In honor of the twenty-eighth anniversary of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, I figured we’d take a look at their highly symbolic coat of arms:
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s go bit by bit, in roughly chronological order.
First of all, in the escutcheon, there’s a depiction of Mount Ararat with Noah’s Ark. Though this was possibly a mistranslation, tradition holds that the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, which is also Armenia’s national symbol. In one shape or another, Mount Ararat has featured on Armenian arms and seals consistently since 1918. Even the Soviets kept the iconography, which ought to say something about its deep national importance.
We venture from myth into (distant) history with the Artaxiad dynasty, symbolized by the dexter base quarter. The Artaxids ruled from 189 BCE through 20 BCE, when Armenia became a Roman protectorate. The last Artaxid client king was overthrown in 12 CE. The two eagles and the eight-pointed star is a fairly well-established emblem of this dynasty – somewhat surprisingly, given its antiquity. From the examples here, it’s pretty clearly a star; I’m not sure how it ended up as an octofoil on the arms, which is typically a more floral shape. (I will say that the artists who designed the arms seem to have played around with the tinctures of the fields; the author in the linked article makes a pretty good argument that the ground for the Artaxiads should have been gules instead of azure, and a prior version of the arms had the same charges, but with the opposite tincture for the field.)
Moving on to the sinister chief quarter, we see the very common symbol of the double-headed eagle. This is apparently intended to represent the Arsacid dynasty, who ruled from 52 to 428 CE, and included the first Christian ruler of Armenia. I’m a little skeptical of the attribution of the double-headed eagle to the Arsacids for a couple of reasons: first, proof of what kind of symbols they used (if any) is thin on the ground, and second, the double-headed eagle is so, so commonly affiliated with the Roman (and later Byzantine) Empire that it’s hard for me to believe that association didn’t have any influence on this choice of charge. I am willing to believe that the Arsacids got it from the Romans, and passed it on here, but they were originally Parthian, so I’m not sure how well that holds up.
The dexter chief quarter, the lion and cross, was the symbol of the Bagratuni dynasty. They came to power in 861, when Ashot I was recognized as Prince of Princes by the Baghdad caliphate, and hung on until 1045, when the Byzantine Empire seized control of Armenia. The Bagratid princes evidently used the same device, though it was (possibly) argent on gules. Presumably, the tincture of the charge was sensibly updated to match the other three charges.
Lastly, the sinister base quarter holds the crowned lion and cross-tipped staff of the Rubenid dynasty, who did not actually rule Armenia. Instead, they established an Armenian state in Cilicia (called the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia), which they ruled from 1080 to 1375, when the Mamluks conquered the state. The Rubenid arms were or a lion rampant gules armed, langued, and crowned argent; if I had to speculate, the staff may have come from the kingdom’s allyship with the other Crusader states. The Rubenids also claimed descent from the Bagratunis, though this would be very difficult to prove.
I know this is long, but I can’t not talk, albeit briefly, about the elements surrounding the shield. The supporters, the eagle of the Artaxiads and the lion of the Bagratunis, mirror the charges on the shield. The elements of the compartment were all chosen for specific symbolic reasons, which I think are worth going through. The sword in pale is for power and strength; the broken chain, the struggle for national freedom; the wheat, hard work and industry; the feather, culture and intellectual heritage; and the ribbon, the Armenian flag, whose colors are represented in the arms. (Hence, I suspect, the unusual use of orange in the arms.)