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Sisian (18,000 people) sits on a high plateau where it snows as late as March or April, and the autumn ends early here too. Long miles of cropland are mown from the Spendaryan Reservoir to Goris after its short growing season, and in September the villages stack up with piles of hay, some taller than their houses.

Sisian is a fairly quiet country town with a core of early-20th-century buildings. Sisian is mostly laid out on a grid and is small enough for walking around. The centre of town is on the northern side of the Vorotan River. Marshrutkas leave from the junction on the northern end of the bridge. The main street, Sisakan Poghots, runs parallel to the river, one block inland. One end of Sisakan has a Soviet memorial cheerfully celebrating the crushing of the Dashnaks in 1920; from here a road swings to the right and up to Sisavan Church.

This land below the mountains of Syunik has been inhabited since forever, back to the ages of Neolithic observatories and animal petroglyphs. Sisisan is much better known for its petroglyphs site - Karahunj. Karahunj, also known as Zorats Kar, sometimes called Armenia's Stonehenge although the appellation is misleading since the two look very different, comprises 204 rough-hewn stones. They are arranged in an elaborate layout and almost certainly formed an ancient astronomical observatory dating from some time prior to 2000bc. The stones are basalt and the largest, 3m tall, weighs 10 tonnes. Of the stones, 76 have apertures near the top. The configuration is of 39 stones laid in an oval formation with its main axis running east-west for a distance of 43m. Within this oval are some contemporary graves. Bisecting the oval is an arc comprising a further 20 stones. Three arms of stones lie off this central shape running to the north, south and southeast. The north and south arms are much longer than the southeast arm and bend west towards their tips. Stones with apertures occur only in the arms but not all stones in the arms have apertures.

There has been much theorising on how the monument was used. It certainly seems clear that the apertures must be significant but they are too large (at least 5cm diameter) to look through a single one in a precise direction and they don't seem to be lined up with each other for looking through pairs of apertures. Had this been possible it would have facilitated more precise observation. Conceivably the stones could have been used for observing the moon, but observation of stars seems difficult to imagine. Anyone looking at the sun would have suffered severe damage to their central vision. Karahunj, on its rock-strewn site, is impressive but the lack of any convincing explanation makes a visit somewhat frustrating.

Some sizeable lizards (40cm in length) of rather prehistoric appearance clamber about on the stones. They are Caucasian agama (Laudakia caucasius), a species, despite its name, with a range from northeast Turkey to Pakistan. Note that Karahunj is off the main Sisian to Goris road, just east of Sisian, and is not near the village of Karahunj to the south of Goris.

Some examples excavated from Karahunj is now in the historical museum in the centre of Sisian - town’s karadaran park. In front of the museum, readily visible from the street, is a collection of gravestones in the form of sheep brought from various churches in the province. The karadaran park gathers together stone carvings from different millennia, with sarcophagi, phallus stones, ram stones and megaliths. You can spot the evolution of the pagan khatchkars to rough stone crosses and finally medieval Armenian khatchkars. Facing the park is the Museum of History (working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Sat), with some carpets and ethnographical displays beside maps and historical information, mostly labelled in Armenian with some English. It also has some interesting photos taken after an earthquake levelled the town in 1931.

Visitors will be much more welcome at Sisavank, the fine early church dedicated to St John which overlooks the town. Originally built in the 6th century, Sisavan Church was restored as recently as the 20th century. It combines an elegant square-cross floor with some striking sculptures of royal and ecclesiastical patrons inside and out. Inside there’s a display of microsculptures by local artist Eduard Ter-Ghazaryan. Seen through a microscope, one features 17 images of the cross on a human hair coated with metal.

Similar in style to the Church of St Hripsime at Ejmiatsin, this was built of basalt by Prince Kohazat and Bishop Hovsep I between 670 and 689. Of cross-dome style, it has a conical cupola supported by a circular tambour decorated with 12 graceful arcatures: there is a window in the arcature positioned directly over each of the four apses.  The interior of the church is decorated by a sort of frieze depicting vine leaves and grapes which runs round most of it, presumably a reference to Jesus being the true vine since this is not a district traditionally associated with winemaking. The altar table with a carved eagle on its front is new (2001) and was carved by the son of the present caretaker. The font, to the left of the bema, is also new (2008) and was carved by the caretakers grandson. The old font, which is now in the southeast corner room, was unsatisfactory on two counts. The water did not drain away properly, so making the church damp, and the basin was in the form of a cross with sharp corners making it dangerous for the baby, given the baptismal practice of immersion. The church has a small collection of old books, the oldest dating from 1686, and also some miniatures by Eduard Ghazarian carved on items such as rice grains, which can be viewed through a microscope.

The road up from town passes a Soviet war memorial with a Karabakh War monument – local men were some of the first to volunteer to join their kin over in the next mountain range when the war began, and paid a heavy price for it.

Sisian is located centrally in the southern end of Armenia and works as a base while heading to or from Yerevan. There’s plenty to see and do in and around Sisian, and other regional sites are accessible from here.

Getting There & Away - There are four marshrutkas to Yerevan (four hours, 8am, 9am, noon and 2.30pm) and one to Goris (45 minutes, 8.30am) each day, where the bridge meets Israeilyan Poghots (along the north bank). Taxis wait at this junction too. There’s also a bus stop at the turn-off from the Yerevan–Goris road into town, where people often wait for rides. Local tours can be negotiated directly with the taxi drivers or through one of the hotels.

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