Armenia

This represents Dr Anne’s 80th photo essay in EWP’s ‘100 Countries’ project.

Armenia, a Transcaucasian state in northwesternmost Asia, with elements of European, Asian, Russian, Persian, and Levantine cultures, is an ancient people — the state was organised in 860 BCE with evidence of civilisation an additional 2 millennia prior — with a troubled history.

With a 2020 population of 2.96 million and an estimate for 2021 of 2.69, Armenia has seen a steady decline for several years — plus an approximate 5 million diaspora, primarily in Russia and US. The nation ranks in 81st place on the HDI, a developing nation which, outside of its capital city of Yerevan, suffers from a poverty rate of more than 51% (2020 estimate, World Bank) with uneven infrastructure.

Armenian culture is known for its valuing of family, respect for elders, emotional openness with physical contact and a low need for privacy, generosity and a strong hospitality code. The society remains widely traditional, with segregated gender roles and less than 50% of women in the workforce. Armenians refer to themselves as ‘hay’ and their nation as ‘Hayastan’.

Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist and culture expert, ranks Armenia in 6 key areas as above. Its very high Power Distance means that Armenian culture is hierarchical (formerly classist, of an aristocracy and peasant makeup), with an even higher Uncertainty Avoidance or risk aversion which relates closely to its tendency toward long-term orientation rather than short-term gain. Individualism is very low, making this a primarily collectivist society; relatedly, indulgence is also very low, meaning that Armenian people are prone to denying their own needs for the sake of the greater good, a hallmark of collectivism, and leisure activity is not highly valued.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, aligned with Eastern Orthodoxy, was established in 301 CE and as the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion is the world’s oldest national church with the oldest cathedral. Still today, 99% of Armenians identify as Christian with 97% as Armenian Apostolic. While a 2005 constitutional amendment guarantees freedom of religion, the Apostolic church nevertheless is closely aligned to national identity. It must be noted, however, that the church suffered a division more than 50 years ago and is essentially 2 churches today in all but name. Seen here are ‘khachkar’, a unique style of religious stone monuments for which Armenia is famous.

Both the unique Armenian script (created in 405 CE) and its cultural influences as well as areas of diaspora can be seen in this language school signage. Eastern Armenia has been ruled alternately by Russia and Persia (today Iran), and the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1991, and the nation today maintains amicable relationships with both. Western Armenia was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, but forced deportations and starvation in the early 20th century remain an unresolved and sensitive issue between the nation and neighbouring Turkey to this day.

Armenia is long known for its arts, in particular music and dance, theatre and literature, and visual art. Religious architecture, miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts, and carpets are especially well known. Traditional music used an indigenous tonal system, distinct from that of Europe, which was based on tetrachords, while folk music traditions in the Highlands can be traced back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Today, Armenian art forms are reasonably well known throughout the world.

The Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, known as The Cascade for its waterfall impression, is multi-level and built into a hillside with a long sculpture park stretching before it. Designed in the 1920s by Soviet architect Alexander Tamanyan, construction only began in the 1980s and was halted following a 1988 earthquake; eventually funded by Armenian-American philanthropist Gerard Cafesjian, in late 2009 it finally opened to the public. Its exterior serves as a popular gathering point for Yerevan residents.

Yerevan’s Genocide Museum, opened in 1967, addresses a deeply tragic and unresolved — and, controversial — trauma of the early 20th century, a significant theme in modern Armenian culture. Western Armenia, as mentioned, was subsumed by the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until dissolution of the latter following the first World War [WWI]. Toward the end of the 19th century when the empire was failing, during and immediately after WWI, and up to the founding of its republic in 1923, minority ethnic groups were expelled from today’s Turkey in often violent manner. In several waves from 1914 to 1918, Armenians were sent to camps in the Syrian desert, forcibly marched there on foot by paramilitary troops and with insufficient food and water; though an exact figure is impossible, deaths have been estimated at 1~2 million. A series of pogroms occurred in Adana (1909), large-scale massacres of ‘rebels’ during Ottoman invasions of Eastern Armenia (1914), and various other pogroms up to 1923 — all of which was predated by the mid-1890s Hamidian massacres (100-300k primarily Armenian dead) used to reassert ‘pan-Islamism’ in order to prop up the weakening empire. This is all hotly contested by Turkey to this day, and remains an open wound for Armenians.

Exterior to this museum is an area dedicated to war heroes, those who died fighting in the wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a contested border in the Artsakh Republic (former Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), an ongoing struggle which erupted again as recently as 2020.

Armenia, with its lengthy and significant history, multiple invasions, beautiful mountainous landscape and some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries, is a culture of survival. Based on a collectivist and long-term orientation, family alliance, national religious identity, pragmatism, and survivalist mentality, they are a culture deeply wounded and still struggling with poverty today — which will undoubtedly survive, and even thrive, well into the future.

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