During the past recent years, Armenia has mostly drawn attention due to its conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (1, 2) However, Armenia has a considerable cultural heritage and a lot of exciting stories in store. Traveling through the beautiful mountains, valleys, and vast plateaus of the small, 30.000 nm country, one can stumble into thousands years old ruins nearly everywhere. The country currently has three World Heritage Sites along with four more written on the Tentative List. (3) There is no wonder why this country is often referred as a real open-air museum. (4)
It is not clear since when the territory, located in the southern part of the Caucasus, has been inhabited. During the Bronze Age however, the area of Armenia belonged to several empires: the Hittites, the Mitannis, and the most determinant for the territory was Urartu (5), one of the most powerful states of the ancient Middle East. (6) Later, the region fell under Persian (7), and Macedonian (8) rule, while the independent Armenian Kingdom had been established in 189 BCE by Artaxias (Artashes) and Zariadres (Zareh), the former satraps of the Seleucid king. For centuries, Armenia was the strongest kingdom on the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, while later it was forced to manoeuvre between the Roman Empire and Parthia. Between 115 AD and 216 AD, the kingdom had fallen under Roman rule two times, yet in 217 Tiridates II. was recognized by the Romans as the ruler of the country. It was his son, Tiridates III. who – as a consequence of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s activity – adopted Christianity as state religion in 314, for the first time in history.
Later, the kingdom has collapsed and split into two parts: the Western fell under Byzantine rule, while the Eastern became a part of the Sasanian Empire. During this era, Zoroastrian religion has also appeared in the territory – traces from this religion is still displayed in the country through its remaining historical sites. (9)
During the Byzantine - Arab wars, uniting Armenia, Ashot I. has become a king under Arab rule. Between the 9th and 11th century, the territory had a relatively large autonomy, however a
constant series of conflicts have emerged. Subsequently, the area had been occupied by smaller kingdoms for centuries; making Armenian, Arab and Mongol rulers sharing the rule of an entirely divided country. From the 17th century onwards, the territory had only two rulers again: the Western parts belonged to the Ottoman Empire, while the Eastern to the Persian. In 1823, Russia conquered the Persian regions of the country. Despite the emergence of the idea of a ‘Wilsonian Armenia’ that has supported the country proclaiming its independence after the World War I, the Russian army took control over the territory again. The free Armenian State was created after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. (10)
The country has a colorful history as Armenia’s most fabulous heritage sites are connected to the Christian era with 1100-1700 years old churches and monasteries that are inseparable parts of the breath-taking landscape today. There is certainly no wonder why one can find all of the following sites on the list of World Heritage sites of Armenia: the Cathedral and Churches of Etchmiadzin, the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots, the Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, the Monastery of Geghard, and the Upper Azat Valley. (11)
In the immediate vicinity of the capital city of Yerevan is the world’s oldest cathedral, the centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Etchmiadzin. Echmiadzin's name means 'the place where the only creator landed' for, according to a legend, after Jesus ascended, he landed in Armenia to convert it. The church on the site of the cathedral was built between 301-303 AD. Though its decoration has been damaged during long centuries, it still has its original paintings of interior frescoes. Echmiadzin was built in accordance with the
unique Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. The central-domed cross-hall type of churches that are richly decorated inside are not to be confused with anything else. (12)
Not far from Yerevan is another World Heritage Site: the Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley along with Garni. Carved into rock, the Monastery of Geghard was founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, and built in the 4th century AD. The monastery, whose main chapel was built in 1215, was originally called Ayrivank (Monastery in the Cave). It was considered to be the ecclesiastical and cultural centre of medieval Armenia with an operating school, scriptorium, library, etc. Today, it is a very well preserved site that has an active tourism. (13)
Quite near Geghard is the Temple of Garni, which is the only pagan temple that has survived in Armenia. Garni was built by Tiridates I in the 1 AD in imperial Roman style, and was dedicated to the Armenian sun god, Mihr. In its heyday, it was a summer palace of the Armenian rulers. It was most likely also a royal stronghold as well as a military fortress in both the ancient and medieval times. (14)
South of Yerevan, at the foot of Ararat, right next to the Turkish border, is the town of Artashat along with the nearby castle of Khor Virap. The reputation of the castle (whose name means 'deep prison') is due to the fact that Tiridates III has held St. Gregory the Illuminator a prisoner in an underground, cramped prison of Khor Virap for more than 10 years. Later however, St. Gregory has cured the king; as a result of which Tiridates not only released him, but made Christianity the state religion. Though a chapel was built in Khor Virap during the reign of Tiridates, the temple that can be seen today was built in the 17th century. (15, 16)
In North-Eastern Armenia lay the monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat. Sanahin (which means ‘it is older than the other’ referring the monastery of Haghpat) was founded in the 10th century, and is a complex of several churches, chapels, and tombs. The monastery has also served as an educational centre: masters of various humanities, music, and medicine taught there; the place was also a center for miniature painters. Near Sanahin is the mountain monastery complex of Haghpat overlooking the river Debed, founded in 976 by Queen Khosrovanush. Haghpat, relatively hidden from potential intruders, was able to preserve some of its oldest frescos and sculpts, and is still waiting for its visitors. (17)
All names mentioned above are only some examples of the historical and cultural heritage sites Armenia has to show. This beautiful country is a good destination for enterprising travelers who are willing to discover thousand years old cultural sites.
1. Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (2021). Global Conflict Trakker. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict
2. The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer (2021). International Crisis Group. https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-visual-explainer
3., 11. Armenia (2021). UNESCO World Heritage Centre. https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/am
4. About Armenia (2021). UNDP Armenia. https://www.am.undp.org/content/armenia/en/home/countryinfo.html?utm_source=EN&utm_medium=GSR&utm_content=US_UNDP_PaidSearch_Brand_English&utm_campaign=CENTRAL&c_src=CENTRAL&c_src2=GSR&gclid=Cj0KCQjw8p2MBhCiARIsADDUFVFl5Rr6mZ0eBwoR4tF_K6YieTNIGleQNqE3Z9cFwvGQgdHxg27hxv8aAgjZEALw_wcB#History
5. Cartwright, Mark (2018): Urartu Civilization. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Urartu_Civilization/
6. Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004): Urartu. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/urar/hd_urar.htm
7. Darius’ inscription in Behistun. In: Harmatta, János (2003): Ókori Keleti Történeti Chrestomathia. Budapest, Osiris Kiadó. pp. 321.
8. Walbank, Frank W. (2021): Alexander the Great king of Macedonia. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-the-Great
9. Howe, G. Melvyn - Mints, Aleksey Aleksandrovich - Suny, Ronald Grigor - Dowsett, Charles James Frank (2021): Armenia. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Armenia
10. Wilson, Josh – Rainey, Jonathon (2015): Armenia: A Global People. Geohistory. https://geohistory.today/armenia/
12. Cathedral and Churches of Echmiatsin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots. World Heritage List. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1011
13. Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley. World Heritage List. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/960/
14. Wiener, James Blake (2018): Temple of Garni. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Temple_of_Garni/
15. Khor Virap Monastery. Lonely Planet. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/armenia/western-armenia/attractions/khor-virap-monastery/a/poi-sig/1527681/1342765
16. Khor Virap Monastery. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/khor-virap-monastery
17. Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin. World Heritage List. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/777/
1. Tatev Monastery. Lush, Emily: Yerevan to Tatev and Noravank: How to Visit Two Iconic Armenian https://wander-lush.org/tatev-monastery-armenia-day-trip/
2. The remains of the Zoroastrian site near K’arahunj. Photo taken by the author in 2013.
3. The entrance of Etchmiadzin. Photo taken by Lili Fejes-Vékássy in 2013.
4. Etchmiadzin. The Churches of Echmiatsin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots. concealedtripssurgical.com/bgk4rbxwv9?key=0f22c1fd609f13cb7947c8cabfe1a90d&submetric=16585862
5. Garni Temple. Photos of Garni Temple. https://en.tripadvisor.com.hk/Attraction_Review-g666438-d459840-Reviews-Garni_Temple-Garni_Kotayk_Province.html#/media-atf/459840/111302904:p/?albumid=-160&type=0&category=-160
6. Khor Virap Monastery. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/khor-virap-monastery