Gyumri: Historical Overview

Gyumri: Historical Overview

All you have to know about Armenia’s second largest city’s history — from the first settlements founded 2800 years ago to the disastrous earthquake of 1988.

Text: Tigran Zakaryan  /  Photos: Armenpress

Throughout centuries of its history the city has at times changed its name, however the name Gyumri (alternatively: Kumayri) are believed to be the oldest and that name is still preserved.
The first settlements in the territory of the present-day Gyumri were founded under the kingdom of Urartu, in 8th century BC. Kumayri was also mentioned in medieval chronicles. Ghevond (Leontius) the Historian mentions the town as a centre of Armenian rebellion led by Artavazd Mamikonian against the Arab Caliphate, between 733 and 755 AD.
In the beginning of the 19th century Gyumri was the centre of the tiny Shoragyal Sultanate. The Russian troops took control over the town in 1804 and by the 1813 Gulistan Peace Treaty Iran officially renounced the city.
The town’s life was revived after 1829 when following the Russo-Turkish War, around 3,000 families from territories in the Ottoman Empire, in particular from the towns of Kars, Erzurum and Bayazet settled in and around Gyumri. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin visited Gyumri during his journey to Erzurum in 1829.
The city changed its name into Alexandrapol in 1837 when Russian Tsar Nicholas I visited Armenia. The name was chosen in honor of Tsar Nicholas I’s wife, Alexandra Fyodorovna.
A major Russian fortress was built on the site in 1837. Alexandrapol was finally formed as a town in 1840 to become the centre of the newly established Alexandropol Uyezd (district) to be soon incorporated into the Erevan Governorate, experiencing rapid growth during its first decade.

After the establishment of the railway station in 1899 Alexandrapol became the largest city in Eastern Armenia. The town had railway connections with Erevan, Tiflis and Kars. In 1902, the first bank in the city was opened. Until the sovietization of Armenia in 1920, Alexandrapol had 31 manufacturing centres including beer, soap, textile, etc.
After the October Revolution of 1917 and the Russian withdrawal from the South Caucasus, the Ottoman forces launched a new offensive capturing the city of Alexandrapol on 11 May 1918, during the Caucasus Campaign in World War I. However, the Ottomans withdrew from the city on 24 December 1918, as a result of the Armistice of Mudros. On 10 May 1920, the local Bolshevik Armenians aided by the Muslim population, attempted a coup d’état in Alexandrapol against the government of Armenia. The uprising was suppressed by the Armenian government on May 14 and its leaders were executed. However, during the Turkish-Armenian War, Turkey attacked Alexandropol and occupied the city on 7 November 1920.
Armenia was forced to sign the Treaty of Alexandrapol to stop the Turkish advance towards Yerevan, to put an end to the Turkish-Armenian War. However, the Turkish forces withdrew from Alexandrapol after the Treaty of Kars in October 1921.
Being under the Soviet rule, the name of the city was changed in 1924 to Leninakan after the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. The city suffered an earthquake in 1926, when many of its significant buildings were destroyed including the Greek church of Saint George. Leninakan became a major industrial centre in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and its second-largest city, after the capital Yerevan. The city suffered major damage during the 1988 Spitak earthquake, which devastated many parts of the country causing thousands of victims and disabled.
At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the city was renamed Kumayri between 1990 and 1992, when it was finally given the name Gyumri. The Russian 102nd Military Base is located in the city.

Historical center

The current square was once a large market area (“shuka”), as shown in the 19th century photograph. The old market was made of stone and served as both a market and central meeting point. Giumretsis would gather to shop, meet friends and neighbors and exchange the latest news and gossip, while farmers and craftsmen would display their wares in the covered stalls.
The market’s place as a meeting point also served public gatherings, and it was demolished to create a square commemorating the so-called May uprising of 1920, which Soviet histories wrote, began the Sovietization of Armenia. It was renamed Freedom Square in the 1990s.
From the old area the only 19th century buildings surviving are Yot Verk Cathedral and Amenaprkich (All Savior) Cathedral opposite. Others include the 1926 Hoktember Cinema, the “Black Box” and the 21st century Mayoralty.
Surb Mair Astvatsatsin Yot Verk (7 wounds) Church, 19th century, the city’s place of worship. Yot Verk is the unofficial name of the church used by the citizens parishioners named for the seven wounds of Christ. Note the two tower domes outside the building. These fell during the 1988 earthquake, and far from being examples of the destruction wreaked on Gyumri during the earthquake, they actually performed as they should have. In addition to the ringing of bells, the towers also served a specific purpose in the event of earthquakes, absorbing some of the shock. They also served as a counter-balance to the shaking in the church. The domes were meant to literally “pop off” their base, taking the shock waves with them, preventing severe damage.
Yot Verk was saved. Opposite the square, Amenaprkich Cathedral shows a different story: in the 1960s the drum was reinforced from inside and rather than performing their intended job to cushion the earth shocks, they added to the shockwaves, collapsing the building.
Opposite on square there is Sb. Amenaprkich Cathedral. Constructed between 1850-1870, the cathedral is based on the 10th century cathedral of Ani authored by Trdat Architect, which was destroyed in the Middle Ages. Gyumri has always compared itself to Ani, and Surb Amenaprkich cathedral is an example.
During the Soviet period the cathedral was converted into a concert hall. Most of the building was destroyed during the 1988 earthquake. Reconstruction is ongoing, carefully rebuilding the building to its former glory.