Karabagh – Pilgrimage to Hadrut

Gtitchavank While standing next to an abandoned Azeri cannon overlooking the town of Hadrut, I heard stories about the daily attacks that devastated this ancient town. They were stopped only when the Karabagh army successfully captured Fizuli and lands south of Hadrut. Later, back home in Oregon, these stories took on added meaning: a friend’s father, born in Hadrut, had just learned of the death of his brother, and of a nephew who had died on the last day of the war. This year, I would bring a letter and pictures to his brother’s family....

Togh Village, Gtitch Monastery
Arriving late at night in Stepanagerd, I rushed to the telephone, wanting to make contact with fellow travelers from last year’s journey through Karabagh — Shahkeh Setian and Vahan Bournazian, and Shushanik, our guide and dear friend. Shahkeh and Vahan are presently living in Stepanagerd, and teaching at Artsakh State University. The next morning, after a happy reunion, we made plans to visit Gtitch Monastery, which is near the village of Togh and the town of Hadrut.

Leaving Stepanagerd, we drove south through the province of Martuni. I was amazed at the amount of land under cultivation. Huge tractors rumbled in the distant, rolling hills. Horses were grazing in fields of purple wildflowers. Shepherds tended their flocks, as sheep, pigs, and cows grazed or ran alongside the road. Soon, we reached the mountains of Hadrut. We continued our journey south, towards Togh and Hadrut.

Togh is a picturesque village, nestled high in the majestic mountains of Hadrut. Houses dot the mountainsides in this heavily forested region. In the center of town, a memorial honors those from the village who were sacrificed in the Second World War. We stopped the car to ask about the monastery of Gtitch and the fortress facing the monastery.

“The fortress is on top of that mountain,” said one of several men standing in the town square. “You would have had to leave in the morning.” Another added, “You can reach Gtitch by car, but it is difficult to locate.” A younger member of the group got into our car. “My name is Armen. I will take you to Gtitch.”

We drove on, past another, smaller village, and began our trek up narrow, rocky paths toward the monastery. Armen talked about the war, and how he helped defend his village. Our tires spun on the rocks. We were forced to stop.

“We’ll have to walk from here,” Armen said. “It’s about a mile.” We started our walk up the steep mountain road, stopping occasionally to rest and eat mosh, a kind of blackberry also used to make a quite strong oghi. Near Gtitch, high in the clouds, eagles were soaring. Finally, we reached our destination, the ancient monastery of Gtitch.

Gtitch has an unusually tall dome, not unlike that of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents in the city of Ani. Inside, the altar has almost completely collapsed, its large stones lying in a jumble on the floor. Exquisite khatchkars are split in half. Next to the main church, an adjoining building — perhaps a smaller church — is in ruins. A huge walnut tree is growing in the center of the building.

Outside, at the edge of a forest, the skull of a sacrificed goat was hanging in a tree. Nearby, at the foot of a tree, a gravestone lay mostly hidden, covered with leaves and moss. We walked towards the road. The mountain peaks were laced with clouds, portending a possible storm.

We continued on our way to Hadrut. The rocky road took its toll: a sudden loud “pop” meant we had a flat tire. After a pit stop of little more than five minutes, we drove on. In near darkness, we wound our way down from the mountains into the town of Hadrut. Houses and apartment buildings unfolded in the distance; I was unsure how to find the home of my friend’s family.

An old man was walking along the road. We told him the name of the family we wanted to visit. “Follow me,” he said. “It is close to here.” We drove around a corner, and stopped in front of a large gate. “We are here. Hachoghutiun tsez.”

An old woman greeted us. I told her I had a letter and pictures from her family in Oregon. She immediately began crying, telling of her grandsons being sacrificed in the war. Her widowed daughter then arrived, bringing a flock of sheep and goats in for the night. We all went inside, sat down, and talked about their family.

“My older son was arrested for partisan activities in 1989. He was taken to Baku. We never heard what happened to him. Our other son had just finished repairing this house, which was in ruins from Grad missile attacks. He was killed on the last day of the war.”

As we listened, tears moistened our eyes. Neighbors arrived, and began passing around the pictures I had brought. Coffee was served but there was no time for the dinner which was offered.

“My daughter is going to school in Stepanagerd,” the woman said. “She is all I have.”

It was time to leave. I was given several pictures of the family to take back to Oregon.

Outside, while saying good-bye, I was surprised to find that a goat, its feet tied together, had been put in the trunk of the car. “This is for what you have done for us,” the woman said. “Take it to Stepanagerd and have madagh.”

In her eyes, I saw her loss. I saw the long sorrow of Armenia.

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