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Ararat (Armenian: Արարատի մարզ) is one of the provinces (marz) of Armenia with capital in Artashat. It is in the south of the country, bordering Turkey and Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. It surrounds an exclave of Azerbaijan, which is currently controlled by Armenians.

Ararat Marz is the agriculturally rich but hot and flat valley of the Arax river S of Yerevan, including the severe brown hills of the lower Azat and Vedi river watersheds, but including fine green valleys and mountains in the upper reaches, mostly now protected within the bounds of the Khosrov Forest State Preserve. Ararat Marz is dominated by the double silhouette of Mt. Ararat, which looms on a clear day close and magical.
Main tourist destination of the Marz is Khor Virap Monastery, legendary site of the captivity of Gregory the Illuminator, which sits among the ruins of Ancient Artashat. The ruins of Dvin are another important destination, at least scientifically, while the upper valley of the Vedi River includes interesting natural sites and a fortified monastery. The fishponds of Armash are one of the Caucasus's richest spots for birders. East from Yeraskh, a fold of Mt. Urts shelters the virtually unknown S. Karapet Monastery. Technically in Ararat Marz, but more accessible from Garni, the remote valleys of the Azat river and its tributaries shelter Aghjots (S. Stepanos) Vank and Geghi Castle (Kakavaberd).

Over the centuries, the population of the Arax valley had become predominantly Muslim, as Turkish, Mongol, and Persian conquerors pushed aside the Christian population out of these fertile lands. Though Armenians began to return to Ararat Marz as early as 1828 with the Russian conquest, most of the villages retained Turkish names until the middle of this century, and the last Azerbaijani villages became Armenian only with the mutual ethnic cleansing of 1988-89.

Given the difficulty of integrating Ararat's numerous villages into a single logical itinerary, and the relative scarcity of preserved sites, they are listed in roughly N-S order, with exceptions stated.

Artashat is the capital of Ararat Marz, deriving its name from ancient Artaxiata, "Joy of Artashes.". The modern town, known till 1945 as Ghamarlu, was founded in 1828-29 by migrants from Persia. West of the modern highway N of Artashat are Hovtashen (till 1978 Pughamlu) and Araksavan (till 1978 Sabunchi).

A road from S of Jrahovit leads E to Jrashen then S to Ditak, and Arevshat (once Mets Armalu, then until 1945 Nerkin Aghbash, new church). NE from Arevshat are Abovian (till 1946 Upper Aghbash), Lanjazat (till 1940 Janatlu, then Zovashen till 1967), and Bardzrashen (till 1945 Bitlija). Near Lanjazat, a paved road leads NE past the Azat River Reservoir and eventually joins up with the main road to Garni and Geghard. This road offers a shortcut for tourists attempting a one-day circuit including Khor Virap along with Garni. From Arevshat S. the next village is Deghdzut (till 1967 Yamanchali), with a spur leading E and N to Mrganush (till 1945 Zohraplu), Vardashen (till 1945 Mehrablu), and Getazat (till 1948 Aghjakala.) West and South from Deghdzut are Nshavan (till 1946 Arpavar, then till 1967 Lusakert), and Byuravan (till 1945 Ghuylasar Hin), with modern church.

To Ancient Dvin

From Dalar, a good paved road leads NE toward the ancient capital of Dvin, passing Aygestan and (off to the left) Kanachut. Hnaberd is the closest village to the low brown hill of decomposed mudbrick marking the citadel of Dvin, founded in the 4th c. AC by King Khosrov III and for centuries the capital of Armenia.

Turning R on a paved road before the modern village of Dvin, pass S through the village, and enter the site on the left through the gate in a metal fence. Very little remains of the settlement today, but archaeologists have revealed a wealth of information about the town in its heyday. Excavations revealed the layout of Dvin which followed the pattern of Armenia's ancient fortified settlements. Double town walls were fortified with large round towers, and the citadel had a moat around it. First monument inside the compound is the massive foundation of a major 5th c. basilica, dedicated to S. Gregory the Illuminator, with a smaller, later, centrally planned church built inside it. S. Grigori Cathedral was monumental and Armenia’s biggest one at the time. Built in the third century as a three-nave heathen temple with seven pairs of inner supports, it was rebuilt in the fourth century into a Christian church, with a pentahedral altar apse protruding sharply on its eastern side. In the middle of the fifth century an outside arched gallery was added to it. In the middle of the seventh century the cathedral was rebuilt into a cross-winged domed temple with apses protruding on the lateral facades. Beyond are remains of a palace (excellent column capitals). The rulers palace was situated on the top of a high hill which dominated the town, inside a vast citadel. The rectangular-base building was a two-storey one, with richly decorated presence and residence chambers in the first floor, and service premises, including a bath-house with men’s and women’s sections equipped like that in Garni, in the ground floor. Following a path right, one crosses a small green gully with cows to reach the old excavation quarters, now the storage area for worked stone blocks and the site of a small museum with excellent Persian-style glazed ceramic bowls from Dvin's medieval period. Left above the museum, a path leads up to the citadel, a hill of decomposing mudbrick with rough stone foundations giving only a tiny hint of what was once a thriving ancient and medieval city. S of the site about one km are remains of a large 5th c. market building.

In 572, when the Armenians rose up with Byzantine help under Vardan Mamikonian (a later one, not the saint of Avarayr in 451), they captured Dvin and killed the Persian marzpan Suren. The great cathedral of S. Gregory, used by the Persians as a storehouse, burned in the process. This uprising was quickly quashed. Conquered by the Arabs in 640, Dvin (then known as Dabil) served for centuries as the seat of the Muslim governor. At its height, the city was said to have had 100,000 residents, and extended over all the surrounding villages. The finds of glass and other luxury goods suggest ties to the whole Islamic world.

Dvin is linked to the martyrdom of Smbat I Bagratuni, client king of Syunik, in 909. Attempting to assert his complete control, the evil Arab ostikan (governor) Yusuf poisoned Smbat's son and nephew, who had surrendered themselves to him as Smbat's allies and relatives deserted a fading cause. Capturing Smbat himself, Yusuf had him tortured to death in an attempt to persuade his wife and relatives to surrender the invincible fortress of Ernjak (now in Iran) where they had taken refuge. The mutilated body of Smbat was exposed on a cross outside Dvin, where it allegedly worked a number of miracles. According to early Armenian historians, the great Kurdish general, the "Saracen" Salahaddin, nemesis of the Crusaders, was born near Dvin.

East are Nerkin Dvin (till 1950 Dyugun Hay) and Verin Dvin, the latter notable for its population of Assyrian Christians. Norashen (3071 p, once known as Kurdish Dvin) is S of Hnaberd. A second road from Artashat leads to Dvin via Berdik (formerly Akhund Bzovand) and Verin Artashat. Once can also drive E past Vostan to Kaghtsrashen and Narek (named in 1984 in honor of the poet Grigor Narekatsi), before leading E into the mountains eventually to reach the Azat river valley. East of Artashat are Aygepat (till 1949 Musumlu) and Aygezard (till 1949 Darghalu, then till 1957 Anastasavan) South are the villages of Shahumian (till 1950 Yuva), Taperakan (till recently Kirov), and, right of the main highway, Pokr Vedi

Khor Virap and Artaxiasata

The road through Pokr (Little) Vedi is signposted for Khor Virap. The left fork beyond Pokr Vedi leads to the village of Lusarat (till 1968 Khor Virap or Shikhlar), with a conspicuous statue of one of the early 20th c. fidayi, nationalist fighters against the Turks.

Take the right fork and drive past the extensive cemetery to the monastery of Khor Virap Monastery, built on the side of one of a chain of low hills looking out across the Russian-guarded border to Turkey and Mt. Ararat. The central church, S. Astvatsatsin, dates from the end of the 17th c. The smaller S. Gevorg church was originally constructed in 642 by Catholicos Nerses the Builder, but has been repeatedly rebuilt. In this second church are two deep stone cisterns, the further of which, then garnished with serpents, is said to have been the pit in which Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years by the cruel king Trdat III (or maybe IV - the traditional chronology is problematic). The descent, via a perilous metal stairway, is spiritually rewarding and generally not fatal. (The same cannot be said about the public restrooms behind the monastery.)

Gregory's miraculous cure of the king, who had been punished by God with the head of a boar in place of his own, was rewarded with the official conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the year 301 or (according to modern scholars) 314. Nerses the Builder is supposed to be buried there, along with relics of Gregory himself. Khor Virap was an important educational center in medieval times. Abandoned in late Persian times, it was reinhabited by three monks from Ejmiatsin after the Russian conquest. It remains a pilgrimage site and place for wedding photos and sheep sacrifice up to the present day.

The hill of Khor Virap and those adjoining were the site of the important early Armenian capital city of ancient Artashat* or Artaxiasata, built by King Artashes I, founder of the Artashesid dynasty, around 180 BC. According to legend, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who spent his twilight years in flight from a vengeful Rome, inspired the founding of the city. Though well-known in literary sources, Artashat remained long-undiscovered, archaeologists misled by its ancient description as a spacious and well-laid-out city located at the confluence of the Araxes and Metsamor rivers. The course of the rivers has changed, and that confluence is now 20-odd km further N of the city site. On the upper slopes of the hills, extensive excavations have revealed the foundations of residential and other structures, along with Mediterranean-style art and other traces of a rich Hellenizing culture. Short stretches of well-preserved mud-brick fortifications line the N slope of the third hill from the NE. Ancient coins and potsherds can still be found, showing links with the whole ancient world. There was a large Jewish community in the city in the 4th century when Artashat was ravaged by the Persian King of Kings Shapur II. Armenia's capital was moved to Dvin by King Khosrov III (330-338), partly because of the increasingly unhealthy swamps nearby.

However, Artashat was still a major town in the mid-5th century, when Persian King Yazkert attempted to force his Armenian subjects to convert to Zoroastrianism, according to the (late 6th c?) monk-historian Yeghishe. Teams of trained magi were sent to evangelize the Christians and build temples to Ahura Mazda (Ormizd), including one by the city gate in Artashat. The priests and dignitaries of Armenia met in Artashat to write their reply to Yazkert's demands, and there two militant clerics, the priest Samuel and deacon Abraham, destroyed the temple and desecrated the sacred fire by dumping it in the water. Rising up under their sparapet (hereditary military chief) Vardan Mamikonian, the Armenian nobles destroyed the Persian garrisons, fought their way east to the Chor Pass near the Caspian Sea, and made a (useless) alliance with the Huns. Alas, treacherous nobles on the home front had cut a deal with Yazkert. Artashat was burned, the churches pillaged, and Vardan Mamikonian and 1035 of his associates martyred in the battle of Avarayr (in modern Iran) in AD 451. S. Vardan is still a nationalist icon. After long torture and imprisonment, Samuel and Abraham had their impious right hands cut off and were beheaded.

Vedi and Eastward

To reach the town of Vedi and follow the Vedi Chay into the hills, exit and cross over at the first overpass after the signposted turnoff for Khor Virap. Turn right on the old road, then immediately left (E) toward Vedi. You pass the villages of Aygavan (till 1945 Reghanlu), with next to the gas station an important 4th millennium BC through 6th c. AD settlement, and Vanashen (till 1978 Taytan). Vedi (12281 p) reputedly houses an ethnographic museum and the headquarters of the Khosrov Forest State Preserve. Given the size and importance of the Reserve, Shaboyan is a man of considerable local stature. E past Vedi is Dashtakar (till 1968 Dashlu) with tiny nearby iron-rich mineral springs, 20 degrees C. To reach them take the left fork just meters before entering the village and take the left trail (4x4) with the stream to your left. Continue straight until the trail turns right which you should not take, you go into the riverbed here and continue upstream, until you see the red runoff of the springs called Ararat springs or alternatively Shor Jur/Goturbulakh. Next village back on the road is Urtsadzor (formerly Chimankend), with a turn S along the Selav river toward Shaghap and S. Karapet Monastery. S of the village is a 5-6th c. ruined basilica. There is an Early Iron Age cemetery. Beyond Urtsadzor, the road continues E along the Vedi Chay to a metal archway. Just beyond, the road forks, the paved road right leading up the Vedi Chay past a sumptuous dacha belonging to the younger brother of the late Defense {then Prime} Minister Vazgen Sargsian. Soon after that, a dirt road left (opposite a farmhouse with a blue truck body) ascends a beautiful stream valley (camping) toward the ruined and uninhabited Azeri mountain village of Mankuk, with important ancient khachkars. However, the road is closed by a gate shortly after the camping area, and written permission is required from the Nature Preserve director in Vedi. The main road continues past several desultory hamlets and eventually switchbacks up and over the mountain to Martuni at the S. end of Lake Sevan. This pass is not recommended for anyone but a well-equipped masochist prepared for deep mud, late snow, and an absence of landmarks.

The left fork (dirt) leads to a padlocked gate at the entrance to the Reserve, with the road gradually deteriorating. However, well before that, a rough fork left leads in a few hundred meters to a small fortified monastery called in the guidebooks the Gevorg Marzpetuni Castle. Following the main (right) fork a few hundred meters inside the reserve, there is a small mound with scattered medieval and earlier pottery. The road follows the stream high into the mountains.

East of the highway are Avshar (once Kyalbalavan) and then the dusty city of Ararat, founded in 1920, its raison d'etre the Ararat Cement Factory. Ararat also boasts a gold ore processing plant, the massive spoil dump from which is now being profitably exploited for residual gold by a multinational corporation. There is allegedly a hotel and a spa attached to a mineral spring nearby.

Just west, Ararat village (till 1935 Davalu) is the native village of former Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, named Prime Minister in June 1999 and murdered along with the whole parliamentary leadership on October 27, 1999 by a small band of malcontents. Sargsian's brother Aram, who briefly replaced him as Prime Minister, continues to live there, as does his mother. Davalu was the capital of the Vedi-Basar Mahal in Persian times, a region that began to be repopulated with Armenians only with the Russian conquest and exchange of populations in 1828. W of Ararat are Noyakert (till 1991 Khalisa), repopulated by refugees from Azerbaijan in 1988, and Yeghegnavan.

South from Ararat on the main road is Surenavan (till 1946 Avshar Mets, named after Suren Spandarian the professional revolutionary). From Surenavan a road leads W to the Armash fishponds, which attract a remarkable profusion of exotic birds. Armash (founded in 1925 as Yayji) has or had a unique Museum of Sanitary Culture, founded in 1972.

East from Yeraskh - S. Karapet Monastery

Yeraskh (formerly Arazdayan) is notable as the last village before Nakhichevan, now the terminus of what was once the main highway and rail connection to Meghri, Baku and beyond. Turn left (E) at the large traffic circle. Continuing straight ahead, the road ends at a small military post after a few hundred meters, just before the no-man's land with Azerbaijan.

Paruyr Sevak (a new settlement founded in 1978), named after the writer Paruyr Sevak, lies N of the road. Tigranashen, until 1990 the Azerbaijani enclave of Kyarki, S of the road, is now inhabited by a mixture of local Armenians and refugees from Azerbaijan. Zangakatun (till 1948 Chanakhchi, then till recently Sovetashen) is the birthplace (1924) and gravesite (1971, killed in an auto accident) of the writer Paruyr Sevak, and site of his house museum. A 10th c. chapel is nearby. Vardashat (till 1948 Ghashka) is just N.

Tucked into a fold of the Urts Range overlooking a back valley of the Ararat region, S. Karapet Vank (the "Forerunner" - i.e. John the Baptist) is a wonderfully remote and melancholy site for a picnic (shaded picnic table). The church of 1254 (padlocked) is well preserved, with a graveyard, ruined belltower and tumbled remains of outbuildings and a choked cistern. The road passes broken khachkars, faint ruined farm buildings, and hawks and harriers hunting across the sheep-cropped hillsides. To reach the site, take the main Yeghegnadzor road 19 km from the Yeraskh circle and turn left off the highways Urtsalanj exit, but heading downhill through Lanjar (till 1968 Pirlu), you crest a small pass at 2.5 km, from which a clear dirt road follows the contour line off to the left. The monastery of St. Karapet is 7.1 km along a road rocky and steep in places, in others axle-deep in dust (or, in season) mud.