Armenia is a landlocked country bordered to the west by Turkey, to the north by Georgia, to the east by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan, and to the south by Iran. Its highlands include Mount Ararat, upon which Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest after the flood.
Several Near Eastern traditions are found in Armenia’s patchwork cultural and architectural heritage. Archaeologists have unearthed artefacts such as leather clothing and even a wine-making facility dating back to 4000 BCE. One of the earliest Christian civilisations, Armenia’s first churches were founded in the 4th century. In later times, it oscillated between Byzantine, Persian, Mongol, and Turkish control, as well as periods of independence.
The Armenian language is part of the Indo-European family, with a unique alphabet invented in 405 CE by the monk St Mesrob Mashtots. It consists of 36 letters with two more added during the 12th century. The first sentence in Armenian written down by St Mesrop after he invented the system was the opening lines of the Book of Proverbs: “For gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight.” Today, most people in the country speak Armenian, although Russian is also dominant and English is becoming increasingly popular.
Divided between the Persians and Ottomans for over 250 years, eastern Armenia became part of the Russian Empire following the Russo-Turkish War (1828-29). The western part remained within the Ottoman Empire where, between 1915 and 1917, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians died at the hands of government troops. Armenia has spent decades trying to persuade the world to recognize those killings as genocide, and some countries have done so. However, Turkey maintains that the dead were simply victims of World War I and that ethnic Turks also suffered in the conflict.
The arts are an important part of Armenia’s cultural identity. Vostanik Manuk Adoyan (1904-48) was born in the village of Khorgom, situated on the shores of Lake Van. In 1910 his father emigrated to America to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army, leaving his family behind. In 1915 Adoyan fled the region during the Armenian genocide, escaping with his mother and three sisters into Russian-controlled territory. In 1919, his mother died of starvation in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Reaching America in 1920, the 16-year old was reunited with his father, although they never grew close, and became a painter. Creating a new life for himself, Adoyan changed his name to Arshile Gorky (self-portrait, left).
In 2002 the Armenian-Canadian Atom Egoyan wrote, directed and co-produced the film Ararat, based loosely on the Siege of Van during the Armenian Genocide. As well as exploring the impact of that event, the film also examines the nature of truth and its representation through art. Egoyan had long been encouraged to make a film about the Armenian genocide, but his previous work had focused on the apparent impossibility of knowing absolute truth. Egoyan, therefore, made Ararat self-referential, depicting the efforts of an Armenian director, Edward Saroyan (played by French-Armenian Charles Aznavour), to make a theatrical, Hollywood-style film about the Armenian genocide, from the fictionalised point of view of a genuine historical figure – Arshile Gorky.
In 2004 Ararat won the Golden Apricot at Yerevan’s first International Film Festival, which prides itself on building cultural bridges and fostering dialogue. The festival’s aim is to reflect the history of Armenia itself, whose geographic position has made it a bone of contention for various empires, but also a civilization with a dynamic artistic heritage. Few travel writers seem to have discovered Armenia. In 1983, Colin Thubron visited the Caucasus and Armenia. In Among the Russians (1985) he described the country as the “remnant of an ancient splendour”, whose people “show the gentle, aquiline faces which have come down from Armenian antiquity.” It’s time the country was rediscovered.