In eastern Armenia, less than 15km from the border with Azerbaijan is the small town of Goris.
We had hoped to take a share taxi but at the station we found there were none going to Goris and the next minibus wasn’t leaving for five hours. An enterprising taxi driver offered to take us for a reasonable price so we accepted. It’s about 250km up and over the Syunik Mountains. For most of it, the road is a single lane each way, badly potholed and one blind curve after another. It’s quite a scenic drive, if you can distract yourself from the fear that you may die at any moment.
The estimate on Google Maps is four hours. Our driver managed it in three, including a 13km deviation to deliver a package, and two stops at roadside fruit and pickle vendors. How? In a death defying mania of overtaking every vehicle in his path irrespective of whether he could see what might be coming the other way and pushing his clapped out motor to the absolute limit. Thankfully – or perhaps not – his speedometer didn’t work so we couldn’t tell how fast he was going, but you can do the maths. We’ve plenty of experience of crazy driving around the world. This was next level.
But we made it to Goris alive, so an exercise in good time management after all.
At the hotel we felt like we were staying in a disco!
The town of Goris is quiet except for its particularly exuberant street dogs. They’d probably love it if you had food but even if you don’t, they just want to jump on you and play. The people, in contrast, are quiet. It’s like everyone is hanging around waiting for something to happen but confident nothing will. There’s not a lot to see in town, but it’s a convenient base from which to visit three interesting places.
Over a bridge on the fringe of the town, stone pinnacles string out along the ridges. Locals call the area the Goris Stone Pyramids Forest.
Some time in the 5th century, people began living in caves dug into the bases of the pinnacles. Some were easily accessible from the ground. Others required ropes or ladders.
The caves were continuously inhabited until the 1950s when the government decided it was an embarrassment that people were living this way. The sentiment seemed to have been that it made the country look ‘backward’ in the eyes of the world. Residents were required to relocate to newly built housing in Goris. Despite the obvious privations of cave living – no heating, electricity or running water, for example – many didn’t want to move and had to be forced.
But the relocation has long since been completed. Nowadays the caves are only used by local shepherds for housing livestock.
If you’ve been to Cappadocia in Turkey, the cave houses might look familiar. They are similar to ones near Goreme but there are fewer of them in Old Goris and they are much simpler. They were interesting enough, but unless you are a total fanatic for this kind of thing, you probably don’t need to come here if you’ve been to Goreme.
Further afield and more interesting is another cave village, Old Khndzoresk. It dates to the 13th century so it’s younger than Old Goris but much bigger.
Access is from the other side of the canyon. Here’s the view looking across from the top.
From where that photo was taken, you must walk down 429 steps.
And then cross the canyon via the 160 metre ‘Shaky Bridge’, a suspension bridge swinging 63 metres up.
In ancient times, hillside cave dwelling was often for protection against invaders. But here it was simply that there was very little flat ground.
By the end of the 19th century, Old Khndzoresk was the largest village in eastern Armenia, with a population of around 8,300 living in caves. Some were natural caves and others were man made. The village included churches, 27 shops, three dye-houses and tanneries and seven schools.
Some of the houses were more than simple caves. Stone porticos were added or a second level built from stone. There were also complete stone buildings with caves providing additional room behind.
The town was largely abandoned after it was devastated by an earthquake in 1931. We have read conflicting stories as to whether the remaining residents were later forcibly relocated but whether or not that’s true, the site is now completely uninhabited. The former residents’ descendants live in the nearby, nondescript town of New Khndzoresk and apparently still come here from time to time ‘for the serenity’.
The third place to visit in this region is Tatev Monastery. Yes, another monastery. Although for non-pilgrims the real reason to come here is the dramatic setting rather than the monastery itself.
The monastery is accessible by road but many choose to arrive via the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway built in a single section. It runs for 5.7km from a station at Halzidor to the monastery. At the deepest point of the canyon below, the cable car is 320 metres from the ground. Unusually, it’s a not for profit venture, with all proceeds going to a fund for restoration of the monastery.
The 12 minute journey has fantastic views.
Including a bird’s eye view down to the ruins of the Great Hermitage built by hermit monks in the mid 1600s to replace an earlier one destroyed in an earthquake. At its peak, about 700 monks lived here.
And then the Tatev Monastery comes into view on the other side of the canyon. These days the view is somewhat marred by the electricity pylons behind it but the setting is still quite a statement.
Armenian Apostolic churches all tend to have a fairly similar design, at least to our untrained eye. The ones in this complex follow the usual form and have fine carvings similar to those we’ve seen elsewhere.
The monastery was first established in the 9th century. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it hosted the University of Tatev, a significant seat of academic and religious study. In the 17th century, defensive walls were built around the complex which doubled as the back wall for a refectory, library and other rooms.
As always, the bishop had the best room in the house. Here’s the view from his balcony.
Over the centuries the monastery was repeatedly attacked. The Seljuk Turks, the Mongols and the Persians all had a go. Each time, the monastery was salvaged. Ultimately it was Mother Nature that ended it all. The 1931 earthquake which devastated Old Khndzoresk also rendered Tatev a virtual ruin. But now, it rises like the proverbial phoenix as it is ever so slowly being restored as funds permit.
So that was our few days in Goris. Now we braced ourselves for the journey back to Yerevan. In the morning, we woke to find it had snowed on the mountains overnight and we left town in a public minivan headed into a soft white landscape. Neither snow nor fog persuaded the driver to slow down. There was more of that crazy overtaking. We arrived in Yerevan on schedule four hours later, including a twenty minute stop. We are still shaking our heads as to how that taxi driver did it in three.