Prehistory, War Stories, and Off-Road Drives: The Ughtasar Petroglyphs
If you veer off the beaten path in Armenia, you may find yourself traveling to some of the oldest traces of civilization on a route where there isn’t even one of the dirt paths that sometimes pass for roads. To reach the site, you need a particularly hardy four-wheel-drive, and a highly skilled driver and navigator. Our fearless captain was Valeri, a friendly man who told us stories of his time fighting in the war for Artsakh’s independence, gave us fresh apricots and warm gata from his wife, and even invited us over to his house for coffee. In between holding very tightly onto the seats, trying not to bang my head against the windows as I was thrown out of mine every once in a while, and listening to Valeri’s tales of triumphs and hardships, I found myself staring enraptured as we drove through fields and fields of wildflowers, past a few lakes and countless panoramic views, and even through the clouds.
We stepped out of the car and into the chilly air on the top of Ughtasar, or Camel Mountain, a volcano that had its last eruption more than 11,000 years ago, and is now extinct. I pulled my less-than-adequate summer sweater closer as Hayk (our guide and translator) cut our empty water bottles in half to make cups for the Armenian coffee that Valeri had brought for us in a big metal thermos. As I savored my coffee, I took in the spectacular view. In front of me was a glistening glacial lake flanked by the remnants of the glacier, as well as the rock field that was strewn with the famous petroglyphs. Behind stood Valeri’s car, a darker shade of green than the bright fields around it, and small against the backdrop of intermittent glaciers, and clouds that touched the mountaintops. When we finished our coffee, we went into the rock field to look at the petroglyphs. They were everywhere, so much so that we had to watch our feet to avoid stepping on them. As I looked at the various drawings of people hunting, fighting, cultivating land, and dancing, as well as animals or other symbols, I realized that I was looking at things so old that they were prehistory. Though the date of their creation is unknown, they have been estimated to be up to 14,000 years old.
The petroglyphs are an example of an ancient writing system in which homonyms are used to represent abstract concepts. For instance, pictures of goats occur very frequently in the Ughtasar petroglyphs because one ancient Armenian word for goat “dig” is a homonym with the word “diq” which means god. This system is known as goat writing, which scholars initially thought was because of the large number of goats depicted in the petroglyphs, but is actually because another ancient Armenian word for goat “khaz” was the same as the word for writing.
After our morning of fascinating historical discovery, we started our way down the mountain, which, if anything, was even more nerve-wracking and beautiful than the way up. Seeing as the rain clouds that had been towering menacingly above us had not opened up yet, we stopped for a picnic lunch of kebabs we had picked up at a roadside stand, and Valeri told us the story of how he lost one of his shoulder blades after getting shot in the war. When we got back on our way, he told us how both he and his son had volunteered to fight in the April War that broke out this year when Azerbaijani soldiers attacked from across the border, and played us a patriotic song that his friend had written to inspire the soldiers. After we reached the bottom of the mountain, we left Valeri in Sisian, got back into Hayk’s car, and continued our journey.