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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p1  Chapter I
The Land

Geography, Generalities

No area on the globe is so fascinating to present-day scholars as the Near East; fascinating because it was the cradle of some of the oldest of civilizations, many of which are now but little more than names to us. In ancient times this part of western Asia, mostly mountainous, with fertile uplands and valleys, was a scene of frequent bloody turmoil in one part and another, being overrun by foreign invaders. Nations, kingdoms rose and fell, sometimes through centuries of struggle. Throughout all this, the most persistent, and longest lived of these nations has been the Armenian.

The story of Armenia is fragmentary and spiced with legend. Up to 500 B.C., it may be divided into the pre-Urartean era, extending roughly from 1500 B.C. to about 858 B.C., and the period of the Urartean Empire, from that date to 518 B.C.

Stone age remnants found in Armenia prove that the country has been inhabited from a time far back beyond human records. Even in ages so long ago that Mesopotamia was still under water, the Armenian tableland was occupied by people who gradually moved down to such parts of the plain as became habitable with the recession of the waters. The biblical story of the Flood and the spread of mankind to the plains of Shinar is therefore based upon a telescoping of eons of history into a few weeks. True, the Ararat group of mountains was at one time surrounded by water, but it stood that way for ages instead of days, as the old Hebrew legends relate.

It has long been the notion among many Christians that Noah's Ark came to rest as the Flood subsided upon the great peak known  p2 as Mount Ararat; this assumption is based upon an erroneous reading of the 4th verse of the VIIIth chapter of Genesis. That verse does not say that the Ark landed upon Mount Ararat, but upon "the mountains of Ararat." Now, Ararat was the Hebrew version of the name, not of the mountain but of the country around it, the old Armenian homeland, whose name at other times and in other tongues appears variously as Erirath, Urartu, etc. The Prophet Jeremiah (LI, 27), writing in 600 B.C., speaks of "the kingdom of Ararat," which kingdom at that time called itself Urartu. Hence the "Mountains of Ararat" may mean any part of the tangled mountain mass of that country. The Armenians never called the colossus of the range, Ararat; to them that mighty double peak was "Massis." Great Ararat or Massis is some 17,000 feet above the sea; Lesser Ararat is 12,840 feet. The great mountain has been chiseled and moulded by earthquakes. As late as July 2, 1840, the old volcano within, long quiescent, stirred again, shook itself, and a great slice of it thundered down in an avalanche, burying a chapel, a convent and a village of 300 families.​a

The boundaries of Armenia have been frequently altered by conquest and defeat. At times, its people ruled the entire Armenian plateau; at other times they have been compressed within the central part of that tableland. Roughly speaking, historic Armenia — an area of 150,000 square miles — was bounded by Iberia (Georgia) on the north, by Caucasian Albania (present Azerbaijan) on the north-east, by Persia on the east, by Mesopotamian lands on the south, and by Pontus, Cappadocia and Cilicia on the west. Her geographical position made Armenia an economic and political bridge between East and West, over which passed trade caravans from India and Central Asia to the West and vice versa, and which for centuries was an arena for military operations.

The Armenian table-land is very rugged. Its numerous mountain clusters are cleft and separated by gorges and great river valleys. Mount Massis or Ararat, whose snowcapped summit was in ancient times thought to be the abode of terrible genii, even as Olympus was the seat of the Greek gods, is the center of the labyrinth. Extending westward therefrom, the chain divides Armenia into northern and southern sections. Near the center, two great rivers have their sources — the Arax, which flows eastward to the Caspian Sea, and the Aradzani (Murad-tchai), the main branch of the Euphrates, which at first flows westward, then describes a vast loop, almost  p3 encircling the watershed of its great sister, the Tigris, before joining it in lower Mesopotamia.

A short distance southwest of Massis lie the Aladagh (Dzaghgantz) Mountains, with one peak rising to 11,500 feet, their slopes covered with pasturage. South of the Armenian plateau is another range, the many-branched Taurus, extending westward and forming the natural frontier between Armenia and northern Mesopotamia. Further southeast, on the southern edge of historic Armenia, lie the Gorduq Mountains, from which flows the western branch (Bohtan-Su) of the Tigris. The main stream and feeders of the western Tigris emerge from the Taurus heights, which divide this watershed from that of the Aradzani.

The mountains of Dévé-Boynu, bordering the Erzerum table-land on the east, lie northeast of the sources of the Arax and south of the mountainous region of Taiq. The Aragadz (Alagöz) and Ara Mountains, looking southward from present-day Soviet Armenia towards Massis and the Arax Valley, border the great Ararat plain, more than 13,000 feet above sea-level, whose Alpine pastures and copious waterage have for centuries fostered extensive cattle-breeding, and whose coolness made it a pleasant summer resort for people from the torrid lower plains. Northeast of Aragadz lie the rich grazing lands of Dzaghgouniatz. The eastern fringes of the Pambak Mountains touch the Lake of Sevan, which is still further enclosed by the mountains of Gunel-dara and Areguni. To the south are the high peaks of Zankezur-Daralagiaz, and still further southeast the mountains of Tchavendour, with forest-covered slopes and upland pastures. Parallel with the Zankezur range, trending north and south, are the mountains of Qarabagh, which slope southward, to the Plain Qarabagh, or steppe of Mil.

Another river, the Jorokh, rising in the Ardaban Mountains near Erzerum, meanders northward to the Black Sea. Skirting far northern Armenia, the Kur River, with many tributaries, flows southeastward to join the Arax just before it enters the Caspian. All Armenian rivers, because of the rough terrain and steep descents, offer unusual opportunities for the development of hydro-electric power.

The three great lakes of historic Armenia, often called seas, are Sevan, Van and Urmia. The freshwater Sevan, known also as Kegham, is more than 6,500 feet above sea level and is 49 miles long. It is fed by some thirty rivers and small streams, and is drained by the cascading River Zanku, which flows into the Arax.  p4 Lake Sevan is rich in fish, the trout and ishkhanatzug or prince-fish being especially noted. There is an island in the lake with an ancient church upon it.

The lake of Van is fed by the streams Khoshab, Bergri and Marmet, but has no known outlet. The water is heavy with saltpetre and alkalies, yet there is a fish living in it known as darekh. The lake has four islands, one of which, Aghtamar, is noted for its architectural monuments, including a magnificent church and an ancient "palace."

Largest of the three is the Lake of Urmia or Kaputan Sea, now in Persia, 85 miles long and 4,500 feet above sea-level, and so alkaline that no animal life can exist in it. It has many small islands.

The great plain of Ararat, traversed by the Arax, surrounded by mountains and abundantly watered, has been, since the earliest days of history, the most thickly populated portion of the Armenian table-land. The Sardarabat and Erevan districts are parts of that plain. The mountain ranges bordering the plateau cut off some of the humid winds from the Black and Caspian Seas, and tend to make the atmosphere dry and clear. The abundance of streams flowing from the heights atones for this dryness. The rugged terrain of Armenia and its many levels of altitude cause great diversities of climate in various regions. The famous localities known as the Valley of Alashkert (Bagrevand) and the Plain of Mush (Taron), both watered by the Eastern Euphrates or Aradzani, have played the same economic role in the life of southern Armenia as the Plain of Ararat in the northern central section.

Field Crops and Fruits

In the southern portions, at the lower altitudes, climatic conditions, aided by artificial irrigation, permit the cultivation of semi-tropical crops such as cotton and tobacco. In the same lowland zone grains and rice also thrive, as well as many kinds of fruit. The fine grapes, apricots and peaches of Armenia were famous from very early times. The cultivation of fruit is being extended to the mountain slopes, up to 4,000 feet elevation; some pears and apples are grown at still higher altitudes. Wheat is produced on plateaux, even at altitudes of 4,500 to 7,000 feet. Mutilated and neglected for centuries by war and foreign invasion, the forests of Armenia are sparse and poor, except in the northeastern districts, where they are luxuriant.

 p5  Livestock

The natural aspect of the country is favorable to cattle-breeding. In addition to the horned animals, large and small, an important stock is horses, for which Armenia has been particularly distinguished in the past. The mountains and plains abound in game, both furred and feathered; deer, antelope, wild sheep, partridge, ducks, quail, etc. Among wild predatory animals the fox, wolf, bear and hyena are still present.

The mountains are rich in minerals. Since the dawn of history they have been renowned for their copper, tin, iron and varicolored metals. Excavations within the ancient Armenian area have yielded many objects of bronze and iron, dating from remote antiquity. In the modern Gumush-Khana and Alaverdi regions in the northwestern mountains, there were mines of gold, silver and copper. The mining industry has been greatly developed since the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia. New mines of valuable metals have been discovered in Zanke-Sur, Meghri and Lori, which, together with the various kinds of marble, granite, tufa, basalt, bemza, etc., are being exploited.

Armenia also has many mineral waters. There are several carbonic acid springs in the watershed of the Hradzan (Zanku) River, among which is the water of Arzni, noted for its curative qualities. Fully as renowned are the hot sulphur springs of Diadin and Jermuk (Isti Su). In the densely wooded dale of Dilijan there are carbonic-alkaline springs. Zanke-Sur and several other localities, also, have similar mineral waters.

Thayer's Note:

a For a well-rounded historical look at "Ararat", with some very nice photographs, see the article Basis (Ağrı Dağı) at Livius.Org.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 16