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Gyumri was first settled around 400 BC, possibly by Greek colonists. The town was inhabited periodically until the early 19th century, when the Russians moved in and built a large military garrison. It even received a visit from Tsar Nicolas I who, in 1837, renamed it Alexandropol after his wife. A steady influx of settlers arrived from Russia and the western Armenian cities of Kars and Erzurum. As the third largest city in the Caucasus, after Tbilisi and Baku, Gyumri was an important trading post between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Asia and Russia. As a transport hub it was a stop on the rail journey from Tbilisi to Tabriz.

In 1920 the Turkish-Armenian war ended here with the signing of the Treaty of Alexandropol, an event that ceased the Turkish advance on Yerevan. In Soviet times the border was shut and Alexandropol became known as Leninakan.

The Spitak earthquake on 11 December 1988 put paid to much of Gyumri’s historic splendour, as well as the myriad factories established here by the Soviets. Besides levelling large parts of the city and surrounding villages, it killed 50, 000 people and made many more homeless. The botched recovery effort would haunt the city for years as successive winters passed without heating or electricity. The early 2000s saw rapid redevelopment and rehousing of the earthquake victims.