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Noratus field of khachkars

Not far beyond Hayrivank the main road bypasses the rather uninteresting provincial capital of Gavar which was founded as Nor Bayazit (ie: New Bayazit) in 1830 by Armenian migrants who had left Bayazit, Turkey, following the Turkish defeat by Russia. In 1959, it was renamed Kamo, the nom de guerre of Simon Ter-Petrosian (1882-1922), one of a number of Bolshevik supporters who raised money for the party by robbing banks in particular, but also post offices and railway ticket offices. He died in a road accident in Tbilisi.

After the Gavar turn-off the main road heads south and skirts the edge of Noratus, home to one of Armenia's most amazing sights - the field of khachkars. Turn left off the main road at one of those preposterously over-engineered Soviet-era road junctions that must originally either have had some military rationale or else have been designed by someone with a penchant for grandiosity. On the eastern edge of the town is a huge cemetery with a modern section which is quite interesting but with an array of stones from the medieval period onwards where the range and fascination of the khachkars are overwhelming. Although there are many groups of khachkars in Armenia, nowhere can rival the impression which the approximately 900 here make.

It is quite impossible to do justice to the carved stones on a single visit and one can merely wander across the site gazing in amazement at a row of 15 erect ones here, an area of recumbent ones there, no two alike. Stones with single crosses, stones with multiple crosses, geometric patterns, naturalistic ones: it is quite impossible to take in the riot of carved detail. Perhaps the sheep who graze here every day eventually learn to appreciate the detail but mere tourists don't have a chance.

Quite why so many khachkars were erected here is not clear; possibly not all are tombstones and some may mark events other than death. A useful description of the Noratus cemetery walking tour recently instituted by the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project can be found on their website. Visitors should note that, like all khachkars which are still in their original positions, these face west and can therefore most easily be photographed in the afternoon.

Nearby, in the centre of the village of Noratus stands the small white 9th- or 10th-century Church of St Gregory with its relatively high cylindrical tambour. The narrow front of the church combines with the small rooms on the outside, which look as if they were built as later additions, the high tambour and the conical dome to give the appearance of a space rocket. There is, however, typical Armenian carving over the doorway and the altar dais inside is conspicuously large for the size of building.

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