Armenian culture has been a complex and flexible system. Being exposed to different civilizations’ interactions, but still keeping its originality and uniqueness.
Of the world culture view, it is remarkable too, as by taking care of preserving and enriching one’s own, the Armenian people had its worthy contribution to the world people’s cultural treasury.
ANCIENT ARMENIAN CULTURE
The Armenian culture origin may date back to the time of the Armenian tribes’ unity and the start of the Armenian governmental entities. Many ancient settlements and cyclopean fortresses have been found in historical Armenia, rich tombs have been excavated (as Metsamor, Lchashen, Vanadzor, etc.). The weapons, tools, household items, statues and jewelry found in these places, testify the old and noble cultural development.
Van (Araratian kingdom of Urartu) (IX- VI centuries BC) had a unique role in the formation and development of the old Armenian culture. The heyday of Urartian culture coincided with the peak of state power. The objects of culture and art are mostly found in the center of the country, as well as in the vicinity of major cities. Most of the finds belong to the reign of the kings Menua, Argishti I and Sarduri II.
The pantheon of the Urartu religion contains a mix of unique and Hurrian gods such as the god of storms and thunder Teisheba, from the Hurrian Teshub. The mid-9th-century BCE king Ishpuini promoted Haldi (Khaldi) to the head of the gods, a deity of foreign origin and associated with warfare. So important was this god that the Urartians were sometimes called the Haldians or “children of Haldi”. The various gods were offered libations and animal sacrifices as well as dedications of weapons and precious goods.
Early Urartu writing used simple pictograms, but cuneiform was adopted and adapted from neighbouring contemporary Mesopotamian cultures. Surviving cuneiform inscriptions from the kingdom show that the Urartian language was related to Hurrian.
Urartu art includes the Tree of Life symbol common to Mesopotamian cultures and is usually shown with a figure stood either side making offerings.
The Urartians were innovative and ambitious architects. Significant construction projects include the 80-kilometre long stone-lined canal which brought fresh water from the Artos mountains to the capital. The structure was built by king Menua (r. c. 810-785 BCE) and allowed the proliferation of vineyards and orchards resulting in Tushpa gaining a reputation as a garden city.
Although little remains of Urartu fortifications, one of the most significant and best-preserved fortresses is at Erebuni at the area of today’s capital of Armenia, Yerevan. Typical features of Urartu fortifications are massive walls supported by stone foundations made of large square blocks and buttressed with towers. Their survival since antiquity is a testimony to the building skills of the Urartians, especially considering the region is subject to frequent and powerful earthquakes.
The wealth and prosperity of Urartu is attested by ample surviving evidence of its material culture, notably pottery, objects utilised as religious dedications, and examples of bronze-working. No large-scale stone sculptures survive except in fragments. Excavations have revealed both public and private buildings in Urartian cities with interior wall paintings. Painted on plaster, surviving fragments show scenes with animals, mythical creatures, processions of gods, and scenes from everyday life such as agriculture and hunting. Backgrounds are usually white, outlines are drawn in black, and blue and red are the most commonly used colours.
Artisans in the Urartu kingdom produced such goods as jewellery, horse bits, helmets, buckles, and candelabra in bronze and copper. Large bronze cauldrons with animal or human heads around the rim were produced in numbers. Metal goods were cast, embossed, inlaid with gold or etched with designs.
Urartu art is best seen in bronze sculptures made in the round which show an influence from Assyria, particularly in the choice of subjects – lions, bulls, mythological creatures such as griffins and centaurs, and military themes, especially horse riders. Religious art includes bronze figurines of prominent gods such as Haldi, Teisheba, and Shivani. Some deities are unidentified such as a female goddess rendered in bone and hybrid figures of a fish-man, bird-man, and scorpion-man.
After the collapse of the Urartian state, during the formation of the Yervandian state, Armenian culture appeared under the influence of the Achaemenid Iran. In Armenia, some elements of the ancient Iranian culture, in particular in art, in sculpture, even in everyday life, were widely used. Under the influence of the ancient Iranian religion and Zoroastrianism, the Armenian pantheon also transformed.
HELLENISTIC CULTURE IN ARMENIA
The invasions of Alexander of Macedonia (late of IV century BC) created a new era in the history of the countries of Western Asia. In the territory of ancient East the period of «Hellenism» began. Hellenism doesn’t bear only the influence of western civilization; it is richer. This refers to the system of cultural penetrations and influences, which is characterized by the eastern influence on Greek phenomenon.
Armenia has also gone through the Hellenistic influence, particularly at the beginning of the second century BC, after the establishment of the Artashesian dynasty. Even though the Greek and Greek culture spread mainly in the Armenian court, among the nobility and the city council members․However, for almost six centuries, Hellenism had the national culture greatly enriched in Armenia. Hellenism in Armenia is presented as a six-century era, which is divided into two stages.
During the Hellenistic period (IV-I century BC), Hellenistic public relations and culture penetrated into Armenia. There are two main cultural areas: the first was the traditional (folk) direction that developed within the rural population and adhered to its local, Middle Eastern origins, the traditional world view; and the second was the Hellenistic direction, which developed on the basis of the changes made in the life of society, bearing the stamp of new understanding and taste of the elite and urban free population. Hellenism found its fullest place in the sphere of Armenian material culture and especially in the field of urban development.
These two directions were not separated; The development of the Hellenistic Armenian culture was also conditioned to some extent by the interplay of the two – old and new values and the intertwining. Although Greek and Greek culture were prevalent mainly in the Armenian royal court, in the area of nobility , Hellenism greatly enriched national culture. The Armenian material and spiritual culture, which has taken the path of ascension, holds its place among the leading cultures of the ancient world. Under the influence of Greek culture, the Armenian religion again transformed, and it became more homocentristical.
The Late Hellenistic period (I-III centuries) was influenced by the downward movement of Hellenism. Feudal relations began to emerge in the country, cities lose their former decisive role in society, and as feudal fragmentation deepens, economic and cultural ties between different regions are weakened.There is also a weakening of the Armenian statehood, which is no longer able to withstand the political and cultural pressure of Rome. Hellenistic traditions are losing their influence, and Armenia becomes part of a Late Antique or Roman culture.
In the III-IV centuries the Hellenistic culture was falled during heavily invasions of Sassanid Iran to Armenia, as well as the violent injection of Iranian culture and especially Zoroastrianism. Human-centered and anthropomorphic religion was replaced into fire-worship. Fire temples ( ‘aturoshan’ ) were spreaded around the country.
EARLY MEDIEVAL ARMENIAN CULTURE
In 301 Christianity was declared the state religion, and in the following centuries, new artistic forms and solutions have been formed for urban development, architecture, and painting, which became more specifically local and profound national.
In 405 Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet, which became an invaluable tool in the process of preserving national identity. Strengthening and spreading of Christianity in Armenia, in addition to the creation of the unique Armenian literature. Among the known national papers, written in Armenian, are the works of the Armenian historians – Movses Khorenaci, Pavstos Buzand (Faustus of Byzantium), Ghazar Parpetzi (V c.), Sebeos (VII c.), Ghevond (VIII c.), and many works of other historians.
In fact, the acts of the Holy Translators constructed a real national project – the transformation of the model of the Armenian civilization,considering the nationalized Christian culture as the basis of national identity.
Mesrop Mashtots was first to open Armenian schools. Education began to be held in Armenian, and students studied Greek and other foreign languages as well. The Armenian Apostolic Church became the institution that held the Armenian education, making it a multilaterally developed and well organized mixture of both national and global mindedness.
Famous philosophical works have been created in Armenian, some of the Greek well-known philosophers’ works have been translated. Among them, are the works of Plato and Aristotle. Many early medieval Armenian translations of Greek originals are valuable, because they were lost, and are known only through the Armenian translations. On the other side, some Armenian philosophers’ theories are in the interest focus today, such as the theories of Koghbatsi, David Invincible (V- c.), and Shirakatsi (VII c.)
The Golden Age of the Armenian culture included not only literature, historiography, philosophy, and the natural sciences, but also the arts which had reached a great success even before the Golden Age.
After the adoption of Christianity the first Armenian churches were built; for example, the Holy Cathedral of Saint Etchmiadzin opened the doors on August 15, 303. The archaeological excavations in the mid1950s made clear that Etchmiadzin Cathedral had a cupola even at the beginning of the 4th century. So, Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest Christian church with cupola in Armenia.
The masterpiece of the medieval Armenian architecture is the Zvartnots Cathedral (VII c.), by its three-story, special carvings and dimensional construction is a distinguished building. Of the unique displays of the Armenian medieval culture are the wall paintings and miniatures. The first one is reflected in the churches and buildings’ walls, and the second is the art of illustrated manuscripts. Spiritual music culture is distinguished by its rapid growth, large numbers of delicate art masterpieces are created, which are recorded in Khaz-s which are the old Armenian notes.
Painting got its original sight in the early Medieval Armenia; mosaics transformed to the Christian symbolism and simultaneously, illustrated manuscripts became an essential art in the medieval Armenian book writing.
The largest Armenian mosaic is on the floor of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem (4th century) that covers an area of 150 sq. meters. The medieval Armenian mosaics maintained the essential features of the Hellenistic period and added the dominant characteristics of medieval Christian symbolism.
MEDIEVAL ARMENIAN CULTURE
A significant impact on the political status of Armenia in the VII century was the Arab conquests of the eastern provinces of Iran and Byzantium. In this era, the Armenian culture began to flourish and the socio-economic status improved remarkably. Thus accepting the Arabs’ sovereignty, Armenia in the tenacious struggle did not only managed to keep the socio-economic and national-cultural identity but also restored the state’s political independence by the leadership of the Bagratid dynasty.
The Armenian throne owners, the Bagratid dynasty survived for more than half a century (885-1045). In this era, the architectural monuments of Akhtamar and Ani, the “Book of sorrow” poem by Gregory of Narek (X century), and many great historical achievements are the best witnesses of social, economic and cultural development.
XII-XIII centuries were the disastrous period of the hard struggle against the Byzantine and Seljuk invasions, but during the period of the Zakarian princes’ rule in Armenia, the economic and political rise restarted, which was favorable too for the Armenian culture. This period is known in the history of the Armenian culture by the “Silver Age” name, as a normal continuation of the cultural values created in the Golden Age (V c.), well-known figures of this era are Mkhitar Gosh, Geragos from Gandzak, and Vardan Areveltsi.
In the XI century and the Western part of Armenia, many new Armenian authorities have been declared one of those authorities was the Rubenid dynasty, who succeeded in consolidating their rule and restore Armenian statehood in Cilicia (1080-1375). Armenian Cilicia was in close economic and political relations with the east, as well as with the Crusaders and European countries.
In the X-XIV centuries, although separate, there were a couple of kingdoms in the historical Armenian area as Vaspourakan / Van, Kars, Syunik, Tashir-Dzoraget / Lori, and some governments like the Orbelian, Vahramyan, and the Hassan-Jalalians. During this period there were favorable conditions for the development of culture. A new stage in history, philosophy, astronomy, theology, literature, law, art, architecture, and other industries had started. There was a two-level education system. High schools were established, of which the most famous were the universities of Sanahin and Haghpat (X-XI centuries), Ani (XI-XIII c.), Gladzor (XIII-XIV century), and Tatev (XIV-XV centuries) University. These educational institutes taught the natural and social sciences, foreign languages, and provided a thorough education.
The system of education became more complicated in the X-XIII centuries; elementary and high schools were introduced. The latter ones firstly were called vardapetarans (seminary of archimandrites), but starting from the 11th century people started to call them hamalsarans (universities); Ani (XI-XII centuries), Nor Getik (New Getik, XII-XIII centuries), Gladzor (XIII-XIV centuries), Sis (XII–XIV centuries), and Tatev (XIV- XV centuries) had very good universities that “produced” hundreds of brilliant priests and scholars.
Gladzor University was funded by Proshyan and Orbelian noble families. A number of brilliant scholars, including Hovhannes Imastaser (John the Philosopher) in Ani, Mkhitar Gosh in Nor Getik, Nerses Mshetsi (Nerses of Mush) in Gladzor, Nerses Lambronatsi (Nerses of Lambron) in Sis, and Grigor Tatevatsi (Gregory of Tatev) in Tatev, were among the teachers of the universities.
The Armenian historiography reached a new level in the IX-XIII centuries, keeping the traditions of the Classic historiography. Simultaneously, several new genres of historiography formed; Stepanos Taronetsi (Stephen of Taron, Asoghik, XI century) and Constantine Archimandrite (XIII century) wrote “ecumenical” histories describing the history of Armenia and neighboring countries, Tovma Artstruni (X century) and Stepanos Orbelian (XIII-XIV 3-14th centuries) wrote regional history of Vaspurakan and Syunik respectively.
Architecture reached great results in the Medieval Armenia; a number of churches, castles and other constructions have remained standing through ages. As Armenia faced political changes through the Middle Ages, secular constructions (castles, fortifications, palaces, etc.) were often ruined by foreign invaders. In contrast, a lot of beautiful medieval churches still stand; monasteries of Saint Hripsime (618) and Saint Gayane (631) in Etchmiadzin, Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross (915- 921) in Aghtamar, Haghpat and Sanahin (X century) in Lori, the Cathedral of Ani (1001), Kecharis monastery (11-13th centuries) in Tsakhkadzor, Geghardavank (13th century) next to Garni, are among the most significant medieval Armenian Christian constructions.
A new national form of art developed in Medieval Armenia as people began to create khachkars (cross-stones). The largest number (more than 10 thousand units) of medieval Armenian khachkars existed in Jugha (Julfa, near Nakhijevan), but they were entirely ruined by Azerbaijani authorities in 2005.Fortunately, there is another beautiful place of medieval Armenian khachkars; hundreds of khachkars are located in the village of Noratus in Gegharkunik region of the Republic of Armenia. In general, Momik (XIV entury) and Kiram (XVI – XVII centuries) are among the most famous masters of the khachkar art, having made hundreds of khachkars.
Illustrated manuscripts became an essential art in the medieval Armenian book writing. The most prominent Armenian manuscript illuminators lived in the Cilician Armenia; Toros Roslin (XIII century) and Sargis Pitsak (XIV century) were the most praised ones. Their works are famous mainly for the brilliant choose of colors and innovative solutions in iconography. Toros Roslin is also famous for his portraits of the royal family of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
Medieval Armenian culture holds a special place in world civilization because it is unique and interesting. Also, it is viable because after the XIV century, as Armenians lost their centralized state and partially migrated to other countries, the Armenian culture continued to evolve in communities and Diaspora around the world.
For a long time, the bloody wars, raised between Safavid Iran and Ottoman Empire, took place on the Armenian land.
Despite the heavy losses, suffered because of those fierce fighting disastrous consequences, Armenia in the XVI-XVIII centuries maintained its national identity spending huge efforts, the faith of re-establishing the statehood, a big part of the cultural values and communication in most of the major achievements of world civilization.
During this era, the Armenian diaspora participated in ensuring the progress of Armenian national development, too. Thus in 1512, in Venice the first printed Armenian books “Ourpatakirk” and “Barzadomar”, etc. have been published. New schools have been established, churches and cathedrals have been constructed, and meanwhile, some well-known Armenian figures for the sake of the motherland freedom started to conduct discussions with other governments, and try to regain the independence of the nation and state through armed struggle.
ARMENIAN CULTURE IN THE NEW ERA
In 1722-1730 the liberation movements in Artsakh (Karabakh) and Syunik had greatly contributed to strengthening the political and national identity. In 1736, was formed the union of the five principalities “Al-Khamsa“ in Artsakh, which has been recognized by the Shah Nader of Iran as the internal autonomy gifted by political power, under the patronage of Melik Yegani.
During the years 1772-1773 many political-journalistic books (“Exhortative”, “Trap of Glory”) have been published, initiated process of national consolidation of healthy forces and the establishment of a democratic constitution were drawn up. In 1794-1796 the first magazine “Aztarar” was published.
Along with the launch of the new phase of the liberation struggle, the Restoration Period (XVII-XVIII centuries) begins in literature, music and other cultural spheres.
In medieval conventional forms of fine art, new realistic forms and means of expression were gradually adopted. The painting has enhanced the feeling of the real world. Alongside miniature and fresco painting, new types and genres of fine art have developed: machine painting, portraiture, home-based illustrations, realistic landscapes.
In the music field Hampartsoum Limonchian had a remarkable contribution, he created the new Armenian musical notes, by which the medieval church rhymes have been registered. In this period the instrumental music was well spread. The works of Sayat Nova, the prolific songwriter, and poet had an indelible mark on the musical life of the people of Transcaucasia. His songs and poetical poems are still one of the national cultural values.
The Armenian Mekhitarist Order, who settled in 1717 in St. Lazarus Island in Venice, had a prolific activity in both historical philology and social spheres.
During the years 1801- 1828 the South Caucasus, including Eastern Armenia, passed under the Russian Empire, which had an essential impact on the region’s socio-economic and cultural development. The first half of the XIX century was marked by the activities of the great Armenian illuminator, Khachatur Abovyan, who got his fundamental education from the University of Dorpat (Estonia). In his novel “Wounds of Armenia” and in his other works, by being devoted to his nation, he becomes the founder of the modern Armenian literature and language.
A tangible economic recovery in Eastern Armenia under the conditions of new social realities led to relative progress in urban planning and architecture. Two types of cities appear – European with straight streets, and eastern with narrow and crooked. The first city plans are being created. Armenian architecture is gradually taking on the influence of European Rococo, Classicism and Romanticism. At the same time, urban planning and architecture of the cities of Western Armenia experienced only minor changes.
In the 1878, Berlin’s summit; when the liberation issue of Western Armenia, which was under the domination of the Ottoman Empire (the “Armenian question” formulation), was the subject of international diplomacy as a plan for the Armenian provinces reformation, the national liberation struggle against the Turkish dictatorship entered a new phase. The Armenian national parties were formed during 1885-1890, Armenakans, Hnchaks and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation who directed all their goals to solve the Armenian obstacle.
Ottoman Sultan Hamid II hadn’t achieved the Armenian reforms, that he promised to the European powers, moreover, he organized mass killings of Armenian people in 1894 – 1896, which became the precedent of the 1915 massacres. Using the pretext of the First World War, the Nationalist government of Ottoman Turkey decided to destroy the Armenian people and to clear Armenia, the cradle of its original Armenian population. More than a million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees had sought refuge in dozens of countries.
Armenian Diaspora was formed. Turkey occupied most of the territory of historical Armenia. The mass killings accompanied by destruction of Armenian cultural monuments. Diaspora continues the western Armenia’s literature and art traditions. Because of nostalgia and regret for the lost homeland and by the hope of returning certain nationwide values were established.
ARMENIAN MODERN CULTURE
On May 28, 1918, the Armenian people restored its statehood: in 1920, the Soviet political and ideological changes influenced highly the 1920-1930’s culture. The ideologies rooted at the beginning of the era and the religious barriers over the years had been overcome, and cultural life was back on track. Many cultural centers and higher education institutions had been established. M. Saryan, Sedrak Arakelyan, Jacob Kojoyan, Yervand Kochar and many other talented artists in their colorful palettes shaped the new school of fine arts.
The newly created theaters of Drama, Opera, and Ballet, ensembles, and soloists awakened an unprecedented spree of cultural life. Many famous Armenian artists, composers, group directors, and singers, spread all over the world, came around to live and create in Armenia.
The modern music of different characters has been composed based on national traditional works. State theaters have been opened in Yerevan, in addition to other cities in Armenia, in which playlists many works of Russian, Western European, and of course, classical and contemporary Armenian authors’ works had a specific place. The Period was notable for the construction of residential houses and public buildings (Republic Square in Yerevan, Opera and Ballet Theater, the National Library, and some higher education institutions).
After the end of the Second World War, the repatriation of the Diaspora began, thanks to that the population of the Soviet Armenia has increased. Even during the dictatorship of Stalin, economic and cultural conditions in Armenia recorded a significant rise. In 1924 the documentary film “Soviet Armenia” was screened, and in 1925 the Armenian cinematography was established, by the movie shot by H. Beknazaryan. In 1943 the Academy of Sciences of Armenia was established, which greatly contributed to the development of traditional and modern sectors.
Armenian composers Aram Khachatryan, Arno Babajanyan, singers Gohar Gasparyan, Lusine Zakaryan, violinists Ruben Aharonian, Jean Ter-Merkeryann, for their works of skill and performance, became laureates of international competitions, winning recognition. The theater has reached the peak of its fame in the 1960s. Talented actors Vahram Papazyan, Hrachya Nersisyan, Avet Avetisyan and others were recognized not only in Armenia but also outside its borders. In the standards of the world cinema, Sergei Parajanov’s art and Artavazd Peleshian’s documentary movies are of commemorative values.
The rapid rise of architecture is obvious in the Hrazdan Stadium in Yerevan, Zvartnots airport, in the establishment of the Chamber Music Hall and Sports Complex ”Hamalir”.
The devastating earthquake of Dec 7, 1988, was a heavy blow to Armenia’s cultural values. Before this disaster, Artsakh liberation movement began in February 1988.
The independence referendum was held on 21 September 1991, which validated the existence of the Republic of Armenia. In 1991 Republic of Nagorno Karabakh was proclaimed on September 2, 1992.
On March 2, the Republic of Armenia became a member of the United Nations. In 1990, after gaining independence, the spirit of a liberal economy was obvious in the field of culture, too.
Armenia on the UNESCO World Heritage List
In the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Republic of Armenia is represented by Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, Cathedral and Churches of Echmiatsin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots, thr monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley.
The Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran have been inscribed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. It includes three churches in North West Iran: St. Thaddeus Monastery (Kara Kelisa or Qara Kelisa), St. Stepanos Church and the Chapel of Dzordzor. The construction of these monuments dates back to the time period between 7th and 14th centuries.
The masterpieces of UNESCO’s world intangible cultural heritage are the music of the Armenian duduk, the Armenian khachkars and the mastery of their creation, the epic “Sasna Tsrer”, the Armenian lavash and the art of its preparation.