31 January 2012

Old Stones In The Mist

Bad weather. Snow and fog. We tried very hard to see some of the sights of Syunik, this southernmost province of Armenia, but it was difficult. A day spent driving slowly, of Iranian trucks marooned on the side of the icy roads, of white fields, of cleaning windshield wipers, a day of vichyssoise visibility yielded only a few myopic glimpses. A rock here, a stone there, a church emerging from the mist.
People have been in this part of Armenia for thousands of years – some say twenty thousand, others say ten. For as long as they’ve lived here they’ve left markers, scratchings and standing stones. We wandered from cluster to cluster, seeing not much else. These sites were islands in the liquid white of our day, the only solid places we put our feet on the ground, the only things we took pictures of in the dispiriting light.
This is a grave marker set on a rock wall near the Monastery of Vorotnavank.
Vorotnavank was constructed on a ledge beside a chasm, high above the Vorotan river. We could barely see the water below, but the sound of it echoed up to the crumbled defensive walls. Built around 1000 by Queen Shahandukht, the monastery sits empty but whole, surrounded by graves. Some of the marking stones were used at some point to help shore up the walls. It was a silent, lonely place.
Similar gravestones stand around a newer church in Goris. Some are elaborate and finely carved. Others are much simpler, cut in the strange patterns of the place, their faces covered with sheep or human figures. There were men on horseback on some stones, and dancers. Also, small birds, wine jugs, even a pair of scissors.
A much bigger tomb punctuated the bleak air in the tiny hamlet of Aghitu. We found it beside some gas pipelines and a rusting, wheel-less bus. Dating from the sixth century, the arched monument commemorates the life of a forgotten figure – it is famous in part because it’s stayed upright through so many earthquakes. Around its base, a group of smaller graves has gathered.
In the monument’s stone, dozens of crosses have been carved, somewhat haphazardly. We stood in the arched space below the pillars for a while, looking out at the snow and the whitening road. A few cold candle stubs were glommed onto the wall in the back, the rock behind them blackened over the centuries.
Much older than these sites, the rocks of Zorats Kar are also a mystery. Stood up on a lonely hillside sometime between 2000 BC and 3000 BC, the two hundred monoliths are arranged in a spiked, almost-circular pattern. Some of the rocks have small holes cut through them – possibly for celestial purposes, though no-one can figure out exactly what the ancients were observing, or if the holes were intended for looking through at all.
Zorats Kar is a much quieter place than it could be. There is barely a sign, no parking lot, no people. We walked around for a little bit, trying to connect with the design and the scope of the place, but it was impossible in the fog. After a while, there was nothing to do but stand and look, trying to feel something of antiquity. The stones stood quietly. The snow fell. We got back in the car and moved on.

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