Background and Apologeia
Abbreviations and Terms:
BCE or BC (Before Common Era), and CE or AD (Common Era).
Translations include feminine and masculine genders, according to the language. Some of the old languages used feminine and masculine terms, and some-- like French and Russian-- still do.
One of the amazing things about visiting Armenia is that the more you look around, the older the place gets.
Recent History in Armenia starts in the 4th c. CE, and then goes back to the time Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world. Just Getting Started History begins with the first great Ancestral Armenian Empire, Urartu, which rose around 1250 BC, a potent rival to the Assyrians and Babylonians.
Then there is the Beginning to Get Old History, which begins at the time of Troy, goes past the Old Dynasty era to the Cradle of Civilization, when humans created the first cities, discovered the wheel, and uncovered the secrets of copper, bronze and iron.
But what really begins to tests your ability to comprehend history at all, is that Armenia’s history keeps going back, tens of thousands of years, to the Stone Age, the Paleolithic Era, when some of the oldest pictograms discovered are carved on the sides of mountains. Forerunners of the Indo-European language, these markings show a time when mankind first pictured the world as round, when they began to create the constellations of the zodiac and divided time into months, weeks and days.
All this in little ole Armenia?
I have no doubt if someone dug deep enough anywhere on earth he would find really old artifacts, and I am not about to make the case (as most historians do), that there is one source to everything. That seems to narrow-focussed and pretentious for my tastes (ivory towers seem as brittle as their name). But there is much that is coming to light since the collapse of the Soviet Union to shake an entire library of histories. Starting with the deliberate ignorance of what went on behind the iron curtain as thousands of archeologists, astronomers and linguists uncovered new information about the beginnings of civilization. Let's face it, they simply ignored it because it was…theirs.
75 years of stony silence during the Soviet period prevented much of what was discovered about Armenia’s past from being shared with the outside world. And what did come to light was suppressed by both Communist and Western historians. By the Soviets because it was a threat to the Socialist doctrine of ethnic equality. By Western historians because it was discovered by the Communists.
Artificially divided into their present territories, the Republics of the Caucasus region were created by powers-that-be in order to divide and conquer a region notorious for fighting Imperial control. Pitting rival cultures against each other, they insured Moscow’s constant intervention to maintain peace. So, under Communism, the ‘great’ history of Armenia begins with the Socialist Revolution, as it did for all republics in the USSR. To present an older history --which to the communists meant a ‘greater’ history-- than rival cultures upset the red apple cart. Certainly no ethnic group in the USSR could be older or more sophisticated than Russia’s. Curiously, this capped the beginnings of civilization in the middle bronze age.
Funded by the same government that suppressed their discoveries, archeologists continued to uncover layer after layer of history that now places Armenia as the location of one of the first cultures on earth. And while the actual science of archeology became more sophisticated (at times surpassing that used in the West), the results were censored or relegated to the back pages of scholarly journals.
Meanwhile Western historians and archeologists shaped the story of Civilization to a different ideology, often squabbling with their nemesis' at other academies along the way (Wasn't it Kissinger who said the most ruthless politics are practiced by the most useless states?). Up until recently, they furthered a “Classical View” of history that centers on a sudden flowering of western culture in Greece. Hey might footnote Egypt and Mesopotamia (the more daring include one chapter on all of Asia), but they were considered to have relatively little influence on the country of Plato and Aristotle. You only need to reread your standard History of the World to see a great leap from the Stone Age to Greece.
Or not even that. The World History I studied gave one paragraph to the Stone Age, two to Mesopotamia, and three to Egypt. Then they launched into a four-chapter section on Greece, praising the "gleaming white marble monuments and reflections of man". As if! Did no one tell them those white monuments were covered with paint?
So, as opposed to the sudden eruption of civilized man with the revolution, we have the sudden eruption of civilized man in Greece. I don't know about you, but I wasn't born yesterday, and I don't see much use in narrow-minded views of history--especially as written by someone who wasn't there to know for sure.
With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a new kind of suppression of history has occurred--an economic one. There is little money to fund contact between Armenian archeologists and historians with their counterparts in the West. Or, in a more insidious way, Western countries (most notably France) fund excavations and studies that are controlled by their own archeologists and historians. As the facts begin to surface, it seems that others still want to lay claim to being the first to “discover” them.
What follows is based on both reference sources in the West and on information supplied by working archeologists, linguists and historians in Armenia. Much of it is common knowledge in the former Soviet Union, which is now beginning to be accepted in the West, dramatically changing the account of history. Much of it is pure logical thinking, based on what is known, and what is guessed at. If it verges on the incredible, the proof lies around you in Armenia, welcoming your own investigation, to question, to doubt, or--like so many world specialists--to change your view of the order of things.
Where is Armenia?
The Republic of Armenia lies in the eastern part of a territory called the Armenian Plateau. The Plateau itself is about 300,000 square kilometers of mountains, rivers, and fertile though rocky land (about the same size and terrain as New Mexico). It extends from the lower Caucasus Mountains in the East-Northeast to the Taurus Mountains in the South and West (a natural border between Armenia and Mesopotamia) to the mountains just below the Black Sea.
The plateau lies in the northeastern part of three plateaus that will help you find it: Anatolia, The Iranian Plateau, and the Armenian Plateau itself. Together they look like a triangle of land between the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas, and form Asia Minor. Within Asia Minor you can see three large lakes: Sevan, Urmia, and Van. These form a smaller triangle of land that is the heart of traditional Armenian territory, also called Greater or Historic Armenia.
The entire plateau was continuously inhabited by Ancestral Armenians and their descendants up until the early 20th century. The Republic of Armenia makes up 10% of this territory, but at its greatest extent in the 1st century BC, Armenia covered much of Asia Minor itself.
The land itself is rich with minerals and precious gems, and the first forging of bronze and iron are traced to this territory. The metal industry allowed the creation of a powerful group of tribes that controlled commerce between the empires of the West and Mesopotamia, and Asia. Though mountainous and rocky, the soil is fertile, blessed with a system of rivers, lakes and underground reservoirs that allowed large-scale agriculture to develop at a very early period. The most fertile valley in Western Asia lies in the Ararat Valley, followed by that surrounding Lake Van.
In fact, what surprises many a visitor to Armenia is just how fertile Armenia is. Too many folks who obviously never ventured outside their hotel rooms have written misleading (and often false) reports about the country. Of the ten major geographical zones on earth, seven lie in Armenia, encompassing large stretches of oak, pine and elm forests, rolling alpine meadows, swamps, deserts and rich farmland.
Lying on the main trade routes between Asia and Mesopotamia in the South, and the Mediterranean in the West, Ancestral Armenian cultures were the focus of countless conflicts over territory. For a succession of millennia, Ancestral Armenians and their descendants were in constant warfare with neighboring or invading cultures - Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Parthians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians each held sway over Armenia’s lands in some way or other. Fiercely resisting these invasions, Armenians succeeded in preserving their ethnic identity, creating a unique culture that, while borrowing from surrounding or ruling cultures, never lost its essential nature, so that it is possible to trace the roots of Armenia’s culture to the earliest of times. And, perhaps most surprising of all, as archeologists continue to uncover strata of history going back 1 million years, it is becoming apparent that the ‘conquering’ empires borrowed more from the Armenians than they gave.
I admit I am fascinated by history. I love looking for the continuous in all that mass of quandaries.
Each time I walk through an old temple or a field of stones, and someone tells me that the Seljuks attacked right here, or the Assyrians rumbled in on their chariots over there, I just can’t help but make a story of what it must have been like. I may not know exactly who the Seljuks and Assyrians were, but it fires my imagination.
As told by Armenians, the history of Armenia comes alive--they spice it with legends and stories that make you think those 12th c BCE Phrygians are just around the bend there, retreating from Troy and ready to assimilate. This is living history, laced with bread, cheese and wine. Learning that those three food groups were discovered over here, grown through irrigation canals dug in the time of Babylon, that the land itself has witnessed thousands of years of harvest and toil--well, it's enough to make one poetic. Pass over some more of that Phrygian wine!
And then there is the history most of us read.
If you're like me, all those dates and figures and names just sort of flow over your head and end up in the nether world somewhere. Sure, it’s nice to know someone has a research job to put all those dates and names and figures down on paper, but did they have to do it on MY time?
This is what I call dead history, and I have to daydream when I read it, simply to make it personal.
History is, after all, a STORY. And the story of Armenia is both very old, and very special. Because it is a story of people, and people are very interesting things. And like any story, it is most interesting when we can touch it, see it, feel it--how stunning, how beautiful, how bloody, how awful, how strange it must have been. How it was.
But going someplace without knowing something about what you’re going to see is like the time I went on a tour to the great pyramids at Giza. An—I hate to admit it—American couple were all bubbly about seeing the Sphinx, and when our bus pulled up, the bubbles burst as they forlornly sat and gaped at the monument. “Is that it?!”, the wife exclaimed. “Las Vegas has a better Sphinx than that!”
‘And Caesar’s Palace has a bigger forum than Rome’, I mused. These folks just didn’t know what it meant to build the Sphinx in a time there wasn’t prefab construction or Formica to pave the tops of our kitchens. And dates? Well that was something they were buying at the street bazaar, washed down with Pepto Bismol.
They needed a story to understand what they were seeing. And this chapter is devoted to Armenia’s story. This story is for those who are going to visit or have visited Armenia, as well as for the armchair visitor who likes a ripping good tale. Take it together for a longer history before you come, or read it in sections while you are here as you visit site by site, and let the history come alive.
If I get a little too detailed, and you feel that 6th grade glaze coming over your eyes, bear with me: we are writing a story, but somehow dates just have to enter into it. This history isn’t trying to be scholarly, and it ain’t gonna shake any ivory towers (researchers, sleep well tonight). But it is condensing an awful lot of information into a few pages. If you want to learn more about any part of Armenia’s history, you can look them up in the section called “Reading”, or visit a library.