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Yeghegis village

Looking far down into the valley from the eastern rampart of Smbataberd you can see the ruins of the town of Yeghegis by the Yeghegis River. The town had two separate periods of prosperity: firstly during the Syunik princedom (10th—11th century) at the end of which it was destroyed, possibly by an earthquake; and then under the Orbelians from the 13th century to the 15th.

Yeghegis is at present no more than a village and can be seen to the northeast. A visit there is worthwhile but can seem rather a let-down after a morning spent up on the ridge. A track leads down from Smbataberd to Yeghegis but it is very muddy after rain and it becomes less obvious nearer to the village. It may be easier simply to walk back to the car, retrace the route as far as the junction with the Yeghegis road, and then return up the parallel valley. Should one wish to walk up to Smbataberd from the Yeghegis side (the view of the fortress is actually better from this approach) the track goes off left just after the village sign when driving from Shatin. Walk up this track until it turns sharply right at some low cliffs and look for a metal pipe crossing a gully. The path to Smbataberd goes across the hillside just to the left of this pipe.

Yeghegis is a pleasant, unspoiled village with three churches and an old Jewish cemetery. The village looks as though it’s been inhabited forever; one of the churches includes the very unusual Surp Zorats, where worshippers gathered before an outdoor altar. It’s believed this courtyard was created so that horses and soldiers could be blessed before going off to battle.

The three-aisle basilica church with a grass-covered roof in the centre of the village was built in 1708 and is dedicated to the Mother of God. Four massive pillars support the roof of this basalt structure. A curious feature, apart from the absence of a cupola, is that it is built into the hillside so that the roof at the back is almost at ground level. At the east end of the village the 13th-century Church of John the Baptist does have a cupola and has a surprisingly small interior for its height. However, the village's most notable church is the Zorats (Army) Church dedicated to St Stephen. It is highly unusual, not only by Armenian standards, in that the congregation stood in the open air facing the altar. The roof was built to only cover the east end of the church and covers just the altar in the centre with a sacristy on each side. The name Zorats, and possibly the reason why it was an open-air structure, came from its use as the place where arms and horses were consecrated before battle. Obviously it would have been more convenient not to have the horses inside a building! The church was constructed in 1303 by a grandson of Prince Tarsayich Orbelian, governor of the province of Syunik. Excavations have uncovered medieval foundations on the north side of the church and to the east are many tombstones and an extensive area with large boulders forming walls and pathways around a plateau overlooking the valley. In season the walnut tree planted below the church still yields excellent fruit!

Across the river from the village, a metal footbridge leads to an 800-year-old Jewish cemetery – Hebrew letters are clearly visible on some of the grave markers. The Jewish cemetery here was rediscovered in 1996 by the Bishop of Syunik. It is one of the oldest known in the world and has been excavated since 2000 by a team from the Jewish University of Jerusalem under Professor Michael Stone. It is reached by a rickety footbridge over the Yeghegis River. So far more than 60 gravestones have been identified including those used for the foundations of the footbridge and others used in the foundations of a mill. At the cemetery, some of the stones are positioned on open graves while others are on sealed graves. A number of the stones have magnificent ornamentation. Some of the symbols on the Jewish gravestones - like a spiral wheel - were also in use on Armenian Christian stonecrafts around the same time. It is most interesting that the same decorative motifs were shared by Jews and Christians. While some of the inscriptions were worn down over the centuries, a lot of them are decipherable. One stone dated the 18th of Tishrei of ad 1266 is of 'the virgin maiden, the affianced Esther, daughter of Michael. May her portion be with our matriarch Sarah.' The opposite side quotes 'Grace is a lie and beauty is vanity' (Proverbs 31:20) and continues with a statement that Esther was 'God-fearing'. Another gravestone contains an emotional statement from a father mourning his son's passing in which the father claims that the soul is eternal and cites passages from the book of Isaiah that relate to the resurrection of the dead.

Comparing the style of the Jewish stones with those in Christian cemeteries of the period it seems likely that they were carved by the same craftsmen who served both communities. The evidence suggests that Jews were important members of the society at Yeghegis, probably engaged in flour milling, since the remains of three watermills have been uncovered in the Jewish district. On the evidence of the graves discovered, Jews probably arrived here in the 13th century during the period of Mongol rule, remained throughout the era of Turkmen control but left in the 15th, possibly around the time of Ottoman takeover.

Opposite the Jewish cemetery on the same side of the river as the road, there is a field where gravestones have been pushed over. This used to be an Azeri village.

The next village up the valley is Hermon, where a rough track north up the valley (on the left) leads to Arates and Arates Vank, a monastery with three churches (7th to 13th century). Arates is about 10km beyond Yeghegis. There is no public transport out here, so the best way to visit is either to hike or hire a taxi (preferably a 4WD).

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