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Metsamor Museum

Besides an internationally renowned nuclear power plant, Metsamor also has intriguing remains of sophisticated early cultures. The Metsamor Museum (working hours 11am-5pm Tue-Sun), 6km from Metsamor town, displays evidence of thousands of years of civilisation from an early Iron Age settlement excavated nearby. Given the lack of English at Metsamor a visit can be significantly enhanced by having a guide.

Heading west from Ejmiatsin across the fertile plain, Metsamor nuclear power station can be seen to the right. About 2km from the junction of the bypass with the turn off for Ejmiatsin a conspicuous monument to the left marks the spot where a Yugoslav plane bringing relief supplies for the victims of the 1988 earthquake crashed as it approached Zvartnots Airport killing all seven on board. Four kilometres, beyond that a road leads off left towards the village of Taronik, with its many stork nests. Take this road and continue through the village until a T-junction of surfaced roads. Turn right, continue through the village, then turn left immediately before the village cancellation sign. Follow this track through an area of fish ponds (and consequently quite good for little bittern, squacco heron and other birds favouring this habitat) towards the red tuff museum of Metsamor ('Black Swamp') which opened in 1971.

The small museum, which is badly in need of money being spent on it, is well worth visiting. The collection includes gold jewellery from 600 BC and earlier, and an ancient astrological stone. It shows finds from the excavations at the site but there is minimal labelling in English and the staff do not speak English. Of particular interest is the basement where there is an exact reconstruction of one of the excavated royal tombs. The excavation of royal tombs has shown that the deceased were buried with feet to the east, presumably to face the rising sun, and in the foetal position within a sarcophagus in the early tombs but later lying within a casket. Royalty was buried not only with their jewellery and a supply of food and wine, but also with the domestic animals and decapitated human beings, presumably their slaves, who were slaughtered for the occasion. Also exhibited are some superb examples of gold jewellery, belt decorations in the form of lions, and a weight in the form of a frog made from agate and onyx. This weight, found around the neck of a woman, bears an inscription in Babylonian cuneiform. The ground and upper floors of the museum show examples of ceramics, jewellery, tools and other items including a very large phallus.

Outside the museum entrance is a row of phallus stones, some measuring 3m high, most brought here from other excavation sites. Dating from pre-Christian times, the stones are fertility symbols created to ask for God’s help not only with human fertility, but also for good crops and animal health. Other exhibits require more explanation and an English speaking guide.

Behind the museum, giant stones around the outside of the excavation are part of an ancient Bronze Age Cyclopean fortress, around 30% of which has been excavated. Although there was occupation here much earlier the important remains and finds date from around 2000bc. Excavations have revealed an important metalworking industry, an astronomical observatory and considerable evidence of international trade.

On the second hill, before descending to the covered excavation site, ask someone from the museum to point out the lichenmottled astrological stone, with markings that were part of an early astronomical observatory with similarities to Zorats Karer near Sisian. The excavated part of the site lies just beyond the museum. The path from the museum crosses an extremely decrepit bridge and care is essential. The walls built in the second millennium bc can be seen; they were strengthened in the Urartian era. Up on the plateau are chambers and pits (those with runnels thought to be related to the metalworking industry) hewn into the rock. However, it is the ancient observatory where various markings can be seen on the stones which is likely to be of greatest interest. Archaeologists have suggested that it was used around 2800-2500bc to detect the appearance of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, which may have been worshipped and which possibly marked the start of the year and indicated the time to start planting crops: at that epoch Sirius was visible in summer rather than in winter as it now is. If there is no-one from the museum free to show you the markings, walk along the path beside the megalithic walls in the direction of the power station, heading for a small outcrop of reddish rocks. By scrambling around on the far side of the rocks you will come across steps carved into the rock and it is in their vicinity that the markings are to be found. The easiest ones to see comprise a series of converging lines.

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