Robert Kurkjian and Matthew Karanian spent several years traveling and researching in Karabakh before they published, in 2001, the first-ever commercial guidebook dedicated solely to Armenia and Karabakh. They’ve been updating and adding to their research, and publishing new editions, ever since. In this special report for Asbarez, they discuss one of the adventures that they enjoyed along the way, in Karabakh.
After trekking throughout Artsakh–also known as the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh–during a dozen trips, we thought we had seen it all.
This tiny republic, after all, is no bigger than Delaware and only about twice the area of Luxembourg. Its population of 150,000 is about the size of Hartford, Conn. So, dozens of treks should have provided us with plenty of time to see all the sights.
But Karabakh is no Delaware. It doesn’t have a Department of Tourism, and plans to form a “state agency of tourism” were announced only a couple of months ago.
Artsakh didn’t have its own commercial travel guide, either, at least not until we decided to write one. Many world maps, particularly the ones that are designed for tourists, didn’t even show it.
So on our first visit in 1995 we downloaded a map from the CIA’s web site, we hired a local guide who knew his way around, and we saw a lot–all that there was to see. And then we spoke to someone in a remote village and learned that we had missed far more than we had seen. Our first visit was just a weekend excursion from neighboring Armenia, where we were each teaching at the American University of Armenia.
We returned the next year, and as we traveled deeper into Karabakh, farther off-road, and without reliable maps, we did our research with the assistance of the local residents– usually farmers from the villages. We would simply ask: are there any ancient sites nearby? “Sure,” a villager would say. “I’ve heard there is a very old church on the mountain.” And then this farmer would invite us to sit for coffee or vodka and insist that we stay for lunch, or dinner, or, if it was late in the day, that we stay overnight.
Researching Karabakh cannot, and should not, be done hurriedly. We had told ourselves that we were looking for artifacts of Karabakh’s ancient civilization. But we were also explorers who were seeking the spirit of Karabakh. This spirit would reveal itself in its own time.
The directions to cultural sites were rarely direct. “Go to Vardan’s house,” we’d be told. “His son-in-law knows someone who has seen it.” Or we would be told about someone who could find the person who had a key to the chapel door.
This is how, a dozen years ago, we got started on our research. We talked to people. We asked many questions. We learned by word of mouth. We got directions from several people, we figured out which of those directions made the most sense, and then we went. We learned about some of Karabakh’s most mystical spots by word of mouth and each new find encouraged us to return the following year to see and to photograph the sites we had missed.
This word of mouth is how we learned that a place called G’Tichivank was a place that we needed to explore. This same word of mouth is probably the reason it took us several years to find this splendid relic. Word of mouth can lead you to treasure. But it can also be unreliable and lead to dead-ends and trouble, as we would also learn.
Church-Spotting In The Mountains
Karabakh’s location in the south Caucasus at the crossroads of some of the world’s major civilizations made it a great trade route. But it also made it a great conquest for competing empires. Russia’s, Persians, Turks, Arabs and Mongols have all plundered the region at one time or another. So the Armenia’s often built their monasteries and churches in remote and inaccessible locations. This has helped to preserve them over the centuries. It has also kept them far from the beaten path. Most travelers haven’t even heard of some of them.
As a result, finding one of these gems is an occasion to celebrate.
Neophyte church spotters never hear about G’Tichivank. It’s just too exotic, too remote, too unknown. Admittedly, everything we had heard was hearsay. Before our first visit, we had never met anyone who had actually been there. Still, there were plenty of people who said they knew someone who had seen it. “Ahhh,” they would say while smiling, suggesting they had faith in the stories they must have heard about its splendor. We almost wondered if the legend of G’Tichivank was a hoax.
We tried to go there in March one year, but the Spring rains had turned the roads to mud, and we had to turn back. We made another attempt the following summer. But we found ourselves misdirected to a roadway that was near the line of contact between Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Our nervous driver sped away. G’Tichivank remained a myth.
According to our word of mouth research, we knew we could drive to the base of the mountain where G’Tichivank is located, and we let out a cheer when we actually made it this far on our third attempt the following year. This road had taken us to a village where the locals told us that we would need a four-wheel drive jeep for the next few kilometers and that we would have to hike the final five kilometers on foot.
We didn’t have a jeep, and we didn’t want to spend several hours hiking in the heat of a June afternoon. So we re-filled our water bottles and we took a look around the village while we pondered what to do.
We were in the village center of a place called Togh, and several women were baking bread in an outdoor hearth. We were eating some of the bread that the women gave us when a villager drove up in an old Russian military jeep. The driver introduced himself. He said his name was Armen.
We didn’t ask, but he told us he was 70 years old.
We didn’t ask, but he told us that he could take us to G’Tichivank.
The Road To G’tichivank
We were in one of the most remote places that we’d ever been, but Armen pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and called his wife. His home was located on the way to G’Tichivank, and when we got there his wife handed us a bag of bread and a bottle of water for the trip. Armen poured a pail of petrol into the tank of the jeep, and we were on our way.
The road to G’Tichivank soon became a dirt trail, and finally a path. Puddles of mud and water punctuated the path and some of them were bigger than our jeep. Armen’stopped. We got out of the jeep, ready to hike the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. But Armen’surveyed the scene and got back into his jeep without us.
His plan: go straight through the mud without stopping. There were several more of these roadblocks on the way to G’Tichivank, and Armen’s plow-through strategy worked on them all. We ascended the entire mountain in this manner.
At the mountaintop we discovered an ancient monastery and church in ruins, but mostly still standing. There was nothing else nearby, no evidence of any settlement or town. Woodland surrounded the complex, giving its presence an added air of mystery. And yet the complex was constructed entirely of mortar and stone.
It seemed improbable that the site could have more than a handful of visitors each year. And unless those visitors had a skilled driver such as Armen, and a four-wheel drive jeep, they would have needed to hike most of the way. This could only be done during June and July, when the days are long enough and the weather dry enough to permit such a trek.
Several-hundred-year old stone crosses, or khatchkars, were strewn about the churchyard. Some were broken and some were covered with weeds and soil. Several more were inside the church. There had been no apparent attempt to preserve them, although we have learned that preservationists have recently begun working there.
A gavit located adjacent to the chapel stood in ruins, its archway serving as a portal to the surrounding countryside. Stinging nettle weeds filled the cracks in the foundation and covered loose stones, which made walking difficult.
Atop the chapel stood a domed drum, an architectural feature that is common to Armenian churches. Uncommon, however, was the graffiti that covered this one. Dozens of names had been painted on. Yuri. Haik. Boris. The names were painted in Cyrillic letters. Some of the names were Russian. Some were Armenian. A sacred site had been desecrated.
The monastic complex was built during the ninth through thirteenth centuries and it once included a large library and a workshop for scriveners. Today the chapel dominates the site and is the best preserved of the structures. An inscription above the north portal, written in the Armenian language, explains that two brothers, both of them Bishops, began building the church in 1241 and finished it seven years later. The inscription also lamen’s the difficulties of life in Karabakh during the mid-thirteenth century. “The church was built in sorrowful and difficult times, when a tribe of bow-men turned our whole land to ruins,” says the writing. The bow-men were Mongol invaders.
On the day of our visit, however, G’Tichivank appeared to have been forgotten.
Trees grew through cracks in foundations and wedged themselves along walls. Weeds sprouted from the rooftops, obscured entries, and blanketed the yard. Everywhere we looked, gravity seemed to be pulling everything down.
Armen drove a different route down from the mountain so that he could stop at a stream and get some water. He took the bread that his wife had packed and discovered that there were some boiled eggs and scallions there, too. We had lunch. Armen retrieved his bottle and filled shot glasses for all of us. His water bottle turned out to be grain alcohol that he had distilled from mulberries. Armen drained the bottle and then he drove us the rest of the way down the mountain to the village where our own car was parked.
We had started our search for G’Tichivank at sunrise on one of the longest days of the year and it would be sunset before we returned home to our home-stay in Stepanakert. Our journey had carried us back through more than 1,000 years of Karabakh history, but it had covered less than a couple of hundred kilometers. We couldn’t have gotten any farther from the tourist trail in the Caucasus and we relished the idea that we were two of just a handful of Westerners who had made it this deep into Karabakh. Still, we hoped we wouldn’t be the last.