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Armenia – The Cradle of Wine

Wine is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the world and has a fascinating ancient history that goes back to the dawn of civilization some 10,000 years ago. Once considered the beverage of the Gods worshiped and praised in many cultures by priests, poets and scholars alike. 

The Armenian Highlands played an important role in the history of the domestication of animals and the invention of agriculture. These developments led to the cultivation of vines and the creation of wine as an alcoholic beverage. It shouldn’t, therefore, come as a surprise that a large body of evidence points mainly at the Armenian Highlands and some adjacent territories as the origins of viticulture. Let us examine the history of wine-making and its Armenian connections.


From Legends to Historic Records

Winemaking long predates the invention of writing, nevertheless some of the earliest records hold important clues of the origins of viticulture in the forms of legends and myths. Interestingly enough the ancient accounts of the origins of winemaking consistently points towards the highlands of ancient Armenia as the cradle of viticulture.

The Legends

According to the Biblical tradition, the first thing Noah did upon his arrival in the mountains of Armenia, was to plant a vineyard and drink of his home grown wine.

“In the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark rested upon the mountains of Ararat.” – (Genesis 9:4)…. “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk…” – (Genesis 9:20-21)
Cylinder seal found at Uruk, possibly of Utnapishtim in his boot saving life from a global flood.

The biblical flood story is believed to have been based upon much older Mesopotamian legends of deluge. Such is the legend of the hero Gilgamesh who embarks on a journey to discover the secret of eternal life from his ancestor Utnapishtim (the Biblical Noah). Utnapishtim was granted immortality because he listened to the Gods and saved all of life from extermination in a global flood, by building a giant ship. Ever since, Utnapishtim was said to reside in the mountains at “the mouth of the rivers” (note: the rivers Tigris and Euphrates both have their headwaters in the area surrounding Mt. Ararat in historic Armenia). Gilgamesh on his journey to Utnapishtim, enters a grove with vines bearing fruit like the precious stones carnelian (red) and lapis lazuli (blue). The colors suggest that the fruit was grape. Shortly thereafter, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, a barmaid or tavern owner with vessels for serving and drinking wine.

When it comes to allusions to wine in such legends it is important to note that most of the vinicultural elements of each flood story are tied to geographic areas remote from Lower Mesopotamia and towards the more mountainous regions of upper Near East at the headwaters of Mesopotamian rivers (a.k.a. the Armenian Highlands).

Similarly, the ancient Greeks in their myths and legends often attributed the invention of winemaking to eastern peripherals of their known world. For example the ancient Greek God of Wine “Dionysos” was said to have come to Greece from the Phrygian hills, often associated with the Armenians by classical Greek writers (Herodotus VII. 73), bringing with him the practice of winemaking. Thus, in The Bacchae (405 BC), Dionynos is said to descend from the “Phrygian hills to the broad streets of Hellas.” 

Referring to such ancient legends Dr. Patrick E. McGovern (Scientific Director of Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at University of Pennsylvania Museum) in his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2007) notes that:

“On balance, and if it can be assumed that the flood accounts contain reminiscences of the beginnings of viniculture—or at least a widely accepted view in antiquity—then Mount Ararat is a most appropriate locale. Lying near the center of the midworld fold belt stretching across Turkey and Iran, it is close to the earliest Neolithic settlements that have yielded the earliest evidence of the domesticated Eurasian grape.”

The Records

Another body of evidence attesting to Armenia’s ancient wine history comes from historic records and depictions left by ancient historians, scholars, military leaders and even kings.

That Armenian Highland was anciently considered a center for wine production can be attested from various records. The Assyrian king Sargon II (722–705 b.c.), for example, records in a letter to a god that his army traversed Armenian territory during his eighth campaign. He describes a multitude of fruit trees and vines along the torrential stream of the Upper Zab. Reaching the mighty fortresses of Ararat, he was impressed by their extensive vineyards, and his army made short work of the quantities of wine stored in huge ceramic vessels, known as Karas in Armenian. Unfortunately, they also destroyed the vineyards, which was the usual Assyrian practice.

Another example can be seen on the walls of the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis, the ancient capitol of the Achaemenid empire, founded by king Darius the Great (522-486 BCE). Among the ruins of the city several monuments survived, including elaborate murals on the eastern stairs of the Apadana depicting a procession of people bringing tribute to the Achaemenid king. The Armenian delegation is depicted baring gifts of horses and wine,  that Armenia was famous for, in beautiful metal vessels (as seen in the image bellow), attesting to the rich tradition of wine making in ancient Armenia.

Armenian Delegation baring gift of wine to Darius the Great at Persepolis (522-486 BCE).

Greek historians too have often mentioned Armenia in conjunction with wine tradition and even large scale wine export. Xenophon (4th. c. BCE) for example in his famous book “Anabasis”: 4.5, mentions that Armenians used to make wine out of barley (which is technically beer) and drink it out of reed straws.

There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavour to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired. – Xenophon, Anabasis 4.5
March of the ten thousand Greeks from Xenophon’s anabasis.

Similarly the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c.a. 450 BC) in his work “The Histories”: I:194 provides some details on wine trade between Armenia and Babylon. He describes how the Armenian wine merchants fashioned circular “shield”-shaped boats by stretching animal skins over willow frames. After cushioning their vessels with straw, they loaded up their cargo. Live donkeys and, presumably, sleeping accommodations and food for the several-week trip downriver rounded out the supplies in each boat, some of which were quite large and could carry a weight of 5000 talents, or about 25 tons. Once their shipments had been sold and offloaded onto the docks of Babylon, the boats were broken down, because they were incapable of navigating the strong currents back to Armenia. After the straw and willow ribs had gone to the highest bidder, the skins were piled on the donkeys and the merchants began their arduous journey back upstream by foot. Back home, the skins could be used to construct new boats to export the next vintage:

Their boats, those I mean which go down the river to Babylon, are round and all of leather: for they make ribs for them of willow which they cut in the land of the Armenians who dwell above the Assyrians…  …and for the most part these boats bring down casks of palm-wood filled with wine… So when they have arrived at Babylon in their voyage and have disposed of their cargo, they sell by auction the ribs of the boat and all the straw, but they pack the hides upon their asses and drive them off to Armenia: for up the stream of the river it is not possible by any means to sail, owing to the swiftness of the current; and for this reason they make their boats not of timber but of hides. Then when they have come back to the land of the Armenians, driving their asses with them, they make other boats in the same manner. – Herodotus, the Histories: I:194

Notice that Herodotus too describes Armenia as a regional producer of wine which is exported in large quantities even to such great cities like Babylon.


From Historic Records to Archaeology

Armenian Highland is a treasure-trove of archaeological discoveries where some of the earliest settlements known to mankind are discovered regularly. The historic Armenian habitat has encompassed a much larger territory parts of which are now in Eastern Turkey, Northern Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Southern Georgia. But even on the small stretch of land that is today the Republic of Armenia we find plenty of evidence for some of the worlds earliest settlements. Several of such artifacts I’ve described in an earlier post titled the “10 World’s Oldest Things From Armenia


“.

Referring to the invention of winemaking Dr. Patrick E. McGovern explains:

Recent evidence from the fields of archaeology, genetics, ancient literary studies, paleobotany, and linguistics converge and point to the Neolithic period as the time when large-scale winemaking began.

Dr. McGovern further argues that archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the earliest wine was made in the upland, northern parts of the Near East (Armenian Highlands). From there, according to the best substantiated scenario, it gradually spread to adjacent regions such as Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia (ca. 3500–3000 b.c.). Somewhat later (by 2200 b.c.), it was being enjoyed on Crete. Inexorably, the elixir of the ancient world made its way in temporal succession westward to Rome and its colonies and up the major rivers into Europe. From there, the prolific Eurasian grapevine spread to the

New World, where it continues to intertwine itself with emerging economies.

Ancient Armenian silver Goblet (7th-6th century BC)

Vine growing in particular heralded the emergence of new, sophisticated forms of agriculture. People had to learn and understand the cycles of growth of the plant, had to understand how much water was needed, how to prevent fungi from damaging the harvest, and how to deal with flies that live on the grapes.

Among such recent discoveries is the discovery of the worlds oldest wine making facility in the Areni 1 cave in Southern Armenia. Near the village of Areni, in the same cave where the oldest leather shoe was found, archaeologists (in 2011) have also unearthed a 6,100 year old wine production press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds. Indicating that the region was a major wine producing hub as early as 6000 years ago.


A 6000 year old wine press (in front of sign) and fermentation vat (right) discovered during a dig in Armenia.

Wine expert Dr Caroline Gilby MW (Master of Wine) in her article titled: “Wine’s ancient Armenian roots” described the chemical analysis as follows:

Chemical analyses have detected Malvidin, a pigment only found in grapes and pomegranates, (though no traces of this fruit were found), and the morphology of the pips is consistent with Vitis vinifera. Carbon dating of a vine twig from the cave dates the find to around 4,000 years BC, at least 1,000 years older than the next comparable discovery.

Referring to this discovery Dr. McGovern said:

The discovery that wine-making using domesticated grapevines emerged in Armenia corroborates with previous DNA studies of cultivated grape varieties.

Those studies had also pointed to the mountains of Armenia, and some neighboring countries as the birthplace of viticulture. Some discoveries have also been made in today’s Southern Georgia, right on the border with the modern Republic of Armenia. Naturally in the antiquity those areas were part of the same domain. The abundance of neolithic sites discovered in modern Southeastern Turkey, Armenia and Southern Georgia place the Armenian Highlands right at the center of these developments.

For example, a study in 2012 by Vouillamoz et. al. (2012) on the genetic diversity of wild ancestors of Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) reveals that earliest domestication may have started in Southeastern Anatolia (a region in historic Armenia). After collecting hundreds of grape variety samples, Vouillamoz compared minute portions of DNA called microsatellites—repeating sequences that are helpful for comparing genomes. He was able to use them to create DNA profiles of the grape varieties. The densest concentration of similarities between wild and cultivated Vitis vinifera appeared in southeast Anatolia (Western Armenia).

“We propose the hypothesis that it is most likely the first place of grape vine domestication,”

Vouillamoz told reporters about his discovery.


See bellow a 4000 year old silver drinking goblet found in Karashamb Armenia.

Silver goblet from Karashamb (Armenia), dating to the early second millennium BCE. In the main register, hunting and fighting are climaxed by a festive banquet, in which the ruler sits with cup in hand, attended by a cupbearer (in front of the table), servants with fly-whisks, and a harpist (behind him).

Grape stems and seeds. A range of 6,100-year-old desiccated grape stems and dried, pressed grapes was found on and around the wine press in the Armenian cave. The chemical studies were led by UCLA scientists and supported by the National Geographic Society, which also funded the archaeological work.

Agriculture allowed for the support of an increased population, leading to larger societies and eventually the development of cities. It also created the need for greater organization of political power (and the creation of social stratification), as decisions had to be made regarding labor and harvest allocation and access rights to water and land. Agriculture bred immobility, as populations settled down for long periods of time, which led to the accumulation of material goods and creation of a common culture, that was able to spread with advances of technology. One of such famous kingdoms of the Armenian


Highlands was the Kingdom of Van also known as Urartu (which is actually a synonym for Armenia).

Winemaking in the Kingdom of Van

That winemaking was a popular activity during the ancient Armenian kingdom of Van is apparent from many different artifacts unearthed from this period. Winemaking was one of the most important sectors of the Urartian economy and made the kingdom of Van one of the main wine producers in the ancient world. Dr. Patrick E. McGovern describes this period in his book as follows:

Ancient Armenian viniculture was so advanced by the eighth century b.c. that the Ararat Valley was described as the “land of vineyards” in inscriptions of the kings of Urartu, a highland empire extending from the upper Tigris River to Azerbaijan. Deep irrigation channels, still in use today, were dug through volcanic rock along the Razdan River (ancient Araxes) to water the grapevines and other crops. The 35-hectare site of Teishebaini (modern Karmir-Blur), established by Rusa II around 700 b.c. on the left bank of the Razdan, reveals how important wine was to the royal household. A total of about 400 huge jars (Armenian karas) were found half-buried in subterranean storerooms of the palace. When full, the jars would have contained some 35,000 liters of wine. Grape pips found in the jars and from other contexts were clearly of domesticated types, which could be assigned to modern varietals such as white Chachabash and red Chishmish. The nearby royal city of Argishtihinili (modern Davti-Blur and Armavir) had even larger wine “cellars,” which could have held as much as 400,000– 500,000 liters. In the mind’s eye, one can envision the valley carpeted with vineyards during the Urartian period. Other Urartian sites, including Erebuni (Arin-Berd), from which the name Yerevan is derived, dot the length of the large, fertile Ararat Valley. Botanical materials at these sites have been excellently preserved. The masses of grape seeds, malted barley for beer, sesame oil cakes, lentils, peas, and grain from Erebuni are astounding. An excavator of the site, Felix Ter-Martirosov, provided me with hundreds of uncarbonized pips, dating to the late seventh century b.c.,for analysis.

Wine Cellar from Urartu period filled with Karas (large wine vessels) dug halfway into the soil.

As is seen in the above image the Karas vessels were dug halfway into the ground. Underground storage helped to moderate the temperature of a wine that was aged in the jars.


Hellenistic period

Wine has remained a popular beverage throughout pre-Christian Armenia and abundance of archaeological evidence confirms. In Agarak village in Armenia, for example, archaeologists found several large wine presses and karas vessels dating to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE.

Agarak wine press (4th century BCE.)

The large number of rock-cut wine presses and storage vats discovered in Agarak’s excavations shows the predominant role of viticulture and winemaking in the economic life of its inhabitants. As one of the most important points along the trade route leading from Ararat to Shirak and Ani, Agarak developed a flourishing economy and commercial sector, especially in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE and the 2nd-4th centuries.

Evidence of this development is provided by the discovery of painted urban pottery, an Alexander the Great drachma, an Octavian Augustus silver denarius and several signet rings found in sarcophagi burials belonging to the late Hellenistic period. A large cemetery spread around the settlement, with burials dated from the 4th century BCE to the 5th-6th centuries. Pagan and Christian ritual burials were discovered next to each other, suggesting Christianity was widespread and dominated the local community long before it was proclaimed the state religion.

The discovery of modest amounts of glazed and cooking pottery in the soft sediment covering the platform’s Hellenistic strata points to life continuing at Agarak in the Early Middle Ages.


The large quantity of wine presses and wine storage vats discovered in the excavated sectors indicates the predominant role of viticulture and wine-making in the economic life of the ancient inhabitants of Agarak.


Medieval Armenia

Medieval Armenian wine culture was quite extensive. During the middle ages Armenian culture was dominated by Christianity. It suffices to say that within the christian tradition wine is often referred to as “the blood of Christ”. Armenian kings are often depicted in medieval manuscripts drinking wine during elaborate banquets.

Drinking Armenian wine – gospel Akhtamar 1391

One early archaeological example of wine culture in medieval Armenia can be adorned on mosaic floor in Jerusalem. The 6th century mosaic depicts Armenian inscriptions and birds within vine scrolls. It is decorating the funerary chapel of St. Polyeuctos at Musara Quarter, Damascus Gate, Jerusalem. This floor mosaic was discovered in the year 1894 during building activities being carried out in the Musrara district, north of the Damascus Gate. A detailed description of the discovery was made by the Englishman, Bliss (Bliss 1898: 253-259).

6th century Armenian mosaic and inscription at Jerusalem.

During periods of Islamic rule, Armenians were the suppliers of alcoholic beverages, such as wine, to the Muslims, who were not allowed distill alcohol.[3]

In order to limit this already extensive post I will withhold further detailed description of wine culture in medieval Armenia, the extent of which far exceeds this post and would require a separate post of its own in order to do it justice.


Wine culture in modern Armenia

Wine making and drinking has remained a part of Armenian popular culture for thousands of years. It was adopted by the Armenian church for various rituals, retained its popularity during the middle ages even during Islamic domination and the Soviet Union, where Armenia was one of the main wine producers. Today Armenian wine is becoming even more popular and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the iron curtain it became possible for Armenian winemakers to export their products world wide. As such Armenia produced wine has already received numerous prestigious prices and the Armenian wine industry continues to develop.

A popular festival in Armenia is the annual Areni Wine Festival that attracts visitors and wine enthusiasts from across the globe.

It should be clear by now that Wine is an inseparable part of Armenian culture going all the way back to the dawn of civilization, the roots of which are inexplicably tied to the Armenian Highlands. From legends, historic records, religious texts, archaeological finds to botanical and genetic analysis, the available evidence is clearly pointing towards historic Armenia as the cradle of viticulture.


I will leave you now with two beautiful video clips. One showing a beautiful Armenian dance of vintage and another a popular Armenian song titled: “Red Armenian Wine” – Hayastani Garmir Kini. Enjoy, and till the next post!

Sources:

[1] P. E. McGovern (2007), Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2007)

[2] http://www.armenianheritage.org/en/monument/Agarak/241

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_wine

[4] PeopleofAr

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