Arts

Cinema

The best-known name in Armenian cinema is Sergei Paradjanov, known for the avant-garde films he made between 1951 and 1990. These include the internationally acclaimed Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates), made in 1969; The Legend of Souram Fortress (1984); and Ashough Gharib (1988). His final masterpiece, The Confession, was unfinished when he died in 1990; part of the original camera negative survived and is included in Mikhail Vartanov's Parajanov: The Last Spring (1992).

Canadian-Armenian art-house director Atom Egoyan has made several films on Armenian themes, including Calendar (1993), a story of a disintegrating marriage partly shot on location in Armenia; and Ararat (2002), a film within a film dealing with the hefty subject of the Medz Yeghern. Egoyan's 2015 film Remember also deals with the themes of historical memory, justice and accountability through its story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who determines to exact revenge on the Nazi officer who killed his family in a concentration camp.

Here (2010), directed by Braden King, is an American art-house film set in Armenia that focuses on the romantic interlude between an American mapping engineer and a diaspora Armenian returning to her homeland.

Music

Armenian religious music’s mythically complex harmonies are partly lost, though there are many fine, melancholy choirs of the Armenian liturgy.

The 18th-century poet, musician and composer Sayat Nova, often considered the greatest singer-songwriter in the South Caucasus, began his career in the court of Erekle II of Georgia but was exiled for his forbidden love of the king’s daughter and became an itinerant troubadour. The majority of his surviving ballads are in Azeri, as it was the lingua franca of the Caucasus at the time.

The great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries include Komitas, whose works for choir and orchestra put Armenian music on an international stage, and Armen Tigranyan for his operas Anoush (1912) and Davit Bek (1950). Aram Khachaturian is best known for two ballet scores: Gayane (1942), which includes the well-known 'Sabre Dance'; and Spartacus (1954).

Folk music is alive and well in town troupes and late-night clubs and khoravats palaces. The duduk, a double-reed instrument made from apricot wood, will become the soundtrack to your journey in Armenia. Its inescapable trill features in traditional music and many modern pop tunes blaring from the speakers of taxi cabs.

For good traditional music try the RealWorld label, which has albums by duduk master Djivan Gasparian. Also try Parik Nazarian, Gevorg Dabagian and the album Minstrels and Folk Songs of Armenia by Parseghian Records.

Modern artists of note include Lilit Pipoyan, a Joni Mitchell–esque singer and songwriter whose most recent album was Selected Songs of Komitas, Karaoke (2013).

Gomidas Songs by Canadian-Armenian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian features songs by the 19th-century Armenian composer Gomidas Vardabet. Bayrakdarian's vocals also featured in Atom Egoyan's Ararat and she was the subject of Eileen Thalenberg's 2005 TV documentary A Long Journey Home, which followed the singer as she travelled to Armenia for the first time, performing sacred music in medieval monasteries around her ancestral homeland.

Rabiz Music

Rabiz is a contraction of the Russian words ‘rabochee iskusstvo’ (workers’ art). It’s entertainment and it’s also a lifestyle – the guys in the silk shirts and gold chains driving too fast while smoking and talking on their mobile phones. If you ask a hip student, they’ll say that Armenian popular culture is divided between loud, showy, raucous rabiz culture on one hand, and everything of good taste on the other. Rabiz also covers a lot of highly inventive slang. Rabiz music is marshrutka-driver music, a mix of brainless pop and over-the-top tragic ballads (girl has cancer, boy says he’ll kill himself before she dies) that strike a sentimental Middle Eastern chord in Armenian hearts. Fans want music that will make them cry, as well as impassioned love songs and arms-aloft dancing music. This kind of music booms from taxis in Greek, Russian, Turkish and Arabic. The Armenian variety comes from Los Angeles, Beirut and Moscow as well as Yerevan, where it plays in neighbourhood bars, clubs and khoravats (barbecued food) joints late into the night.

Visual Arts

Of the many notable Armenian visual artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, three stand out: Vardges Surenyants (1860–1921), Martiros Sarian (1880–1972) and Yervand Kochar (1899–1979). All were known for their paintings, and Kochar was also a notable sculptor. Many of Surenyants' works are in the collection of the National Gallery of Armenia, and both Kochar and Sarian have Yerevan museums dedicated to their lives and works.

Sarian Park behind the Opera House features a grandiose statue of the great man. Suitably, this same park is the venue for Yerevan’s art market, where painters gather to offer a critique of each other’s work and sell their paintings. Most of the paintings have religious iconography or capture familiar Armenian landscapes.

Contemporary artists of note include Arthur Sarkissian, Karen Petrosyan, Armen Gevorgyan and Laura Avetisyan. All have work in the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Yerevan.

Theatre & Dance

Theatre runs deep in Armenian culture – a 10th-century fortress at Saimbeyli in Cilicia had three storeys of theatres and two storeys of libraries.

The Hellenic kings of Armenia patronised theatre in the 3rd century BC, and Greek dramas played to King Tigran the Great. There are about a dozen active theatre houses in Yerevan specialising in musical comedy, contemporary plays and drama revivals.

Armenia has a rich tradition of folk dancing, and you may be lucky enough to stumble across a performance in a public square. Revellers at country weddings might not be so professional, but then it is the real thing. Armenia has a rich diversity of dances and costumes, straight out of a medieval spring festival. There are also dance and ballet companies in Yerevan.

Food & Drink

Menu Decoder

aboursoup
ankiuspilaf made with rice, walnuts, apricot and lavash
basturmacured beef or ham
bibercapsicum (pepper)
bourekflaky stuffed pastry
dolmarice and meat parcels in vine leaves
eetchcracked wheat salad
harissaporridge made of wheat and meat cooked together for a long time
hatsbread
havchicken
hummusground chickpea paste with oil
gatasweet bun or bread
govbeef
ishkhanSevan trout
kebabground meat cooked on a skewer
kedayifcrunchy dessert pastry
khaghoghgrapes
khamajua meat pie similar to khachapuri (Georgian cheese pie)
khashwinter stew of animal parts including the foot of a cow or ox
khashlamalamb stew cooked in beer or wine
khoravatsbarbecue, usually pork, lamb or beef, also vegetables and fish, does not include kebab
khozpork
kyuftameatballs mixed with onion and egg
lahmajo (lahmajoon)thin pizza topped with tomato, minced-lamb and spices
lavashthin flat bread
matsoonyoghurt
ogheefruit vodkas
paneercheese
patlijaneggplant (aubergine)
pomidortomato (also loleek)
shakersugar
sigariver trout
suchushplum-and-walnut sweet
sujukhcured sausage
taboulehdiced green salad with semolina
tanyoghurt
tsiranapricot
vochkharlamb
zarazogonmushrooms stir-fried with egg and butter

Staples & Specialities

Armenian cuisine combines elements of the cuisines of all its historic neighbours – Arabic, Russian, Greek and Persian – but remains distinctive. The quality of local produce is high, and the fruits and vegetables on offer are fresh and packed with flavour. This is because crops are often grown on a small scale in villages and backyards across the country without the use of greenhouses or pesticides.

If there’s one word for dining, it’s khoravats (barbecued food). Pork is the favourite, though lamb, beef and sometimes chicken are usually available too. Ishkhan khoravats is grilled trout from Lake Sevan. Siga is another good grilled-fish dish. Kebabs are also very common. The signature herb is dill – Armenians use it in innumerable dishes but especially in salads.

Broadly speaking, western Armenian cuisine has a Levantine influence, while eastern Armenian cuisine incorporates Russian and Georgian influences. Besides khoravats, staples include dolma (rice wrapped in vine leaves), soups, vegetable stews and lavash fresh from the oven. Khash is a thick winter stew made from animal parts. Starters include cold salads, farmyard-smelling Lori cheese and dips such as jajik (yoghurt with cucumbers and fennel). Cured meats include sujukh or yeghchik (dark, cured spicy sausage) and basturma (finely cured ham).

There are few strictly vegetarian restaurants in Armenia but many restaurants offer veggie stews made with tomatoes, rice, eggplants (aubergines), zucchinis (courgettes) and a profusion of herbs and spices. Western Armenian cuisine features hummus, tabouleh, labneh, fatayer (cheese or spinach pastries) and other vegetarian dishes associated with Lebanese cuisine.

Drinks

The most popular drink is soorch (Armenian coffee), also claimed by Georgians, Greeks and Arabs. It’s a potent, finely ground cup of lusciously rich coffee, with thick sediment at the bottom. It goes well with honeyed pastries such as baklava. Tea is also popular. There is an interesting array of mineral and table waters, ranging from salty, volcanic Jermuk to lighter Noy and Dilijan waters. Fruit juices are cheap and delicious.

The two main lagers are Kilikia and Kotayk, widely available and quite refreshing on a hot summer afternoon. Kilikia is a typical middle-European lager, very good when fresh. Its main rival, Kotayk, is sold everywhere and is a little more reliable, if bland. Other popular brands include Erebuni, made by Kotayk; Gyumri and Ararat, made by the Gyumri Beer Company; and Aleksandrapol.

The country’s national liquor is konyak (cognac), which is around 40% alcohol. There are several other producers, such as Great Valley, but the Yerevan Brandy Company’s Ararat label is the real thing, a smooth, intense liquor with a smoky aroma similar to whisky. Armenian konyak has a huge following in Russia and Ukraine. Even Winston Churchill favoured it over the French stuff, and Stalin used to send him cases of Ararat cognac.

Most locally produced red wines are made from the Areni grape, which is well suited to the hot summers and harsh winters. White wines are produced by vineyards in Tavush, Lori and Karabakh. Look out for wines by Malishka, Maran, ArmAs, Kataro, Noravank, Bagratuni and Karas. Tariri's dry white is particularly quaffable, as is the ever-reliable Karas red from Amavir.

If you want to propose a toast, it’s polite to ask the permission of the tamada (main toastmaker). There’s a custom in clinking glasses of holding your glass lower than the next person’s, as a sign of deference. This can develop into a game until the glasses are at table level. If you empty a bottle into someone’s glass, it obliges them to buy the next bottle – it’s polite to put the last drops into your own glass.

Punch Drunk

Oghee (pronounced something like ‘orh-ee’) are delicious fruit vodkas, sometimes called vatsun or aragh, made in village orchards everywhere. Around 60% alcohol, oghee is made from apples, pears, apricots, pomegranates, grapes, cherries, Cornelian cherries or cornels, mulberries and figs. The best mulberry (t’te) and Cornelian cherry (hone) oghee are intense, lingering liqueurs. Vedi Alco makes some oghee commercially, weaker than the village stuff. You won’t need to go far to try some; it’s a usual accompaniment to a khoravats dinner. The drink tastes best in autumn when homes turn into distilleries after the harvest.