Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook- Aragatsotn Marz

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Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook
Intro, Yerevan, Aragatsotn, Ararat, Armavir, Gegharkunik, Kotayk, Lori, Shirak, Syunik, Tavush, Vayots Dzor, Karabakh (Askeran, Hadrut, Martakert, Martuni, Shushi), Nakhichevan, Western Armenia, Cilicia, Georgia, Jerusalem, Maps, Index



Aragatsotn Marz monument with Mt. Aragats in background

Aragatsotn Marz consists of the huge volcanic shield of Mt. Aragats, formerly Alagyaz, whose main cone rises 4090 meters above sea level. The high uplands provide grazing in summer for Yezidi shepherds, as well as the clear air for Armenia's observatories. The rocks, wildflowers, and views make the ascent of Aragats unforgettable. A favorite site for the summer cottages of affluent Yerevantsis due to its proximity and cool climate, the S slopes of Aragats are also the subject of tentative efforts to develop skiing (via snowmobile) and other winter sports. The remote medieval fortress of Amberd is a memorable destination once the snows melt in May.

The eastern part of the Marz is laid out along the Kasagh river gorge, which cuts deep into the rock and forms the backdrop for a chain of spectacular monasteries. The western uplands of Aragats, a bleakly beautiful landscape of volcanic boulders and green grass overlooking the Ararat Valley, are dotted with villages, each athwart a stream gorge, most with medieval churches and fortresses of the Bronze and Early Iron Age. Aruch Cathedral, the castle at Nerkin Talin (Dashtadem) the paleolithic open air workshops around Mt. Arteni, are all well worth a separate expedition.

Ashtarak (18,915 p, "Tower") is the administrative capital of Aragatsotn, spread out in and above the gorge of the Kasagh river. The city is endowed with old churches, interesting museums, and some ambitious restaurant/hotel/casino complexes suitable for lengthy carouses. From the highway, a left exit before the massive bridge winds down into Ashtarak, crossing via the lower bridge downstream. Turning right and continuing about 1 km, turn right again just after the main square to reach the Tsiranavor (5 cc. three nave hall, partially restored in 1963-64. In order to defend the church, a second wall surrounding the church was built in XVII c from northern and western sides, and above the southern wall a gun-slot was erected. ), Spitakavor (13 cc. walls remain), and Karmravor* =60= (40 17.98n x 044 21.93e) S. Astvatsatsin (7 cc. The church is unchanged with original tiled roof.) churches, the House Museum of the novelist Perch Proshian, and a view of the old triple arched bridge of 1664. Not far from the bridge lay the ruins of another, probably more ancient bridge (12-13 cc.). S. Mariane church =20= of 1281 is further W. It is marred by an unfinished early 20th c. basilica tacked on. On the right bank of the gorge above the medieval bridge is the new church of S. Sargis on early foundations. Just outside of town, on the opposite side of the highway/bridge is one of Armenia's premier restaurant/entertainment complexes, "Ashtaraki Dzor". This is a site worth visiting even from Yerevan to go to dinner, with it's small zoo, massive gold stage, live singing and often dancing, outdoor setting in a canyon, women making lavash bread in a tonir, and it even offers a paddleboat for couples to get away for a few moments. Prices are not much different than any other bbq joint across the country.

South from Ashtarak - Oshakan (Section 1; Maps A, D)

Oshakan (4803 p), is most famous as the last resting place of Mesrop Mashtots, (d 442) founder of the Armenian Alphabet. Above his grave (19th c. gravestone) is a church =50+= (40 15.53n x 044 18.90e) rebuilt by Katholikos George IV in 1875. It has wall-paintings from 1960 by the artist H. Minasian. See below (Armavir Marz, the Northeast Corner, for the 1827 Battle of Oshakan, a monument to which lies near Ejmiatsin on the road S.

Excavations on Didikond hill, which rises just behind (S) of Oshakan, revealed a square fort of the 7-5th c. BC, with five palace complexes on the N slope. Just N of Oshakan, in a little valley called Mankanots, is a 7th c. S. Sion church, with beside it an unusual pillar on a plinth dated to the 6-7th c. and traditionally believed to mark the grave of the Byzantine emperor Mauricius or his mother, based on the fact that one Armenian historian says he came from here. Elsewhere in the vicinity are shrines of S. Grigor, S. Sargis, S. Tadevos the Apostle, a rock-cut Astvatsatsin, and a Tukh Manuk shrine atop the hill. The area has a series of rich Iron Age tomb fields. W of Oshakan is a bridge of 1706 over the Kasagh river.

Voskehat (969 p, till 1949 Patrinj) has remains of an Iron Age fort W, and remnants of a 14th c. church. Voskevaz (3817 p) was originally known as Ghzltamur ("Red Timur"), by popular etymology out of gratitude to the 15th c. scourge Timur Lenk, who chose not to slaughter the villagers. The village has a roofless S. Hovhannes church. About 1 km S and a little W of the village, overlooking the Kasagh gorge where another stream comes in, are the ruins of the 5-7th c. "Badali Jam" church. W of this is a prehistoric "Vishap" (carved dragon stone) brought from its original site on Mt. Aragats and set up on a modern concrete plinth by local youths. Another 100 m W are the important remnants of a major Bronze Age fortress, called Aghtamir, including massive defensive walls, with medieval house remains and early tombs within. Nearby is a late medieval stone and mud fort, now crumbling. Nor Sasunik (1973 p) began as a state farm in 1955, but was augmented by the population of the original Sasunik further W, brought in 1960.

The South Slopes of Aragats --Amberd (Section 2; Map A)

Bypassing Ashtarak and the first exits for Mughni and Aparan, the first big cloverleaf on the main highway leads one N to Parpi (1900 p), with a 5th c. Tsiranavor church with later modifications. On the hill E is Targmanchats domed church of 7th century and S. Grigor church. There is a fine cave with a working door, used as a place of refuge in the 16th-18th c. E beyond Parpi is the hamlet of Bazmaghbyur (894 p, till 1949 Takia), with early burial sites. End of the road is Ghazaravan (450 p), formerly Nazrvan, with interesting Bronze Age fortresses nearby.

Exiting right at the second interchange at the turnoff for Byurakan from the Gyumri highway, on the left is a bird's wing monument to the heroes of the battle for Van. The monument is built on the site of the Bronze Age graveyard of Verin Naver, with substantial chamber tombs of coarse boulders surrounded by stone rings and covered with a mound. In Byurakan (3930 p, Bed & Breakfast) is the important S. Hovhannes basilican church. About 1 km NE (ask directions) is the Artavazik church of 7th c., with a 13th c. khachkar. A side road goes W to just below Orgov and Tegher (see below). Byurakan Observatory =40= is known by astronomists around the world. It was headed by Viktor Hambartsumian who was also the president of the International Astrophysicist Organization. During his time at the observatory, Viktor developed theories of young star clusters, and computing the mass ejected from nova stars. The observatory allows visitors and will give a tour and slide show in Armenian, Russian, and sometimes English to groups. Uphill from Byurakan, Antarut (205 p, until 1949 Inaklu, founded in the 2nd half of the 19th c.) has early khachkars.

The road continues climbing up the mountain past Antarut. At the fork, a sign painted on the asphalt points left to the fortress and church of Amberd** =85= (40 23.30n x 044 13.75e) occupying a rugged promontory between the Amberd river and its main tributary. The fortress reached its zenith as the seat of the Pahlavuni feudal family in the 11th c. Prince Vahram Pahlavuni built the church in 1026, as the inscription on the inside lintel of the N. doorway documents. Conquered by the Turks, reacquired by the Byzantines, lost again to the Seljuks, reconquered in 1196 by Ivane and Zakare Zakarian, and purchased by Vache Vachutian in 1215, the fortress was a key defensive site for centuries. Besides the citadel, bath, church, and extensive house fortifications, there are outer defensive works and, descending a perilous track on the SW corner, a covered passageway leading to the river.

Climbing Mt. Aragats (Section 3; Map A)

Taking the right fork away from Amberd, a narrow paved road (often closed by snow well into June) climbs to a small artificial lake beside the Cosmic Ray Institute at about 3200 m. This is the jumping off point for the climb of Armenia's tallest mountain.

There are four summits, North (the highest, 4090m), West (4080m), South (3879m) and East (3916m) forming the rim of a volcanic crater. Between South and East summits the crater wall is broken, and a stream flows down to the village of Aragats. A sharp ridge descends south from the South summit. Between the other summits are high saddles with sweeping views.

Even on a clear August day, clouds usually gather in the crater by about 10:00 a.m. Therefore, it is preferable to start walking as early as possible (e.g. 5:00 a.m.) to increase both the safety of the final ascent and the odds of a spectacular view. Weather is unpredictable and often dramatic, with snow possible at any time. Multiple layers (e.g., fleece and Gore-tex) are indispensable, as are sturdy boots, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, a hat, and plenty of water. It also wouldn't hurt to bring some easy to eat pre-packaged snacks and a garbage bag with which to bring home any trash.

The South summit, lowest and nearest of the four, can be reached in under two hours from the lake. Easiest route is to ascend the mountain meadows generally NNW, aiming for the NW corner of the summit near an old, abandoned 1-2 man lookout building. After an hour, on the shoulder you will pick up a decaying jeep track that ascends in easy switchbacks to the broad, relatively flat double summit. Faster perhaps, but more strenuous, is to scramble up the ridge half way to the summit and follow it north to the highest point.

The North summit takes about four hours from the lake. There are two main routes. First is to cut north from below the NW corner of the South summit, sliding down scree to the SW saddle, then descend into the crater aiming for the eastern base of the North summit, from which one scrambles up a series of scree slopes to a path along the crater rim. Though involving (perhaps) less climbing, this route confronts a large icefield that makes the SW saddle difficult to traverse. One can also climb the ridge extending S from the S summit, then descend from the SE saddle. From the rocky, exposed false summit, a trail continues to the true summit (with a metal tripod), less difficult than it looks but not for acrophobes.

West Around Aragats -- Aghdzk and Aruch (Section 4; Map A)

Taking the Byurakan exit but continuing past the turnoff for Byurakan, one first reaches the village of Agarak (1586 p), on the Amberd river, founded in 1919 from Van and Tbilisi. The village was apparently located on the site of a Urartian settlement. Adjoining the road on the left side as one ascends N toward the village, there is one massive, well preserved wall of an earlier building converted to use as a church possibly in the 5-6th c. through the addition of an apse. Turning right (N) in Agarak, the road reaches the village of Aghdzk (1655 p), still known to its inhabitants as Dzorap. Halfway through the village on the right of the road is a 4th c. grave monument complex. According to the Epic Histories attributed to the more or less existent 5th c. historian Pavstos Buzand, King Shapuh II of Persia exhumed the bones of the kings of Armenia and carried them off to Persia, taking with him the luck and power of Armenia. However, sparapet Vasak Mamikonian, having defeated the Persians, reclaimed the bones of the Arshakuni dynasty and buried the royal bones, pagan and Christian separately, in a low vaulted chamber. Bring a flashlight to see the carved figures -- Daniel in the lions' den on the left, a mythical hero on the right, decorating the side niches, a unique example of late 4th or early 5th c. Christian art in Armenia. N of the shrine, whose superstructure is destroyed, are the lower walls of a 4th c. Christian basilica. About 100 m N of the basilica, by a shrine, a path leads right into the gorge below the church, with a series of interesting caves, some with doors, used in the 16-18th c. for refuge.

Continuing N. up the mountain from Aghdzk, one bears left at the fork to reach the monastery of Tegher* =80= (40 20.70n x 044 14.53e) (90 p), made of dark gray basalt. The gavit, finished in 1232, is particularly impressive. The complex was built at the behest of Mamakhatun, wife of Prince Vache Vachutian, and the architect, according to an inscription on a column of the gavit, was the vardapet Aghbayrik. The ruined village has interesting houses and the remains of a funerary chapel. Taking the right fork, the road winds to Orgov (458 p), with several huge radio-astronomy telescopes and, in the W part of the village, remains of a Bronze Age cyclopean fort, beside which an underground passage was recently discovered leading to a neighboring spring.

From the main road to Gyumri, a right turn some 15 km past the Ashtarak bridge leads to Ujan (2510 p), endowed with a cave, a cyclopean fort with ruined church and underground passage, and a statue of General Andranik, hero of Armenia's battles against the Turks and Azeris in 1917-1920. On the highway beyond Ujan is the turnout SW for Aragatsotn (705 p)and Nor Edesia (786 p), former Sovkhozes founded in 1971 and 1975.

Just off the road E before the first turnoff to Kosh is a large khachkar whose inscription, from 1195, commemorates the delivery of Aragatsotn from the Seljuk Turks. Kosh (2600 p) is attested from early Christian times as Kvash, with a relatively rich history. In the village are ruins of S. Grigor (13th c) and S. Gevorg (19th c. churches). N of Kosh is the 13th c. Kosh castle, built on earlier remains, as Hellenistic period pottery attests. SE of this castle on a nearby hill are Iron Age towers. From Kosh, at 3.1 km from the Gyumri highway driving N on a good asphalt road, a dirt track angles off to the right, leading to the 7th S. Stepanos church in the gorge, with hermits' caves and substantial ruins of the Koshavank monastic complex. Continuing, the main road forks at the hamlet of Verin Sasunik (formerly Gharajilar), which was emptied in 1960 and resettled in 1989. Right of the road at the turnoff are a cemetery and remains of a 7th? c. domed church and various medieval remnants. Follow the main road right to Avan (813 p), bearing right inside the village. On the right is the single-aisle 5th c. Astvatsatsin basilica, roofless. Continuing straight S on a muddy track, one sees ultimately the piled stones of a substantial Iron Age cyclopean fortification on a S. facing promontory, with excellent view. A left fork at Sasunik leads to Lernarot (329 p, till 1949 Magda).

At approximately 25 km on the left is the turnoff for Shamiram (609 p), a predominantly Yezidi village. On the right near the S end of the village, where two gorges merge, are the low-lying remains of a substantial fortress and settlement of the Bronze Age through medieval periods. All around the fortress are traces of large, wealthy tomb fields.

Next village N is Aruch (943 p, until 1970 Talish), was mentioned as a winter shelter for the king's army in the 5 c. It was also once the seat of Grigor Mamikonian (661-682), a prince who enjoyed considerable autonomy under Arab rule. Coming N on the main road to Gyumri, you see on the left the heavily restored (in 1960) remains of one wing of a three-nave 13th c. caravansaray. Turning W, a paved road leads to the village, with the impressive domed Cathedral Church of St. Gregory* =65=, built in 666. According to building inscriptions and manuscripts (Ghevond, Hovanes Draskhanakertsi, Stepanos Taronatsi) in the 660-670's it was built by Grigor Mamikonyan and his wife Heghine. The half-destroyed monument was essentially restored (except the dome) in 1949-1950. The walls of the temple are plastered and decorated with frescos - now seriously damaged - painted by Stepanos. In the half-dome of the altar, about 7m tall, Christ is pictured with a parchment [whistle?] in his left hand. The pedestal frescoes are divided into two parts: acanthus leaves with roses, grapes and pomegranates that make a decorative belt along the entire wall of big altar. Beside the Cathedral are the excavated remains of the Mamikonian palace. Nearby are ruined walls from a 13-14th c. castle, among the well-built 19th c. stone houses. Another building, situated a little to southeast (which has a one-nave basilica church) has a different foundation. Its rectangle hall was vaulted and leaned on four pillars. Later on, probably in late medieval times, they added thick walls and built a swimming pool that filled up through an underground river. The half-destroyed building was used for defensive purposes. On the eastern outskirts of the village are the remainders of Aruj's fortress, which has not been professionally excavated yet. The road continues S to Nor Amanos (540 p), until 1984 Sovkhoz #2.

Opposite the Aruch turnoff the road NE goes to Agarak (962 p), whose inhabitants came in 1920 from Van. There is an Urartian site, and a ruined 5-6th c. church. West and N of Agarak, a road leads from the main road to Nerkin Bazmaberd (1334 p), whose population came as refugees from W. Armenia in 1915. Some 3 km SSW are ruins of the Iron Age fort of Karakala. NE of N. Bazmaberd are Kakavadzor (919 p), Baysz (156 p) with 12th c. church ruins, castle remnants, and Dian (111 p). Verin Bazmaberd (429 p) has church and fortress ruins. The road continues up into the mountains, ending at Avtona (94 p, until 1935 Schanlu), a Yezidi village whose name means "Waterless" in Kurdish. A spur S of the highway leads to the village of Partizak (249 p), formerly Bakhchajur.

North Toward Talin and Mastara (Section 5; Map B)

Taking the T north in Nerkin Bazmaberd and following the main track as it winds NW will take you to Nerkin Sasnashen (942 p), however, this track is extremely poor and should be avoided. A better approach to the village is from the main road just before reaching Katnaghbyur (see below). The turn-off from the main road is right at a gas station with a faded green roof (carport style) over the gas pumps. There is a large water pipe going over the Gyumri road just beyond that gas station.

Nerkin Bazmaberd has the foundations of a small 7th c. monastery on a beautiful promontory at the SW end of the village beyond the cemetery. There are traces of substantial Iron Age fortifications closing off the promontory, and caves in the gorge below. East from the village council building on finds the battered walls of a second early church. At the NW corner of the village a rough road to the right at the far end leads to the simple granite marker commemorating the crash site of 17 U.S. Air Force personnel shot down by Soviet MIG fighters on September 2, 1958 when their C-130 electronic intelligence plane strayed across the border from Turkey. Six bodies were returned in September 1958, and a USAF team recovered additional remains in the 1990s. Continuing NW, the paved road runs across the gorge and a spur north leads up to Verin Sasnashen (337 p), allegedly with cyclopean fort ruins. That road ascends temptingly, paved with rough cobbles, deep into the Aragats highlands.

A paved road right on the main highway at a gas station on the left (when approaching from Yerevan) leads to Katnaghbyur (1222 p), with ruined 5th c. church, and then to Davtashen (699 p, till 1950 Aylanlu), and finally, if you turn left after Davtashen, back towards Nerkin Sasnashen again. A T to the North on a paved road between Katneghbyur and Davtashen leads up towards Irind (769 p). From the Irind village square a right turn on the paved road (they are all paved, some of the most beautiful pavement in Armenia) leads in 100 m to the remains of an important 7th c. octagonal church*. About a third of it remains standing, and is not heavily decorated. Somewhere nearby is an Iron Age fortress. The left fork in Katnaghbyur leads to Shgharshik (515 p, till 1935 Sheikh Haji), with the small Iron Age fortress of Kyoroghlu Berd (and a miniature cave shrine) on the cemetery hill, and to Yeghnik (367 p, till 1946 Dadalu), with S. Nshan church of 1866. The main highway cuts through a rise containing a substantial 4-6th c. fortress found and excavated during road construction.

North of this site, a good road leads SW to Ashnak (1139 p), known since the 5th century as a substantial settlement but in its current location a foundation of 1830, refugees from Sasun. A left turn just past the little village square leads to the ruins of a simple 10th c. chapel on earlier foundations. In the cemetery on the right hand side of the main road are scanty mortar and rubble outcrops from a 5th(?) c. church, and traces of a cyclopean fort amid the well-tended farmyards. Further W about 5 km are ruins of a 9-10th c fort, and 1st c BC graves. Ashnak has a famous folk dance troop that, in better times, toured internationally.

Turning N instead of S at the turnoff for Talin, one fork leads to Akunk (633 p, till 1946 Gyuzlu), founded in 1829 from Khoy and Mush. There is a cyclopean fort nearby. The right fork goes to Karmrashen (582 p, till 1946 Krmzlu), with a S. Astvatsatsin church of 1865, a "Chknavor" rock-cut shrine, khachkars, and ruins of a cyclopean fort nearby. Vosketas (494 p, till 1935 Ghuldervish) is beyond.

Talin Cathedral and Church (foreground)

Turning from the main road toward Talin (4981 p), the right turn just before the fountains in the town square leads to a large cemetery in which are the impressive remains of an important cathedral church* =70= (39 49.75n x 045 21.87e) very similar to the 7th c. church at Aruch . Nearby is a smaller S. Astvatsatsin church, built in the 7th c. According to the inscription, "I Nerseh the patrician proconsul, lord of Shirak and Asharunik, built this church in the name of the Holy Mother of God for her intercession for me and my wife Shushan and Hrapat my son." Two Nersehs are attested as Byzantine governor, one from the reign of the Emperor Heraclius in 639, the other from the reign of Justinian II in 689. Somewhere in the vicinity are remnants of a medieval castle.

Taking the first turnoff to Mastara (2233 p) the road leads toward an excellent early church* =50= on the E edge of the village. On the S wall outside a fragmentary Greek inscription seems to mention the Sasanid king Peroz (reign 459-484), suggesting a 5th century date, but other building inscriptions indicate that the bulk of the church is 7th century with later repairs. According to popular etymology, Mastara derives its name from Gregory the Illuminator, who brought back from Caesaria the relics of John the Baptist, one fragment of which he enshrined beneath the church site: Mas (a piece) Tara (I buried/took). The church was closed in 1935 and used as the collective farm storehouse until it was reopened in 1993.

From Mastara a road continues NE to Dzoragyugh (till 1940 N. Pirtikan), Dprevank (52 p), and Tsaghkasar (87 p), with a shrine of Tadevos the Apostle, and ruins of a cyclopean fort. Beyond is Zovasar (571 p, till 1978 Aghakchik), 2km SW of which is the former village of Shenik with 5th c. S. Amenaprkich church and 7th c. S. Astvatsatsin church. End of the road is Garnahovit (423 p, till 1946 Adyaman). Nearby to the E and SE are Urartian remains. In the middle of the village is S. Gevorg church* =60= (40 29.83n x 043 57.38e) of the mid-7th c. The huge restored church looms above the village with a huge uncommon (in Armenia) red tile dome. There are other church remains in the gorge.

Talin Fortress and Kristapori Vank (Section 6; Map B)

Forking left at the far end of the main square of Talin, follow the asphalt road S to Dashtadem (520 p, formerly Nerkin/Lower Talin). A few hundred meters after the electric substation, on the left rise the ruined stone walls of a large medieval caravansaray. W of the road on a hill are remains of Stone Age obsidian workshops. In the middle of the village of Dashtadem, a left turn leads almost immediately to the arched gateway to the fortress* =75= (40 20.37n x 043 51.43e). Most of the outer circuit wall dates to the last Qazar khans of Yerevan, at the beginning of the 19th c. However, the fortress is considerably earlier. The keep within is a bizarre structure, with half-round towers glued onto an earlier Armenian fortress probably of the 10th c. An elegant Arabic inscription in Kufic letters on the E wall reads: "May Allah exalt him. In the blessed month of Safar in the year 570 (September 1174) the lord of this strong fortress, the Prince, the great Spasalar, the Pillar of the Faith, the Glorifier of Islam, Sultan son of Mahmud son of Shavur." Sultan ibn Mahmud was one of the Shaddadid Seljuk princes who ruled briefly in Ani. Beneath the citadel are substantial cisterns. There is also a chapel of S. Sargis beside it, dated to the 10th c.

Continuing through Dashtadem, and descending toward the S, a spur road climbs left to the restored 7th c. Kristapori Vank* =50=. The road from Dashtadem deteriorates greatly passing Lusakn (149 p), but finally reaches the Armavir-Gyumri road S of Arteni.

The main road from Talin leads W to Areg (738 p), till 1935 Firmalak. Continuing W, one reaches the hamlets of Gyalto (111 p), and then Hakko (136 p) on the N side of Mt. Arteni. The first left fork before Areg leads S on a newer road, passing Mt. Arteni on the E and leading past the village of Barojh (158 p, till 1935 Duzkend) and Ghabaghtapa (151 p) to the town of Arteni (3108 p, till 1950 Boghutlu) with its wine factory. A second dirt road before Areg leads up toward the summit of Arteni, with a huge Urartian-medieval fortification. On the SE slopes of Arteni is the famous Lower Paleolithic-Neolithic site of Satani Dar.

N from the village of Arteni paralleling the railroad and the Turkish border, you pass in succession Aragats (5129 p, founded in 1924), Getap (159 p, till 1946 Gharaghla) and Tlik (140 p) before entering Shirak Marz near the village of Anipemza.

From Areg, a road goes NW to Sorik (123 p, till 1935 Dzorba), Hatsashen (278 p, till 1978 Sabunchi), Tsamakasar (409 p, Bronze Age burials), Suser (309 p, till 1946 Ghlijatagh, shrine E) and Nor Artik (542 p. founded 1902) and enters Shirak Marz at Bagravan. A right turn in Tsamakasar leads to Zarinja (595 p) in N. part of which village is 7th c. S. Khach, rebuilt in the 10th c.

Saralanj (217 p), if it is not a list-maker's mistake, is likely to be discovered only by accident.

North from Ashtarak -- Hovhannavank to Aparan (Section 7; Map A)

Crossing the main highway bridge, the first exit right leads to the village of Mughni (770 p), now inside the Ashtarak city limits, with the 14th c. Monastery of S. Gevorg* =50= (40 18.83n x 044 22.32e), once a popular pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims. The church, with its distinctive striped drum below the conical cupola, was rebuilt in 1661-69 by order of the vardapet Yovhannes. It had an archbishop, a monk, five deacons, and one acolyte in 1830, supported by the revenues of Mughni village. In 1999-2000 the church underwent major restoration.

Karbi (3547 p), the next village north along the Kasagh gorge, has been known since the 13th century, and was for much of the Persian period the administrative center of the mahal of Karbi Basar. Though ravaged and plundered repeatedly, several churches remain: S. Astvatsatsin basilica of 1691-93, the 11-13th c. S. Kiraki or S. Gevorg, Tsiranavor and Tukh Manuk, and the "Zargarents Jam" chapel.

Ohanavan (2239 p) was resettled by migrants from Mush in 1828. Perched on the Kasagh gorge rim, Hovhannavank Monastery* =65= (40 20.39n x 044 23.30e) is a major monument from the 7th c. and later, the best documented of the major Armenian monasteries due to a manuscript of pious history compiled in 1686 by the Archdeacon Zakaria. The monastery was dedicated to John the Baptist, and has a 12th c. fortification wall with towers to the W, a 13th c. church and gavit (a rebuilding financed in part by Kurd Vachutian), and an early single-aisle church. There is a passage from inside the monastery to a cave in the gorge below. The monastery has rich stone decoration, and many inscriptions. According to one high on the N wall of the so-called "tapanatun", "By the grace of beneficent God, in the reign of Queen Tamara daughter of the great George, in the year 642 (AD 1200), of the race of Torgom, we the brothers Zakaria and Ivane, sons of Sargis the great, son of Avag Zakaria, when the light of God's grace rose and entered Armenia and strengthened our weakness in the battle against the enemies of Christ's cross and destroyed their power and quenched their violence and the country of Ararat was delivered from the heavy yoke of their servitude, we wished to make offering and gave the tribute of grace to the Holy Forerunner of Hovhannavank..."

Alphabet with Aragats behind. © 2007, Timofey Kispoev

Past Ohanavan (check exact location) you'll see massive stone carved letters of the Armenian alphabet clustered on your left, under the skirts of Mt. Aragats. This new addition to the landscape, only a couple of years old, is already a popular spot to stop and climb some of the letters for a photo with your favorite.

Ushi (1285 p) was until the Russian conquest in 1828 the administrative center of the Mahal of Sayyidli Aksakhi, inhabited by the Turkic tribes of that name. Entering the village opposite the turn-off for Hovhannavank and taking the paved fork right, one bumps W past a small 10th c. church and reaches in about 1 km the badly ruined S. Sargis Vank* and 7th c. shrine on a hillside with a splendid view. Work is under way to lay clear the collapsed 13th c. church and adjacent gavit. The complex is surrounded by a fortification wall of 1654. There is an Iron Age fort atop the hill nearby.

Built on the gorge N of Ohanavan, you must drive through Artashavan village to reach it. Turn right after the Artashavan sign on the main highway, left at the dead end, and your second right should take you all the way to the gorge and the monastery of Saghmosavank Monastery* =80= (40 22.83n x 044 23.80e) (194 p), the "Monastery of Psalms", with S. Sion church and an adjoining gavit built in 1215 by Prince Vache Vachutian and his wife Mamakhatun. According to an inscription of 1255 on the structure S of the main church, "I Kurd (son of Vache) and my wife Khorishah built this library and established this chapel in the name of our daughter." The monastery was restored several times including in 1890, and most recently in 1998-2001 by the Land & Culture Organization.

Continuing north beyond the village of Artashavan (606 p, formerly Ilanchalan), there is a recently restored 7th c. Amenaprkich church 500 m NE. Next village is Apnagyugh (482 p), then Aray (364 p) with a ruined caravansary of 1213, rebuilt 19th c., and a cyclopean fort to SW. N of Aray on the spur road is Vardenut (854 p), settled, along with the neighboring villages, by emigrants who came from Persia in 1829-30 under the exchange of populations provided by the Treaty of Turkmanchay. There are remains of a shrine, and a substantial Iron Age fort in the village. Aragats (2727 p) is jumping off place for scaling Mt. Aragats from the E, following the stream. Next is Tsaghkashen (551 p). E from Aragats is Shenavan (1599 p). Opposite Shenavan on the main road is Hartavan (768 p). Turning E at the entrance to Hartavan, the road crosses the Kasagh gorge. By taking the old road (left fork) into the gorge, one reaches the ruined Astvatsnkal monastery of 5-13th c. An inscription on the S. wall of the Kathoghike church reads: "By the grace and mercy of God, I Kurd, Prince of Princes, son of the great Vache, and my wife Khorishah, daughter of Marzpan, built the Holy Katoghike for the memory of our souls. We have decorated it with every kind of precious ornament and offered the garden bought by us in Parpi, virgin land in Oshakan, a garden in Karbi, a villager (?), and three hostels, in the year 693/AD 1244." Continuing E, you reach Yernjatap (487 p, till 1949 Ghrabulagh). 2km SW along the gorge is allegedly a ruined church. A spur N leads to the hamlet of Norashen (162 p).

An unmarked road leads E from the main Aparan highway to the little settlement of Jrambar (120 p) housing workers and security personnel for the Aparan dam and reservoir which supply some of Yerevan's drinking water. Beneath the waters of the reservoir are the ruins of Zovuni, with an important Poghos-Petros church, Tukh Manuk shrine, and mortuary chapel called by popular tradition the mausoleum of Zoravar Vardan Mamikonian, the heroic loser of the battle of Avarayr. The church* and mausoleum were moved stone by stone to higher ground E of the reservoir.

Kuchak (1878 p) was founded in 1829-30 by migrants from Mush. It is named for Nahapet Kuchak, a 16th c. bard from near Van traditionally but erroneously credited with a whole genre of medieval Armenian verse call Hayrens. There is a 19th c. church. The road E from Kuchak passes an evocative "Tukh Manuk" shrine on a hilltop overlooking the reservoir and a ruined basilica church. The scatter of obsidian flake around the shrine suggests use from earliest times. The road crosses the N end of the reservoir to reach Yeghipatrush (714 p) known till 1945 as Tanjrlu and then till 1992 called Mravyan after Askanaz Mravyan, first Soviet Armenian Cultural Commissar. In the village is a 10-13th c. S. Astvatsatsin church. Some 100 m beyond is an early cemetery with one corner of an allegedly 5th c. basilica in addition to a khachkar shrine.

Back on the main road, you soon reach the former region capital of Aparan (5711 p), till 1935 Bash Aparan, site of an important battle against the Turkish army in 1918 where the Turkish invasion of newly independent Armenia was miraculously turned around. Just N of town, on a hill left of the road, is an impressive monument to the battle. Behind the monument toward the Kasagh gorge is a large Bronze Age settlement site, with tomb fields and caves. Aparan's population, mixed Armenians and Kurds, is the butt of various jokes. A typical Aparantsi joke goes, "When the Aparantsi got home, he asked his mother, 'Did a friend who wears glasses call'?". As Kasagh, Aparan was listed by the geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. About 100 m E of the highway toward the N end of town is the impressive and architecturally important 5th c. Kasagh Basilica*, restored in 2001 and operating as a church. It was built on the Arshakuni dynasty's land and may have been built in the 4th century and modified in the 5th. From Aparan, a road angles back SE to Mulki (497 p), Vardenis (591 p, 19th c. church), Chknagh (251 p), and Ttujur ("Sour water", 366 p, till 1950 Imrlu), this latter with a S. Harutyun church in the village and a 17th c. shrine called Karmir Vank to the S. Beyond is Dzoraglukh (379 p). In principle, a jeep tracks winds up into the mountains from Ttujur and ends at Hankavan.

Turning E at the main traffic circle in Aparan (S of the basilica), a good road leads to the village of Lusagyugh (738 p). The village has a small working church of 1887. A few hundred meters up the valley by dirt track is a badly ruined church with a sign dating it to the 4th c. On a hilltop N of the village is a 7th c. chapel, called Tukh Manuk.

North from Aparan, the road rises to upland grasslands, home of Yezidi shepherds and mountain views. Nigavan (671 p) has a cyclopean fort and a 19th c. church. E of the road, Mirak (72 p) has ruins of a 5th c. church. Further NE is Melikgyugh (1080 p). Next on the main road are Shenkani (187 p) and Rya Taza (364 p, Yezidis) the latter with a ruined 10-13th c. church and zoomorphic (animal shaped) tombstones in village, visible just meters east of the highway. Rya Taza gives its name to a Kurdish newspaper and other cultural activities.

The crossroads village of Alagyaz (416 p, till 1938 Mets Jamshlu), is likewise primarily inhabited by Yezidi Kurds. There is a cheese factory. Turning W, one passes in succession the villages of Vardablur (522 p), Sangyar (292 p), and Tsaghkahovit (1562 p). The latter has substantial Late Bronze Age (ca. 1100) through Urartian remains on the hill to the E, the Kalachi Amrots. A joint team of U.S. and Armenian archaeologists has begun excavation of the fortress atop the hill, the houses spread out to the S and the cemeteries nearby. There is a modern Grigor Lusavorich church in the village. Next is Amre Taza (240 Yezidi p., till 1978 Karavansara), then Hnaberd (1830 p), named after the ruins of an Urartian fortress nearby. There is a 5th c. church and shrine. Beyond are Geghadzor (947 p), Berkarat (785 p), Geghadir (590 p), and Norashen (963 p, till 1946 Sachili, with S. Astvatsatsin church). The road then enters Shirak Marz.

Another road from Alagyaz leads E to the hamlets of Derek (413 p, till 1978 Jarjaris), with a ruined church said to be 5th c, and Ortachia (183 p). The straight track N from leads to Sipan (225 p)and Avshen (213 p) on the old Tsarist road to Spitak. However, the road over the Spitak pass is badly washed out and probably impassible.

The modern main road to Spitak and Lori Marz thus bends slightly west, passing Jamshlu (200 p), Gegharot (497 p, till 1945 Keshiskend), and Tsilkar (528 p). W of the road, Lernapar (508 p) was known till 1978 as Haykakan (Armenian) Pamb or Gharakilisa.

Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook
Intro, Yerevan, Aragatsotn, Ararat, Armavir, Gegharkunik, Kotayk, Lori, Shirak, Syunik, Tavush, Vayots Dzor, Karabakh (Askeran, Hadrut, Martakert, Martuni, Shushi), Nakhichevan, Western Armenia, Cilicia, Georgia, Jerusalem, Maps, Index

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