Smbataberd: Fortress of the Master of the Universe
Entering through the arched door of Smbataberd fortress feels like falling into the pages of an epic tale. The stone steps lead me up to the top of the mountain, where ruined foundations hint at a castle which, like the origins of the fortress, has been buried in the mountains and lost to time.
The castle was built by Smbat, Master of the Universe, a king from the Bagratuni dynasty who ruled during the tenth century. He issued the orders to build the project from his castle in Ani, the ancient capital in Western Armenia, where he also began the construction of the famous cathedral that stands in ruins today.
When Smbat built the castle, however, the walls of the fortress were already ancient history. The first mention of the fortress is by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo who describes how it changed hands when Armenia was conquered by the Roman Empire.
As I climb on top of the fortress, I am walking on walls that have seen thousands of years of history. They have seen ruler after ruler as ancient dynasties rose and fell. They have seen Armenia lose its empire to invaders like the Romans, the Turks, and the Mongols, and they have seen Armenians fight for their homeland, like when Prince Smbat of Syunik Province fortified the castle and defended his territory from Yusuf Amira of Atrapatakan.
Nobody knows if the fortress is named for Smbat Bagratuni, Prince Smbat of Syunik, or Prince Smbat of the Orbelian dynasty, an Armenian royal family that ruled in both Armenia and Georgia. He is buried in Yeghegis, the village that looks up at the fortress from deep in the valley below.
If I swallow my vertigo and look down from the thin stretch of light brown wall I am standing on, I can see the little white houses peeking out from the big trees that dot the village. To my surprise, I can also see a green SUV and a big blue truck coming over the steep cliffs below me to park behind our 1990s-era green Russian military truck. Vardges, the truck’s owner, and our guide in these mountains draws our attention to the other green SUV.
“That’s the same kind of car as mine,” he says, “But it’s from the 1960s. The old ones are much better for going up into the mountains.”
When I ask him about the blue truck, he tells me that the villagers are using it to collect mountain herbs, which they make tea with. I immediately remember how I held on tight to keep from flying off the leather seats of Vardges’s car as the cliffs dropped off abruptly on either side of the rocky mountain road. I marvel once again at the skill Armenians have in their holy mountains, the legacy of thousands of years in their ancient land.
Vardges is someone who really embodies the Armenian love for the mountains. He works tirelessly to protect his homeland from the dangers of pollution, deforestation, and irresponsible hunting, compensating for the environmental protection programs that disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union.
“When we first gained independence, we were facing the collapse of our economy, the destruction of the 1988 Earthquake, the blockade from our neighbors, and the Nagorno-Karabakh War,” He explains. “Nobody was really concerned about the environment.”
Now, however, as the ancient nation of Armenia is regaining its footing and beginning to thrive again, Vardges is making it his mission to protect the mountains that have allowed the Armenian people to survive for tens of thousands of years and to take their place as one of the oldest nations in the world that still exists today. He works to help Armenia’s wildlife through projects like the bird sanctuary near Noravank Monastery, and the wildlife preserve that protects Armenia’s Bezoarian Mountain Goats. He uses his personal finances and skills to further these projects, as well as help build infrastructure for environmental conservation, and to bring environmental problems to the attention of the government.
“It’s difficult,” he says, “The government doesn’t really have money for environmental protection. And the local people are very willing to help, but they aren’t able to do anything.”
As Vardges explained to us the many problems that take attention away from the environment: crippling poverty, aggression by Azerbaijan, political turmoil as Armenia is pushed and pulled between Russia and the West, and huge social issues in the country, it seemed that he had set out on an almost impossible quest. But he is extremely passionate about the work that he does, and I know that, like the ancient walls of Smbataberd fortress, he will continue to persevere, and protect his beloved homeland for years to come.