For 3,000 years Armenians survived conquerors, calamities, diaspora

National Geographic magazine
March 2004

By Frank Viviano Photographs 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

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.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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