Dramatic mountains, centuries-old monasteries, astonishing stonework architecture, and ancient vineyards may sound like the dreamy ingredients of a European country long on your bucket list. But point your compass eastward, past the minarets of Turkey and the shores of the Black Sea, and you’ll discover the mesmerizing South Caucasus Mountains, where the most eastern of Europe and the most western of Asia meet. And best of all, it’s where tourist crowds are thin. That means you can step into an untrammeled Old World and experience it at its most authentic.
Here, amidst high plateaus, sleepy villages, alpine peaks, and friendly residents, Armenia and Georgia boast simple ways of life and rich cultures steeped in cherished traditions. During our new Armenia & Georgia Discovery, our small group lets us take our time and drink it all in at the slow and carefree pace of the locals. We’re excited to bring you to these enriching countries as they open their doors to Western travelers, providing you a rare opportunity to witness a fascinating part of the world.
Exactly what makes Armenia and Georgia so remarkable? Their people, to start. Their location where Europe and Asia meet has long made these nations objects of desire among empires, occupying strategic border lands. Indeed, it is only recently that each country has come into its own as fully sovereign. When you consider this, it is a wonder that Armenians and Georgians welcome visitors from other lands at all. But welcome you they will, with a glass of local wine or brandy, genuine warmth and sincerity, and a hearty “Genats!,” or “Cheers!”
To understand these inspiring nations, you need only turn to their histories, sometimes linked and sometimes distinct.
Armenia’s Christian Soul Weaves through Its Past
At its height, between 95 and 66 BC, Armenia was the most powerful kingdom east of the Roman Empire. Christianity arrived here quite early – around the year 40. Armenia was the first country to officially declare Christianity its state religion, in 301, which explains the remarkable 4th-century churches. It’s easy to imagine that religion kept locals grounded and gave them faith during many centuries of shifting rule, whether by the Umayyad Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol Empire, or the Ottoman Empire. For about 200 years, the nation was split in two: Ottomans ruled Western Armenia while Persians ruled Eastern Armenia.
In the 1890s, Christian Armenians began pushing for rights in an increasingly Muslim land. The sultan’s response to the resistance earned him the nickname “Bloody Sultan.” It was a mere prelude to the darkest chapter in the nation’s history: During World War I, tensions between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire often boiled over in the Caucasus. For their part, Ottomans grew suspicious of Armenians as many had volunteered to support the Russian army. Countless locals were killed or forced into labor or deportation across the Syrian desert, where they faced certain death. Some estimate that more than a million perished during what has become known as the Armenian Genocide.
At war’s end, Armenia was re-united as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson drew up the nation’s new borders during treaty negotiations. The region came to be known as “Wilsonian Armenia” because of his efforts. But independence was short-lived: The Soviet Union annexed Armenia in 1922. Ironically, this brought a period of relative calm to the people, except during Stalin’s anti-Christian reign. It wasn’t until 1991 that Armenia once again declared its independence, thanks in large part to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia’s timeless pleasures of today. Rustic and dream-like, Armenia retains much of its Old-World atmosphere. Carpets are still woven by lifelong weavers. Brandy is distilled in a facility that’s been operating since the 1800s. Artisans create handicrafts much as they have for centuries in the gingerbread village of Dilijan. And the unique strains of the duduk, the Armenian oboe, fill the air.
At most every dinner table, khoravats, or skewered pork or lamb, is passed around, fresh off the fire. It’s just one example of a Levantine-influenced cuisine. Another, lavash, the traditional bread, is still baked using a generations-old technique. Eggplant, bulgur, and legumes such as chickpeas and lentils also make frequent appearances and nuts like walnuts and pistachios and fruits like apricots and quince may be added to favorite dishes for texture, flavor and color.
Georgia: A Nation “Blessed by God”
When you lay eyes on the soaring alpine vistas and hushed Caucasus villages of Georgia, you may well understand how it is that Georgians believe their country is blessed by God.
The ancient region of Colchis in today’s western reaches of Georgia was the fabled home of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. Another struggle played out here, as well. For some 700 years, rivalry and war persisted between the Roman Republic (which pre-dated the Roman Empire) and Persia. The instability opened doors for many small kingdoms and dynasties to take root. But one rose to prominence and power: The Bagrationi family ruled until the early 19th century, making it one of the longest-reigning Christian dynasties in the world. It presided over Georgia’s 11th-century Golden Age, when the nation saw advances in military and cultural pursuits, claiming great territorial victories and seeing the creation of great architecture, literature and art.
Mongol and Persian attacks destabilized the region, causing its collapse in 1466. As happened in Armenia, Persians moved in to rule Eastern Georgia and Ottomans moved in to rule Western. Russia later annexed the east in 1801 and expelled the Persians from the west during the Russo-Persian War. Russia lost control briefly during the Bolshevik Revolution but regained it when the Red Army marched on Tbilisi in 1921. Later, native son of Georgia Joseph Stalin went on to lead the Soviet Union. Locals were so proud to see one of their own rise to such power that many fought against Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies after Stalin’s death.
Georgia declared its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union dissolved. After, conflicts erupted between Russia and Georgia over some Black Sea territories but came to an end in 2008 when Russian president Medvedev removed his forces.
Beautiful—and flavorful—vestiges of Georgia’s past. Ancient tradition blends with a deep spirituality in today’s Georgia. The Old Town of Tbilisi, the capital straddling the Kura River, is nothing short of wondrous, brimming with rich reminders of its central place along the Silk Road. Medieval, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Stalinist and modern structures intermingle throughout the city, making for strolls that reveal one curiosity after another. The imposing walls of the Narikala Fortress oversee it all from its lush hillside setting.
Georgia is one of the world’s oldest wine regions. Grapevines were cultivated in the Caucasus as long as 8,000 years ago. Its viniculture is considered inseparable from national identity. The traditional winemaking method, still in use today, employs Kvevri clay jars, large, egg-shaped earthenware vessels that are buried underground for fermentation. The resulting wine is best enjoyed during a supra, an hours-long feast in which an enormous variety of dishes is served.
Fascinating history and warm cultures. They tell only a fraction of Armenia’s and Georgia’s remarkable stories. We hope you’ll join us to discover more. Call to reserve our new Armenia & Georgia Discovery today!