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Star Gazing Through History

Combine daytime excursions to historic and natural sites with evening explorations of the final frontier.

The night sky is brilliant from the boat. The moon is a thin crescent of gold against a purple rim of twilight. Sirius appears in the Eastern Sky and slowly descends as others flash into view like crackling embers in a campfire. Venus poses and then slowly drops behind view as Mars ascends, followed by Orion’s Belt and the tiny dipper shaped Pleiades star cluster. As the boat gently moves in the water the star gazers nod in approval A few gasp from behind their binoculars. Counting off the planets and stars as they appear, we amateur astronomers were recreating a ritual thousands of years old.

“There! Over there!” someone calls out as the binoculars swing to the Southwest. A single shooting star arches through the sky and is soon followed by others, more than a dozen a minute. Nature’s own fireworks bring in another stellar night in Armenia.

This is no weak city sky with a few stars peeking through the yellow haze of street lamps and smog. The stars above Lake Sevan form a bowl of silver flecks and clusters are easily seen. From the top of Mount Aragats it seems the whole world is a galaxy of stars.

The high altitudes and clear night skies in Armenia offer some of the best observation points in Europe, and combining that with tourism has become a source of funding for cash-strapped research institutions like Biurakan and Metsamor. Both have just begun offering Star events for amateur astronomers, combining daytime excursions to Armenia’s natural and historic splendors with evening observations from exotic locations.

Patterned after the popular “Star Parties” at observatories in the United States, the astronomers in Armenia go one more and offer specialist-guided Star Tours which combine daytime excursions to historic and natural sites with evening explorations of the final frontier. “It is not often a tourist can spend his day seeing original 7th c. monastery manuscripts on astronomy and then actually go to the spot where a cosmic occurrence was recorded,” says Ashot Boghossian, president of Arax Co. who, with TransWorld Support and Development Association of America, is arranging the tours with Biurakan and Metsamor as a fund-raiser. “But these tours offer contact with world class astronomers, something the star parties in the west cannot do.”

Star Tours include nightly observations at the newly named Victor Hambartsumian Observatory at Biurakan, and at Metsamor, Karahundj, Lake Sevan and on top of Aragats. They can even offer an evening on the top of a volcano or starlight swims in thermal springs between telescopic sightings.

Biurakan specialists welcome the opportunity to share information and observations. “We can shape the visit to the visitor’s interest,” Artashes Petrossian, director of the Biurakan Observatory and new Minister for Education and Science, says. “From the beginner who just wants to appreciate Armenia’s night skies and learn a little about her star gazing history to those wanting to carry out studies and investigations.”

“Visitors to our star gazing events are able to use the 2.6 m telescope for pin-pointing stars, as well as the 40 cm and 50 cm cassegrain telescopes,” Petrossian adds.

“Biurakan’s 2.6 meter telescope is the 2nd largest telescope in Europe,” Edward Khachikian, Professor of Astrophysics at Yerevan State University and specialist at Biurakan for Active Galaxies and Diffuse Nebula, added. Khachikian made the first detailed observations of the Markarian Galaxies, where thousands of new stars are born.

Petrossian adds, “They come to the observatory and take part in the observations with our specialists. We even provide the opportunity for visitors to make photo plates of galaxies and stars, which they can take back with them as a souvenir of their visit.”

These are not simple snapshots. Petrossian adds that the plates used for making the astronomical pictures cost up to $2000 per dozen. Visitors on the Star Tour receive a photograph as part of their package price, which also includes a donation to the observatory for its ongoing research work. “It is a very exciting moment when they can take a photographic plate of their observation with them.”

For those interested in contact with other worlds, Biurakan was one the first centers for studying that possibility, and held International Astronomy Union symposiums on extraterrestrial life. “We present a scientific point of view,” Petrossian says. “The conclusion (of the symposium) was very interesting. Based on statistical calculations, it meant that in our galaxy alone there can be more than 5 million stars with orbiting planets where there is life similar to ours.”

Whether or not that life will behave like ET or the creatures from the Hollywood film Independence Day is anyone’s guess. When it happens, Petrossian adds with a smile, “we don’t know how nice those meetings with the extraterrestrial will be.” Skeptics should bear in mind that until the Biurakan proved the existence of stellar associations and the relative youth of the universe, most astronomers believed our cosmos was very old and a fairly constant place to live in. Now widely accepted, Victor Hambartsumian’s theories faced massive skepticism when first introduced. By the time of his death Hambartsumian was called “revolutionary in our time, like Copernicus was in his.”

Armenia’s star gazing tradition is as old as recorded time. Recent studies suggest the birthplace of the naming of the constellations and the creation of the zodiac is in the Armenian plateau. Inscriptions found at Metsamor and in the nearby Geghama Mountain Range show a sophisticated understanding of the universe before the Egyptians and Babylonians were exploring the heavens. One of the first recordings of Haley’s Comet was made by Armenians in 1054 CE.

At Metsamor, one of the oldest observatories in the world can be found. It sits on the southern edge of the excavated city, a promontory of red volcanic rocks that juts out like the mast of a great ship into the heavens. Between 2800 and 2500 BCE at least three observatory platforms were carved from the rocks. The Metsamor observatory is an open air book of ancient astronomy and sacred geometry. For the average visitor the carvings are indecipherable messages. With Emma Parsamian, astrophysicist at Biurakan and the first to unlock the secrets of the Metsamor observatory as a guide, the world of the first astronomers comes alive.

“The Metsamorians were a trade culture,” Parsamian explains. “For trade, you have to have astronomy, to know how to navigate.” The numerous inscriptions found at Metsamor include designs for the constellations Taurus, Capricorn, Aries and Leo. Another is on odd shaped pattern that was a mystery to the excavators of the site until Professor Parsamian showed it to be part of a large observatory complex. By taking a modern compass and placing it one of the carvings, Parsamian showed that it pointed due North, South and East. It was one of the first compasses used in Ancient times.

Another carving on the platforms shows four stars inside a trapezium. The imaginary end point of a line dissecting the trapezium matches the location of star which gave rise to Egyptian, Babylonian and ancient Armenian religious worship.

Sketch the locations of the Jupiter moons over several nights and you’re repeating an experiment Galileo did in 1610. Chart a star over several years and you repeat an experiment the Metsamorians did 4000 years ago. By using the stone trapezium and a 5000 year stellar calendar, Parsamian discovered that the primary star which matched the coordinates of its end point was the star Sirius, the brightest star in our galaxy.

“Sirius is most probably the star worshipped by the ancient inhabitants of Metsamor,” Parsamian explains. “Between 2800-2600 BCE Sirius could have been observed from Metsamor in the rising rays of the sun. It is possible that, like the ancient Egyptians, the inhabitants of Metsamor related the first appearance of Sirius with the opening of the year.”

Those wanting to plot the same event from Metsamor will have to wait a while. Sirius now appears in the winter sky, while the inhabitants of Metsamor observed it in the summer. (Because of the earth’s rotation within the rotation of the Milky Way galaxy, stars change their positions over time. In another 4000 years or so Sirius will again appear as it is plotted on the Metsamor stellar map).

The Metsamorians also left behind a calendar divided into twelve months, which made allowances for the leap year and vernal equinox. Europe had to wait 3000 years for the Gregorian calendar to achieve the same accuracy.

“There is so much I found in 1966,” Parsamian adds, “and so much we do not know. We believe they worshipped the star Sirius, but how? I like to imagine there was a procession of people holding lights. These carved holes throughout the complex may have been filled with oil and lit. Just imagine what it must have looked like with all those little fires going all over the steps of the observatory. Like a little constellation down on earth.”

Parsamian has a special regard for Metsamor, since it was she who uncovered many of the mysteries of the inscriptions on the observatory, answers which explained other finds uncovered at the excavation site. “When you walk over this ancient place, you can use your imagination to complete the picture. I love to visit Metsamor since I feel I am returning to the ancients.”

An even older observatory is located near Sissian. Sitting on top of a wind-swept mountain plain is a complex of stones which was both an observatory and sun worship center. The site is 7000 years old, making it the oldest known observatory on earth.

Previously called Khoshun Dash or Zorats Kar, the mountain observatory is Karahundj, “Armenia’s Stonehenge”. The English name “Stonehenge” is actually close to the Armenian Karahundj. “In old Armenian,” Parsamian explains, “the world ‘hundj’ may have been ‘pundj’ which means bouquet. Over time, we think they changed it to ‘hundj’ which is very close to the English ‘henge’.”

According to Paris Herouni, director of both the radio telescope at Biurakan and the preservation project for Karahundj, “hundj” is an old Armenian word for sound (‘hunchuin’), and the name Karahundj means “Singing Stones”.

“There are many Stonehenges in the world,” Herouni says. “Most people know England’s stonehenge, but there are others in England, Scotland, Ireland, even in Iceland. One in Ireland is called “Kalinish”, which is very close to the Armenian word for “Stone Sign”. A town near another in England is named “Karnak”, but in old English it was “Karnish,” also meaning Stone Sign. We believe it was Singing Stones because all the sites make a peculiar type of music when the wind moves through them.”

“Most people know of the temple of Karnak in Egypt,” Herouni adds. “That is the same name as the English ‘Karnakh’. Now that we know the age of Karahundj and Armenia’s trade history with Egypt, we can begin to understand how the Egyptians might have borrowed our language to name their temple at Thebes and their then new god Amon-Ra. The similarities are too close to ignore.”

The age of the site is impressive, since it dates the site before other scientific cultures, including Egypt. Using the oldest rock at the site, a stellar calendar and the astronomic coordinates at the complex, Herouni discovered that the site was first used to observe the star Capella, which was ascendant in Sissian region as early as 4,200 BCE.

Another remarkable part of Karahundj is its sheer size and design on the edge of a sloping river canyon. Stretching more than 200 meters from end to end, 188 stones form a central circle or “head” with two “horns” curving away from the circle to the South and North. A line of stones forms a long tail to the South and is joined at the “head” by four stones, making a triangular “neck”. Seen from above, the entire complex looks like a primitively drawn bull or scorpion, and visitors remark at its similarity to the constellation Taurus. Astrophysicists at Biurakan say it looks like the crab nebula in Taurus. “The Crab Nebula was on of the early cosmic occurrences recorded by Armenians,” Parsamian adds.

Karahundj could be considered an ancient “computer for star constellations,’ as British Astronomer Gerald Hawkins called England’s Stonehenge. Only it doesn’t take much skill to use this computer. Most of the ‘stone telescopes’ have a small hole bored into them at different levels and angles. Sometimes as much as 60 degrees, visitors stand, stoop or kneel to look through them. Other stones are carved like seats, from which a particular constellation can be sighted, while still others have foot holds carved in them for peering out into space. One is at ground level, but carved so that a lying body is naturally looking at a certain point straight above. “The stones are arranged to observe all cosmic occurrences at that time, “ Herouni says. “There are stones for sunrises and sunsets, others for tracking the phases of the moon, but most were built to observe 1000’s of stars and constellations as they moved across the ancient Armenian night sky.”

“It is a unique experience to look through a hole in one of the stones and see a star appearing just as people 7000 years ago did,” says Musha Stepanian, a resident of Sissian and participant in the Summer solstice “reopening” of the site in 1996. Led by Herouni, guests from Europe used modern telescopes to observe through the holes. “Most simply left their telescopes and stared in awe at the heavens through the stones. They didn’t need their modern equipment,” Stepanian adds.

Stepanian sketched the pattern of rocks, and was thrilled with a discovery he made at the site. “When I looked up at the stars that night I noticed Ursa Major (also called the “Big Bear”), which is seen even in city night skies. What is hard to see is another constellation next to it. In wintertime Ursa Minor is oriented up and down, with the tail pointed down. That night I saw the mirror of Ursa Minor to its right. It is almost an identical copy of the big bear, only its tail connects to Ursa Major in a sort of triangle and forms a tail going to the South. It was an exact copy of the layout of stones I sketched out while at Karahundj.”

Other sights on the Star Tour include an evening star gazing in hot springs, and on a sailboat in Lake Sevan. “No matter what location, the skies of Armenia are perfect for star gazing,” Boghossian adds. “If visitors want the luxury of lying in a hot spring, star gazing from a sailboat or the high altitude adventure of Aragats, the Astronomers at Biurakan are eager to help. The tours provide needed money for the Biurakan and Metsamor, and they bring people closer to the universe.”

What do you need to prepare yourself for star gazing in Armenia? Before going out to a store and investing in an expensive telescope, Biurakan advises star gazers to use the most powerful telescopes they have: their eyes. “On a good clear night without a moon, the naked eye can detect a thousand or more stars, five planets, a handful of star clusters, a spiral galaxy, a stellar “birthing room” and a handful of bright comets or meteorite showers,” says Khachikian. “The eyes can detect subtle variations in brightness, determine the colors and relative temperatures of stars. For example, blue stars are hotter than red stars. They are babies just out of the womb.”

“Our sun is a yellow star,” Areg Mickaelian, Scientific Secretary at Biurakan adds. “It is already 5 billions years old, which is middle age for stars. While there are stars being born every second, there are other stars already 10 billion years old. From our telescopes we observe the places where they are born and pulsars, which are the results of their explosions.”

Khachikian also advises first time star gazers to read an introduction to astronomy, to visit a local astronomy club, or browse the Internet for web sites that feature astronomy and star gazing (see below). Amateur Astronomy groups are often very helpful, and enjoy sharing advice and information. For the beginner, star gazing is more about understanding the names and locations of stars and galaxies then it is about complicated calculations and astrophysics.

With a star chart, a pair of binoculars and a little knowledge of the night sky, you need only one more thing to transform yourself into a true stargazer: a good viewing spot.

Start with your own backyard, even if you live in a city. Track the moon for a few nights as it waxes and wanes, find the Big Dipper, look for Orion and Taurus. When away from the city, you can begin to see the star clusters; the Pleiades and Hyades (in Taurus). Find the double cluster in Perseus and the Great Nebula in Orion, where new stars are born. In the summertime you can see the Milky Way, the galaxy we live in. In the Autumn a virtual twin to the Milky Way is the Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the naked eye in the northeastern sky.

Khachikian’s favorite constellation is Orion, best seen in the winter sky. “Orion is such a beautiful constellation, and in the winter it feels so much closer to us. And for star gazing, there is nothing like going to Amberd and observing from the ramparts of the castle. You feel like you are seeing it for the first time.”

And in the end it is the thrill of discovering something for the first time which captures star gazers, the thrill and the mystery. “It is the final unknown,” Parsamian says. “The cosmos is infinity. In our mind, we have to have something which has limits, we have to know ‘What is it? How is it?’. But the universe is not limited, and we will never fully understand it.”

“Astronomy is the oldest science,” adds Khachikian. “When people first looked up and saw the stars, they were already astronomers. Because then they asked, ‘Why?’”

(Rick L. Ney has been living in Armenia since 1992, and is the author of “TourArmenia: A Practical Guide for the Adventurous Soul,” which can be read on the Internet at http://www.arminco.com/tourarmenia/ )

Side Page:

Preparing Yourself: Look in the library or at a bookstore for a simple introduction to astronomy and a good guide to the night sky. “The Guide to Amateur Astronomy” by Jack Newton and Philip Teece (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 521 34028 4) covers how to start looking at the sky, what to look for, how to find objects, what equipment to buy, and how to make your own telescope. “Star Ware” by Philip S. Harrington (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0 471 57671 9) is aimed for the person how wants to buy something to observe with. It contains solid advice on what to type of equipment is suited for different needs and how to purchase wisely. It also includes a list of dealers, a section on building home equipment and a section on how to get started using the equipment.

Internet: The World Wide Web is filled with websites about astronomy and star gazing. Use a browsing engine like Yahoo! or Excite to find your own, or start with Amateur Astronomy Online (htt://ddi.digital.net/~mtmccall/), Adventures in Astronomy (http://www.mindspring.com/~thendrix/) and AstroNet (http://www.rahul.net/resource/).


The type of telescope one needs to look deeper into the night sky, and better enjoy the heavens above Armenia are still not very expensive. For most star gazers, a good pair of binoculars is all that is required. Start with a pair of 7X35 or 7X50 binoculars (the numbers rate their size and magnification), which cost from about $50 to $300 or more. Many more stars are seen with binoculars, and they have a positive side that mounted telescopes do not: they are easier to carry from place to place. On the star gazing tour, the telescopes at Biurakan will be all visitors need to study the deepest layers of the universe, and binoculars are sufficient for looking into the night sky at Metsamor and Karahundj. Of course those who want to bring along their telescopes will find good viewing at almost all locations, and friendly help and observation tips from the specialist guides.

Star Parties and Star Tours:

The Biurakan offers Star Parties for groups of 4 to 10 in size. The donation of $100 per person includes dinner, an introduction to the observatory and astronomy, and observation through their telescopes (photo plates not included). Reservations are necessary a week in advance and can be made through TransWorld Support and Development Association of America (374-2-52-52-80).

Star Tours last 7 days and nights, and include lectures and observations at Biurakan, Metsamor, Karahundj, on Mount Aragats, a sailboat dinner and observation from Lake Sevan, and from a volcanic crater or relaxing in a thermal spring. Rd. Trip Airfare, complete land transportation, all lodging and meals, astronomic photo plate of observations and specialist-guides are included in the tours, as are donations to Biurakan and Metsamor. Example price is $1870 per person for a group of 15 from New York. Call Arax for more information and reservations. Tel/Fax: 374-2- 151-865. E-Mail: arax@arminco.com.

How To Get There:

Most travel agents can arrange flights to Armenia, but Levon Travel in the USA (800-445-3866) and Sabera Tours/Sevan Voyages in France (33-1-42 61 51 13) sell air tickets to Armenia from a variety of locations. The cheapest flight to Yerevan is still Aeroflot International (212-332-1050), which has a New York-Yerevan round trip fare of $870 (Apex).

Responsible Tourism Tip: The Biurakan needs current or recent books on astronomy and astrophysics, plus journals and magazines on the same subjects. For those who want extra photos, or want to make a donation to the Biurakan, bring boxes of Kodak III a0 astronomical plates, 16 cm X 16 cm in size.

Inset Box:

Armenian names of constellations: The names used now for constellations and stars are inherited from the Phoenicians and Greeks, but Armenians had named them long before. The earliest names we do not know, but a few that are more recent include:

Orion: Haik

Hercules: Vahagan

Ursa Major: Metz Sayel

Ursa Minor: Poker Sayel

Others are translations of the European name. For example, the constellation chameleon is known in Armenian as ‘gtnarutz’.

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