*I appoligize in advance for the lack of quality photos. I was battling a parasite infection (most likely from Egypt) during our stay here and wasn’t feeling up to too much exploring*
Traveling to Yerevan is a bit of a pilgrimage. An ancient land with an ancient culture, the people of Armenia have faced genocide and a mass diaspora. The modern capital of Yerevan serves as a sorts of coming home for the millions of Armenians home and abroad. More than any other location in Armenia, it is Yerevan where you best begin to fully understand the pride, success, and struggle of this modern version of an ancient kingdom.
After a several long and bumpy marshrutka rides, seemingly more crowded with each one we got into, we crossed into Armenia through one of the more remote border crossings between Georgia and Armenia. Beautiful mountain scenery and vast expanses of green plains gave us glimpses of the Armenia we would come to love before descending into Armenia’s largest and most important city.
Waking up from my nap, I happened to open my eyes the moment Mount Ararat dominated the skyline over the city. While it is becoming an oxymoron for this trip, and certainly overused, my jaw dropped in awe at the spectacle in front of me. The mountain of biblical proportions standing boldly in the distance could not have been a better backdrop for the opening day of our month long journey in Armenia.
Brief History of Yerevan
While Yerevan is Armenia’s newest capital, it is by no means lacks hsitory. Yerevan was founded all the way back in 782 BCE upon the completion of the Erebuni fortress. Over the next several hundred years, Erebuni (Yerevan) would be occupied and controlled by various kingdoms until the formation of the Kingdom of Armenia in 331 BCE. Following its founding, Armenia went through a period of rapid expansion that did not work in Erbuni’s favor. As other cities grew and developed, Erbuni’s existence became less and less significant. The city would take on the modern rendition of its name, Yerevan, around the 8th century CE.
The city would remain insignificant well into the 15th century CE. It was then that the home of the Armenian church moved nearby, turning Yerevan into the economic, and cultural center of Armenia. It was also during this time period that Armenia would witness a major diaspora due to the intentional destruction of Armenia as Turkic tribes pillaged the region. This would not last long since between the 15th and 19th centuries CE, the area known as Armenia was a part of Persia (with brief periods of Byzantine rule) which brought stabilization to Yerevan and Eastern Armenia.
Iranian control of Yerevan and Armenia would end abruptly after the Russo-Persian war in 1828 when Armenia would fall under the Russian Empire. During this time, the city took on a more European character as the Russians rapidly developed infrastructure in the city.
Yerevan and Armenia would briefly become independent after the fall of the Russian monarchy but it would occur during one of Armenia’s darkest times. During WWI Turkey carried out a mass genocide, attempting to eliminate the Armenian people out of Eastern Armenia. Yerevan became the headquarters for the Armenian resistance of Turkey. The city successfully repelled the Turkish army and received nearly 100,000 refugees who escaped from the Turkish controlled territories of Armenia.
With the Bolshevik revolution completed following WWI, Yerevan was quickly recaptured by the Soviets in 1920 when it became part of the newly formed Soviet Union. Much of the city was leveled in order to make way for new buildings. The Soviet architecture of the time still stands today, defining the city’s skyline, like most previous Soviet satellite states.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia would become and remain independent in 1991. Yerevan was made the capital of the newly formed republic. The city and Armenia itself is still undergoing growing pains but the city has firmly established itself as the political, cultural, and political capital of modern day Armenia.
What to Do and See
Yerevan is by no means an attractive looking city. Like most Soviet inspired city layouts, most blocks in Yerevan are indistinguishable. The vast majority of historical buildings have been torn down, including during the massive building boom the city experienced in the early 2000s. Despite the lack of ‘things to do’ the city is a crucial stop while in the country. Some of the country’s most prized relics reside here along with a monument that only begins to describe the pain and suffering that Armenians have dealt with over the past centuries. In addition to this, Yerevan is also a logistical home base for exploring many worthwhile day trip destinations nearby.
The pride and joy for many in Armenia, the Matenadaran is where Armenia stores what is left of its most precious manuscripts. The vast majority lost to invasions, those that remain are beautiful. The illustrated pages look straight out of a once upon a time book, with large first letters and colorful illustrations that take over the page. The book variety is heavily subject to religious and scientific texts. In addition to Armenian works, there is an entire section dedicated to Persian manuscripts which offer a nice contrast to the main works presented here. There are several floors and rooms to explore, making it a great way to escape the heat if you’re in town during the summer months.
Representing the city center, Republic Square is where locals and tourists alike come to relax in the cooler evening hours of spring and summer. The square is covered in little food and coffee shop vans and is home to Armenia’s best museum. The fountain comes alive at night, dancing along to the music that is blasted through the square. You will most likely end up here once or twice no matter what you decide to do while in town.
History Museum of Armenia
This museum was simply fantastic. While the highlight of the museum is the world’s oldest leather shoe, there is much more to see here. You could easily spend a few hours glancing over the plethora of artifacts on display. All displays are well lit and the museum itself has a very modern layout with English display signs. A must visit while in Yerevan.
Like Republic Square, this is another heart of the city where locals gather. The large cascading stairs leading up the hill offer some good view when the smog allows for them. The area is full of sculptures and has an art galley inside. If your looking for a place to chill and take it easy, this is where you want to go. It is within easy walking distance of the Matenadaran.
Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum
The simple yet powerful memorial stands on top of Yerevan’s highest hill as a testament to what the people of Armenia have struggled through in the past. 1.5 million Armenians were murdered as the new Turkish state at the time systematically wiped them out of Eastern Armenia during and after WWI. Millions more were forced to leave their homeland, resulting in a diaspora of the Armenian population for a second time. A visit here is mandatory when visiting Armenia for those looking to understand the Armenia of the past and today.
Visiting in the rain added to the solemn mood that hangs over the area. Staring blankly into the eternal flame surrounded by twelve gray slabs representing the twelve provinces lost to Turkey, forces you to contemplate the horrors and challenges this country has had and still recovers from to this day. Connected to the memorial is a large museum that guides visitors through the entire painful process of persecution the Armenians faced under the Turks. The displays are powerful and really puts the pain and suffering into perspective. The museum ends with a message of hope, unity, and strength, a message that seems evident throughout the city if you stay long enough.
If you want fresh, this is where you come to shop. Armenia’s largest market is full of just about everything you would want to buy. I’m personally a big fan of markets but sadly, I never got to this one. Dealing with a parasite infection during my time here, I wasn’t too much in the mood to do some heavy exploring. Nonetheless, if you’re in town, we recommend you stop by here if your staying for a few days.
Yerevan Brandy Company
We definitely drank the brandy on several occasions while in Armenia but we didn’t take a tour of the factory. You have to contact the distillery in advanced to arrange a tour.
Be on the lookout for our next post about the seemingly endless number of quality day trips you can take while in Yerevan.
Where to Stay and Eat
We certainly didn’t choose fancy for our stay in Yerevan but you couldn’t beat the price. At $5 a bed, Center Hostel offered some of the best value of our trip. A fully equipped kitchen, friendly family owners, and a central location were well worth the price. If you aren’t too picky, we highly recommend this place.
As for food, some locals we know recommended Lavash Restaurant in the downtown area. If you want to try traditional Armenian dishes, this is a great place to do so. Despite being a high end restaurant, the atmosphere is relaxed making it a great place to go reward yourself after a long day of exploring.
If you’re looking for some craft beer, look no further than Beer Academy., This is Yerevan’s first microbrewery and they have a decent selection of traditional ales and lagers. Food portions here are large so if you’re hungry, take a look at the menu.
Yerevan: The heartland of Modern Armenia
To get to know the old and new Armenia, a trip to the country’s newest capital is a must. It is a beacon of hope and strength as the city begins to draw more and more Armenian’s abroad back home each year. As the city and country grows, the reminders of the struggles the nation has faced in the past will never fade but this doesn’t stop the city from pushing forward at breakneck speed, creating a new identity for the modern Armenia.