Although Yerevan's fortunes have waxed and waned considerably over time, and it was never the capital of Armenia prior to 1918, it is actually a very old city. The Urartian King Argishti I (ruled c785-c762BC) established a garrison of 6,600 troops at Erebuni in the southeast part of the present city in 782BC, thus making Yerevan older even than Rome which is traditionally claimed to have been founded in 753BC. Erebuni fortress was at the place where the Hrazdan River widened onto the fertile Ararat Plains.
About a century later, the Urartian King Rusa II (ruled c685-c645BC) chose a different site, Teishebai Uru ('City of [the God] Teisheba') overlooking the Hrazdan River which he believed would be less vulnerable to attack by the Scythians. It is now known as Karmir Blur ('Red Hill') in the western part of the modern city. Erebuni had grown within 100 years to be a substantial settlement but the establishment of Teishebai Uru caused its rapid decline.
Proximity to the fertile plain ensured that Yerevan remained a significant settlement as, along with the rest of Armenia, it was caught up over the centuries of turmoil, its size fluctuating considerably as the degree of urbanisation in the country varied. Eventually it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1679. The collapsed bridge over the Hrazdan was quickly replaced by a new four-arch structure and Yerevan's importance began to rise again as it found itself close to the frontier line where the Persian, Turkish and Russian empires were jostling for supremacy. At the time of the earthquake, Yerevan itself was under Persian rule, with a mixed Christian and Muslim population. In 1684, at the request of the French king Louis XIV, Shah Suleiman II permitted French Jesuits to establish a mission there to try to persuade the Katholikos to accept the supremacy of the Pope and bring the Armenian Church into the Roman Catholic fold. The missionaries achieved little and greatly lamented the loss of the excellent Yerevan wine when Shah Hussein, who had succeeded his father, banned all wine throughout the Persian Empire in 1694. A new main church to replace those destroyed in the earthquake was erected in 1693-94 and a new central mosque in 1765-66.
Russian southward expansion into the Caucasus began under Peter the Great in 1722, ostensibly with the object of protecting Orthodox believers. It was a fairly gradual process. In 1801, Russia formally annexed eastern Georgia as the new Russian province of Tiflis and installed Prince Paul Tsitsianov, Georgian born but Russian educated, as governor. In 1804, Tsitsianov led a 5,000-strong Russian army south and attacked Yerevan on 1 May. Despite besieging the town from 2 July until 3 September he was forced to withdraw but the following year he was asked by two Armenian notables to try again so as to save the Christian population of Yerevan from Muslim oppression. His haughty reply was to the effect that he did not care even if the Christians at Yerevan were 'dying in the hands of unbelievers' because 'unreliable Armenians with Persian souls' deserved in his view to 'die like dogs' since they had done nothing to help him when he was besieging the city. Tsitsianov was killed at Baku in 1806 and in 1808 Russia made a second attempt, this time under Field Marshal Ivan Vasilievich (1741-1820) but had no more success. Eventually General Ivan Paskevich (1782-1856), a veteran of the Battle of Borodino, succeeded and led victorious Russian troops into Yerevan on 2 October 1827. On this occasion the Tsar awarded him the title Count of Yerevan but he subsequently gained the additional title Prince of Warsaw as a further token of the Tsar's appreciation when he was responsible for killing 9,000 Poles during the second Polish uprising against Russian rule in 1831.
The Russian conquerors found a town which in 1828 had 1,736 low mud-brick houses, 851 shops, ten baths, eight mosques, seven churches, seven caravanserais and six public squares all set among gardens surrounded by mud walls. On the one and only visit to Yerevan by a Tsar, Nikolai 1 in 1837 described the city as a 'clay pot'. Matters changed only slowly in what was still a garrison town; the principal Russian settlement in Armenia was Alexandropol (Gyumri) rather than Yerevan. Occasional traces of 19th-century Yerevan can still be found, although Yerevan's importance was to change out of all recognition with its proclamation as capital of the First Armenian Republic on 28 May 1918. The brilliant Armenian architect Hovhannes Tamanian (1878-1936) drew up a master plan in 1924-26 for what was now the capital of Soviet Armenia. It envisaged the creation of a large central square surrounded by imposing buildings constructed of tuff. From this square would lead broad avenues, and encircling the whole central area would be a green ring of parkland. Quite a large part of this did in fact come to pass and is described in the following section.
Tamanian did not, of course, foresee the 30-fold expansion of the city's population during the Soviet era to an estimated 1.2 million with its dreary urban sprawl of apartment blocks. There was in practice considerable local enthusiasm for expanding the city since any Soviet city with a population exceeding one million was considered to be of 'all Union importance' and entitled to benefits which included a metro system and a crematorium. Economic problems since independence have resulted in a fall in Armenia's population so the main focus in building, apart from the new cathedral, is on luxury houses for the new elite together with the paraphernalia of hotels, embassies and accommodation for expats which any capital city attracts. There is also underway considerable necessary and welcome refurbishment of the infrastructure, such as roads and pavements, which is largely being paid for by the diaspora. By contrast the erosion of the green belt by an amazing number of cafes is rather sad.
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