Rising Star

Anush Babajanyan

Transitions Online (TOL)
8 July 2009

Ancient history and timeless beauty meet on the road to Armenia’s
highest mountain.

This is the second article in a series on travel and tourism in TOL’s
coverage area. Click here to view TOL’s audio slideshow on the road
to Mount Aragats.

In maps and guides on the Web, Armenia sometimes seems like a lost
country. Some sites place it in Europe, others in southwestern
Asia, still others – to be both more specific and more vague – the
Caucasus. Few outsiders (beyond the widespread Armenian diaspora)
know them, but this lost country has its secrets and treasures,
waiting to be discovered.

There are many directions a traveler can take after landing at
the airport in Yerevan. One of the most fascinating leads to Mount
Aragats. This dormant volcano 40 kilometers northwest of the capital
is Armenia’s highest peak, rising 4,090 meters (13,419 feet) above the
canyons and rivers its millennia of activity have created. A trip up
its slopes is really a trip through Armenian history, from the first
millennium to the Soviet era.

On the south side of Aragats, above the canyon through which the
Kasagh River flows, flows two monasteries have been standing since
ancient times.

The main parts of Hovhannavank, named for John the Baptist (Hovhan
is the Armenian version of John, vank the word for monastery), were
built in the 1200s.

But the oldest section, the basilica of St. Karapet, dates to the
early fourth century. It was founded by St. Gregory the Enlightener,
who is credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia in 301.

Five kilometers away, the Saghmosavank (Monastery of Palms) was built
in the 13th century with a library where copies of manuscripts might
have been produced.

Farther up Aragats stands a monument of more recent vintage, honoring
Armenian letters. Not its literature – this 2007 construction is a
monument to the letters of the Armenian alphabet, symbolizing their
importance to the nation and its people. Created by St. Mesrop Mashtots
in 405, the alphabet was part of an effort to unify the nation of
Armenia, which had long been a battleground between neighboring
empires and which, at that time, had been partitioned between the
Byzantine and Persian empires. The 1.5-meter letters are spread
across a field, intermingled with several other shrines, the main
one honoring St. Mesrop.

The unique letters of Armenian are also revered in Oshakan village,
near the alphabet monument. Here letters carved out of stone and
grown out of grass surround the 19th-century church that houses
St. Mesrop’s tomb. This church is a favorite destination for school
field trips and an essential part of Armenian children’s historical
and patriotic education.

Set among the natural beauty still higher up is one of the mountain’s
most arresting sights, the ruins of Amberd fortress.

Looking down into Amberd canyon from a rocky outcrop, this feudal
castle was founded in the seventh century and later belonged to the
Pahlavouni princes, a powerful noble line. Water flowed here from
the brooks and streams of Aragats. The difficult terrain provided
protection from Persian, Roman, and Turkish assaults, but the fortress
was destroyed by fire in a 1236 Mongol attack.

Still largely intact (thanks to some reconstruction) is a church
built in 1026 by the military commander Vahram Pahlavouni, next to
the fortress. There was also a bath here, using a technique common to
ancient Armenian bathhouses. Below the floors are meter-high empty
spaces, outside of which fires were built. The high mountain winds
would blow hot air into these subterranean spaces and up tubes that
snaked through the walls, heating the floors and rooms.

In the bath archaeologists have also discovered the grave of a jester,
presumably on hand to enrich the princes’ leisure time.

The final destination on this trip through history returns you to
modern times at the Byurakan Observatory. Now largely quiet, this
was a scientific hub during the Soviet era under its founder Victor
Hambardzumyan (1908-1996), a major figure in 20th-century astrophysics
who died here in 1996. Thousands of stars, star clusters, and galaxies
were discovered at Byurakan, but the fall of the Soviet Union greatly
curtailed its activity.

The sky here is clear more than 200 days a year, the reason Byurakan
village was chosen to host the observatory. Hambardzumyan’s house,
now a museum, is on the grounds, surrounded by nature. One can imagine
the scientist walking the paths and alleys, always with an eye on
the heavens.

Anush Babajanyan is a photojournalist in Armenia and editor of TOL’s
Patchwork blog. Click here to see a slide show featuring more of her
pictures from the slopes of Mount Aragats.

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