Though much of Yerevan was constructed throughout the 20th century, the city is much, much older. In fact, Armenia’s capital just recently celebrated its 2801st birthday! That makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, visitors to the city can go and see the place where it all began: Erebuni Fortress.
Founded in 782 BC by a king named Argishti, Erebuni Fortress served as an important outpost for the kingdom of Urartu. In addition to the ruins of the fortress itself, visitors can also check out a comprehensive archaeological museum.
It’s a great way to learn more about Erebuni in addition to the little-known kingdom of Urartu – what many consider to be the precursor to modern-day Armenia.
The Erebuni Fortress Archaeological Museum
The first excavation of Erebuni Fortress took place in the late 19th century, when a cuneiform inscription was found commemorating the construction of an ancient granary. A more intense phase of excavation began in 1950, soon after which the city’s founding cuneiform inscription was discovered. And in 1968, an archaeological museum opened up at the base of the fortress.
Few foreign visitors are likely to have heard of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. The museum, then, serves as a great primer on the kingdom and its culture. Furthermore, you can see artifacts found at the fortress above along with elsewhere in Yerevan.
Urartu, which formed in the 9th century BC, is considered to be the first unified kingdom formed in historical Armenia. Erebuni, however, was just a distant outpost.
The kingdom’s capital was at Van, a city situated next to Lake Van in modern-day Turkey. That’s why Urartu is also commonly referred to as the Kingdom of Van (Update: I’ve since visited Van – stay tuned for the article).
In 782 BC, the Urartian king Argishti I headed northeast to conquer the land in the Ararat Valley. He took prisoners from the towns around the valley, forcing them to build the new city of Erebuni. And they also built a fortress atop a hill which would come in handy for protecting Argishti’s recent acquisitions.
One of the first things visitors encounter upon entry to the museum are two huge steles adorned with high relief carvings. While the pieces are clearly modern recreations, the gods depicted in them are anything but.
The Urartian pantheon consisted of dozens of different deities. In total, the names of 79 different gods have been found inscribed among the ancient ruins of Van.
Among the most important ones were Taisheba, the god of war and thunder and Shivini, the sun god. But none so important as Khaldi, the sky god, who was worshipped as the supreme deity of Urartu.
Over to the side, visitors can find original cuneiform inscriptions that were found at Erebuni Fortress. They typically praise Khaldi in addition to King Argishti. Judging by the English translations provided on the plaques below, many of them more or less repeat the same message.
Amazingly, Erebuni Fortress’s founders created an underground piping system to feed water to the citadel. The pipes were made of stone parts, each about 1 meter long, which were carved to lock together. And the water was likely sourced all the way from the Garni area.
It’s remarkable what an advanced piping system this little-known kingdom was able to create so long ago. In fact, it would set to standard for successive kingdoms who controlled the area for centuries to come.
Urartians cultivated things like millet, wheat, hemp, sesame and various lentils. Grains were ground up and stored in large stone granaries. And the Urartians raised large numbers of cattle, horses, sheep and goats.
The Ararat Valley (modern-day Armenia) contained fertile land that was especially important for feeding the rest of Urartu. The region was also home to many vineyards, and Urartu had a well-developed winemaking culture.
The Urartians largely worked with iron, but they also used metals like bronze, copper and gold. And they often casted large statues of their kings and gods in bronze, though none of them seem to have survived.
Also on display you’ll find various weapons, earthenware pottery, small figurines of gods, fragments of murals found at the palace above, and an old helmet once worn by Argishti. But my personal favorite piece was an intricately designed drinking horn featuring an Urartian god smiling serenely atop a horse.
A separate open-air room of the museum contains even more relics, such as more cuneiform inscriptions (praising Khaldi and the king) and large vessels.
There’s also a beautiful recreation of traditional Urartian art that was painted in the late 1960s. But without seeing the signature at the bottom, one would think it was uncovered straight from the ruins!
Interestingly, one of the stone slabs was used at a monastery called Tanahat. The other side was carved with a cross, though the inscription on the back remains well preserved. It’s highly unlikely that the builders of the church would’ve had any idea what the inscription said.
But what would become of the ancient kingdom of Urartu? Supposedly, Urartu’s prominence would fade following an invasion by the Assyrian King Sargon II in 714. A later Urartian king named Rusa II (684-645) tried to revive the kingdom, reconstructing many of its fortresses and towns. Nevertheless, Urartu’s power continued to decline.
The kingdom was repeatedly attacked by nomadic tribes such as the Scythians, and it eventually collapsed sometime in the 6th century BC. Eventually, the land around Erebuni Fortress was taken over by the Persian Achaemenid Empire (famous for historical kings like Cyrus the Great and Darius). The Persians maintained Erebuni Fortress and it remained an important administrative center for the region.
Exploring the Fortress
Exiting the museum, visitors are led to a pathway that takes them up the ancient fortress ruins. It’s a fairly steep climb, but at 65 m above the city, you’ll get some nice views of Yerevan down below. And in ancient times, the Urartian city of Karmir Blur would’ve been clearly visible from atop the fortress.
Before long, the old stones of the fortress’s outer walls will start to come into view.
The foundations of Erebuni Fortress were constructed with stones like basalt and tufa. The walls, in contrast, were constructed with mudbrick. They were then plastered with clay, while roofs and support beams were constructed with wood. The ancient architecture of Urartu would later go on to influence the architecture of medieval Armenia.
Some lower portions of the defensive walls have remained intact, with the upper portions having been reconstructed following the excavations. There would’ve been watchtowers around the fortress as well, allowing for bonfire communication with other distant fortresses.
Walking around to the main entrance, the first interesting structure visitors encounter is the Outer Portico Post, facing outward. Held up by several wooden columns, the hall served as a reception area for high-ranking officials.
Amazingly, many of its colorful murals have survived intact, making this one of the most interesting parts of the fortress for modern visitors. The artists used a vibrant blue and yellow combination which you can see repeated elsewhere within the fortress, such as the Khaldi Temple.
Next, I walked up the ancient staircase which once constituted the fortress’s main entrance. Originally, Erebuni Fortress was divided into three main precincts: religious, royal residences and servants’ residences. In total, over 100 rooms were discovered here.
But walking around today, with nothing but the foundations remaining in most cases, it’s not so easy to tell things apart. Erebuni Fortress is the type of archaeological site that requires a bit of imagination to fully appreciate. That’s not to say that there aren’t any visual highlights, however.
While, as mentioned above, there are original inscriptions on display at the museum, some of them still exist at their original location on site!
Supposedly, the texts are rather mundane, describing the various types of grains or goods held within a particular room. Nevertheless, it’s pretty neat to see such an ancient language on display, just as people would’ve seen it thousands of years ago.
The main structure in the center of the religious precinct is the Khaldi Temple. It originally consisted of both a tower structure and a column hall, though only the latter survives. As it appears today, the structure looks like a larger version of the Outer Portico Post. Like that room, the walls were entirely painted in blue and yellow.
When the Achaemenid Empire took over the site around the 6th century BC, they expanded the temple while also rearranging it in tune with the typical Persian style.
Infuriatingly, much of the wall has been vandalized over the years. This is very disappointing to see, though it’s unclear who did it or when. Of all the places in Yerevan one could scribble their name, why here?
Looking past the graffiti, though, there are a few interesting symbols one can spot in the faded paint. Some red images of a divine being riding a lion possibly depict the supreme god Khaldi. Notably, the art style resembles those of nearby kingdoms of Mesopotamia.
Supposedly, the temple contained an altar for sacrifices, and there also would’ve been a large statue of Khaldi standing at its center.
After stepping out back for a bit, I returned inside to explore the other precincts of the fortress. I encountered a few more cuneiform inscriptions, and even another room covered in blue paint.
Some of the rooms with surprisingly intact walls are said to have been part of the royal palace. Though far away from the capital in Van, it’s likely that Urartian kings would occasionally reside here when embarking on new military campaigns further north.
As one of the only visitors at the time, I took my time to walk around, exploring every room that I could. I came across old walls plastered with clay in addition to bases of old stone columns. Clearly, this would’ve been a thriving city within a city back in its day.
Having seen it all, I walked back around the outer rim and looked out over the modern suburbs of Yerevan. The view mostly consisted of concrete, Soviet-era apartment complexes. But in a land so ancient, I can only imagine there are many more archaeological secrets waiting to be uncovered.
The most straightforward way to get to Erebuni Fortress from central Yerevan is by taking a taxi or ridesharing app like Yandex of GG Taxi. The drive should take around 15-20 minutes.
I tried getting there a different way, however. Looking at the map of the city, I saw that the fortress would be about a 50-minute walk from the Yerevan Railway Station/Sasuntsi David Metro. As the weather was nice and I like exploring new parts of a city on foot, I decided to walk from the metro station.
Having done it, I can’t say that the walk was particularly interesting. It did, at least, give me a better idea of what Yerevan is like away from the central circle.
Supposedly, you can also take marshrutka #11 from Republic Square.
As Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, most visitors enter the country overland from Georgia. And from Tbilisi you have a couple of options.
You can take a minubus from Ortachala Station or from outside Avlabari Station. Additionally, shared taxis depart from outside the central railway station. Prices will vary depending on the transportation method, but expect to pay around 20 GEL for the minibus and up to 50 GEL for a shared taxi.
The ride typically lasts 5-6 hours. There will usually be at least one vehicle departing per hour. But rather than a set schedule, most drivers will wait until the vehicle fills up. Typically, you’ll be dropped off at Yerevan central bus station Kilikia, from where you’ll need to take another bus or a taxi to get to the city center.
Not being a fan of long minibus rides, I opted for the train instead.
The only train option is a night train (train 371) which departs at 20:20 at arrived at 6:55. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to buy tickets online, as you’ll need to navigate through a web site that’s only in Russian. To make matters worse, the site is unsecured. It’s best to buy tickets in person at least a few days in advance at Tbilisi Central Station. Be sure to bring your passport.
I got a second-class ticket for around 90 GEL – considerably more expensive than the prices I’d read about online. I was in a cabin with three other travelers but we had enough space and it was fun chatting and sharing snacks up until it was time to go to bed. Unlike my prior night train experience to Zugdidi, this time we got sheets. Be sure to bring earplugs in case someone’s traveling with an infant!
Supposedly, during non-peak months (late September – mid-June), the train only leaves every other day. While I’d read that it only departs on even-numbered days, I asked if they had a ticket for the 17th, and they said yes. I didn’t inquire further, and am not completely sure how the system currently works.
The train is both slower and more expensive than the other options. However, it’s the easiest and most straightforward when it comes to passing through immigration. Normally, immigration officers at both sides of the border will come on the train to check your passport. No need to wait in line with all your luggage. While I did have to get off the train and line up at a booth while leaving Georgia, it only lasted a couple of minutes.
Upon arrival in Yerevan, you’ll encounter an ATM, and the central railway station is connected to the metro. There aren’t any SIM card vendors in the station so be sure to print out or pre-load your accommodation info on your phone. I later got a SIM card at the Beeline shop on Northern Avenue.
For whatever reason, accommodation prices in Yerevan are considerably higher than those of nearby Tbilisi. This is in spite of most other things, like food and transport, costing the same amount. If budget isn’t an issue for you, then you should base yourself in the city center (within the circle or just outside of it).
Yerevan makes a great base from which to explore many other parts of Armenia. If you’re doing an extended stay in the city and want to save some money, staying outside the center will be fine. Just make sure that you’re within close distance of a metro station.
I stayed at Glide Hostel which I’d highly recommend for budget travelers. I opted for the private room with a private bathroom, but they also have some shared bathroom and dorm options available.
The guesthouse is located about 5 minutes on foot from Baregamutyun Station, the northernmost metro station. But you can still walk to the city center in about 30 minutes if the weather is nice. The staff were friendly and helpful, and a tasty breakfast was provided each morning.
When getting to places within and around the central circle, Yerevan is largely walkable.
The city has one simple metro line. While it’s certainly better than nothing, there are numerous sites around the city that can’t be accessed by train.
Luckily, there are a number of ridesharing apps you can use to get around, such as Yandex Taxi or GG Taxi. (Without a local credit card, you’ll most likely only be able to pay in cash.) While the drivers usually don’t speak any English, I had no problems using these apps or with any of the drivers.
To get out of town, you’ll often need to use a ridesharing service just to get to one of the city’s multiple bus stations, as they’re nowhere near a metro. The ride to the bus will typically cost more than the bus itself. The main railway station, on the other hand, does have a metro station attached to it, but most places around Armenia can only be reached by vehicle.
Additionally, Yerevan has marshrutka (public minibus) system but I never tried taking it. While the cheapest option for getting around, marshrutkas have no English signage and are terribly cramped. If you want to give it a shot, be sure to ask for advice at your hotel regarding which number bus to take.