Traveling To Karabakh Is An Elusive Prize For Many Visitors

The Artsakh Army marching band (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

The Artsakh Army marching band (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

Tigranagert (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

Tigranagert (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

Matthew Karanian – 9/5/13

EDITOR’S NOTE: For a second time, Asbarez is teaming up with travelogue Matthew Karanian to present a travel special to serve as a guide for its readers who are planning a trip to Armenia and Karabakh. Matthew Karanian is the author of ARMENIA AND KARABAKH: THE STONE GARDEN TRAVEL GUIDE, which was published in February. This title is the first commercial travel guide to independent Armenia and Karabakh. To order by mail in the USA, send check or money order for $30 postpaid to: Stone Garden Productions; PO Box 7758; Northridge, CA 91327. For credit card orders and for orders outside the USA, go to


The destination is elusive because it’s so far out of the way. There are no scheduled flights, and visitors have to arrive overland. Starting from Yerevan, this adds one day of travel each way.

Karabakh is also a prize, however, because of the abundance of cultural sites here that attest to the region’s ancient Armenian heritage.

What To See The Monastery of Amaras is one of these prizes. Amaras is located in the south of Karabakh, and is famous as the site at which Mesrop Mashtots taught the unique Armenian alphabet roughly 1,600 years ago. The link between Mesrop and Amaras is a vivid illustration of the link between the nation’s religious history and its linguistic heritage.

The antiquity of Amaras is not uncommon for Karabakh.

In the far northwest, several structures from the Armenian monastery of Dadi Vank survive today. This complex is unequaled in its mysticism and majesty among the churches of Karabakh.

The buildings of Dadi Vank that are now at this site were all built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and have been recently restored. According to legend, however, the monastery was originally established in the first century AD. The site had been destroyed, and then rebuilt, about 800 years ago. Scholars are undecided, but if this legend is true, then Dadi Vank would gain distinction as the oldest Armenian monastery in Karabakh.

Tigranakert may be the grandest prize of Karabakh, however, at least for visitors who are interested in archaeology and in ancient Armenian history.

Students of Armenian history are familiar with the ancient settlement of Tigranakert that is located in western Armenia, in an area that is today controlled by Turkey. The settlement is named for Tigran the Great, an Armenian leader who presided over Armenia’s greatest expansion in ancient time, from 95 BC to 55 BC.

It is less widely known, however, that three additional settlements were built and named for Tigran the Great. One of these other Tigranakerts is in Karabakh, and was built in the first century BC. This Tigranakert is located just north of the villlage of Askeran, and west of Aghdam, in central Karabakh.

Visitors arriving at the site will first notice a large structure looming alongside the road that looks like a castle. Most of this Tigranakert is today an archaeological dig site, however, and is operated by archaeologist Hamlet Petrosyan, Ph D. The castle is relatively modern, and only about 300 years old.

The ruins of this ancient Tigranakert are evident today to any visitor. But Petrosyan recalls the time, not so long ago, when its existence was little more than a hypothesis.

Petrosyan walked the site with me recenlty and explained how, years earlier, he had seen what he believed were remnants of walls. He saw large depressions in the topography that didn’t appear to be natural. “We can suppose that here we will find something,” he told me, while pointing to a field that appeared to be just a field—except for a modest depression that might hide the long-buried foundations of civic buildings.

Petrosyan and his team of archaeologists from the Armenian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology, began excavating the site in 2005. They discovered that this Tigranakert had a citadel, a central business district, churches, suburbs, and cemeteries. The city was built entirely from the local white limestone, and Petrosyan’s research suggests that it was occupied until the fourteenth century. They also determined that the site was founded in the first century BC.

In 2008, the area was designated the Tigranakert Historical-Cultural Reserve by the government of Karabakh. Vast areas of the 2,136 hectare site remain unexcavated, however, because of limited funding for the project.

Known ruins at the site include a fifth century church that, at 29 meters long, is one of the largest religious buildings in the Caucasus from this era. Excavations have revealed Armenian inscriptions on the church dating to the fifth century, as well as a primitive khatchkar (stone cross).

The church was destroyed, probably during the ninth century, and its stones were used in the 18th century as building material for the castle towers over the site. All that remains of the church structure today is its massive foundation, now exposed, at several feet below ground level.

The greatest cultural treasure of Karabkh, however, is without doubt the monastery of Gandzasar.

Even the name of this monastery attests to its status. The English translation of Gandzasar is “treaure mountain,” and to view the splendor of its architecture is to understand why. Some scholars and historians consider Gandzasar to represent one of the top masterpieces of Armenian architecture.

Construction of the main church at Gandzasar was begun in AD 1216. According to legend, the church was builit on the location of a shrine that contained the skull of St. John the Baptist. The skull had been brought here from Palestine.

The exquisite bass reliefs carved on the exterior walls of the monastery depict the Crucifixion, Adam and Eve, and two ministers holding models of the church above their heads, as an offering to God. There are about 150 separate inscriptions, engraved in stone and using the Armenian alphabet, throughout the complex.

Gandzasar is functioning today, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Artsakh of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The site is located 50 kilometers north of Stepanakert.

Use Stepanakert Or Shushi As Your Base Karabakh covers a small geographic area, roughly the size of the US state of Delaware. A visitor can easily see all the sites described above, as day trips, while staying in the captial city of Stepanakert, or in the nearby historic town of Shushi.

Stepanakert is the closest thing that Karabakh has to an urban area, with a population of about 50,000. There are several tourist class hotels and a handful of restaurants. This is also the seat of the government. Don’t be surprised if you bump into the President of the country while walking along Freedom Square, at the center of town.

Because Stepanakert is the capital, and a center of population for the country, it is also a transportation hub, allowing visitors to use a scheduled mini-van to go to the cultural sites described in this story.

Traveling by public mini-van is a good way to meet local people, even if you don’t speak Armenian. But getting around with a private driver, or in a cab, at a cost of only about 25 cents per kilometer, is an inexpensive alternative, especially if you’re traveling in a group of two or three. If you are lucky, you may be able to rely upon your cab driver for translation services, too.

Shushi has good modern class hotels, and serves as a good hub from which to make day trips. Shushi was once a significant cultural capital for Armenians. The town was reduced to ruins during the final days of Soviet rule, and has been rebuilt during the past decade.  There’s much talk of a Shushi revival lately. If you choose to stay in Shushi for part of your journey, you may be able to help contribute to the revival, or at least bear witness to it.

When To Go Shushi Liberation Day is celebrated each year on May 9, and is a grand time to visit. The holiday commemorates the day in 1992 that Shushi was recovered from the enemy by Armenians. There’s usually a parade in Stepanakert. There are commemorative events in Shushi, too, but most of the celebrating is done in Stepanakert. This might be partly because the population of Stepanaker is tenfold the number of people who live in Shushi.

But the significance of Shushi’s liberation to the people of Karabakh is certainly the greater reason. The liberation of Shushi in 1992 is credited with saving Karabakh, since the Shushi highlands control access to Armenia and hence to the rest of the world. The liberation of Shushi thus ended the enemy’s seige of Stepanakert and made Karabakh’s independence possible.

Karabakh Independence Day, on September 2, can also be a memorable time time for a visit. These are both popular holidays, and visitors should reserve hotel rooms well in advance.

Apart from these holidays, visitors to Karabakh generally don’t need advance hotel reservations, even during the so-called high season of summer. The destination is just too far off the well-worn tourist paths of neighboring Armenia.

Logistics VISA: A visa is required, and can be obtained in advance in Yerevan or after your arrival, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Stepanakert. MONEY: Credit cards are rarely accepted. ATM machines are located throughout Stepanakert, and dispense Armenian Dram, which is the official currency. US dollars in small denominations may sometimes be negotiable. TRANSPORT: Mini vans and buses depart Yerevan’s Kilikia Central Bus Station each morning, and arrive in Shushi and Stepanakert several hours later. Vans and buses for the regions of Karabakh depart Stepanakert’s central bus station on Azatamartikner Street. HOTELS: In Shushi, the tourist class Avan Shushi Plaza (  In Stepanakert, the high-end Armenia Hotel ( FURTHER READING: “Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide,” (, was published in February and is the top guide.

Nagorno Karabakh Or Artsakh?


Nagorno Karabakh is an amalgamation of foreign names that was imposed on this region, and its etymology reflects the ongoing political misfortunes of the region. Karabakh is widely accepted to be a mixture of Persian and Turkish that means Black Garden.

The Russians added the adjective Nagorno, which means mountainous, and dubbed the region Nagorno Karabakh.

The historic Armenian name for the region within which Nagorno Karabakh is located is Artsakh. However, since the adoption of a new constitution in 2006, the state has been officialy known interchangeably as both the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the Artsakh Republic. Eventually, say the country’s officials, the name will revert to simply Artsakh.

Reprinted with permission from ‘Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide,’ (