Ashtarak (population of 27,000 people) is situated on the Kasagh River. This river rises in the southeastern corner of Shirak province and then flows south through Aragatsotn to join the Arax south of Yerevan. In the rest Ashtarak is a midsized regional town on the Kasagh Gorge, 22km northwest of Yerevan and somewhat higher at 1100m.
Ashtarak is a pleasant town with some older buildings including some fine medieval churches and lots of 19th-century buildings. It is now rather dominated by the modern bridge carrying the Yerevan to Gyumri main road high over the gorge, bypassing the city and considerably reducing traffic over the older three-arch bridge of 1664. This older bridge has a rather unusual appearance in that the three arches are unequal in size with the southernmost arch almost twice the height of the northernmost.
There are four churches around town, including the little 7th-century Karmravor church with intricate carvings and a cemetery with khatchkars a short way north, and the 6th-century Tsiranavor church on the edge of the gorge. Prominently perched atop an outcrop on the east bank of the river between the new and old bridges is the small red-tuff church of St Sargis, a modern construction on early foundations. The main part of the city, however, is on the west bank.
Legend states that three sisters lived here who all loved the same prince - Sargis: the elder two decided to kill themselves to leave the way free for the youngest. One of the elder sisters dressed in an apricot-coloured dress and the other in a red dress and then they both threw themselves into the gorge. The youngest sister learned what had happened, put on a white dress, and threw herself into the gorge after them. The prince became a hermit but three churches appeared at the edge of the gorge: one apricot-coloured, one red and one white. The problem with this legend is that the present colour of these churches doesn't correspond with it, although the names do. Karmravor ('Reddish'), the church of the sister wearing the red dress, is apricot coloured (though it does have a red roof); Spitakavor ('White-ish'), the church of the sister wearing the white dress is red; while Tsiranavor ('Apricot-ish'), whose sister wore the apricot-coloured dress, is actually white!
By far the best preserved of the three is the small 7th-century Karmravor Church dedicated to the Mother of God. It is one of the few Armenian churches of this period to have survived unaltered, even retaining a roof of tuff tiles and a tiled octagonal cupola. A single aisle cross-dome church, it is one of Armenia's most appealing town churches. An extensive cemetery with khachkars lies to the north and east of the surrounding walls. The other two churches in the legend, 14th-century Spitakavor and 5th-century Tsiranavor, are both roofless and forsaken but are only a short walk away and the views of the gorge are pleasant. The large storage jars decorating the gardens passed on the walk are often unearthed in the district. The churches of the legend are on the northeast side of the city but Ashtarak's biggest church, St Marina, is in the city centre. Built in 1281, it is again a cross-dome church with octagonal tambour but the tambour and cupola here are unusually high. The tambour features attractive decoration in contrasting colours of tuff but the appearance of the whole is seriously marred by a Soviet-era addition which looks more like a large derelict shed than part of a church.
Ashtarak has some very rural neighbourhoods as well, full of fruit trees and stacks of hay in late summer. While there is no great need to come to the town itself, it does make a decent transit point for the Kasagh Gorge churches if you are travelling by local transport.
Getting There & Away - Ashtarak is on a major road, so public transport is easy. In Yerevan, Ashtarak marshrutkas leave from Grigor Lusavorich Poghots, (40 minutes, every hour from 7.30am to 6.30pm). There are also marshrutkas from here to villages such as Voskevaz and Agarak that go via Ashtarak. A bus travels to Ohanavan around 3pm or whenever it’s full. Marshrutkas return to Yerevan from Ashtarak’s main shuka. To visit the local sites (Hovhannavank and Saghmosvank) by taxi you can save a little money by taking the bus from Yerevan to Ashtarak and then hiring a local taxi.
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