Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Caucasus 2018


Today’s drive from Yerevan to Goris, in the south-east of Armenia, covered a distance of 260 kilometres, but our stops and rough road conditions meant the journey took almost ten hours, from 8:45am to 6:30pm.  The road began well, but after about half an hour, the condition deteriorated, apparently because the road is the main route used by heavy trucks travelling between Iran and Russia, and in the summer when temperatures can exceed 45 degrees Celsius, the bitumen softens and the trucks cause extensive damage to the road surface.

The journey began through Yerevan’s bleak industrial suburbs, which were located in the city’s south during Soviet times so the prevailing northerly winds could blow the pollution away from the city.  The area remains heaving polluted (and polluting) even though a majority of the factories are now closed, resulting in long swathes of abandoned decaying shells of factory buildings.

We reached our first stop after about an hour’s driving.  The Khor Virap Monastery is situated on a hill overlooking the river that forms the border between Armenia and Turkey, just two kilometres away.  It also has great views across to Mount Ararat, which is located in Turkey, although today’s hazy conditions made the view less than spectacular.

The monastery is not the most spectacular monastery in Armenia in terms of appearance, but it has a significant place in Armenia’s Christian origins.  According to the legend, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the Baptist of Armenia, was imprisoned in a deep pit beneath part of the monastery for twelve years by the pagan King Trdat III and secretly fed by Christian women who visited the site.  The king later converted to Christianity and freed St Gregory, beginning a program to build Christian temples and monasteries across Armenia on the sites of former pagan temples.

We continued our drive to the south-east, and the countryside became progressively drier and more barren.  After an hour’s driving, we turned off the main highway onto a small road that climbed up the deep narrow ravine of Areni Gorge (through which flows the Areni River, past the town of Areni, which is a centre of wine production using only Areni grapes).  After ten minutes climbing we reached one of Armenia’s most scenically situated monasteries, the Noravank Monastery.

Founded in 1105, most of the buildings in the complex today date from the 13th century, and they were restored in the 1990s.  Noravank is unique in that one of its churches, the Surb Astvatsatsin, has two stories.  The lower storey is below ground level and is fairly typical of other Armenian monasteries.  The upper level is reached by climbing a set of very steep, indeed precipitous, ridiculously narrow stairs with no railing.  Once inside the upper level, there is a dome to look up and see, and today, four women were singing in harmony as a seemingly spontaneous act of worship.

One of the other buildings in the complex, the Saint Karapet Church, is unique because it contains the only known example in Armenia of a stone carving showing God the Father (as opposed to carvings showing Jesus).  In the carving, God holds the severed head of Adam (representing humanity) in his left hand while a dove (which may represent the Holy Spirit) descends to give Adam the kiss of life.  With his right hand, God raises three fingers to signify the three elements of the Trinity, while the ring finger and thumb form a circle to signify forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Interestingly, God is given East Asian eyes in the sculpture, and it is believed this was to stop Mongol invaders defacing the carving by punching out the eyes, as they did to all the other stone carvings in the monastery of people (including Jesus) with Western eyes.

We left the monastery at 12:45pm, and fifteen minutes later we arrived at cave restaurant for a shared lunch.  After lunch, a short ten-minute drive brought us to the Areni cave excavations.

Recent excavations conducted from 2007 to 2012 have started uncovering a treasure trove of remains from the Copper Age of the 5th and 4th millennia BC.  Among the discoveries are the world’s oldest wine press and the world’s oldest shoe.  (I had never given any thought as to where the world’s oldest wine press might be, but I had often wondered where the world’s oldest shoe might be – now I know!). 

We continued our drive to the east, passing through more dry country punctuated by farms, some of which had by far the largest haystacks I have ever seen.  About 60 kilometres short of our destination, we turned off the main highway again, this time to visit Zorats Karer, or as it is commonly referred to, Armenia’s Stonehenge.

Dating from the late 3rd to the mid 1st millennia BC (early Bronze Age), Zorats Karer is a 13.5 hectare site with over 200 upright basalt stones up to 3 metres in height that collectively represent a mix of fortifications, astronomical observatory, and cemetery.  A focus of the site seems to be a large tomb, probably that of a king.

Archaeologists don’t understand the significance of everything surrounding the tomb.  For example, there is a ring of stones surrounding the tomb, none of which have holes drilled through them, unlike the line of stones that extends to the north and the south from the tomb, almost all of which have holes drilled through them.  No-one seems to know the purpose of the holes, but theories include (a) they were used to transport the stones during construction, (b) they were used to tie animals so they didn’t escape, (d) they were used for astronomical observations, and (d) they were used in ceremonies by inserting flaming sticks through them.

We left Zorats Karer at 5:45pm, and arrived at our hotel in Goris, the Hotel Goris, at 6:30pm.  We had another birthday to celebrate upon arrival, which we did with what must be the largest home-made cake (topped with a field of strawberries) that I have ever seen.  The hotel has been recently renovated after having been closed for several years to house refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.  The hotel is slightly more basic than the wonderful places we have been using elsewhere in the Caucasus, but it has hot water and internet (of sorts), as well as a great view of the town of Goris, spread out below us in its amphitheatre setting backed by strangely shaped, steep-sided mountains.

Day 13

Yerevan to Goris


15 September 2018