Illuminating Armenia

As the biblical deluge subsided, the ark, ordained to carry refugees from every species of animal, came to rest on top of the dormant volcano Mount Ararat, ensuring the survival of humanity and the abundant fauna of the Earth. At any rate, that’s how the story goes.

After the flood, the emergent land surrounding Ararat would have revealed a jagged landscape scarred by the convergence of the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates that created the Armenian highlands. The biblical proto-kingdom of Urartu was centred here, succeeded by Armenia in the sixth century BC, thus predating most European states.

Yerevan, capital city of modern Armenia, now boasts just over a million people, a third of the national population. It was founded more than 2,700 years ago and stood on the crossroads of caravan routes. Stretching from the Black Sea in the west across the southern Caucuses to the Caspian Sea in the east, Armenia developed into a great power through its role as a major trade centre along the Great Silk Road that carried some of the most significant trade in the ancient world.

And so, travellers down the centuries have enjoyed such natural attractions as the clear waters of Lake Sevan, sylvan forests like that of Tsaghkadzor near Yerevan, the hot springs at Arzni and Jermuk, fast flowing rivers and the natural caves and cliffs to be found in the southeast.

Armenian is the official language of the country; it has a unique alphabet although many road signs include place names in English.

The promise of unspoilt vistas, winding roads and a comfortably continental climate make it an attractive goal for modern travellers. Summer runs from June to mid-September, generally dry and sunny with temperatures between 22-36°C (72-97°F) mitigated by low humidity and evening breezes that are refreshing and cool. It’s worth hanging around for the long autumn season, to see the vibrant and colourful changes in foliage, although wintertime is too harsh for most moto travellers.

Such a land could hardly avoid developing a rich cultural history and architectural heritage, combining elements from different traditions. Monuments and masterpieces from the Ancient era and Middle Ages can still be found throughout the country and public sculpture seems to be something of a national obsession. The varied mountainous landscape and hundreds of ancient forts and ecclesiastical structures are a sight-seers nirvana.

Armenia became the first state to make Christianity its official religion in 301AD, just before Rome, and built the Etchmiadzin Cathedral which is still intact and considered the oldest cathedral in the world. Over the ensuing centuries, power was lost to invaders under successive onslaughts from Roman, Arab, Mongol and Persian armies. For five hundred years the once great nation of Armenia was divided between Persia and the Ottoman Empire, until the turmoil of the First World War saw Turkey and Russia vie for control of the area.

That conflict and its immediate aftermath brought calamity on a genocidal scale. It has been estimated that around half of the population was lost to the fighting, wide-scale reprisal killings and mass exile between 1915 and 1920, when Armenia became a putative republic under the umbrella of the newly-formed USSR.

Armenia’s decline left it with no direct access to the sea and even its 5,165M high national symbol, Mt Ararat, had been lost to it. The people however, held on to their cultural identity which still shines through their distinctive cuisine and exceptionally fine wine, though perhaps it’s the consumption of the locally distilled, fruit-based, oghi that has seen them through the tough times.

By 1991 at the end of the latest occupation by a foreign empire, Armenia’s main distinction was that of being the smallest of the former Soviet states, but it was a country still reeling from the devastation wrought by the 1988 Spitak Earthquake, which claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Nevertheless, newly independent Armenia immediately fell into armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to the displacement of more than one million mainly Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeri’s fleeing in opposite directions.

Unemployment and poverty remain widespread, although the economy has grown in recent times and individual Armenians continue to make a huge impact on the world. In music, think guitarist Joe Strummer, the Zildjian family (cymbals), Cher and Charles Aznavour. In science and engineering there’s Dr Damadian who invented MRI scanning, Luther Simjian the cash machine and photo booth and Artem Mikoyan who designed the MiG fighter jet. In chess (and in criticism of Putin) there’s Garry Kasparov. And then there’re the Kardashians…

Since independence, Armenia has looked further west for support; becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 2001 it now has more trade with the European Union than with its neighbours, and has built increasingly closer ties to the NATO military block. As EU travellers we can delight in no visa requirements, and citizens from almost everywhere else can visit for a year, such is the welcoming nature of the place. This is becoming more important as the situation in Syria, Iraq and now also south east Turkey, means Armenia offers a sensible ‘carnet-free’ corridor for overlanders such as Norman and Maggie Magowan (see next article) to reach Iran. For those living in the wider region it’s a matter of life and death. Ethnic Armenian Christians and Yazidis in IS held Syrian territory now flee here for safety along an escape route their forefathers used in the opposite direction to flee the Ottoman genocide.

With Russian satellites Georgia and Azerbaijan to the north and east, Turkey on its western flank and Iran to the south, this tiny country falls under the shadow of great regional powers and is subject to strangling blockades and trade sanctions by most of its near neighbours. Where once a greater Armenia stood in a fortuitous position as a crossroads of the ancient world, today’s remnant state stands naked in a place that was not so very long ago a crucible of inhumanity and may become such again.