Armenia: Children of a Sacred Mountain

From the radiant Armenian Highlands of sacred Mount Ararat to the dark killing grounds of Ottoman Turkey, the Armenian people have endured extreme rites of passage.  An ancient nation, few present-day states can boast of having a developed civilization as far back as the 1st millennium B.C.   An Indo-European people who migrated, together with Thracian-Phyrigian tribes, into Asia Minor, the “Armens” lived side by side with the Urartians, whose ancient monuments still stand in modern day Armenia.

The land also contains some of the most significant cultural examples of sacred geometry, as well as other remarkable prehistoric structures, such as the Stonehenge at Karahundj near Sissian.  This circle of 204 stones has been ascribed with mystical, fertility and cosmic powers, and has caused much debate in astronomical circles.   It is now shown to be a prehistoric observatory, which astronomers date to either the 3rd or 5th millennium BC, predating England’s Stonehenge.

Karahundj map

Armenia has had a long and tumultuous history of occupation and strife.   Because of its strategic location in the trans-Caucasus, the country was often used as a buffer state for other warring nations and has been invaded and occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongolians, Turks and Arabs.  In addition, three hundred miles of the famous Silk Road trade route passed through Armenia, bringing with it not only goods, but also the culture and religion of other civilizations.  Despite this history of invasion, the nation did at times thrive as a major power in the region.  At the height of its glory in 95 B.C., King Tigranes the Great extended the Armenian borders from the Caspian Sea to Egypt, gaining full control over the vast territories. After having subdued the provinces in Syria, Cappadocia and Mesopotamia, Tigranes also conquered Palestine.   But Armenia’s blackest hours were finally met and endured early in the last century in what history identifies as the 20th century’s first Genocide.  

 It is a testament to the Armenian spirit not only that the nation has survived, but with its identity intact.
Two significant historical events contributed to Armenia’s survival:

According to tradition, the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus preached  the Gospel in Armenia, and the nation was converted to Christianity in 301 A.D. by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who built the first Christian Church on earth, Holy Etchmiadzin.  It is said that the Mother Church was built over the altar where Noah prepared a sacrifice after emerging from the Ark which the Bible tells us landed on Mount Ararat.   Since its creation in 302 A.D., the original structure has undergone numerous renovations and reconstructions

Inspiring a powerful and enduring faith, the church has been the central force binding the Armenian spirit and maintaining its culture.

The second most important cultural event in Armenian history was the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. by St. Mesrob Mashtots.   By means of his invention, this fifth century saint gave Armenians more than an efficient system for rendering its language into written form.  He also gave them a cultural and religious identity as well as the means to survive as a people.   Having an alphabet allowed Armenians not only to translate the Bible into their own language but works of Christian theology, saints' lives, history, and works of classical literature as well.  And it allowed them to develop scholarly institutions and a literature of their own, becoming independent and impervious to attempts by Rome to Hellenize them or attempts by the Sassanian empire to re-impose Persian culture on them.

“The Tree of Life” alphabet poster designed by John Semerdjian

In addition, invention of the alphabet inspired a stunning new art form for the Armenians, calligraphy.  Ruben Malayan, a contemporary Armenian calligrapher says: 

“Calligraphy is the script in its purest forms. Its virtues aspire preciseness, beauty, distinctness, simplicity, originality, proportion and ultimately unity, mastership and freedom.… The most stunning examples of Armenian calligraphy lie in the tens of thousands of manuscripts that have been preserved to this day. As works of art, these manuscripts have fostered a period of scientific and philosophical learning for a number of academic (philological and linguistic) communities, and are themselves living cultural remnants of exceptional aesthetic value.”

Drawing: Erkatagir egret by Ruben Malayan

The Armeno-Turkish language:  An interesting note about the Armenian alphabet, as per a scholar of Middle East Studies:  “As a result of Ottoman domination and compulsory conversion to Islam, many Armenians of the Ottoman Empire gradually lost their ancestral language but they adhered religiously to their alphabet. It was their way of preserving, consciously or unconsciously, their ethnic and religious identity and maintaining boundaries around their distinctive identity. For Armenians, religion and alphabet cannot be separated.”  Ironically, there are thousands of examples of writing Turkish with Armenian letters, an overlooked example of the versatility of the Armenian alphabet.