Armenia is one of the oldest countries in the world. Its capital city, Yerevan, dates to about 600 BC. Ancient Armenia encompassed the Armenian Highlands, an enormous historical region shared today with Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Modern-day Armenia is much smaller, but it still occupies a key position where Europe, Asia and the Middle East meet.
Over the centuries, Armenians interacted with many cultures and created a sophisticated society. But the country’s strategic location made it vulnerable to emigration and conquest. Invasions between AD 1000 and 1500 led many Armenians to flee to Cilicia (in southcentral Turkey), Constantinople, Smyrna, Poland, and the Crimea. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, persecution under the rule of the Ottoman Empire pushed more Armenians into exile.
Today, more than twice as many Armenians live outside the country as inside it. About 7 million people of Armenian descent live in Russia, the United States, France, Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, and elsewhere. If you have Armenian ancestors, knowing more about Armenian culture can help you feel connected to them.
Armenian religion, family life, and the rituals and traditions expressed in their culture have played a powerful role in helping Armenians around the world hold on to a strong sense of identity and heritage.
Armenia proudly claims the distinction of being the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Tradition has it that two of Jesus’s Apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, successfully preached Christianity to Armenians as early as AD 40. In 301, Christianity was declared the official religion, and a church was built at Etchmiadzin, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Armenians are proud that their homeland is the location of Mount Ararat, which may have been the resting place of Noah’s ark after the flood, and other Biblical events.
As the unique Armenian alphabet developed in the 5th century, so did a flowering of Christian religious literature. Armenian religious scholars made important contributions to the wider Christian world. Translations of key scriptural texts by early Armenian scholars are now some of the earliest versions available.
Throughout the past 1,000 years, Armenians who migrated out of the country have taken their faith with them. When the Kingdom of Armenia fell in 1375, the church not only survived, but it assumed a leadership role that helped keep Armenian identity alive. Today, the Armenian Apostolic Church numbers between 8 and 9 million members. This membership includes about 94 percent of the population of the country, more than 3.5 million members in Europe, and more than a million members in the United States.
Armenian culture celebrates families and family life. Weddings no longer last for several days, but they are still lively affairs filled with joyous rituals. Extended families of both bride and groom play important roles; a godparent couple serves as witnesses and role models. At church wedding services, a priest crowns the couple to symbolize the creation of their “little kingdom” as a family. Dancing, music, and food follow, and large numbers of friends and family bestow generous gifts.
Wedding rituals express hope that the marriage will be blessed with children. Traditional Armenian families welcome many children. The community celebrates birth with music and by decorating the infant’s home with green branches that symbolize the continuity of the family. There is even a formal celebration when a baby’s first tooth appears. This love for children outlasts childhood; extended families may live together or visit each other frequently. The family unit is so important that Armenian names often identify an ancestor or ancestral place, which can help those who are researching their Armenian family history.
Music and Dance
The related arts of music and dance are deeply ingrained in Armenian culture. Ancient petroglyphs in the Armenian Highlands depict dancing figures. The philosopher Plutarch described amphitheater performances 2,000 years ago. One of the oldest Armenian dances—which is still performed today—is the kochari, which was originally about bravery but which more broadly addresses the relationship between mortals and the divine.
Special dances are performed at weddings, funerals, military occasions, and other important events. Their movements are symbolic. For example, dancers circling a bride and groom may move to the left and then to the right. The circle represents infinity, while the shifting directions represent the vagaries of life and fortune.
Scholars have catalogued over 30,000 folk songs from the Armenian Highlands. Traditional music is modal and often has a strong, lyrical melodic line; each of the 60 language dialects has a distinct folk style. Many songs serve express purposes, such as worship, planting, funerals, romantic love, patriotism, and other acts of daily life. Over 100 musical elements are sung during Armenian weddings alone. Instruments include the duduk (a double-reed pipe), oud (a short-necked lute), zurna (a woodwind instrument), and kopal (a large, two-headed drum).
Traditional Armenian Arts
Carpet making is an ancient Armenian handicraft that is still practiced today. Traditional rugs have bright colors and decorative motifs such as dragons, stylized geometric shapes, and other ornamentation that can be highly symbolic. Rugs decorate more than the floor in Armenian homes; they may rest on tables, chairs, and beds.
Khachkars are an ancient form of Armenian sculpture. Used as tombstones or memorials, these outdoor stone monuments are decorated with crosses, sometimes ornately. Khachkar building peaked in the 12th and 14th centuries. Today, more than 50,000 unique, hand-carved khachkars survive.
These aren’t the only important Armenian handicrafts. Armenian jewelers have been creating beautiful jewelry from gold, silver, and precious stones for both men and women for 1,000 years. A lot of jewelry carried special symbolism and served as amulets; some could be worn only by women or men of a certain status. For hundreds of years, delicate, intricate embroidery and needle lace has adorned Armenian churches and homes, as well as clothing, carpets, and religious vestments.
Share Your Armenian Culture
If you have Armenian heritage, you can help preserve the rich culture of your homeland by sharing your stories. Share memories and photos of your family in online family trees such as the free FamilySearch Family Tree.
If you want to learn more about Armenian culture, check out TOTA’s Armenian Culture page. TOTA is a website “dedicated to sharing cultural knowledge and engaging experiences to create a more connected and respectful world.” The website has dozens of articles about Armenian history, heritage, and culture.