Armenia - Background information

Natural history
People and culture              


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 or splendid medieval monasteries that are a major attraction of Armenia for most visitors. 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 successful diaspora.

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. Visitors will also see everywhere signs written in a distinctive and unique alphabet, 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.

Beginning to make sense of the jumble of first 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.

St Hovhannes Cathedral, Armenia by Vahan Abrahamyan, ShutterstockHovhannavank, Aragatsotn province © Vahan Abrahamyan, Shutterstock

The legendary origins of the Armenian people

Although all foreigners call the country Armenia, Armenians themselves call it Hayastan: literally the ‘Land of Haik’. Chapter 8 of Genesis states that Noah’s ark grounded on Mount Ararat. Chapter 10 records that Togarmah was a son of Gomer who was a son of Japheth who had accompanied his father Noah on the Ark. According to Armenian legend the Armenian people are the descendants of Haik who was the son of Togarmah and therefore the great-great-grandson of Noah. Their name for their country records this.

According to the legend, of the three sons of Noah, Japheth and Ham settled with their families in the Ararat region while Shem subsequently moved away to the northwest. Ham’s and Japheth’s sons gradually spread out to the various regions of the Armenian Plateau. When Japheth’s great-grandson Haik was 130 years old, he travelled south to the city of Shinar (probably what we know as present-day Babylon in Iraq) and worked on the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). After the Tower eventually collapsed, Haik, a handsome man and a strong warrior (despite his age) with curly hair and good eyesight, was able to defy even Nimrod (or Bel as he is known in the legend), the tyrannical ruler of Assyria.

Visitors to Armenia are confronted by the country’s history everywhere they look.

Nimrod had ordered that he should be worshipped by his people but Haik refused and moved back north with his family (including his 300 sons) to the lands around Ararat.  Nimrod resented Haik’s departure, and ordered him back, even seeking to lure him by reminding him that Armenia had a less favourable climate than Assyria. When Haik refused, Nimrod marched north with his army (which outnumbered Haik’s) and battle was joined on the shores of Lake Van. Nimrod, according to the legend, wore iron armour but Haik drew his bow, and shot him with a three-feathered arrow which pierced the armour, killing the king. Seeing this happen, the Assyrian army turned and fled. Haik returned to Ararat and died at the age of 400. The discovery of boundary stones and of Babylonian writings dating from Nimrod’s reign confirm the battle and the manner of Nimrod’s death as described in the legend.

The name Armenia by which everybody else knows the country was first used by Greek historians about 3,000 years ago, although in legend the name commemorates the great leader of the country, Aram, who was sixth in line of descent from Haik.

Natural history

The number of species of animals and plants in Armenia is very high for a country of its size which lies wholly outside the tropics. 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 altitudes 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.

For a country of Armenia’s size and one which lies completely outside the tropics, the sheer number of species of animals and plants in Armenia is very high and provides an excellent reason for exploring more of the country. 

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 even though climatic conditions are severe with long cold winters and snow cover lasting up to nine months. 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.

Caucasian green lizard, Armenia by Deirdre HoldingThe caucasian green lizard can be seen in a variety of habitats across Armenia © Deirdre Holding


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), marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna), otter (Lutra lutra), Pallas’s cat (or manul) (Felis manul) and brown bear (Ursus arctos) (or grizzly bear as the same species is known in North America).

Despite bears being classified as endangered, their droppings can often be encountered while walking in the mountains, sometimes surprisingly close to habitation. Other interesting mammals include leopard (Panthera pardus), now the subject of a WWF protection programme in Armenia, lynx (Felis lynx), wild cat (Felis silvestris), wolf (Canis lupus), Bezoar ibex (C.a. aegagrus), porcupine (Hystrix indica), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa). However, no mammals in Armenia can be described as easy to see and, apart from a wolf disturbed from its daytime retreat and a few unidentified bats, I have only ever observed 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 3,200 species of vascular plants, including some endemics – plants found only in Armenia. 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.

One third of the forests are oak and they are widely distributed across the country. Of the four species found in Armenia, two are typical of these forests, Caucasian oak (Quercus macranthera) and Georgian oak (Q. iberica). Caucasian oak is the more frost-tolerant species and is found throughout the country at altitudes as high as 2,600m. By contrast, Georgian oak is typically restricted to altitudes between 500 and 1,400m, and is mostly found in the north and the extreme south. Other species found in oak forests are ash (Fraxinus excelsior), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), Georgian maple (Acer ibericum), cork elm (Ulmus suberosus) and field maple (Acer campestre). A third oak species – Arax oak (Q. araxina) – is now declining, probably because of agricultural development.

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 3,200 species of vascular plants, including some endemics – plants found only in Armenia.

Another third of the forest are the beech forests of northern Armenia. They are dominated by Oriental beech (Fagus orientalis). They are mostly on north-facing slopes at an altitude of 1,000–2,000m. Other species in beech forests include smallleaved lime (Tilia cordata), Litvinov beech (Betula litwinow) and spindle-tree (Euonymus europaeus). Hornbeam forests occur at altitudes of 800–1,800m. Other trees found in these forests include the various oaks, field maple, ash, Caucasian pear (Pyrus caucasicum) and Oriental apple (Malus orientalis).

Scrub forests are found in both the north and south of the country occurring at altitudes of 900–1,000m in the north, but at much higher altitude in the south (1,800–2,000m). These forests support around 80 species of xeric trees and shrubs, all of which are drought tolerant and light-loving. As well as thorn forest dominated by juniper, broad-leaved forests also occur, characterised by species such as Georgian maple, various cherries, pistachio (Pistacia mutica), almond (Prunus dulcis), buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) and wild jasmine (Jasminum fruticans). There are groves of virgin yew (Taxus baccata) in Dilijan National Park and a relict plane (Platanus orientalis) grove in Shikahogh Reserve in the south of the country.

One of the great joys of Armenia is that botanical excursions and visits to ancient churches and monasteries so often happily coincide.

A number of Armenia’s plants will be familiar to visitors because they have become popular cultivated plants of temperate gardens such as the florist’s scabious, the flamboyant oriental poppy, the ubiquitous catmint, burning bush and grape hyacinth. Different types of vegetation can be seen within relatively limited areas, often accessed easily from the principal roads. Many flowers are to be found in the dry mountain habitats typical of central Armenia. It is here, for example, that the almost impossible to cultivate, but striking and often bizarre Oncocyclus iris, can be found. The extensive grasslands surrounding the high passes crossed by the main highways, the river gorges and the broad-leaved deciduous forests are all worth exploring for interesting and attractive plants. One of the great joys of Armenia is that botanical excursions and visits to ancient churches and monasteries so often happily coincide.

People and culture

The long periods of foreign rule, often accompanied by religious persecution, led to the Armenian people becoming widely scattered and not comprising a majority in any territory. What distinguished them as Armenians was their Church and their language.

The population at the 1979 census was 3.8 million of whom 91% were ethnic Armenians. The census in February 1989 gave a population of 3.3 million but is regarded as unreliable since it took place only two months after the devastating earthquake in northwest Armenia which made obtaining data within the region almost impossible. The most recent census in October 2011 gave a figure of 3.02 million, although the real figure, once those temporarily present are deducted and those absent are added, is estimated to be about 2.9 million. At present about 98% of the population is ethnically Armenian, 1.3% Yezidi and 0.5% Russian.

During the preceding ten years 173,000 people left Armenia and, at the time of the census, 12.6% of citizens were out of Armenia, a figure which includes those who have sought work abroad. The birth rate showed a steady fall from 1991 (from a previously steady rate around 25/1,000) to a low of 9.9/1,000 in 2001. Since then there has been a gradual rise to 14/1,000 at the 2011 census. The fertility rate of women plummeted to less than half its 1990 rate but has shown a small rise in recent years; however, not to a level which allows the population to reproduce itself. The current total fertility rate is 1.38 (2012 estimate).

Experts say that Armenia is facing a serious demographic problem because of the low birth rate and outward migration. In the Soviet Union abortion was the primary method of birth control. Although the abortion ratio (the number of abortions per 1,000 live births) has fallen since independence it remains relatively high at 274, compared with 222 for the EU. Abortion is legal up to 12 weeks gestation. The number of abortions is probably higher than official statistics suggest as many women choose to end pregnancies using over-the-counter abortifacients. The average number of abortions per woman is eight and some women may have as many as 20. Both surgical abortion and medical abortion are far cheaper methods of birth control than the contraceptive pill, which costs about US$15–20/month, a price totally beyond reach of many women. In 2010 only 27% of married women used modern methods of contraception.

A skew in the birth ratio of boys to girls has appeared in recent years, the second worst ratio in the world after China. (The average ratio at birth is boys:girls 106:100. In Armenia it is 112:100.) For economic reasons selective abortion of female foetuses is being practised. Because girls traditionally move to the husband’s parental home on marriage, boys are viewed as a greater security for parents’ old age. This loss of potential future mothers also has implications for Armenia’s demography. The government has announced that from January 2014 parents will receive a lump sum of a million drams for a third and each subsequent child (and a one-off sum of AMD50,000 for a first and second child at the time of writing). Most regions have recorded a drop in population, the highest drop being in Lori province. Only Kotayk and Armavir provinces recorded an increase. Some 36.7% of the population lives in villages and 63.3% in towns; 55% of the urban population is in Yerevan.

One rural feature, not only in Armenia but the whole region, is that of villages being predominantly of one ethnicity. This is most evident in the Russian villages east of Vanadzor and in northern Lori. Other villages still have significant Greek or Assyrian-speaking populations. It is also the reason why some villages are completely abandoned – they were Azeri.


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 Spendiarian 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.

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