky red cliffs that tower over it in dominance,” he continued. “For me and for many Armenians, Noravank is the Armenian nation in miniature. It encapsulates the history of the Armenians, our efforts to create beauty out of chaos, and our struggle for identity and survival in an otherwise difficult land. It is both a symbol of our continuity as a people and an inspiration for our future."
Noravank is near to the Areni-1 cave, which has been the site of several remarkable archaeological discoveries that affirm Armenia’s claim as being home to ancient civilizations—in 2010, the world’s most ancient shoe was found and the following year, the oldest known winery on the planet was uncovered.
After some spell-binding time travel, a rustic but delicious lunch can be had at Areni Wine Art, an alfresco restaurant at the home and guest house of David Simonyan.
Vernissage Outdoor Market
A sure-fire way to get a glimpse of Armenian culture is to wander through a craft market, a sentiment validated wholeheartedly by Satine Iskandaryan, a scriptwriter based in Yerevan, Vernissage is the undisputed modern epicenter of Armenia’s craftsmanship and artistry!” she exclaimed. “It’s a vast and never-ending source for inspiration and beauty, as well as history and story-telling. A mere stroll can turn into hours of fascination, poring over silver and woodwork, art, ceramics, artisanal rugs, hand-crafted chess boards and swords and hats — not to mention the antiques, Soviet-era and older, studded in tucked away corners of Vernissage’s sprawling walkways.
"Tamar Gosdanian, who lived in Armenia for five years, has fond memories of Vernissage.
"It is definitely one of my favorite places in the city," she said. "The Vernissage is like an outdoor museum and offers a wide variety of talented artisans that display their art. From pottery to woodwork, jewelry to embroidery, paintings to rugs, there is so much to see and buy! All of these items are handmade and so unique! While living in Armenia, I would visit the Vernissage at least ten times a year, never tiring of the experience. As artisans continue to diversify their products with fresh ideas, there is always something new to be found and added to one's collection."
Indeed, the term Vernissage, which is French in origin, meaning a private showing before a formal exhibit. Armenia has long had a close relationship with France and it’s common for Armenians to use the word “merci” in thanks rather than their own word “Shnorhakalutyun,” which is admittedly a mouthful!
Armenian Genocide Memorial
I visited Armenia’s Genocide Memorial at dusk, and the setting sun heightened my recognition of the somber history behind the monument. The memorial was built in 1967 to honor the victims of the Armenian Genocide, in which the Ottoman Turks took the lives of about 1.2 million Armenians from 1915 to 1922. Every year on April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, one of the most distinctive aspects of Armenian culture. Thousands of Armenians gather at the memorial to commemorate the victims of the genocide.
But on any given day, people of all ages can be seen paying their respects; the day I was there a young mother walked slowly down the long path from the parking lot to the monument, holding the hand of her toddler son. At the memorial’s eternal flame were two young men, barely in their 20s, who stood silently, their arms around each other’s shoulders.
"The Genocide Memorial is several stone slabs arranged in a circle around an ever-burning flame; the massive stones lean inward as if they are bent over in grief,” said Peter Liakhov, a journalist based in Yerevan. “Next to this Stonehenge of grief is a large spike, cutting into the sky. To me, its violent puncture of the sky feels like the violent rupture of Armenian history in 1915. It is as if Armenian history has been stabbed, and I think it is a great testament to the Armenian people, to their efforts and their heroism, that they recovered from this attempted assassination of their people.
"As the daughter of a Genocide survivor, I come to the Genocide Memorial to pay tribute to the victims of the Genocide which took the lives of several members of my father and mother's families’” she told me. “My father escaped Diyarbakir in 1919. My mother fled Kayseri in 1922.
"The memorial and museum stand on top of a hill named Tsitsernakaperd, which literally means the fortress of the swallows, which has a haunting meaning for me,” she explained. “Birds play a huge role in the Armenian physical and cultural heritage. The country is on a major bird migration route, and perhaps because of this, Armenians sing about birds, name their children after native birds like the quail and the dove, and even create alphabet bird letters made of bird designs."
"When I was only about six years old, my mother taught me the poem about the Tsitsernak or swallow who loses her nest and chicks and then rebuilds, always remembering her nest that she lost.’” she said. “To me, that is the meaning of the memorial. We remember, we survive, and we rebuild."
I traveled from Yerevan to the small village of Sasunik about 40 minutes north. I was on a quest to learn more about the work of the Adopt a Loom project of the Folk Arts Hub Foundation, and its efforts to revive traditional textile folk art & to instill in the younger generation an appreciation for their creative heritage.
Not only did I get a warm welcome and glimpse of Armenia's carpet-making tradition being carried on, but I received an unexpected education in other dimensions of Armenian culture and heritage as well, including being treated to an exuberant manifestation of tradition by the schoolgirls of Sasunik.
I had been told earlier by an Armenian music scholar that the country's ancient tradition of folk dance was a physical expression of making a visceral connection to the land, an expression of rootedness, of home, of community and of identity. Throughout my travels in Armenia, I sensed that connection very strongly, and in Sasunik, I had a powerful lesson in the poignancy of that legacy.
I learned my hosts in Sasunik are the descendants of people from another village named Sasunik in an area that is part of the Armenia homeland that was annexed by Turkey in the Armenian Genocide. Fleeing for their lives, these ancestors established new roots...and kept their village name, and spirit, alive.
There's more to the story of Sasunik and Armenian culture. Just as I was leaving, it was explained to me that the original Sasunik area was the setting for a priceless piece of Armenian heritage, an epic called the Daredevils of Sassoun. In this legend that dates to the 8th century, the hero David drives foreign invaders from Armenia. One universal truth always seems to emerge in my travels, wherever I go. We all need our cultural legends to remind us of where we come from, our heroes to inspire us ...but at the end of the day, it is the everyday very human heroes who keep our cultures alive.
Culture is not just the history and heritage of a place. It's also how a society creates, communicates, identifies, individuates and connects....today, in the here and now. Culture is how we teach & inspire young people and the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies offers an intriguing educational approach in Armenia that is already changing the world.
TUMO embodies the innovation and entrepreneurship I experienced throughout my visit to Armenia. A free after-school learning program that serves 14,000 teens, TUMO was founded in Armenia in 2011 by Inet Technologies co-founder Sam Simonian and his wife Sylva.
TUMO offers self-learning activities, workshops and project labs in 14 disciplines that include animation, game development, film-making, web design, music, writing and robotics among other areas. Teens combine these into personal learning paths that adapt to their evolving preferences and rate of progress.
Tours of TUMO are available and I found my time there a fitting conclusion to my visit to Armenia. In both a spiritual and practical sense, TUMO is a 21st Century embodiment of the traits that have enabled the Armenian culture to endure: creativity, expressiveness, resilience, a reverence for their history and an abiding hope in a positive future.
For information if you travel to Armenia, visit armenia.travel
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Header Image Courtesy of Nicholas Babaian via Wikimedia Commons