10 things Armenia

10 Things… Armenia!

Here are 10 random things that we experienced during our time in Armenia that we found interesting or unique. You can view our other “10-ish Things…” posts here.

1. Yerevan’s lively sidewalk cafe culture

The endearing spirit of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, comes through most clearly in its abundant outdoor dining options. The sidewalks, parks, and public squares are lined with countless cafes, ever bustling with groups of families and friends. Yerevan’s outdoor spaces feel like the beating heart of the city, and it’s fun to be part of it, whether eating khinkhali (dumplings) on the street, or just wandering around the parks and looking at everyone else enjoy their khinkhali. We especially appreciated the vibrant outdoor life, because we arrived to sunny, warm Yerevan direct from chilly, rainy Moscow. We visited Yerevan in the fall, but we heard that it’s even more lively during the summer.

Enjoying wine from a khinkhali-shaped carafe on a sidewalk cafe in Yerevan
Yerevan sidewalk, complete with drinking fountain (see #7)

2. Lavash bread

One of the most common types of bread in Armenia is lavash, a thin, unleavened bread traditionally cooked on the walls of a clay oven. Fresh lavash is soft and pliable, but it dries out after a couple days. It’s quite versatile, so you’ll find it served alongside kebabs, wrapped up with cheese and herbs, or dipped into all sorts of wonderful dips (walnut sauce, muhammara, muttebal… the mouthwatering list goes on). Armenians claim that they invented lavash, though as with many foods popular in this part of the world, it’s hard to prove exactly who the first people were to make it, and it’s popular throughout this general geographical area. In any case, they have perfected it!

Lavash topped with a lot of cheese and herbs
Lavash being made with a machine at a larger bakery
Lavash making in Armenia is an element of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. This video gives cultural background and shows in detail the traditional method of making lavash.

3. The Oldest Winery! And… Shoe?

Armenia is an archaeologist’s dream. When we visited the National Museum of Armenia in Yerevan, our jaws literally dropped at the age of the artifacts in the collection: Bronze art from 3000 BC, cuneiform inscriptions from 800 BC, reconstructed chariots from 15000 BC. One of the most recent additions to their collection is a 6000 year old shoe, the oldest one ever discovered. The leather shoe was discovered in 2008 in a cave complex known as “Areni-1”, which is still an active archaeological site.

A few days after visiting the National Museum, we had the opportunity to visit the cave. We found it especially interesting to see how archaeologists set up the area with strings and labels to track the locations of discoveries.

Areni-1 cave archaeological site, where the world’s oldest shoe was discovered
Inside Areni-1 cave archaeological site

If the old shoe didn’t pique your interest, that’s not the only thing they uncovered in Areni-1! Archaeologists also discovered remnants of a 6000 year old winery, the oldest such place uncovered to date. Visitors can see remains of the fermentation and storage vats, understood to be part of a system for large-scale production of wine.

Remnants of the world’s oldest discovered winery

The tourist traffic of Areni-1 no doubt benefits from being just around the corner from the oldest operating winery in Armenia, Areni Winery, and the breathtaking Noravank monastery, located a few kilometers away down a scenic canyon from the cave.

Noravank monastery

4. Long history of wine making

Armenia has one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. There is a sense of competition between Armenia and its northern neighbor, Georgia, about who made wine first. Each country hopes that the next archaeological discovery will prove that they are the most ancient viticulturist. Despite the winery discovery mentioned in #3, right now Georgia is still in the lead, having not long ago uncovered 8000 year old wine jars. The main takeaway is that both Armenia and Georgia love their wine, and they have both been making it for a really, really long time! You can be sure 10 Things… Georgia will get into even more detail on this.

Truck full of grapes passing near the Areni-1 cave complex

We went wine tasting in the town of Areni, located just a couple minutes drive from the Areni-1 cave complex. Most of their wines are made using Areni grapes. (Noticing a trend?) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, wine production and tourism have been growing in the area, with many new wineries opening in the area and the establishment of a “Silk Road Wine Route”.

Trying Areni wines

Wine is usually stored in a karas, an enormous clay vessel that is partially buried underground. The clay gives the wine a distinctive earthy flavor. 

Room of karases and storage barrels
Karases are the partially buried clay vessels

Many people who live in the Areni region make their own wine at home. Some people with leftover supplies sell wine on the side of the road. We heard that it’s common for visitors from neighboring Iran, where alcohol is prohibited, to stock up on “fruit juice” as they pass through.

Roadside stand in Areni selling produce, wine, and juices

5. Complicated relationships with neighbors

For a small country, Armenia has some very complicated relationships with its neighbors. The country has disputed territories, exclaves, and enclaves galore. Borders to two of the four countries it touches are closed. As with many tense geopolitical situations, the seeds of the conflict were planted by the empires that ruled over it, so in order to understand the relationships, it helps to understand some history.

Caucasus map with landlocked Armenia in green (Source: Wikipedia)

Before achieving independence in 1991, Armenia spent about five hundred years being pulled and split between different empires, with Western Armenia controlled by the Ottomans and Eastern Armenia controlled first by the Persian Empire and later the Russian Empire. After the Genocide in 1915, Western Armenia ceased to exist, because all of the Armenians in the area were either killed or deported. Eastern Armenia took advantage of the chaos left behind by World War I — the Russian Revolution and fall of the Ottoman Empire created a power void in the area — to create an independent state, but after only a couple years, the Soviet Union had annexed most of the former Russian empire back, including Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan (who were also celebrating a brief period of independence). 

Despite being able to see Mount Ararat in Turkey from Yerevan (see #6), Turkey and Armenia have essentially no diplomatic relations, and the border is closed between the countries. Until the Armenian Genocide in 1915, ethnic Armenians used to live in Eastern Turkey (then under control of the Ottoman Empire). Armenia refuses to have relations with Turkey until they officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey refuses to have relations with Armenia until they drop the subject.

Armenia has a huge diaspora as a result of the Genocide. Less than half of ethnic Armenians live in Armenia, with other large populations living in Russia, USA, and Europe. We learned that Armenians love to search for other Armenian names in movie credits or publications. Most Armenian names end in “-ian” or “-yan” so the names are easy to spot! Armenia also holds “Pan-Armenian Games”, an Olympics for Armenians from all over the world. It must be quite surreal to see a basketball match between Beverly Hills and Glendale Armenians… in Armenia!!

A visit to the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan
A delegation visiting the Genocide Memorial during our visit
Fir trees planted by delegations visiting the Memorial

To the east, there is another closed border, this one with Azerbaijan. In this case, the cause is Nagorno Karabakh (AKA Artsakh), a disputed region that has been violently fought over since a few years before the fall of the Soviet Union. At present, Artsakh is quasi-administrated by Armenia, but the breakaway region is still recognized by nearly all countries of the world as formally part of Azerbaijan.

A still from Geography Now: Armenia depicting Armenia’s relationships with it’s neighbors to East (Azerbaijan) and West (Turkey)
Artsakh (AKA Nagorno Karabakh), a breakaway region of Azerbaijan, is included in most tourist maps of Armenia

Armenia has strong relationships with Georgia, to the north, and Iran, to the south. We heard that Iranians come to visit Armenia as tourists, because they don’t even need a visa, and they are able to experience more freedoms in Armenia.

Blue mosque in Yerevan, renovated with funding from the Iranian government
A truck from Iran (note the Persian numbers on the license plate)

Though Armenia doesn’t border Russia, the two countries have close political and economic ties. However, even this relationship is complicated, because of the tense relationship between Georgia and Russia. For land access to Russia, Armenia has to rely on Georgia’s border. At times of high tension between Georgia and Russia, the border has closed for periods of time, leaving Armenia even more isolated. In at least once recent case, Armenia has been part of the negotiations to maintain an open border between Russia and Georgia.

There are also a lot of random exclaves of Azerbaijan in Armenia and of Armenia in Azerbaijan. When we were driving in the countryside, Google maps tried to reroute us around a random pocket of Azerbaijan, despite it looking much quicker. After asking around, we found out that it’s a legal remnant, with no Azerbaijani citizens remaining in the area. There was no border crossing or anything, so we took that way back with no issues! 

A quick trip through “Azerbaijan”

6. The symbol of Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat may be across the closed border with Turkey (see #5), but it remains an integral part of Armenian culture — and the Yerevan skyline. The snow-capped mountain is often depicted as a symbol of Armenia, so if you want to take home a souvenir, it’s probably going to have Ararat (and a pomegranate) on it.

Mount Ararat, as seen from Khor Virap monastery
Ararat as the backdrop of Yerevan, as seen from the Cascades complex

Ararat is featured prominently in Armenian art and considered by many Christians to be the place where Noah’s Ark landed. The most famous brandy produced in Armenia is named after Ararat, and it is quite popular in Russia! 

Painting by Martiros Sarian, depicting Ararat
Painting by Martiros Sarian, depicting Ararat
Ararat brandy, one of Armenia’s famous exports

When it comes to Turkey, Ararat is not the only touchy subject. Armenians are also sensitive about dishes and beverages that are commonly referred to by tourists as “Turkish”. For example, asking for “Turkish coffee” instead of “Armenian coffee”, or referring to lahmacun (pizza-like dish) as a “Turkish pizza” will earn you a severe glare, because in Armenia these are considered quintessentially Armenian. There’s a lot of overlap between “Turkish” and “Armenian” cuisine, with plenty of other examples of dishes that exist in both cultures. In Turkey, we even talked to a Turkish person who said despite searching far and wide, the only authentic Turkish food they ever were able to find in America was at an Armenian restaurant.

These food examples seem to exemplify how many aspects of Armenian culture are shared with the cultures of their neighbors, and simultaneously how the tense relationships with these same neighbors (see #5) force Armenians to see their culture in a territorial way. They feel pressure to defend their culture’s distinctiveness, rather than highlight the commonalities between their culture and the ones they evolved alongside with for a long time.

Armenian pizza – lahmacun
Muttabel (similar to babaganoush), served at a Western Armenian restaurant
Dolma, served at a Western Armenian restaurant

7. Abundance of public drinking fountains

Many of Yerevan’s squares feature beautiful, dramatic fountains. Somehow even more striking, though, is how it feels like you can’t go more than a block without seeing a public drinking water fountain. Interestingly, people aren’t weirded out by them; they actually queue up behind them to hydrate! These beloved spring fountains are referred to as “pul-pulak” for the sound the water makes spurting out. Armenians pride themselves on having delicious spring water, and apparently in 1968 the city installed 2750 fountains to mark the 2750th anniversary of the city. 

Drinking from one of the ~2750 fountains of Yerevan
More fountains
Video about pul-pulak. Note the Ararat made out of pomegranates at the beginning! I wasn’t kidding… 

8. Obsession with chess

There’s probably no country in the world more obsessed with chess than Armenia. In school, there is a mandatory chess curriculum which lasts four years. You won’t be surprised to hear that chess players are revered in the country, and a large number of grandmasters hail from Armenia. Tigran Petrosian, world champion in the 1960s, is the most legendary of them all, and there is even a Chess House named after him in Yerevan. Despite being born in Azerbaijan, Armenians also claim Gary Kasparov as one of their own, because he is half Armenian.

Playing large scale chess in one of Yerevan’s squares

9. Pink tuff cladding

Throughout Armenia, many buildings have a distinctive pink cladding. The stones used to make it are tuff (not to be confused with tufa), which are created from volcanic ash that has been consolidated. The texture and color injects some liveliness into the city, especially the Soviet-era buildings, which are more known for their practicality and less for their craftsmanship.

Republic Square, with characteristic pink tuff buildings
Tuff cladding at Etchmiadzin

10. Church hopping

It’s impossible to make this post without mentioning churches. Much of the Armenia tourist circuit consists of hopping between beautiful, old church in one scenic place to beautiful, old church in a different scenic place. 

Noravank, Geghard, Haghpat

Top: Sevanavank, Sanahin; Bottom: Khor Virap, Akhtala

In 301 AD, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Armenian Christians are part of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is a branch of Orthodoxy, through their churches aren’t filled floor-to-floor with icons like in a Russian Orthodox church. The stone architecture is distinctive, usually featuring a large dome resting on a cylinder at the center of the building, which in plan has a cross shape. There is an emphasis on the vertical dimension, which produces a dramatic feeling when you are inside and very impressive acoustics for singing. Unfortunately, the large height: width ratio leaves no room for seats (apparently this is better for concentrating when you pray). 

Dome of Noravank
Interior of Haghpat
Interior of Sanahin
Singer in Geghard

Fun fact: Chiara’s mom is an expert in Armenian church architecture! She is probably disappointed by how short this section is.

2 comments

  1. How realistic is travel in Armenia and Georgia without knowing Russian? How did you get around — car or bus or train?
    Your post as always was really interesting to read. Thank you.

    1. Hi Peggy! You can travel easily in Armenia and Georgia without Russian. Nearly everyone in the tourism sector and most younger people we met speak excellent English. Being able to speak Russian came in handy sometimes, but it’s not essential by any means. Many older people speak Russian, but not English. Most young people we met are comfortable communicating in either language.

      In Armenia, we based ourselves in Yerevan for the entire trip (one week). We rented a car for two days to see some of the sights in the country, but there are plenty of day tours available to accomplish the same thing. There is a lot to see outside Yerevan, but the country is compact, and it was easy to see many sights in a day. To get from Yerevan to Tbilisi (Georgia), we took a day trip with Envoy Hostel, which stopped at sights along the way. It was fabulous! There is also a train that runs between the two and many buses (~6 hours). The border crossing was simple and quick. In Georgia, we took buses to all of our destinations. Travelling by bus worked quite well, and it was really inexpensive.

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