Europe’s Final Frontier—and the cradle of Christianity—is surrounded by Arab countries. It remains Europe’s last undiscovered corner. Not only do most people have no idea where Armenia is or what it stands for, but they’ve also yet to discover this tiny country’s massive will to prosper—at home and around the world.
1. Armenians have wandered to and resettled many corners of the planet—and not just Los Angeles (namely Glendale, CA). Perpetually deported in waves from their homeland since the 11th century, Armenian communities and their traditions are prospering today in formed colonies (which means building churches and schools) in places like Argentina, India, the Philippines, Romania, the U.S., and Ethiopia. And not unexpectedly, Jerusalem has an Armenian Quarter, where, in 1924, heralded Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie beheld Armenian Churches having a strikingly similarity to his homeland’s churches.
2. It is the cradle of Christianity. Armenia became the first official Christian nation in 301 AD.
3. The U.S. Embassy, built 2005, was the world’s largest until the 2008 completion of Iraq’s American embassy. Current U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills was once the doorman at a Detroit retirement community.
4. They make great wine, which they’ve been producing for a loooong time. The world’s earliest known winery and shoe (5,500-years old) were recently discovered in the Areni-1 cave complex. Archeologists have also unearthed the oldest human brain there as well. This recently uncovered archeological site will eventually close to the public for more exhaustive research and later reopen as a major tourist attraction. You can’t go wrong in a place where wine and fashion run deep.
5. Bordered by Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, and autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia is part of the Caucasian Plateau. It gets along fine with Iran and Georgia; Turkey and Azerbaijan, not so much. It is actually the only country in the world that has closed borders with two neighbors—Azerbaijan and Turkey. Despite having two gnarly neighbors, it remains one of the safest countries in the world. We’re talking in a safety league with Japan or Switzerland.
6. Chess is a national pastime that’s taught as part of the school curriculum as a competitive sport. It is typically taught by the same teachers that instruct all things military. As a result, Armenia has spawned many chess champs, including Grandmaster Tigran Petrosyan. Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can attain. Once achieved, the title is held for life.
7. Its number-one export seems to be brains. Armenia’s long-standing academic tradition is traced to its first school, established in 406 AD, which taught the Armenian language and the art of translation. The country enjoys a 98.8% literacy rate in general and a 99.8% male literacy rate as reported by UNESCO. Armenians regularly catapult themselves into the world’s leading schools via scholarships, foundations, and wealthy Armenian expat contributions. Their smarty-pants reputation is likely linked to their ancient and versatile alphabet, whose 39 characters include two different sounds for e and r (է and ե for “e”; ր and ռ for “r”). Armenian is an Indo-European language and hence related to English. The Armenian alphabet is considered one of the most ideal, because it portrays the sounds in the language perfectly. Unlike the U.S., where men dominate the tech sector, 50% of Armenia’s techies are female.
8. It’s ancient like Europe, but cooler. The Connecticut-sized country has thousands of ancient monasteries and churches, several of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Take that, “classic” Europe; have fun waiting in endless lines for tourist traps.) And, Armenia’s religious sites are always open. The priests inhabiting these mountain-encircled landmarks have wives and families and just might invite you to enjoy some wine. Also, there’s no shortage of miscellaneous raptors soaring above these monastic complexes. Armenia’s diversity of elevations and microclimates host approximately 360 bird species (all of Europe has 450).
9. Cher’s dad is from Armenia (her mom is Cherokee Indian).
10. High culture is low-priced. Armenia has a long-established tradition of music. One can go to a world-class opera performance for only $6. Armenian jazz—a distinct art-form sprung from Armenian folk music—was famous during the Soviet era and is making a comeback on the global stage. Music aside, it remains incredibly cheap to travel here. Cabs, beautiful cafes, wine, beer, great food, and groceries (three pounds of chunky, organic tomatoes for 30 cents) are enjoyed for 1950s U.S. prices.
11. The country also suffered a genocide perpetrated by Turks before WWI that killed 1.5 million people, which still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Although this plight has received attention both academically and diplomatically, Turkey refuses to recognize it as a genocide.
12. Eighty-percent of Armenian surnames end in either -ian or -yan. -Ian or -yan (transliterated from Armenian) is an Indo-European postfix/suffix that shows belonging. It’s identical to the -ian as in Washingtonian, Smithsonian, Bulgarian, and Kardashian.
13. It is the apricot capital of the world. Mountainous Armenia’s fertile valleys are perfect for growing apricots. They even make brandy out of them. Apricot’s scientific name is Prunus armeniaca (Armenian plums). Unlike locals, visitors often bite right into them. Locals, however, always break them open to check for worms first, because Armenian apricots along with all produce are always organic and non-GMO (without a price markup).
14. Armenia’s 300 days of sunshine each year—paired with hundreds of denuded mountains that are above the treeline—make it one of the world’s best places to paraglide, either as a beginner or a one-timer flying tandem with a pro.
15. Most Armenian women think Tinder is a marriage App. Nobody acts like a Kardashian here, but the Armenian-rooted family is credited, by some Armenians, with empowering women by speaking out about weight, menstruation, attaining wealth, and other previously hushed issues. A long-entrenched Peace Corp volunteer told me that the very conservative villagers, and some urbanites, believe that tampons steal a woman’s virginity.
16. Armenia is on the legendary Silk Road. One Armenian Silk Road motel—Orbelian’s Caravanserai, made in 1331, pictured above—is where road-warrior merchants and their caravan-pulling animals rocked happy hour. Such overnight “inns” were built one-day’s-journey apart along the fabled trade route. Yes, an Armenian mission fits on your list…
For more on Armenia, see TATON Travel’s “Caravan of Dreams” along with Gardman Tour and Discover Armenia Tours. (PS: Multilingual Rafik Santrosyan (email@example.com) was the best guide I’ve ever had).
All photos credited to Bruce Northam unless otherwise noted.