Off the beaten path

Armenia is known for its ancient monasteries in the mountains, its unique brandy, and its warm-hearted hospitality. Armenia is a small country in the southern Caucuses bridging Europe and Asia. It is a land of undiscovered natural beauty, historical treasures, and world heritage.

Armenia is known for its ancient monasteries in the mountains, its unique brandy, and its warm-hearted hospitality. Armenia is a small country in the southern Caucuses bridging Europe and Asia. It is a land of undiscovered natural beauty, historical treasures, and world heritage.

On a brilliant summer day in August, our guides tuned off the main road north of the town of Sisian in the Syunik province. Diving on a dirt then gassy path, we past dozens of beehives that are located for the summer in the lower elevations of the mountains – hives that produce exquisite wildflower honey.

The volcanic mountains sculpted by glaciers are host to an extraordinary variety of wildflowers.

We ascended over an hour past lingering fields of snow and arrived at a small sparling glacial lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Ughtasar. Some say the mountain resembles the back of a camel and thus its name (“camel” in Armenian is “ukht”) but others suggest that since the name of the mountain predates the silk-road traders traveling through the region on camels, the name refers to the ancient sacred use of the site – the word for “pilgrimage” in Armenian is “ukhtagnats”.

Surrounding the lake are black manganese boulders left behind by an extinct volcano.  Thousands of Paleolithic Era petroglyphs, dating as early as 12,000 BCE are carved onto the flat surfaces of the boulders here and at a nearby site just beyond the nearby peaks.  

The petroglyphs were initially studied in the 1960’s – archeologists are still cataloguing and analyzing these remarkable carvings but since the site is covered with snow nearly nine months of the year due to its elevation, the study of these rock-carvings is possible only during summer months.

What were ancient peoples recording at this windswept site? Recognizable are

goats and mouflons (wild sheep), hunters with bows and arrows, celestial symbols, and our guide pointed out what is believed to be a man and a woman locally referred to as Adam and Eve”.  

Archeologists identify some of the animals we saw as gazelles, deer, aurochs (an extinct type of cattle), horses, boars, dogs, wolves, jackals, panthers, bears and lions.  Boats, houses, spears, and shields, ploughs, and carts as well as a river symbol can be found.

One unique petroglyph pictures two dragon figures.  And researcher Hamlet Martirosyan has proposed that some of the pictograms in sequence are an early writing system.

The magnetism of the Ughtasar Petroglyphs site is not only the power of its deep spiritual history but also its pristine natural beauty. We traveled a short into the hills beyond and set up for a picnic lunch. Hasmik Asatrian-Azoyan who runs the comfortable Basenn Hotel in Syunik has accompanied many of the research teams studying the site. An energetic young business woman, she is among the few Armenians who has climbed Mount Ararat in Turkey near the border of Armenia.  She walked with me pointing out more petroglyphs on the boulders in the grassy, rocky fields full of flowers and butterflies in the clean crisp mountain air.

As we roamed the mountainside we quietly contemplated the artistry and intent of the ancient people who had left evidence of their lives and imaginations for us to ponder.

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