Introduction to Armenia... history and landscapes
Have you ever wondered what Armenia has to offer? Discover more about this fascinating destination with our look at its history and landscapes.
Bordering Turkey, Georgia and Iran, Armenia is an eastern European country where fascinating history and glorious landscapes intermingle to stunning effect. This is a place where you can discover the nascent steps of Christianity as a national religion, Biblical peaks and unexpected landscapes.
What is particularly charming about travelling in Armenia is the fact that these two elements –history and landscape – are naturally entwined, which means combining the two in a single itinerary isn't just simple – it's unavoidable. Today, we will introduce you to some of the very finest historical and natural sights in the nation, sharing specialist insights from Cox & Kings' product manager Michael Fleetwood along the way.
Armenia's religious history
The core of Armenia's historical intrigue lies in its religious history. In the fourth century, it became one of the world's first Christian countries – a past that has left it full of fascinating monasteries and churches. Discovering these, and the intriguing stories behind them, makes up the heart of any trip to this marvellous country. What's more, it is not just manmade sites that are imbued with this religious history – the very landscape here has tales to tell.
Often described as Armenia's spiritual heart, Echmiadzin is the oldest cathedral in the country and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Moreover, it is the oldest state-built church on the planet – something that really brings home the nation's early role in the establishment of the Christian religion.
The church itself is quite simple in design, as is characteristic of Armenian religious buildings. Indeed, Mike remarked on the contrast between religious architecture here and somewhere like Russia, commenting: "With Armenian religion, they do a lot of the carvings on the outside of the cathedrals and the churches, so they have the relief part on the exterior and the interiors are quite spartan. It's not the sort of orthodox Russian Christianity, with [its] gold icons and frescoes."
Another attraction that dates back to the foundation of Christianity is Khor Virap, which is one of the most photographed sites in Armenia. Interestingly, the intrigue here lies not only in the monastery itself, but in its backdrop too. Indeed, when viewed from a distance, the monastery is backed by Mount Ararat – the place where, according to the Bible, Noah's ark finally came to a resting place following the great flood.
The monastery itself holds plenty of interest too, being one of the country's most popular pilgrimage sites – a status that is entirely separate from the proximity of Mount Ararat. It is here that Gregory the Illuminator, one of the leading lights of early Christianity, was imprisoned for 14 years. Upon his release, he led the charge of the religion throughout the country, playing an instrumental role in Armenia becoming one of the world's first Christian countries.
Another unmissable Unesco World Heritage Site is Geghard Monastery. Unlike most of the monasteries you will come across in this country or indeed any other, Geghard is carved out of rock – something that makes it utterly striking and a truly wonderful example of medieval Armenian architecture.
Dating back to the 4th century, it is nestled in a steep canyon and houses a number of churches and tombs, which are themselves hewn out of the rock too. The sight of this edifice alone would be enough to satisfy most travellers, but Geghard has more to yield than its impressive appearance. Indeed, Mike shared that it also houses a host of holy relics, not to mention being suffused in myth. Among the most interesting of these is that this is where the holy spear, which a centurion used to stab Jesus on the cross, finally ended up.
Haghpat and Sanahin
Also possessing Unesco World Heritage status are the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, where spectacular scenery and fascinating history collide. Standing on opposite sides of the Debet Gorge, these monasteries certainly make a dramatic impact on the eye - and they make a similarly significant impression once their history is understood.
Dating back to the 10th century, these Byzantine monasteries were among the period's most important centres of learning, as well as key sites in the development of Armenian religious architecture. Sanahin in particular was held in renown, owing to its school of calligraphers and illuminators.
Also blending history and landscape in an interesting way is Yerevan, the nation's capital. Standing as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it offers much to occupy both the mind and eye. Its mix of parkland, elegant squares and boulevards render it visually pleasing, while its long and rich history paired with its variety of museums means there is much to discover here.
Highlighted as particularly interesting by Mike is the fact that, while the city was once part of the USSR, its long history helped it retain its character, so there are relatively few Soviet-style buildings here. Those that remain are limited to the city's outskirts, making Yerevan markedly different from other ex-USSR metropolises.
In terms of museums, the wonderful State Museum of Armenian History certainly stands out, covering everything from Stone Age remnants and early Christian history to centuries under Turkish and Persian rule – a true delight for history lovers.
A mountainous and landlocked country, Armenia contains a few surprises when it comes to landscapes. In addition to the peaks and forests, it actually offers a splendid selection of beaches on Lake Sevan. Indeed, during the summer months, the south of the lake is transformed into a veritable riviera, with its lengthy beaches offering clear water and fine places to relax.
During this period, people from Yerevan and other outlying major cities travel here for the sand and sunshine. Mike noted that the beaches are in good condition and there are a number of hotels lining the lake – you could easily come here for a seven-night beach break. However, it would be a shame to visit this fascinating country and not explore its wonderful history, so don't pass up the opportunity of including its many religious sites in your itinerary.
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