Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook- Syunik 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

Contents

EXPLORING SYUNIK MARZ

The Gates of Zangezur - welcoming you to Syunik Marz

Syunik Marz contains some of the most dramatic scenery in Armenia, and is home to some of the most important historical and cultural remains. Little explored archaeologically, the region is a wilderness of high mountains cut by huge, deep river gorges. The southern tip of the country, around Meghri, can be reached now only over a high and often foggy or snowy pass, its normal, easy access through Nakhichevan along the Arax River now cut off by politics. The roads are being steadily improved, but you should count on a full day to reach Meghri from Yerevan. Unquestionably, however, the trip is worth it, in terms of natural beauty and cultural riches.

Important destinations in Syunik include Tatev Monastery, the spectacularly sited religious capital of S. Armenia, Vorotnavank, Vahanavank, the standing stones near Sisian, the medieval cave-dwellings of Khndzoresk, the petroglyphs of Ughtasar and nature preserves such as Sev Lich and Shikahogh. The both Sisian and Kapan have decent hotels, while a number of excellent B&Bs are popping up all over the region, including in Goris and Meghri. Every road offers beautiful streams or sacred spring sites, often with covered picnic tables, by which to pitch a tent.

Due to its rough terrain and isolation, Syunik stayed relatively autonomous under the control of local Armenian notables (see the Orbelians in Vayots Dzor below) long after the rest of the country had been incorporated in Mongol, Turkish or Persian fiefdoms. It was a hotbed of insurrection under Davit Bek (see below), and the last redoubt of independent Armenia in 1921 under Garegin Nzhde.

A note on safety: A cease fire has held since 1994, and the area along the eastern border of Syunik - now nowhere near the contact line - is quiet and safe. Though rare, there have been incidents in the mountains that separate Syunik from the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan; hikers should thus steer away from that particular watershed.

Entering Syunik -- Angeghakot (Section 1; Map L)

Until further notice there is only one way to reach Syunik Marz (short of chartering a helicopter -- $2500 from Erebuni airport), and that is the road S through Ararat and Vayots Dzor marzes. Figure three hours to reach Sisian, unless you stop at one of the many tempting places in route. Crossing the pass from Vayots Dzor you see a major modern monument, the gates of Zangezur, from which you can still see the tip of Mt. Ararat on a crystal clear day. There are some metal sheds and dirt piles marking access to the Vorotan tunnel, which will one day divert water from the Vorotan river, the dominant feature of North Syunik, into Lake Sevan. The village of Gorayk (600 p, formerly Bazarchai) stands just before the Spandarian reservoir. A dirt road leads N into the mountains of Mets Karakhach, with obsidian outcroppings and paleolithic sites. Somewhere at about 3000 m near the headwaters of the Vorotan River and toward Davagyoz Mt. are interesting petroglyphs. On the main road is Tsghuk (405 p, formerly Borisovka, Murkuz). Sarnakunk (540 p) has somewhere on its territory to the N a rock face decorated with 8-7th c. BC petroglyphs. In 1945 about 1 km N of the village a clay pot was found with a coin hoard including coins from Alexander the Great to Mark Antony. Spandarian (445 p, till 1939 Meliklu or Kalachik, renamed for the famous Armenian revolutionary) has a 5-6th c. church on the S slope of the Vorotan river valley.

Angeghakot (1739 p) has Neolithic dolmens and Bronze Age/Iron Age tumuli. Three medieval churches: S. Astvatsatsin, S. Stepanos, S. Hazaraprkich ("Savior of Thousands"), unusual 17th c. khachkar, and sparse remains of an early Christian church. There is a S. Vardan church of 1298, still a pilgrimage site, one km from the village, where, according to tradition, the defeated Armenian army stopped to rest after the battle of Avarayr in AD 451.. In 1699 Israel Ori convoked a meeting of eleven Armenian meliks to draft a petition to Czar Peter the Great, the Pope, and other potentates asking their intervention against Armenia's Persian overlords. From Angeghakot a road leads SW to Shaghat (1018 p), with a S. Stepanos Protomartyr church and ruins of a medieval castle, Balak (225 p, one newish church), and Mutsk (376 p, formerly Bardzravan, with Astvatsatsin church of 1870)

A stone-built military checkpoint/bus stop (not active) marks the right turn from the main Goris road toward Sisian. From the Sisian road, turn right into Shaki (1237 p), then left at the village center, jog right, and left again, to follow a dirt road that leads to a small tributary of the Vorotan which joins the main stream via a small (because diverted to a hydroelectric plant) but attractive waterfall. For a fee the operators will often stop the water from being diverted so you can enjoy the full waterfall. Near the village are the ruins of Shaki Vank, and a shrine with khachkars. According to legend, the site was named for Shake, one of 93 maidens saved from flood by a miracle.

Sisian and Tanahat Vank (Section 2; Map L)

Sisian (15019 p) is a pleasant town at the confluence of the Vorotan and Sisian rivers. Its hotel is austere but clean, with 24-hour running water and hot showers in the evening. Of Armenia's Soviet-era regional hotels, this is probably the most welcoming for a foreign visitor. There are also the Bassen Hotel and Zorats Karer B&B (above Sisavan Church) to choose from. There are a couple of adequate khorovats restaurants, one on the river heading back to Shaki. The history museum has on display 2nd millennium BC pottery and other finds from the Bronze Age cemetery/"observatory" of Karahunj (Zorats Karer) N of town. In the museum garden are a series of medieval sheep-shaped tombstones, some with Persian inscriptions perhaps a testament to the presence of Turkmen tribes in the region in the 15th through 18th centuries. The road uphill from the prominent Soviet monument to those who fell in 1921 during the Sovietization of Zangezur (i.e., fighting the Dashnaks) leads to a cemetery to Sisian's Karabakh martyrs, and from there to the Sisavan church =70= (39 31.79n x 046 01.20e), also known as S. Hovhannes or Syuni Vank. The church was built by Prince Kohazat and Bishop Yovsep I between 670 and 689, and restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are sculpted reliefs of the builders somewhere on the church. Inside the church are some examples of rare microscopic art by a local artist. On the E side of Sisian, a princely tomb of the 2-1st c. BC contained rich grave goods. On the plateau east of town is a large Middle Bronze through Early Iron Age cemetery.

The westerly of the two roads leading SW from Sisian takes one to Brnakot (1926 p), which supposedly boasts three churches: S. Grigor of 1704 (right of the road beyond the war memorial), S. Astvatsatsin, and a third nameless. Tacked onto the S side of the 1704 basilica of S. Grigor is a gavit/cupola built in 1848 to house the tombs of the family of Melik T'angi, "hazarapet" (Armenian equivalent of his Turkic/Persian title Min-bashi, "lord of a thousand") and major notable in Syunik till the last years of Russian imperial rule. The Melik-T'angian family claimed descent from the Orbelian (see Vayots Dzor Marz) rulers of Syunik in the 13-15th c. When the Orbelians were finally dispossessed by Jehan Shah of the Karakoyunlu Turkmen confederation in 1437, the Melik-T'angians kept their rights to the villages in the NW corner of modern Syunik Marz, from Angeghakot to Vorotan. As was common in these noble families, a late member Nerses Melik-T'angian (1866-1948), served as Archbishop of Atrpatakan (Persian Azerbaijan). The church is locked, and the donkey guarding it bites. Residents of Sisian say that Brnakot is famous for its crazy people. From the E edge of Brnakot a dirt road leads to Ashotavan. Another road SW to Salvard seems to disappear on the mountain slope.

The second SW road from Sisian leads past the Tolors reservoir to Ashotavan (561 p) There is a church of 1903 in the village. Following the course of the Sisian river, the road passes Hatsavan (224 p, medieval bridge, ruined medieval castle). Note that the paved right fork just before Hatsavan leads up a pretty stream valley to the village of Salvard (406 p). From Salvard, a rough dirt track leads back to Tasik (293 p, with Ditkash sacred site, castle ruins). Beyond Hatsavan and Tasik, the road passes the turnoff (W) to the hamlet of Tanahat (31 p, formerly the Azeri village of Jomardlu). The road ends at Arevis (77 p), now inhabited by refugees from Azerbaijan.

At about 7 km from the Hatsavan fork, you see on a bluff left across the river the low red remains of Tanahat Monastery* =20?= or (as it is known to the locals) Karmir Vank - and not to be confused with the much nicer Tanahati Monastery near Yeghegnadzor. It may be possible to ford the river by car below the monastery, while one km upstream of it is a deeper ford or, 80 m further upstream, a precarious footbridge made of an old truck chassis, with a pleasant foot track leading up (20 minutes) to the monastery. Preserved are remains of a single-aisle basilica, perhaps of the fifth c., with a small columned hall adjoining it S. W of the church is a little cemetery, which includes the well-preserved cist grave of a notable at its highest point. According to Stepanos Orbelian, the Bishop of Syunik and family historian writing in the late 13th century:

"At that time flourished the superb and marvelous refuge of Tanahati Vank, situated at the bottom of Upper Syunik, on a wooded plateau. Except the servers, no one passed the gates of the convent. Despite the repeated injunctions of the princes and bishops of Syunik, they would not consent to fortify themselves on Sundays with soup, cheese and oil -- fruits and vegetables sufficed. Thence their name of Tanahat, 'deprived of soup.' ... We have found in their inscriptions that their church was built 400 years before the Armenian era (ed. note: AD 151, not possible) by the princes of Syunik, under the name of S. Stepanos the Protomartyr.
They had as superior a certain Mkhitar, who by his austerities had taken his place in the ranks of those most virtuous, who tamed wild beasts such as bears and wolves into service to the church, and forced them to make themselves useful to the convent or, as an inscription attests, to be the vassals of the convent. ... having presided for many years over the convent, he joined the angels. His holy remains were placed in a wooden coffin on a hill near the church, where a grave had been dug and lined with masonry. This tomb has survived to the present day and works great miracles on those afflicted with illness."

To Dastakert (Section 3; Map L)

A road SE from Sisian leads past Uyts (424 p, cyclopean castle nearby) and the reservoir to the modern site of Tolors (378 p), with Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age tombs found nearby. Uphill from the village is an interesting medieval cemetery. The old village of Akhlatyan (551 p), destroyed by earthquake in 1931, has a ruined S. Sargis church, Bronze Age megalithic monuments, and a monumental tumulus to the N.

Bnunis (187 p) Prince Ashot of Syunik gave this village to Tatev Monastery in 906. In the NW part is an Orbelian prince's tombstone of 1321. There are two churches, one ruined, the other with 14th c. khachkars built into the walls. Till the earthquake of 1931 there was funerary monument of the late 13th c. standing in the graveyard, built for Prince Manik. The village was reinhabited in 1866. S of the village is a water channel built by a local priest and called Keshish Arkh. Further S are Torunik (157 p, formerly Kizilshafak, church and cemetery), Soflu (93 p), and Dastakert (264 p), with a non-functioning molybdenum mine. Some 2 km N is an inscription called Vardapeti Kar, dated 1320, for a gentleman named Baghtar who had no son and was obliged to look after his own soul rather than leave it to his descendants.

To Vorotnavank and Beyond (Section 4; Map L)

A highly recommended route leaves Sisian to the SE following the main road through the village on the E side of the river. The road turns left uphill, and ends at a T junction just past a stop sign. Turn right at the T, and follow the road SE. Just before the village of Aghitu (365 p), you see on the left the remains of a substantial Muslim cemetery. The village, better known as Aghudi, has a large restored 7th c. funerary monument =35= (39 31.00n x 046 05.00e) W of the road. S of the village on a hill are remains of Berdategh ruined castle. There is also a Middle Bronze Age tomb field. From Aghitu, a fork left allegedly climbs to Noravan (505 p, founded 1928), and thence to the main Sisian-Goris highway. Staying on the main road through Aghitu, a few km beyond, take the right fork (left goes to Vaghatin, (589 p, till 1991 Azeri village of Vagudi)), which soon provides a splendid view of the Vorotan gorge and Vorotnavank* =65=. This fortified monastery sits, right of the road via a paved driveway about 8.5 km from the stop sign, on a promontory overlooking the Vorotan. The main S. Stepanos church was built in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht, and the adjoining S. Karapet church was built in 1007 by her son Sevada. The dome of S. Karapet collapsed in the earthquake of 1931. There are interesting carved gravestones in the cemetery. One of the churches is allegedly good for snakebite. From the monastery, the road winds down to a bridge. Staying on the N side of the river, a road goes to Vorotan (280 p), with 9-14th c. khachkars and a bridge of 1855 built by Melik Tangi, the Brnakot notable, and thence to Shamb Hotsprings, with more like warm springs that local Peace Corps volunteers have successfully bathed in during the winter.

Crossing the automobile bridge, the road reaches (1.1 km) a bend in the river, with a steep, rocky hill left of the road. Crowning the summit are the sparse remains of Vorotnaberd*, a key site in Armenian history since AD 450, when it was a stronghold of the rebels under Vardan Mamikonian. Border fortress of the kingdom of Kapan, it was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1104, then recaptured by Ivane Zakarian in 1219 and given to Liparit Orbelian. It was captured by the troops of Timur Lenk in 1386, but the Orbelian brothers managed to persuade the Mongols to give it back. Karayusuf took it from Smbat in 1407, but in 1724 Davit Bek took it back from Melik Baghr. There are interesting pottery fragments of all periods on the slope, perhaps crockery dropped on the heads of successive invaders.

Beyond, a left fork goes to Ltsen (161 p), with a church and a shrine of 1347. There is a S. Khach pilgrimage site SE. Name of the village comes, according to legend, from a local holy man named Nerses, who urged the villagers to drop (ltsnel) boulders down on the invading Mongols. The right fork joins the Loradzor river at Darbas (689 p.). This village has a ruined S. Astvatsatsin church build in the 13th c. by Tarsayich Orbelian and his wife Mamakhatun. There is a small, ruined S. Stepanos church and, below the village, the "Arzumani Bridge" of 1680, with inscription: "In the year of the Armenians 1129 (1680), in the reign of Shah Suleiman, and of local prince Maghsot Bek, who was controller of the royal house, was built the bridge of Haji Arzuman Agha for his remembrance, who was administrator of this place and many villages of this region, a man of good repute ... by the hand of master Hayrapet." Next is Getatagh (202 p), with S. Astvatsatsin Church of 1702. Lor (358 p) has at the entrance to town the so-called Spitak Khach (white cross) khachkar monument of 1271. The basilica church of S. Gevorg in the village (non-functioning, locked) dates to 1666, built according to legend by Khoja Poghos in gratitude for the safe return of his beautiful wife from the clutches of Shah Abbas. On the slope above town is a chapel called Sargsi Khacher with an inscription of 1345 saying this S. Astvatsatsin church was built by Sargis and Amir Hasan for the salvation of their souls. Tsaru S. Hovhannes church of 1686 is half a km SW. The reverends Smith and Dwight spent two days snow-bound in Lor in 1830, staying with the son of the local priest. "He welcomed us hospitably to his own family room. It was under ground, like all the houses of these mountains, and lighted only by an open sky-light in the centre, through which the snow was continually falling. In different parts, piles of grain were heaped upon the ground, which formed the floor. Here a deep wicker basket plastered with mud and cow-dung, answered the purpose of a flour-barrel; there was a large chest of bread, the principal food of the family. In a dark corner was a pile of carpets, mattresses, cushions and coverlets for their accommodation at night; and in another direction stood a cradle with its crying contents." Warmed by the tonir oven sunk into the floor, the two Americans were warmed even more to find a man who owned and even read the Bible. From Lor, which they said had been depopulated under Nadir Shah and had only 12 houses, they rode on to Sisian, Shaghat (where they found the locals to be working or travelling on the Sabbath), and over the mountains to Nakhichevan.

More or less at the end of the road, Shenatagh (299 p, from 1940 till recently Lernashen) has a S. Martiros church of 1860, with inscribed tombstones, and various cave hiding places and ruined hamlets nearby. There is a ruined castle in the gorge somewhere.

East to Goris -- Kotrats Caravansaray, Khndzoresk (Section 5; Map L)

Leaving Sisian on the road NNE from the center of town, climb up the hill, then turn hard left where you see the rusting steel umbrellas. This road will lead you in a couple of km to Zorakarer* =75= (39 33.17n x 046 01.75e), a Bronze Age settlement/cemetery site left of the road, around whose large chamber tombs are a series of standing stones, some with holes pierced in them. It is universally assumed that this is an early observatory, though the alignment is not ideal for the purpose. In any case, the site is beautiful and ancient, well worth the visit.

Across the main Goris highway is the village of Ishkanasar (204 p, till recently Ghzljugh). From the Sisian-Goris highway, a signposted road turns S to Harzhis (781 p), which is perched above the Vorotan Gorge among rolling volcanic uplands. About half way to Harzhis, where the power pylons cross the road, a dirt road leads back NNW to the substantial remains of the "Kotrats Caravansaray,"* =50= built in 1319 by the Orbelian family as a way point on the Silk Road. The Armenian inscription over the door is badly weathered, but a Persian inscription survives above it. There are also standing stones of an early Iron Age cemetery nearby. An Aramaic inscription was found nearby. Beyond Harzhis, a rough dirt road continues SE to Shinuhayr, passing remains of a medieval hamlet on the edge of the gorge. There are castle remains somewhere nearby. Deep inside the gorge below Harzhis is a 13th c. bridge over the Vorotan.

From the Goris highway, a least two dirt roads (ask) lead N to Mt. Mets Ishkhanasar, a 3550 m volcano on the border with Azerbaijan. In the crater 3 km E of the main summit is Sev Lich, Black Lake at 2657 m, a unique lake ecosystem, since 1987 a State Reserve.

On the top of Ughtasar mountain are countless important petroglyphs** =90= (39 41.20n x 046 03.25e). The site is beautiful, with a small mountain lake, (not Sev Lich) nestled in a rim of mountain peaks, and scattered with boulders and patches of snow surviving year round. Many of the boulders have at least one petroglyph, with some having over a dozen. The petroglyphs are dated using comparative dating, leading researchers to believe they are from V-II millennium B.C. (between 4,000 to 7,000 years). To reach this location is almost impossible without a local guide, and although a Niva can probably make it, a WAZ is much more suitable. Have enough gas for 3 hours of driving round trip, and only go from mid-July to late September, for snow covers the mountaintops most of the year. Ask for a guide in the village or better yet in Sisian. Trips up to Ughtasar are not common, so your request may cause some commotion before a suitable guide is found. Tracks leading up fade in and out during the 1.5 hour drive from Ishkhanasar Village (very close to the town of Sisian) to the top of Ughtasar. Rock-carvings have been know as "Itsagir", i.e. goat-letters, and though they have attracted the attention of certain investigators at the beginning of the 20-th century they were not studied at that time. The petroglyphs span several dozen kilometers along the mountains near Tsghouk, on the slopes of Ughtasar, to the foot of Vartenis mountain-chain and the sources of the Yeghegis, Arpa and Vorotan rivers. More than 2000 decorated rocks were discovered at Ughtasar, in the region of Sisian. The big centers of rock-carving, Ughtasar and Jer'majur (Istisu), are in the region of Sisian about 3300m above sea level. Ughtasar was named such due to the resemblance it has to a camel ("ught" in Armenian means camel, while sar means mountain). In the rock-carvings of Ughtasar and Jer'majur, the entire wealth of the Armenian fauna is designed. There, we can see most animals of that time, both wild and tamed, such as goats, mouflons, gazelles, deer, aurochs, horses, boars, dogs, wolves, jackals, panthers, bears and lions. Aurochs and bison however are met very seldom. At the same time scenes which represent hunters with bows and arrows, pikes, spears, and shields are numerous. Among them we can see hunting objects, lassos, traps, and also aurochs that lead the cart, covered carts and sledge-like ones, too, ploughs and carvings which represent the universe. Birds, in general, do not occupy a significant place. The importance of cattle-breeding is shown by the abundance of rock-carvings representing cattle and small-cattle. The Cyclopean fortress and the lodgings situated over 3 km high at Ughtasar have apparently served as temporary dwelling sites for cattle-breeding tribes. The "graves" and their carvings prove that they were in use for many hundred years. Scenes of ceremonial dances, i.e. dances in pairs and collective dances, have been reproduced too. The rock-carvings of Syunik represent subject scenes, where single episodes of primitive people's social life are depicted with the surrounding nature. These decorated rock-fragments of Syunik are mainly "tombstones" and they are made by cattle-breeding tribes who settled in those pastures at a certain period of the year. It is difficult for the investigators to determine the accurate date of these rock-carvings.

Goris Church

Coming from the West, turn right just before the bridge to enter the town of Goris =75= (40 44.37n x 044 52.09e) (20840 p), which sprawls out along the gorge of the Goris River. Its hotel, partly occupied by refugees, has a poor reputation, though there is a B&B of good repute. Goris is home to the Axel Bakunts house museum, commemorating one of Armenia's great prose writers, who died in prison in 1937, one of many who paid the price for "nationalist deviationism." There is a regional museum as well. At the beginning of the road to Khndzoresk is an 18th c. local melik's house. Goris is famous for its home-made fruit vodkas, and for the medieval cave-dwellings carved out of the soft rock in the southern part of town. There is a modern church.

Crossing the bridge at the entrance to town, the road continues toward Lachin and Stepanakert, first passing the turnoff right to Hartashen (653 p, founded 1965-70 from the three small villages of Azatashen/Alighuli, Dzorashen and Aigedzor, with a S. Hripsime Church in one of them, and then the metal archway marking the right turn for Khndzoresk (1954 p). At the far end of Khndzoresk village, turn right {and almost fully around} (straight goes to Nerkin Khndzoresk --184 p) and wind down past a cemetery. A deteriorating dirt track descends into the gorge and the interesting remains of Old Khndzoresk* =70= (39 30.33n x 046 26.00e), a medieval and early modern village largely hewn into the soft rock. Park your car at the top of the gorge and walk down. You pass a number of artificial caves now used as stables, and other building remains. At the bottom of the gorge, turn downstream to reach a S. Hripsime Church of 1663, sadly defiled by graffiti and cow droppings. On a spur beyond on the right side of the gorge is a 17th c. Anapat (hermitage), with the tomb of Mkhitar Sparapet, who was Davit Bek's chief aide and successor in his war to drive out the infidel Muslims. Mkhitar was murdered in 1730 by the nervous Armenian villagers of Khndzoresk, who had vainly beseeched him to hole up in his own stronghold rather than their village. The Ottoman Pasha in Tabriz, to whom they presented his head, found this treachery distasteful, and decapitated the murderers. The site is green and memorable. There is a 17th c. cave church of S. Tadevos somewhere about, and a couple of 17th c. spring monuments.

Back on the main road E, Karashen (544 p) has a 16-17th c. church, and tombs with 13-15th c. khachkars; it was home to a 1920 Communist Party cell. Tegh (2135 p) has a S. Gevorg church of the 4-5th c., rebuilt in medieval times, Iron Age tombs, and old houses in the village, including the 18th c. mansion of the Melik-Barkhudarian family (where the reverends Smith and Dwight probably spent a night around the fire in 1830), and Arneghtsi church 4 km SE. N of the village are some fine khachkars. Aravus (160 p) has an 18th c. church. Kornidzor (1047 p) has cave dwellings nearby.

19991003-dzidzernavankinterior_200.jpg
Tsitsernavank Interior

From Goris, the road N from the bridge on the E side of the Goris river leads up to Verishen (2129 p), which has a large S. Hripsime Church built in 1621 on 5th c. foundations. There is also a rock-cut inscription of 1294, with an early Persian inscription above, marking a rebuilding of an aqueduct that carried the water from Verishen's famous Vararaki springs to the estates of Tatev. Brun (1035 p) has cyclopean structures and remains of a medieval fortress. Near the village are remains of a 10th c. water channel. Beyond Brun are Vaghatur (467 p), Khoznavar (463 p, ruined S. Minas church of 1675) and Khnatsakh (980 p), the latter with a church of 1610, khachkars of 13-17th c. on hilltops surrounding, and shrines. Perhaps two km NE of Khnatsakh, on a hillside just inside the Lachin district of Azerbaijan, are the ruins of Tsitsernavank Church*, (directions & additional information are under the Karabakh section) named either for the nearby swallows or else for a piece of the little finger of the Apostle Peter supposed to have been kept here. The long, narrow basilica is thought to date from as early as the 5th c., with a small bell-tower added in late medieval times.

The Road to Tatev (Section 6; Map L)

Two roads lead to the village of Shinuhayr (2222 p, 17th c. S. Stepanos church, cave dwellings near old village, and a fine, tall 16th c. khachkar) (take the SW fork, not the SE toward Khot) from both West and South of Goris. The latter road turns W from Karahunj (1172 p), which has a S. Hripsime shrine of 1675, cave dwellings, khachkars, and a fort of some description. Khot (863 p), boasted a ruined 5-8th c. church, Khotavank, now gone, an insignificant Meghradzori Khach church of 1700, ruins of Karmir Khach church in the cemetery, Iron Age tombs and, near the gorge, the ruined medieval castle of Khanapa and other remains. Halidzor village (563 p) was donated to Tatev Monastery in the 10th c. It has an early 17th c. church and, 1 km E, Vanasar, a site with khachkars, which Prince Tarsayich Orbelian gave to the architect Siranes as payment for building Amaghu Noravank.

From Halidzor, the road winds down into the gorge of the Vorotan. Just before the winding begins, there is a small stone gazebo like monument to a girl who threw herself into the gorge at that picturesque spot, rather than be forced into marriage with a Muslim ruler. From here you can see Tatev Monastery across the gorge at the top. You cross the river at the so-called Satan's Bridge =70= (39 23.72n x 046 15.53e) where the Vorotan goes briefly underground through a cave. Above the bridge is a warm spring and picnic area, worth a brief halt, which also makes a good camping spot. On the roadside just a few meters past the steps, which lead to the pools, is a little spring coming out of a small pipe in the mountainside. It is a naturally carbonated mineral spring, and if you catch some water, you’ll slowly see bubbles form in the water. There is an isolated 11-13th c. church in the valley below the Devil's bridge. The road then switchbacks steeply up to the village of Tatev (985 p) and the nearby monastery.

The fortified Tatev Monastery** =100= (39 22.81n x 046 15.01e) stands overlooking the Vorotan gorge from a very strong setting. It was for centuries the seat of the Bishops of Syunik, a center of learning, and storehouse of wealth from taxing all the villages in the region. According to legend it was named for St. Eustathius, one of 70 disciples who accompanied the Apostle Thaddeus into Armenia. Stepanos Orbelian, the medieval bishop/historian of Syunik, recounts that Tatev housed 600 monks, philosophers "deep as the sea," able musicians, painters, calligraphers, and all the other accoutrements of a center of culture and learning. The monastery produced teachers and manuscripts for the whole Armenian world.

Stepanos Orbelian knew no date for the original insignificant church on the site. However, Bishop Davit gathered the princes of Syunik in 844 and persuaded them to grant the monastery villages and lands worthy of the relics -- including bits of S. John the Baptist, S. Stephen, S. Hripsime, S. Gregory the Illuminator, and a piece of the True Cross -- that had found their way to the designated seat of the Bishops of Syunik. It was Bishop Ter-Hovhannes, however, who built the main church dedicated to Saints Poghos and Petros (Paul and Peter) in 895-906. Ter-Hovhannes was the son of a poor villager. According to Stepanos Orbelian, the young Hovhannes, sent off by his cruel step-mother to watch the mayor's chickens, lost them, and took refuge at the monastery. There his intellectual gifts brought him a rapid ascent. Elected bishop by acclamation, he resolved to build a church worthy of the See, and did so. The N facade has carved portraits of the donors, Prince Ashot, his wife Shusan, Grigor Supan of Gegharkunik, and Prince Dzagik. There are remains of the original 10th c. frescos within. The S. Grigor church of 1295 adjoins. In the courtyard is an octagonal pillar 8 m high which allegedly pivots on a hinge.

In 1830, Smith and Dwight found two bishops, ten vartapets, and two deacons, supervising a diocese of 74 villages and 62 priests. In the Russo-Persian war, the monastery had been pillaged, the bishop tortured and carried off to Tabriz. Tatev remained an active monastery in the 19th c, but fell on hard times in the Soviet period. The earthquake of 1931 did considerable damage, some of which has recently been repaired.

In the S part of the village is Tatev hermitage (Harants Anapat) of the 17th c. There is also a site near Tatev village called Tsuravank, a monastery of the 10-17th c. In the middle of the villages lies the simple village church, which was restored by the Land and Culture Organization during the 1990's. A difficult dirt road, requiring good ground clearance, continues S from Tatev through beautiful wooded country. The first fork right leads to Svarants (336 p). Staying left, the road then passes turns for Tandzatap (102 p 11-13th c. monastery), Kashuni (30 p, formerly Maldash), and Aghvani (102 p), with Iron Age burials and a 17th c. church. Tandzaver (225 p) has a 17th c. church and a ruined medieval fort, and Bronze Age tomb fields. Then follow a cluster of villages on the Achanan river and its tributaries: Verev Khotanan (294 p) has W of it the 10-14th c. Ghazarants hamlet with a S. Astvatsatsin church; Tavros (93 p) used to be the Azeri village of Dovrus; Nerkin Khotanan (100 p S. Astvatsatsin church of 17-19th c.); Gharatgha (0 p) 17th c. Horomants church nearby; Okhtar (100 p) 10th c church; Dzorastan (117 p) medieval fort, 17th c. church; Shrvenants (72 p) 10-11th c. church; Norashenik (161 p) 17th c. church; Antarashat (129 p) has S. Hripsime church of 10th c. in the village, which was known to Stepanos Orbelian as Torini; Arajadzor (197 p) has Melik-Stepanian family tomb in village; 2 km SE is ancient cemetery. Achanan (150 p, formerly Khalaj) has a church. The road joins up with the main Kapan-Goris road just E of Kapan.

South to Kapan (Section 7; Map L)

Going S. on the main road from Goris to Kapan, the road rises from the village and hydroelectric station of Vorotan (264 p) in the gorge (restaurant). A kilometer or two beyond the summit, a signposted road leads W to Bardzravan (171 p, till 1926 Mazra). At 3.1 km from the turnoff, a paved road (faded white sign) leads right to a little wooded promontory on which stand the remains of Bgheno Noravank* =55= (39 23.29n x 046 21.62e?), with a small reconstructed church of 1062. The ruins of this church were rediscovered in the 1920s by Axel Bakunts, the famous prose writer, during one of his wanderings as agronomist. In the village of Bardzravan is a S. Astvatsatsin church of 1870. Two km S on the slope toward the Vorotan river is Karkopi S. Minas church of the 17th c.

The main S. road follows the border to Shurnukh (142 p, founded 1930). S of Shurnukh a road runs W to Katar, formerly Aghbulagh, with ruined Kalandat castle. Further S is Davit-Bek (811 p, till 1949 Zeyva). This village on the Kashunik river has an old bridge, a 10th c. ruined grave monument E and the Takh church 3 km E. Zeyva was a Muslim stronghold besieged by the forces of David Bek in 1722. After two days of vain attacks, the redoubtable warrior priest Ter Avetis infiltrated and opened the path for the fort to be stormed and its garrison slaughtered. (When the war ended, Ter-Avetis made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was ultimately forgiven his sinful combativeness.) East of the road, Kaghnut (118 p, till 1949 Moghes) has a modern hermitage. Artsvanik (704 p) dates to the 6th c. 3 km NE is Yeritsavank =50= (39 16.83n x 046 29.08?), a 6th c. church and pilgrimage site with sweeping views named after Yeritsuk, a mid-6th c. bishop of Syunik; 1 km W is a small 9th c. church, with 11th c. khachkars. Further W are ruins of a medieval structure, the so-called Aghravi Tapan ("Crow's Ark"), the Chknavori shrine, and ruins of a 4th-1st c. BC fortress. There is a village tree thought to be 500 years old. The melik (chieftain) of the village, Melik-Frangyul, is fabled for betraying his kinsmen to the Turks during the wars of Davit Bek. From Artsvanik a road goes NW to Chapni (126 p), a former mining site, Sevakar (137 p), with 10-17th c. churches, and Yegheg (194 p, formerly Shabadin, ruins of 10-13th c. churches nearby). East of the road is Vardavank (114 p, formerly Verin Gyodaklu)

Kapan (34656 p, till 1991 Ghapan, originally Madan) is the marz capital, a once bustling mining town built originally with French capital in the late 19th c. It boasts a high-rise hotel on the main square (S bank of the river -- hot water in the "luxe" rooms), and a museum. On the W edge of Kapan, on a hill S of the Voghji river, sit the ruins of Halidzor fortress =30= (39 13.09n x 046 21.12e), with church remains within. Built in the 17th c. as a nunnery, it became the headquarters of Davit Bek, the famous early 18th c. freedom fighter. He died there of illness in 1728, and is by repute buried in the cemetery outside the castle. On NE edge of town is a 17th c. church in the district called Kavard. Somewhere about 5 km NW of Kapan is the former village of Achakhlu with the 10-13th c. Ashaghui Vank. Apparently in the same area is the former village of Bashkend, with a Greek church and ruins of the Achanan castle.

The Wars of Davit Bek: Preserved in Armenian (with French translation by M. Brosset) is "The Excellent History of Davit Bek," allegedly written by or at the behest of Stepanos Shahumian, scion of a local noble family and instigator of Davit Bek's insurrection (and possibly an ancestor of Stepan Shahumian, chief of the Baku Commissars). In 1722, when the Persian khans were distracted by dynastic and other troubles (i.e., Afghans on the move), Stepanos Shahumian applied to King Vakhtang of Georgia (aka Hussein Qoli-Khan, a Persian vassal but fairly autonomous) for a war-leader to defend "Yotnaberd" ("Seven Castles"), the Kapan region, against the ongoing depredations. Davit Bek, descendant of an ancient Syunik princely family, answered the call, descending on the region with 400 colleagues. After quick early success in routing the Karachorlu and Jevanshir nomads and pillaging the Muslim village of Kurtlar, they persuaded various influential local leaders, such as Melik Pharsadan of Bekh (now a suburb of Kapan) to join the cause. The local sultan Bathali and increasingly large Muslim armies marched against Davit Bek, but suffered horrific defeats at the hands of their outnumbered foe. Davit Bek and his allies systematically destroyed the Turkic villages of Kapan and Meghri districts, slaughtering the Muslim population and loading the plunder on camels.

In 1727, however, the Ottoman army invaded Syunik after wresting Erivan from the Persians the previous year. Most of David Bek's supporters prudently slipped away, but, besieged with 12 priests, three bishops, and 300 men in Halidzor castle, he manfully resisted an army said to be 70,000 men strong. When the end seemed near, the assembled clergy evoked St. Minas and the defenders launched a suicidal attack. The Ottoman forces panicked and fled, leaving (according to legend) 12,000 dead on the field. This miracle persuaded Davit Bek that God intended him to expel the Ottomans from Kapan. He made an alliance with the Persian armies across the Arax. Unfortunately, the alliance was short-lived. With new Ottoman armies on the warpath, David Bek died in his castle of disease. His chief lieutenant and successor, Mkhitar Sparapet, was murdered by local villagers. The rebellion faded away.

East of Kapan (Section 8; Map M)

Going E past the airport from Kapan, take the right fork in Syunik (796 p). The straight road leads through a little Azerbaijani projection, the village of Seyidlar, to reach Agarak (4741 p, Ohana Church of 19th c., khachkars). A newer road N bypasses the salient to reach Khdrants (70 p, formerly Sirkatas), with a church of 1892 and, 2 km E, Chorekdrni Vank. The one standing church has a Greek inscription over the door. (this church, if I do not have the village wrong, is an interesting brown and white stone little onion domed roof church with either Greek or Cyrillic on it. The view of the valley and Kapan is fantastic.) Ujhanis (138 p) has 2 km NE in the hamlet of Old Ujhanis a church built in 1629 by Grigor Ustan, and a 12-13th c. funerary monument. Yeghvard (274 p) has an Astvatsatsin church of 1700. Nine km E in "Shushan's field" in 1725 took place a battle between Davit Bek and Fathali Khan, won by the former. Near the village is the White Spring Cross (Spitak Aghbyuri Khach) church with 10-19th c. khachkars and remains of a medieval market.

The Shikahogh State Preserve (Section 9; Map M)

Mdnadzor Canyon in Shikahogh. (c) Arlen Dilsizian and Raffi Kojian.
A beautiful drive from Kapan is S toward Shikahogh State Preserve and the gorge of the Tsav river. Driving E from downtown Kapan, turn right after the short road tunnel. Cross under the tracks, then up along the brand new highway (set for completion in late 2006). One fork branches off to Geghanush, 267 p, with two churches, one of the 15-16th c. The main road runs along the state border with Azerbaijan, perhaps occasionally crossing it. First village is Chakaten (177 p), with a 10th c. church, a shrine, and a 16/17th c. bridge. Shikahogh (274 p) has 17-18th c. churches, Chalcolithic through Iron Age tombs, and a 19th c. bridge. Srashen (105 p) has 2 km W a 17th c. S. Hripsime church. A few km after Srashen the road forks, the left branch descending into the floodplain of the Tsav river at Nerkin Hand (110 p). Here along the river is a grove of plane trees* (Platanus orientalis), sacred to the ancient Armenians, since 1958 the "Platan" State Reservation. Just before reaching Tsav you pass the canyon of Mdnadzor (Dark Canyon), made famous by the prose of Aksel Bakunts. Mdnadzor Canyon's days consist of perpetual twilight (the sun doesn't shine due to the N-S orientation of the tall canyon sides, and the thick virgin forest). Tsav (148 p) is located on a picturesque part of the Tsav river. It has a church and, S of the river on a crag upstream from the village, a modest medieval Aghjkaberd, "Maiden Castle." Somewhere nearby is another fortress, Ghazaghan. The mountains on either side of the Tsav and Shikahogh river, with forests of oak and hornbeam, are included in the 100 sq. km. Shikahogh State Reserve. At the end of the road, Shishkert has 17-18th c. churches.

West toward Kajaran -- Vahanavank (Section 10; Map L, M)

Vahanavank Monastery - side church

The main road W from Kapan runs along a pleasant gorge. After about 6 km, near the village of Shharjik, a paved road on the left angles down across the Voghji river, then runs back SE to the monastery of Vahanavank* =80= (39 13.09n x 046 21.12e). This was founded in 911 by Vahan, son of Prince Gagik of Kapan, who (as Stepanos Orbelian reports) took on a monk's robe and lifestyle to cure himself of demonic possession. Gathering 100 like-minded clerics, he built the original S. Grigor Lusavorich church, and was buried near the door. His equally royal nephew, also Vahan, was educated at Vahanavank and rose to be Bishop of Syunik and then Katholikos. The monastery became the religious center of the kings of Syunik in the 11th c. Queen Shahandukht built the Astvatsatsin church as a burial site for her and her relatives. The site is lovely, the ruins evocative, and a small team led by Academician Grigor Grigorian is attempting to restore as much as possible. SE of Vahanavank is a large tomb field of the end of the 2nd millennium BC. The next turnoff leads to a summer camp and a rather snazzy guesthouse belonging to the Marzpet's office. There is allegedly excellent rock-climbing nearby. The former village of Musallam has a 13th c. bridge on the Geghi river and an 11-13th c. church.

Beyond the turnoff, a road goes N to the hamlet of Verin Giratagh (0 p). On a hill above the confluence of the Voghji and Geghi rivers (N of the road) stands the castle of Baghaberd* =60= (39 12.84n x 046 16.68e), with double walls and strong towers. It became the capital of the Syunik kingdom in the 12th c, but was finally sacked in 1170 by the Seljuk Turks. A road goes up the Geghi river to Kavshut, Pirlu (0 p) and Geghi (196 p), the latter with scant remains of Geghi fortress and a 10th c. church. Kahurt (formerly Kyurut, 8 v) has castle remains S. There are several other small hamlets up the river valleys, such as Bakavank, formerly Payahan (20 p) and Ajibaj and Kard with 17th c. churches. Under the altar of the Kard church is supposed to flow a spring of mineral water. A dirt road leading S follows a stream to Avsarlu, which has on the opposite bank a 14th c. settlement and church.

Lernadzor (430 p, till 1920s Kyurdikend) has an 18th c. S. Astvatsatsin church. Across the river is a katoghike church of the 5-6th c. The mining town of Kajaran (7976 p) and (just beyond) village of Kajarants (172 p) are famous for the massive copper-molybdenum mine, which is still in operation. It is impressive to drive up to the mine and see the trucks, tiny in comparison to the pit, dumping ore into an elaborate system of conveyers. The ore receives initial processing in Kajaran but must be exported for final conversion to metal. The waste rock is piped a discreet distance away, filling various stream valleys with dirt on which only the most impervious weeds grow. Pollution of the Voghji river is an unsolved problem.

South to Meghri (Section 11; Map L)

Turning left and crossing the bridge in Kajaran, the road winds up to the Tashtun Pass at 2483 m. Note that even in August the fog can settle in, making the pass hazardous to the lines of Iranian trucks and those in their way. The road descends to follow the Meghri River. The first turnoff right, some 19 km after Kajaran, leads to Tashtun (166 p) on the right, with a 17th c. domed basilica of S. Stepanos; and Lichk (209 p), with two 17th c. bridges on the Meghri river, a 17th c. S. Karapet church, and 17th c. Dzvaravank by the village. On the Arevik river S of Lichk is a 17th c. bridge. Four km S, a road NE leads to Vank (67 p), with a 17th c. church and bridge, and Kaler, with a 17th c. Astvatsatsin church. From there a jeep track leads over the mountain to Shishkert and Tsav.

The main road descends through the hamlets of Tkhkut, (formerly Maralzami), with 17th c. church, Aygedzor, and Vardanidzor (194 p). At Lehvaz (537 p, tomb field nearby), a road angles NW to Vahravar (68 p, formerly Azeri) with a S. Gevorg church in the village and 17th c. Karmravank church just E. Under the altar platform is a secret storage area. Gudemnis (64 p) has a 17th c. Astvatsatsin church, and Kakavaberd ruins nearby; Kuris (109 p, small 17th c. S. Sargis church N) and Karchevan (340 p, 12th c. S. Astvatsatsin church, cemetery, castle traces nearby). Karchevan is famous for the impenetrable dialect of its inhabitants. It was bought and given to Tatev monastery by King Smbat Bagratuni (890-914). Somewhere in this general area in the mountains W of the Meghri river is a ruined mosque once a significant Muslim pilgrimage site.

Between Karchevan and Agarak Village (176 p, founded 1949) the dirt road passes along the edge of a huge open-pit copper-molybdenum mine (probably operating again after a long closure). From Agarak, the road descends to the Iranian border. The border-crossing bridge and new customs point is nearby, with long lines of trucks generally waiting for some mysterious paperwork to arrive from somewhere. In the former village of Agarak close by are two 17th c. churches, Aknakhach and S. Amenaprkich Vank. The scenery along the Arax river is striking, jagged, arid gorges juxtaposed with verdant river valleys. The road runs along the border fence east, passing the Meghri turnoff and then (12 km) the turn for Alvank (291 p, formerly the Azeri village of Aldara). A dirt road seems to run NNW from Alvank toward the abandoned villages of Malyev, Upper Malyev, and Apges in the Malev river gorge S of 3024 m. Mt. Cknavor,with five churches of the 14-17th centuries in the area: "Sevadan Kujert", Amenaprkich in Malyev, S. Hakop (Upper Malyev), Apkes, and Tos. The road E deteriorates badly as one goes E to the turn for Shvanidzor (338 p), with a 17th or 18th c. aqueduct, builder unknown, of considerable engineering interest. Last village before the road enters Azerbaijani territory is Nurnadzor (150 p), better known as Nyuvadi.) The Azeris have been pushed back about 60km from this official border, which is occupied by Armenian forces. The roads are precarious and there are military posts. Taking pictures of Iran from the Armenian side of the border is for some reason frowned upon as a "security" issue, and if spotted you will probably be questions and get your film confiscated.

Meghri Town - general view
Alley in Meghri Town

The town of Meghri (4514 p) boasts a dilapidated hotel, lots of places for thirsty truckers to buy vodka for the road, and amazing lush fruits and vegetables. The figs are particularly famous, while the yellow pomegranates, if in season, are not to be missed. The setting is striking, with green gardens in the rocky desert. There is a fortress on the hills on the N and E of town, known from the 10th century but rebuilt in the early 18th c. by Davit Bek. It had four 2-story circular towers and two rectangular, but no circuit wall between them. This was the only Armenian fortress specifically designed for firearms. In 1727, 400 of Davit Bek's men held off many times their number of Turkish troops for 5 days, till relief troops arrived. In the Mets Tagh district below the fortress is a 17th c. Astvatsatsin church with interesting 19th c. wall paintings. In the Pokr Tagh district SW is a 17th c. S. Sargis basilica church, with battered 17th c. frescoes. Also in the SW part of town up the slope is Meghru Vank with a S. Hovhannes church (15-17th c.), also covered in wall paintings. From the roof there is an excellent view of the entire district. This area has crumbling remains of 18-19th c. houses, giving a taste of the much more beautiful pre-Soviet architecture.

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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