How old is Yerevan, and when will its actual age be announced?

Everyone knows the phrase “Yerevan is 30 years older than Rome” (precisely – 29), but some of our eminent historians say that Yerevan is not 30, but a full 3,000 years older than Rome. As they say, feel the difference.

Since 1968, when the foundation day of the city was first solemnly celebrated and thus the holiday “Erebuni-Yerevan” was established, everyone has been counting the age of the capital from the date marked by the Urartian king Argishti I. According to this dating, back in 1968, Yerevan was 2750 years old. Now the city is 2804 years old.

In general, it has long been recognized by everyone that Yerevan is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is believed to have been founded in 782 BC and is older than Rome itself, which, because of its antiquity, is called the Eternal City. Moreover, if the founding date of Rome – 753 BC is only in myths, then the age of the Armenian capital has confirmation – a cuneiform script found in 1950 on the hill of Arin-Berd, where the date and name of the city’s founder, King Argishti I, are recorded in stone.

However, in this issue, the witty phrase of the Polish writer Stanisław Jerzy Lec from the book “Unkempt Thoughts” – “In reality, everything is completely different than it actually is” becomes relevant.

So how ancient is Yerevan really, and why does its actual age differ from the commonly accepted one? People lived here a long time ago, since the Paleolithic. About half a century ago, excavations were carried out in the Razdan Gorge, and the oldest cave was discovered, where people lived as far back as 70,000 years ago. There were found more than 20,000 artifacts, which are now in the Yerevan History Museum.

But the age of the city is determined not by this, but by the most ancient settlement found in it.

On the territory of the capital, 3 ancient cities were excavated: Teishebaini (Arm. Թեյշեբաինի, on the Karmir Blur hill), Erebuni (Arm. Էրեբունի, on the Arin-Berd hill) and Shengavit (Arm. Շենգավիթ). Their antiquity goes in reverse order from the listed: the youngest Teishebaini (founded in the 7th century BC by King Rusa II), only a century older than it Erebuni (782 BC) and, the oldest, almost twice as old – Shengavit.

The famous Armenian archaeologist Akop Simonyan, who has been conducting excavations there since 2000, rightly says: as much as Erebuni is older than Yerevan, so is Shengavit older than Erebuni. That is, figuratively speaking, if Argishti knew about this, then on the day of the foundation of Erebuni, he could well have celebrated the 2800th anniversary of Shengavit. And Yerevan itself, it turns out, is about 5,500 years old or even older. The exact date is still unknown, as there are no written sources.

Shengavit is twice as old as Erebuni

The Shengavit settlement is an ancient hillfort on the left bank of the Razdan river, next to Yerevan Lake, considered an archaeological monument of the Kura-Araxes culture. It is located in the southwestern part of the city of Yerevan in the Shengavit district, from where it got its name. What its inhabitants themselves called it, we do not yet know. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important archaeological monuments in Armenia from the early Bronze Age.

The settlement existed in the 4th to 2nd millennia BC. It is a hill, 6 hectares in area, rising above the Razdan river by 30 m and consists of four cultural layers and archaeological levels built on each other, with a difference of 4 meters: 1 layer – late Neolithic (3500-3000 years BC), 2 layer – early Eneolithic (3000-2700 years BC) corresponds to the epoch of the kingdom of Aratta, 3 layer – middle Eneolithic (2600-2300 years BC), 4 layer – late Eneolithic (2300-2000 years BC), which also corresponds to the early and middle Bronze Ages (about XXXV/XXXIII centuries BC – XX/XIX centuries BC).

The settlement was a typical city with central and intersecting streets. The inhabitants of Shengavit lived in round houses with a diameter of 6-7 m with hearths in the center. The city was surrounded by a fortress with cyclopean masonry walls and towers. Under the wall, a slab-lined underground passage leading to the Razdan river was found. A temple was also discovered.

The first excavations were carried out in 1936-1938 under the leadership of archaeologist Yevgeny Bayburtyan (1898-1939). In 1958-1983, the work was continued by the expedition of Yerevan State University under the leadership of Sandro Sardaryan.

Since 2000, excavations have been conducted under the leadership of Akop Simonyan. Initially, the dates of the emergence of Shengavit were incorrectly identified as the 25-24th century BC. But today it is clear that the 25-20th centuries BC were the last period, that is, the end of this culture, it appeared 1000 years earlier and already existed before that – still in the 4th millennium BC.

Where is the home and where is the Kura?

Yevgeny Bayburtyan, who was repressed and subsequently found himself undeservedly forgotten, named the culture after the name of the area, Shengavit. After they dealt with him, other scientists, primarily Boris Kuftin, who came from Tbilisi to supervise Bayburtyan’s work on defending his dissertation, already had his data at hand, and, also using materials on Georgia, named this culture Kura-Araxes, because similar monuments were found in the territory between the Kura and Araxes rivers.

Then it became clear that similar monuments exist in the territory of Western Armenia, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Iran, that is, in huge territories.

But the point is not only that due to such a huge spread, there is no universally accepted name for this culture among scientists, not everyone uses the term “Kura-Araxes”, and in general, anyone calls it what they want – from Transcaucasian and Eastern Anatolian to Iranian. This is a separate story, and science will figure out this confusion someday.

But there is another important point.

How old is Yerevan really?

Yevgeny Arutyunovich Bayburtyan undoubtedly understood that even according to the then incomplete dating, the settlement he found of great antiquity testified that Yerevan was at least 4.5 thousand years old. And he clearly did not hide this, speaking about his discovery.

He was soon accused of nationalism and arrested. In the Armenian academic community, there’s a story about how, once, in the presence of colleagues and his beloved girl, when discussing Beria’s accusations against Armenians, Bayburtyan made some overly bold statements. Someone reported this to the NKVD (the then KGB), Yevgeny was arrested, tried, and exiled, where he fell ill and died.

However, researchers Ya.V. Vasilkov, M.Yu. Sorokin and D. Yurasov, in their lists of victims of the political terror of the Soviet period (1917-1991), provide other information. Bayburtyan was convicted by the Troika at the NKVD of the Armenian SSR and shot on May 13, 1939. He was subsequently rehabilitated.

As for Boris Kuftin, to avoid risk, he employed the then quite common proletarian method of “dekulakization”. That is, it’s wrong to attribute what was found in Armenia solely to Armenians, let’s share it with everyone in the region, let the neighbors also get the name of such an ancient culture.

In any case, the fact is that in those times no one dared to speak about Shengavit, or Teishebaini, where excavations were also being conducted, and where Boris Piotrovsky and Igor Diakonov worked, as the beginning of the history of the city of Yerevan.

This only happened a quarter of a century after the excavations in Erebuni and the finding, in addition to many artifacts, also of the cuneiform inscription of Argishti I about the founding of the city. Therefore, the dating of Yerevan was tied to this.

So, at least partially, the truth still triumphed, and it was recognized that Yerevan is the oldest city in the USSR and one of the oldest in the world. Although the heritage of Urartu was still divided with neighbors out of inertia.

However, much new has been discovered since then.

Paleogeneticists have found out that the Armenian genotype appeared about 8,000 years ago, and 4,000 years ago it was already widespread throughout the Armenian Highlands. Linguists studying the branching of the Indo-European language have calculated that the Armenian language was already separated from it 5,000 years ago.

This was discussed in the article “When did the Armenian language appear?”.

That is, no matter how ancient Shengavit was, the Armenian genotype and language already existed then, which means it was an Armenian city. And finally, after so many years, Armenian historians are increasingly reminding us that the age of Yerevan, like any other city, should be determined by the oldest settlement found in it, which actually corresponds to the meaning of the word “foundation”. And in this case, it is Shengavit itself.

The rest are just milestones in its long and great history. So, in reality, Yerevan is at least 5,500 years old, or perhaps even older, but this will be clarified in the future.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Archaeological excavations in the administrative district of Yerevan Shengavit Photo source: © Sputnik / Asatur Yesayants

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