Passage through the Highlands
An Epic Roadtrip Along Armenia’s Silk Road, through Canyons and Caves, Monasteries and Mysteries
STORIES IN STONE
The crown jewel of Armenia’s medieval history, the city of Ani, now lies in ruins. Formerly the City of 1,001 Churches and capital of Armenia, it is a ghost town of rubble. Still, its memory lives on - a bewitching reminder of the bygone era of the Silk Roads. Ani lies in the modern borders of Turkey, a stones throw across the Arkhurian River east to Armenia. However, getting between both is quite the arduous task at the moment, requiring a long detour through Georgia. From Armenia, on the other side of the Arkhurian River, a vantage point of Ani emerges (so close, it’s almost taunting the fact that Armenia’s most famous city lies not even within its borders). Here is a prime location to begin one of the most rewarding road trips along the ancient routes - through plateaus of ruins, shores of lakes and over high passes. Precarious fortresses, majestic monasteries, and ancient mysteries also make their mark, no doubt holding endless stories within their stones.
We are about to embark on a road-trip following Armenia’s Silk Road.
RUINS OF THE PAST
Heading eastward, the plateau widens where golden grass and rolling hills abound. Livestock graze freely as they have for hundreds of years - perhaps the main difference is the asphalted road. Within 30 kilometers of Ani another ruined structure appears, one of a grand cathedral. Built in the 7th century, it predates the Ani by a few hundred years and a pride of Armenian architecture.
Explore the Talin Cathedral
The journey continues, a relatively flat route through volcanic highlands. For a country nearly 90% mountainous, the course is of vital importance where the roads are tried and tested over the centuries as evidenced by the modern highway 1 connecting Gyumri and Yerevan built on the ancient routes. Just off this road lies a deteriorated caravanserai in the town of Aruch. Rooms could be made out for this medieval hotel of 800 years - I can only imagine the stories that we exchanged here.
Explore the Aruch Caravanserai
Between the remains of cities, cathedrals and caravanserais, time has not been kind. They are now merely glimpses into the past.
FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN
Further afield, and much further back in the pages of history, lies remains of a civilization of at least 5,000 years. Its dizzying to imagine that even at the beginning periods of the Silk Roads two thousand years ago, the rock carved monuments at Agarak may have already been several millennia old.
Explore the Agarak Ancient Settlement
Ashtarak is soon reached, an ancient city located on a volcanic gorge. The surroundings are spectacular, especially Mount Aragats rising over 4,000 meters to the north. Within the town, a deep canyon carves the landscape filled with old churches, bridges, and fortresses, such as the Karmravor Church and the Old Ashtarak Bridge. We stopped by Ashtarak for a couple days, a relaxing town full of history. Today it is conveniently located only 30 minutes north of Yerevan, a peaceful contrast to the large city. The Silk Road also followed this route, although taking much longer than half an hour. Yerevan is the only true city of Armenia, though it wasn’t always so with settlements uncovered on and off over the years, ranging from the Urartians 8th century BC fortresses to some brutal Soviet architecture. Medieval churches of the golden period of the nation, as well as the stunning Blue Mosque from the 18th century Persian rule, the only mosque standing in the nation, mix well with the Soviet architecture and modern cafes.
Yerevan is very much the modern oasis and crossroads for Armenia as it is really the only city of size and the starting point for any adventure in any direction.
Explore the Yerevan outpost
TO THE SHORES OF SEVAN
Leaving the comforts of Yerevan behind, some of the most stunning landscapes are waiting to be encountered. East of the capital lies one of the jewels of the nation - the lake of Sevan. Sevan is one of three Great Lakes of Armenian antiquity, though the only one remaining in its borders. The fact even more so creates a sense of pride for the nation. The undulating volcanic cones with crater lakes of the age Geghama Mountains make the barrier between the shore of Sevan and the west side of Armenia, though a tested route detouring ever slightly to the north passes the majority of the high elevation. Upon reaching the blue shores, we are caught in amazement at its beauty, both in our visit first visit in 2018 and our most recent in 2023. The majority of visitors make their way out to a small peninsula, once an island not long ago, which houses the Sevanavank Monastery. The structure is one of the most beautiful in the highlands, with remains ranging from the 3rd to the 10th centuries.
Explore the Sevanavank Monastery
Following the western shoreline south past green fields lies another monastery. Though less famous than its counterpart we just explored, the Hayravank Monastery no less impresses as it stands on a ridge overlooking Sevan. Continuing south one of the more unique sites appears in the ancient town of Noratus - hundreds of standing, carved stones, appearing as an army ready for fight. Collectively they are the Noratus Cemetery, with legends aplenty ranging from a descendant of Noah to Timurlane’s army.
Explore the Noratus Cemetery
THE HIGH PASS
The road winds higher as the shores of Lake Sevan disappear behind us and we are about to enter the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia. We are awestruck by the gentle landscape before our eyes, particularly the rolling, green hills plastered with colorful flowers. With our hired driver, a cheerful old man, maneuvering the high pass, the landscape gradually changes to more jagged rocks and canyons. At the height of the pass nearing 8,000 feet about sea level, a ruined structure appears, as if growing out of the side of the mountain. We hop off to explore the dark basaltic stones of the structure, a medieval caravanserai during the Silk Roads, welcoming in weary travelers traversing this mountainous region. It was a delight to step back into time, and into the ancient hotel, pondering what stories may have been shared here. The caravanserai was built by the Orbelian’s, a royal family during the 13th century who left a grand legacy in stone around this region.
Explore Orbelian’s Caravanserai
WAR AND WORSHIP IN STONE
As we descended down into the historical Vayots Dzor province, the landscape gave way to sharp rock faces and crumbled mountains. High on these ridges lie remnants of medieval fortifications, the most famous being the Smbataberd Fortress. We hiked several hundred meters to the top of the ridge where the serpentine Smbataberd Fortress appeared, a symbol of strength for a land constantly contested with enemies. Further southward, the colors of the rock change to red hues as we enter the Gnishik Canyon. Numerous caves where people have settled for thousands of years lie hidden among the rock, nearly forgotten to the outside world. One in particular has rewritten history books - the Areni-1 Cave. However, it is a religious architectural masterpiece that ultimately saw us, and countless others before, making the journey through here. The 800 year old Noravank Monastery, the pride of the province, appears suddenly at the end of the road. The red and tan stones blend seemlessly into the environment around, as if this structure was birthed out of the stone.
Explore the Noravank Monastery
ROAD TO THE ANCIENTS
Leaving the red rock canyons of Norovank behind, the landscapes changes to volcanic pinnacles and basalt flows just east of Yeghegnadzor. Soon the mountainous landscape gently changes to more vegetated slopes, testament to a greater water supply nearby. Past the fork to Jermuk and before the climb up the Vorotan Pass, rolling hills covered with trees and grass greet the sojourner. The landscape continues as the road climbs to 2,344 meters in elevation at the Vorotan Pass, surely a tiresome ascent for those old caravans, but nothing compared to what lies ahead in the landscapes east such as the Pamir or Tianshan Mountains. Wildflowers dot the lush hillsides in mid July, a pleasant time to make the ascent. Vast grasslands and mountain peaks mark the high pass, with two towering monuments on either side depicting battle scenes and legends of the land.
We enter the southern most province of Syunik.
The road gently descends past beautiful meadows until approaching a large expanse of freshwater known as the Spandaryan Resevoir. The plains are reached thereafter, with the town of Sisian the largest in the area. A land of ancient remains and mysterious stones. And one we are about to dive into and enter the riddle. The enigmatic Zorats Karer continue to puzzle archaeologists in what some believe to be possibly the worlds oldest observatory.
Explore the mysterious site of Zorats Karer
LAND OF CANYONS AND CAVES
The road out of Sisian follows the edge of the large Vorotan Canyon, a deep and winding gorge carved by the Vorotan River. Several hidden remains lie tucked east of Sisian, such as the monastic complex of Vorotnavank, constructed in 1000 A.D. and one of Syunik’s most important complexes. Further down lies the Vorotnaberd Fortress, which saw the fury of some of the worlds most fearsome armies such as the Mongols, Seljuks and Timurlane. An 18th century bridge spans across the river just below the fortress as well, which served as a caravan route from Persia into Armenia.
Explore the Vorotnavank Monastery
The road continues southeast 30 km to the outpost of Goris. Volcanic pillars and forested slopes define the landscape, where people have used them to their advantage for centuries. Numerous caves dot the city, inhabited from the 5th century all the way until the 1960’s. But Goris is not the only town utilizing the rocks as home as several other medieval cave towns exist, most notably Khndzoresk. They are truly a unique testament to a lifestyle that has nearly disappeared. During Soviet times, the government forced the inhabitants from the caves and into “civilized” apartment blocks. They lie abandoned ever since.
Explore the Khndzoresk Cave City
SOUTH AND EVER BEYOND
Some of the most dramatic scenery emerges south of Goris as the mighty Vorotan Canyon continues to carve a ripple in the earth, with a questionable road hugging the rim. Although asphalted, it lies in disrepair at parts, perhaps not too different than the conditions the medieval caravans experienced. At last, the fortified Tatav Monastery emerges, a true cultural and spiritual hub of Armenia. Both and Tatev Monastery above and the Great Hermitage below signal the importance Christianity played for over 1,700 years of Armenia’s history, continuing to this very day. It is a place to slow down and contemplate life, and the journey along Armenia’s Silk Road that we just embarked.
Further south, broad forests and rugged hills eventually make their way towards Meghri, the last outpost until reaching Persia. What lies beyond is for the brave, with seemingly endless roads across some of the worlds harshest terrain.