History Lesson #1: Introduction to Armenian Prehistory & Pre-Armenian Post-Prehistory

Every year, as Peace Corps Armenia prepares the intensive 10-week training program for the year’s crop of little volunteerlings, two current volunteers are picked to give a lecture about the history of Armenia. This year, I was one of those volunteers, which only makes sense: I’m such a dork, I read history for fun and voluntarily give history lectures. The Peace Corps was interested in my take on Armenian history, and in passing, friends and family also wanted to see. Seeing as my lecture notes, in their early draft, usually take the form of a rambling screed before they get trimmed into elegant bullet points, I was already halfway towards having a workable essay, so I’ve expanded my notes, cleaned them up, and put them here.

I should say that this project is very obviously and unequivocally doomed. Armenian history is long, strange, and irreducible. Realistically, a history of premodern Armenia should take at least 400 pages, and 4 volumes would be even better. My job is to teach you the basics of Armenian history, but even covering all the basics would take twice as much space as we have. So, I’ve created this radically simplified version of Armenian history, selecting events and eras according to a simple test: would you reasonably expect to find this on a poster at an Armenian school? It’s a surprisingly robust test, and has the added benefit for Peace Corps Volunteers of only focusing on things that every Armenian is supposed to know.

One last caveat: I am not an expert in Armenian history. I’m not an expert on anything, actually. This essay reflects my opinions and limited understanding of the subject, along with a fair amount of riffing based in my unsystematic readings around ancient history and archaeology. Any part-time professor or full-time Armenian might contradict me; if they do, go with them. Until then, you’ll have to take my word. For the sake of breaking up long posts, I’ve spread my notes out between early Armenian history, classical Armenian history, and early medieval Armenian history. This post is about Armenian history up to the 6th century BC.

Let’s start with maps, because geography is destiny. The historic boundaries of Armenia coincide for the most part with the Armenian Plateau. We’ve got the Caucasus mountains to the north and east, the Iranian Plateau to the south, and the Anatolian Plateau to the west. The plateau itself is best characterized as a series of long, rolling, and highly fertile valleys ringed with big, nasty mountain ranges. Both of these things are ideal: long, rolling, and highly fertile valleys are the cornerstone of building a civilization–you can’t have an advanced society of specialized, non-agricultural labor unless farmers can grow enough food for the specialists who don’t grow food; and if your advanced society is sufficiently stable to build infrastructure and accumulate wealth, you want big & nasty mountain ranges to keep out that classic threat to civilization, big & nasty barbarians on horses who take all your stuff and cut your head off. So Armenia, as a place with fertile valleys and imposing mountains, was ideally suited for large-scale human habitation.

The Armenian Plateau

But before we can get large-scale habitation, we need any-scale habitation, and that begins in the fog of prehistory. Armenia has been settled by people for a very, very long time: the earliest signs of habitation are stone tools in the Hrazdan Valley dated to around 300,000 years. Moving forward a bit, we start seeing evidence of larger, more organized settlements with fixed mud-brick architecture and agriculture with the Shulaveri-Shomu culture, which flourished around 7,000 BC. The Kura-Araxes culture was active about two thousand years after that, with evidence of metalworking, pottery, and viticulture. In fact, Armenia is one of the first places in the world—maybe the very first, but don’t say that to Georgians—to cultivate wine: an area of the Areni-1 Cave in Vayots Dzor Marz set aside specifically for producing wine as much as 6,000 years ago is the world’s oldest known winery. Incidentally, that same cave complex is home to the world’s oldest-known shoe, a leather loafer that was all the rage back in 3500 BC. (And yes, The Shoe, as it’s known, passed my school-poster test.) There is also abundant evidence of trade in the region by this time, and when pottery and textiles are traveling, we can be sure that languages and ideas are, too, creating a growing sense of the world and its people.  We still don’t have “Armenians” at this time, but it was probably at some point in this history of settlement that a group–or several groups, over time–arrived who spoke an Indo-European language that would become Armenian. These are the “ancestors” of Armenians, although of course they intermarried and mixed significantly with local populations, too.

The Shoe!
A 5,500 year-old shoe, the oldest in the world. From present-day Areni, Vayots Dzor, Republic of Armenia

We’ve gotten up to the last few millennia BC, but it’s only around 1000 BC that history in Armenia properly begins. We’ve talked about geography and archaeology so far, but not history, which is stuff that happens to people over time, in written records. It’s only around this time in Armenia that writing becomes a part of the landscape—often literally, in the form of inscriptions in stone left to stand in conspicuous places. Writing had existed in nearby states for thousands of years, and its transmission to Armenia is far from clear. But we do know that the culture which introduced it was Urartu.

Urartu, the primary player in Armenia from the 10th to the 6th century BCE, was centered in Lake Van (they called themselves the Kingdom of Van, in fact) and they spread out from there to cover much of modern Armenia, absorbing many cultures through imperial conquest. The Urartians had their own records, written in cuneiform script and impressed on tablets and stones, a few of which are extant today. Still, we don’t know very much about the Urartians—as the only literate society in the area, we only have the scarce records they left behind and a few references in more distant literatures. Most famously, through a corruption of the word via a game of cultural Telephone, ancient Urartu is known to us as the Biblical kingdom of Ararat. (Which, in turn, makes Armenia a Biblical land: the site where Noah lands his ark after 150 days of flooding, and thus the place where all life can be said to begin again, is Mount Ararat–the center of Armenia.

Kingdom of Urartu at its peak, c. 8th-7th c. BC. Lake Van, in the center, is now part of Turkey; Lake Sevan, near Erebuni, is in modern Armenia, and the third lake, Urmia, is in present-day Iran.

Most importantly for our story, in 782 BC an Urartian king by the name of Argishti I built a fortress on the Hrazdan River. He called it Erebuni—today, exactly 2,800 years later, people still live there, although the word has since changed to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

This concludes Part One of my Armenian history series. Part Two, in which the Armenian people actually appear, will be up next week.


German Lesson #1: The Peace Corps Abridged German-Armenian Dictionary of Terms for Existential Befuddlement

Bier: N., neut. Fermented beverage made with hops, barley, and yeast. Reputed to be very, very good around Germany and its vicinity. Living in Armenia, where the bier is, to put it mildly, nicht gut, you often wonder if going on a trip just to drink foreign beer can be admitted in polite company.

Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft: N., masc. lit. “Association for Subordinate Officials of the Main Maintenance Building of the Danube Steam Shipping Electrical Services.” Frequently-cited example of German compound words taken to ridiculous extremes. There’s no direct evidence that such an office ever existed, but if you spend enough time looking into traveling on or around the Danube River–a beautiful and interesting place that also happens to pass through the heartland of good beer– der Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft has a way of coming up. Continue reading “German Lesson #1: The Peace Corps Abridged German-Armenian Dictionary of Terms for Existential Befuddlement”

English Lesson #2: English English

At the time of this writing, English is the most widely-spoken language in history. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers than English’s 400-odd million, but no other language has as many L2 speakers, and it isn’t even close. According to Ethnologue, by way of Wikipedia, nearly 750 million people speak or study English as a second language. Wikipedia is unreliable, so let’s make a more conservative estimate and cut that number in half: at 375 million it would still rank as the largest L2 language in the world. There are reasons. Hollywood movies play all over the globe; books in English, or translated from English, are sold everywhere. There is the sheer usefulness of the language: in science, business, and diplomacy, English is the indisputable lingua franca (or lingua saxonica, if we want to annoy the French). These are booming times for TEFL, with teachers on every continent making a living from the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. And here I am, doing it for free like a sucker.

Continue reading “English Lesson #2: English English”

History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia

I have a confession to make: I’m actually an Irishman. It’s true: I’m all Irish, all the time, all the way down, and abundantly so. I am super Irish, even excessively Irish: Bono on a blarney stone chanting Flann O’Brien into a fogbank isn’t as Irish as I am, no; I’m more Irish than a pooka in a pocket of Father Ted reading the Book of Kells in Kilkenny. How Irish am I? I’m so Irish, I’ve been living off of potatoes for months. I’m so Irish, I’ve haven’t set foot on the soil of Ireland in decades—you know, like Samuel Beckett, or James Joyce. Who were, you know, Irish.

In fact, I’ve never even set foot on Irish soil. I’m not a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. My passport isn’t from either of those places. I only know a handful of Gaelic words. I can’t name any provinces or subdivisions of the Emerald Isle. I haven’t had a Guinness in two years. I have tried peaty whisky spelled without an “e,” and enjoyed it greatly. I couldn’t name a single Irish footballer. I don’t know who the president of the Republic of Ireland is—if pressed, I would probably say Colum McCann or The Edge. And to the eternal disappointment of everybody, I don’t even have a bit of a brogue. A case might be made, however flimsy, that I am in fact not Irish at all. But here in my village, I’m Irish everywhere it counts: my bloodline. So in my village, at least, I am Clayton Davis, the Irishman from America. Continue reading “History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia”

Music Lesson #1: A Bluffer’s Guide to Armenian Pop Music

It happened while I was watching a New Year’s live comedy show. A pair of comedians were experimenting with a microphone, and they decided to test it out. “Do Sirusho,” the first one said, and his partner sang in a high-pitched wail. “Now do Armenchik,” he said, and the singer switched to a booming ululation. The audience laughed, and I did too, because the impressions were spot-on. Then I thought: did I just understand a joke about Armenian music? I did, and it was a breakthrough. Continue reading “Music Lesson #1: A Bluffer’s Guide to Armenian Pop Music”

Armenian Lesson #6: Hello Again…You!

Walking around is one of my favorite things to do in my village, and it is also one that exposes me the gravest of blunders: saying hello to the same person twice in one day. I can’t speak for other parts of the country, but in my village, at least, it’s considered rude to greet a person you’ve already met that day. It’s as if you forgot about that person, I’ve been told, or that you don’t notice them. Call it a gentler version of asking the name of somebody you’ve already met. So it’s important to keep track of who you’ve met on a given day. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it, because I still don’t know very many people in the village, and strangers are much harder to distinguish than friends, so I make this mistake on a daily basis. To my village’s credit, most people are, as always, unflappably kind towards my mistakes and eccentricities.

In fact, saying “hello” in Armenian invites all kinds of difficulties for me. Having criticized my students for their problems with greetings in English, it’s only fair to admit that I have my troubles saying hello in their language. This is because nothing as simple as “hello” exists in Armenian. I mean it does, but if you’re not fluent, then it really doesn’t. I’m going to explain, but first, I need to admit up-front that everything I write here is tentative, as I’ve only been speaking this language for nine months and I often speak it badly. Case in point: my difficulties in saying hello. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #6: Hello Again…You!”

Weather Lesson #1: Winter Is Icumen In

Ughtasar, December
View of Ughtasar after snow, author’s home, 8 December 2017

There is a medieval English song (one of the oldest in existence, and certainly the earliest nonreligious polyphonic song in English) that goes:

Sumer is icumen in

†Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
†lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ

murie sing cuccu
†Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu


*Sing cucu nu, sing cucu, Sing cucu sing cucu nu Continue reading “Weather Lesson #1: Winter Is Icumen In”

English Lesson #1: It’s Always Morning in Sisian

It’s always morning at my village school. Not in any kind of odd, metaphysical way, as much as time may drag its heels out here. And our clocks aren’t broken—I mean, they often are, but our cell phones tell the right time. And even without phones, my students often keep a running countdown until the end of every class and are likely to use it against you assigning any more work for the class period. What kind of exercises could we possibly get through with only thirty minutes left in class?  But no matter what time it is, whenever my students speak to me in English, they always greet me the same way: good morning, Mr. Davis! It’s always morning, and the morning is always good, be it morning, noon, night, or any other time of day; when our most intrepid chronologists have discovered new forms of temporality in worlds we can scarcely imagine, my students will be there, saying Good morning, Mr. Davis! Back in this world, a 4th grade boy once shouted this at me from across the street. It was 8:45 PM. Continue reading “English Lesson #1: It’s Always Morning in Sisian”

Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners

[I am a man who keeps his promises. Because I promised my advanced English club that, if they would at least try to write a short story incorporating certain vocabulary and grammatical constructions used in that week’s lessons, I would also write such a story. In Armenian. Then I translated it into English. This way, my story would be at a level of English much closer to that of my students. In keeping with the fairy-tale nature of the story, I have accompanied it with my own artistic compositions. Critical observers might notice that the illustrations are poorly drawn and incompetently photographed. Critical observers might be asked to write their own damned short story in a foreign language, illustrate it with a set of dollar-store colored pencils, and photograph it in a dimly-lit village house. Anyway. What follows is my second ever short story written in Armenian, translated as fluently into English as possible while remaining faithful to the atrocious Armenian beneath it.] Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners”

Six Months and Six Moments in Armenia

Old Sisian Factory.
Old factory in western Sisian. Author’s photo, August 2017.
  1. It occurs to me as I cut my chin shaving in the concrete shower/bunker under my house that I’ve now been living in Armenia for six months. I can barely see my chin in the old mirror—despite being exposed, the lightbulb in here seems to cast more shadows than illumination. I’ve been shaving like this for months and somehow haven’t pricked myself to death, although I certainly seem to be trying. My shower room is an empty stone room with rusting pipes and a door made of scrapped plastic, attached to the house but only accessible from outside. Even in the heat of early August, shower room is always cold and damp, and that’s before the faucet comes on. As far as I can tell, the water temperature is controlled by the whim of occult forces out for mischief. On a lucky day, I get several minutes of hot water; usually, I don’t get any. You get used to it after a few days. You get used to the spiders, too. When I first moved here, I would slip off a shower sandal and take out as many spiders as I could. After a few weeks, I’d only go after the most active ones, reasoning that I could instill some kind of discipline by making an example the troublemakers. But spiders are lousy students, though, so I stopped going after them at all. My mood has changed, too and now I praise the spiders as much as I can—that’s because I’ve realized the spiders are my comrades in the fight against the housefly—a densely-packed cow-farming village is perhaps the finest environment Musca domestica can hope to find, and so can always be found in your food, or sitting on your arm. You get used to them, too. A lot can change in six months.

Continue reading “Six Months and Six Moments in Armenia”