Strategic Meghri (45,000 people), Armenia’s toehold on Iran, is worth exploring for its fine stone houses. The town sits deep in the rocky, lushly irrigated gorge of the Meghri River surrounded by sawtooth peaks.
The principal town in the most southerly region of the country, Meghri has some attractive houses of the 18th and 19th centuries and is pleasantly situated amidst an arid mountainous landscape, the well-tended and watered gardens making a stark contrast with the surrounding barrenness. Walking around the narrow, cobbled alleys with their canopy of vines gives an insight into life in old Meghri. The wooden beams which were incorporated into the walls to give some protection against earthquakes can be seen in places, as can the cement of mud, straw and egg which was used. The houses were built in a terraced fashion on the hillside, the roofs of houses on a lower level forming the gardens of those on the level above. Apparently large slabs of stone were used in the roofs to keep the house below dry, but one wonders how successful this was.
The Mother of God Church in the centre of the town was built in the 15th century and rebuilt in the 17th. It had the singular distinction of housing the first piano brought to Armenia, brought from Berlin to form part of the dowry of the daughter of a local family. The piano, in a somewhat sorry state, currently sits on a veranda of the house of the hospitable local priest. The pale-coloured stonework of the church contrasts with the 12-sided pink tambour and cupola. The plain exterior in no way prepares visitors for the interior, which is covered with 19th-century murals. Those on the arches and cupola are mainly abstract or floral in design but the walls and pillars depict saints or Bible stories. In the Baptism of Jesus he is shown standing on a snake, and Hell looks suitably Brueghelish in the Last Judgement. The church was used as a store in the Soviet era and the murals were apparently painted over so it is pleasing to see how well they have survived.
There are two other churches in Meghri. St Karapet Church is reached by taking the street which leads north from the town square, from the right-hand side of the town hall as one faces it. The church is tucked away behind a storage barn, built deliberately to obscure the church in Stalin's era. Keep to the path when walking on the south side of the church: straying off it could mean a fall through the roof of the adjacent property. The seriously ruined church is a domed basilica with three aisles and there are the remains of frescoes on the columns. The arches are all slightly pointed. Like the houses wooden beams were incorporated into the structure as seismic protection, but the church was damaged in the 1960s by the earthquake which led to the relocation of Kajaran and the huge cracks in the masonry do not bode well for the future. St Sargis Church, on the other side of the town, was restored in the 1990s and is in good condition, the frescoes inside having been renovated in a sensitive way. Attached to the outside of the church is a small building, the morgue, in which the bodies of the dead were washed before being taken into the church. Such a building is unusual in Armenia, the ablution normally being performed at home. The church is perched on a hill overlooking the town and is reached by a tortuous narrow road in poor condition. A 4x4 can just about negotiate it. The way to the church is complicated - probably best to ask a local person.
Overlooking the narrow lanes of the town are the remains of a small fortress, originally built in the 10th century but rebuilt in the 18th by David Bek. It is an excellent viewpoint although not particularly interesting in itself. The remains of three other small fortifications can be seen on the horseshoe-shaped ridge around the town.
The post independence borders left Meghri deeply isolated, and the local economy struggles by on remittances, farming and a bit of business from the highway to Iran. The border crossing is at the Araks bridge near Agarak (population 3500), 8km from Meghri, open all day. The Meghri fortress above the town dates mostly from the 18th century. The brick domes of Surp Hovannes at the Meghri town monastery date from the 17th century.
There are a few Russian soldiers based at Agarak with Armenian troops and officials. Most travellers come this way to cross the border but a few intrepid souls just come for a glimpse of Iran – you can see the ancient village of Noordoz (also spelt Noghdoz or Norduz) across the river, including the minarets of the local mosque. Iranian farmers and shepherds can be seen busily working on the opposite bank. Be very careful about taking pictures in the area – on our visit a Russian border guard checked our camera for sensitive photos. It’s a slow border-crossing (it may close for lunch) but there’s no particular hassle. The Armenian side has a bank where you can change money and a few stalls selling cold drinks. There may be one or two taxis, or you could hitch a ride to Meghri.
Getting There & Away - A Yerevan-bound marshrutka (nine hours in summer, 11 hours in winter) departs at 9am from the Hotel Meghri, just off the central square, on Block 2. A bus to Kapan departs at 7.30am. A taxi to Kapan should cost to (90 minutes) from Agarak or Meghri. Hitchhiking from Meghri to Kapan is difficult – suspicions run high in this border area and drivers are less prone to pick up strangers. If you’re stuck, take a cab to Kajaran and hop on a marshrutka. On the other side of the border buses are rare or nonexistent, but a taxi to Jolfa (Julfa, Culfa) should cost US$8 to US$12 (40 minutes) with bargaining. A shop just outside Iranian immigration exchanges currencies.
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