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Yeghegis Valley

The beautiful Yeghegis Valley is surrounded by towering peaks and contains a rare concentration of churches. This and the surrounding valleys are well worth exploring for a day or two.

The first sight of interest is Shativank, a fortified monastery with a church (rebuilt in 1665), a waterworks, a grain-storage silo and two-storey monk and guest quarters. To get there by 4WD Jeep turn right at the end of Shatin towards the river. About 150m past the bridge turn right, then after 500m go left to a cemetery and continue on this track for 7km. To get there by foot, take the steeper but shorter path from the gorge. To reach the trailhead, take the left fork above the bridge; after 100m take the trail to the right and walk for 45 minutes. About 2km up from Shatin village, a road branches up the valley to the west towards Artabuynk. About 1km past the village a track goes steeply down to the right towards the stream, which can be crossed by a 4WD vehicle.

Tsakhatskar monasteryFrom the village cemetery the track to the monastery goes up between the graves and then bears left. After a few kilometres it is possible to see Shativank in the distance and the track winds down to it. Shativank was founded in 929 but was destroyed in the 14th century and then rebuilt. Like other Armenian churches in the late medieval period it was provided with massive fortified walls which are here well preserved, and the substantial remains of three round defensive towers can also be seen on the south side. The Zion church itself, rebuilt again in 1665, is a three-aisle basilica built of basalt and of limited interest apart from its evocative site. The remains of other monastic buildings and khachkars can be seen.

The next two sights along the Yeghegis, the Monastery of Tsakhatskar and the fortress of Smabataberd, can be combined to give a pleasant walk. From the river it’s 6km to the 10th-century Tsakhatskar monastery, a crumbling agglomeration of churches and old khatchkars. From the stream, continue up the main track, the monastery eventually comes into view on the left.

Tsakhatskar Monastery should be visited first as this makes the navigation easier and gets the greater part of the climbing accomplished earlier in the day. A moderately fit person should allow 90 minutes to walk from the river up to Tsakhatskar, then 45 minutes from Tsakhatskar to Smbataberd, and 30 minutes back from Smbataberd to the river plus some time at each site and to admire the views. Follow the main track up from the far side of the ford or bridge. In about 500m there is a spring on the right where water bottles can be filled; there is another spring at Tsakhatskar itself.

Continue up the main track always keeping left if in doubt. One junction in the track is signposted, left 2km to Tsakhatskar and right 1km to Smbataberd. The monastery can be seen high up on the mountainside to the left long before reaching it, but in practice it is hard to detect, so similar is the colour of its basalt stone to the colour of the mountainside. The ruined monastery is reached after about 5km of continuous ascent and is astonishingly large for so isolated a place. The easternmost of the two churches, Holy Cross, dates from the 11th century and appears to have been a mausoleum. A square entrance area, above which is what looks as if it could have been a second storey, leads through to a lower chapel. A large stone structure has been built across the original entrance for the full width of the building and on it stand large khachkars.

Yeghegis churchThe more western of the two churches, St John the Baptist, was built in 1041 but it is less ruinous and the circular tambour and cupola are fairly intact. Outside on the north wall can be seen a carving of a lion tearing a lamb, possibly the coat of arms of the Orbelian family who built the church. The doorway is elaborately decorated with geometric designs and inscriptions and the remaining slabs of the altar dais show carved jugs, which may once have formed a design across the whole. Outside there are many khachkars, including two very large ones near the entrance, as well as a stone depicting an eagle clutching a lamb in its talons. Both churches were being renovated in 2010.

The main part of the monastery was at a distance from these churches on the west side. Extensive remains of buildings can be seen, most of them presumably the service buildings of the monastery, although including further churches dedicated to the Mother of God and, at the southern end, to St John. The latter bears an inscription dated to 999. There are what appear to be the remains of cloisters and all of these buildings on the western side were once surrounded by a defensive wall, of which only the eastern part with its gateway survives. An inscription at the gateway records its restoration in 1221. The sheer scale of these remains, which stretch for over 200m, indicates clearly the former importance of this now forgotten place. From the site the view is over alpine meadows and apple trees down into the valley below but a mountain ridge stretches away to the south, on the furthest summit of which can be seen with binoculars the fortress of Smbataberd. It is fairly easy to work out a route, the key point being to determine how far to retrace the route up from the river before branching off left along the side of the ridge. The walk again provides magnificent views down into the valley on each side and is mostly downhill apart from the final slope up into the fortress. If visibility is poor it is safer to retrace your steps to the signposted junction and follow that track up to the fortress.

Smbataberd ruinsFrom the monastery, head back down the way you came and at the fork in the path head left up the slope to Smbataberd fortress above Artabuynk. The stretch up to the fort takes about 30 minutes. On the other side of Smbataberd you can look down on the Yeghegis valley.

Smbataberd (fortress of Smbat, Prince of Syunik) was probably founded in the 5 th century but considerably strengthened in the 10th and is perhaps Armenia's most impressive fortress. Few visitors can fail to be impressed by the gigantic ramparts built on the precipitous cliff face, especially those on the eastern side. (Those without a head for heights should avoid climbing onto the walls.) Smbataberd is in a magnificent defensive position, crowning the southern end of the ridge and guarded by steep cliffs on three sides. Even on those sides, walls with frequent towers were built wherever the drop was less than precipitous and much of this survives. Inside the walls relatively little remains, although the outline of buildings can be discerned around the walls as well as the fortress's keep at the highest point of the site. According to local legend, Smbataberd fell to the Seljuk Turks when they employed a thirsty horse to sniff out the water supply: it came in an underground pipe from Tsakhatskar. This would indicate an 11th century date. However, other reports suggest that the castle was defended until the 13th century, which would imply that it was eventually captured by the Mongols rather than the Seljuks.

Getting there To reach the area, turn north off the Yerevan–Goris highway at Getap and after 12km turn right (east) towards Shatin village. After Areni the main road turns east to follow the Arpa and in about 15km it crosses the Yeghegis River. Turn left immediately after the bridge to see a number of interesting and attractively located sights - some walking is required to reach most of them, though Selim caravanserai is close to the road. The sights, from the village of Shatin eastwards are the monastery of Shativank; Tsakhatskar Monastery and the fortress of Smbataberd; Yeghegis village (Zorats Church and the Jewish cemetery); and Arates Monastery.

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