A brief Introduction to Armenia
Armenia, although spanning a long history, has still yet to be "discovered" by contemporary travelers as the jewel that it is. Few visitors to this country escape being captivated by the charm of this beautiful, ancient land and its hospitable people. The countryside is studded not only with natural meadows, rocky peaks, rugged valleys, tranquil rivers, serene deserts and beautiful forests; but boasts also a treasure-trove of beautiful historic churches and ancient manuscripts, as well as other intriguing creations. These include a 1st century Roman-Armenian temple, petroglyphs and an Armenian "Stonehenge".
Modern Armenia is an interesting mix of East and West. As an explorer in the current Republic of Armenia you will experience a mix of attitudes and behavior, physical manifestations and environmental footprints, resulting from Armenia's rich history. The influence of seventy years of Soviet rule and the struggle with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh have also contributed to what Armenia is today. The spectrum of Armenian people is wide, from businessmen to local farmers and shepherds deeply connected with the land. Especially outside the cities, people are very hospitable and like to invite visitors into their simple homes to share a cup of Armenian coffee, and often an impromptu meal.
Armenians refer to themselves as "hay" and the country as "Hayastan", originating from the legend of the great warrior, Haik, who defeated the Persian warrior Bell. The people of Armenia, Armens are already mentioned in ancient cuneiform tablets of Darii I of Persia and in Homer's Iliad. Although little is known about the first inhabitants of today's Armenia, significant petroglyphs in the Geghama Mountains prove the existence of human beings in this region before 12,000 BC.
Early History and Dynasties
Contemporaries of ancient Shoumers, Accadians, and Egyptians, the territory historically inhabited by Armenians covered the mountainous Armenian plateau. Located in Transcaucasia, modern Armenia represents only parts of the eastern fringe (approximately 10 percent) of the traditional Armenian homeland.
The Urartu Dynasty. In the 9th century BC, the first Armenian Kingdom, the Urartu Kingdom was founded. The Urartu dynasty made it a powerful state able to fend off Assyrian invaders and win a number of battles, becoming the most powerful state in the Near East during the 8th century. In this period (782 BC), the castle of Erebuni was founded, whose name later evolved to Yerevan. The kingdom was eventually conquered in 714 BC by the Assyrians. During the 6th century, another Indo-European people, coming from central Anatolia, occupied the Urartu territory: according to the leading scientific theory these were Hayks or Armenians. The Armenians didn't manage to maintain their independence for long and were incorporated in the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BC. Later they became part of Alexander the Great's Empire and further of the Seleucid Empire.
The Artashes dynasty. The Artashes dynasty was established in 190 BC. Under its rule Armenia was expanded and became independent. A new capital was built, Artashat, and Armenia's role in the region increased reaching its largest extent under Tigran the Great. His realm most likely stretched across the mountainous Armenian plateau-from the Black Sea in Eastern Anatolia and the Mediterranean in the west to the Caucasus Mountains in the north to Iraq and Iran in the south. But Rome felt threatened by its strength, and various campaigns reduced the empire to a local unthreatening kingdom.
The Arshakuni dynasty. In the 1st century AD, Trdat claimed the Armenian throne and became the founder of the Arshakuni dynasty. Under this dynasty (53 BC - 429 AD), and after many years of Roman domination, Armenia again became independent and a key political power in the region.
Christianity and Armenian Alphabet
Although Armenia has a long history of pre-Christian religion and many pagan traditions remain to this day, the rise of Christianity helped catalyze the culture of Armenia. In 301 under the dynasty of Arshakuni, Armenia became the first nation in the world to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion. In the following years, a monk known as Mesrob Mashtots developed the Armenian alphabet, which was used to spread Christian gospel as well as to translate and thus preserve many ancient Greek and other works, some of which have been lost in the original Greek. The development of the alphabet also paved the way for the "golden age" of Armenian literature (5th century) when a broad range of literary and historical pieces were created forming the basis of a rich tradition.
Medieval Armenia was divided into small princedoms and kingdoms-independent polities which likely helped prevent it from being conquered by Persia from the East or Rome (and later Byzantium) from the West. This powerful social system predominated in Armenia throughout the middle ages. As the independent kingdoms of greater Armenia gradually collapsed thousands of Armenians fled to the Mediterranean coast where several princes established what became the kingdom of Cilicia. The Cilician state, adopting both principals of the Crusaders and relations with the West, became the strongest in the Near East. Cilicia fell to the Mamluks in 1375. For the next several centuries, Armenia saw continued invasions by Turks and Mongols and was once more divided between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians. Numerous Armenians fled to Europe and India. Populations shrank and much of the country reverted to agriculture. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia took control of most of the South Caucasus. By 1828 much of Armenia's current territory was ceded by Persia to the Russian Empire.
As the Ottoman Empire declined in the late 19th century, Armenians living in Turkey (about 2.5 million people in 1890) experienced seizures of property, arbitrary taxation, and periodic attacks. Some Armenians began to organize opposition and the Turkish leadership, Abdul Hamid II, responded by sanctioning the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from 1894- 1896. On April 24th 1915 the Ottoman Turks ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Armenian community, who were executed. Then they turned to civilians and in what is referred to as the "first genocide of the 20th century", the Young Turks systematically forced Armenians from their homes and either killed them on the spot or marched them through valleys and mountains towards the deserts of Syria. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed or died in the process.
At the end of World War I in 1918, an independent republic of Armenia was established, including current day Armenia, Karabagh, Nakhijevan, and Khars regions. However, this republic-full of refugees and others burdened with much poverty, disease, and hunger-lasted only until late 1920. Threatened by Kemalists in Turkey, Armenia was on the other hand coveted by Lenin, for whom the Caucasus region represented a first step towards Persia and Turkey. In 1922 Armenia officially joined the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, industrialization started in Armenia. Roads, electricity and irrigation infrastructures appeared, while the economy and production system developed according to a scheme that rendered Armenia totally dependent on the other Soviet States countries and especially Russia.
Brief independence and the Soviet Period
The current Republic of Armenia, "Hayastani Hanrapetutyun" in Armenian, has a de jure population of 3,210,300. It is estimated that about 800,000 people left Armenia between 1991 and 2001. The territory consists of 29,743 sq km, divided into 11 provinces (marz): Aragatsotn, Ararat, Armavir, Gegharkunik, Kotayk, Lori, Shirak, Syunik, Tavush, Vayots Dzor and Yerevan. Armenia is bordered by Azerbaijan to the West, Iran to the South, Azeri exclave of Nachitchevan and Turkey to the East, and Georgia to the North. Only the borders with Georgia and Iran, which represent one sixth of the total borders, are open. Armenians represent 97% of the total population. The other major ethnic group, the Yezidi Kurds make about 2%, the remaining one percent includes Russian, Greeks and Assyrians. You will certainly see Yezidi white or green tents during your hikes, since most of them are semi-nomadic living in the mountains during the summer. The large majority of Armenians belong to the Apostolic Church. Yezidi people are generally Zoroastrian.
A land-locked country, Armenia covers over 10% of the Armenian plateau. Relatively recent volcanic activity on the Armenian plateau has resulted in significant volcanic formations, and highlands consisting of a series of both small and large mountain massifs. A number of lakes, including lakes Sevan, Van and Urmia were also created as a result of tectonic activity in the region. Armenia is a typical mountainous territory with well-defined mountainous relief and ramified river drainage. Indeed, 87% of the Armenian territory is between 1,000m and 3,000m high. Furthermore, there is a wide range of altitude. The lowest points are the Debed river at the Northern border of Armenia with Georgia, located 379m above sea level, and the town of Meghri at the Southern border of Armenia with Iran, while the highest point, Mount Aragats in Central Armenia, is 4,090m above sea level.
Armenia's mountainous nature helps create a series of highly diverse landscapes, with variations in geological substrate, terrain, climate, soils and water resources.
The Ararat Valley, where the capital Yerevan is located, represents the lowest part of the Ararat depression, which is still undergoing tectonic movement. The average elevation of Ararat Valley is 900m above sea level and partially semi-desert, with green orchards and gardens along the Arax River. The Ararat plain serves as the major agricultural basin for Armenia where more than 35% of Armenia's vegetables and fruits are grown. Ararat Valley is dominated by the stunning Mount Ararat with its two peaks, which is actually located in Turkey, just across the border.
In the North of the Armenia, the landscape is dominated by the Bazoom and Halab mountain ranges, and parallel to them, the Pambak mountains further South. These mountains are approximately 2,800m high and are characterized by gentle grass covered slopes.
The northeast of Armenia (Lori and Tavush districts) have extensive forest coverage. Rainfall is more abundant in the northeast and the variation between winter and summer is softer than in most other parts of Armenia.
Another amazing feature of the country's natural environment is Lake Sevan. Lake Sevan is Armenia's largest surface water resource, covering 4% of Armenia's territory. The lake is situated at an altitude of 1,900m and is considered one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. Lake Sevan is surrounded by several mountain ranges. The western shore of the lake is bordered by the Geghama Mountain range, with its typical volcanic cone shaped peaks and small craters on the top. Ascending the Geghama mountains, such as Mount Azhdahak (3,597 m), rewards with splendid views of lake Sevan, the surrounding mountain ranges and the Ararat Valley. On the opposite side of the lake, parallel to its eastern shore, are the Areguni and Sevan ranges. The Sevan range forms a natural border with neighboring Azerbaijan. The Vardenis mountain range runs along the Southern shore of Lake Sevan.
Mount Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia (4,090 m), dominates the landscape of Central Armenia. Mount Aragats is a huge volcanic mountain with four peaks and a deep crater of 350m. It stands alone in Central Armenia and covers a perimeter of 200 square km. The landscape of Central Armenia is characterized by meadows and mountainous steppes with isolated small forests in Tsakhadzor and Hankavan. The climate is dry and continental, with hot summers and cold winters.
In the south of Armenia, the Vayk and Zangezur ranges run from North to South and form a natural border with the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave located between Turkey and Armenia. The Sunik range, also running from North to South, forms the natural border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Two smaller mountain ranges, the Bargooshat and Meghri mountains, run across the far South of Armenia. The Armenian high plateau between Vayk and Goris is characterized by a wild, treeless landscape of alpine meadows and mountain steppes. The climate is dry and harsh, with hot summers and cold winters. The region further South around Kapan is dominated by the mystic Mount Khustup, whose peak is generally hidden by mist. This region is covered with grasslands, lakes and forests. The southern most part of Armenia, around the town of Meghri is again characterized by another climate zone. This region shares the same climatic conditions with the bordering Northern part of Iran, which allows figs and pomegranates to grow.
Most of the Armenian mountains are of volcanic origins and covered with relatively recent lava. When hiking, one can find an abundance of obsidian in the Geghama mountain range and tuff on the slopes of Mount Aragats. Obsidian is a volcanic glass and is considered a semi-precious stone. It is also known as "Satan's nail" in Armenian. Tuff is a lightweight volcanic rock, which comes in yellow, grey and red color shades and is omnipresent in the Armenian architecture.
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Armenia has been identified as an important center for both wild and cultivated plants and is one of the most vegetation specie-dense countries in the world-with more than 100 species per square kilometer. In the Soviet period a genetic warehouse was maintained containing over two hundred of the regions distinct grape species, but this facility has fallen into neglect and disrepair.Even today, when hiking in the Armenian mountains, wild varieties of apricot are readily visible, as well as a diversity of wildflowers and herbs used for traditional medicine and cooking.It is estimated that Armenia has between 150 and 200 relic species of plants. These species, practically unchanged since geological time, are an important part of botanical diversity in Armenia. Some species have adapted well to current conditions. Other relics are widely spread but only associated with particular habitats, while some species are found only in specific sites or refuges. Approximately half the plant species in Armenia are at risk of extinction. Intensive grazing of animals (especially since the end of the Soviet period when feed was imported) threatens a wide variety of plants. Many of the rare and threatened plants in Armenia are associated with wetlands. However, drainage of marsh and wetlands for agriculture inevitably damages these ecosystems and associated flora.
Armenia's mountainous terrain creates numerous climate zones and microclimates, providing the country with a biodiversity that belies its small area. For example, Armenia is home to over 365 bird species during the year, compared to 400-500 across the entire European continent. Armenia provides an important passage and resting sites for migratory animals and birds. Furthermore, Armenia is located in a region where many of the western world's domesticated plants and livestock originated. The country is also home to the ancestor of the domesticated sheep, the mouflon, as well as wild varieties of barley that were among the first to be domesticated in Mesopotamia. The Armenian forests in the Northeast, around Jermuk and in the South of the country around Kapan, are believed to be populated by wolves, lynxs and species of the Caucasian bear.There has been little research recently, but even based on the existing data it is reported that 24% of the fauna in Armenia is of an "internationally threatened species." The highest risk mammals are said to include the Mehely horseshoe bat, the European free tailed bat, the European otter, the brown bear, the Asian wild sheep, the striped hyena and the Caucasian birch mouse. The Armenian mouflon has suffered a severe population decline due to poaching and habitat loss. The most threatened fish include the winter bakhtak (Salmo ischan) formerly representing 30% of the trout of Lake Sevan and now nearly disappeared. Threatened reptiles include the Armenian viper.