Travel to Armenia
Although Armenians carry a lot of psychological baggage from a traumatic 20th century, you’d hardly notice it from a quick tour around the country. The rapidly modernizing capital, the boutique tourism industry and the warm welcome you’ll receive everywhere seems to belie the country’s reputation for tragedy. Rather than letting past woes weigh it down, Armenia has built its memorials, dusted itself off and moved on. Politicians have set their sights on EU membership, while businessmen are enjoying a booming economy dubbed the ‘Caucasian Tiger’.
For travellers, easily visited highlights include ancient monasteries, candle-lit churches and high-walled forts – but lasting impressions lie more with the Armenians themselves. You’ll easily find friends among these gracious, humble and easygoing people, even without a common language. Ties are best forged around a dinner table, where endless rounds of toasting accompany a meal bursting with fresh vegetables and grilled meats. Delving deeper into the country reveals a nation with a complex dichotomy. Despite its robust economy and liberalism (for this part of the world), it’s simultaneously held back by oligarch attitudes and old feuds with neighbouring countries. It’s a tough neighbourhood but Armenia seems to have made the best of it, thanks in part to a supportive diaspora stretching from Sydney to LA.
Much of the current tourist traffic comprises diaspora Armenians seeking a slice of their homeland. Their high standards enticed some international hotel chains and caused overdevelopment in places like Sevan. Yet it’s still easy to escape to some hidden gems, including stalactite-filled caves and summer villages inhabited by Yezidi Kurds and Armenian shepherds. As most travellers whiz through on a brief side trip between other places, serious explorers will have the best sights to themselves.
Armenia is a country of treeless basalt cliffs. Grass, which is green only in early spring, burns under the strong sun in the summer and fall. Stone is the main feature of the Armenian natural and cultural landscape. For control over each small plot of land, Armenian farmers have fought for centuries. It is amazing that Armenian gardens are able to grow among the stones. The most populated area of Armenia is the Ararat Valley, located along the Aras River, which forms the border with Turkey to the west and Iran to the south.
Being irrigated, the valley is intersected with roads and water canals under the poplars and is covered with plantations, gardens, and vineyards. In the south, small valleys are squeezed among the highest mountains. This part of the country has a subtropical climate; fruits, nuts, and grapes are the area’s main agricultural products. Most of the Armenian population lives in the western and northwestern parts of the country, where the two major cities are located. Because of the cold and dry climate, the northwestern high mountainous plateaus serve mostly as pastures for cattle.
Today, Armenian enterprises produce copper, molybdenum, artificial diamonds, rubber, building materials, movable electric power stations, electronics, textiles, and silk. In the integrated Soviet economy, the Armenian skilled and educated population was used to manufacture goods that were used by people all over the Soviet Union. The thirty-five-mile-long Arpa–Sevan water tunnel built in the mountains is a subject of technological pride. However, heavy industrialization required that additional energy resources and nuclear power plants be built in seismic zones, endangering the lives of local people.
Mount Ararat, located in Turkish territory, and soaring 16,874 feet over the surrounding plain, is Armenia’s national symbol. The name Ararat is from the Armenian word that means “life” and “creation.” Historically located on the territory of the Armenian Kingdom, Mount Ararat has been revered by the Armenians as a spiritual place and the home of the gods of the Armenian pantheon. In the nineteenth century, the mount was divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. The mount belonged to Armenia during the short period of independence after World War I (1918–1921), but the Treaty of Kars, which defined the border between Turkey and the Soviet Union in 1921, placed Ararat on the Turkish side of the border. Since 1936, Ararat is reflected on the Armenia’s coat of arms, which is subject of regular diplomatic protests from Turkey.