Travel and adventure, discoveries, and eyewitness accounts of unknown and distant lands have always attracted the curious minds of researchers and meticulous scholars, as well as a broad spectrum of ordinary readers.
It is human nature to desire to know more and deeper about the world around us – what, specifically, is there, beyond the mountains and seas, beyond my territory? And it wouldn’t hurt to study one’s own territory better – what is it like, what mountains, plains, waters, and forests are there, where and who lives there, how many and what are they like – my compatriots?
All these questions have always vividly interested humanity, and with the development of speech and communication skills, they have taken tangible form in oral stories and descriptions, written testimonies, maps, and other documents – from rock paintings to the internet. Armenians are no exception in this regard.
The first information about our country, its nature and animals, about our knowledge of the world order, was left to us by our distant ancestors, depicting all this in rich collections of petroglyphs scattered throughout the Armenian Highlands.
Much geographical information about our homeland is also contained in the works of the first Armenian historians, especially in Movses Khorenatsi’s “Armenian History,” Anania Shirakatsi’s “Universal Geography,” and dozens of other primary sources. Most valuable in this regard is the work of Shirakatsi, which in Armenian studies for a long time was attributed to Movses Khorenatsi.
The remarkable early medieval Armenian philosopher, mathematician, cosmographer, and geographer Anania Shirakatsi was born between 605 and 610 AD, in the city of Shirakawan gavar Shirak of Ayrarat ashkhar of Greater Armenia (subsequently – the village of Bash-Shirak or Bash-Shoragyal of the Kars region, currently – Chetin Durak). According to other information, Shirakatsi’s birthplace is the now-ruined village of Aneank or Anania, in the vicinity of the Karmir Vank monastery, 12 km southwest of Shirakawan.
Shirakatsi’s “Geography” contains a wealth of information about all known countries and peoples of Europe, Asia, and Libya (Africa) at that time, descriptions of the Indian Ocean, Greek (Mediterranean), Caspian Sea, Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). Particularly interesting are the chapters devoted to Armenia itself and its immediate neighbors – Vrastan (Georgia), Colchis, Akhvank, Persia, Sarmatia (North Caucasus), the Mediterranean (Midjerkrajk), Mesopotamia, and Assyria.
In his work, Shirakatsi also presents the geocentric scheme of the universe, which was prevalent in cosmography at that time, as well as elements for creating a world map and globe – a resemblance of a spherical Earth (a thousand years before Mercator!) Later, in the 13th century, Shirakatsi’s views and descriptions were reflected in the work “Geography” by another Armenian author – Vardan Areveltsi.
Both works, among other things, rely on the “Geography” of the Greek scholar of the 1st-2nd centuries, Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemy). Unfortunately, the scarcity, and often the complete absence of information about the lives of medieval authors (not only Armenian) does not allow us to judge with certainty – did they travel themselves, or create their works based on the descriptions of others?
At the same time, Shirakatsi in his “Ashkharatsuyts” describes not only Armenia but also neighboring countries in such detail, with such reliable information, that one can assume – at least in these countries, the author had been himself.
The absence or scarcity of information, as well as discrepancies in existing data, led to disputes around the personality and travels of yet another medieval Armenian author – Martiros Yerznkatsi. Almost nothing is known about his life, birth, and death dates.
We know only from his own words that from 1489 to 1496 he traveled from his native Erznka (ancient Eriza, present-day Erzindzhan in the province of Ekeheats in the region of Bardzr Ayk of Greater Armenia) through Europe.
Both on land and by sea, Yerznkatsi covered over 13,000 kilometers in total, visiting Constantinople, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Flanders, and Spain. In his travel essays, Martiros Yerznkatsi left descriptions of hundreds of cities (including Venice, Rome, Ancona), villages, monasteries, providing information about their population, customs, numbers, economic life, and much more.
A significant part of his journey Yerznkatsi made by sea on various vessels (in particular, the segments Constantinople-Venice-Ancona-Rome, sailing around the Iberian Peninsula, the return journey from Italy to Constantinople).
Many researchers, such as R. Acharyan, K. Patkanyan, Sen-Marten, relying on indirect evidence in Yerznkatsi’s narrative, believe it possible that he traveled in the Atlantic Ocean with Basque sailors for the purpose of discovering and describing new lands.
There are also reasons to believe that Yerznkatsi’s participation in one of Columbus’s expeditions to India-America was possible. In addition to some hints at this in Yerznkatsi’s text itself, there are fragmentary pieces of information about the presence among Columbus’s companions of either an Armenian or an interpreter who knew, among others, the Armenian language – for establishing contacts in the newly discovered lands.
Yerznkatsi’s journey around the Iberian Peninsula coincides with the period of Columbus’s expeditions. The account of this journey by Yerznkatsi himself might have been lost for various reasons – from the trivial loss of several pages of his work to the concealment of part of the narrative by jealous Spanish cartographers, which was very characteristic of them.
Whatever the case, Martiros Yerznkatsi, being one of the first Armenian sailors and travelers, left behind a highly valuable geographical description of Europe, including, among other things, Armenian translations and transcription of many geographical names.
By the way, further explorations and research of this journey might shed light on one of the mysteries of geography. It is known that Columbus had at his disposal certain documents and maps, on the basis of which he plotted the course of his ships. None of these documents have been found, nor any maps.
But researchers have reason to believe that the maps Columbus had were the basis for the 1513 world map of Piri Reis. Possible contacts of Martiros Yerznkatsi with the Basques, or even with Columbus himself or one of his associates, could be the source of these notorious maps or documents.
Whether Yerznkatsi had maps at his disposal is not known to us, but the general level of geographical thinking in Armenia at that time significantly surpassed the European one…
Yerznka gave Armenian history another traveler. Living in the 16th century, Sargis Abeha was a monk in the Surb Kirakos monastery near Erznka. From 1587 to 1592, he traveled through Europe, setting out from Constantinople.
By land and on ships, Sargis visited almost all the countries and major cities of Europe, and upon his return to the monastery, recorded his impressions in the work “Uhegrutyun” – “Journey.” Like Martiros, Sargis did not limit himself to merely listing and describing temples and cities.
He provides information about the population’s numbers, occupations, and daily life, as well as about cultural life and charitable organizations. Summing up his account, he testifies that he visited more than 1,000 fortresses and cities, saw 4,000 churches, and 3,000 monasteries. The list of Sargis Abeha’s work was found in the 1940s.
The 20th century in Amid (Diyarbakir), it is unfinished and supplemented by a later anonymous author with quotes from Martiros Yerznkatsi’s story. Both of these works are now kept in Matenadaran.
No less valuable is the work left to us by another Armenian traveler of the late Middle Ages, the merchant Martiros di Arakel. In the first half of the 18th century, he traveled through Persia, India, Italy, and was (most likely by sea) in Bandar-Abas, Surat, Livorno, as well as Shiraz and other cities.
No less valuable is the work left to us by another Armenian traveler of the late Middle Ages, the merchant Martiros di Arakel. In the first half of the 18th century, he traveled through Persia, India, Italy, and most likely by sea to Bandar Abbas, Surat, Livorno, as well as Shiraz and other cities.
The notes left by di Arakel do not have a common title. Thus, in the narrative “Karg ev tiv tagavorats Parsits” (literally “Place and Number of Persian Kings”) he lists the Persian shahs from 1501 to 1729, describes events that took place in Persia or Armenia under various shahs, and in other parts of his work provides valuable information, for example, about Peter the Great’s Caspian campaign, representatives of India’s Mughal dynasty, and much more.
Starting from ancient times and the first centuries after the birth of Christ, Armenians settled in many countries of the Old World. Among them were merchants, craftsmen, jewelers, and even political figures. For example, there are known ancient and strong connections between Armenians and Abyssinia-Ethiopia, starting from the 4th-5th centuries.
At the court of Yakob I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1434 to 1468, Armenians served as diplomats and ambassadors. Thus, at that time, an Armenian embassy was sent from Ethiopia to Portugal, headed by the skilled diplomat Mattevos.
Numerous pieces of information about Armenians – merchants, sailors, and statesmen – can be found in the archives of Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Philippines).
There is no doubt that with proper and unbiased study, many now-unknown pages of Armenian history will be revealed to us, including those related to possible Armenian travelers and pioneers.
Among the known Armenian travelers is Simeon Lehatsi (Polish) – a traveler and writer, poet, public, and church figure. He was born in 1584 in Zamość – the richest Armenian settlement in Poland in terms of history and died in 1637 in Lviv.
In the Armenian school of Zamość, he studied under Akoba Tohatetsi. From 1608 to 1619, Simeon Lehatsi traveled through the countries of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and also Armenia. From 1619 to 1625, he created the famous work “Journey,” which has no analogs in medieval Armenian literature.
In it, he describes the life and traditions of the nations of the countries visited by the author, their customs, church ceremonies, crafts, and occupations, historical monuments, the social organization of their lives, and much more.
Continuing this work, Simeon Lehatsi wrote the “Chronology” between 1623-35, where he listed the most significant events of those years. Lehatsi devoted considerable attention to Armenian colonies, their internal life, population, occupations, schools, and churches.
One of the most famous and remarkable Armenian travelers and scholars – geographers of modern times – is Minas Bzhishkian, a man of truly encyclopedic knowledge and interests, philologist and educator, historian and ethnographer, traveler and writer, musicologist, grammarian…
Minas Bzhishkian was born in 1777 in Trabzon, died in 1861 in Venice, and is buried in the Mkhitarist Congregation on the island of Surb Lazar. He was engaged in teaching activities in his homeland – in Trabzon, as well as in Constantinople and Crimea.
From 1817 to 1819, he undertook an unprecedented sea journey along the entire coast of the Black Sea, the result of which was the monumental work “History of Pontos, which is the Black Sea”, published in Venice in 1819, with an accompanying map of the Black Sea, which can be called one of the first Armenian maritime maps.
The “History of Pontos” itself serves as one of the first sailing directions (pilots) for the Black Sea, holding a respectable place among similar works (in geography and sailing, the art of sailing in coastal waters and the professional description of these waters and shores are called pilots).
In this work, Minas Bzhshkian provides a detailed description of the Black Sea coast and valuable information on the geography, history, architecture, ethnography, and daily life of the Black Sea nations – Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Abkhazians, Bulgarians, Romanians, and others.
Both the book and the map were a superb aid for the Trabzon, Hamshen, and Crimean Armenian sailors and merchants, the history of whose domination over the Black Sea was, unfortunately, coming to an end…
With another work of his, also resulting from his personal journey, Minas Bzhshkian gained fame at both the Russian and European levels. This refers to his “Journey to Poland,” published in 1830. In addition to information describing the country, Bzhshkian also presented the history of Ani and the first Armenian settlements in Poland and Western Ukraine.
Subsequently, Minas Bzhshkian became involved in comparative grammar, creating works like “Russian-Armenian Grammar” (1828) and “Multilingual Grammar…” (1844), for which he was awarded the Grand Gold Medal of the Russian Empire.
In general, the activities, journeys, and works of Minas Bzhshkian place him in the same league as A. Humboldt and some other scholars – the last representatives of encyclopedic science so prevalent in the medieval and modern ages.
In the Mkhitarist Congregation in Venice, on this Armenian island in the midst of Europe, remarkable people lived and worked, true patriots, and professionals. The works of the Mkhitarists have always been characterized by monumentality and high scientific value.
Among the geographers of Surb Kazar – such giants as Stepanos Agonts, Gukas Inchichyan, and of course, Gevond Alishan. Stepanos Gyever Agonts – an Armenologist, geographer, born in 1740 in Gyergyo in Transylvania, died on Surb Kazar in 1824.
Agonts – the author of numerous works on geography, especially famous for his monumental work “Geography of the Four Parts of the World” (“Ashkharagrutyun choric masants ashkhari”) in 11 volumes, created in collaboration with G. Inchichyan between 1802-1808.
In it, reliable information on geography, history, and ethnography of numerous countries of the world is presented. It is the first geographical encyclopedia in the Armenian language in modern ages.
Born in 1758 in Constantinople, Gukas Inchichyan (Mikaelian) died on Surb Kazar in 1833. A geographer, historian, philologist, and ethnographer, Inchichyan is one of the brightest representatives of Armenian encyclopedic thought. Besides co-authorship in Agonts’ “Geography,” Gukas Inchichyan is the author of remarkable works on the history and geography of Armenia.
In the “Description of Ancient Armenia” (“Storagrutyun hIn hAyastaneats,” 1822), Inchichyan, based on Armenian and other sources, provides a detailed description of the gavars and ashkhars of Greater Armenia, clarifies many toponyms, and, for the first time after Khorenatsi, addresses their etymology.
The three-volume “Ancient Geography of the Armenian Land” (“Xnakhosutyun ashkharagrakan hAyastaneats ashkhari,” 1835) is an invaluable source of information on the ancient history of Armenia, its geography and ethnography, economic, and cultural life.
For the first time, the entire rich palette of Armenian ethnography has been summarized – military uniforms, flags and emblems of royal and princely dynasties, types of weapons, national costumes and rituals, traditions and beliefs, norms of life and jurisprudence, architecture, sculpture, and much more. The work “Amaranots Byuzandean” (1794) turns to the geography of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits – Inchichyan describes their shores, sea currents, geology. Finally, in the eight-volume work “Darapatum” (literally “Tale of Centuries,” 1824-27), he aims to create a universal world history and geography.
The most prominent Armenian scholar and geographer of Armenia is rightfully considered the eminent scientist Gevond Alishan (Kerovbe Alishanyan), born in Constantinople in 1820 and died in Surb Kazar in 1901.
Alishan was a knight of the French Academy’s Legion of Honor, an honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Italy, Archaeological Societies of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Venetian Academy, and the Philosophical Academy of Jena.
Gevond Alishan’s invaluable contribution to Armenian geography and toponymy is unparalleled – a genius who never visited Armenia (!) but knew it better than its residents.
The author of a whole series of historical-geographical works, Gevond Alishan is often the only reliable source for localizing a particular toponym – your humble servant has experienced this firsthand, during the many years of reconstructing and mapping Historical Armenia based on modern topographic maps.
Alishan is credited with works such as “Shirak,” “Ayrarat,” “Sisakan” (Syunik), “Sisvan” (Cilicia), “Armenia Before Becoming Armenia,” “Topography of Greater Armenia,” “Ancient Faith or Pagan Religion of Armenians,” and many others, providing, as already mentioned, a complete and detailed picture of the history, and especially, the geography of Greater Armenia.
The phenomenon of Alishan is the prerogative of historians, chronologists, and biographers; however, on behalf of all Armenian geographers, I dare thank this great scientist for his invaluable assistance in mapping Armenia – his homeland, where he, I repeat, never visited.
If only his knowledge, courage, and intuition could be shared with some modern pseudo-Armenian scholars, who don’t dare to step even an iota beyond the boundaries allowed by their Soviet masters…
Speaking of geographers of modern times, one cannot overlook the name A-Do – Ovannes Ter-Martirosyan, a statistician, ethnographer, and economist (1867 – 1954), author of two valuable works on the geography of Western Armenia – “Van, Bitlis and Erzurum Vilayets” and “Great Events in Vaspurakan in 1914-1915.”
In these works, A-Do provides a multitude of significant information on the socio-economic situation, political events, administrative structure, settlements, and population numbers of Western Armenia at the beginning of the 20th century, and the history of the Armenian national liberation struggle. By the way, information about Van Armenian navigation was derived from A-Do’s works, which played an important role in the research of the club “Ayas.”
by Grigor Beglaryan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan