Dadi Vank Monastery in North Eastern Kelbajar

With Fr.Hovanness Hovannessian in the Monastery of Gandzasar

Prof. Peter Cowe, Armen Aroyan and Prof. Robert Hewsen at the Monastery of Surp Hakob of Medzarants

Book by Samvel Karapetyan (Yerevan) published by Research on Armenian Architecture (RAA), Germany: Armenian Cultural Monuments in the region of Karabakh

Dadi Vank

"...This is probably the most magical place in all of Karabakh..."


By Mary Terzian

It is a bright, sunny, autumn morning in Yerevan in 2003, as we set out, a jolly crowd of twenty-seven Armenian-Americans of all shades, to visit the mountains of Karabagh. We are on a cultural journey back to our roots. Our bus is well equipped with all the modern amenities for a pleasant ride. We are privileged to have with us Armen Aroyan, the organizer of the tour, Professor Robert Hewsen, recently retired from his University post, and Professor Peter Cowe of UCLA to supplement information that the guides overlook.

The North-South Highway of Karabagh, under construction with funds collected from Armenian communities around the world, does not stretch beyond twenty five miles. Thereafter the highway is level but unpaved.

We temper our trip to Karabagh with pleasant stops like a hop by Noravank Monastery, lunch by the Arpa river, a hike to the Shakee waterfall near Sissian to stretch our legs and a breathtaking ascent to the monastery of Tatev. As we get closer to Karabagh the scenery improves, the road dilapidates. We make it to Stepanakert by evening to the buzzing Nairi hotel.

The next morning we embark on a series of expeditions to historical sites. The roads outside Stepanakert are rough. As we climb every day towards watchtowers, churches and monasteries, scratching the crest of the mountains, they narrow into treacherous curves where the bus makes heart-stopping u-turns, way above deep gorges and valleys. Karabagh is still virgin territory for tourists.

Thus we set out to Jraberd castle and Yerits Mankants Vank, or the ruins thereof. Half way through our trip we need to change over to old jeeps, some leftover specimens of the Soviet era, to make it to the top. Ours has a rusty roof from which electrical wires jut in every direction. Strips of used woolen army blankets disguise the exposed foam of the seats, while nails protrude here and there, reminding us of the ascetic Soviet regime. This carcass holds well on the road as it winds its way through the tree-covered mountains with which Karabagh is blessed. Every hump on the road churns our morning breakfast into a lump. Finding what we set out for is sometimes a matter of trial and error and serendipity in this hitherto unmapped territory. Our trip is an exercise in shake and bake as the morning sun sizzles the top of the car.

Despite the rigors of the road, the mood in the jeep is jovial. Professor Peter Cowe, in impeccable Armenian, pumps out the history of the region, Jim Yogurtian of Ventura, California, intersperses the conversation with his ready humor, Dr. and Mrs. Soghikian of Oakland, California, keep the beat, and the rest of us are too busy hanging on to the vehicle, or to each other, to notice the beauty of the environs and listen to the gurgle of the Tartar and Trghi rivers that flow beneath, in the canyon. On short stops, as the bewildered drivers consult among themselves on the best road to take, we compare notes with the other passengers on the merits of our respective vehicles.

Jraberd proves to be a small castle interesting enough to beckon the hardy to test its heights. We leave the climbers there and proceed in search of Yerits Mankants, a small enclave of a church and monastery lost among the trees gracing the peak of a mountain. One wonders at the tenacity of faith of our ancestors to build houses of prayer in the remotest corners of the country. How did they transport those huge rocks?

Our picnic lunch is simple but delicious, as usual. In the fresh air of the mountains even boiled potatoes have a delectable taste. We look after each other, listen to Professors Hewsen’s and Cowe's interesting historical facts, exchange civilities and make new acquaintances. The relaxed atmosphere compensates for the hazards of our hardy expedition. The climbers catch up with us with stories of their prowess.

Every day we foray deeper into the hinterland. Nothing frightens us, not even crossing to no man's land beyond a trailer post. A horizontal traffic bar on the paved road fastened with a worn-out rope marks the border. A two-hour wait for clearance by the Soviet style authorities dampens our spirits somewhat but never to the point of concession. After all, this is still a war zone, a fact easily forgotten in view of the resort quality of the environment.

We go on with ardor from one perch to the other – Dadi Vank, Surp Hakob MedzArants, Ghazanchetzvotz, Amaras, to name a few. We witness the ruins of Aghdam and the rage that dwells in the ghost city with a silent minaret. The windowless buildings in Armenian villages bear the traces of relatively recent shelling. We encounter the surprised looks of the inhabitants and the herds, as we proceed through the sleepy towns, shaking them out of their torpor. We are like stars from outside their orbit, brightening their outlook with the knowledge that Hyes from across the world are interested in their land and fate.

Road hazards are many: the path disappears into the fog, the jeep "coughs" and comes to a halt or a tire bursts. At some crossing, in the middle of nowhere, our jeep sinks into the rain soaked earth. Cajoling, revving the motor or pushing the vehicle with human muscle will not move it an inch. Unsolicited advice makes the rounds. Finally the resourceful drivers find some wire to tow the vehicle out of the mud. We regain our seats and the caravan of three sets out en route to the next stop. The square where the Ghazanchetvotz church sparkles in the setting sun is practically empty. A few children play on the street with no fear of abduction. A member from our group invites them to sing for us. Five to seven children alternately line up and spill out their repertoire: songs, poems, skits, mimes, a display of real talent under the amused eyes of locals and tourists alike. They do not seem to be affected by the war. A few others from our group visit the church and hold impromptu vespers in the basement. Between Charles Hardy, an ordained deacon, Armen Aroyan, a seasoned choir director and a cross section of the Armenian congregation represented by members of our group, we have the makings of a church service on demand.

It is quiet and lonely out there on the mountains, although shielded somewhat. It is a vulnerable life in the valley where there are no natural boundaries separating enemy territory from homeland. Abandoned tanks, left here and there, bring home the reality of the war halted some ten years ago. At certain intervals a notice from the Halo Trust attests to cleared territory from mines that infest the area. Memorials, set up in each town for the unknown soldier, with fresh flowers, just like in Yerablour or Dzidzernakaberd in Yerevan, remind the visitor that life around here is a battle for survival. In this rugged country every human being, tall and small, is ready to die for the homeland. In fact, military education is part of the high school curriculum.

Gandzasar, another treasure of Armenian architecture, dating back to the thirteenth century and renovated several times, sits like a jewel in the emerald green of the surrounding countryside. Construction is under way for a Seminary by the church for religious education. The previous structure was demolished by Azeri rockets, revealing, fortuitously, "Khatchkars” hidden in the walls. Father Hovhannes Hovhannesian, the resident priest, tall and erect like the mountains around him, walks up and down the scaffolding with as much ease as the steps on his altar. Lunch in the shadow of sprawling trees, in the bosom of nature, intercepted only by the sporadic pounding of hammers and their echoes in the wilderness, feels unreal. The scenery is a feast for the eyes. The church has been revived in 1989, after being dormant for seventy years during the Soviet regime. In 1992 Father Hovhannesian, a fresh seminary graduate, is assigned to Gandzasar, right before the Karabagh/Azeri war. Among others, a makeshift company of 360 convicts is sent over by the then Minister of War of Armenia, Vazgen Sargissian, to defend the country. On finding out that one third of these men are not baptized, Father officiates the Christian rites all night to prepare them for the Lord, just in case… The company ironically calls itself the Eagle Convict platoon. The battle is fierce, rockets whiz by the church and its steeples but the construction remains erect except for the bell tower.

Again in 1993, on January 17, as forty men hold the monastery fort against 340 Azeris, Father receives word, as he is officiating Holy Mass with only two other assistants, to leave at once. The Armenian resistance can hold no more. Father coolly completes his devout prayers and, out of character, sends a message to the battlefront that he will bring forty men for help. As he arrives on the scene with only three members of his family, wondering how to justify his promise, he learns that the enemy has miraculously retreated, leaving behind a sizable cache of ammunition and tanks.

Karabagh is a country of legends, interspersed with history of the Meliks, their prowess, their vices, their ambitions, their ruined castles and hopes. We even meet a descendent, an elderly lady, still proud of her heritage despite the ruins surrounding her. The natural beauty of the region is tantalizing, like an attractive woman inviting trouble.

The trip back, felt through the bones and intestines of each passenger as we cross every mile of the highway, is a reminder that Karabagh is paved with sweat and blood. Our paltry contributions at the Telethon every Thanksgiving in no way compensates the proud and courageous Karabaghtzis defending their land to the last breath.

This unforgettable trip makes friends of strangers as we "share salt and bread" in the Armenian tradition. As the ambiance warms up we come forward with our characteristic talents: storytelling, dancing, singing hymns, participating in lively debates, or exchanging tidbits of Armenian life. Our photos and videos perpetuate our cherished moments, pin down faces and places and whet our appetite for the next cultural tour of the Armenian Heritage Society (which may be reached at, (626) 359 9510).