From Sacred to Sacrilegious: Armenian Human-Water Relations

Curator's Note

Lake Sevan, situated within the land-locked country of Armenia, is the largest freshwater ecosystem in the Southern Caucasus and one of the biggest high-altitude lakes in the world. This unique ecosystem, boasting rich biodiversity and endemism, is a UNESCO Ramsar protected site and is vital to Armenia’s water, food, and energy security. Its waters are used for irrigation, aquaculture, ecotourism, hydropower, and for producing the majority of Armenia’s fish and crayfish landings (Babayan et al., 2006). In Armenian literature and folklore too, Lake Sevan is regarded as the beating heart of the country. 

Traditionally, Armenians see water as sacred: it is a source of life; it can purify and cure; it also has magical powers (Manukian, 1973). In the animated film Sasna Tsrer (2010), Tsovinar—the Armenian goddess of water, sea, and rain—scoops up water in her cupped hands and drinks it up. The drops of water get her pregnant and she gives birth to Sanasar and Baghdasar, two great heroes in Armenian mythology. In the 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates by Armenian director and artist Sergei Parajanov, water is presented as sacred but also symbolic to the different stages of life. As the movie renders poetically the story of 18th c. Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova, water, together with fish and bread, evoke Christian symbolism (Steffen, 1995). At the boy’s baptism ritual, holy water turns the boy into a Christian echoing the resurrection of Christ; water runs through books as he learns to read; it both introduces him to pleasure and exonerates his sins at the end of his days. Water is present in abundance at the rite of passage scene where the young boy peeks through a window into the public bath to gaze upon a naked female body for the first time. Finally, well-fitting within Parajanov’s Christian imagery, water turns into blood and flows along the body of the poet. The scene that follows affirms the death of Sayat-Nova— water stops pouring out of the clay conduits. The poet’s soul is gone.

Life is gone when there is no water. But in traditional Armenian beliefs, water is more than a symbol of life and conception. Armenian rituals promise that water can wash your troubles away (Abrahamyan, 2001). In the 1977 movie about the Armenian Genocide Nahapet, one of the most iconic scenes follows the travel of red apples as they fall from trees, roll down the hill, and accumulate by the water. The apples in the film become symbolic of the relatives who never returned to their homes to take care of their families and harvest. The lake water takes up the apples and carries them away to absorb the sorrow of the survivors in the village.

While throwing away troubles to the water can function in ritual and film as a metaphor of the power of water to wash away and absorb unpleasant emotions and terrible experiences, the notion may have misguided people to believe that water can also take care of their waste and magically eliminate it. For decades, municipal waste and sewage have been dumped into Lake Sevan with the assumption that its waters will carry it out of sight. As a result of years of overexploitation, negligence, and mismanagement, the water quality of the lake has deteriorated to an extent endangering its aquatic biota. The pollution has harmed the health of the surrounding inhabitants and deterred ecotourism in the whole area (Babayan et al., 2006). Similar to the Armenian poet in Parajanov’s film whose life is defined by and dependent on water, Lake Sevan and its life is threatened by extinction as a result of human activity negatively impacting its water quality. 



Abrahamyan, L. (2001). Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity. Indiana Univ. Press.

Babayan, A., Hakobyan, S., Jenderadjian, K., Muradyan, S., & Voskanov, M. (2006). Lake Sevan.

Malyan, Henrik. (2008). Nahapet. Produced by Armenia Records.

Manaryan, A. (2010). Sasna Tsrer (Daredevils of Sasun).

Manukian, A. (1973). Water in Religious Ceremonies in Armenia. Alik Press.

Parajanov, Sergei (2001). The Color of Pomegranates. Kino international.

Steffen, J. (1995). Parajanov’s Playful Poetics: On the “Director’s Cut” of the Color of

Pomegranates. Journal of Film and Video, 47(4), 17–32.


Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.