Armenian Cartographic Terms

When we describe or even just mentally imagine any object, especially any work of art, a certain associative array immediately appears in our consciousness, helping to identify what is being talked about, directing our thought, tuning us into the right wave.

Romantics, who from childhood were obsessed with impregnable cliffs and stormy seas, when talking about geography, travel and maps, will surely remember pictures from juvenile editions of Jules Verne or Jack London with exotic landscapes and fearless pioneers of lands, or the pirate “Jolly Roger” with crossed bone-sabers from “Captain Blood’s Odyssey”.

Antique maps with their unique charm, meticulous drawing of even incorrect contours of countries and shores, entertaining illustrations, and rich frames – are the subject of dreams and aspirations of many collectors, still astonishing us with the masterpieces of hand craftsmanship.

Later, we will talk about Armenian (yes, there are such!) antique handmade maps of the 12-17 centuries, and now we will get acquainted, in general terms, with the terminology of Armenian maps, dating back to time immemorial.

What is a map originally? It is a graphic representation of the world around us, guided by certain canons and methods, techniques, and its own language of conventional signs.

Naturally, the concept of “the surrounding world” in the very beginning included a limited space, the place of life, hunting or gathering, as well as the farming of one’s family, genus, clan, or tribe.

Then, over time and with the development of human relations, the surrounding world began to include wider spaces – areas of the people’s activity, the territory of their settlement, neighboring countries.

The concept of the country appeared, the lands began to be divided into own and foreign, close and distant… It is from these very times (about 9-7 millennia BC) that the ancient concepts of Armenian geography originate, denoted by strictly defined terms, then fixed in the Old Armenian language and still used in our cartography.

So, one of the first and fundamental concepts of geography and cartography is the country. From here begins the wonder of the Armenian language and thought. In Armenian, the country is designated by the capacious concept of “erkir”, “ergir”.

The etymology of this word, I think, can be traced back to our eternal “ar” – the sun, the creator, man, that is, “arkir” – the country of ararich-arev-ar(iev), literally – “carrying Ar”. Whatever the case, it is noteworthy that in the Armenian language, the concept of “erkir” denotes both a country (first one’s own, then – any) and the Earth as a whole, the universe, the planet (“Erkir molorak”).

That is, originally, all our Earth and all our country for the Armenians were a whole and unified entity – this was the fundamental postulate for the civilized and ancient carrier of human values – the Armenian people.

It is here that the meaning of Nzhde’s words lies, stating that to love humanity as a whole, one must first love one’s own people – the one in whose language, and therefore in the genetic code, one’s own country is identified with the entire Earth.

And that’s not all. The concept of “ashkhar”, that is, the world, the universe, all light, in the Armenian language is also identical to the concept of one’s own country, which we call “Ayots ashkhar” – the Armenian world.

It is not accidental that many Armenian medieval maps are named “Ayots (Ayastaneats) ashkhar”. In addition, “ashkhar” or the later “nakhang” (province) is the name of the main and largest administrative-territorial unit of Great Armenia.

In a broader sense, this term still denotes the province (in a geographical interpretation) – Syunyats ashkhar, Vaspurakan ashkhar, Tayots ashkhar, that is, the Syunik, Vaspurakan, Tayik province.

So, we have two of the oldest basic Armenian geographical terms – “erkir” and “ashkhar”, – denoting a capacious and powerful range of concepts: the country of Armenia, its provinces, all other countries, the whole world, Earth, the globe. This is indeed the beginning of beginnings!..

From the term “ashkhar” derive the two main names of the sciences about the world – geography and cartography in the Armenian language were originally designated as “ashkharagir” and “ashkharatsuyts”, that is, a drawing (letter) of the world and a guide (panorama) of the world.

Hence the name of our first printed map – “Amatarats ashkharatsuyts” (Universal indicator, Universal panorama of the world). Hence also the name of the map of Armenia – “Ayastaneats ashkharatsuyts”, that is, Panorama of the Armenian world (country).

Later, geography and cartography were given other names in our language – more cumbersome and indigestible – “ashkharagrutyun” and “kartezagrutyun”. In general, it seems, a return to ancient concepts, in a broader sense – to the roots has a great importance right now, when the opposition of the global and the national is strongly actualized…

From the universal ashkhar, the following administrative-territorial units of Armenia go down the ranking – gavar, gavarak, por or porak, and gyukhakhumb. These are, respectively, district (province), district (county), valley, and group of villages. The last two units are especially characteristic for the mountainous relief of Armenia.

Many of our gavars, or districts, are named precisely with the definition of “por” – that is, valley, gorge, isolated mountain district – Arseyats Por (gorges, spurs of Arseyats or Arsiyan mountains), Berdats Por (gorges around the fortress), Kohbopor (gorge, valley of the Kohb river), Tsobopor (gorge, valley of Tsoba) and others.

Closely associated with the term “por” is the concept of “dzor” – also a gorge or valley, but in a more narrow, singular sense. The names of gavars with this definition in Armenia are also not rare – Ayots Dzor (Armenian gorge), Vayots Dzor (gorge of Vayka), Berdadzor (fortified, fortress gorge), as well as Dzorpor – a group of gorges, valleys, mountain region.

In the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Western Armenia from the 15th to 17th centuries, all names of administrative-territorial units were and still are called: vilayet (ashkhar or nahang), sanjak (gavar), kaza (gavarak) and nahie (gyukhakhumb).

In the Russian Empire, of which Eastern Armenia was a part, it was guberniya (nahang), district (gavar), and county (gavarak). As for the current Republic of Armenia and Artsakh, the division into marzes in Armenia (regions) and districts in Artsakh is accepted.

Each marz, in accordance with the Soviet districts, is unofficially divided into regions (taracashrdjan). In general, a rather colorful and arbitrary picture…

However, the administrative-territorial structure of Greater Armenia was deeply thought out and extremely logical, both in terms of mountain relief and in terms of economic activity.

It was these qualities of the terrain that lay at the basis of the division of the country. The borders of ashkhars, gavars and gavarak were drawn along the watersheds of mountain ranges, less often along rivers, isolating one or another district.

As for general geographical concepts and terms, the Armenian language has also left traces of its creativity here.

So, the widely used in navigation (remember – nav kats, lead the ship) so-called “rose of winds” in our language is called “patker okhmots”, that is, the image of the winds.

This is the original meaning of the term, which regained its relevance after the introduction of geographical coordinates.

The image of the winds – a set of images of the strength and direction of the main winds, constantly blowing in a particular area. In the “pre-coordinate” cartography, this image was stylized under the lines of parallels, meridians and intersecting loxodromes – for the needs of navigation.

The terms “parallel” and “meridian” in the Armenian language have the same meaning – “zugaherakan” (a line parallel to the equator) and “mijoreakan” (a midday line obtained by intersecting both poles of a plane).

The term “bever” (pole) is quite interesting, the etymology of which has not yet been fully determined. At least, at the northern border of the Syunik plateau, in Artsakh, there is Mount Mets Beveratap, the name of which clearly holds something interesting. The Armenian navigational and nautical terminology is a separate conversation…

In general, in Armenian geographical terminology, some roots have been preserved that had a common sound with other ancient languages but are now lost in them, for example, the common name for wind “zephyr” with Ancient Greek.

Many terms of Zoroastrianism, common in Old Armenian and Old Persian, have been preserved. Now lost in Farsi, but they are present in Armenian, moreover, in many cases, they form Armenian toponyms – bagin (place of gods, shrine, sanctuary), mehyan (temple), atrushan (lamp, lampada), and others.

So, in Paytakaran we have Yotnporakean Bagink (sanctuary of seven gorges), in Artsakh – Baganik Arkunakan (sanctuary of the royal family), and so on.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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