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.
A 15 minute walk from the Basen Hotel through the center of town brings one to the Saint Hovhannes church, built on the site of an original pagan temple in the 4th C. The current church, which replaced an older one, dates to the 600s and was originally part of a monastery, Siuni Vank, which was a center of learning and culture during medieval times. There are a number of inscriptions on the church. In the church's niches are sculptured portraits of clergy and members of Siunik's princely family members who were responsible for the construction and protection of the church. The day after photographing the church I returned, realizing that I had overlooked photographing one aspect of its construction. In medieval times stone masons would leave their unique "mason marks", inscribed patterns indicating the identities of those who physically built the structure, on churches. Upon my return the caretaker of the church, Zaven, immediately asked where I was from. Answering Boston, he immediately exclaimed "Ahhh, General Dro was buried in Boston", referring to General Dro Kanayan who commanded the battle of Bash Aparan in May 1918. Together with the battles of Karakillese and Sardarapat, the Armenians stopped the invading Turkish army from eliminating the Armenians remaining in the Caucasus and resulted in the Independent Republic of Armenia on May 28 of that year. The gentleman then proceeded to relate the last 100-200 years of Siunik's resistance to foreign domination, often pointing at the mountains or in directions where Armenians clashed with invaders. When questioned on "mason marks" he showed me a number of them. Of all the churches in Armenia, he stated, Siuni Vank has more mason marks than any other structure in Armenia - a total of 39. These marks are the personal signs of masons recording their accomplishments. Some are in the shapes of Armenian letters, while others are geometrical patterns such as stars, crosses, hour glass shapes, etc.
Underneath the pavement in front of the church are remains of a pre-Christian Zoroastrian fire temple. Of more recent origin is an adjacent cemetery containing the graves of local casualties from the Karabagh war.
South-east of Sisian is the village on Aghudi. Within the village is a 1,500 or so year old monument consisting of 3 columns standing upon a structure which perhaps was a mausoleum. This is a very unusual style of monument in Armenia, the only other known example being at the Odzun church in northern Armenia. The monument's purpose is unknown but speculation is that it may have been a memorial to fallen comrades erected by the retreating veterans of the Battle of Avarayr in which Armenian national hero Saint Vartan Mamikonian was killed in 401 A.D. Others speculate that this was a tomb to princely family members in Siunik. Adjacent to the monument is a circular foundation, perhaps the remnant of a circular church similar to Zvartnots near Echmiadzin or the circular chapels in the medieval Armenian capital of Ani, across the Armenian - Turkish border.
A short distance from Aghudi, at an isolated part of the Vorotan River valley, is beautiful Vorotnavank. The monastery, surrounded by a defensive wall, contains two churches, Soorp Garabed and Soorp Stepanos, as well as a gavit or assembly hall built between years 1000 and 1007. Like many other monasteries in Armenia, Vorotnavank was captured by the Seljuk Turks only to subsequently be liberated by the Zakarian brothers, Ivane and Zakare, who were in the service of Queen Tamara of Georgia. Ivane liberated Vorotnavank and the nearby fort of Vorotnabert and turned them over to Liparat Orbelian of the famous Orbelian family of princely rulers. Vorotnavank was a center of medieval learning together with other monasteries in Siunik. Near the monastery are elaborately carved gravestones graphically portraying events which perhaps are episodes from the life of the deceased. A spectacular view of the monastery, the Vorotan Valley, and nearby mountains can be obtained from the top of the adjacent hill.
Upon our arrival at Angeghakot we visited a small cemetery near the town's center. There were buried Armenian freedom fighters who died defending Siunik around 1906 -probably fighting under the command of General Keri, or perhaps General Antranig or Njdeh. One of the tombstones portrays a soldier, standing erect, with his rifle at his side. The people of Siunik have always been fiercely independent and to this day can relate the struggles they endured for their freedom.
We then proceeded to a small hill upon which an archaeological excavation was being conducted. Two pits, about 10 feet deep, revealed ancient foundations and artifacts from the copper or bronze age (roughly 6,000 - 3,000 BC). Just exposed that day or the previous evening was a human skeleton. Archaeologists were delicately uncovering the bones with soft brushes. I asked the head archaeologist if she had dated the site. She responded that the site was believed to be from the chalcolithic (copper) age, but obviously they had not yet carbon dated the human remains. Within the region are a large number of bronze and iron age remains as documented in English by Onik Xnkikyan Syunik During the Bronze and Iron Ages, translated by Vatche Ghazarian, Mayreni Publishing, 2002.
Just outside town is Soorp Vartan church, dated around 1298. The church is crudely built half into the side of a small hill. Local tradition has it that this is the burial site of Saint Vartan Mamikonian, the sparabed or general who led the defense of Armenia's Christianity against the Sassanid Persians in the Battle of Avarayr 451 AD. Vartan died heroically in the battle in which the outnumbered Armenians lost to the Persians, though the Armenians extracted a high price. A guerilla war ensued for the next 3 decades under the leadership of Vartan's nephew Kayl (Woolf) Vahan causing the Persians finally to guarantee Armenia's freedom of religion. Yearly, on St.Vartanantz Day, there is a procession to this shrine. I am told this was the only public religious procession permitted in Armenia during the Soviet era. It should be noted that there are a number of sites reputed to be the final resting place of St. Vartan.
Heading east from Sisian there is the village of Khnsoresk on the right shortly before entering the Lachin Corridor towards Artsakh (Karabagh). Passing through the village one arrives at a deep gorge with vegetation on its slopes and easy to follow paths leading into the gorge. Along the slopes of the gorge are naturally occurring caves in which Armenians have carved homes, factories, bakeries, and churches. People lived in these homes, I am told, until the 1940s. The cave dwellings had windows carved out of the stone, and entrances were squared off to allow doors. Holes in the roofs served as chimneys. A group of us, guided by superb guides from Avarayr Tours in Armenia, hiked down one side of the gorge and up the opposite side. We encountered a cheese factory with large vats carved from the stone, a spring (the water was cold and delicious), three churches, and a bakery with tonirs (barrel shaped clay pits set in the ground in which bread was baked). During the hike we enjoyed wild ripening blackberries. At the bottom of the gorge was the barely recognizable foundation of an ancient church (perhaps as old as the 4th C) and the Pantheon - a handful of graves with gravestones intact.
Among the graves was that of Mkhitar Sparabed, David Beg's military commander in the 18th C struggle against Persia and the Ottoman Empire in Zangezur (southern Armenia). Upon the death of David Beg, Mkhitar Sparabed assumed the leadership of the armed struggle but was killed by a traitor who presented the Persian shah with Mkhitar Sparabed's severed head. The traitor expected a reward. The Shah responded "If you would do this to your own people, I can only imagine what you would do against me" and had the traitor executed.
I've described a small fraction of the interesting sights to be seen. Sisian is a rich repository of Armenian history and culture with beautiful scenery and welcoming people. Other than Karahunj and the Datev Monastey (which is well worth a visit), relatively few people visit other nearby sites. Sisian is an interesting and rewarding area to explore, with ample documentation available in books and on-line. Sisian, Siunik, and especially its people have won a place in our hearts.
A great resource for exploring Armenia is the book Rediscovering Armenia by Brady Kiesling and Raffi Kojian. This book is freely available on-line, from the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (N.A.A.S.R.) in Belmont, MA, and in Armenia at the Artbridge Bookstore. The English version of Syunik During the Bronze and Iron Age is available from N.A.A.S.R.