Armenia is a place that has been around as a distinct society for well over 3,000 years. It holds the honoured distinction of being the very first nation state to embrace Christianity as a religion, with 1,700 years’ worth of churches, cathedrals and monasteries dotting the mountainous landscape.
For such a small geographic place, Armenia also has a wide variety of microclimates and terrain types for the nature enthusiast to enjoy, as the sheer mountains support lush forest on one side of a ridge, with dry, semi-arid scrubland sitting on the other side in the rain shadow. The natural centrepiece of the country would have to be Lake Sevan, as this aquatic gem covers 5% of Armenia’s land area, completed by the surrounding highlands and the aforementioned monasteries that cling to its slopes.
As one of the safest nations in an unstable region, Armenia is a country that one should visit in order to experience the unique hospitality and vistas that this part of the world can provide!
Currency: Armenian Dram
What To Do
As mentioned in the introduction, Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, making for an abundance of gorgeous religious structures, of which more than a few that has UNESCO World Heritage Status. Etchmiadzin Cathedral stands as one of those monuments, as it was the first church to be built in Armenia, and as such, ranks as the oldest standing cathedral in the world! Erected at the turn of the 4th century AD, this hall of worship has been renovated continuously over the years, reflecting differences in Armenian architecture over the eons. Inside, intricate frescoes await the art enthusiast!
The next stop on your tour of historic monasteries should be Khor Virap, a chapel started in the 5th century that would later become a full-fledged monastery. Located beneath the stunning Mount Ararat, the massive peak where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest after the Great Flood, the ageless monastery combined with its natural backdrop makes a trip out here worth it on that basis alone, but the fact that this place is one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in the entire country adds to its credentials.
The third monastery that you should make a special effort to see while in Armenia is Geghard Monastery. Carved into the side of a mountain back in 1215, this special place contains a spring considered to be very sacred, and it used to contain Thaddeus, the spear that pierced Jesus after his death on the cross before being moved to the treasury in Vagharshapat, Armenia’s fourth largest city.
Located in the general vicinity is one of Armenia’s few remaining traces of its prior legacy of pagan worship before Christianity arrived on the scene. The Temple of Garni’s design was influenced by Greek architectural styles, being constructed in the 2nd century AD. Dedicated to the god Mihr, it stood for well over a thousand years before being toppled by an earthquake in 1679. In the past 40 years, it has been restored admirably, and as such, it stands tall again as a Greco-Roman shrine in a nation of Christian edifices.
With the shores of Lake Sevan sitting at approximately 2,000 metres above sea level, if the thin air doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery certainly will! This lake escaped the fate of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, initially being drained for irrigation and land reclamation purposes. The project was halted in 1956 with the end of Stalin’s rule, and with its shelving, the lake was saved. These days, Lake Sevan is famed for its beaches, as well as its island monastery (now a peninsula due to the previously mentioned lake draining), started in the 9th century, and as picturesque if not more than its cousins across the nation due to its fortuitous location!
Jermuk was a popular spa town during Soviet times, and it retains much of its appeal today, due to the spectacular cliffs, river and waterfall views in the area, to say nothing of the mineral springs that anchor the entire experience here. Facilities still retain a sanatorium atmosphere, but the soothing warmth of the famed spa waters will make you forget your clinical surroundings, as the aches from a complete day of sightseeing melt away from your body.
What To Eat
With its proximity to the Middle East and Central Asia, it’s no surprise that the spit-style BBQ dish known as Khorovats is favoured as one of the best dishes in Armenia. Typically one with the bones still in, and occasionally done with the skin sewn back on the animal, the meats that are covered by this meal include pork, lamb, chicken or beef.
Khash is a well-loved delicacy in Armenia, and is enjoyed during the winter time, often when men gather to socialize. It is a soup that consists of cow’s feet primarily, but sometimes, tripe (stomach) and head meat is added in to spice things up a little. The parts are chilled in cold water to kill their initial stench, and then they are boiled slowly through the night, allowing the meat to separate from the bone. Salt, garlic, lemon juice and/or vinegar are then used to season the soup, and sometimes, watercress is added for a green boost. Try it when you go … we dare you!
Finally, Byoreks is a pastry that makes for a quick snack for hard working people throughout Armenia. This envelope of fried dough contains ground beef with feta cheese and spinach, with just a splash of anise-flavoured liquor for an added kick … BAM!