BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
When I was criss-crossing Armenia in 2012 with a group, our tour guide mentioned that recently a suspended bridge had been built in a village called Khndzoresk.
We didn’t pay much attention to that piece of information. We cared less to see a newly built bridge. We were interested in exploring things with connection to the history. However within the next few years I heard more about the bridge. Friends visited Khndzoresk and raved about the Indiana Jones-esque suspended bridge. This year I planned to stay in city of Goris for a week to catch up with my writing and also visit the bridge which is in the outskirts of the city.
Khatchik, the proprietor of the B&B where I was staying, suggested before I visit the bridge that I meet a historian of Khndzoresk village where the bridge is located.
In small towns of Armenia, everybody knows everybody. The taxi drove me from Goris to Khndzoresk, a ten minute drive. Without a prior phone call or an arrangement, we arrived at the door of Arkady Dzadourian, the so-called historian, who lived in a two story home. The driver knocked at their door and told them that a woman wanted to have an interview with Arkady. He accepted to meet with me.
His son guided me upstairs to their living room. I introduced myself to Arkady as a journalist who wanted to learn about the history of Khndzoresk. He gave me a warm welcome with a big smile. He told me that he’s been a school principal and he has published a few historical books.
We sat around the coffee table and his granddaughter served us Armenian coffee, cookies and fruit. Like any other Armenian home, the living room was furnished with a poor imitation of Queen Ann style bulky sofas and armchairs.
The word Khndzoresk is derived from the native dialect meaning “deep gorge.” Archeological evidence shows that for thousands of years the gorge had been a cave dwelling community. However the first written history of the village goes back to 1612, when two brothers fleeing from the oppression of a Persian King came to settle in the gorge among the precipices and cliffs which have unique conical rock formations.
Another written story which tells about people dwelling in caves at Khndzoresk village comes from a journal of a high ranking Armenian clergyman, Hovhaness Gretatzi, when he was traveling through the gorge on route to a coronation ceremony of a Persian King held in Azerbaydjan.
Gretatzi in 1723 in his journal says: “When I was passing through a deep Gorge (referring to Khndzoresk) I saw people dwelling in the caves high in the ravine.” He expresses his amazement about the young women who skillfully ascended to caves by using ropes while carrying their babies on their backs. After gathering these tidbits of history about Khndzoresk village my driver took me to see the bridge.
Let’s take a step back.
Last year I visited Vancouver, Canada. Guess what? The number one attraction in Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is quite similar to the bridge in Khndzoresk. You can take free shuttles from most hotels in Vancouver to the bridge. However when you get to Capilano the ticket to cross the bridge is pricey. It costs $36. And of course in Khndzoresk the cost to cross the bridge is zero.
At Capilano the ranger gave us the history of the bridge. According to him, in 1888 a Scottish civil engineer and land developer purchased 6000 acres of dense forest on either side of the Capilano River and the gorge. He built a cabin and soon realized that on the other side of the ravine there were better opportunities for hunting.
So he decided to build a footbridge to easily traverse to the other edge. His civil engineering background gave him the knowledge to make a 140 meter bridge out of hemp ropes and cedar planks. He used a team of horses to carry the ropes across the river.
Now back to Khndzoresk.
Most of us probably think of cave dwellers in terms of prehistoric times. However in the village of Khndzoresk, people lived in caves well into 1950s. At that time, the government intervened and asked them to leave the caves.
When I visited the bridge, I met a man who was like a guardian to the bridge. He gave me some info about the bridge and he encouraged me to meet Zhora Aleksanyan, who had put $100,000 of his own money to build the bridge. He gave me his personal cell phone number and said that he would be happy to receive me.
The following day, I hesitated to call Mr. Aleksanyan on his personal cell phone. How could I call an important businessman on his personal phone—someone who owns a flour factory and the largest hotel in Goris? However, as life is simple in Armenia, people are simple too.
So I plucked up my courage and made the call around noon. I introduced myself and told him I wanted to see him.
Mr. Aleksanyan: Where are you staying?
Me: At Khatchik’s B&B.
Mr. Aleksanyan: My home is right around the corner.
Me: Yes, I know where your home is.
(I would not have thought that he would be home at that time of the day)
Mr. Aleksanyan: Then come down we will have lunch together.
I grabbed my notebook and iPad and walked to their home —a hundred yards away. I knocked at their door and her daughter-in-law welcomed me. In Armenia it is till customary to live in an inter-generational households.
The home was built like American style mansions. The entry hall lead to a lobby with a circular staircase to the second floor.
We sat at the dining room table. First his wife served us Armenian coffee and fresh cut watermelon, and then a three course meal followed.
The most important thing I wanted to know from Mr. Aleksanyan was about the motivation of building such a bridge. Here’s the story he told me.
Zhora Aleksanyan was born in a Khndzoresk cave in 1950. He was 7 years old when his family moved out of their cave. You would think that a better condition of living would have been more appealing, however it was not. He explained how his family was so attached to dwelling in a cave, that for years to come his parents evoked sentiments about missing their previous lifestyle. So the little Zhora grew up with nostalgic feelings towards the old Khndzoresk gorge.
The idea of building a bridge came one day when Aleksanyan and his friends were having a picnic in their old neighborhood by the caves. They were sitting there reminiscing about good old days, when a friend said, “Wouldn’t be nice if there was a bridge, so we could cross to the other side?”
That was a light bulb moment. He immediately began making a fantasy, in his head, of what it would be like to build a bridge. And that’s how it all began. To gain knowledge about engineering he started studying the most famous world bridges, such as the Golden gate. He said the whole village contributed to the construction not monetarily but as a work force. They also used horses to transport the metal ropes. The construction took about six months.
I asked Aleksanyan if he knew about the Vancouver bridge. And he said that he had never heard about it. The Khndzoresk bridge is 20 meters longer than Vancouver. Both bridges look so much alike and the reason behind the building of each bridge was the whim of one person. Aleksanyan wanted people to come and visit his old neighborhood (the caves) and the Scottish land developer wanted to have better opportunities to hunt on the other side of the gorge.