Armenia is in the Southern Caucasus region. This area, which also includes Georgia and Azerbaijan, serves as a bridge between Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and the Middle East.
We spent a few days in its capital city, Yerevan. Yerevan is Armenia’s only real city. It and its suburbs are home to roughly 1.5 million people, about half the country’s total population. It is set among several steep mountains and a deep gorge.
The ancient city’s roots go back to 782 BC when a fortress was built there. The fort’s protection combined with the valley’s fertile farmland brought farmers. The growing population brought stores, merchants, and other business. Yerevan was a Muslim and Persian capital until Russia annexed it in 1828 and again in 1920.
During the Soviet era, the Soviets rebuilt the city. They removed most of the city’s traditional two-story, wood balconied buildings, as well as most of its mosques and many of its churches. However, they kept and renovated the 19th-century Czarist buildings. They also built thousands of dull, gray, Soviet-style apartment blocks and government buildings.
The Influence of Alexander Tamanian
A few of the most dramatic areas of the city, particularly Republic Square, the Opera Theater Building, the Cascades and many of the central city’s parks (such as Shahumyan and English Parks off Republic Square) have a different lineage. In 1924, Alexander Tamanian, a Russian-born Armenian city planner and architect, was invited to help create Yerevan’s urban planning efforts. His style blended architectural heritage with contemporary design.
His brooding statue is at the head of the park leading to the Cascade (see below). These, and a few other areas have a very different character than the rest of the sprawling city.
The Opera building is an architectural masterpiece. In addition to the building, it is surrounded by a number of classical statues of national heros. It also has a wonderful, highly stylized sculpture of Arno Babajanyan dramatic finale played on an elongated, super-sized grand piano.
The elegant Square (formerly Lenin Square) was planned in the 1920s and completed only in the 1970s. It is surrounded by impressive, large-scale neo-classical buildings in volcanic-colored stone. These include two government ministries (Foreign Affairs and Transportation), the National History and Art Museums, and the Marriot Hotel, where we stayed. The marble square has flower gardens planned around a large fountains that are lit and choreographed to music in the evening.
The Cascade is a massive, open-air stairway that connects the city center with the Monument neighborhood. It consists of the sculpture-filled Victory Park, with the imposing statue of the Alexander Tamanian at one end.
At the other end is a long, 576-step multi-tiered, flower-flanked staircase leading to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia Monument atop a steep hill. While the stairs provide the main access to the viewpoint (which never quite got all the way to the monument as had planned), there is also an escalator that is flanked by dozens of other contemporary sculpture’s and topped by a display of shimmering works by Swarovski Crystal.
Mashtots Avenue (known as Lenin Avenue until 1990 )is the major commercial street that traverses most of the central city. It is lined by shops and some lovely gardened areas that house large outdoor cafes.
A fortress-like structure at the head of Mashtots Avenue is the world’s largest repository of Armenian manuscripts. The research library contains tens of thousands of ancient Armenia manuscripts, documentation of the Armenian Genocide, and hundreds of thousands of other documents from medieval to current times. The structure is fronted by a sculpture of Mesrop Mashtots, who evented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. The entrance is flanked by six other Armenian scholars and a gallery of ancient Armenian architectural artifacts and stelae.
Yerevan Old Town
Unlike many European Old Towns, Yerevan’s old town is not so much a designated district of renovated buildings as it is a collection of remnants of primarily 19th-century Armenian style buildings that can be seen in pockets of the central city. These include traditional, two-story homes with often ornate attractive balconies, or other ornate buildings that may have co an horse entrances next to those used by residents
Outside Yerevan Center
Yerevan also has several noteworthy structures to visit outside the city center if you have time. These include:
- The Genocide Museum and Monument, of which we only saw the monument’s spire from a distance.
- Erebuni Fortress, completed in 782 BC, it was one of the most important of a series of fortresses along the kingdom’s northern border. The excavated, reconstructed fort, with 30+-foot walls, also contains a palace, assembly hall, temple, living quarters, and several large storerooms.
- Mother Armenia, a 75-foot monument of a woman holding a sword pointed to the Turkish border replaces and slightly smaller monument to Stalin that was unceremoniously removed from the pedestal.
While the museum is easy to get to as it is in Republic Square, we were very disappointed in the museum and felt it was not worth the price of admission. It started with one very interesting gallery that covered the Early Stone Age (from 1.8 million years ago) to the Copper Age ( to the 6th though much of the 4th century BC).
But the next gallery jumped to 19th-century jewelry, dresses, and other adornments. The third and final gallery focused on 19th and 20th century carpets.
While each gallery was interesting in its own right, the 2,400 year gap between the Copper Age and the 19th century was represented by a handful of pieces scattered in and among the three galleries. When we asked about the gap we were told that more than half the museum was closed. Maybe if they open up all of the galleries it will make more sense to visit.
Eating in Yeravan Restaurants
We had a fast late dinner at this nice restaurant which also had a nice list of Armenian wines to explore. We were happy to indulge in two of our favorite East European comfort foods, cabbage rolls (with a small taste of tomato-based liquid) and grapes leaves (herbed yoghurt sauce). We added a bottle of 2017 Taar Reserve, a blend of Areni and Saparavi grapes from the country’s Aragatsotn wine region in the country’s northwest.
Our lunch here began with a rather earthy, but tasty bowl of borsht and an order of one of the better grape leave-wrapped dolma of the trip, followed by very tasty barbequed trout. We each had a glass of a different house white wine—Takar (made from Kanule grapes) and Karas (a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Kanule grapes).
We shared two entrees and a dessert for dinner. We began with delicious cabbage dolmas with a slightly spiced tomato sauce followed by very tasty, but tough barbequed lamb with arugula, onions, and lavash. We added a nice bottle of 2019 Tarira Red Blend (Areni, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the country’s Aragatsotn wine region) that was more professionally served than many wines we have had at three times the price. Our server then walked us across a passageway to an affiliated dessert bar where we chose from among dozens of sinful pastries. We chose an almond cake with vanilla cream and blueberry jam, coated in corn flakes, and topped with blueberries. With this Tom had to try an extra potent (57 percent alcohol) but quite good, three year-old Armenian mulberry distillate.
In addition to eating in restaurants, we also sampled Armenian specialties between meals including the country’s famous lavash and matnakash breads, lori cheese, sea buckhorn juice, a pear-based soda and of course, the incredibly potent (57 percent alcohol) drink that merits an additional mention, mulberry distillate. Although khinkali dumplings are almost as popular in Armenia as they are in Georgia, we had so many in Georgia that we decided to save our Armenian appetites for other Armenian specialties.