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Amberd Fortress

The fortress and church of Amberd are beautifully situated on the southern slope of Aragats at an altitude of over 2,000m between the gorges of the Amberd and Arkashen rivers but may be inaccessible because of snow as late as May. In late May/June, the fortress and church are surrounded by expanses of bright red oriental poppies, geraniums, various peas including the Persian everlasting pea Lathyrus rotundifolius, a relative of the garden-popular perenial pea, and the tall Nectaroscordum siculum, an onion relatively rare in the wild but often grown in UK gardens. In nearby grassland grows the striking borage relative Solenanthus circinatus with its metre-high stems of bluish-purple flowers.

To reach Amberd, turn left off the road to the cosmic ray station. In clear weather spectacular views of the two buildings can be obtained from the approach road with Mount Ararat in the background, a view all the more impressive because the cafe does not obtrude when viewing from this direction, although inconsiderately parked tourist buses might. (The buses, on day trips from Yerevan, rarely arrive before 10.30 so it's quite easy to beat them.) The owner of the cafe (May-end Oct, depending on weather) lives on site so opens the cafe when tourists arrive and closes when they have all gone.

The church, a typical cross-dome structure with an umbrella cupola, is older than the present fortress, having been built in 1026 by Prince Vahram Pahlavuni, leader of the Armenian forces who fought against the incorporation of Ani into the Byzantine Empire. The present fortress dates from the 12th century although there had been a stronghold here since the 7th century which changed hands several times according to the fortunes of war. The final phase of building took place after the brothers Ivane and Zakare Zakarian captured it from the Seljuk Turks in 1196. Acquired by Prince Vache Vachutian in 1215, it withstood Mongol invaders in 1236 but was finally abandoned in 1408.

The approach to the fortress is from the west, the side least protected by natural defences, and the windowless west wall has defensive towers and steps inside the castle up to what would have been a walkway on top of the wall. The eastern side of the fortress is more domestic in appearance. Inside there is evidence of at least three storeys of small rooms and the many windows of differing styles, looking out towards the church, suggest various phases of rebuilding.

Three small buildings at the foot of the fortress on the east have been restored. That nearest the castle (the cistern on the site plan) certainly has evidence of a water-related function. The middle building is a small chapel while the easternmost, the 13th-century bathhouse, has two rooms each with a dome. Grooves in the wall would have held clay water pipes, similar to those visible at Lori Berd near Stepanavan. A path around the outside of the fortress affords good views of the gorge of the Amberd. It is possible to go inside the castle. Many people scramble up the steep scree-like slope visible from the car park but the easiest (and official) way in is through the door in the east wall; a path goes off between the chapel and cistern. (Note that, inside, some of the walls don't seem too stable.)

Another attractive and interesting church is Tegher, founded by Prince Vache Vachutian's wife Mamakhatun in 1213. Constructed of basalt and commanding extensive views over the plains below, it is south of Amberd. Note: the road map, Roads of Armenia, implies that it is necessary to drive via Agarak between Amberd and Tegher; this is certainly true for large vehicles. However, for cars, in good weather, a shorter route is possible. It goes west from the Byurakan road at Antarut then via Orgov to join the road to Tegher. It is an attractive route, dropping down to cross the Amberd (a popular spot for fishing) and back up the far side.

The oldest part is the Mother of God Church with round tambour and conical roof. The front of the altar dais shows seven arches, said to symbolise that this was the seventh church built by the family. To its right is a now-blocked-off secret passage down into the river gorge for water and escape. The large gavit of 1232 is particularly attractive with pleasing decoration around the base of its cupola: the pillars supporting the roof were brought from 10km away. Set into the floor is the grave of the founder and her husband and, more unusually, one grave depicting the deceased as having only one leg and another indicating that the deceased had been buried with feet pointing west rather than east. Two-storey corner rooms at the west end give the external appearance of two small chapels perched on the roof of the gavit. In the vicinity are the remains of other buildings including a bread oven just below the church. Behind the church is a picnic area and some visitors camp here then walk the 12km over the hills to Amberd.

Continuing south from Tegher the road descends through the village of Aghdzk. On the east side of the village street are the ruins of a 4th-century three-aisle basilica church, to the south of which is a mausoleum, originally of two storeys but with only the subterranean part now intact. According to the early historians Movses Khorenatsi and Pavstos Buzand, the mausoleum was built in 364, in the period of the Armenia-Persian war to house the bones of the kings of the Arshakuni dynasty which had been seized by the Persians but were then recaptured by the Armenian leader Vasak Mamikonian. The carvings in the chamber date from the late 4th or early 5th century and are unique in early Armenian Christian art. On the north wall is Daniel in the lions' den while on the south is a boar hunt. A torch is essential for seeing the carvings.

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