Armenia is one of the three countries occupying the area south of the Caucasus and shares borders with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. With it's area of 30,000 km², Armenia is one of the smallest Ex-Soviet Union republics. Only 3.8 million people live in the country, which makes it rather sparsely populated. Most Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Once, present-day Armenia was part of the vast Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great. After the decline of the Empire, Armenia itself grew stronger and stronger after the 1st century B.C. At that time, Armenia was stretching from the Euphrat in present-day Iraq to the Caspian Sea. Little later, the Armenia was conquered by the Roman empire. In the year 301 AD, Armenia was the first country in the world to declare Christianity to be the state religion. It didn't help a lot - later on, Armenia was invaded by Persia, the Ottoman empire, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Mongols and so on. In 1828, Armenia was finally wrested by the Russian Empire from Persia.
|Genocide Memorial in Yerevan|
A more recent problem is the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (Mountainous Karabakh) with neighbouring Azerbaijan. This small area already caused trouble before Armenia and Azerbaijan became parts of the Soviet Union. During the 1980ies, many inhabitants of Karabakh demanded unification with Armenia. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, one of many ethnic conflicts in and around the Caucasus area developed into a full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which ended with a truce in 1994. Armenia won the war, but most of the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh - Azeris as well as Armenians - had already fled the region before the end of the war. Armenia not just seized Nagorno-Karabakh, but also a narrow strip of land between Karabakh and Armenia. The problem remains unsolved. Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of Armenia but an independent country, only recognized by - yes, Armenia. Visitors even require a separate visa. The price for the victory was high. Azerbaijan and their supporters cut off Armenia's energy, gas and goods supply. Especially in 1991 and 1992, Armenians suffered bitterly cold winters without electricity and heating. Many of Armenias forests, especially around the capital, vanished at that time. Within the Soviet Union, Armenia was quite a wealthy country. But due to the war, the economy collapsed. The economy partially recovered, but poverty is widespread problem - especially among the elderly. The average monthly pension is € 8 only, which is, even in Armenia, not enough to get by. The ongoing embargo imposed by some countries doesn't make things easier.
I talked to Armenians (in Armenia) about the conflict for hours and hours. The people I talked to considered the war against Azerbaijan a war of liberation and therefore legitimate. As mentioned above, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is yet to be solved. The relation to Turkey and Azerbaijan hit rock-bottom, with all borders remaining closed and no glimmer of hope - at least not at the moment.
The domestic political situation doesn't look very stable either. In November 1999, some gunmen entered the parliament, killed the prime minister, his speaker and some members of parliament. The background of this assassination is unclear.
Armenian belongs to the Indo-European language family as many other European languages do. As for the vocabulary, this fact isn't much help. Nothing sounds familiar, which is partially due to the fact that many words had been imported from Persian. Armenians developed their own writing system in the 5th century, using 38 characters. There are small letters and capital letters, in some cases both look completely different. The characters are not very complicated, so learning them is just a question of time (see the word for Armenia "Hayastan" written in Armenian atop this page). The Armenian word for "yes" is worth a prize: ay-yo.
As in many but not all ex-Soviet Union countries, Russian is lingua franca. Older people are very fluent in Russian. Many young people, at least in the capital, speak some English. But for some reason it is sometimes hard to understand.
Armenia mainly consists of mountains, plateaus, mountains, valleys, mountains... Only 10% of the country is lower than 1,000 m above sea level. The lowest area and biggest valley can be found around Yerevan along the Turkish border. Armenia's highest point is 4,090 m high Mt. Aragats north-west of the capital. From Yerevan it's possible to see majestic Mt. Ararat on the other side of the border. Armenia's natural highlight is one of the biggest mountain lakes in the world - lake Sevan. At around 1900 m above sea level, beautiful lake Sevan's water surface exceeds 1,000 km². A geologically very active fault in the north-west of Armenia is the source of destructive earthquakes. In 1988, a massive earthquake virtually flattened the cities of Gyumri (at that time known as Leninakan) and Spitak. Both cities have been rebuilt and look different to other Armenian cities.
Precipitation in Armenia is very low compared to Georgia, with parts of the country being affected by occasional drought. Even in Yerevan water is rationed during the summer, which is why many citizens installed additional self-made water tanks in their appartments. The summer in and around Yerevan is quite hot and very dry; in winter temperatures can drop far below zero. Needless to say that it's colder in the mountains, but there's nothing better than a summer day at lake Sevan.
There aren't many tourists in Armenia (except for this large coach-party of Japanese tourists in Sevan...). That's why it's rather expensive and complicated to go there by plane. Most people enter from Georgia, but this takes a good deal of time. Transport in Armenia is extremely slow - trains need 3 hrs for 70 km, and buses or shared taxis aren't much faster. Armenians are very hospitable and kind to strangers - just look as if you were lost, and soon someone comes trying to help you. As in Georgia, we've never had the feeling that someone was trying to rip us off. Nevertheless it is extremely helpful to know some Armenian or Russian.
|Armenian Money - 5000 Dram|
The mysteriously wide, open landscape in the north-west, the mountains in the south-east, lake Sevan in the middle, all the cultural and historical monuments around Yerevan, the vibrant capital itself with its beautiful park cafés and museums - there's definitely no lack of interesting places in the country. Unfortunately I'd only had three days in Yerevan, which only allowed a cursory glance at life in Armenia. But I had the chance to talk to many Armenians and to learn a lot. Even two weeks would be too short for this small country. I don't know why, but I never felt unsafe in Armenia - not in the countryside, not at night, not in dreary housing areas. Which was a bit different to Georgia.
Start of the Armenian journey on Europe-East.com.
Website of the Armenian Foreign Ministry. In English - with lots of official information.
Very nice website about Armenia - in English.
Armenia introduced by Lonely Planet.
Great travelogue from Wee Cheng. English. With information about Nagorny-Karabakh and Georgia.