Ancient Hearts, Modern Minds and a little place called Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia in perspective.

Written by Paul Alex Treadaway.

Modern-day Armenia is a place defined by its extensive history. However, the mountainous Caucasus republic is also a nation that is attempting to assert its identity in the modern political and cultural landscape, after centuries without this luxury. Located in the South Caucasus region, the former Soviet state is surrounded by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, with the regional power of Russia to the north, Armenia in the 21st century being somewhat isolated in where it stands.

( A political map of the South Caucasus region, produced by – can be found at: )

A Christian country surrounded by Muslim majority populations with whom it has fought and a fellow Christian republic with whom it has a workable, but notably not a warm relationship, border disputes are scattered around it like pebbles on a beach. Contested frontiers continue to be an issue with all of its immediate neighbours, bar Iran, with the concept of a ‘Greater Armenia’ behind many of the territorial arguments the Armenian state has involved itself in. History has played a great role in forming this concept, with traditional Armenian lands having fluctuated alongside other ethnic groups since the 6th century, leaving a messy and unclear jigsaw puzzle of cultural and linguistic legacies for modern political leaders to at least manage, and just maybe one day crowbar into something akin to settled political boundaries.

Upon arriving in the centre of Yerevan, the nation’s capital and largest city, this outworking of the idea of an ancient Armenian homeland hits you immediately, despite the modern republic only having been established upon the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The ‘Cascade’, a set of giant stairs whose construction began in the 1970s and has yet to be fully completed dominates the central district, leading you up one of Yerevan’s surprising number of steep hills for a major city. At the zenith of the steps is ‘Victory Park’, known as ‘Հաղթանակի զբոսայգի’ (Armenian) or ‘Парк Победы’ (Russian) depending on your linguistic preference.

(Yerevan’s ‘Cascade’ in early evening, looking towards Mount Ararat and the city centre, 2020. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

( ‘Mother Armenia’, constructed in 1967-68,

situated in ‘Victory Park’ as of 2020. Produced and

owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

Constructed in Soviet times, it is not the fun fair and amusement rides; wildly active in the summer but ghostly dormant in the winter, which amaze, shock or impact you the most. Instead, a towering armoured figure of stone, rising out of the hillside and gazing across Yerevan below barges its way into your eyeline and sears itself deliberately into your memory. This colossus is ‘Mother Armenia’, built during the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ years that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and an easing of tension and cultural suppression across the Soviet Union, symbolising the Armenian nation and its defiant linguistic and cultural identity in a strong shield-wielding female warrior.

(Mount Ararat in the distance from the border road on the Armenian side, 2020. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

It’s positioning not only looks towards Armenia’s capital, but also the country’s most famous landmark and symbol, Mount Ararat. This is the mountain in Armenian Christian mythology upon which Noah lands the ark to seek refuge from the waves of the biblical ‘Great Flood’, starting the new world from this point. It’s connection to the Armenian national consciousness can be compared to the famous relationship between the Japanese and Mount Fuji, with its status as an emblem of the nation all the more impressive considering it actually isn’t in Armenia at all. Although ‘Mother Armenia’ looks out on to it and the city of Yerevan sits in the confines of its watchful gaze, the tumultuous events of the early 20th century in the Caucasus region, including the Armenian genocide, the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the First World War have resulted in the oxymoronic truth that Mount Ararat today sits on one side of a highly guarded and closed border in the Republic of Turkey. Armenia stares longingly at the sacred peak, so near yet so far from its national grasp.

‘Mother Armenia’s imperious eyes watch Mount Ararat from afar, in part representing a national commitment to regaining and marking the lost territory of a ‘Greater Armenia’, demonstrating its maintenance to this centuries-long, arguably millennia-long war in art whether it is militarily active or not, with the statute possessing a sword in her right hand that is fronted across her torso. Conflict has often defined the reality of Armenia, throughout its recent history as an imperial possession during much of the middle ages, renaissance and industrial eras, as a republic of the Soviet Union during the 20th century and as an independent state in the present day. Even during its period from the 6th until the 11th centuries as a largely autonomous nation, it found itself in a melting pot of clashing nations be it the Persians, Sassanians or the Mongols.


No more so did violence impact Armenia than during the Armenian genocide itself, where Ottoman authorities killed, evicted and destroyed the settlements of Armenians under their rule in Anatolia; most notably between 1915 and 1918, although violence continued into the early 1920s. Estimates of the number of Armenians killed vary from a low figure of 750,000 to a high figure of more than 1.5 million, with the genocide’s imprint on the modern Armenian nation seen in the extensive global diaspora who fled during its implementation, representing the ghost of violence in recent Armenian history.

(Tsitsernakaberd’, The Armenian Genocide Memorial complex

and Memory Flame, constructed from 1965-67, as of 2020.

Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

This theme continues to be recurrent in the Armenia of today, with war and violence since independence having heavily impacted this still relatively young state. The base of ‘Mother Armenia’ holds a military museum which hosts insignia, equipment, vehicles and memorabilia from firstly the Soviet branded forces of the Second World War, but more recently the ongoing conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most people probably can’t spell Nagorno-Karabakh and more to the point have never heard of this small mountainous area on the imaginary borderline between Europe and Asia at the heart of the Caucasus. However, its significance to the national identity and mentality of modern day Armenians and the Armenian state is profound.

(Military vehicles surrounding the base of

‘Mother Armenia’ and the military museum, 2020.

Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)


(The ‘We Are Our Mountains’ (‘Մենք ենք, մեր լեռները’) sculpture outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital city of Stepanakert, also known as ‘tatik-papik’ (‘տատիկ-պապիկ’) meaning ‘grandmother-grandfather’, representing the Armenian people and identity of the area. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

Nagorno-Karabakh currently takes the form of a province politically a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan and recognised by the international community as such, although on the ground the reality is rather different. The region is effectively cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan administratively and the Azeri authorities have no ability to enforce national laws in Nagorno-Karabakh. If this seems strange, then that is because the key element has so far been left out; Nagorno-Karabakh as of 2020 has a 99% Armenian population. Although this striking ethnic homogeneity is in fact recent in its construction, with people of Azeri origin making up around 40% of the area’s population until the late 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh has hosted an Armenian ethnic majority in population terms for centuries.

The status of Nagorno-Karabakh then seems highly contradictory, like a deliberate attempt to confuse and cause chaos. Indeed, from the perspective of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it was. Mounting concerns over ethnic threats to the then-fledging Soviet Union in the early 1920s prompted Stalin, then Commissar for Nationalities, to effectively dismantle the power of ethnic groups in the Caucasus, such as the Armenians and the Azeris. With the signing of the Treaty of Kars in 1921 between Turkey and the Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was handed to the Azeri administration without consultation or mediation with regards to the demographic groups of the region.

This prompted a 20th century experience for Nagorno-Karabakh filled to the brim with internal conflict at both a political and personal level, with disputes over census data, land distribution and religious riots, all the while the Azeri minority exploiting their position of power in order to marginalise and discriminate against the Armenian majority. This tumbling barrage of events culminated in Armenia and Azerbaijan glaring at each other as newly ex-Soviet states in the early 1990s, akin to boxers about to complete a deciding final round of the bout.

The ensuing active conflict, roughly dating from 1988 until a 1994 ceasefire, resulted in the deaths of almost 40,000 people; both soldiers and civilians, whilst the Azeri minority population in Nagorno-Karabakh were evicted by the advancing Armenian military who controlled more than 90% of the region by the end of live military action in 1994. Skirmishes and brief renewal of direct conflict in the 25 years since have cost a further 3,000 lives between both nations, whilst leading to the peculiar situation in the present day whereby Azerbaijan has no presence in its internationally recognised; albeit tenuously claimed territory, and Nagorno-Karabakh itself; under the pretence of the nominally independent and self-declared ‘Republic of Artsakh’, functions for all intents and purposes as a province of Armenia.

(Ghazanchetsots Cathedral at the historic town of Shushi in

Nagorno-Karabakh, a symbol of the Armenian Christian

community in the region, 2020.

Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)


(‘Military Nation’ (‘ԱԶԳ-ԲԱՆԱԿ’) advertising in Yerevan, 2020.

Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

This is not a distant or forgotten conflict in Armenia by any means, with advertising in Yerevan promoting a ‘ԱԶԳ-ԲԱՆԱԿ’ (‘Military Nation’), placing an image of a baker loading bread alongside one of soldiers loading a rocket launcher, whilst another series of billboards titled ‘Հայ Մեծեր’ (‘Great Armenians’) includes figures such as Andranik Ozanyan, an early 20th century Armenian general and nationalist politician who led campaigns to defend the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh whilst attempting to forcibly evict the Azeri minority and expand the then newly-independent First Armenian Republic between 1918 and 1919. Within Nagorno-Karabakh itself the present nature of the conflict takes the form not of military action, but cultural preservation and domination.

(‘Great Armenians’ (‘Հայ Մեծեր’) advertising in Yerevan, 2020. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)


(A rural monastery in northern Nagorno-Karabakh, 2020. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020)

On the rough and quite honestly nerve-shattering roads that connect Armenia to the region, heading over and through snow-capped mountains that are cut by sheer drops from one or both sides, Armenian Christian monasteries are remarkably preserved in the most remote of areas. The locals with whom I personally managed to hitchhike my way from Yerevan, via Lake Sevan to Nagorno-Karabakh made a point of setting aside the time on the already six to nine hour journey to stop and visit at least one of these ancient churches, each staffed, maintained and resided in by a loyal priest and monasterial community.

Linguistically English is not an option for travelers in the region, with locals keen to maintain and communicate their cultural identity as founded in their sense of history and connection to it, so a knowledge of basic Russian is a must. The native language is obviously Armenian across both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia itself, but apart from a few words and phrases it is a somewhat daunting task to learn, pronounce and read the famously independent Armenian alphabet, therefore making the sometimes intimidating Russian Cyrillic script and tongue suddenly seem a far more appealing and practical option as a lingua franca.

(A panorama of the view atop the ‘Cascade’ steps, looking over Yerevan and towards Mount Ararat, 2020. Produced and owned by Paul Alex Treadaway [author], 2020.)

This is just one element among the many covered briefly above that demonstrate that in Armenia in the 21st century, people are enveloped by the history of their nation, its struggles both past and present. Their sense of identity, both culturally and linguistically is asserted to deliberately mark Armenia out as almost a light among the darkness, in a region where, as a country, it has few friends. It is fascinating to experience the reality of Armenia; and by effective extension Nagorno-Karabakh, as a nation and a people who are founded in their ancient-centred hearts, holding deep memories of the centuries that have brought them and their country to its present context and the sacrifices so often made to achieve this, especially in the form of the Armenian genocide.

Their national mentality is the application of this in the modern day, a state characterised by its defence of history, be it by military or cultural means, with Nagorno-Karabakh representing the expression of this to the highest of heights. So often defined by ‘the West’ as a crossroads between civilisation and the orient as part of the former Silk Road, the hearts and minds of the modern day nation of Armenia see themselves as simply that; Armenia, but don’t forget that little place called Nagorno-Karabakh. Simple? No. Interesting, complex and messy? Yes. A microcosm of history itself as whole? Definitely.


Disclaimers Needed:

1) The UK foreign office advises against all travel to Nagorno-Karabakh due to the risk of military and sectarian conflict. Due to the non-availability of diplomatic assistance in this disputed area, travelling to the region poses a high level of risk to visitors.

2) The Armenian genocide is currently not recognised as an act of genocide by the UK government. Globally, 31 countries formally recognise the genocide.

3) The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.


Written by Paul Alex Treadaway.

I’m Paul Alex Treadaway - a graduate from the University of Manchester with time spent at the University of Toronto with a BA in Modern History & Politics, who specialises in Russian, Latin American and post-19th century Political history. My favourite things in life are travelling, meeting new people and having a good laugh at the world around me, alongside attempting to learn a new language or two; I’m currently working on my French and Russian. History has always been an area I’ve loved and I’m always trying to learn about new people and new places in the world through it, whether they’re smiling or shouting in the present day or they’ve been six feet under for centuries.


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