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Armenia - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Armenia: the Bradt Travel Guide
Visitors to Armenia are confronted by the country’s history everywhere they look, and not just in the prehistoric sites and splendid medieval monasteries that have long underwritten the country’s traditional tourism offer. Other aspects of Armenia’s history are reflected in the legacy of Soviet-era apartment blocks identical to those in Kaliningrad or Omsk, and in the huge investment in modern Armenia funded by the country’s large, important and wealthy diaspora.
The temple at Garni looks Greek rather than Armenian © Karen Falyjan, Shutterstock
Further observations soon strike the visitor: that the oldest surviving building in the country, at Garni, looks Greek rather than Armenian and quite different from any other; that there are no Roman remains; that the old churches and monasteries were built within certain very restricted time periods interspersed with long periods from which nothing seems to have survived; that different foreign influences seem to have been significant at different epochs; and that the country’s post-Soviet spate of church and monastery restoration shows no signs of stopping. Visitors will also see everywhere signs written in a distinctive and unique alphabet and language, the use of which is a large factor in determining what it means to be Armenian. Beginning to make sense of all this jumble of impressions necessitates gaining some understanding of Armenia’s long and varied history.
During this history there were periods of independence as an Armenian nation, though often with the nation divided into separate kingdoms because of internal struggles for supremacy by individual families. These periods were separated by much longer spells of foreign rule, by a whole host of different peoples at different times. The 20th-century regaining of independence after centuries of foreign rule, briefly at first from 1918 to 1920 but then lastingly since 1991, owes little to the nations, notably Britain, which repeatedly let down the Armenian people between 1878 and 1923. However, perhaps the West can take some of the responsibility for the Soviet Union’s bankruptcy and collapse.
The number of species of animals and plants in Armenia is unusually high, with WWF International labelling the Caucasus one of 35 global biodiversity hotspots. Despite covering just 6.7% of the so-called Caucasus Ecoregion, it is home to 60% of the flora and fauna diversity, according to the UN Economic Commission for Europe. This is largely accounted for by the great altitudinal variation and the diversity of vegetation zones. Armenia is normally described as having six distinct zones: semi-deserts, dry steppes, mountain steppes, forest, subalpine and alpine. Semi-deserts account for about 10% of the country and occur in the Ararat Valley and adjacent mountain slopes up to elevations of 1,200–1,300m, as well as in the Arpa Valley around Vayk, and in the Meghri region. The land has generally been cultivated for millennia except for a few patches where sand has accumulated and a semi-desert landscape has resulted.
The caucasian green lizard can be seen in a variety of habitats across Armenia © Deirdre Holding
Cultivation has required extensive irrigation and these irrigated areas now account for most of the fruit, vegetable and wine production. Dry steppes are found at higher altitudes than semi-deserts (above 1,500m) in the Ararat Valley and some other areas, but are also found at lower altitudes (above 800m) in the northeast in areas which were originally forested. A range of soils is found and in the Ararat Valley these are mostly stony. Irrigation of dry steppes has allowed some cultivation of crops and fruit. Mountain steppes are the dominant landscape for most of the country, particularly at altitudes above 1,500m. In the northeast of the country and also in the south, ridges among these highland meadow steppes often contain patches of forest.
Elsewhere forests are usually found on the mid-zone of mountains though in some regions the forests were much affected by the cutting of trees for fuel during the energy shortages of the early 1990s. The most extensive forested areas are now in the northeast. Subalpine meadows occur at higher altitudes than steppes and forests, including highland mountain ranges. Alpine meadows occur higher still and are important pasture lands during the relatively short summers at these elevations. So-called azonal landscapes (meaning that the soil type is determined by factors other than the local climate and vegetation) cover the remaining 10% of the territory of the country and include wetlands, as well as saline and alkaline areas in the Ararat Valley where the underground waters are close to the earth’s surface, resulting in water vaporisation and salt precipitation.
Armenia’s mammal list was recently increased from 76 to 83 when seven additional species of bat were identified. However, one of the mammals on the list, striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), is probably extinct in the country and the status of Caucasian birch mouse (Sicista caucasica) is unknown. Another six are officially classified as endangered: the distinctive Armenian subspecies of mouflon (Ovis orientalis gmelini), Persian ibex or wild goat (Capra aegagrus aegagrus; often referred to as the Bezoar goat or Bezoar ibex), marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna), otter (Lutra lutra), Pallas’s cat (or manul; Felis manul) and Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus).
Despite bears being classified as endangered, their droppings can often be encountered while walking in the mountains, particularly in the Vayots Dzor region, sometimes surprisingly close to habitation. Other interesting mammals include the critically endangered Persian or Caucasian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), the ongoing subject of a WWF protection programme in Armenia; lynx (Felis lynx); wild cat (Felis silvestris); wolf (Canis lupus); porcupine (Hystrix indica); roe deer (Capreolus capreolus); wild boar (Sus scrofa); and golden jackal (Canis aureus). However, none of these large mammals – except perhaps the Bezoar goat – could be described as common sights, and the visitor is perhaps more likely to come across smaller and more abundant species such as red fox (Vulpes vulpes), brown hare (Lepus capensis), European souslik (Citellus citellus) and Vinogradov’s jird (Meriones vinogradovi), the jird being one of five species of gerbil found in Armenia.
Identified so far in Armenia have been 388 species of algae, 4,166 fungi, 2,600 lichens and 430 mosses in addition to the very large total of more than 3,200 species of vascular plants, including some endemics – plants found only in Armenia. Vascular plant diversity is highly concentrated in Khosrov Forest State Reserve, which plays host to 1,849 species – more than half of the total – despite occupying just 1% of the country’s territory. Since Armenia’s flora is very large it is perhaps surprising that gymnosperms (basically conifers) should be poorly represented by a mere nine species: five junipers, one pine, one yew and two shrubby members of the family Ephedraceae whose American relatives include Nevada joint fir and desert tea.
You'll often see locals playing music in the street © Artem Avetisyan, Shutterstock
Both traditional folk music and classical music have fallen on hard times since 1991 with the reductions in state funding. Folk music can now most often be heard on national holidays but a more convenient option is to go to one of the traditional Yerevan restaurants where a folk ensemble plays each evening. The oud is a 12-stringed (two strings for each note) ancestor of the lute and guitar with a distinctive bent neck. The tarr is another lute-like instrument but smaller than the oud. The kemenche is a three-stringed violin played with the instrument held vertically resting on the lap. The duduk makes the sound most often associated with Armenian music. It is a low-pitched woodwind instrument, with a large double reed, made from apricot wood. The shvi (whistle) by contrast is a high-pitched woodwind instrument without a reed and with eight holes, seven for playing plus a thumb hole. The dhol is a cylindrical drum with one membrane being thicker to give a low pitch and the other thinner to give a higher pitch. Other distinctive instruments which may be encountered include the zurna, a higher-pitched wind instrument than the duduk but also with a double reed and made from apricot wood; the kanun, a box zither, trapezoid in shape, which is played resting on the player’s knee or on a table, the strings being plucked by plectra attached to the fingers; and the dumbeg which is an hourglass-shaped drum with a membrane made of lamb skin at only one end, the other end being open.
Dance in Armenia can broadly be divided into traditional dance and classical ballet, the latter considerably influenced by the Russian school. The traditional dances which are encountered in Armenia today are those of eastern Armenia and as such differ in some respects from the dances of Armenian groups abroad which usually represent the western Armenian tradition. The energetic men’s dance Jo Jon (also called Zhora Bar) comes from Spitak province. Mom Bar, meaning ‘Candle Dance’, was originally from the Lake Sevan region and is now traditionally the last dance at wedding parties. The candles are blown out at the end of the dance signalling that it is time for guests to leave.
Women’s solo dances called Naz Bar, meaning ‘Grace Dance’, are improvisatory with intricate hand gestures used to tell stories of love, betrayal, conflict and triumph. In Yerevan in particular choreographic schools and song and dance ensembles preserve the tradition in a form suitable for stage presentation, although funding is more difficult than in the Soviet era. The musical accompaniment can be played on traditional instruments or sung (or both). Costumes for women are invariably sumptuous, whether based on medieval court dress or on simpler peasant dress. Brightly coloured shimmering dresses are decorated with gold embroidery and pearls. A light lace veil surmounts the embroidered hat. For men costume is simpler. Full trousers and embroidered tunics or else the cherkessa, traditional Caucasian dress similar to Cossack style, with red, white or black silk trousers, leather boots, woollen or fur hat, and a dagger in the belt. Men’s dances are martial and vigorous; women’s are graceful with elaborate gestures.
Funding is also more difficult for classical ballet, performed at the Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet Theatre. The standard of dance remains high but many Armenian dancers are making successful careers in western Europe and North America and the pool of talent remaining in Yerevan has diminished.