A Short History of Armenia


I admit I am fascinated by history. I love looking for the continuous in all that mass of quandaries. Knowing something about where I am makes me feel closer to it, and knowing a deep history about a place makes me feel wonderful: Each time I walk through a temple or a field of stones, and someone tells me that the Seljuks attacked at this place, or the Assyrians were there and scribbled some inscriptions on those stones, I cannot help but create a story of what it must have been like at that time. 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, about to attack. This is living history, laced with bread, cheese and wine. Learning that those three foods were engineered over here, that they were grown with irrigation built thousands of years ago, and the songs they sing are older than I can begin to imagine, it is history the Armenians are expert at telling.


And then there is the history most of us read: if you are like me, all those dates and figures and names just sort of flow over your head and end up in the nether world someplace. 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 day dream 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. Because history is most interesting when we can touch it and see it, feel how beautiful or bloody or awful or peculiar it is to us, this history is written with that in mind.


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 excited about seeing the Sphinx, and when our bus pulled up to it, their faces dropped with disappointment, and one of them blurted out, "Is that it?! Las Vegas has a better Sphinx than that!"


‘And Caesar’s Palace has a bigger forum than Rome’, I mused, but did not say. These folks just didn’t know what it meant to build the Sphinx in that time, when there wasn’t prefab construction, nor Formica to pave the tops of our kitchens. And dates? Well that was something they were buying at the street bazaar to wash down with their Pepto Bismol.


They needed a story to understand what they were seeing, and this section is devoted to Armenia’s story. This history is for those who are going to visit Armenia and for the arm-chair historian who likes a ripping good tale. It is divided into sections, each with an actual tour or excursion to a related site in Armenia, so you can touch the story while you read it. 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, please bear with me: I am 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. It’s all there.


Abbreviations and Terms:

A few pointers (and thanks to my friend, Jay, who keeps me on track):


The dating system I use is BCE (before common era), and CE (common era). Traditionalists can think "BC" and "AD" for the same things.


When I use a quote, I use it as it was translated, including feminine and masculine genders. This is not meant as a slight against anyone, but simply respects language as it existed back then, or still exists now. Some of the old languages used feminine and masculine terms, and some, like French and Russian, still do.

Where is Armenia?

Modern Armenia is on the Eastern part of a territory called the Armenian Plateau. The Plateau itself is 300,000 sq. kilometers of mountains, rivers, and fertile, though rocky land (about the same size and terrain as New Mexico).




The Armenian Plateau lies in the Northeastern part of three plateaus which will help you find it: Anatolia (Western Turkey, Western Iraq, and Syria), 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. This smaller triangle of land is the heart of traditional Armenian territory. The Republic of Armenia makes up 10% of this territory, but at its greatest extent in the 1st century BCE, Armenia covered much of Asia Minor itself.


In Ancient times (we’re talking Prehistory to 500 BCE, here), both Asia Minor and the Iranian Plateau together made up much of what was called the "Fertile Crescent", which was then a rich land that allowed the hunters and gatherers to farm and develop cities and states. It is from this land that many of the great empires of olden times sprung.

The Beginnings, A Concept of Time:

In Armenia we can begin with a ca. 90,000 BCE settlement and prehistoric drawings, then move to the legendary Noah’s Ark and follow a story and mythology that parallels the great empires and cultures of the Ancient world up to relics left by Turkish janissaries a few decades ago. While every other culture which began in this region rose and fell, the Armenian nation continues. Even the neighboring cultures some consider very old are toddlers in historical time.


Toddlers? Not even babies: Armenia’s culture is older than Europe, it is older than Greece and Rome. While the first record of the word "Armenia" (called "Arminya") and its people (called "Armena") are found on clay tablets during the reign of the Achaemenid King Darius I, the Armenian culture has much older roots, it goes back to Mesopotamia, before the time of Egypt, China and the Indus civilization. In some Armenian’s mind it even goes back to the beginning. Of everything.


But what does this really mean? If you try to put things into perspective by comparing Armenia’s history to other cultures, you can see it in a relative place in time. Still, many people probably can’t fathom much more than a few hundred years, so if we toss out 1000’s of years of time, it may not mean a lot. After all, one’s BCE is another’s BWM (Before Walmart).


Some people imagine history compared to their own country’s. By this count, the USA is 220 years old, France is 15 X older then the USA, Egypt 36 X older and the earliest civilizations we know about (including the ancestors of the Armenians) are 40 X older than the USA. The earliest cave drawings are 130 times older than the USA. All that math still somehow doesn’t put it into perspective, does it?


Others think of time in terms of who they know, the oldest ones, and how many more of those lives there must have been to go back to a place in history. My aunt can trace our family to Elizabethan England and Feudal France. But that is not even 500 years, and old history is 18 times more than that. Prehistory is impossible to fathom, because it is millions of years old, and we tend to describe 10,000 years in a few words. Easy to read, but silly to try and comprehend.


Maybe the best way to look at it is to think of forever, and just when you begin to get a little scared of that thought, and feel really insignificant in the whole scheme of things, start from there. Before cities, before tools, before fire, when people didn’t have time, they simply lived it. They worshipped the sun because it meant the difference between staying warm or cold, when the world was covered with huge masses of ice in its Northern regions, and when people moved from place to place just to stay alive. They lived in groups because they had to defend themselves against the world, and they worshipped the world because it let them live. They fought with other tribes over resources; water, hunting and land. They told stories, pieces of which are on cliff drawings going back 25,000 years before we live. These people are the beginning of all modern cultures, the greatest great grandparents we have. The Armenian plateau has revealed these earliest ancestors, through 750,000 year old skeletons and simple hunting tools.

The Roots: Pictograms and early Settlement

The story of the Armenians includes myths and legends, and one of the earliest timelines forms the basis of Armenia’s identity. According to this timeline the Armenians are direct descendants of the sons of Noah, whose ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat after the Great Flood.


Of course with this timeline, some of you may want to suspend some archeological facts for a little mythical belief. However, considering the discovery of Troy was pointed to by a story of the "mythical" Trojan War (which is now known to have actually occurred), and the Old Testament has been more and more shown to indicate actual history, perhaps this timeline does not need to be treated so much as myth but as a probable reality. For example, there was a flood that covered much of the world around 13,600 BCE as the world warmed through a tilting of its rotational axis and glaciers melted. The Bible speaks of the mountain Noah lands on as Ararat or Alarod. Other cultures called the mountain Urartu or Ararta. These different words describe the same place.


Some of the earliest strains of wheat and wheat production on a large scale have been discovered in the Armenian plateau, dating back 15,000 years before our time. Linguists and archeologists have begun to settle on the Armenian plateau as the birth of farming and collective work among people. They have also begun to think that the Indo-European migration that precipitated much of Ancient history may in fact have sprung from the Armenian plateau and worked its way through Central Asia into Europe and Northern India.


What we do know is that the first recordings left by inhabitants of the Armenian plateau are found in stone pictograms in the Geghama Mountain Range by Lake Sevan. They include Paleolithic (15,000 - 12,000 BCE), Mesolithic (12,000 - 7,000 BCE) and Neolithic (7,000 -5,000 BCE) pictograms, and put the inception of the Armenian race at least as far back as the time of the great flood.



The pictograms are illustrations of the important parts of the people’s lives who lived there. The earliest in Armenia mostly show animals (wild deer, rabbits and the first signs of domesticated dogs and goats), water and simple outlines of dwellings, pointing to either an enclosed area (symbolizing land or territory), or perhaps a cave, since there is only one entrance drawn. They concern the most important parts of people’s lives: staying together, protecting ourselves from the elements, and finding things to eat. Things haven’t changed that much in the world, have they?


By the Mesolithic period, the population of the world had grown to about 3 million, and the drawings give a little hint on partly how they became successful at propagating their own kind: drawings show herds of animals, including mammoths and antelope. The drawings of mammoths might by souvenirs of victory at a hunt, and are a far step away from the little rabbits shown scurrying away in the earlier period. Some think they show a concerted hunt effort, since only groups could bring down a mammoth, while any one could snare a rabbit. What they show me is that there was a feast for the tribe that grabbed the big mammoth, and slim pickin’s for those who stuck with rabbits.


By the Neolithic period, much of the land between the Persian gulf and Egypt became a desert. We aren’t sure exactly why (theories keep the weather folks busy), but it forced people into a smaller area centered on rivers and oasis’. It is a time when the "fertile crescent" developed as the center of civilization, and an increased reliance on hunting tools as well as irrigation grew. Simple stick figures in the pictograms introduce the person himself into the story of the drawing. There is a more sophisticated iconography in the latter period, and a greater variety in the representations of animals. People are shown not only in standing positions, but holding weapons, bending and in movement. There is one with three figures that could be illustrating a dance, and another that looks as though the person is holding the body of another person.


There is one figure that suggest a strong link between the people in Armenia and the Sumerians (until recently considered the first urban culture). It is a spiral with a jagged tail leading to a cross, that leads on its upper stem to a smaller cross It may be a map of sorts, showing a way over a mountain (round and round its sides), and then a series of climbing steps leading to the crossroads (one of the first road systems), or it may be a design based on a cosmic occurrence. Some think it is the first picture of movement, showing a wheel in motion as it tumbles down the side of a hill and continues on to a major intersection or town. Perhaps it is both a map and movement, showing the way wheeled vehicles can go over the mountain to a place where flat roads lie. The wheel, which by 6500 BCE the early Sumerians are credited with inventing, made transportation a lot easier (if bumpy over those steps and rocky mountainsides), and can be considered one of the first inventions of technology.


ILLUSTRATION: Inscriptions


Among the figures found are the first known swastikas and crosses more than 9,000 years old (that’s 40 X the USA, for those of you counting). Perhaps recording a celestial event (falling stars), these symbols are the first that do not depict a person or animal, and bring our focus to the upper world. The swastikas lie within larger designs, which may have been a form of a map, showing the location of the event, or where a meteorite had landed.


By the Copper-Bronze Age (5000 - 2000 BCE), there seems to be a growing importance on showing people and the heavens in the pictograms, and the world is beginning to grow a little smaller in the confines of drawing. Some of the drawings show people dressed in costumes, lightning, fire, and birds. Symbols representing abstract ideas are developed to the point that the earliest designs used in making the Armenian alphabet can be found. (See The Evolution of the Armenian Alphabet).





GEGHAMA LEHR: Volcanoes and Vishaps (15,000 BCE - 2,000 BCE)


YEREVAN: Yeritsian Benik (ca. 90,000 BCE)

First Cities

From the time of the flood jump forward 4000 years. People are planting, farming, and gathering together into villages and towns. The use of fire and metal to create tools and weapons puts a significant dent on the threat of being attacked by four-legged carnivores (two-legged ones are another story), and a rich storytelling and religious culture begins. People no longer worship the elements just for survival, they give the elements a human spirit, and to invest them with another world. We’re going back to the time of earliest cultures in Asia Minor, the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization".


Mesopotamia was located between the Euphrates and the Tigres rivers, in present day Iraq, and excavations there show some of the earliest unified groups of people moving from caves and roaming around, to mud brick cities and farming--hey, for people who spent thousands of years sitting around in grass, mud was considered a miracle of construction!. It still is, as you can see for yourself if you venture as near as the pueblos in the American Southwest. Mud is an excellent material for building, it is cheap and readily available (just add water and a binding agent like clay or straw, let it dry in pre-cut blocks, and keep the rain off. If it washes away, recycle), and large buildings can be created from it. In Central Asia along the Incense Road, there are cities with buildings four and five stories tall made from this wunderbar stuff. Excavations in Mesopotamia also show the first use of irrigation, and the area was at that time the wealthiest farming region in the world, including wheat.


However, wheat is not a native grain to Mesopotamia, it was brought from another place. On the Armenian plateau there is proof of the first domestication of wheat which have been traced to an origin of 15,000 years before us (that is, about the time of the great flood). About 20 years ago, a botanist discovered one strain of this early wheat in the republic of Armenia, as well as a very early brewing process for the forefather of beer. Somehow it made its way south to Mesopotamia and west to Anatolia, and from there over to Egypt and the Aegean cultures, which took advantage of its use on a large scale.


The land in Mesopotamia had to be irrigated since it is fertile but parched. The Euphrates and the Tigres rivers are plentiful with water, but they are much like the Nile--if you divert the water, good for you, you get to use it. If you don’t, then it just runs on down to the Persian Sea. Among the people who lived in Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, who were a Hamito-Semitic race inhabiting the area beginning about 7000 BCE. They rose to prominence around 4000 BCE, and created the first major city, Ur about 3500 BCE. The Sumerians are the forefathers of the first empire Akkad and, later on, their cousins the Babylonians and Assyrians rivaled the Egyptians for splendor and power. Sumerians are attributed with creating the wheel and perfecting one of the earliest writing methods--the cuneiform. The Egyptian hieroglyphs were very close in structure to the cuneiform, and were developed at the same time. Both systems relied on pictograph symbols to express ideas (like the drawings in Armenia), but they created a short-cut method of communicating that could express abstract thoughts into sentence structure. We tend to think of cuneiform as wedge shaped slashes on clay tablets, and hieroglyphs as elaborate pictures etched and painted on stone, but both were basically pictures of ideas. Between 400-600 cuneiform pictographs were used in Sumeria, as opposed to the 30 or less letters used in most modern alphabets. Modern hieroglyphic languages such as Chinese and Japanese, have as many as 4000 characters in their writing systems.


Cuneiform was also used by other cultures in the region, including a much race of people who described themselves as the Biainili, while others called them Urartans, the Armeh, the people from Nairi, or the inhabitants of the Armenian mountains. The Urartans are the last step of evolution before a distinct race of people called "Armenians or The Hai" emerged as a regional power.


I’ve said that the Sumerians built the first city, Ur, and that it was made of mud brick. They were not alone in building with mud and making cities, and they may not be the first to build a large city. On the Armenian Plateau there are several excavations dating from the same period and before. They include Shengavit, Lechashen on Lake Sevan, Arzeni and Oshakan




SHENGAVIT TOUR: Neolithic to Bronze Age


ARZENI and OSHAKAN TOUR: Stone covered underground shelters




For perspective, the people living at Shengavit, Lechashen, Arzeni and Oshakan were neighbors with the oldest civilization Sumeria, the first important trade city Elam, and the first empire Akkad. They inhabited the Armenian Plateau before the great pyramids, Greece wasn’t even a thought, and the first dynasty in China was about 2000 years away. At the same time Lechashen was flourishing, the Minoans were beginning to create their culture on Crete, and the Old Kingdom in Egypt had just brought together the lower and upper kingdoms into one unified country.

The First Unification

Shengavit and Lechashen were only one of many cities in the area which go back to the earliest recorded times. As the cities grew, they began to form links with each other, and eventually those links led to the first "countries".


The first written mention of a unified country of people inhabiting the Armenian plateau is in a Sumerian Map dated 2400-2300 BCE, which mentions a people living in the "land (country) of the mountain where the gods meet". This territory lay between the Tigres and Euphrates river, and is the Armenian Plateau. Ancient maps were not maps as we think of them (triple A is a recent occurrence), they recorded information about what was out there, not necessarily exactly where. They also wrote about only the most important and known kingdoms or nations, so this first reference by Sumerians indicates a strong and organized country in Armenia at least as far back as the 4th millennium BCE.


What this country and its people were like we can figure by looking at the finds at Shengavit and at an earlier ring of cities, MokhraBlur, AdaBlur and Metsamor. Later, because if you think that whatever changes happened at that time, happened gradually (remember we’re talking eons of time back then), and had to move from its source over mountains and rough terrain and up rivers, and then be accepted by the people it reached. The earliest story we know of is an epic poem given to us by the Sumerians. It is called Gilgamesh (5th-4th millennium BCE), and recounts the history of the world through the travels of its hero, Gilgamesh. In the epic poem, there is mention of a land called "Arata", where visitors had to "go by mountain, return by river". This perfectly described the Armenian Plateau, and shows how difficult it was to travel then. Just imagine getting a patent for a new idea up there when all you had were your legs and some clay tablets as visiting cards.


Not everybody was willing to accept new technology or ideas. Some ideas must have gone against traditions, taboos or even religious thought. Imagine someone walking up to you--you who have spent your whole life, just as your parents and your grandparents worshipping the sun as the source of fire and light--- pulling out a Bic lighter and flicking it in your face! It would do a bit to shake the foundations of your whole reason for being. And possibly put that Bic man on the next chopping block in front of the gods. Or else, you would accept the gift, and start flicking Bic’s at the next ritual.


Something like this happened during the end of the Neolithic and Copper-Bronze ages, when fire was seen to turn rock into a liquid, and from that into a hard thing that could be used for tools, cooking and weapons. It could even be molded into the likeness of gods, creating the first metallic 3-D experience. Within a matter of hours (by history’s count), the whole organization of society changed. And it meant the difference between survival or death for the people in the ancient world of the Near East. As early as Sumeria and Shengavit, we see wide-scale use of copper. And sometime in the 6th-5th millennium BCE, we begin to see an alloy of copper and tin into Bronze in the Armenian Plateau.



Metal and Iron

Of course iron is a metal, but speaking poetically, we are thinking of the difference between copper and bronze (soft metals) and iron (hard metal). Both are liquids, but the difference is enormous in the ways they freeze.


By the time of Lechashen, copper was in wide use. As the use of bronze spread throughout the world, so did the rise of many cultures. It was a spark that at last pulled the people out of the woods and into collective efforts. Not sure you got that? Well, let’s look at when bronze became widespread, and at the list of major cultures that suddenly appeared: Bronze is used in Armenia and Sumeria by 3500 BCE (the great cities of Ur, Shengavit and Metsamor). By 3000 BCE, it had been introduced to the Aegean and Egypt (and we have first empire Akkad, the Old Kingdom in Egypt, and the Minoans are established on Crete: developing hieroglyphs, by the way). By 2000 BCE, bronze is widespread throughout the ancient world (the Middle Kingdom is expanding, the first Babylonians and Assyrians are taking note of their place in things, the Minoans are busy building the labyrinth at Knossos, the Indus have taken mud to a new art in Pakistan, and the kingdoms of China start the first, mythic Hsia dynasty).


Along with Bronze and Copper, gold and silver were processed throughout most of the old world. There were several places in the Ancient world where the precious metals were of a higher ("cleaner") quality. The Armenian Plateau had large deposits of these pure metals, and the mountains in the Caucasus still produce pure strains of gold and silver, along with diamonds. The metal and gem trade added to the wealth of the early cities, and encouraged trade with outside countries.


Sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE, a new metal was forged for the first time, and it’s use would change everything about making weapons and building empires. We’re talking iron here, the thing that we buy Rustoleum to protect, but which the ancients worshipped and coveted. The smelting of iron--like bronze--was engineered by the people living in this part of the world, and slowly moved west. Which makes sense, after all, after the wheel, how are you going to top yourself? Make a better wheel. Iron is a plentiful resource, so most areas of the world can extract it. Huge amounts of it can be found in Mesopotamia and the Armenian Plateau. Since metal foundries forging copper, brass and bronze go back to 5000 BCE in the area, they would be pretty good places for research and development in finding new metal.


The difference between bronze and iron is like the difference between a Bic lighter and a blow torch. With metal shields, helmets and weapons, soldiers lasted a lot longer in battle against arrows and spears. Those who had iron weapons pretty much made bronze and copper useless except as decorator items. And iron was a protected monopoly. As soon as this marvelous rust-able item was seen, it was coveted and valued more than precious gems and gold.. If not by bribery, then by secret agents sent to ferret the secret out. If not by spying, then by war. An interesting fable written by Nikos Kanzantzakis called the Palaces of Knossos, includes a mythical account of how iron was secreted into the last Minoan kingdom (it was Icarus, according to this story).


When was iron first smelted? No one can say for sure, but the Hittites (which came on the scene along with the Babylonians and Assyrians about 1800 BCE) are credited in Encyclopedias with being among the first, and it wasn’t until 1350 BCE that the Egyptians were able to process it themselves.


One of the hazards of writing history is that you always will get shown up by new information, so we have a little news for the encyclopedia folks: time to renew your editions. Excavations in Sumeria show early iron smelting before the Hittites, and in Metsamor, just outside of Yerevan, there was a fortified city with a metal forge that smelted--you guessed it-- iron 200 years before the Sumerians.


Almost all of Armenia’s early cities had a thriving metal trade. Lechashen, which was featured in the First Cities Tour, is contemporary with Metsamor and others. The difference is that Metsamor, along with AdaBlur and MokhraBlur, were built in the Ararat Valley, a fertile crescent of land that wraps around Mount Ararat on its Eastern side. The culture that sprung from the valley combined metallurgy, farming and hunting with trade. Along with Lechashen and Shengavit, they are part of Armenia’s own "Cradle of Civilization," a sophisticated culture that did more than trade and produce metal, it also


The First Astronomers?


Metzamor (active ca. 5000 BCE - 17th c. CE), not only has excavations of a metal foundry showing one of the earliest uses of iron, it also has one of the earliest observatories in the world. Since the Babylonians were thought to be the first astronomers, and they didn’t rise as a power until 1800 BCE, this puts Metsamor squarely into the center of star gazing a long time before them. The observatory goes back to 2800 BCE.


Take another look at the Pictograms from the Neolithic period.


ILLUSTRATION: Calendar figures.


Those stick figures that could be weird creatures storming a cave dwelling are actually some of the first horoscope renderings for the twelve months of the year. You can detect Leo, Taurus, Scorpio and Capricorn among them. Another figure shows a circle with twelve "petals" around it. The twelve months. One more figure clearly shows four figures around a circle divided into four sections, and is said to show that the inhabitants of Armenia at that time were able to imagine the world into a spherical shape, something that the observation of the cosmos allows.


An even earlier observatory can be found near Sissian. Previously called Khoshun Dash or Zorats Kar, the mountain observatory is Karahundj, "Armenia’s Stonehenge". Linguists suggest the English name "Stonehenge" may be inherited from the Ancient Armenians. In old Armenian the world ‘hundj’ may have been ‘pundj’ which means bouquet. Over time, we think they changed it to ‘hundj’ which is very close to the English ‘henge’. According to Paris Herouni, director of the preservation project for Karahundj, "hundj" is an old Armenian word for voice, and the name Karahundj means "Singing Stones".

There are many Stonehenges, including others in England, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. The one in Ireland is called "Kalinish", which is very close to the Armenian "Stone Sign". A town near another in England is named "Karnak", but in old English it was "Karnish," also meaning Stone Sign. The word Singing Stones makes sense, since at each site is in an open field, and the wind whistles through the stones. At England’s Stonehenge, groups gather at the March Solstice to listen.


Using the oldest rock at the site, a stellar calendar and the astronomic coordinates at the complex, Herouni discovered that the site was first used to observe the star Capella, which was ascendant in Sissian region 4,200 BCE.


So, the poor Babylonians who were thought to have started it all, are predated by 2400 years. We’ll give them the counting system based on 60 (which we still use in counting time). Until the next discovery.


The foundries and observatories at Metsamor, MokhraBlur and the ritual stone circle by Sisian show a remarkably developed civilization that was important in manufacturing metal (including iron), had developed a sophisticated relationship with the Astro world, and was able to observe astronomical occurrences, divide the year into twelve months, four seasons, and think of the world as a sphere (Galileo would have been proud).








KARAHUNDJ: Armenia’s Stonehenge


The Indo-Europeans

At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, during the height of the Bronze Age, warlike, nomadic tribes of Indo-European (Indo-Aryan) tribes spread throughout the Ancient World. Indo-Europeans were one of the largest migrating forces in the Ancient World, bringing a unique language form that still makes up the largest family of languages in the modern world (see Indo-European Language Tree). It is still possible to trace the roots of some words in Armenian to old or vedic Sanskrit, which was devised by Indo-Europeans in the Punjab. In the East they invaded Northwest India (1500 BCE) while in the West they came through the Balkans to inhabit Europe and Asia Minor. The tribes that invaded Asia minor included the Hittites and also settled on the Armenian Plateau and the Western Persian or Iranian Plateau. The Indo-European languages the new tribes used were distinct from the Semitic languages of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, but surviving written descriptions in Asia Minor are in cuneiform devised by Sumerians and later incorporated into Babylonian and Assyrian script. The cuneiform was also used by these new tribes, while they preserved their native dialects and language.


2000-1800 BCE cuneiforms note migrating peoples from the outside who lived with the original tribes. These peoples would have been the migrating Indo-Europeans (including the Hittites), for cuneiforms used such expressions as "we came, we conquered and we captured" as their calling cards.


Another movement of Indo-Europeans is recorded in the 12th c BCE. It is about Thraco-Phrygian tribes (called "foreign settlers") who were pushed out of Thrace and Phrygia by "the people of the Sea" (i.e., early Greeks, Minoans or Mycanaeans) around 1200 BCE (there’s Troy again!), and who moved through the Euphrates into the Armenian Plateau. These tribes lived with Armenian Ancestors and other tribes and formed a hybrid culture which is the beginning of an extant Armenian identity, including an Indo-European language and Aryan features (tall with blonde-hair and blue-eyes) among the people.


Let’s put this into perspective and mark the ancestors of Armenia continuously inhabiting the Armenian Plateau throughout the rise and fall of the Old and Middle Kingdoms in Egypt, the entire history of Minoan and Mycanaean cultures (ca 2200-1400 BCE) and the Indus civilization in present day Pakistan (ca. 2500-1500 BCE), the first semi-mythical Hsia (ca 2000-1523 BCE) and most of the Shang (1766-1027 BCE) Dynasties in China. Greece and Rome are by now a gleam in the eyes of historian researchers.


The combination of migrating Indo-Europeans with native cultures was bound to create more than a little cross-fertilization of people and ideas, and within the next 1000 years several regional kingdoms using an Indo-European language emerged.


There is a clay tablet written by the Hittites about 2000 BCE (discovered in an excavation of the Hittite capital Hatusas--or Boghazkeui-- in N. Central Turkey), which first mentions a tribe of people called Haius, and said they were from the country of Haiassa-Aza. This was a predominant tribe in the region, vassals of the Hittite kingdom, and said to be a distinct Indo-European tribe that introduced its language and customs to neighboring tribes. The Haius were often in rebellion with the Hittites, and they were influential in spreading their culture eastwards, to the peoples on the Armenian plateau. In addition, the architectural and cultural influences of the Hittites were filtered into the region through Haiassa-Aza.


Beginning about 2000 BCE, the Assyrians used the name "Nairi" to describe the same area. The territory and people both were called Nairi, but the word meant country or land of Rivers, and contemporary Assyrian accounts describe about 60 different tribes and small kingdoms and about 100 cities included in this land The Nairi were most likely the most influential tribe in this union of tribes, and were closest to the Assyrian Empire.


About the word Nairi: The Armenian letter "i" (sounds like "ee") can be traced to 15th c. BCE inscriptions for water. Both the Nairi and Haius used this sound/symbol, as did the Assyrians. Thus, Nair- land, and i = water/rivers. The land of rivers north of Mesopotamia, is that between the Euphrates and the Tigres, which flow from tributaries and sources above and below Mount Ararat. Ararat was already known as the mountain of the gods, and the territory was one of the trade routes from Central Asia and beyond.


The Nairi were considered a force strong enough to tackle the Assyrians and Hittites, and populated a large territory rich in resources. The excavation at Metsamor shows they were in contact with other major cultures, and were among the first people’s to forge iron, which would have made them very attractive pickings to the larger powers.


An extract from a cuneiform of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077 BCE) shows an early history of invasion. He described the kingdom of Nairi as "a vast and unknown country which has never been subjugated… I captured their largest towns and confiscated their possessions. I destroyed their settlements by fire and turned them into heaps of ruins and wastelands. I seized their herds of horses, mules and cows and their planting tools and carried them away…"


The Assyrians never succeeded in completely subjugating the people of Nairi, but within 200 years its influence waned through the rise of a related tribe, the Urartu. This early slave-holding state first occupied the territories lying around Lake Van, on the eastern shore of which lay its capital, Tushpa (present town of Van). This is the same territory inhabited by the Nairi. As the Urartian kingdom rose to become one of the greatest regional powers in the region, the Nairi gradually disappeared within the limits of the country of Khubushkia, south of Lake van on the banks of the river Bokhtan-su, though they continued to be mentioned by Assyrian kings until the 8th c BCE.



Why do Armenians call themselves "Hai"?

History is often messy. Here we have three names used for the same territory at the same time, and the references go beyond "same people/different name"--they seem to describe distinct groups of people inhabiting the same place, though they are somehow related. So what now, professor? Well let’s start with this:


There were several names used to describe the tribes inhabiting the Armenian Plateau and surrounding area, among them Haiassa-Aza, Urartu and Nairi. Are they the same? And are the differences between Urartu and Ararat a misspelling? Well, yes, and no. When you consider how many different cultures were inhabiting Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, with separate dialects and languages, it is not hard to see how different names would be used to describe the same people. And the Armenian plateau was inhabited by numerous tribes, each having their own territory and name for themselves. At the same time, the native tribes were mixing with the Indo European tribes moving into the neighborhood.


The Urartians were one of many tribes that inhabited the region, which either unified surrounding tribes in union or subjugated them as it increased its territory. This in part explains the fuzziness of linking direct descendants of the present Armenian race to any one lineage (and why so many historians still have their research jobs). So we have Nairi and Urartu (Assyrian cuneiforms), and Haius (Hittite cuneiform), but these are only three of the many tribes recorded living in the area.


In addition, the founder of the Urartu kingdom and its first king was Aram, or Arameh (860-843 BCE), and the name of the country itself--Urartu, is, according to an ancient inscription, a variant of the word Ararat. There is some belief that the first syllable Ar can be attributed to the Indo-Europeans (Indo-Aryans). Others think that since king Aram has been preserved in pagan legends and tales, foreign cultures subsequently began calling the people or one of its tribes Aramens or Armens, and the country Armeh. Another thought is that the Armens were a distinct tribe which mixed with the Haius and the Urartuans and so gave the people it’s name. But that leaves the Haius out, which are credited with spreading the Indo-European culture to the Ancestral Armenian tribes? Maybe the Hittites got caught up in a fit of H’s when they named the Haius, and they are really Armens… Ararat, Urartu, Armenia---are you getting the connection? A hint: In both languages, ‘Ur’ or ‘Ar’ meant sun or light; ‘artu’ or ‘arat’ meant mount or land. Thus the mountain, or land of light. In the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Noah never to destroy the human race again by flood, and he was worshipped as the god of light, for the light (or sun) flooded the spaces where there was water, and the waters receded.



To understand the development of any unified power, it is important to remember that it is always made up of smaller groups. The Armenian Plateau is no different. Though tribes were related to each other and shared language and culture, they were fiercely independent from each other as well. At the same time those Indo-Europeans were busy pollinating the locals. Many recorded "kingdoms" during the Bronze and early Iron Age were essentially smaller districts or areas which had enough resources to provide for the basic needs of the tribe, and let them organize into a strong trading or military power (forests, agriculture, precious metals, bronze, copper and iron). Remember Sumeria? Well, it was really many tribes made up of the same Hamito-Semitic race--different power states like Ur and Elam were the forefathers of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Think of it like this: Perhaps disgruntled cousins decided to move from the trailer park in up to Bel Aire, their rich cousins didn’t like the idea, and so there was a fight. End result? Babylon, Ninevah, and the Hanging gardens.


So, when archeologists toss out a list of "kingdoms" called Nairi, Haius, Urartu and Armens, then add Manah, Melitanuh, Komaguenuh, Diaukhi, Lusha, Katarza, Eriakhli, Gulutakhi, Witarukhi, Atsuni, Iga, etc.---and you are beginning to wonder if you’ll ever figure out who is who and what is what--- just remember these are essentially smaller tribes made up of the same people, already a hybrid from the "visits" of the Indo-Europeans (the ultimate dinner guests who would not leave). This is important to remember since the fall of Urartu was immediately followed by its reorganization and virtually identical cultural adoption by what these same archeologists call the first "Armenian" state. In truth, they were from the same basic ethnic background, used the same language structure, and were a part of the previous Urartian empire.


Back to our story.


Urartu and Armenia


As early as the reign of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I (1280-1266 BCE), the first mention of Urartu is made, under the name "Uruatri".

By the 9th c. BCE the Urartu kingdom had established its regional power far beyond its capital at Tushpa. The Urartians called their country Biainili (the name Urartu comes from the Assyrian). The people of the Urartu kingdom created a specific and highly developed civilization, one which rivaled all regional empires. It occurs at roughly the same time as the ascendancy of the Greek city-states, Babylon, Assyria, the New Kingdom in Egypt, and the Chan dynasty in China. It ended abruptly in the 6th c. with the wars with Assyria and the Achaemenids and the destruction of Tushpa.


Urartu is mentioned (as Ararat and Alarod) in the Bible, which states that the sons of the Assyrian king Sinakherib (Senekerim) fled to the country of Ararat after the murder of their father. According to Movses Khorenatsi, the first author of Armenia’s history (4th c. AD), these sons, Adramelik and Sanasar, settled near present day town of Sassoun, establishing a link between the bible, recorded history and one of the earliest and most enduring of Ancient Armenian epic poems, "The Dare-Devils of Sassoun". In the poem, the construction of the fortress of Sassoun is associated with the name of the warrior Sanasar.


Soon after it was formed, Urartu rapidly expanded to such an extent that its neighbors the Assyrians began to yield territories. Because of early success against the Assyrians, Urartian kings began to assume outlandish titles, including those of the early king Ishpuinis: "King of the Land of Nairi" and "Ruler of Tushpa" quickly grew with each military success against the Assyrians to "Great King", "Powerful King", even "King of the Universe". If you’ve read the side bar on the Evolution of the Armenian Alphabet about the roots of the words for power and god, you’ve got a pretty good idea how quickly the Urartian kings were deifying themselves.


Under King Menuas (late 9th c BCE), wars with Assyria and surrounding kingdoms intensified, and the territories expanded to the edge of the Arax river above Mount Ararat. Menuas is rarely mentioned


The Urartians succeeded in invading Babylon and in pushing Assyria and its greatest regional rival, the

Later, during the reign of King Menua and Argishti I, the borders of the Urartian kingdom expanded rapidly to cover the Ararat Valley up to the shores of Lake Sevan. Inscriptions on rocks by Lake Sevan illustrated the Urartian conquests. A cuneiform recently revealed by receding waters at Lake Sevan reads in part, "I, son of Argishti, Rusa by name, Mighty lord of unrivaled fame conquered, built, and thereby fulfilled…"


Though Tushpa was destroyed, there are excavations in Yerevan showing both the beginning and the end of the Urartian kingdom. They are the fortress-city of Erebuni and Teshebaini (Karmir Blur).


Among the accomplishments of the people of Urartu is a fortress which has been excavated and partially reconstructed in Yerevan. Established in 782 BCE, the fortress and town of Erebuni holds a cuneiform of Argishti I, which says,


By the grace of the great god of the Khaldians

I, Argishti, son of Menua,

Erected this fortress

Naming it Erebuni

To the glory of the land of Biaina and the terror of its foes.

Argishti hereby proclaimeth: "This land was a desert,

But I performed on it great feats of creation."

By the grace of the great god of the Khaldians, Argishti, son of Menua,

All powerful king, king of the land of Biaina,

Lord of the city of Tushpa.


The Ararat valley is fertile, but often parched. The kings of Urartu began to extensively irrigate the region with canals dug through rock (some of the canal tunnels are carved from sheer rock, and more than 300 meters long). Particularly, one canal irrigates the vineyards of Yerevan to this day. "I dug a canal from the River Ildaruni (now the Hrazdan River flowing through Yerevan) and planted vineyards" boasts a the last Urartian king Rusa II.


Early Theories

One hypothesis says that ancestral Armenian tribes were an Indo-European tribe that moved from Europe through Asia Minor into the Armenian Plateau. This hypothesis traces Ancestral Armenians to the inception of the Iron Age (ca. 1100-1200 BCE), and notes that they--- with "relative Thraco-Phrygian tribes"--- invaded Asia Minor around 1200 BCE. For about 600 years these tribes coexisted with the Hittites (earlier Indo-European migrants, ca. 1800-700 BCE), which cuneiform tablets confirm. They eventually moved East and settled in the Southwestern part of the Armenian Mountain Plateau.


The date 1200 BCE could be more than coincidental, since the Trojan War occurred about this time, and the migration of the Phrygians and their allied tribes into Asia Minor could have been precipitated by the destruction of their hold on the Dardenalles River (Troy was a Phrygian city). If so, it is suggested that Ancestral Armenians were from the beginning closely related to the Phrygian and Thracian Empires, pushed Eastwards by an expanding Greek people. This certainly appeals to those who like the idea of Armenian history embodying the likes of Paris and Helen.


If we put this into historical perspective, this occurred at the same time Egypt was experiencing the expansionist conquests of its New Kingdom period, the first great kingdoms of the Indo-Aryans in India were being built in the Punjab, the great Indus culture had already mysteriously and abruptly collapsed, China was reaching the end of the Shang Dynasty and Greece was just emerging as a nation of city-states.


postcards from armenia