The culture of Armenia encompasses many elements that are based on the geography, literature, architecture, dance, and music of the people. The culture is similar to and yet distinct from many of the bordering countries like Georgia, and Iran, as well as Mediterranean nations such as Greece and Cyprus.
Armenia is located in the southern Caucasus and is the smallest of the former Soviet republics. It is bounded by Georgia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east, Iran on the south, and Turkey on the west. Contemporary Armenia is a fraction of the size of ancient Armenia. A land of rugged mountains and extinct volcanoes, its highest point is Mount Aragats, 13,435 ft (4,095 m).
One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Armenia once included Mount Ararat, which biblical tradition identifies as the mountain that Noah’s ark rested on after the flood. It was the first country in the world to officially embrace Christianity as its religion (c. A.D. 300).
In the 6th century B.C. , Armenians settled in the kingdom of Urartu (the Assyrian name for Ararat), which was in decline. Under Tigrane the Great (fl. 95–55 B.C. ) the Armenian empire reached its height and became one of the most powerful in Asia, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean seas. Throughout most of its long history, however, Armenia has been invaded by a succession of empires. Under constant threat of domination by foreign forces, Armenians became both cosmopolitan as well as fierce protectors of their culture and tradition.
Over the centuries Armenia was conquered by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Russians. From the 16th century through World War I, major portions of Armenia were controlled by their most brutal invader, the Ottoman Turks, under whom the Armenians experienced discrimination, religious persecution, heavy taxation, and armed attacks. In response to Armenian nationalist stirrings, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians in 1894 and 1896. The most horrific massacre took place in April 1915 during World War I, when the Turks ordered the deportation of the Armenian population to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. According to the majority of historians, between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or died of starvation. The Armenian massacre is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that a genocide took place and claims that a much smaller number died in a civil war.
Many Armenians refer to Armenia as a European nation, but their social conservatism in some realms hasn’t been seen in Europe proper for a few decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened up many of these channels again, and change is coming rapidly, but much more so in Yerevan than in the rest of the country. The small and very homogeneous (about 99% Armenian) population is strongly family oriented. The people across the land are very hospitable, and place a lot of pride in their hospitality. Show up in a village without a penny, and food and a place to stay will flow – along with drinks and endless toasts.
Many visitors will be surprised to know that Armenia is not just a Christian nation, but it is the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. It took place in 300 AD. One can find thousands of churches and monasteries in Armenia. Armenians are Apostolic Christians and have their own Catholicos (religious leader, like the Pope for Catholics).
Literature began in Armenia around 401 A.D. The majority of the literary arts were created by Moses of Khorene, in the 5th century. Through the years the elements of literature have changed as the stories and myths were passed on through generations. In the late 17th century, Alexander Tertzakian was a renowned Armenian writer who created several works considered to be among Armenia’s classics. During the 19th century, writer Mikael Nalbandian worked to create a new Armenian literary identity. Nalbandian’s poem “Song of the Italian Girl” may have been the inspiration for the Armenian national anthem, Mer Hayrenik.
The Armenian dance heritage has been one of the oldest, richest and most varied in the near east. From the fifth to the third millennia B.C., in the higher regions of Armenia there are rock paintings of scenes of country dancing. These dances were probably accompanied by certain kinds of songs or musical instruments. In the 5th century Moses of Khorene (Movsés Khorenats’i) himself had heard of how the old descendants of Aram (that is Armenians) make mention of these things (epic tales) in the ballads for the lyre and their songs and dances.
Classical Armenian architecture is divided into four separate periods. The first Armenian churches were built between the 4th and 7th Century, beginning when Armenia converted to Christianity, and ending with the Arab invasion of Armenia. The early churches were mostly simple basilicas, but some with side apses. By the 5th century the typical cupola cone in the center had become widely used. By the 7th century, centrally-planned churches had been built and a more complicated niched buttress and radiating Hrip’simé style had formed. By the time of the Arab invasion, most of what we now know as classical Armenian architecture had formed.
The National Art Gallery in Yerevan has more than 16,000 works that date back to the Middle Ages, which indicate Armenia’s rich tales and stories of the times. It houses paintings by many European masters as well. The Modern Art Museum, the Children’s Picture Gallery, and the Martiros Saryan Museum are only a few of the other noteworthy collections of fine art on display in Yerevan. Moreover, many private galleries are in operation, with many more opening every year, featuring rotating exhibitions and sales.