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Kotayk is one of the provinces (marz) of Armenia . It is in the centre of the country. It's capital is Hrazdan.
It is also home to the highly frequented tourist destinations Garni and Geghard.
Kotayk is also the name of Armenia's world renowned beer.

Kotayk Marz is the offspring of the Hrazdan and Getar rivers. The flow of the Hrazdan (formerly Zangi) river from Lake Sevan past Yerevan to the Arax River cut a gorge through the twisted basalt formations of the foothills, creating a micro-environment that attracted Paleolithic toolmakers. Since sovietization, the Hrazdan river has driven a long series of hydropower plants, whose cheap electricity and water attracted in the 1940s-80s a new breed of tool makers. This series of new industrial cities is now plagued by massive unemployment and hard-pressed to find a raison d’etre. The gorge of the Hrazdan river remains striking for its varied climate and rock formations, and in its northern reaches, mountains and forests are the setting for an array of summer guest-houses and sanatoria. The riven crater of Mt. Ara dominates the western skyline of the marz. Beyond the upland valleys of the Getar river basin E of Yerevan, the Geghama range becomes a desolate but beautiful upland of eroded volcanic cones, almost uninhabited, while the southern border is the dramatic gorge of the Azat river and Garni/Geghard.

As a tourist destination Kotayk is rich indeed. Besides the traditional attractions of Garni, Geghard, and Tsaghkadzor, the region abounds in wonderfully sited rural monasteries such as Havuts Tar, S. Stepanos, Teghenyats and Meghradzor, forts such as Bjni and Sevaberd, and the splendid folk shrine of Kuys Varvara inside the Mt. Ara volcanic crater.

The Road to Garni and Geghard

First village after leaving Yerevan on the Garni road (up the continuation of Abovian St. through the Getar river gap, past Vano Siradeghian’s house and the zoo, take the off-ramp right at water world, and then bear left after passing through Nor Nork) is Jrvezh (“Waterfall”), with a ruined cemetery complex of the 5th century. Next is Voghjaberd, with megalithic monuments nearby and a series of ancient or medieval caves cut in the cliffs above. S of this village, a small domed church of the 4-5th c. was excavated. If the dating is correct, this is one of the oldest churches of its type. Geghadir (till 1935 Kyarpichlu), settled in 1918-24 by residents of Van, Kars, etc. To SW were found four red stone sarcophagi and interesting grave goods of the 5-3rd c. BC. South of the road, about two hundred meters before the turnoff to Hatsavan, a low ridge has the remains of a fortification with half-round towers, dated by its excavator to the 1st-3rd c AC.

The village of Garni (until 1936 Bash-Gyarni) has been inhabited almost continuously since the 3rd millennium BC, with intermittent plunderings (e.g., Timur Lenk in 1386), earthquakes, etc. The current population derives from the Persian district of Maku, in an exchange of populations in 1829-30 following the Russo-Persian treaty of Turkmanchay. Medieval remains in the village include a ruined 4th c. single-aisle church (SE part of village), the 11th c. Astvatsatsin church (in the center), and the 12th c. “Little” or “Mashtots Hayrapet” church. There are also shrines of Tukh Manuk (NE), S. Sargis (NW on hilltop), and Queen Katranide (S of the fortress).
The Hellenistic (3rd-2nd c. BC) fortress of Garni, on a basalt promontory jutting out into the Azat/Garni river gorge, has a different charm in each new season. The Greco-Roman-style temple, built around 77 AD under King Tiridates I, collapsed in the earthquake of 1679, which also laid low most of medieval Yerevan. It was implacably restored in the early 1970s. Note a series of 9-10th c. Arabic graffiti on the walls. The four-lobed 7th-9th c church foundation abutting the temple is likewise heavily restored. Note the substantial fortress walls across and around the promontory, massive basalt ashlar blocks attached with iron clamps. The bath mosaic, with oddly named Greco-Roman sea goddesses and its enigmatic Greek inscription, "Taking nothing we labored (perhaps the imported workmen were stiffed), is inside of a mostly glass building now covering the old bathhouse, and can also be appreciated through the replica on the wall of the main hall of the Picture Gallery in Republic Square. Garni is a relic of one of the relatively brief periods in Armenia’s history when, poised between the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, it opted culturally as well as politically for the former.

In very ancient times (the third millennium BC.) a cyclopic fortress existed there. According to a cuneiform record found on the territory of Garni, the fortress was conquered by Argishti I, the king of Urartu, in the first half of the 8th century B.C. In the epoch of the Armenian rulers of the Ervandids, Artashesids and Arshakids dynasties (since the third century B.C. to the fourth century AD.) Garni was a summer residence of the kings and the place where their troops were stationed.

The palace complex included several disconnected buildings: a temple, a presence chamber, a columned hall, a residential block. a bath-house. etc. They were situated around the vast main square of the fortress, in its southern part, away from the entranceway, where they formed an ensemble. In the northern part there probably were the premises of the service staff, the king’s guards and the garrison.

The temple was built in the second half of the first century B.C. and dedicated to a heathen god, probably to Mitra. the god of the sun, whose figure stood in the depth of the sanctuary (naos). After Christianity had been proclaimed the state religion in Armenia in 301, the temple was probably used as a summer residence of the kings. A chronicle describes it as ‘a house of coolness’.

The sides of the stairway are decorated with bas-relief, placed symmetrically relative to the main axis of the building, showing kneeling Atlas with uplifted hands who seemed to support the torches which used to stand higher.

A two-storey palace was situated to the west of the temple.

The bath-house is situated in the northern part of the square. at an angle to the residential block. Built in the third century, it comprised no less than five premises serving various purposes, four of which had apses at their end walls. The first apsidal room from the east was a dressing room, the second one, a cold water bathroom, the third and fourth ones, warm and hot water bathrooms respectively. The bathhouse had a water reservoir, with a heating room in the basement. The floors were faced with baked bricks covered with a layer of polished stucco. They rested on round pillars and were heated from below with hot air and smoke which came to the underfloor space from the heater.

The Garni Gorge and Khosrov Reserve entrance by car: Though the Garni Gorge can be entered on foot by taking a steep, rough path from the left side of the temple parking lot, one can also drive. The first of two vehicle entrances to the Garni gorge is reached by taking the paved road to the right about 1 km W of Garni (ie. before reaching the village when approaching from Yerevan). Continue straight over the bridge, then turn left at the cement wall (straight goes to a mysterious Physics Institute), and left again on the dirt road where the dachas begin. A narrow dirt road, barely passable for street cars, descends into the gorge and E along the river past wonderful rock formations and pleasant picnic places, joining up with the other road from Garni village. Note that beyond the Physics Institute, another road dead-ends at the bottom of the gorge at a small hydropower station. There is a footbridge across the river just upstream, leading to an excellent set of walking trails following the river.

The Garni cobbled road into the gorge is also the route to reach the entrance to the Khosrov Nature Reserve, and an excellent jumping off point for Havuts Tar. The preserve takes its name from King Khosrov III, who ordered the planting of a massive forest to repair centuries of deforestation. Enter Garni village via the right fork at the WWII memorial. Continue straight till the road runs up against a large building, the House of Culture. Go left, then take the first significant dirt road right, slightly downward and passing on your left a very nicely restored, little red and black tuf stone church, set behind the homes. Just before the road veers left and levels, angle slightly to the right (avoid the sharp right that takes you back upward), a steep, white-cobbled road (an icy deathtrap in winter) leads into the gorge. Turning right at the bottom of the gorge takes one along the Garni river, to the 11 c.

A rough dirt 4x4 track continues down into the Reserve, running upstream along the Azat river. At 5 km from the entrance, where Milli Creek (vtak), runs into the Azat from the left, the road straight across the bridge is closed by a gate (key in house on hill back to left). Turning left before the gate along an even rougher track brings one in 200 m to Baiburt. A simple, single-aisle basilica probably of the 5th c. stands left of the road among ruins of old dwellings of an Armenian population deported to Persia by Shah Abbas in the 17th c, and more modern ruins of its more recently departed Azeri population. Baiburt now houses three families of Reserve employees. There are allegedly pagan period remains in the vicinity. Another few km uphill past Baiburt, on a poor jeep track, is the hamlet of Mets Gilanlar, with a few simple wooden huts. Turning left just before Gilanlar, where a less travelled track winds around the side of the hill (rather than the better dirt road to the village) the track continues to a valley across which (20 minutes on foot) are the evocative ruins of the Aghjots Vank/S. Stepanos Church of the early 13th century (though founded, according to local legend, by Gregory the Illuminator on the site of the martyrdom of a certain Stepanos, companion of St. Hripsime). Added to the W end of the church of 1207, funded by Ivane Zakarian and the local prince Grigor Khaghbakian, is a gavit with many inscriptions and khachkars, now partly fallen down the hill, and N is a small chapel of 1270 with with a carved portal flanked by Saints Peter (left) and Paul (bearded, right). The monastery was sacked by the Persians in 1603, subsequently restored, despoiled again in the 18th century, and ruined permanently in Muslim-Christian clashes in 1905/6. S. Stepanos can also be reached on foot or horse (and, in good weather, maybe Jeep) from Goght, about 3 hours of stiff but highly rewarding climb.

Opening the barrier and crossing the bridge to follow the road along the Azat River, one reaches after a few km a fork back to the right, which fords the Azat river and leads S over a difficult mountain track to Gelaysar and then on to Dvin and the southern part of the Khosrov Reserve E of Vedi. Just beyond, a fork left leads to Kyorpikend and (maybe) to Mets Gilanlar and another approach to Kakavaberd. At approximately 8 km from the Bayburd bridge, a stream across the road forms a barrier to most vehicles. Beyond it on a hill to the left is a ruined hamlet, an early habitation site. Somewhere nearby is a ruined medieval church and cluster of khachkars called Vanstan. On the sheer summit east of the river is Kakavaberd, more properly Geghi or Keghi Berd. This well preserved fortress of the 9th-13th c. is attested in manuscripts as a family fiefdom of the Bagratunis, then the Pahlavunis, site of a defeat of the Arab chieftain Beshr by Gevorg Marzpetuni in 924, and where Prince Ivane Zakarian took refuge after his defeat by Jalal ad Din Mingburnu, the last Khwarezm-Shah, near Garni in 1224. Besides walls and towers, there is a medieval church in the fortress. In the vicinity are or were five large dragon monuments (vishap), carved standing stones, with designs of bulls and birds.

Continuing along the Azat river-stream on foot, past where the car track ends, you enter a much narrower and thickly forested gorge. This is a beautiful area, and a great place for a hike. At one point (about 30 minutes hike past the end of the car track) there is an approximately 50 meter slippery rock slide area just above the trees by the left bank of the river. This will take you up the side of the mountain to a large cave, with some ancient dwellings and steps inside. The trail is now overgrown, involving a half an hour hike straight up, but the cave may prove difficult to find without the assistance of a local.

Back out of the gorge on the main road from Garni, Goght village, between Garni and Geghard, is known from 13th c. manuscripts as Goghot; turnoff to right is 4.9 km past the Garni W.W.II monument. Past the main square, straight ahead down the dirt road, is a ruined little basilica church of the 17th or 18th century, with good khachkars built into the walls.

Havuts Tar Vank, 11-13th c., is an impressive walled monastery, half ruined, on a promontory across the Garni river gorge from Goght. It can be reached in a bit less than an hour on foot, either from Goght or from the dirt road at the bottom of the gorge, accessible by car from Garni.

From Goght, follow the dirt track from the far end of the main paved square, past the ruined basilica church, then bear left on the asphalt road to the end. Go through a green metal gate into a farmyard (friendly folk), then bear right past the barn down cement steps to a clear, steep footpath down into the gorge, across a wooden bridge, then up to farmlands. In the far right corner of the fields, the path continues steeply up, about fifty yards to the left side of a little gully and vertical rock spine. Most of the way up, a clear path goes right following the contour line. First you reach a cluster of small shrines/tombs, then the monastery, and beyond it the Amenaprkich church on the western outcrop. Amenaprkich was built in 1013 by the young Grigor Pahlavuni (ca. 990-1058), son of the lord of Bjni and nephew of the sparapet Vahram Pahlavuni. A fascinating character who went down in history as Grigor Magistros from the Byzantine imperial titles he received after the Armenian kingdom of Gagik II Bagratuni passed into Byzantine hands in 1045. Having given his own lands to the Emperor, Grigor Magistros received estates in Mesopotamia and was ultimately appointed governor of large tracts of historical Armenia. He was also a major scholar of the period, author of a grammatical treatise, a 1000-line (each rhyming on “-in”) verse rendition of Holy Scripture, and a book of letters in an erudite but untranslatable style.

The bulk of the monastic complex is 12-14th c., rebuilt in the early 18th c. by the Katholikos Astvatsatur after being ruined in the great 1679 earthquake. The walled enclosure preserves a rich trove of inscriptions and carvings from earlier times, as well as vaulted guest rooms.
From Goght, a jeep/mule track descends into the gorge, crosses, and climbs up and over to reach S. Stepanos monastery. Driving into Goght on the paved road, turn left on the dirt road just before the paved square. After 200 meters, the right fork descends E into the gorge, fords the stream, and rises steeply up to the top of the ridge. On foot from Goght, following the jeep track, you reach in about an hour the ruined hamlet of Almardan (left of track a little khachkar beside a ruined apsidal church?), then slope up W to the summit (another hour). The right fork leads around the slope, descending to the ruined hamlet of Ellija, and continues E, passing just above S. Stepanos before ending in a series of particularly bad goat tracks. The left fork follows the crest of the ridge E into the deep mountains. Note that the track is steep and likely to be covered during wet weather in very greasy mud. There is also a mule-track that ascends the ridge more directly, starting from the same point at the bottom of the gorge but bearing off to the W. After reaching a lower saddle W of the jeep track, take the left downhill fork following the contour, and then take the jeep track downhill.

At Goght, a road branches left to the village of Geghard, but the straight road ends in the parking lot of Geghardavank, “Monastery of the Spear,” otherwise known as Ayrivank. A spearhead-shaped metal object, now in the Ejmiatsin treasury, but once housed at Geghard, gave the monastery its name, as the lance with which Christ was wounded in the side. Nestled at the end of a rugged gorge, Geghard was clearly a sacred spot even in antiquity, with a seep of water coming out of the rock. Though there are inscriptions dating to the 1160s, the main church was built in 1215 under the auspices of the brothers Zakare and Ivane, the generals of Queen Tamar of Georgia, who took back most of Armenia from the Turks. The gavit, partly free-standing, partly carved in the cliff, dates to before 1225, and a series of chapels hewn into the rock dates from the mid 13th century following the purchase of the monastery by Prince Prosh Khaghbakian, vassal of the Zakarians and founder of the Proshian principality. The chamber reached from the NE of the gavit became his tomb in 1283. The adjacent chamber has carved in the rock the arms of the Proshian family, including an eagle with a lamb in its claws. A stairway W of the gavit leads up to a funerary chamber carved out in 1288 for Papak Proshian and his wife Ruzukan. All around the monastery are caves and khachkars. The monastery was defunct, the main church used to shelter the flocks of the Karapapakh nomads in winter, until resettled by a few monks from Ejmiatsin after the Russian conquest. Restored for tourist purposes but now with a small ecclesiastical presence, the site is still a major place of pilgrimage. Outside the far door is a table for ritual animal offerings (“matagh”), and a bridge over the stream.

Nothing has remained of the original structures of Airivank. According to Armenian historians of the 4th, 8th and 10th centuries the monastery comprised, apart from religious buildings, well-appointed residential and service installations. Airivank suffered greatly in 923 from Nasr, a vice-regent of an Arabian caliph in Armenia, who plundered its valuable property, including unique manuscripts, and burned down the magnificent structures of the monastery. Earthquakes also did it no small damage.

The existing ensemble dates back to the 12th-13th centuries, the time of the flourishing of national culture, especially architecture. Under the princes of Zakharia and Ivane the chapel of Grigory the Enlightener - the most ancient surviving structure of the monastery - its main temple and its vestry, as well as the first cave church were built. In the second half of the 13th century the monastery was bought by the Proshyan princes. Over a short period they built the cave structures which brought Geghard well-merited fame - the second cave church, the family sepulcher of zhamatun Papak and Ruzukan, a hall for gatherings and studies (collapsed in the middle of the 20th century) and numerous cells. In one of the cave cells there lived, in the 13th century, Mkhitar Airivanetsi, the well-known Armenian historian. The one- and two-storey residential and service structures, situated on the perimeter of the monastery’s yard, were repeatedly reconstructed, sometimes from their foundations as it happened in the 17th century and in 1968-1971.

The chapel of Gregory the Enlightener, built before 1177, stands high above the road, a hundred meters away from the entrance to the monastery. It is partly hewed in massive solid rock; its composition was, in all probability, largely influenced by the shape of the cave which existed there. The chapel, rectangular in the plan and having a horseshoe-shaped apse, is adjoined, from the east and from the northeast, by passages and annexes hewed at various levels and even one on top of another.

Traces of plaster with remnants of dark frescoes show that there were murals inside the chapel.
The first cave rock, Avazan (basin), situated north-west of the vestry, is hewn in place of an ancient cave with a spring in the forties of the 13th century by architect Galdzag. His name is inscribed at the base of the tent decorated with reliefs showing pomegranates.
The Proshyans’ sepulcher and the second cave church of Astvatsatsin situated east of Avazan, were hewn in 1283, presumably by Galdzag, too.

Of interest is a rather primitive high relief on the northern wall, above the archways. In the center, there is the head of a lion with a chain in its jaws; the chain is wound around the necks of two lions with their heads turned to the onlooker. Instead of the tail tufts there are heads of upward looking dragons - symbolic images gong all the way back to heathen times. Between the lions and below the chain there is an eagle with half-spread wings and a lamb in its claws. This is presumably the coat-of-arms of the Princes Proshian.

Cut on the portals of the chapel are sirins (fantastic harpy-like birds with women's crowned heads) and on the church walls there appear human figures with their elbows bent, wearing long attires and having nimbuses around their heads. These are probably members of the princely family who had these structures built.

North along Hrazdan Gorge - Bjni

Hrazdan Gorge is impressive primarily for its Paleolithic-looking rock formations, and for the Paleolithic persons who inhabited them, leaving along the river bank ample worked stone traces of their presence. The drive is a pleasant alternative to the main Sevan highway, slower of course, but over a generally decent asphalt road.

The first village N of Yerevan is Arinj, with remains of a medieval fort nearby, with dragon carving of 1501 on lintel and eagle commemorating Bishop Hovhannes. A new St. Mary's Church was consecrated on May 30, 2002. A Hellenistic settlement is nearby. E of the village is Dzagavank or Getargeli S. Nshan, with a ruined 7th c. church (S. Nshan) and a formerly two-story 13th c. church E of it. To reach Ptghni, you leave Yerevan on the main Sevan highway, take the U-turn at the traffic police (GAI) station soon after all the roads from Yerevan converge, before the Abovian turn-off, then immediately right, following an asphalt road that curves down to the right into Hrazdan gorge. Taking the first right turn possible into the village, thread along an unconvincing asphalt road until a grotesque, silver-painted concrete WWII memorial on the right looking fiercely over the gully. Take the first left thereafter, and the 5-6th c. church of Ptghni, an imposing ruined basilica, comes immediately into view. Verin Ptghni is adjacent. Getamej (till 1948 Ketran) is the next village north inside the gorge. Founded in 1317, many of its residents came from Turkey in 1920. Its road network is twisted at best.

To drive to Hrazdan inside the gorge, easiest way is to backtrack to the main Sevan road and take the second Abovian exit, 5.7 km N of the GAI post (“Abovian 2 km”). Turn left at the top, and cross the high bridge over Hrazdan gorge. At 4.2 km from the Sevan highway is an intersection W to Mrgashen. Keeping right, first village is Arzni, Soviet Armenia’s first spa town, founded in 1925. Until the late 1980s, the village was predominantly Assyrian Christian. Many of this minority emigrated, their houses taken over by refugees from Azerbaijan, and some rancor remains. The mineral springs are N of the village, in the gorge. Old coins found in cleaning one of springs prove the mineral waters were used from early times. Treatment lasted 26 days for adults, 45 for children; Paleolithic (Acheulian - 300-100,000 year old) stone tool open air workshops have been found along the river near the spa. Entering the village, the right paved fork leads to an unusual fine small domed 6th c. church built on a square platform. An odd late antique capital and column base, and the mouldings of the platform, suggest that the church was placed atop a pagan shrine. Next is Nor Hachn, noteworthy for its diamond factory. Founded in 1953 on the site of abandoned Silachoy, it has a museum to the heroic 1920 battle of Hachn in Cilicia. W is Nor Artamet, home of the Zoology Center of the Academy of Sciences, dedicated to preserving native fauna.

Byureghavan is E of the road. Founded in 1945, this industrial town had a glass crystal factory, a marble works, the Arzni mineral water plant, and a reinforced concrete production unit. Next is Nor Geghi (till 1957 Chatghran), which had an agromechanical collective. In the gorge E of Nurnus is an important Stone Age (Upper Paleolithic) stone tool production center. Just before the village of Argel, a paved road angles down into the gorge, passing a cemetery and the narrow turnoff left to S. Gevorg church, a basilica built in 1890 embodying some earlier remains. In the wall of the gorge behind the cemetery are two important Mousterian-Mesolithic cave sites, Lusakert I and II, littered with worked obsidian flakes. The road continues past a lake to the Gyumush hydroelectric plant. The map shows, now incorrectly (the bridge is gone) this or another road leading to Charentsavan by way of Karenis (former Gyumush), which preserves a 5th c. single-aisle basilica and the 15th c. Matteos Arakyal (Apostle Mathew) monastery.

Argel (until recently Lusakert) had a medieval fort and church, destroyed by Timur Lenk. There are Bronze Age burials nearby. Back on the main road, which jogs right and left at the far end of the village, one continues on to Karashamb. Almost 3 km E is the small church of S. Gevorg, 7th c. Caves, negligible remains of a cyclopean fort, Aghzibir deserted medieval hamlet. The turnoff to Teghenik (formerly Tghit) is 1.4 km ahead on the right. This village has a 7-8th c. church and, on a hilltop 2.5 km W, a fort of the 13-9th c. BC. About 3.8 km past the turnoff is Arzakan (formerly Arzakyand), with quarries and hot mineral springs. There are some private pools in the village which can be rented out in their entirety by the hour for about $ 10/hr per pool (not per person). It is mentioned as Artavazdakan in medieval sources. 3km NW is Neghutsi S. Astvatsatsin Vank, church of 10th c, gavit with 13th c. inscriptions. Inhabitants came from Maku ca. 1829. Continuing on the left fork leads up a side gorge to a series of pensionats, owned by the Interior Ministry and other worthy organizations.

In Arzakan, turn right and then take the left (straight) fork to Bjni. You will pass two ambitious, incomplete hotel/restaurant, one a complex fantasy covered with rounded river stones. Two tenths of a mile beyond, across the river, is an impressive natural bridge. Entering Bjni, the 9-10th c. fortress of the Pahlavuni family will appear on a mesa overlooking the river at the far end of the village, with the S. Astvatsatsin church, built by order of Prince Grigor Magistros, looming below on the left. A hundred meters below the large church, with a collection of excellent khachkars, is the small rectangular S. Gevorg church of the 13th c., with older stones built in. A narrow dirt road rises straight to a water tank near the NW end of the berd, thence a 50-meter scramble to the summit. Castle walls are poorly preserved. There are remains of two cisterns, one with vaulting partly intact, and low foundations of a 5th C church near the far end, past the one standing medieval structure. A covered passage leads to the river. Nestled between the berd and the village is a small ruined shrine employing massive stones.

Solak, is the next village, with Mayravank Astvatsatsin church of the 7th c. perched on the hill, with fort and cemetery. There are several Late Bronze Age/Iron Age forts in the vicinity. Kaghsi has 3rd Mil. BC burial sites, 17-19th c. churches. The road next skirts an artificial lake on the outskirts, and then enters Hrazdan, (formerly Akhta), noteworthy for the Hrazdanmash plant, jewel in the crown of Armenia’s Soviet-era military-industrial complex, now struggling for a reason to exist, and for the Hrazdan thermal power plants, whose district heating pipes run hither and yon over a once pleasant valley. While passing the lake of Hrazdan, a spur road leads up to the left to Makravan (turn away from the concrete umbrella-like bus station and drive along the park to the Administrative building a few hundred meters ahead, upon reaching the building, turn right towards the big road and left onto it, in a few hundred meters it kind of ends at which point you can already see the monastery, and another quick left and right will get you to the village. Parking by the water trough and walking a minute may save some parking difficulties.), now an outlying neighborhood of Hrazdan and site of the Makravank monastery. There is a half-ruined 11th c. chapel, a 13th c. domed S. Astvatsatsin church, and the lower walls of the gavit. North of Hrazdan is Jrarat, incorporated in 1982 as the administrative center of a dairy complex linked to Aghavnadzor. There is also the district formerly known as Atabekian, for an early Secret Police chief, with ruins of a medieval caravansaray. Directly N of Jrarat, approx. 4km is the small village of Kakavadzor, with a monastery on the NW edge of the village.

Most easily reachable from the main Sevan highway rather than the gorge, Charentsavan was founded in 1948 to house workers building the Gumush hydroelectric station, called Lusavan, then renamed in 1967 in honor of the famous but somewhat dissolute poet Eghishe Charents (born Soghomonian in the city of Kars, who died in prison in 1937, accused of nationalist deviation (note his photograph, with distinctive nose, blown up on the wall of the Abovian Street Pizza di Roma, and his house museum on Mashtots Blvd.). Charentsavan waxed fat on cheap electricity, becoming a major industrial city. The Charentsavan machine-building factory, the city’s largest employer, is no longer booming. Note at the entrance to the city the bronze “Renaissance” monumental group, inspired by Charents’s “Curly-headed Boy” opus. Inside the greater Charentsavan boundary is Vardanavank (until recently Alapars, anciently and perhaps now again Aylaberk). Refounded in 1828-30 by immigrants from Maku and Khoy, the village center has the General Vardan church, built by Prince Grigor in 901 and rebuilt in the 19th c. According to local legend, one of the stones contains a drop of blood from Vardan Mamikonian, the hero of the famous defeat of Avarayr on May 26, 451 at the hands of Persians attempting to restore the Zoroastrian religion in Armenia.

Tsaghkadzor and the Marmarik Valley

Best way to reach Tsaghkadzor, Armenia’s premier sports facility and the former training ground of the Soviet Olympic Ski Team, is to make a U-turn (at the marked location) just after the second (now non-existent) Hrazdan exit from the Sevan highway. At 4.2 km, one goes straight at the large traffic circle. At the second traffic circle (0.7 km further), going straight takes one to Tsaghkadzor (in Persian times Darachichak), the Kecharis Monastery, and the ski slopes. Right goes to Meghradzor and Hankavan.

Turning left from the main square of Tsaghkadzor, the Writer’s Union guest house is among many options for those wanting to spend the night. Other hotels, B&Bs and cottages are also widely available, and reservations are a good idea during ski season. The road bearing right through town leads to Kecharis Monastery, founded early in the 11th c. by Grigor Magistros Pahlavuni (see Havuts Tar above), who built the S. Grigor church (the northernmost), and may also have built and occupied the smaller funerary chapel of S. Nshan. When the Zakarians liberated the region, they gave the church to Prince Vasak Khaghbakian, father of Prosh, who sponsored the Katoghike church and (probably) the gavit of S. Grigor. Architect of the Katoghike was Vetsik, who left a khachkar inscribed, “Remember in your prayers the servant of God, the stonecutter Vetsik, who built this new church and, with its completion, completed his own life as well.” About 100 meters beyond the monastery is the smaller funerary church of S. Harutyun (the Resurrection) from 1220, sitting in a medieval cemetery. Close to the monastery is the House Museum of the Orbeli brothers, distant descendants of the Orbelian princely family and distinguished scholars: Levon (1882-1958) was a famous physiologist and member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; his younger brother Hovsep (1887-1961) was Russia’s leading Orientalist and director of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad; Ruben the eldest (1880-1943) was the father of underwater archaeology in the USSR. Only one was born in Tsaghkadzor, but all spent childhood years here when their father worked here in the Czar’s service.

At the monastery, the left fork goes to the Armenian Olympic training facility, the right fork to the ski slope. The lower chair lift runs all year, creaky but charming (500 dram), with excellent views of the forests surrounding. Skiing is indeed possible -- small entrepreneurs in the parking area rent out skis and boots, on a one-size-fits-all basis. The Writers Union House also rents out skis and boots of all sizes and in good condition. If you are spending a couple days here, hike a little over a kilometer SE over the ridge to the village of Makravan, mentioned in this chapter, with a nice monastery as well.

Following the Marmarik river (reputedly rich in fishing possibilities) from the second roundabout, jog left, and pass at 7.5 km from the 2nd circle the turnoff to Aghavnadzor (till 1948 Babakishi, founded in 1829 by emigrants from Alashkert). At 9.4 km, Marmarik with various hostels and summer camps. S. Hovhannes church in village. At 11.5 km, the turn-off for Meghradzor on the Meghradzor (“honey gorge”) river. Another 0.8 km (exactly 3 km from the Marmarik turnoff) further, a footbridge left crosses the Marmarik and a foot track ascends the wooded S. slope in a 15-minute stiff climb to the 12th c. “Chalcedonian” (Georgian Orthodox) monastery of Tejharuyk, built by the Georgian general/dynast Ivane Zakarian in 1196-99. His vassal, Prince Bubak, and the latter’s heirs are buried in the gavit. N above Meghradzor, a road leads past a disused gold mine awaiting foreign investment, and the 9 km-long rail tunnel under the mountain, connecting Hrazdan and Yerevan with the Dilijan-Kazakh line. The road over the mountain is a jeep track, closed in winter.

After Meghradzor, a spur left goes to the hamlet of Dzorak, formerly Korchlu. Next comes Pyunik, formerly the Azeri village of Akhundov, (till 1939 Dadaghishlagh), a famed Azeri communist who, among other things, translated Marx and Lenin into Azeri Turkish. Next, just before a disused reservoir and some excellent camping sites, is Artavaz (formerly Takyarlu, an Azeri village), with Artavadz Vank in or near the village and a ruined church across the river. Just beyond the originally Greek village of Hankavan, at a decrepit summer camp, the asphalt ends. However, rising at various points are dirt roads leading N and W up to the grassy hilltops above. In good weather and a sturdy car, it is allegedly possible to drive over the mountains to Aparan. A few Greeks remain in Hankavan, where you can supposedly still get a good Greek meal. The hot springs in the village are open for business.

Abovian and the Foothills

Beginning on the Sevan highway, one takes the first exit right, signposted Abovian. First village is Balahovit (till 1968 Mhub, renamed by the Supreme Soviet at the request of an Armenian-American group to commemorate an ancient village of that name in Turkey), settled in 1828-29, site of Yerevan Veterinary Institute’s experimental station. Abovian, a new industrial city founded in 1963 on the site of the early village of Elar, was named after Khachatur Abovian, Yerevan school inspector, climber of Mt. Ararat, and founder of modern Armenian literature (his mysterious disappearance, perhaps at the hands of Czarist authorities fearful of Europe-inspired revolutions, has never been explained). Abovian is laid out ambitiously with wide streets and high-rise apartments. The ancient village of Elar, a key site at the time of the Urartian conquest, occupies a hill just S of town, but has been almost entirely obliterated by the modern cemetery (chapel of S. Stepanos). Elar was inhabited from the 4th millennium BC, as attested by chamber tombs and other finds. An Urartean cuneiform inscription of Argishti I refers to it as Darani.

Turning right at the traffic circle before Abovian, about 3 km from the Sevan highway, one passes Mayakovski (1740 p, named after the Russian poet). Right of the road is a locked basilica church of S. Tamar, started, per an inscription, in 1825. Inhabitants came from Hijvaz village of Salmast district in 1829-30. From Mayakovski, a paved road turns S to Dzoraghbyur, cyclopean fort nearby, shrine. Inhabitants came from Khoy, Alashkert in 1828-30. E of Dzoraghbyur is Zovk (until 1978 Kyulluja).

Continuing SE from Mayakovski, however, one sees just before the village of Aramus a long, narrow hill, just right of the road, with remains of an Urartean circuit wall, with sherd scatter, some chipped obsidian, and sketchy house walls. Aramus, is listed in early manuscripts as Aramonk. By legend, got its name as the place where Queen Shamiram looked for the corpse of Ara the beautiful. In the 4th c, the village belonged to the Katholikos in Ejmiatsin. Left of the village main street, there are partly restored ruins of a late 6th or 7th c. tetraconch church, probably built by Katholikos Hovhan. Katholikos David I Aramonetsi (728-741) built a church here and made it his seat. Other medieval constructions in vicinity, and 13-14th c. khachkars. A new paved road running N from before Aramus ends at the new and ambitious Getap hotel/restaurant compound on the Getar river, well fortified and suitable for weekend assignations or gangland funerals.

Beyond Aramus, the road continues E to Kamaris (until 1978 Gyamrez). There is an unexcavated Bronze Age/early Iron Age fort of Gyamrez S of the road to Geghashen. Bronze age tombs 2 km SW of fort; in village 18-19th c ruined church, inscription of 1840 refers to destruction of Akori village; shrine of S. Astvatsatsin rebuilt in 1258; in 1679, residents came from Maku, in 1829 from Khoy and Bayazit. SE of Kamaris is Geghashen, until 1935 Chatghran, till 1967 Hrazdan, with various shrines and a ruined church; inhabitants came from Ispahan, Alashkert, Khoy in 1829-35 and 1870.

To the Geghama Mountains

The road to the Hatis and Geghama mountain slopes begins at the first signposted turn-off from the Sevan highway to Abovyan. From the off-ramp, continue NE about 3 km to the first traffic light, with a large pink building on the right and the Abovyan train station ahead on the left. Turn right at the traffic light, and follow the road past the cemetery, with S. Stepanos church of 1851 built on medieval and prehistoric precursors. Bear left at the gas station, first to Nor Gyugh, with the 1886 S. Astvatsatsin church on the right (locked). Then comes Kotayk (until 1965 Yeldovan), settled 1830-31 from Bayazit, with S. Nshan and S. Astvatsatsin churches in village. Continue straight (L fork) to Kaputan, with the tiny vertical two-story Kaptavank church of 1349 standing alone on a tall hill NW of village. To approach the church by car, turn right into the village, then take a dirt road left that leads behind the church hill and past the cemetery. Bypassing Kaputan, the paved road continues to Hatis (until 1978 Kyankyan), with dairy production. The inhabitants came as refugees from Bayazit in 1918-20. The area is a treeless upland, with eroded volcanic cones (Mt. Hatis rises to 2528 m), tumbled boulders, and wonderful dirt roads for mountain biking leading toward the far Geghama mountains. From behind the school in Hatis, a dirt road leads NNE about 3 km to Astghaberd, a cyclopean fort used as a place of refuge from the Bronze Age till medieval times.

Continuing past Hatis, one passes the village of Zovashen (until 1948 Dallaklu), founded in 1914 by refugees from Turkey. E and S are ruined settlements. A few km beyond Zovashen the road reaches a T, with a fairly good asphalt road leading NNE (left), past an empty reservoir, completed in 1982, to Sevaberd (till 1948 Gharaghala, both meaning “Black Castle”). There is indeed a black stone castle, or at least the tumbled stones from one, on the right through a hole in the fence as you enter the village. The villagers say the fort was the stronghold of Ashot II Yerkat (“Iron Ashot”), King of the Armenians from 914 to 928, and report that a sword blade found a few years back in the rubble is now in a museum. There is another prehistoric fort about 3 km NE. This upland village, end of the paved road and jumping off point for the Geghama mountain range, survives on stock-rearing and wheat. Much of the population has emigrated, with 65 families remaining, 7 of which Yezidi. Mkhitar the mayor lives down in Abovyan. A bad jeep trail leads E from the village to Aknalich (“White Lake”), about 15 km, with fishing and reportedly splendid spring/summer wildflowers. Above the lake toward Sevsar and Shekhichingil are spread out a gallery of petroglyphs from the 6th-1st millennium BC, including swastikas, hunting scenes, ritual dances, and mythological images. Just N of the lake are two fish-shaped vishap (dragon stones)

Returning by the other branch of the T, one passes Zar, and Akunk (Armenians and Kurds, until 1946 Bashgyugh, by which it is still known), founded in 1829. A paved spur goes N from the Akunk-Zar road 0.5 km E of Akunk, leading to a striking fold in the rock with the late medieval Poghos-Petros shrine below a series of caves and springs, since antiquity and even today a place of pilgrimage and sacrifice. There are cyclopean fort remains nearby, and the hillsides between Zar and Akunk are rich in Paleolithic and Neolithic open air workshops. Katnaghbyur (meaning Milkspring) is just S of Akunk. This region, known in Persian times as Kirk Bulagh (“Forty Springs”), gave the Getar river its earlier name.

The East Road from Abovian

Continuing N at the main intersection at the entrance to Abovian, an older asphalt road leads over foothills and wheat fields to Jraber (with forestry, pig farming). Some 1 km N, between the old and new highways, is an area used by Paleolithic man to chip obsidian tools in the Olduvien, Acheulian, and Mousterian epochs of the Lower Paleolithic. Then Fantan, founded in 1829 on S slope of Gutanasar Mt. Three of its villagers won Hero of Socialist Labor status for their high wheat yields. The inhabitants of Lernanist (2529 p, till 1978 Verin Akhta), came from Persia in 1827-28, S. Hakob shrine and khachkar.

Into Mt. Ara

From entrance ramp to the Red Cross Hospital on the Ashtarak Highway, pass the villages of Kasakh (4278 p), near the Defense Ministry, and Proshyan (4364 p). At 10.5 km take right off-ramp (signposted “Egvard”). At 12.3 km turn left (no sign) on asphalt road. At 13.9 km turn left (signposted “Nor Yerznka”), asphalt. Nor Yerznka (1470 p), founded in 1949. Go uphill through village (mudholes). At 17.4 km keep straight at fork in road. At 17.7 km bear right at 3-way fork (asphalt). At 18.4 km continue past the factory (on right), orchards. At 24.2 km turn right at T (by pump station - going left takes you through a Yedidi hamlet to an impassible track up the back side of the mountain). At 24.4 km turn left over canal onto rocky jeep track (going straight leads eventually to Yeghvard).

Ascend along a gully approximately 1.5 km, or a 30-minute uphill walk into the heavily eroded and mysterious volcanic crater of Mt. Ara, named after the handsome early Armenian god/hero/king killed and brought back to life under mythological circumstances involving Queen Semiramis. Built into a mossy cave, complete with sacred spring, is the shrine of Kuys Varvara (the Virgin Barbara), also known as Tsaghkevank, with saint’s tomb, altar, ferns, and candle vendors. The Vatican has decided that St. Barbara, like St. Christopher, is probably mythical, but if she did exist she was martyred by her cruel father for espousing Christianity, or alternatively snatched away by angels. Local holy person will say prayers and help you nick the comb or ear of rooster or sheep before you sacrifice it down below in gratitude for/anticipation of the saint’s healing intercession. Picnic tables available.

In the gorge leading into the crater are house and fortification walls. Further up the crater to the right of the shrine is another small cave with a cross and some pictures of the saint. To the left of the shrine, along a narrow path, are faint traces of a medieval building. There is at least one bear roaming the mountain, and two snakes; also, other caves, rock formations, and a strenuous but scenic hike around the crater rim (ca. 3 hours; the trail up, like St. Barbara herself, existentially challenged).

To Yeghvard and Bujhakan

At the far (W) end of the Kievyan bridge turn right, paralleling Hrazdan gorge. At 2.3 km, take the right fork, passing the Davitashen bridge. At approximately 6.5 km, you reach Zovuni (4517 p), founded in 1965 for the residents of Zovuni village (mostly Yezidis) near Aparan, which was flooded out upon construction of the Aparan reservoir. Taking the right fork in the village and turning right again on a dirt road 150 m down, take the left fork twice to reach a promontory overlooking the Hrazdan gorge. This is the site of the medieval castle of Karmir Berd (“Red Castle”), built on a prehistoric fortress. At the NE corner, the Iron Age gateway is preserved, including a cuneiform inscription that is still undeciphered. The leading Russian expert dismissed it as a medieval or modern forgery, but it may well have been an effort by an illiterate local dynast to imitate the Urartians at Erebuni across the way. The paved road continues on to Kanakeravan (2971 p) and Mrgashen (1635 p, till 1964 “the town attached to Sovkhoz No. 36”, founded in 1950).

To reach Yeghvard, follow the main road turning slightly left. Pass under the underpass signposted for Ashtarak and Arzni. Entering the outskirts of Yeghvard, go to the end of the divided bit of road and turn right at 16.5 km (shop “Presents” on right). Continue another 1.8 km to the edge of town (“Commercial Shop” on left), turn sharply left and 50 meters thereafter zig right again. This is the road that leads to Bujhakan and Aparan.

Yeghvard is a large, tidy, ancient village with the small, two-story S. Astvatsatsin (“Mother of God”) Church (1301 or 1321), steeple visible from afar, and an important 5/6th century ruined basilica about 350 m NNW of it.

Some 4 km past the Yeghvard zigzag, at the entrance to the village of Zoravan (1175 p, formerly Pokravan), is a small cemetery on the left, turning at which one reaches after a few hundred yards the Zoravar church, a ruined circular church and graveyard, built by Prince Grigor Mamikonian (661-685), on the lower slopes of Mt. Ara. In the cemetery above is a small funerary chapel. About 200 m N of Zoravan, a dirt road right (opposite an old stone-cutting plant) leads in 1.2 km to a reservoir and (right of the road) the important fortified settlement of Dovri, primarily Urartian but with Bronze Age, Hellenistic, and medieval traces as well. Take the right fork and park by the little church of 1879, which incorporates khachkars from an abandoned medieval hamlet. The Urartian fortress walls are best preserved on the N edge.

A distance of 10 km from Yeghvard is Aragyugh (till 1946 Gharajoran), birthplace of an early ASSR finance commissar. (signposted “Aparan 30, Hrazdan 25”). A side road leads W to the hamlet of Saralanj (till 1945 Tulinabi), whose inhabitants came originally from Mush region.