The Sisian travelogue
Published: Wednesday May 09, 2012
Sisian is in Siunik province, southern Armenia. I guess it's a few hours' drive from Yerevan, though I don't know for sure because we stop at so many interesting places along the way. Sisian is perhaps best known for Karahunj, also known as Zorats Kar (stone soldiers) and believed to be an ancient astronomical observatory, and nearby Tatev (Datev) Monastery.
In Sisian we arrived at the Basen Hotel, a no-frills but very comfortable hotel a 5-minute walk from the center of town. The hotel consists of five two story buildings with rooms on both floors. There are a total of 15 - 20 rooms. The restaurant is in a separate building. The food was excellent and our hostess Hasmik was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She was of immense assistance in allowing us to make the most of our time during two visits to Sisian. There are other hotels in Sisian as well, though I can not comment on them as I have not stayed at them.
Sisian art school
Within a few minutes walk from the hotel are the Sisian music and art schools. The art school conducts classes after regular school hours. Classes include painting, embroidery, sculpture, and other subjects at very low cost for students. The painting instructor, Ashot Avagyan, is a well known painter who has an encyclopedic knowledge and love of Sisian and its surroundings. While he conducted a tour of the school, displaying some of his own and his students' paintings, we were interrupted by former students paying him a visit. Immediately obvious was the close bond established between these young Armenian artists and their mentor, Ashot Avagian. Many of these students are now budding artists in their own right. Within the hallway are works of the students, some of which are for sale. These include beautiful works of embroidery as well as paintings of a number of subjects including nature scenes, people, and images of the Karabagh war which undoubtedly influenced the students through the experiences of older family members. Despite a low tuition, often students' families can not afford the tuition or art supplies. When he can, stated Avagian, he helps the students with these issues. My friend and traveling companion Mesrob Odian and I made a small donation to help in such circumstances.
Sisian music school
Upon returning to the Basen hotel from the center of town, our hostess Hasmik informed us that the Sisian Women's Choir was having a "practice" at the music school. It soon became evident that this was more a performance than a practice. Accompanied by a piano the chorus sang Armenian folk songs by Gomidas and other composers. When I was a child, my mother Betty Dagdigian, was the piano accompanists for the Armenian National Choral Society of Boston, directed by Anahid Keshishian . I would often accompany my mother to practices and would be amazed at the beautiful songs and sounds produced by the choral society. The Sisian Women's Chorus replicated this experience. It was an emotional flashback to a wonderful experience which has remained with me always. Like the art school, the music school teaches music to interested children after normal school hours. Like the art school, they are handicapped by a lack of resources including instruments, computers, and the availability of music. Here also my friend and traveling companion Mesrob and I made a small donation.
On an encouraging note, since then Mr. Berge Jololian of Watertown, with some friends, has established a program to provide Sisian's and neighboring villages' schools with computers and internet access which until then they have lacked.
On our subsequent visit a year later our host Hasmik informed us of a ceremony in progress at Karahunj. We arrived as a crowd of people was gathering across the road from the ancient astronomical observatory, probably predating Stonehenge, to inaugurate a miniature replica of Karahunj organized by Ashot Avagyan. Avagyan, besides teaching painting, is intimately tied to Sisian's land and it turbulent struggle for liberty and millennia old history and culture. He, with a group of sturdy Sisiantsis, moved into place the final large stone of the circle. With a band playing and a few speeches consecrating the modern replica of the ancient site across the road, visitors were invited to spend a minute in the central focal point of the stone circle to commune with the forces of the universe. Each of us who did so were awarded a certificate guaranteeing us the right to be buried at Karahunj! My wife Lisa coldly informed me that if I wished to be buried at Karahunj, I would have to die at Karahunj.
Karahunj is believed to be an ancient astronomical observatory, perhaps with strong religious and spiritual connotations. While dating of the site is uncertain, some believe it to date back as early as 5,000 B.C. At the center of a ring of standing stones are the ruins of what is believed to have been a small temple, perhaps a Zoroastrian fire temple. On a roughly north-south axis are a line of other stones bisecting the circle. In total there are 204 standing stones, some 5-6 feet tall. A number of these stones are pierced, perhaps to view the alignment of stars and planets at certain times of the year. The field of Karahunj is on a slight rise above most of its immediate surroundings which somehow imparts a hard to describe mystical feeling that one is close to the heavens, despite the fact that the surrounding hills and mountains are much higher. It is easy to visualize how our ancient ancestors found spirituality in this place.
Looking roughly north across the highway from Karahunj, one sees the twin peaks of Oughtasar (Camel Mountain). After a 45 minute bone jarring jeep ride up the mountain, past an interesting field of rocks (I believe remnants of an extinct volcano), one comes to a little lake below the peaks. On one side of the lake in ancient times were deposited large slabs of dark stone upon which the ancients drew numerous petroglyphs or stone drawings of snakes, serpents, people, and animals. I've been told or have read that these drawings date from 200 to 2,000 B.C., but an archaeologist friend indicated that in fact nobody really knows their age. During my second trip here, as part of a hiking expedition, we camped next to the lake. Though we were in t-shirts during the day, as soon as the sun set it got cold. In the morning there was ice along the lake shore. This was July. The mountains upon which we hiked were pristine, with patches of snow here and there where the ground was shaded by the peaks. The ground was stone rubble, or thick grass, sometimes with boulders hidden by the grass and, on occasion, covered with a few inches of snow though the day time temperature was quite warm.