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Syunik (also called Siunik or Syunia) is one of the provinces (marz) of Armenia. It was a feudal principality in ancient Armenia. It is in the south-east of the country, bordering Azerbaijan and Iran. Its capital is Kapan.

Syunik Marz contains some of the most dramatic scenery in Armenia, and is home to some of the most important historical and cultural remains. Little explored archaeologically, the region is a wilderness of high mountains cut by huge, deep river gorges. The southern tip of the country, around Meghri, can be reached now only over a high and often foggy or snowy pass, its normal, easy access through Nakhichevan along the Arax River now cut off by politics. The roads are being steadily improved, but you should count on a full day to reach Meghri from Yerevan. Unquestionably, however, the trip is worth it, in terms of natural beauty and cultural riches.

Important destinations in Syunik include Tatev Monastery, the spectacularly sited religious capital of S. Armenia, Vorotnavank, Vahanavank, the standing stones near Sisian, the medieval cave-dwellings of Khndzoresk, the petroglyphs of Ughtasar and nature preserves such as Sev Lich and Shikahogh. The both Sisian and Kapan have decent hotels, while a number of excellent B&Bs are popping up all over the region, including in Goris and Meghri. Every road offers beautiful streams or sacred spring sites, often with covered picnic tables, by which to pitch a tent.

Due to its rough terrain and isolation, Syunik stayed relatively autonomous under the control of local Armenian notables long after the rest of the country had been incorporated in Mongol, Turkish or Persian fiefdoms. It was a hotbed of insurrection under Davit Bek, and the last redoubt of independent Armenia in 1921 under Garegin Nzhde.

A note on safety: A cease fire has held since 1994, and the area along the eastern border of Syunik - now nowhere near the contact line - is quiet and safe. Though rare, there have been incidents in the mountains that separate Syunik from the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan; hikers should thus steer away from that particular watershed.

Entering Syunik - Angeghakot

Until further notice there is only one way to reach Syunik Marz (short of chartering a helicopter -- $ 2500 from Erebuni airport), and that is the road S through Ararat and Vayots Dzor marzes. Figure three hours to reach Sisian, unless you stop at one of the many tempting places in route. Crossing the pass from Vayots Dzor you see a major modern monument, the gates of Zangezur, from which you can still see the tip of Mt. Ararat on a crystal clear day. There are some metal sheds and dirt piles marking access to the Vorotan tunnel, which will one day divert water from the Vorotan river, the dominant feature of North Syunik, into Lake Sevan. The village of Gorayk (formerly Bazarchai) stands just before the Spandarian reservoir. A dirt road leads N into the mountains of Mets Karakhach, with obsidian outcroppings and paleolithic sites. Somewhere at about 3000 m near the headwaters of the Vorotan River and toward Davagyoz Mt. are interesting petroglyphs. On the main road is Tsghuk (formerly Borisovka, Murkuz). Sarnakunk has somewhere on its territory to the N a rock face decorated with 8-7th c. BC petroglyphs. In 1945 about 1 km N of the village a clay pot was found with a coin hoard including coins from Alexander the Great to Mark Antony. Spandarian (till 1939 Meliklu or Kalachik, renamed for the famous Armenian revolutionary) has a 5-6th c. church on the S slope of the Vorotan river valley.

Angeghakot has Neolithic dolmens and Bronze Age/Iron Age tumuli. Three medieval churches: S. Astvatsatsin, S. Stepanos, S. Hazaraprkich ("Savior of Thousands"), unusual 17th c. khachkar, and sparse remains of an early Christian church. There is a S. Vardan church of 1298, still a pilgrimage site, one km from the village, where, according to tradition, the defeated Armenian army stopped to rest after the battle of Avarayr in AD 451.. In 1699 Israel Ori convoked a meeting of eleven Armenian meliks to draft a petition to Czar Peter the Great, the Pope, and other potentates asking their intervention against Armenia's Persian overlords. From Angeghakot a road leads SW to Shaghat, with a S. Stepanos Protomartyr church and ruins of a medieval castle, Balak (one newish church), and Mutsk (formerly Bardzravan, with Astvatsatsin church of 1870).

A stone-built military checkpoint/bus stop (not active) marks the right turn from the main Goris road toward Sisian. From the Sisian road, turn right into Shaki, then left at the village center, jog right, and left again, to follow a dirt road that leads to a small tributary of the Vorotan which joins the main stream via a small (because diverted to a hydroelectric plant) but attractive waterfall. For a fee the operators will often stop the water from being diverted so you can enjoy the full waterfall. Near the village are the ruins of Shaki Vank, and a shrine with khachkars. According to legend, the site was named for Shake, one of 93 maidens saved from flood by a miracle.

Sisian and Tanahati Vank

Sisian is a pleasant town at the confluence of the Vorotan and Sisian rivers. Its hotel is austere but clean, with 24-hour running water and hot showers in the evening. Of Armenia's Soviet-era regional hotels, this is probably the most welcoming for a foreign visitor. There are a couple of adequate khorovats restaurants, one on the river heading back to Shaki. The history museum has on display 2nd millennium BC pottery and other finds from the Bronze Age cemetery/"observatory" of Zorakarer N of town. In the museum garden are a series of medieval sheep-shaped tombstones, some with Persian inscriptions perhaps a testament to the presence of Turkmen tribes in the region in the 15th through 18th centuries. The road uphill from the prominent Soviet monument to those who fell in 1921 during the Sovietization of Zangezur (i.e., fighting the Dashnaks) leads to a cemetery to Sisian's Karabakh martyrs, and from there to the Sisavan church, also known as S. Hovhannes or Syuni Vank. The church was built by Prince Kohazat and Bishop Yovsep I between 670 and 689, and restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are sculpted reliefs of the builders somewhere on the church. Inside the church are some examples of rare microscopic art by a local artist. On the E side of Sisian, a princely tomb of the 2-1st c. BC contained rich grave goods. On the plateau east of town is a large Middle Bronze through Early Iron Age cemetery.

The westerly of the two roads leading SW from Sisian takes one to Brnakot, which supposedly boasts three churches: S. Grigor of 1704 (right of the road beyond the war memorial), S. Astvatsatsin, and a third nameless. Tacked onto the S side of the 1704 basilica of S. Grigor is a gavit/cupola built in 1848 to house the tombs of the family of Melik T'angi, "hazarapet" (Armenian equivalent of his Turkic/Persian title Min-bashi, "lord of a thousand") and major notable in Syunik till the last years of Russian imperial rule. The Melik-T'angian family claimed descent from the Orbelian rulers of Syunik in the 13-15th c. When the Orbelians were finally dispossessed by Jehan Shah of the Karakoyunlu Turkmen confederation in 1437, the Melik-T'angians kept their rights to the villages in the NW corner of modern Syunik Marz, from Angeghakot to Vorotan. As was common in these noble families, a late member Nerses Melik-T'angian (1866-1948), served as Archbishop of Atrpatakan (Persian Azerbaijan). The church is locked, and the donkey guarding it bites. Residents of Sisian say that Brnakot is famous for its crazy people. From the E edge of Brnakot a dirt road leads to Ashotavan. Another road SW to Salvard seems to disappear on the mountain slope.

The second SW road from Sisian leads past the Tolors reservoir to Ashotavan. There is a church of 1903 in the village. Following the course of the Sisian river, the road passes Hatsavan (medieval bridge, ruined medieval castle). Note that the paved right fork just before Hatsavan leads up a pretty stream valley to the village of Salvard. From Salvard, a rough dirt track leads back to Tasik (with Ditkash sacred site, castle ruins). Beyond Hatsavan and Tasik, the road passes the turnoff (W) to the hamlet of Tanahat (formerly the Azeri village of Jomardlu). The road ends at Arevis, now inhabited by refugees from Azerbaijan.

At about 7 km from the Hatsavan fork, you see on a bluff left across the river the low red remains of Tanahati Vank or (as it is known to the locals) Karmir Vank. It may be possible to ford the river by car below the monastery, while one km upstream of it is a deeper ford or, 80 m further upstream, a precarious footbridge made of an old truck chassis, with a pleasant foot track leading up (20 minutes) to the monastery. Preserved are remains of a single-aisle basilica, perhaps of the fifth c., with a small columned hall adjoining it S. W of the church is a little cemetery, which includes the well-preserved cist grave of a notable at its highest point. According to Stepanos Orbelian, the Bishop of Syunik and family historian writing in the late 13th century:

"At that time flourished the superb and marvelous refuge of Tanahati Vank, situated at the bottom of Upper Syunik, on a wooded plateau. Except the servers, no one passed the gates of the convent. Despite the repeated injunctions of the princes and bishops of Syunik, they would not consent to fortify themselves on Sundays with soup, cheese and oil - fruits and vegetables sufficed. Thence their name of Tanahat, 'deprived of soup.' ... We have found in their inscriptions that their church was built 400 years before the Armenian era (ed. note: AD 151, not possible) by the princes of Syunik, under the name of S. Stepanos the Protomartyr.