Gachaghagapert – Fortress of the Magpies

Gachaghagapert Several months ago I received an e-mail from Vahan Bournazian, San Diego attorney and fellow-traveler in recent journeys through Armenia and Karabagh. “This year in Karabagh, let’s climb to Gachaghagapert,” he wrote. “It’s near Gandzasar Monastery. You can see it from the road. Find out what you can, and let me know.”

In a book on the architecture of Karabagh, I read, “… Gachaghagapert well deserves its name, for only the swift magpie can rise to the sharp peak lost in the clouds.” I read that Gachaghagapert was one of a series of fortresses spanning the length of Karabagh, “strongholds which struck terror,” built to defend ancient Artsakh. I wrote to Vahan, saying, “Be ready, we’ll go to Gachaghagapert this fall. See you in Karabagh.”

Fortress of the Magpies
After a month of living and working in Karabagh, Vahan and I decided it was time to go to Gachaghagapert. With Koharig and Sergey, friends from Stepanakert, we set out for the fortress.

“We’ll go to Kolatak village,” Sergey said, adding, “I have relatives there. We’ll leave our car in the village. It’s a three-hour walk from the village to Gachaghagapert.” Henrik, Sergey’s cousin, greeted us at the edge of the village. At age 70, he had the look of a rugged mountaineer, a brave warrior of Artsakh.

“Come to my house and meet my family,” he said. “I’ll go with you to Gachaghagapert. I’ve been there many times.”

We had already seen the fortress from the road, a huge wall of rock on top of a heavily-treed mountain. I knew walls and ramparts still remained; at a distance, only the mountain of rock appeared.

After meeting Henrik’s family, which included a new-born granddaughter, we began our long trek. Henrik picked up a long branch. Using it as a staff, he began leading us towards the distant fortress. Then, a bit of early luck. Henrik shouted, “Some of the village men are going to cut wood. We can ride on their truck part way to Gachaghagapert.” Vahan, Sergey, Koharig, Henrik and I jumped on the back of the truck which began bouncing its way up the mountain. Once, after hitting a hole in the road, I nearly flew out of the back of the truck. “You have to be ready,” Henrik warned. “The driver never slows down.”

The truck eventually stopped in a large, cleared area of the road. “That was the easy part,” Henrik said. “Get ready to start climbing. It’s still about an hour and a half to the top of the mountain.”

We were now deep in the forest, walking along a path completely hidden from the sun. Animal tracks appeared on the path. “Wild pigs,” Henrik said. A few steps later, we saw larger, fresher prints, and asked Henrik what kind of animal had been there. “Bears,” he answered. “One is fully-grown, the other is younger. We have to be careful. Talk loudly. If they hear our voices, they will run away.” Sergey then added, “Make sure you speak in Armenian — the bears don’t understand English.”

Suddenly, Henrik left the path and began scrambling up the mountain. “It’s closer this way,” he called. “Follow me.”

Our climb became more strenuous. I held onto large rocks and tree roots — anything that would help me make my way up the steep path. We picked our way through a large, flat patch of berry bushes. With nothing to hold onto, every step counted. We moved carefully, trying to avoid the bed of thorns.

Finally, we reached the top of the mountain. The huge wall of rock towered majestically, a foreboding sight at the end of a tiring journey. “There is a path to the right,” Henrik said. “We’ll be able to climb to the top of the rock, and see the fortress walls.”

We walked a few minutes more, and caught our first glimpse of the fortress ramparts. Vahan and I watched in amazement as Henrik climbed up the steep, jagged rocks towards the fortress. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “vakhenaloo pan chi ga.

View from Gachaghagapert After a precarious climb over the rocks, each step carefully planned, we reached our destination — the Fortress of the Magpies, Gachaghagapert. It was surprising to see the large, plateau-like area on the mountain of rock. I walked to a section of the remaining walls and looked down, past the massive stone fortress, and saw part of the path leading to the village. From here it was easy to imagine the meliks, the armies, and the people defending this fortress and Karabagh.

I roamed over the flat area and examined sections of the fortress walls that were still intact. I stood near the edge of the fortress and looked down the sheer, rocky cliff. Then, thinking of those who had met their death on the depths below, I retreated to a safer spot, far from the edge.

Under an old, gnarled tree near the edge of the fortress, Henrik and Sergey were setting a place to eat. Koharig was busy slicing cucumbers and tomatoes. “Let’s eat,” Henrik said. “We can drink a toast to Gachaghagapert and our ancestors.” Sitting in the shade, we ate a simple lunch of lavosh, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and ganachi. We drank to our ancestors, the Armenian nation, and the Armenian language. Then Henrik told us the legend of someone who died on the mountain, and was devoured by magpies — thus the name, Gachaghagapert. A small flock of magpies — a crow-like bird with a white stripe on its back — had just flown by. I wondered — were these relatives of the magpies spoken of in the legend?

After eating, we rested in the shade. I took a picture of Vahan sitting on the edge of a precipice, gazing in the direction of Gandzasar Monastery and the village of Vank. To the south were the mountains of Hadrut. Villages dotted the landscape; near Kolatak was Goosanats Anabad, Hermitage of the Virgins. To the north were the mountains of Kelbajar. I remembered my visit last year to Chapar village, near Hagaragapert, another of the fortresses of Artsakh. It was like being on top of the world.

The late afternoon sun was scorching. “Let’s go now,” Henrik said. “The woodcutters will be leaving soon.” We started our journey back, climbing down the fortress of rock, down the forested mountain towards Kolatak village. “I feel like a kid,” Vahan confided. “Climbing to Gachaghagapert is like a childhood dream come true.”

By the time we reached the spot where the woodcutters had stopped, they had already finished their work and set off for the village. For the next two hours, we walked and slid down mountainsides, crossed rivers, and drank water from an aghpyur, a spring of icy water. Once, in a green, lush area of the forest, the lovely Koharig picked several wild flowers and placed them in her hair. I remembered the poem, “And because young Armenian maidens can no longer adorn their breasts with wild flowers/the nightingale no longer trills on the Sassoun mountains/songs no longer rise from the plains of Moush.”

Night was falling as we approached Kolatak village. We had hoped to visit nearby Hagopavank, but darkness prevailed. We looked back towards Gachaghagapert, at the fading silhouette of the fortress.

“Next year,” Vahan said, “let’s climb Mt. Ararat.”

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