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Armenia: a history like no other

Jonathan van Bilsen



November 5, 2017

Armenia: a history like no other

About a week ago I returned from an extremely interesting trip to the Caucasus, where I visited several countries, including Armenia. In the event you are unaware of the area, the Caucasus is a region bordered by Iran on the south, Turkey on the west and Russia on the north. The Caspian Sea borders the eastern shores of this spectacular landmass, named for its giant mountain range.

Armenia, the most eastern country, is entirely engulfed by the Caucasus Mountain range with 65% of the land made up of mountains. This makes for spectacular scenery, but stressful driving conditions.

The majority of Armenians are Christian and 95% of the population belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which dates back to the first century. In 301 CE the state accepted the church, making it the oldest Christian religion in the world (The Roman Catholic church began in 380 CE).

The people of Armenia have struggled for over a century, and continue to do so to this day. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire was trying to establish borders. The area now known as Turkey was settled by Turks and Armenians. The government decided to round up a few hundred Armenian intellectuals living in Constantinople (Istanbul), and transport them to another part of the country. It seems the government was concerned with some of the rhetoric being spoken by the group.

Most of this assembly of intellectuals was killed in transit, and the Ottoman began rounding up Armenian men, women and children living in the area. They were told that they would have to join the Turkish army and fight the opposing Russians, moving in from the east. The Armenians refused, as they had always had good relations with Russia, and over the next two years, 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered at the hands of the Turks.

Interestingly, to this date, only 29 countries and 47 US states have accepted the legitimacy of the genocide. Canada, Russia and most Western European nations are among those. Turkey claims there were only a few hundred ‘casualties’ and due to WWI receiving most of the media coverage, the Armenian genocide was largely ignored at the time.

There are 3 million people living in Armenia today and 9 million descendants from people who were able to escape during the turmoil, living throughout the world. When Communism began, Armenia was ruled by the Soviets, and it wasn’t until 1992 that they gained their independence. Since then Russia has split the country in half, giving a portion of land to neighbouring Azerbaijan, in an effort to gain closer access to Turkey and its NATO partners. As recent as last year, Turkish troops opened fire on Armenians at the border, killing and maiming nearly 150 people.

The history of this tiny nation is an integral part of its being, and gives you a true understanding of life there when visiting. The countryside is beautiful and the people are extremely proud of their heritage. I stayed in the capital city of Yerevan for three nights and toured the area from there. Fortunately the country is small enough to make that possible. The 28 degree temperatures were tolerable, as the air was dry. Cooler conditions prevailed in the mountains. 

I was amazed to see the many monasteries, most of which are 1,000 – 1,500 years old and are constructed in a unique manner to withstand earthquakes, which are quite common in the region.

Another very interesting visit was to the Holy City, the centre of the Armenian Church, and the adjoining Etchmiadzin Museum. I stood in awe as I gazed on religious relics such as the spear believed to have been used to stab Christ and authenticated to the first century CE. There was also a piece of the cross and a piece of wood alleged to be part of Noah’s Ark, which ran aground on nearby Mount Ararat.

The Cathedral is magnificent. The decorations have you gaping in many directions, and the sheer size is astounding. The site also serves as a seminary for would be priests, a vocation which appears to be on the rise.

Overall the country is quite poor, compared to neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan. Unfortunately Armenians cannot travel to either of those nations, as relations are nonexistent. This makes Russia and neighbouring Georgia the only countries they can visit directly.

I spent a few days away from the capital city and ventured to the town of Goris, located deep in the mountains. Enroute we stopped on the slopes of Mount Ararat to view the spectacular, snow-capped peak and visit the adjacent Monastery. For Armenians, Mount Ararat is a symbol of their existence. For all Christians this is a very holy area, and the cradle of biblical civilization. The sad part is that through recent conflicts, Mount Ararat is now part of Turkey, and Armenians only have visual access to it.

I continued on to Goris and a rode in the world’s longest, continuous cable car deep into a gorge where settlements, dating back to the Stone Age, can still be found. It is also where the University of Goris sits, resurrected on the site of an ancient academy.

The government is cleaning up the shores of the largest lake of the country, Lake Seven, where many Armenians go to relax, picnic and enjoy water sports. The country has come a long way since gaining independence twenty-five years ago, but it still has an extensive road ahead. 

I was glad to have been able to spend a week there, as I thoroughly enjoyed the people, the food and the history. It also gave me a greater appreciation of how fortunate we are to live in the safety of Canada.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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