Armenia is situated at a cultural, historical, and religious intersection and located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, in the southern Transcaucasus. The country spans 29,743 square kilometers (11,490 square miles, about the size of Belgium or Maryland) of mountainous terrain centered around the Ararat Valley, the heart of the Armenian nation since biblical times. Ancient geographers called the Armenian Highlands the "Island of Mountains" or the "Rooftop of Asia Minor." In fact, the average altitude of the country is over a mile high, at about 1800 meters above sea level. Presently, the country is landlocked and has no navigable waterways, in contrast to Historic Armenia, which at its height under King Tigran the Great, stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and was more than ten times the current size of the present day Republic. Armenia has borders with Georgia to the north, with Turkey to the west and south, with Azerbaijan to the east and southwest, and with Iran to the south. Looming above the Yerevan skyline as an ominous reminder to its glorious past and as a beacon to a future of hope rises majestic Mount Ararat. Located southwest of the capital Yerevan in present day Turkey, Mount Ararat dominates the national landscape, psyche and character. Mount Aragats, the highest point within the Republic's boundaries (4090 meters at its summit) is a hiker's less explored paradise.
Armenia's lowest elevation is found in the Arax River valley at 390 meters. The Ararat plain is divided by the Araks River and occupies the southwestern part of Armenia.
Armenia's landscapes offer boundless beauty. Seven main landscape types are represented across the different altitudinal zones of Armenia. Across these desert, semi desert, dry steppe, steppe, woodland, sub alpine and alpine zones is geography as diverse as high mountain peaks, fertile valleys, picturesque land formations, basalt columns, rock sculptures, and waterfalls. More than 200 rivers and streams traverse Armenia, with steep falls, rapids and swift currents. Armenia has 5 scenic canyons. In addition, there are over 200 therapeutic mineral springs, differing in composition and temperature.
Lake Sevan is by far the largest body of water in Armenia, accounting for 5% of the country's land area. Mythic and majestic, Lake Sevan fills a gigantic depression situated at a height of 2000 meters above sea level located in the central part of Armenia. In ancient times it was called the Geghama Sea. One of the largest freshwater mountain lakes in the world, Lake Sevan offers visitors an array of recreational opportunities and stunning vistas. The Sevan Basin is rich with archaeological and historic monuments; some say that the bowl of the lake was formed from the crater of an extinct volcano.
Armenia's rivers flow into two large aquatic arteries of the Southern Caucasus- the basins of the Kura River in the north and the Araks River in the south. The Akhurian, Hrazdan, Kassakh, Vokhchi, Arpa, Vorotan Rivers run into the Araks River, and the Debet and Agshtev Rivers pour into the Kura River.
Where early man smelted iron, copper is the most important raw material mined in Armenia today, along with bauxite, silver, molybdenum, lead, obsidian, semiprecious stones and zinc. Substantial deposits of pumice, marble, perlite, limestone, salt, basalt, granite, volcanic stone (tuff), as well as smaller amounts of gold, diamonds and platinum lie beneath Armenia's surface. Although oil deposits have been identified, the complex geology of the region makes recovery difficult and expensive.
Only one third of Armenia's land is arable, and that portion blooms due to enormous and continuous effort on the part of its indigenous population. That's why they say, "Armenians squeeze bread out of stone". The legend goes that when Armenians came to God to ask for their piece of land, all the good land had already been distributed, so God gave them the leftovers, full of stones. Armenians infused this land with their soul and expressed all their hopes through it.
Armenia has a tremendous climatic variety packed in a small physical area. From the sunny Ararat valley and its bountiful fruits to the idyllic snowcapped mountain ranges, which traverse the land, Armenia's diverse nature is a reflection of its broad climatic range. Moreover, several microclimates exist due to the country's mountainous terrain. A day that is sunny and hot in the Ararat Valley may be quite brisk near the windswept mountainous lakes, and snowing in the upper regions of Mount Aragats. The rolling hills and high flats seem as if they were sculpted for rugged cross-country skiing in the winter, while Lake Sevan in the summertime is a wonderful destination for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxation. Average temperatures in the country's capital, Yerevan, range from -5 oC in winter to 30 oC in summer, although extreme days can see the thermometer fall to -10 oC and the hottest summer days have topped out over 40 oC. Average precipitation ranges from less than 12 inches per year in the lower Arax River valley to about 36 inches per year at the highest altitudes.
Map of Armenia in different periods of history
Historical map of Armenia according to "Ashkharhatsujts" of Anania Shirakatsi (7th century a. C.)
New Pocket Atlas, Robert de Vaugondy, 1762
Armenia, Mesopotamia, Babylonia and Assyria with Adjacent Regions", Karl von Spruner, published in 1865
The Armenians, an ancient people living on an ancient land, call Armenia "Hayastan," and themselves "Hai." Oral history explains the lineage of the Armenian people as being the direct descendants of Noah's son Japheth. The indigenous people of the land of Ararat, Armenians forged their national identity with the rise of powerful Armenian kingdoms, the adoption of Christianity as Armenia's state religion, and the creation of the Armenian alphabet, which spurred the development of literature, philosophy, and science.
While the Armenian state withstood foreign invasions and domination over the centuries, the population continued to inhabit the highlands in Asia Minor, centered around Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia and resting place of Noah's Ark. This continual presence came to an abrupt halt when the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire implemented the first genocide of the twentieth century against its Armenian citizenry beginning in 1915. As a result, the majority of the Armenian people were either killed outright or ethnically cleansed from their ancestral homeland, taking refuge in neighboring countries or finding sanctuary in what remained of Armenia, the soon-to-be Soviet Republic of Armenia.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the rebirth of the independent Armenian state, the Republic of Armenia reemerged as the latest embodiment of Armenia's perseverance as a nation. Overall, the population of Armenians world-wide is estimated to be 10 million, many comprising Diaspora communities in Russia, the US, Europe and the Middle East. Despite dispersion and effects of globalization which have drawn Armenians to the four corners of the world, Armenians continue to uphold strong cultural, religious, and historical customs and traditions, and have a rekindled spirit regarding their homeland, Armenia.
About 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Armenian Christians, having derived their faith directly from Christ's apostles. The Christian faith has shaped Armenian culture so intimately that it permeates the very landscape at virtually every corner of the country. Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.
Christianity was first introduced in Armenia by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century AD. At this time, paganism was widespread and practiced by the kings of Armenia. Temples dotted the country, and one symbol example of that era, a Greek-style temple in the village of Garni, was restored in the 1960s and still stands.
Pagan practices did not deter Christian missionaries in spreading the word of God to Armenians. Among them was Gregory, the son of Partev Anak, who was baptized a Christian in Caesaria, a city in Cappadocia. Gregory was thrown into a pit by the Armenian king Trdat III, where he survived for 13 years only by the grace of a kind woman who secretly fed him. King Trdat fell in love with a Christian nun named Hripsime. When she refused the king's proposal of marriage, the king had her and her entire order put to death. Thereafter, the king went mad, and only after the king's sister released Gregory from captivity to heal her ailing brother did the king regain his sanity.
King Trdat was baptized by Gregory and converted his entire kingdom to Christianity in 301 AD, making Armenia the first nation to accept Christianity as its state religion. Gregory came to be known as the Illuminator and was named the first Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church. After seeing a vision of the descent of the Only Begotten Son, pointing to a site in current-day Echmiadzin, St. Gregory the Illuminator built the mother cathedral of the Armenian church. In future years, churches were built near the Echmiadzin Cathedral in honor of the martyred nun Hripsime and the head of her order, Gayane, who were canonized. The church of Khor Virap (meaning Deep Pit) was built on the spot of St. Gregory's captivity.
As Armenians began to practice Christianity, many churches and monasteries were erected, some on the foundations of pagan temples. Armenia's innovative architectural traditions can be seen in the church complexes as precursors to the Gothic form.
Although it is a distinct church, the Armenian Apostolic Church is in communion with the church universal and in the family of churches such as the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Indian Malabar churches.
Traditionally, the Armenian Church recognizes the Catholicos of All Armenians as its leader. He resides in Holy Echmiadzin, where St. Gregory the Illuminator established the Armenian Church in 301 AD. A National Ecclesiastical Assembly consisting of lay and clergy representatives of Armenian communities around the world elects the Catholicos. There are four hierarchical Sees in the Armenian Church: the Catholicate of All Armenians in Ejmiatzin; the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia; the Patriarchate of Jerusalem; and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Church entered its most recent era of leadership on October 27, 1999, when Armenian Christians chose His Holiness Garegin II as leader of their worldwide church following the death of Catholicos Garegin I.
Small Roman Catholic and Protestant communities also exist in Armenia. Catholic missionaries began converting Armenians in the Ottoman and Persian empires in the early modern era, and American Protestant missionaries were active in the nineteenth century. The Kurdish population is mostly Yezidi or Muslim. A Russian Orthodox community also serves its community.
Witness: Grandma's Tattoos
The First Genocide of the 20th Century
In the latter years of the 1800s, Sultan Abdul Hamid II sat at the head of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. In 1820, Greece was able to break free of the Turkish yoke that had enslaved it for over three hundred years, but Abdul Hamid's empire still encompassed a vast amount of territory from Eastern Europe through the Near East, into the Middle East, and the Armenian Plateau. Ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire were pressing for reforms that would give them equal rights or freedom from Ottoman rule altogether. Abdul Hamid decided that a wise course of action would be to make an example out of an ethnic group to keep the others in line. For this purpose, he chose the Armenians, long considered the "loyal millet" in the empire. Thus, in 1896, the Sultan ordered massacres, which took the lives of over 300,000 Armenians. This decree was to be just the beginning of the darkest page in Armenian history.
After the turn of the century, Ottoman Turkey's territorial boundaries continued to shrink despite the Sultan's previous warning to ethnic groups. Fearing the total collapse of their empire, a group of Turks, who were educated in Europe, planned and executed a coup against the Sultan and installed themselves at the helm of the empire. Though the new government had promised reforms that would give ethnic minorities such as the Armenians greater rights, the Young Turk (as they came to be called) regime failed to follow through, and in fact began to espouse an empire that joined all Turkic lands.
As the First World War commenced, the Young Turks allied their empire with Germany and the Axis Powers against the French, British, Russians, and eventually the US. The Young Turks saw the war as an opportunity to realize their Pan-Turkic ideals. As the first step in a long and bloody campaign, on April 24, 1915, the Young Turks gathered the intellectual leaders of the Armenian community living in Istanbul and executed most of them without giving any reason or proof of wrong-doing.
Next, the Young Turks turned their attention to the Armenian Plateau, where the largest portion of the Turkey's Armenians had lived for millennia. Armenian men were taken from their homes never to be seen again. Many served in the Turkish Army as unarmed labourers, being overworked and undernourished. Those who survived fatigue, illness, and starvation were forced to dig their own graves before Turkish soldiers killed them.
With most Armenian men gone, Turks and Kurds raided their homes, often raping, killing, or kidnapping Armenian women and children. Those who were left were made to march long, winding, arduous miles to the southern, Arab populated lands without any possessions, money, food, or water. These deportations took place under the false pretense of securing the Turco-Russian front. However, a secret letter that was dispatched from Istanbul belied the Young Turks true motivation. In it, Mehmet Talaat Pasha, the Young Turk Minister of the Interior, ordered the extermination of the Armenian population. The Turkish troops that escorted the defenceless Armenians away from their homes and into the desert heeded his call to near perfection.
By 1923, an estimated 1.5 million of the nearly two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire had been murdered or died due to the direct actions of the Turks. Most of the remaining Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey managed to flee to neighbouring countries, some moving later to Europe or the Americas, and established Diaspora communities. After the tragedy that plagued Europe under Nazi rule, noted historian Rafael Lemkin coined the phrase "genocide" and cited the Armenian experience as one such example of man's inhumanity toward man.
BBC: Armenian Genocide documentary
Ascension Day (Hambartsum)
(religious holiday) Observed on: May 17
Ascension Day is the holiday of love and enjoyment, which is celebrated outdoors in the blossom of May, 40 days after Easter. In ancient times on this day the young ladies were allowed to walk freely in the fields, sing songs, and make acquaintances, which often became crucial in their lives. According to people’s imagination this is the night of miracle. At midnight exactly nature finds the gift of speech, the water is still for a second; the sky and the earth embrace; the stars kiss one another. Space stops its wheel and the one who witnesses these magic moments will have his or her dreams fulfilled.
Christmas (Surb Tsnund)
(official, religious holiday) Observed on: January 6
Christmas – the Birthday of Christ is celebrated by people all over the world. The Armenians celebrate this day as a major Christian religious holiday, together with the Epiphany (baptism) and attend church services in their neighborhoods. Part of the ritual is the “Blessing of Water, when water is blessed with the holy chrism symbolic of Christ’s baptism.
The most beautiful and meaningful parts of the holiday occur at home and in church. Many families go to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Then they sit down to enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner. According to tradition, the main dish is fish and rice prepared with butter. Wine is served with dinner.
(official holiday) Observed on: July 5
The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia was adopted through a national referendum on July 5, 1995. Constitution Day is an official holiday in Armenia.
Day of Remembrance of Victims of the 1988 Earthquake
(official holiday) Observed on: December 7
A devastating earthquake in 1988 killed thousands of people and destroyed most of the Republic’s infrastructure. The earthquake was felt as far away as the Armenian capital, but it was the second and third most populous cities of Leninakan (now Gyumri) and Kirovakan (now Vanadzor) that were among the most devastated.
Day of the First Republic
(official holiday) Observed on: May 28
On this day in 1918, the Armenian people restored what was left of historic Armenia to statehood after half a millennium of lost sovereignty. The celebration of this day marks the beginning of the modern Armenian quest for independence. Short lived, the 1918 Republic was swallowed by the USSR for seventy more years, but inspired a spirit of hope and self determination for future generations. This is an official national holiday.
(religious holiday) Observed on: April 12, 2009
Easter (Zatik) is the favourite and the most anticipated holiday in the Christian world. Everybody greets each other on this day: “Christ has arisen"-“Blessed is the resurrection of Christ". During the Lenten fasting season of 40 days before Easter, Armenian families put lentils or other sprouting grains on a tray covered with a thin layer of cotton, and keep it in a light place of the house until Easter when sprouts appear. These green sprouts, symbolizing spring and awakening of nature, are the “grass" on which people place colored eggs to decorate the Easter table. To the present day, Armenians have preserved the beautiful biblical lore which refers to red eggs and cheorek (sweet bread): “When Christ was crucified, his mother took some eggs and bread wrapped in the shawl. When the Mother saw her Son crucified and his arms bleeding, she knelt down and cried. The Mother’s tears and Son’s blood dropping on the shawl colored the eggs and bread. Then the Mother put the shawl on her head. Since that day people began coloring eggs red on Easter day and women began wearing shawls when visiting church.
Genocide Victims Memorial Day
(official holiday) Observed on: April 24
Every year on April 24, Armenians all over the world solemnly honor the memory of over a million victims of the 1915 genocide. In Armenia thousands of people join the annual procession on foot to Tsitsernakaberd to pay their respect to those who perished in this massive attempt to exterminate the Armenian people and forcibly remove them from their ancestral lands. This is an official national holiday.
Grape Blessing Day
(religious holiday) Observed on: August 12
This holiday is celebrated on the nearest Sunday of August 15. Catholicos of Armenian Church blesses the grape harvest.
Holiday of St. Mary
(religious holiday) Observed on: August
A day devoted to the Mother of God is celebrated on a Sunday falling between the 12th and the 18th of August. The traditional ceremony of this holiday is the annual blessing of the grapes in the church, which coincides with the beginning of the harvest.
Holy Cross (Khachverats)
(religious holiday) Observed on: September
The Armenian Church celebrates this holiday on the Sunday nearest September 14, which is devoted to the Holy Cross (Surb Khach). This holiday also serves as a memorial to those who have passed away.
Holy Translators Day (Targmanchats ton)
(religious holiday) Observed on: October 13
This holiday is dedicated to the creators of Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots and Sahak Partev, Translators and Interpreters of the Bible.
The Armenian alphabet was invented in order to translate the Bible into Armenian and paved the way for the first Golden Age of Armenia. Over the centuries, Armenian writers, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, have taken inspiration from the Holy Translators’ legacy to achieve excellence in scholarship, creativity, and world acclaim in spite of long periods of devastation, attack, conquest and subjugation.
(official holiday) Observed on: September 21
Independence Day is an official holiday in Armenia. The restoration of the Republic of Armenia in 1991, after 70 years of sovietization, followed a national referendum on secession from Soviet Union.
Motherhood and Beauty Day
(official holiday) Observed on: April 7
Motherhood and beauty day is the second official holiday dedicated to women. While March 8 celebrates all women, April 7 is mother’s day. Everyone gives presents to his or her mother. Celebrating each woman as beautiful in her own way. Mothers are particularly happy to receive flowers. People note that Armenians have a whole month of holidays from March 8 to April 7 honoring women.
New Year (Amanor)
(official holiday) Observed on: January 1
New Year is celebrated a whole week starting with December 31, by baking New Year cookies and tables laden with food and different kinds of sweets. During this week, people exchange gifts and congratulatory wishes, and their homes are open to welcome everyone. Visiting begins on January 1 and lasts through Christmas-January 6.
Armenian children believe that Dzmer Papik (Santa Claus) brings gifts on New Year’s Eve. Several days or weeks before the holiday, children write letters to Dzmer Papik telling him what toys they wish.
Palm Sunday (Tsaghkazard)
(religious holiday) Observed on: April 1
Palm Sunday (Tsaghkazard) is celebrated one week before Easter and marks Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as the messiah. The customs observed on this holiday begin with boys and girls dressed in their best clothes. The engaged men of each village uproot a young willow tree and decorate the branches with colored pieces of cloth, fruit and candles.
(religious holiday) Observed on: February 14
According to religious custom this holiday is connected with the idea of coming forward to the Lord with fire, after 40 days of his birth. The Armenian Church celebrates it on February 14th - 40 days after January 6th, from which it derives the religious name: coming forward to the Lord. The main ceremony of it is a bonfire, symbolizing the coming of spring.
Resurrection Day (Hambartsum)
(religious holiday) Observed on: May
Resurrection Day (Hambartsum) – Resurrection Day marks the ascent of Christ into Heaven 40 days after Easter. Armenians go to church and then celebrate outdoors among the blossoms of May. In ancient times on this day, young ladies were allowed to walk freely in the fields, sing songs, and make acquaintances, which often became crucial in their lives. One of the most important moments of this holiday is the night from Wednesday to Thursday. In people’s imagination this is the night of miracles. At midnight exactly nature finds the gift of speech, the water is still for a second; the sky and the earth embrace; the stars kiss one another. Space stops its wheel and the one who witnesses these magic moments will have his or her dreams fulfilled
(religious holiday) Observed on: February 7
St. Sargis is a beloved religious observance and is very popular among young people. It is celebrated 63 days before Easter, on a Saturday falling sometime between January 18 and February 23. On the night of the holiday young people eat salty pies and don’t drink water to encourage dreaming at night. They believe that St. Sargis decides their fate, that the person who gives them water to drink in their dreams will become their future spouse. People also put a plate with flour outside their homes to have a record of St. Sargis’s horse riding through the flour. They believe St. Sargis appears with lightening speed on his radiant horse, and that the traces left on the flour serve as a good omen to bring them luck. In people’s imagination St. Sargis is handsome and appears with a spear, a gold helmet and gold armor.
The Transfiguration (Vardavar (The feast of water))
(religious holiday) Observed on: July 15
In the traditional Armenian range of holidays, the Transfiguration is the major summer holiday and is celebrated 14 weeks after Easter. In pre-Christian Armenia this holiday was associated with the pagan goddess Anahit, to whose heathen temple the young and the old went on pilgrimage. The word Vardavar has two meanings: “the flaming of the rose and “to sprinkle with water. According to legend, the goddess Astghik spread love through the Armenian land by sprinkling rosy water and presenting roses. The god Vahagn kept and protected that love, constantly fighting against evil. This feast was transformed after the adoption of Christianity. On Vardavar in modern times, everybody pours water on one another, starting in the early morning; no one is allowed to feel offended or displeased by mischief on that day.
Victory and Peace Day (World War II)
(official holiday) Observed on: May 9
Victory Day (World War II) was a holiday throughout the USSR and is still an official holiday in Armenia. The victory of the World War II and the memorial for its dead is celebrated on different days in different countries. Armenia celebrates it on May 9.
(official holiday) Observed on: March 8
Women’s Day is popular among Armenians. Men give presents to women, and the streets are full of flowers. People usually celebrate it with friends and have a good time in cafes, restaurants or at home.