Kasagh Gorge Churches
Churches from the 6th to the 16th century dot the landscape north and south of Ashtarak along the gorge of the little Kasagh River. Across the gorge from Yerevan on the northern outskirts of Ashtarak is the village of Mughni, with the splendid Surp Gevorg Church, finished in 1669, featuring striped bands of stone around its central drum and a classic half-folded umbrella cone on top. The village is an easy turn-off from the main highway that runs north to Spitak. About 4km north of Mughi, along the same highway, is the village of Ohanavan. Perched on the edge of the village, overlooking the gorge, is the 7th-century monastery of Hovhannavank, famous for producing manuscripts and for its wealth of inscriptions and decorative carvings. It’s right on the lip of the gorge, looking as though it pins down the flat volcanic grazing land, preventing it from tumbling into the chasm. Getting back on the main road north, another 5km north leads to perhaps the prettiest monastery of all, Saghmosavank, a cluster of drums and conical domes from the 13th century. A trail at the bottom of the gorge links Hovannavank and Saghmosavank – you can cover the distance on foot in less than 90 minutes. The trail begins at the new cemetery on the northern part of Ohanavan village. It’s unlikely you’ll find a taxi at Saghmosavank once you reach the end of the trail. You could arrange to have one from Ashtarak meet you at an appointed time, or just hitch back from the main highway, another 20-minute walk from Saghmosavank. Another option is to take a cab to Saghmosavank, do the walk in reverse and arrange transport back from Havannavank (which is close to Ashtarak).
About 8km southwest of Ashtarak in Oshakan is a 5th-century church built over the tomb of St Mesrop Mashtots, the genius who created the Armenian alphabet. Church was most unattractively renovated in 1875 and then had unappealing frescoes foisted on it in 1960. It is famous as the burial place of Mesrop Mashtots and the alphabet is spelled out in grass which must take an awful lot of cutting. A new stele stands at the entrance to the church, commemorating the 1995 visit of Katholikos Karagen I. Near the top is a sundial with the traditional Armenian use of letters for numbers. However, whether due to unfamiliarity with the old letter/number system or because of Oshakan's association with the alphabet, the hours are uncharacteristically numbered with a continuous sequence of the first 12 letters of the alphabet. In the grounds of the church is a collection of modern khachkars carved by Ruben Nalbandian. There are 36 of them, each a letter of Mashtots's original alphabet, carved with images appropriate to the letter as well as a typical Armenian cross and the circular symbol of eternity. A visit is enhanced by the company of an Armenian speaker but, armed with a copy of the Armenian alphabet, it is possible to appreciate the ideas behind some of them. For example, the Armenian letter 'E' bears an image of Ejmiatsin, 'M' depicts Mesrop Mashtots, and on 'J' water flows from the eternity symbol, joor being the Armenian word for 'water'. The first rank of nine can be read as (Ch)rist, (E)jmiatsin, (S)aint, (M)(A)(SH)(T)(O)(TS).
In the gorge at Oshakan a five-arch bridge dating from 1706 spans the Kasagh. Any vehicles which look as if they are attempting an impossible fording beside the bridge are simply using the river as a free car-wash.
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