The Sisian travelogue
Published: Wednesday May 09, 2012
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.