Armenia – The Center of Gravity of the Ancient World – How the Maps Were Laid Out

The famous German geographer Alexander Humboldt called Armenia the “center of gravity of the ancient world” because it was equidistant from the main centers of ancient civilizations.

Two major highways of Eastern countries passed through it: one went from India to the Black Sea (via Persia, Atropatene, and the Ararat region), the other led from China to Iran and reached the Mediterranean coast through Southern Armenia. This route was part of the Great Silk Road.

Historical maps from various eras and peoples illuminate the most pivotal stages of humanity’s multi-century history. Even on distorted maps, there is important information about the toponymy of localities, cities, and settlements.

Among the multitude of ancient maps, quite a few pertain to Armenia. These ancient maps provide invaluable information about peoples and kingdoms, tribal alliances, neighboring countries, cities, and so on.

Naturally, in Armenia, which has always been a natural bridge connecting East and West, surrounded by powerful states and crisscrossed by trade routes, the services of cartography could not go unused.

Unfortunately, ancient maps created in Armenia have not survived to the present day, and the primary cartographic sources are foreign, where Armenia is represented as an extensive country.

The Estenese map, circa 1451, places “Erminia Maior”—Great Armenia—between the Black and Caspian Seas under two red mountains. These mountains depict the Armenian Highlands, from which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate. To their right is Mount Ararat, painted in green. Noah’s Ark rests on Ararat.

Esteneze map, circa 1451. Between the
Black and Caspian Seas under two red mountains is “Erminia Mayor” – Greater Armenia. The mountains depict the Armenian Highlands, from where the Tigris and Euphrates originate. To their right is Ararat, painted green. Noah’s Ark rests on Ararat

Here lay the international strategic trade caravan routes of the ancient world, over which large neighboring states often waged wars for control.

Thanks to the roads that passed near Ararat, the cities of Armavir, Artashat, Dvin, Nakhchavan (Nakhichevan), and others developed and flourished.

Of the several major roads that existed in Armenia, one was developed during the time of King Tigran the Great and was named the Royal Road. In 77 BC, in the Armenian region of Aghdznik, Tigran the Great founded a new capital—Tigranakert.

The city, situated at the crossroads of several major routes from Artashat to Antioch, Ctesiphon, and from Seleucia to Asia Minor, quickly grew and became famous for its rich trade and craftsmanship.

The Royal Road connected Antioch, Tigranakert, and Artashat—three cities that simultaneously served as the capitals of the empire of Tigran the Great. According to Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder, Armenian roads were well-developed and designed for two-way wheeled traffic.

Geographical Map by Strabo. Based on Ptolemy’s Asiae tabula III, where a house is depicted in the Caspian Sea, next to which is the Latin inscription—Arca Noe (Noah’s Ark).

Descriptions by geographers of that era contain many interesting details. “The border between Cilicia and Armenia,” Herodotus reported, “is formed by the Euphrates River, navigable for ships.

In Armenia, there are fifteen stations with residential buildings spanning fifty-six and a half parasangs (about 300 km); there are also fortifications.

When crossing from Armenia into Matiene, there are thirty-four stations spanning one hundred and thirty-seven parasangs.”

According to the testimony of the Greek geographer Strabo, the inhabitants of Armenia during his period spoke one common language—Armenian, and the territory of Armenia was inhabited by almost the entire Armenian population, numbering several million people.

Abraham Ortelius. Map of countries conquered by Alexander the Great, 1595. The map marks Alexander the Great’s campaigns to India. In the bottom left corner is a drawing depicting the Temple of Jupiter-Ammon.

In the 15th to 18th centuries, new approaches to map-making emerged in Europe. At the end of the 16th century, Mark Welser (1558–1614), Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), and Jerónimo Zurita (1512–1580) initiated the collection and publication of specific historical geography sources—ancient maps and itineraries, considered as historical-geographical sources.

Athanasius Kircher. The book “Noah’s Ark,” 1675. According to Kircher’s map, paradise was located near Mount Ararat and the Armenian Highlands—between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Having their own specific cartographic language, ancient maps were closely tied to painting and graphics (especially engraving), borrowing their means of expression. These maps usually had a narrative-educational character, and Armenia was depicted as the country of the biblical mountain with Noah’s Ark at the summit. On many maps, one can also see the depiction of the biblical paradise between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, extending to Mount Ararat.

Jeremiah Caleby Kemurdjian. 1691, Constantinople. A handwritten map in Armenian. The map depicts the Armenian Highlands, Lesser and Greater Masis, Armenian cities, and churches from the Caspian to the Marmara Sea. Echmiadzin is shown in detail, including a scene of a reception with the Catholicos.

For example, Florentine Balducci Pegolotti (early 14th century) describes a trade route going from Ayas through Armenia to Tabriz, where among a number of stations, the point Sotto Larcanoe is noted, which translates from Italian as “under Noah’s Ark,” as from there one could see the Greater Ararat.

Map of Armenia and neighboring countries by the Arab geographer al-Istakhri, XIV century. Cities are marked with circles, mountains with pyramid-shaped signs. Al-Istakhri gave the original Armenian names on this map: “Small Mount Mases” and “Big Mount Mases”. The map shows many Armenian cities of Ganja (Gandzak), Kalikla (Karin, or Erzrum), Nakhichevan, etc.

Map of Armenia and neighboring countries by Arab geographer al-Istakhri, 14th century. Cities are marked with circles, mountains with pyramid-shaped signs. Al-Istakhri used indigenous Armenian names on this map: “Lesser Mount Masis” and “Greater Mount Masis.” The map also features many Armenian cities like Ganja (Ganzak), Karin (or Erzurum), Nakhichevan, and so on.

However, maps were also made in Armenia itself. One of the works of Anania Shirakatsi, a leading scholar-encyclopedist of the early Middle Ages, is widely known both in Armenia and beyond. This work is called “Ashkharatsuyts” (Geographical Atlas of the World), created between 591 and 610.

This work, which included up to 15 geographical maps, served as a geography textbook for centuries. While relying on Ptolemy for the description of countries located far from Armenia, the author supplements it with new information about Armenia and neighboring countries, drawing extensively on local materials in line with the time he lived and worked.

In “Ashkharatsuyts,” Greater and Lesser Ararat are mentioned as the mountains “Azat (free) Masis” and “Pokr (small) Masis.”

The manuscript also contains a wealth of data on the regions (havars) and territories surrounding Mount Ararat.

For example, it is said that the twelfth region of the Ayrarat province, Masiats Votne, occupies the northern and eastern slopes of Greater and Lesser Masis and the Surmali field with an area of 2800 square kilometers.

Shirakatsi’s “Ashkharatsuyts” continues the traditions of ancient geography and, alongside the works of Ptolemy, holds a significant place in the global cartographic literature and historical geography.

Unfortunately, only the detailed descriptions that accompanied the maps have survived to this day; the actual maps of Shirakatsi have been irretrievably lost.

by Sen Oganesyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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