Innovation in the Caucasus – Part I – Armenia
This is the first article in a three-part series that focuses on innovation in the three countries of the Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This article presents an introduction to the region and then continues with an examination of innovation in Armenia.
Although several geographic regions claim to be the “crossroads of civilization,” the three countries of the Caucasus region: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, have a strong claim to that title. When one thinks of the Caucasus the first thing that comes to mind are the Caucasus mountain range. Formed 25 million years from tectonic forces when two great plates collided at the point we know now as the intersection of Europe and Asia, the rugged and dense Caucasus mountains run for nearly 700 miles from east to west from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. While the Caucasus are not as tall as the Himalayas or Andes, they are nonetheless quite impressive. Coming from the inter-mountain western state of Utah, I was not expecting to be overwhelmed by the Caucasus range but I found myself surprised by the abruptness of these mountains in the sense that they appear quickly as one approaches and, although they lack the sheer rocky precipices of the Andes, they appear to be quite formidable and go on for miles and miles with no respite for a weary traveler.
The history of this region is replete with repeated incursions from empires from all directions, but visiting the Caucasus in person surprised me because the mountains seemed quite impenetrable. Invading armies from any direction could operate for limited periods in valleys or plains between mountain ranges, but eventually they would have to pass over huge obstacles and expose themselves to attacks from defenders in the region, as many invading armies learned over the centuries. On the northern border of the Caucasus sits Russia, whose empire has included these countries on several occasions, most recently when these three countries were unwilling Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. To the southwest lies Turkey, which has exerted influence over this region through the centuries as the Ottoman Empire, and its influence is felt in the region today in the architecture, cuisine, and culture in parts of the region. To the southeast sits Iran, which in the past also invaded this area to incorporate it into the Persian Empire.
Another intriguing element of the Caucasus was the uniqueness of these three countries. Each country has its own alphabet and language. The Armenian alphabet, with 38 letters, looks nothing like any other language on the planet. The Georgian alphabet has a slight resemblance to Greek, but is practicably indecipherable for an outsider. The Georgian language, in fact, is considered one of the four most difficult languages on the planet to learn (along with Finnish, Turkish, and Farsi) because of its illogical and complex grammar. The Azerbaijani alphabet is different from the other two and more amenable to understanding by English speakers because it is based on the Latin alphabet, but still is quite unique.
One would assume that the similar geography of the area and the external threats would form some sort of bond among the inhabitants of this area, yet these three countries all have quite different languages, alphabets, culture, and religion, despite their shared experiences of fending off various invaders. To this day, Armenia and Azerbaijan have very poor relations, having fought a war recently over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In fact, one cannot pass directly from Armenia to Azerbaijan, so any trip to all three countries of the Caucasus requires a trip through the intermediary of Georgia, which gets along with both countries but is recovering from a recent war with Russia over the Georgian region of South Ossetia, which Russia currently occupies. The recommended path for travelers who want to visit all three countries is to start in Azerbaijan, then proceed to Georgia then Armenia. Conversely, if one starts in Armenia then travels to Georgia then Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani customs officer will see the Armenia stamp in one’s passport and seize any goods purchased in Armenia.
As one might imagine, the experience of these three small, individual countries trying to survive over the centuries with powerful empires on all sides is replete with tragedy, as wars, invasions, genocide, internal strife, and occupation appear in the historical records of these countries much more frequently than independence. All three countries briefly gained their independence after World War I, but were soon unwillingly swept up into the Soviet Union where they had to survive under the iron fist of Stalin (who was born in Gori, Georgia) and his successors. All three gained their current independent status in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union and maintain a toehold on that status despite wars with neighbors in the 1990s and 2000s. I traveled to the Caucasus to gain a better understanding of these newly independent countries and their current status as free entities trying to survive in a dangerous neighborhood. None of these countries are economic powerhouses, although Azerbaijan could claim the title of the wealthiest Caucasus state due to its oil and gas industry. Yet I did find a resilience that I have not seen elsewhere in the world and, not surprisingly, I found many cases where the history and experiences of these countries can provide interesting lessons for the modern innovator.
Even though it is the smallest in size of the three countries of the Caucasus, most people have heard of the country of Armenia, probably due to the enormous Armenian diaspora scattered throughout the world. Armenia has a proud history and was the first country to recognize Christianity as its official religion in 301 A.D. Today Armenia’s population is about 3 million people (95% of whom are Christians), with most living in a broad, fertile valley between mountain ranges known as the Ararat plain. Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, is situated in this valley and from nearly all vantage points in the city one can see the snow-covered, 16,804-foot-tall Mount Ararat in the distance, though the mountain itself is in eastern Turkey. According to legend, Mt. Ararat is the place where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Biblical flood, so this land has particular significance to Christians.
The Yerevan City Plan
Yerevan, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world (its founding dates to 30 years before the founding of Rome), is the capital city of Armenia and contains an interesting mix of building styles, ranging from neo-classical Roman buildings with columns to English-style buildings and hulking Soviet-era monoliths. One unique element of the city’s buildings is the use of the local volcanic stone known as tuff rock. Tuff is formed when a volcano ejects magma, rock, ash, and other materials. These components eventually fall to the ground and are compacted over time into a solid, rock-like structure. This material can be used in construction and is easy to cut and carve but not very strong, so it is typically used for upper floors. The tuff stone found around Yerevan has a pinkish hue due to how it was formed after the volcanic explosion, so Yerevan is known as the “pink city” due to the frequent use of this material by architects in the area.
The architect who had the greatest influence on the layout of Yerevan is Alexander Tamanian, a Russian-born Armenian who transformed the city in the 1920s by razing many older buildings and laying out the new city in a circular design with functional zones, building new edifices made predominantly from the famous pink tuff. Tamanian designed an overall city layout that was circular with distinct zones for various functions, including government, industrial, commercial, cultural (arts, museums, opera), universities, and other groupings. While this was mostly a function of Soviet-style top-down economic planning, it created a sense of order in the city that persists today, as one sees similar buildings grouped together in various parts of the city, followed by an abrupt transition to a new set of buildings as one moves from one zone to the next.
Innovation Perspective – From a modern innovation standpoint, it is possible to criticize the Tamanian city model because it reduces the likelihood or cross-pollination of ideas across different domains. By concentrating the industrial entities in a single area, there is less chance that a person working in that area would have the chance to interact with someone in the cultural area, or the university area. While we do not necessarily want chaos in terms of city structure, it is generally understood that diversity of thought can help develop new thinking. As such, an innovator working in a large enterprise should be cognizant of the structure within which one is operating as one seeks to develop new thinking to solve problems. If an innovator is constantly surrounded by people in the same organization or on the same team and one does not have the opportunity to interact with colleagues from other parts of the company, or even from other companies altogether, then one may have a propensity to a groupthink-like approach in which one encounters fewer and fewer new ideas. Serendipitous collisions of ideas are quite popular in innovation today as a way to spur creativity, and the Tamanian model provides a reminder of the disadvantages of putting too many similar functions in the same place.
Soviet-Era Armenian Economics
Although the Soviet Union consisted of 15 separate Republics, the command and control of the economy emanated from Moscow and was managed in a way that made it difficult for any of the Republics to operate independently. In the case of manufacturing, individual Republics would build components of a manufactured good but would not produce it end-to-end. For example, a tractor would consist of machine parts, tires, plows, and engines built in several different Republics with final assembly in yet another Republic. When Armenia gained its independence in 1991, this system of massively-distributed manufacturing proved to be a problem because Armenia alone did not have the ability to completely build any complex manufactured goods. As such, Armenia focused in the first few years after independence on agriculture, which was something that it could manage on its own. Its other more complex manufacturing, such as electronics, required more time to develop, even though it possessed some of the best-educated scientists in the Soviet Union and was involved in manufacturing components of Soviet-era computers at the time (though not complete assemblies). Today, Armenia has capitalized on its technical expertise and has produced its own smartphone, known as the Armphone, as well as a tablet, known as the ArmTab.
Innovation Perspective – Dividing up production for reasons of political control made sense from the perspective of the Politburo in terms of making it more difficult for individual Republics to survive on their own. Yet the impact on innovation was almost certainly quite severe, as many innovation practitioners would argue that workers who do not possess a complete understanding of the entirety of the value chain in which they are participating have little incentive or ability to make it better. The isolated workers can only focus on their singular contribution to the product development chain and maximize the productivity aspects of that portion of the process, though they have no ability to make any drastic changes that would require coordination with downstream or upstream component makers, particularly those occurring in a completely different location. For the modern innovator, this serves as a reminder of the importance of making sure all team members understand the entire problem that needs to be solved rather than simply focusing on a single aspect of it.
I previously wrote about this concept in terms of how the physicist Robert Oppenheimer faced a similar issue on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. The U.S. Army, in an attempt to protect the top-secret information involved in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, demanded that Oppenheimer organize his teams on a need-to-know basis, so scientists working in obtaining fissile materials would have no interaction with or knowledge of the work being done by their counterparts on the team developing nuclear triggers or other components. Oppenheimer argued that this structure was inhibiting his team and worked against the open-nature of scientific progress, and the Army reluctantly agreed to permit him to hold a series of seminars with the entire team where each scientist explained what his team was doing and what challenges he was facing. This open sharing of information among all team members is a key attribute of successful innovation.
In a land that has seen more than its fair share of invaders from all directions, it is amazing that Armenia could maintain one of the world’s largest depositories of rare books, manuscripts, and parchments. The National Library in Yerevan, known as the Matenadaran, contains over 17,000 manuscripts and 30,000 other documents items in well-protected vaults, with a handful of items on display to the public. Among the collection’s most important pieces are 2,500 Armenian illuminated manuscripts, which are intricately illustrated religious books produced by hand by monks centuries ago, including the Echmiadzin Gospel of 989 A.D. and the Mugni Gospels of 1060 A.D. One of the largest books in the collection is the Homilies of Mush, an enormous book of 603 calfskin parchment pages weighing over 60 pounds. The book was written in the Avak Monastery in 1200 A.D., was abandoned, and subsequently was discovered by two Armenian women during World War I. The region at the time was in upheaval due to the war and the Turkish-led genocide against the Armenians, so the women split the book into two parts (it was too heavy to be carried intact) and took half of it to Georgia and buried the other half. A Polish solider found the buried half a few years later and sold it to a collector in Baku. Both halves were eventually reunited and secured in the Matenadaran.
By putting these rare books and parchments from different epochs on display side-by-side in the Matenadaran, one sees an interesting phenomenon. Many of the documents have intricately-detailed scripting and illustrations. In fact, it is difficult to discern how the monks who created these documents were able to do so with feather-tip pens and no magnification. The precision in the lettering and drawings is stunning. Yet the amount of color used in the illustrations varies from one document to another. Some of the documents are illustrated with a veritable rainbow of colors, while others only have a couple of colors. Although the drawings are similar in detail in terms of the letter scripting and drawings, the amount of color varies widely. As it turns out, the use of color is a function of the location of the monastery in which the monks creating these documents were located. Since all coloring at the time came from natural sources, some monasteries possessed more plants and minerals that could be used to create colors than others. Where local sources did not exist, monks could leverage their proximity to trade routes to obtain more exotic materials to use in coloration, such as the blue-colored lapus lazuli from Afghanistan. Monasteries that were closer to highly-trafficked trade routes, such as those of the Silk Road that ran through the Caucasus, could produce more colorful illustrations than the more remote monasteries in mountainous areas with fewer natural resources available.
Innovation Perspective – Innovators rely on a flow of ideas and information to maintain the effectiveness of their innovation programs. This information can come from various sources and the variety of sources may increase the likelihood that the innovator can develop new approaches to solving problems. An innovator should consider the hypothetical example of two monks from this era working on documents. One monk might reside near a busy trading route and have access to a wide variety of sources for colors for his illustrations and produce phenomenally-colorful designs. The other monk might reside in a more remote area and would only be able to produce intricate designs with only a few colors. An innovator should aspire to be the former and perform periodic checks of the sources of information he or she is using to ensure that he or she is not becoming like the latter. Information is one of the key components of innovation, and one should take steps to ensure that one is keeping up to date with new information rather than becoming isolated while working on a project.
For a country with 95% of its population adhering to Christianity as well as having the status of the first country in the world to recognize Christianity, Armenia’s forced absorption into the atheistic Soviet Union certainly came as quite a shock to its residents. Marxism-Leninism viewed religion as the “opiate of the masses” and sought to establish a religion of adherence to the Communist Party rather than any other deity. Churches and monasteries were closed and, in some cases, destroyed, as the Communists tried to remake the societies of the countries their conquered. In most Christian cities, one expects to see a large cross or statue of Christ overlooking the town, as is the case in many South American countries. On a hillside above Yerevan, the Soviets installed a huge statue of Josef Stalin instead, accompanied by a memorial to the soldiers who fought and died in World War II. The statue seemed to glare down upon the city and reminded Yerevan residents on a daily basis of who was in charge. After Nikita Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, the statue was removed and replaced by a statue of a female warrior known as Mother Armenia. The statue holds a sword in her right hand, positioned across her body and serves as a reminder of heroic women of Armenia’s past.
Yet the real story of the Mother Armenia statue is more complex and subtle than outward appearances would suggest. When the original planning for the statue of Stalin began, the Armenian architect Rafayel Israyelian put together a design for an enormous basalt stone pedestal upon which the statue of Stalin would reside. The pedestal looks like a typical ornamental foundation, though subsequent interviews with the architect revealed that he modeled the interior and exterior of the pedestal after the typical three-nave design of the Armenian church. The three-nave design includes a public outer area where one first enters the church, a more sacred inner area where services are conducted, and a third, most sacred area where only the priests may stand, also known as the altar. Israyelian commented that “[k]nowing that the glory of dictators is temporary, I have built a simple three-nave Armenian basilica.”
For 10 years, Israyelian’s hidden Armenian church send a subtle message to the knowing population of Yerevan that religion was still the underpinning of their society, and when the order came to replace Stalin’s statue, another Armenian sculptor, Ara Harutyunyan, was engaged to design Mother Armenia. The statue itself, made of hammered copper plating, stands over 167 feet tall and contains an equally clever bit of religious symbolism. The way the statue holds her sword, in a manner that is parallel to the ground and perpendicular to her body, forms the perfect shape of a large cross. Armenians looking up at Mother Armenia in 1962, while still living under the boot of the atheistic Soviet regime, would recognize immediately that what they were seeing was a huge cross positioned on top of a traditional Armenian church.
Innovation Perspective – Innovators sometimes think that in order to be successful in their craft they must create solutions that are bold and striking. The more attention that an innovation receives, one may postulate, the more effective that innovation will be. Yet as the example of Mother Armenia suggests, subtlety may imbue an even more powerful message than directness. An innovator should not assume that the most direct and apparent pathway to a solution is the best. Other, more subtle pathways are equally worth exploring and may, in the end, be more powerful that direct approaches.
A short drive south from Yerevan leads one to the picturesque Khor Virap Monastery, situated in the Ararat plain just across the Aras River from the base of Mount Ararat. The name Khor Virap in Armenian means “deep dungeon” because this was the site where King Tiridates III imprisoned Saint Gregory the Illuminator around 285 A.D. for the crime of spreading the Gospel to Armenians. Legend states that when the King banished Saint Gregory to a deep cell, the King became cursed and after many years sought reprieve from the Saint, who subsequently cured him of his ailments. This helped convince the King of the wisdom of adopting Christianity in Armenia. The dank and oppressive dungeon where Saint Gregory lived for 12 years still exists today, and one can climb down into it via a steep metal ladder. Gregory became the Patron Saint of Armenia and in 642 A.D., King Nerses III the Builder constructed a chapel at Khor Virap to venerate Saint Gregory. Over the years various structures at the site were destroyed and rebuilt, and Khor Virap is now a primary pilgrimage site for Armenians, though it is extremely close to the tense border between Armenia and Turkey. Indeed, from the site one can easily see the fencing and guard posts that delineate the Turkish border.
Of all the various structures at Khor Virap, one building just outside the main chapel is quite peculiar. The building consists of a set of rectangular rooms that are enclosed on three sides (plus a ceiling) but open completely on one side facing the courtyard in front of the main chapel. Archaeologists believe that these rooms were used as classrooms for monks who resided at the monastery. The logic of an open-walled classroom in a non-temperate climate (Armenia is very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer) seems illogical, but the rationale for the design is to make sure that throughout the lessons taught to the monks, there is a constant reminder of the divine presence in the form of the chapel that is always within one’s line of sight. The classrooms were situated so that students and teacher could always see the chapel while they were studying, which presumably helped the monks to maintain focus on the larger objective of their studies.
Innovation Perspective – When working on an innovation project, it is sometimes easy to lose focus on one’s core objective. Exploring tangential ideas or approaches is exciting and interesting and, in some cases, may result in unexpected discoveries. Yet these tangents also have the ability to distract a team from its original goal. An innovator may invest a great deal of time working on an alternative approach only to find that while the new pathway might be interesting, in the end it does not advance the original goal of the innovation program. Having a constant, visual reminder in place of one’s goal is important in these types of efforts, and the example of Khor Virap suggests that just such a visual cue is a powerful way to keep a team focused on its primary objective.
In a country of photogenic monasteries surrounded by soaring mountains, the Noravank monastery in south-central Armenia is certainly among the most spectacular. Noravank sits at the end of a curving mountain road that follows a gorge carved out by the Amaghu River. Originally built in the 13th century A.D., the monastery is best known for its scenic location, with the soft tan stone of the edifices contrasting to the red of the sheer rock faces nearby, the green of vegetation, and permanently blue skies overhead.
Of the various structures built at Noravank over the centuries, the most impressive is the Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church built in 1339 A.D. by the sculptor Momik for Prince Burtel Orbelian. The church is considered Momik’s greatest masterpiece, and he accomplished this, in part, by making simple yet fundamental changes to the way Armenian churches were designed. The outside of the church is interesting because each of the four sides contains unique and delicate carvings and arches, as opposed to the symmetric designs of other Armenian churches of the era. A second novelty in his design concerns the three traditional spaces (as discussed earlier) that are prevalent in every Armenian church: a public area, an area that merges the public and sacred (for worship), and a sacred area (the altar). Most Armenian churches array these three spaces sequentially, so the person entering the church starts in the public area and moves deeper into the church to the worship space and then to the altar, all lined up in a row.
Momik turned this idea on its head by switching from a horizontal plane to a vertical plane. In the Astvatsatsin Church, Momik made the entire base level the public area, serving as the foundation of the whole building. He then built a pair of steep stairs on the outside of the structure that led up to the second level, which was the combined public and sacred space, with the altar situated on yet another level in the rear of that space. His design was ingenious in that it forced churchgoers to make an extra effort to reach the sacred space (the stairs are quite steep and narrow) and reminded them of how the public represents the foundation of the church, with the sacred spaces situated slightly closer to heaven.
Innovation Perspective – In the search for new thinking, a simple approach that an innovator can take is to make an abrupt shift in perspective when approaching a problem. If one tries to look at a problem the same way over and over again, it is likely that one will not be able to see a variety of solutions. Rather, one’s mind will keep reverting to the patterns one saw initially when approaching the issue. By inverting one’s perspective and trying a completely new angle of attack, such as one from a completely different direction, one has a better chance of coming up with a creative solution to a problem. The reason Momik’s church design was so innovative was because he simultaneously accepted the convention of the three areas of the church while refusing to sequence them in the way that his predecessors and contemporaries had done for centuries. This reminds me of the Palestinian/Israeli peace proposal made by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000 in which he proposed a vertical border for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, recognizing the intractability of traditional horizontal borders. As I wrote in Lines of Innovation – Part II, Clinton’s idea was meant to highlight the intransigence of the negotiators and force them to think about alternative approaches to solving the problem of peace.
If Noravank is the epitome of a monastery surrounded by the beauty of a rocky landscape, then the 13th century Haghartsin Monastery is its doppelganger in a vibrant green, tree-covered, and mountainous landscape. Located in the northern part of Armenia in the Dilijan National Park, Haghartsin is reached via a five-mile traverse up a winding mountain road following running streams and waterfalls that feed down to a larger river. The site is typical of Armenian monasteries in that it is located a few miles from a main caravan route. Typically, a monk would travel with a caravan along a normal trading route then would walk up the hill to the secluded monastery. This allowed for long-distance travel, trading, and communications but still allowed the monks to live in a relatively isolated manner.
At Haghartsin, the complex began with a single building perched on the eastern edge of a cliff and progressed toward the west. Monastery complexes were always built in this manner, as the most important direction was to face the east and no new buildings were built to block view of the sunrise to the east. Next to the first building of this complex sat an oak tree that dated back hundreds of years. Supposedly the original builders of the monastery planted the tree and said that they would see whether the tree would outlast the buildings on the site. Sadly, a few years ago, some hikers decided to camp under the tree while seeking shelter from the rain. The campers lit a fire which grew out of control and burned the tree to its core. Like Noravank, Haghartsin makes use of a novel approach to the three spaces of its church. Rather than having a separate building for the public area, the St. Astvatsatsin Church at Haghartsin uses a slight rise in the floor to differentiate between the public and sacred spaces, forcing the churchgoer to step up to reach the worship area.
Innovation Perspective – A recurring struggle for innovators is to balance between isolation and interaction. On the one hand, isolation is valuable when one is concentrating intensively on developing a new idea or working out the details of a challenging problem. On the other hand, interaction is valuable when one is seeking input from others, as this is often an excellent source of new ideas. Too much isolation can render an innovation program stale in terms of its thinking, whereas too much interaction can bog down a program in a deluge of communications and parsing of ideas to determine which ones are worth pursuing. The model of Haghartsin provides a possible approach to this dilemma. An innovator should consider himself or herself like the monk who rides along with the caravan for certain periods of time, whether for transportation, trade, or communication. The innovator should also have the ability to spend time alone to think through what one has learned through the interactions. An innovator should ask himself or herself if he or she is spending too much time in the caravan or too much time in the monastery as a way of striving to seek a balanced approach.
Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (New York: Random House, 2006).
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Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.
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