Armenia’s Cradle of Civilization - 2007

Armenia’s Cradle of Civilization

Armenia’s ‘Fertile Crescent’ was located in two places: at the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris, and along the Arax River, its tributaries a series of liquid ribs along a central Ararat spine. Within the Ararat Valley lies a smaller crescent of land, still bearing the marks of vast marshlands and forests that once covered the entire valley floor. As you wander through this area, you can spot sudden eruptions of the terrain, hills that seem to appear from nowhere. They do not ‘fit’ the contour of the land. These are the remains of the first urban civilization to leave its imprint on the ancient Armenian world: they are the sentinels of the Metsamor Kingdom, the ‘Cradle of Armenian Civilization’.

The oldest settlement found in Armenia is a 90,000 BC Stone Age settlement in suburban Yerevan. From then through the Paleolithic period, proof of human settlement is scattered between cave dwellings and stone inscriptions on the Geghama Lehr. Suddenly, at the end of the Mesolithic period, a complex web of cities and fortified settlements appeared throughout the Ararat valley, only handfuls of which have been excavated. But enough have been uncovered to show a startlingly developed culture that rivaled the Mesopotamian urban cities, and in the area of astronomy, led the way.

Between 7000 and 4000 BC, this series of cities appeared at evenly placed spots in this crescent, all of them built around the metal industry. The inhabitants were the first known to forge copper and bronze; and are the first recorded to successfully smelt iron. The metal ore mined in this area was among of the purest in the world, and the natives shaped their culture around it. They believed the technique for forging metal was given to them from the heavens, and their temples combined metal idols with sophisticated stone observatories that charted the night sky. The first recorded astronomers, they were the earliest to create a calendar that divided the year into 12 segments of time, among the first to devise the compass, and to envision the shape of the world as round.

The successful smelting of bronze (along with gold, silver and magnesium) and the mining of precious gems transformed an agrarian civilization into to an urban one. The first signs of fortified cities are traced to this era, beginning with the excavation at Metsamor (a thriving trade culture by 5,000 BC, and with many more strata to be uncovered, conjectured to be as old as 10,000 BC in its first incarnation). Other 5th millennium cities include Dari Blur (Armavir), Aratashen Blur, AdaBlur and Teghut. In the 4th millennium BC the cyclopic walls of Lechashen had been erected by Lake Sevan, while in the Ararat valley cities at Shengavit, Aigevan and Aigeshat were established.

By 3000 BC a large kingdom was established around Metsamor with additional cities at MokhraBlur Jerahovit, Lejapi Blur, Kosh and Voski Blur (Voski means “golden” in Armenian). Shengavit is distinct among the cities in Armenia for its use of round shaped dwellings made from river stones and mud brick. The artifacts found at Shengavit (ca. 5000-3000 BC) include black-varnished, red and gray pottery, in geometric patterns similar to those used in the Minoan culture. The culture had distinctive religious beliefs revolving around the sun and planets, reflected in burial artifacts found at the sites.

Ancestral Armenians developed a trading culture at a very early time. To do that, they needed to understand and create a system of navigation. Longitude, latitude, distance and direction had to be calculated for any trip farther than across a few mountains. Artifacts uncovered at Metsamor come from as far-flung cultures as those in Central Asia, Mesopotamia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Others include navigational tools, inscribed in stone and accurately mapping the night sky. In Sissian, an astral observatory built from stone shows an incredibly sophisticated knowledge of the universe way before the Babylonians—which used to be thought the first astronomers—had built their first city.

Rapid development and unification through trading between the tribes in the Armenian plateau created a rich and prosperous culture that was to last for more than 5000 years. The metal based cultures that sprung up on the Armenian plateau were neighbors with Sumeria, Elam, and the first empire Akkad. They had mapped the constellations before the great pyramids were built, while Greece wasn’t even a thought, and the first dynasty in China was about 2000 years away.

The Rise of Astronomy in Armenia

By the Copper-Bronze Age (5000 - 2000 BC), pictograms at Metsamor and the Geghama Lehr record ever more sophisticated celestial iconography, including the signs of the zodiac. Two observatories found in Armenia show a developed awareness of astronomy at least by 2800 BC, and possibly as early as the 5th millennium BC. Using astronomy, Ancestral Armenians developed a calendar based on 365 days, one of the first compasses, and were able to envision the shape of the world as round. The appearance of the signs of the zodiac in Armenia occurred before the Hittite and Babylonian kingdoms, which were heretofore credited with developing astronomy. Conclusive dating is still being fought over, but two astral observatories in Armenia vie for the position of birthplace of the zodiac constellations.

At Metsamor (ca. 5000 BC), there is a series of stone platforms which were reported in 1967 to be part of an astronomical instrument dating to 2800 BC, about the time historians think the naming of the zodiac was completed. The observatory at Metsamor is oriented towards the star Sirius, the brightest in the northern sky. The Metsamorians are figured to have calculated the beginning of the New Year with the appearance of Sirius in the rays of the dawning sun at the spring solstice. Numerous carvings show the locations of stars in the night sky, and one is a compass pointed due East. Other inscriptions include the signs for Aries, Leo, Capricorn and Taurus.


A Second Observatory in southern Armenia lies near the town of Sissian. Initial studies suggested a 3rd millennium BC date for the site and noted a number of sighting holes bored into large stones placed at the site. The holes point to the locations where solar and lunar phases could be tracked during they year, as well as stars and constellations. Later investigations led to a conjectured dating of the oldest stone telescope at the site to around 4200 BC, when the star Capella was ascendant in the region. If true, this would make it the oldest astral observatory in the world. Located close to the village of Karahundj, which in Armenian is a direct translation of the English word Stonehenge, the stones are becoming the focus of increasing interest, suggesting a link between Ancestral Armenian exploration of the heavens with the naming of the zodiac and the numerous henges in Europe.

England's Stonehenge is dated ca. 2200-1800 BC. Both observatories in Armenia predate the English henge, Karahundj perhaps predating them as much as 2000 years. For perspective, the people living in the Metsamor Kingdom were neighbors with the oldest civilization Sumeria, the first important trade city Elam, and the first empire Akkad. They inhabited the Armenian Plateau before the great pyramids, Greece wasn’t even a thought, and the first dynasty in China was about 2000 years away. At the same time Metsamor was flourishing, the Minoans were beginning to create their culture on Crete, and the Old Kingdom in Egypt had just brought together the lower and upper kingdoms into one unified country.

Metal and Iron

Of course both are metal, but speaking poetically, we are thinking of the difference between soft metals and the hard stuff. Both liquids, the difference is in the way they freeze. Sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC, a new metal was forged for the first time, and its use would change everything about making weapons and building empires. We’re talking iron here, the thing that we buy Rustoleum to protect, but which the ancients worshipped and coveted. Iron is a plentiful resource; most areas of the world can extract it. Pure strains occur in abundance in the Armenian Plateau, just as pure strains of gold, copper, tin, mercury, manganese and silver were extracted by the Metsamor culture and developed into a large industry. Since metal foundries forging copper, brass and bronze go back to 5000 BC in Armenia; they would be pretty good places for research and development.

The difference between bronze and iron is like the difference between a Bic lighter and a blowtorch. With iron shields, helmets and weapons, soldiers lasted a lot longer in battle against arrows and spears. Those who had iron weapons pretty much made bronze and copper useless except as decorator items. And iron was a protected monopoly. At first restricted to large vessels and cooking utensils, the military applications soon became apparent, then coveted, the metal valued more than precious gems or gold. If not by bribery, they learned the secret through agents sent to ferret the secret out. If not by spying, then by war. When was iron first smelted? No one can say for sure, but the smelting of iron--like bronze--was engineered by the people living in this part of the world, the technique slowly migrating outwards to surrounding territories. Now, while the Hittites (which came on the scene along with the Babylonians and Assyrians about 1800 BC) are credited with being among the first, and it wasn’t until 1350 BC that the Egyptians were able to process it themselves, excavations in Armenia show the first smelting of iron as early as 3000 BC.

Metsamor reached its zenith in the Mid Bronze Age, when it encompassed more than 200 hectares (about 500 acres). At the center of trade between Asia and the budding cultures in the West, the mineral mines and metal forges in the Metsamor kingdom were the focus of constant warfare with neighboring city-states, and by the end of the 3rd millennium, with the growing empires in Mesopotamia. The Metsamor culture thrived through the Bronze and early Iron Age, when it was integrated into the Urartu Empire (ca. 7th c. BC). The city of Metsamor continued under the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans until the 18th century, when it was abandoned. 6700 years of continuous inhabitation, and counting—not a bad record.

The Second Wave

Close to the Mesopotamian cultures, ancestral Armenian tribes developed a series of city-states by the 3rd millennium BC, with federations formed and reformed between them for most of the Bronze Age period. The territory was described as a rich land between the rivers, with their head at the “mountains of the gods” (described as “Arartu”). This description comes from the oldest story known, Gilgamesh (ca. 5th millennium BC). To earn that kind of praise, a land would have to be very rich indeed. 2000-1800 BC cuneiform note migrating peoples from the outside who lived with the original tribes. These peoples would have been the migrating Indo-Europeans (including the Hittites), for cuneiform used such expressions as “we came, we conquered and we captured” as their calling cards.

The combination of migrating Indo-Europeans with native cultures was bound to create more than a little cross-fertilization of people and ideas, and within the next 1000 years several regional kingdoms using an Indo-European language emerged. By the 2nd millennium, trading between the tribes on the Armenian plateau led to a loose federation led by the Nairi, which were based around Southern Lake Van. The Nairi were recorded as early as 2000 BC on Assyrian cuneiform as the people from the “land between the rivers,” holding about 60 tribes and 100 cities. The Nairi were one tribe among many, but their name became synonymous with that for the entire region. From what we know of the tribes, their customs and traditions were similar to others found in Mesopotamia, and they mixed Semitic or Ugaritic origins with their earlier Indo-European genetic and cultural roots. Among the tribes in Nairi was one called Urartu.

Also around 2000 BC, a second wave of Indo-European migration began, this time coming full circle back to the Armenian plateau. Thousands of years of development created distinct dialects and physical attributes, which further influenced the “mother tribes” in Armenia. Among them were the Hittites, which entered the region of Asia Minor around 2000 BC. There is a clay tablet written by the Hittites about 2000 BC (discovered in an excavation of the Hittite capital Hatusas--or Boghazkeui-- in N. Central Turkey), which first mentions a tribe of people called Haius, and said they were from the country of Haiassa-Aza. This was a predominant tribe in the region, vassals of the Hittite kingdom, and said to be a distinct Indo-European tribe that introduced its language and customs to neighboring tribes. The Haius were often in rebellion with the Hittites, and they were influential in spreading their culture eastwards, to the peoples on the Armenian plateau.

In addition, the architectural and cultural influences of the Hittites were filtered into the region through Haiassa-Aza. Another movement of Indo-Europeans is recorded in the 12th c BC. It is about Thraco-Phrygian tribes (called “foreign settlers”) who were pushed out of Thrace and Phrygia by “the people of the Sea” (i.e., early Greeks, Minoans or Mycanaeans) around 1200 BC (there’s Troy again!), and who moved through the Euphrates into the Armenian Plateau. These tribes lived with Armenian Ancestors and other tribes and formed a hybrid culture which is the beginning of an extant Armenian identity, including an Indo-European language and Aryan features (tall with blonde-hair and blue-eyes) among the people. First inhabiting the land immediately East of the Trojan kingdom in Asia Minor, the Thraco-Phrygians settled on the Western edges of the Armenian plateau and intermingled with the Haiassa-Aza, further developing Indo-European language, culture and physical features.

Other rival tribes (or kingdoms, as they were called) in the area included the Mitanni, southwest of Lake Van, the Manah (around Lake Urmia) and the Diaukhi (around present day Erzurum). The Mitannians and Hurrians were dominant cultures in the Armenian Plateau until the mid 2nd millennium BC. Kurgans (burial mounds) of the 17th and 16th centuries BC have been excavated at Vanadzor showing chased gold and silver cups and bronze weapons. Kurgans in the following period excavated at Lechashen, and at a cemetery at the village of Artik on the slopes of Mt. Aragats uncovered Mitannian cylinder seals dating from the 15th to early 14th centuries BC—the final phase of the Mitannian kingdom. After the destruction of Mitanni by the Hittites at the turn of the 15th-14th cc. BC, the tribes on the Armenian plateau maintained their ties with the Hittites, which had begun to expand into Northern Syria.

By the time the Hittite kingdom fell around 1200 BC, the ancestral Armenian tribes had forged powerful alliances and were considered a challenge to the northward expansion of the Assyrians, who became the primary power after the fall of Mitanni. The Diaukhi were, at the time of the rise of Urartu, the most powerful political formation of the Nairi. By the time of Urartu’s rise, the Nairi tribes had retreated Southwest of Lake Van to a country called Khubushkia. The area of present day Armenia was held by the kings of Etwikhi (Etwini). Kept up with all this? If you have, then you begin to understand why it has been so hard to trace Armenia’s lineage in the region, and how--with all these tribes inhabiting the same land, more than a little cross-pollination occurred, creating a race of tribes which were all culturally related, sharing language and ethnic roots among them.

And frankly, even the Egyptians and Assyrians were pollinating like bees, being made up of several ethnic groups themselves. Cousins, the tribes in Armenia were still rivals for land and mineral resources, and a few rose to prominence. One of these tribes succeeded in uniting or conquering surrounding city-states into a single empire, which rivaled even the Assyrians and Hittites for power. They were called the Nairi and Urartians by the Assyrians. Let’s put this into perspective and mark ancetral continuously inhabiting the Armenian Plateau before and throughout the rise and fall of the Old and Middle Kingdoms in Egypt, the entire history of Minoan and Mycanaean cultures (ca 2200-1400 BC) and the Indus civilization in present day Pakistan (ca. 2500-1500 BC), the first semi-mythical Hsia (ca 2000-1523 BC) and most of the Shang (1766-1027 BC) Dynasties in China. Greece and Rome are by now a gleam in the eyes of historian researchers.


1 comment:

kathleen sisco said...

Marvelous discussion on rich Armenian history. Fascinating astronomy and zodical info.