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Armenia On Assignment

Armenia On Assignment

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Armenia: An Empire's Shrunken Shadow

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By Frank VivianoPhotographs by Alexandra Avakian

For 3,000 years Armenians survived conquerors, calamities, and diaspora. Defiance and a long memory continue to sustain them as they rebuild their Caucasus homeland.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

"You are looking at the great Armenian paradox," Jivan Tabibian said. We stood at the second-floor window of the Foreign Ministry building in Yerevan, watching clouds scuttle across Mount Ararat's ice-capped 16,854-foot (5,137-meter) crown. Tabibian, a diplomat whose portfolio includes ambassadorships to four countries and two international organizations, was discussing a policy initiative when he abruptly fell silent, gazing at Ararat. It's impossible not to be distracted by Ararat in Yerevan. Despite its enormous mass, the great peak seems to float weightlessly over the city, engaged in permanent dialogue with Little Ararat, its 12,782-foot (3,896-meter) neighbor.
The vast snowy brow of Ararat glowers, pronounces, with hallucinatory power. Its name is derived from that of a Bronze Age god, Ara, whose talismanic cult of death and rebirth mirrored the seasonal transitions of Ararat from lifeless winter to fertile spring. Little Ararat, by contrast, is an exercise in calm, rational idealism, a volcanic cone so perfectly shaped that it suggests not so much what a mountain is as what a mountain ought to be.

You can't ponder the two Ararats for long without drifting into philosophical reflection, and the Armenians have been pondering them since the birth of civilization.
The philosopher in Jivan Tabibian maintains that his people's identity is inextricably bound to the experience of loss, to the serial reorderings of the map that have often stranded their most hallowed landmarks in someone else's state. Like the Monastery of St. Gregory the Illuminator deep in the hills of Nagorno-Karabakh, Mount Ararat lies outside the contemporary Armenian Republic, beyond the closed frontiers of a hostile Turkey.
"The paradox embodied in that mountain," Tabibian said, "has to do with our sense of place," the concept that is so essential to most national identities. "We are not place bound"—an impossibility, given Armenia's ceaseless traumas, metamorphoses, and peregrinations—"but we are intensely place conscious."
Later I repeated Tabibian's enigmatic words to Vartan Oskanian, the Republic of Armenia's foreign minister. And he too offered a philosopher's reflection on Ararat. "Every morning we look at it," he said. "It's only 25 miles (40 kilometers) from this building, and we feel we can almost touch it. But we can't go there. Ararat is our pride and our frustration. Our history. The unfulfilled dreams that drive us."

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Read this 1926 manuscript unearthed from our archive: "A Holy Spectacle" by Geographic legend Maynard Owen Williams.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Today's Turkish government rejects the word genocide to describe the killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915. Defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, religious, political, or ethnic group, genocide was first coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-American legal scholar. The term, which combines the Greek genos (race, nation, or tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), first appeared in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in November 1944.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, made genocide an international crime that could be prosecuted in the court of any country.

—Cate Lineberry
Did You Know?

Rfelated Links
Armenia Diaspora
Get the latest news on Armenia.
The Armenian Church
Learn more about the founding of the Armenian Church.
Armenian History
Discover more about Armenia's history.


Abrahamian, Levon. Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Hewsen, Robert H. Armenia: A Historical Atlas. University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Hovanissian, Richard G. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.


NGS Resources
Egoyan, Atom. "Armenia." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 2002), 79-80.

Jordan, Robert Paul. "The Proud Armenians," National Geographic (June 1978), 846-73.
Chater, Melville. "The Land of the Stalking Death: A Journey Through Starving Armenia on an American Relief Train." National Geographic (November 1919), 393-420.
Jenkins, Hester Donaldson. "Armenia and the Armenians." National Geographic (October 1915), 329-60.


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