I must not have a great imagination, because time and time again, the mental picture I excitedly draw up before visiting a place pales in comparison to the real thing. Such was the case with the cave village of Khndzoresk (I’m sure the pronunciation I’ve come up with is similarly far off from the real thing). Old Khndzoresk is a cave village. A village of caves. How magical, right? The word “village” made me think of a quaint cluster, a small community living in an unlikely place. What we found was simply gob-smacking, so surreal that my (still not so great) imagination had fraggles jumping out from the dwellings.
Unlike the cliff face with holes that I was imagining, the caves were built into diverse, sometimes whimsical rock formations. Standalone chunks of limestone were transformed into houses with their front doors and windows. Some of the rock shapes, like this one, resembled a castle - at least to me. There were big ones with loads of windows, a front and back door and personal space around it. Others were built one on top of another in a bigger rock - the larger cliffs, practically swiss cheesed were like cave condos.
We drove through ‘New’ Khndzoresk to reach ‘Old’ Khndzoresk, veering from the main road down a noticeably less traveled hill. It’s amazing how snow gives you an instant sense of the traffic of a place. No other time of year can you know for certain, right upon arrival, that no cars and maybe four people and some dogs have gone the way you’re heading. Walking around the site, the ghost town, we were in complete quiet. The clouds moved quickly overhead and our feet squeakily crunched the deep powdery snow. Across the deep canyon we could see even more caves. This should not have been described as a 'cave village.' It is immense, sprawling. Even with the snow hiding so much of what is there, it gave the sense of an ancient city.
Old Khndzoresk was once the largest village in eastern Armenia. The city is said to be about a thousand years old and grew to include houses and buildings alongside the caves. It was as simple as that. By 1913, there were 1800 houses, 7 schools and 4 churches. Where the ground wasn't level, people dug out caves and where it was, they built a house. Presently, there are about 400 caves scattered about and two churches left standing. Other than these facts, Old Khndzoresk's history appears to be a little cloudy. The mystery of it only adds to its allure.
Some people say that a 1931 earthquake destroyed the houses and, since most people had transferred out of the caves by that time, it was then that the town relocated to the higher, flatter ground of New Khndzoresk. Other people say that the Russians, when Armenia was Soviet, decided to use all the housing materials in the old town to build the new town, therefore forcing transplantation. One source said that no one has lived in Old Khndzoresk since the 19th century. Another not only disagreed, but even cited a specific year (1958) as the last in which there were inhabitants. The only commonality between all English-translated sources I could find was the fact that the caves were briefly utilized in the 1990s when nearby Goris was being shelled during the Karabagh War. Talk about a bomb shelter with a view.
As we climbed around, we heard a young voice echo in the distance. A boy, around 12, led a herd of calves to a trough on a plateau. We had seen it and the spring that ran into it earlier, nearby a cave that was overflowing with hay. A number of caves are used as storage these days and villages lead their livestock to the dwelling for shelter and to utilize the plentiful natural water supply. The boy's parents called out to him from the two door cave, where they took care of the older cattle. Hay burned in a pile, the smell of which - along with the sounds of the animals - nearly transported me through time to Old Khndzoresk's heyday.
This used to be the center of town. People who believe that it was an earthquake, rather than the Russians, that destroyed all of Old Khndzoresk's buildings admit that it was a bit miraculous that the only remaining buildings were churches. There is also a fragment of a school up on a high hill. St Hripsome, seen here, dates back to 1663. This used to be the center of town and the dwellings nearby seem appropriately fancy for the main square. Intricate windows and eaves are carved into some of them and various ledges and seating areas are built into the interiors. After ducking into other caves, which were simply round rooms, these seemed positively palatial.
In the summertime, yellow flowers fill the spaces between caves and birds fly in abundance overheard. This is what we've heard. In the wintertime, I think, it's easier to feel like you're seeing the place as it once was. You can imagine all the townspeople holed up in their warm homes. The snow and sky remained unchanged, though the power lines cut across a picturesque peak in the distance.
What an amazing place Old Khndzoresk is. As we drove back up to the new town, a man sped by us on a horse - it's footing much better than our perfectly competent 4WD machine. We passed by a few men right on the dividing line between New and Old Khndzoresk who looked absolutely baffled by our presence. How could they not just assume that we were there to see the awesome historical site right down the hill? I wonder how many of them grew up playing hide and seek in the abandoned caves city or used to sneak off to steal a kiss with a young love. Most likely, they just think of it as the place they dry their hay.