Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia and the capital of the Shirak Province in the northwestern part of the country. Being one of the most ancient settlements in Armenia with the history of 3000 years, Gyumri is a significant location to visit and admire. Its name has been changed several times.
It was originally founded as Kumayri, later re-founded as Alexandrapol between 1837 and 1924 during the Russian rule, then Leninakan between 1924 and 1990, and finally became known as Gyumri. Each name brought a new era of history to this region, a new civilization and new people to the town.
Kumayri : An old settlement on Xenophon’s way
The region of Gyumri is mentioned as Kumayri in the historic Urartian inscriptions dating back to the 8th century BC. The first settlement at the location of modern-day Gyumri is believed to have been founded during the 5th century BC, ca. 401 BC, by Greek colonists. An alternate theory suggests that the city was founded by the Cimmerians. This is based on the fact that Cimmerians conquered the region in 720 BC and that the original name of the city was Kumayri. This bears the phonetic resemblance to the word used by ancient Armenians in reference to Cimmerians. Historians believe that Xenophon passed through Gyumri during his return to the Black Sea, a journey that became immortalized in his Anabasis. During the Middle Ages, Kumayri was known as a large and important settlement. The town, at the center of the Armenian rebellion, was led by Artavazd Mamikonian against the Islanic Arab Caliphate, between 733 and 755. Being controlled by several Turkic tribes and Persian dynasties, the town had lost its significance during the following centuries until the beginning of the 19th century.
Alexandrapol: The first steps of the Russians to Eastern Armenia
Gyumri and the surrounding regions became part of the Russian Empire after the Russo-Persian War (1804-1913). The Russians gained control over the town on June 12th of 1804, around 25 years earlier than the rest of Eastern Armenia. During the period of the Russian rule, Gyumri became one of the developing cities in the Transcaucasia. During the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War in 1829, there was a significant influx within the Armenian population. Around 3,000 families who had migrated from territories in the Ottoman Empire – in particular from the towns of Kars, Erzurum, and Dogubeyzit – settled in and around Gyumri. During this time Russian poet Alexander Pushkin visited Gyumri during his journey to Erzurum.
Alexandrapol: Belle Epoque
In 1837, Russian Tsar Nicholas I arrived in Gyumri and declared it Alexandrapol, in honor of Tsar Nicholas I’s wife, Alexandra Fyodorovna. In lieu of this, a major Russian fortress was built on the site in 1837. Alexandrapol was finally formed as a town in 1840 and would become the center of the newly established Alexandrapol Uyezd. Later, it was known as one of the major centers of the Russian troops during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. After the establishment of the railway station in 1899, the town witnessed a historic progression, becoming the largest city in Eastern Armenia.
By the end of the 19th century, Alexandrapol was home to 430 shopping stores as well as several workshops and cultural institutions. The city had become famous for its churches and gusans, folk musicians and composers. Alexandrapol was divided into several regions, or “Mailahs”, among them Geghtsonts or Peasants; Slabodka; Greek or Urumneri; Katolikneri, or Frank; Boshi or Traders and Turki Mailah. The rich and poor lived side by side, each building new grounds substantial and elegant as funds allowed.
Alexandrapol: Making the “Orphan city”
On April 24th of 1915, the Armenian Genocide sent thousands of refugees of Armenian descent, especially the elderly, women and children, to the eastern regions of the country. The closest town to the Turkish border was Alexandrapol, and proved to be a sustainable development center with a key military location protected by the Russian army. Despite the Russian protection, the town was a railroad hub, which made goods and product transfer efficiently. Accepting and hosting thousands of fugitives from Western Armenia, Alexandrapol became a complex of three orphanages housing over 22,000 children.
Reports made by international workers from Europe and the U.S. were sent back to their countries to spread awareness. These people decided to use the inactive Kazachi, Seversky and Polygon military posts to house and provide care for the refugees. Ultimately, nearly 170 buildings were turned into orphanage dormitories. Each one held somewhere between 250 and 1,000 children. The remaining buildings were transformed into bathhouses, bakeries, garages, hospitals, laundries, and schoolrooms. The Russian church at Kazachi Post was used for Armenian Apostolic services.
Leninakan: The Engineering Brain and Industrial Center of the Soviet Country
In the late 1920s, Armenia ultimately accepted Soviet rule in exchange for protection against Turkey. At this time, the city underwent another change; it became known as Leninakan, after the deceased Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. The earthquake of 1926 caused much damage to many of the cities significant buildings including the Greek church of Saint George. Leninakan remained faithful to the traditions of Alexandrapol, where in 1902 the first bank in the city was opened, and there were 31 manufacturing centers including beer, soap and textiles. Later it became a major industrial center in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and the second largest city after the capital, Yerevan. The first steps in improving the city’s economy were taken from 1920-1930. In a city with an efficient railway system, electrical trains were introduced in 1953, which led to a locomotive station built in 1965. Within a short period of time, Leninakan turned into a center for the light industry with a textile factory founded in 1924, and a paint factory in 1942. In 1975 the cotton fabric production union called, “The May Rebellion” was founded along-side the “Lenkosh” union.
With the emergence of politics in Leninakan, the machinery industry began to develop in the city. The “Strommash”, Milling, Electrical machinery, “Armelectriccondenser”, Bicycle, “Armelectricaplaciance”, “Galvanometr”, Analytic devices and Refrigerator compressor factories were founded from 1950-1960. With an airport built in 1931 and trolley busses in 1960, the city became more accessible other regions, which opened up a wider scope of potential. As a result of this development, a sufficient amount of job opportunity was created in the sphere of transportation and communication. According to records dated on January 1, 1988, the number of city industrial establishments reached 54, employing 48,000 workers.
Leninakan: December 1988: Devastated and Half Dead
It was “only” a magnitude 6.8 quake, but the damage was shocking. The once prosperous city of Leninakan fell within twenty seconds. 17,000 victims, and thousands injured, hospitalized, and were left without homes. Within a matter of seconds, the natural disaster took with it dozens of factories, hundreds of architectural, cultural and historical monuments, public buildings and industrial complexes. The estimated recovery would cost more than the cleanup after Chernobyl.
This would prove to be the most tumultuous period for the Armenian nation as it suffered through the aftermath of the earthquake, the damages of the unsustainable and potentially explosive political times, and struggled through relations with the Soviet Union’s dangerous situation over Nagorno Karabakh. This outbreak of poverty, economic turmoil, and war turned life upside down for the population. Moving forward, it was understood that the only way to survive was to build a new, independent Armenian Republic.
Gyumri: From Disaster to Recovery Zone
Once more, the city was renamed. It transitioned from Leninakan to Gyumri, and this time its name was connected with independence. The city was experiencing its pinnacle of complex conditions, carrying the hardships of the 1988 earthquake and Artsakh freedom flights. From December 1992, the city lived through extremely difficult conditions, losing over sixty percent of its housing. Due to the lack of fuel, the operation of public transportation reached a standstill. The years of 1999-2002 began to shift the city toward positive change when the government adopted the “Disaster Zone Reconstruction and Development Concept,” which was followed by the “Disaster Zone Complex Project”.
During that period, Lincy and Huntsman and The Red Cross began groundbreaking projects. With John Huntsman’s initiation, a micro district was formed on G. Nzhdeh street. With funding from Lincy and The Red Cross, over two dozen apartment buildings were rebuilt, and main roads were paved. They took action to completely renovate the V. Achemyan theater, the Aslamazyan sisters’ house museum, and other public centers. During this period, foundational work was done regarding the construction of schools, health centers, and sports buildings.
Due to the efforts of president S. Sargsyan in 2008, a vitally important project, “Disaster Zone Housing” began. As a result, over 3,000 families were provided with shelter. Today, Gyumri has become a city with industrial and banking potential hosting twelve branches, more than twenty thriving companies, and over 500 business franchises.
Gyumri: Reborning Center of Culture, Innovation and Technology
Gyumri has always been labeled as a city of cultural innovation. The town was known as a center of arts and crafts, boasting hundreds of talented artists, poets and craftsmen that were born and raised here. Indeed, it was home to the first Armenian Opera performance: Anoush by Armen Tigranyan. This was premiered in Alexandrapol in 1912.
In the aftermath of the earthquake of 1988, which devastated hundreds of art schools and cultural centers in Leninakan, Gyumretsis struggled to restore its culture and innovative traditions. This was known as the “post disaster recovery” period as the town fought to gain strength. Eventually in 2013, Gyumri regained its title of the cultural hub, and has been recognized as CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Cultural Capital.
Beside the art industry, the technology sector has also become an integral aspect. While being part of the Soviet Union, mechanical engineering within the city was a central provider with high qualified specialists. The Armenian government along with the Enterprise Incubator Foundation (EIF) and the World Bank kickstarted the redevelopment of the city. Together in 2014, they built a technological center. The main goal of this project is to develop the tech industry, and provide the necessary support for Gyumri technological startups to grow and succeed.