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.
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.
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.
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.