Off the Beaten Path in Armenia
Several hours from Sisian, in the mountains of Syunik Province, the indigenous Hay people have been creating art celebrating their culture since at least the Bronze Age. In the caldera of an extinct volcano, a thousand basalt boulders formed from ancient lava streams are decorated with petroglyphs which feature humans, animals and abstract symbols. At 10,827 feet, Ughtasar, or camel mountain, is snowbound most of the year. Our friend Valeri guided us to the summit in his 4x4. After two hours jolting up the mountainside, where we saw some of the most amazing scenery this side of Middle Earth, we reached the crater with its glaciers and alpine lakes ahead of the afternoon thunderstorm. Here we were surrounded by craggy peaks and the deepening cloud cover as we explored the boulder-strewn fields of talus. Stepping carefully to avoid touching the ancient petroglyphs, we came across goats, snakes, bears, wolves, boar, humans, and unfamiliar symbols carved into the rocks by the hands of our ancestors. But, we saw far more goats than any other animal or symbol. Some researchers say that the words for goat and writing in ancient Armenian are homonyms, and so have called the petroglyphs "goat writing." It is possible that there are so many goats carved because the word for goat, or "dig," and the word for god, or "diq," in ancient Armenian are so similar that goats may have been used as a sign for the gods. We hiked around the caldera, investigating the petroglyphs, admiring the lake and glaciers close up, and looking in awe at the jagged peaks rising all around us. Alpine flowers dotted the landscape, which was green from the snow melt and early season rains. Valeri, a veteran of Artsakh's war for independence, had lots of stories to share as we hiked. When finally we were chilled to the bone by the mountain air, Valeri made us a picnic of hot soorj, warm gata, and freshly picked apricots. Nothing could have been more delicious or welcome. I sat silently in the grass and marveled at being in this place filled with the spirits of ancestors whose art held messages I could only guess the meanings of.
More information on the Ughtasar Rock Art Project at http://ughtasarrockartproject.org
Located in Old Martiros Village in Vayots Dzor Province is the mysterious church reborn from one woman's miraculous vision. Martiros Village was originally founded in 1283 AD by Prince Prosh and his son Paron Hasan. Today only the caretaker and a dozen others live in the old village.
The church was built in 1866, but by the 1980s had fallen into ruins. Taguhi Zeldyan had recently lost her young nephew, when the boy came to her in a vision telling her to find the ruined church and restore it. Guided by her vision, Tikin Taguhi located the ruined church and set about restoring it. Her vision also inspired the construction of the All-Holy Trinity Second Jerusalem Church on the original church grounds. She began collecting books and art for a library and seminary, which continues today.
The friendly caretaker has a store of wonderful tales about the miracles performed on the strength of the faith of believers who make pilgrimages to Martiros Church. Ask her about the wonderful key, which, for those who have faith, possesses the strength to unlock the hidden powers within us, restoring us as it restored the power of speech to a young girl. Buy some candles and sit in quiet prayer awhile, contemplating the strength of faith.
St. Astvatsatsin Cave Church
The mountains of Vayots Dzor, Armenia rise above the ancient village of Martiros. Follow a nearly invisible dirt track through the hills until you see a single kachkar in a field with the remnants of monuments around it. Now follow the water course through the gorge until you come to a dam. Cross the dam and follow the slope upwards, looking carefully for a small door set into the mountainside. This tiny door leads to St. Asvatsatsin Church, built into the rocky mountainside in 1286 AD by Matevos Vardapet for Prince Prosh. Well-hidden from invaders, its secret underground passage to the stream and caves below it on the mountain is now blocked. The tiny church shielded believers from foreign invasions over the centuries, preserving the people and their culture. You can feel the soul of this sacred place as you stand in the twilight inside contemplating the power of love.
Tsakhats Kar Monastery
More off road adventures are waiting for you in the mountains of beautiful Vayots Dzor province. Try to commandeer a Russian UAZ Patriot off road vehicle, like the 90s vintage one driven by our friend Vardges in the photo. After the paved road ends outside the villages of Shatin and Artabuynk, follow an unmarked jeep trail that fords the stream and heads up the mountain. On the mountainside you'll find the ruins of the 10th century Tsakhats Kar Monastery surrounded by truly majestic scenery.
The main St. Karapet Church features some unique designs, including the wine pitchers on the front of the altar. The smaller St. Hovannes Church is surrounded by beautifully carved kachkars. Explore and discover the many other structures lying in ruins on the mountainside. Outside the main church is a pretty spot to picnic. We discovered the remains of a campfire and a makeshift soorj pot (Armenian coffee), which made us crave a soorj and gata (Armenian sweet bread) break. Good thing we had a picnic along!
Take in the scenery, light a candle and take some time for quiet contemplation in the chapel, have a cup of soorj, and walk to the spring for some refreshing cold water before heading to your next adventure. Look out over the mountains in the photo of St. Karapet Church, and you'll see Smbataberd waiting for you to explore.
From Tsakhats Kar Monsastery, follow the road you see winding up the mountain to Smbataberd, or Smbat's Fortress. Your commandeered UAZ Patriot or a fantastic hike are the best ways to reach the mountaintop citadel. Several royal dynasties are associated with this fortress, whose origins are hidden in the mists of ancient history, sometime before the 5th century AD. The fortress was mentioned by both Greek and Roman historians.
Smbataberd was one of the most formidable fortresses in Vayots Dzor province. It is said that the Seljuk Turks had to resort to extreme measures even to attempt a siege, and the fortress was retaken to stand strong against the invading Mongols.
When you see the breathtaking sweep of terrain surrounding Smbataberd, you'll understand its imposing strategic advantage. The great perimeter wall remains mostly intact, and it's a beautiful sight. Several of the watchtowers and barbican stand guard over the canyons and towns below. The ruins of the castle, upper and lower citadels, and other structures have not been extensively excavated, so your adventure of discovery awaits you just beyond the walls of Smbataberd.