Karabagh – Forgotten Paradise

Monte Melkonian Memorial Note: In 1997, I traveled to Karabagh. During my journey, I enjoyed the fine company of Vahan Bournazian, from California, as well as Varoojan and Sylvia Iskenderian and Shahkeh Setian, who were co-travelers on a May 1996 journey to Historic Armenia.

Shahkeh, Vahan, and I were told to be ready for the day’s travels at nine the next morning, and that we would be going to the famous Gandzasar Monastery and the nearby village of Vank. Our hosts were two Karabaghtsi soldiers who had fought for the liberation of Karabagh.

It was a long drive from Stepanakert, passing the Khachen River, the Mher Mountains, and some of the most glorious nature I had ever seen. From lush, green mountains, to distant cliffs and gorges, our drive was breathtaking. Then, upon reaching the village of Vank, we knew our destination was near: Gandzasar Monastery, a jewel of Armenian architecture.

Climbing the rocky, narrow path to Gandzasar had its difficult moments. The car slipped at times as it crawled over large, jagged stones and through deep puddles of mud. Then, the monastery came into view, its soaring dome set amidst the tall, majestic mountains of Lower Khachen.

Once inside the compound walls, I was struck by the size of the cathedral. I found it nearly impossible to include the entire church in one photograph. I looked for the crosses engraved on the walls, and, with the aid of my camera, focused on the many carvings on the dome. The most fascinating were reliefs of two figures holding small models of the churches Gandzasar and Vadzar, the latter a round church which no longer remains.

Inside the gavit (forecourt), a glance upward revealed the stalactite-form ceiling, light shining past the crossed arches; leaning against the wall, near the entrance to the church, were two khatchkars. Entering the cathedral, I walked to the front, where unlit candles adorned the stone altar. On either side of the altar, small curved steps led to a first-story chapel. Looking to the right, I wondered about another set of steps leading high above the floor. But, before I could investigate, word came from Shahkeh: Bishop Barkev Mardirosian, Prelate of Artsakh, had just arrived.

Bishop Barkev is a striking man, with a full, black beard and piercing eyes. He spoke freely, without pretense. I remembered stories of the bishop on the front lines with the soldiers during the peak of battle. “The bombs fell here,” he said, pointing to the areas damaged by three Azeri bombings. Matter-of-factly, he then stated, “This is war.” Already anticipating the answer, I asked about the renovation of Dadivank, which lay just ahead on our journey, commenting that it was located in disputed territory. He answered, confidently, “Mern e,” meaning, “It is ours.”

I looked out the vaulted entrance, to the cemetery and distant mountains.

Dadivank By now, we had gained complete faith in our driver. This Karabaghtsi soldier was able to maneuver roads where passage seemed impossible. Through muddy potholes and over paths of rock, we advanced to the amazingly well-preserved Dadivank, which is located at the end of sheer, heavily-treed mountains. This great monastic center is to be renovated for the celebration of 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia.

A soldier sat under a tree, sketching the vank. We walked slowly toward the center of the complex. The courtyard was now a meadow of tall green grass. To the left was a bell tower with two exquisite khatchkars inside; to the right, a small church with two khatchkars carved into the front wall.

We were then drawn to the main church. We passed through the colonnade and went inside. Built in 1214 by Queen Khatoun, it had served as a burial place for her family. On the blackened walls were faded frescoes, reminder of the splendor of Dadivank.

Outside the church, a small hill rises directly to the dome. I walked directly to the dome, surrounded by the trees and mountains of Dadivank, and looked inside to the altar. From there, I could also see the dome of a smaller church and the top of the bell tower. Looking back down the hill, the grass-covered church seemed to be growing out of the ground itself.

It was time to be alone. Vahan walked along a hill, overlooking the top of the four churches of Dadivank; one of the soldiers lit candles inside the main cathedral; I stood by the bell tower and watched an old man with a cane enter one of the churches.

Traveling from medieval Lower Khachen to Haterk, or Upper Khachen, we felt fortunate to see the well known Gandzasar and Dadivank Monasteries. It should be noted that Dadivank, in the Kelbajar region, is also within the border of Mardakert, in the Republic of Karabagh. Azeris once controlled the area, using Dadivank as a stable until the Karabagh Armenians liberated the Kelbajar region.

Darkness was falling as we began our return to Stepanakert. Still visible were villages along the road, some partly burned, half-destroyed by the war. In the region of Mardakert, our hosts told stories of the savage battles of the area, and of the many Armenians who lost their lives here.

Soldiers of Karabagh There was no hesitation when asked if we wanted to stop at a military installation. With the help of flashlights, we joined the soldiers and the commanding officers in command headquarters. We talked about the war, and about what may happen if hostilities start again, agreeing how important it is for Armenians to unite, wherever they may live. We pointed out that the victories of the Karabagh Armenians had a tremendous impact on uniting the diaspora Armenians. One officer spoke of how they fought not only for their homes, their land, but for the pride of the Armenian nation. He continued, in a most assured tone: “If the fighting starts again, we are ready.”

We then walked through their MASH-style unit to where the soldiers ate. I talked with three soldiers who proudly proclaimed their Mshetsi roots; another sadly stated he was molorag, meaning “wanderer.” It was like a dream, talking, having supper, drinking cognac made in Karabagh. One can only hope for peace, so these soldiers, our brothers, do not become memories.

The day had surpassed anything I could have imagined.

The next morning, still in shock from what we had seen and heard, we prepared for another journey, to Martuni, and south to Hadrut. After walking the now busy streets of Stepanakert, and visiting the famous carpet-weaving factory, we left for Martuni.

We passed Askeran, and viewed the old fortress walls built during the Russo-Persian war of 1826-27. Then, driving through Aghdam, we noticed the well-paved roads of the area. The Azeri policy had been to let the roads of Karabagh turn to rubble, while maintaining the good conditions of their own roadways.

We drove along a tree-lined street into the center of Martuni. The driver proceeded with caution, trying to avoid the huge holes and rocks. Funds do not yet exist for the luxury of well-paved roads.

In the city’s main square, smiling school children were playing; to the left was the concert hall. We walked to the monument of the great Armenian hero, Monte Melkonian. Flowers adorned the statue. We paid our tributes to “Avo.” It was near here, in Merzuli, where Monte Melkonian met his death.

Our travels then took us to remote, half-forgotten regions, into places controlled by forces from Karabagh. We went on an emotional journey, seeing green landscapes and peaceful vineyards, and areas touched by war.

Our next stop was a military installation. Immediately catching my eye was a giant pile of red onions being raked level by a young soldier, to dry for the winter. After introducing ourselves to the soldiers, I wondered what they thought of us, this group of Western-dressed Armenians, on some sort of a pilgrimage to the heart of Armenia. Our differences, whatever they may have been, disappeared, when, inside the barracks, arm in arm, we began to sing the beautiful lament, “Dle Yaman.”

Outside, a commander had just arrived. A discussion soon became an exhortation, the commander speaking of the need for all Armenians to unite behind Karabagh. “Let them come and take this from us!” he shouted, echoing what we had heard so many times in Karabagh.

No one wanted the war to start again. All had lost one or more family members. All had seen the horrors of war first-hand. But the fierce, undying will of the Karabagh Armenians would not be broken. All were ready, if necessary, to continue the struggle for the freedom of Karabagh. This is the message they were sending back with us.

We took pictures and embraced the soldiers, our compatriots. Stunned by what we had seen and heard, we started back to Stepanakert.

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