The Armenian language is an Indo-European language spoken by the Armenians. It is the official language of the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. It has historically been spoken throughout the Armenian Highlands and today is widely spoken in the Armenian Diaspora.
The Armenian literary tradition began early in the 5th century AD with the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots. The first literary works were religious tracts and histories of the Armenians.
A secular literature developed in the early modern period, and in the 18th century Armenian Catholic monks of the Mekhitarist Order began publishing ancient texts, modern histories, grammars and literature.
The 19th century beheld a great literary movement that was to give rise to modern Armenian literature. Notable writers from this period include Khachatur Abovian, Raffi, Mikael Nalbandian, Siamanto, Garegin Nzhdeh and Costan Zarian.
The literary tradition in the 20th century was carried out by such writers and poets as Hovhannes Tumanyan, Yeghishe Charents, Avetik Isahakyan, Derenik Demirchian, Paruyr Sevak, Hovhannes Shiraz, Gevork Emin, Silva Kaputikyan and Hrant Matevosian.
Unfortunately, only a handful of pre-Christian examples have survived and they are from three distinct epochs: Urartian, Hellenistic, and late Roman. The 1st century Garni Temple is the only pagan monument left in any sort of complete state in Armenia, as many others were demolished or converted to Christian places of worship under King Tiridates III of Armenia.
The first Armenian churches were built between the 4th and 7th century, beginning when Armenia converted to Christianity, and were often built on top of pagan temples, and imitated some aspects of Armenian pre-Christian architecture.
From the 9th to 11th century ornately carved Armenian khachkars were developed, and the first major monasteries, such as Haghpat and Harichavank were built during this time.
From the 12th to 14th century Armenian architecture saw an explosion in the number of monasteries built, including Saghmosavank Monastery, the Akhtala Monastery, Kecharis Monastery and Makaravank Monastery. Monasteries were institutes of learning, and much of medieval Armenian literature was written in this time period.
The last great period in classic Armenian construction was under the Iranian Safavid Shahs, under which a number of new churches were built, usually at existing holy sites such as Echmiadzin as well as in Diaspora communities like New Julfa.
Following the Sovietization of Armenia, two architectural directions competed for dominance: the national and the modern. This dual track of architecture produced various phases of Armenian architecture, even during the short Soviet period.
Khachkars, also known as Armenian cross-stones are a carved, memorial stele bearing a cross, surmounting a rosette or a solar disc. The remainder of the stone face is typically filled with elaborate patterns of leaves, grapes, pomegranates, and bands of interlace. Since 2010, the khachkars, their symbolism and craftsmanship are inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Most early khachkars were erected for the salvation of the soul of either a living or a deceased person. Otherwise, they were intended to commemorate a military victory, the construction of a church, or as a form of protection from natural disasters.
About 40,000 khachkars survive today. Most of them are free standing, though those recording donations are usually built into monastery walls. The following three khachkars are believed to be the finest examples of the art form: one in Geghard (carved in 1213), The Holy Redeemer khachkar in Haghpat (carved in 1273), and khachkar in Goshavank (carved in 1291). A number of good examples have been transferred to the Historical Museum in Yerevan and beside the Cathedral in Echmiadzin.
The largest surviving collection of khachkars in Armenia is the field of khachkars at Noratus Cemetery, on the western shore of the Lake Sevan, where an old graveyard with around 900 khachkars from various periods and of various styles can be seen. The largest collection in the world was formerly located in Old Julfa in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, until it was destroyed by their government.
Inevitably, in a country with an architectural tradition in stone dating back to Urartian times, the craftsmen who so carefully carved blocks of stones for walls, fortresses and sanctuaries had acquired the skill to sculpt stone as relief decorations for buildings or as independent works of art.
Little sculpture has survived, however, from the pre-Christian period because of the excessive zeal of St. Gregory and the newly convert the royal court of Armenia in destroying all vestiges associated with earlier pagan religions. The major exception is a series of extremely large carved monolithic stones found in various regions of Armenia and often associated with water sources. They resemble large, tailless whales with fish-like designs, but they are known as Vishap Kars, a dragon stones.
The most famous series of relief carvings in Armenian art are those which cover the entire facade of the 10th century Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar in Western Armenia (Turkey). The unusually deep carving combined with the monumental character of Christ and other figures make this collection of sculpture unique in both Armenian and world art.
The development of the secular sculpture in Armenia started in the 19th century, in the context of active contacts with Russian and European culture. The greatest sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century, Hakop Gurdjian (1881-1948) raised this branch of Armenian art to international standards. The further development of Armenian sculpture is connected with the names of the earliest masters of Soviet art: Ara Sargsian, Suren Stepanian, Sergey Merkurov and Yervand Kochar.
This picture of Armenian sculpture would be incomplete, without mentioning the artists who lived and worked outside Armenia but were always attached to their native culture: Daria Kamsarakan (France), Khoren Der-Harootian (USA), Nvard Zarian (Italy), Zaven Kheteshian (Lebanon) and Michael Poladian (Germany).
Monumental wall painting was practiced in Armenia, but was much less generalized than neighboring Byzantine or Coptic traditions and very little of what was produced has survived. Icon painting was never practiced in Armenia.
Canvas painting is relatively plentiful, but dates for the most part of the 18th century and later. Thus, whereas the history of Byzantine painting in the Middle Ages is dependent as much on architectural decoration – mosaics, frescoes and icons as on illuminations, the Armenian tradition is known almost exclusively from the Miniature Paintings.
A very large number of Armenian manuscripts are preserved, nearly 30,000, dating from the 9th to the 19th century, and produced in every region inhabited by Armenians. The Matenadaran Institute of Ancient manuscripts in Yerevan today has one of the largest collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world.
Martiros Saryan (1880-1972) was one of the major cultural figures of Armenia at the turn of the 20th century. His work, in common with the literary contributions of Hovhannes Tumanian and Avetik Isahakyan in literature, works of Toros Toramanian and Alexander Tamanian in architecture, and of Komitas in national music, set the standard of national art, and laid the foundations for its flowering in the Soviet period. Other renowned Armenian painters are Minas Avetisian, Hakob Hakobyan, Grigor Khandjyan, Rudolf Khachatrian and Gevorg Bashinjagyan.
In Diaspora one important figure in the history of Surrealism was an Armenian painter Leon Tutundjian (France), while the founder of Abstract Surrealism was the American Arshile Gorky (Vosdanik Manuk Adoyan). Surrealism also influenced the work of the superb French artist Garzu (Garnik Zulumian).
Whether or not the oldest carpet in the world was made in Armenia, the early Greek, Armenian and Arabic historical sources repeatedly speak about the fine rugs and other textiles woven there. Armenian carpets are mentioned as part of the annual Armenian tribute to the Caliph of Baghdad in the late 8th century. In the later medieval period, Marco Polo praises the rugs woven by Armenians. The characteristic red Armenian dye was much prized throughout the Mediterranean world. To this day, the rug industry remains an important component of the organized craft in Armenia.
Armenians have had a long tradition of folk music from the antiquity and during the Ottoman times. Instruments played include Kanun (dulcimer), Davul (double-headed hand drum), Oud (lute), Duduk, Zurna, Blul (ney), Shvi and to a lesser degree Saz. The Duduk is Armenia’s national instrument, and among its well-known performers is Duduk player Djivan Gasparyan. The instruments like the Kamancha were played by popular, traveling musicians called Ashoughs.
Armenian classical composers include Alexander Spendiarov (1871-1928), Armen Tigranian (1879-1950) and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), who is internationally well known particularly for his music for various ballets and the immortal Saber Dance from the ballet “Gayane”.
In recent years, the prominent Armenian composers were Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), Avet Terterian (1929-1994) and Tigran Mansurian (1939).
In the Diaspora, Armenian musicians such as Kim Kashkashian, Levon Chilingirian and composers such as Alan Hovhaness have reached international fame.
Armenian religious music remained liturgical until Komitas Vardapet introduced polyphony at the end of the 19th century. Apart from his contribution to religious music, Komitas may be considered the founder of modern classical Armenian music. Armenian chant Sharakan is the most common kind of religious music in Armenia. Some of the best performers of these chants, are at the Holy Cathedral of Echmiadzin, and include the late soprano Lusine Zakaryan.
The Armenian dance heritage has been one of the oldest, richest and most varied in the Near East. The beautiful movements of the Armenian cultural dance are adored by all audiences around the world.
Kochari is one of the most popular dances of Armenians. Kochari is danced in a group of men and women and is known for its tune played by the Zurna. Berd is a dance famous for having a circle of men stand on the shoulders of another circle and rotate. Berd means “fortress” in Armenian and is named accordingly because of the shape the dancers make.
Harsnapar comes from the Armenian Hars, which means bride, and Par which translates to dance. The bride is shown dancing a solo and may possibly feature the bridesmaids.
Distinguished Armenian filmmakers, actors, screenwriters and producers include Sergei Parajanov, Henrik Malyan, Atom Egoyan, Rouben Mamoulian, Mikael Vardanov, Artavazd Peleshian, Steven Zaillian, Cher, Vigen Chaldranian, Charles Aznavour, Howard Kazanjian, Roman Balayan, Karen Shakhnazarov, Edmond Keosayan, Amo Bek-Nazarov, Michael Poghosyan and a few others.
The greatest Armenian film, regarded as one of the most important masterpieces of the 20th century, is undoubtedly Sergei Parajanov’s “Sayat Nova”, also known as “The Color of Pomegranate” (1968). Other undisputed classics of Armenian cinema (produced in Armenia) that gained international attention are Peleshian’s short documentary “The Seasons” (1975), Vardanov’s feature documentary “Parajanov: The Last Spring” (1992), Dovlatian’s feature “Hello it’s Me” (1966) and Mkrtchyan’s feature “Tango of Our Childhood” (1985).
Learn more about distinct and unique Armenian culture, its history, architecture, applied arts, music, paintings, and many more, by visiting Armenia along with one of our popular tours.