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Kh'ndzoresk: Armenia’s Shangri La

I stopped counting at 700, and there were still more. The entrances are arched, and some are very deep.

We were going to a small mountain village called Khundzoresk. At least from 3000 bce, people inhabited caves in a river canyon slope that dips about 500 feet to the river. I do not know the type of stone in that canyon, and i have never seen these shapes before anywhere. Aside from the strata of gray, yellow and red sandstone and tuf and granite, there must be more than 100 free standing rocks that look like huge molten candles. Or like stalactites turned upside down. They are all outdoors, and the tips are rounded off.

The base of the "candle stones" must be 50 to 100 feet in diameter, and some reach as high as the canyon rim. And covering the face of the river canyon (which widens to about a mile at the rim at Khundzoresk), and the slopes below it which jut out in 50 directions in terraces and sub hills on down to the narrow river, are caves. I stopped counting at 700, and there were still more. The entrances are arched, and some are very deep. These were entirely carved by the inhabitants. Until 1980, the villagers lived in those caves. What is both eerie and marvelous about this place is that over time the villagers extended their homes out from the caves by building homes and shops of stone on the terraces in front of the caves, but they still used the caves for the back part of their dwellings. Thus you have a combination of what appears to be stone houses on the sides of a river canyon in front of the canyon wall, and two or three rooms entirely carved from the canyon walls in the back. And many of the caverns have a "back door", which is a carved tunnel (beautifully faced with hewn rock) to the next terrace above.

They used these escape routes when the Turks were ransacking the area. It is hard to describe the place adequately. It was a complete and total community of dwellers living in caves. These are caves that were carved with straight walls that there plastered and whitewashed, the floors were covered with flagstones, or covered with carpets, and the niches were covered with wooden cabinet doors. They even had electricity before the last family moved out in 1980. On the river side there s a beautiful freestanding Romanesque church made from stone blocks, dating 5th c., and the remains of a huge church complex which had its rounded nave carved into the canyon. On the other side of the river from us were two monasteries that are still in very good shape, on four or five terraces that climb the side of the river canyon hill. The stone work is remarkable: many of the caves have a reinforced stone arch made from hewn blocks, the terraces are all reinforced from stone walls. And the smooth surfaces are something builders would crave for now.

There is a huge white stoned L-shaped building on the far end of the river bed with a gabled Victorian style roof. It is amazing to me because the walls are free standing, and there is no evidence of any other walls to complete the building. There is about 100 feet of space between the walls and the river canyon wall, and a lot of rubble between. It appears that the three story modern "building" was the face of a huge cavern which collapsed. The style of the building walls are 19th c. It must have had a mercantile use. Startling because among all these stone buildings and caves which feel prehistoric or Medieval is this 19th c. edifice, a reminder of the wealth and trade this community once had. I found fragments of china plates and crystal glasses as I walked (or stumbled) along the steep hills, which conjured up a rich life so unlike the deserted dwellings around me.

We never reached the bottom of the river canyon. I think we got about half way down before we stopped and huffed our way up. The weather has softened the hill slopes, but I doubt it was ever easy to go from the top of the river canyon to the bottom. There are a few "natural" trails that crisscross the hill where we were, but without constant attention they looked (and were) precarious to trod. And that made it all the more remarkable. How in earth did they haul all these blocks of stones up or down to build the facing walls to the caves? I mean the paths that we did find would have been a nightmare for even a donkey to navigate, let alone carts or horses. There are no roads which we could detect (even in the 7000 year old excavations I have been able to detect the obvious street paths), just simply paths. And most we did use dead-ended at someone's terrace or home. So how did they haul everything in?

On their backs. "Yes," a village elder from the contemporary village on the top of the river canyon told me. She had lived in the community when it was below the canyon rim, and was still uneasy about living in free standing house. The house she inhabits is beautifully made from carved stones which were carefully placed together and then cemented to form a smooth surface. The weather was very mild for January, and she was basking in the sun with her great grandchildren on a wooden porch.

500 feet below her in the canyon, she said, at this time of the year they were already planting their Spring garden, it never got as cold as it did above the rim. She dreamily remembered the winter garden on her family's terrace: sweat peas, lettuce, green onions and tomatoes. The apple trees that gave the village its name (Khundzor means apple) stubbornly waited for the Spring rains to blossom and bear fruit, but others could be watered. Her favorite were the luscious strawberries that clung to the canyon walls beside her family's home, they easily adapted to the rocky terrain and dripped "sweet red lumps of juice. We just had to reach up to take them," she reminisced.

"Now winter comes and howls around our home," she said as she looked into the afternoon sunlight. To the untrained eye, she was still basking in warmth. Though January in upper Armenian mountains, the weather was mild and even a little warm. A tractor was busy scattering nature's fertilizer on a nearby field, preparing for Spring. "Today it is mild up above," she said, "but down below, where we lived, you will see what paradise is."

And it was more than warm this winter day in the river canyon. Dressed for the arctic winds that pounced upon the mountain plains above Sissian and Goris, in the protected valley of Khundzoresk we soon discarded our overcoats, and then our sweaters, and even our thick spun winter shirts as we drank the afternoon sun and climbed over the cave settlement's hills and terraced land.

It was explained to me that these people built this community beginning at a large cavern on the river bed (which could be seen from the upper levels of the canyon hills, a huge natural arch in the side of the rock walls). There were perhaps up to 100 families sharing the cavern and the surrounding terraces during the reigns of Tigran the Great, T’rdat and the conversion of the Illuminator. Over time they rose from the river bed, carving homes into the sides of the sandstone walls and even into the "stone candles" that rise like upended stalactites to the clear sky. At first simple rooms for sleeping and storing grain raised on the undulating surrounding hills, the community made more and more elaborate homes as they perfected the art of carving into stone. By the 7th c. CE, they had constructed a free standing church on the river bed, and had begun to line the arched caves with blocks of stone. Terraces were constructed from the carvings, used to grow gardens on and to connect the community of caves.

By the 17th c., the villagers had constructed elaborate stone "fronts" for their caves, thick and beautifully hewn walls that added rooms to their dwellings. Though appearing to be free standing homes butting against the sides of the canyon, the backs invariably led to space carved from the insides of the hills. As many as 4 rooms could were carved from cave area, and the walls and ceilings were smooth, finished with plaster or white wash. Niches dotted the interior walls, cabinets built from stone. Elaborately carved wooden doors covered the cabinets and doorways.

The highest strata were built during the time of Seljuk invasions and Turkish and Persian occupations (13th-19th centuries). Since we never got as far down as the river, we couldn't see the entire complex, but that which we did see was constructed and carved during the time of occupation. They could not build fortress walls around the community (the better for enemies to spot a settlement and attack), so they built a fortress community. They made the settlement as difficult as possible to attack. Only house to house (or cave to cave) attacks could be used to completely control the village. With escape routes carved into the tops of most of the caverns, the soldiers had a difficult time reaching their prey. As soldiers entered the front of a cavern, the inhabitants escaped up through the top, and warned their neighbors above. The paths connecting terraces and homes are mostly dead-ends at sheer drops into the river canyon, or at the entrance to someone's home. Khundzoresk created a labyrinth of living which only the dwellers understand and could navigate. They avoided capture and complete submission to the Persians and Turks by constantly outflanking them through the maze of caves and connecting tunnels.

"You see how beautiful it is there," our hostess told us when we returned, huffing from the strenuous climb. More entranced with each vista, I had recklessly descended several hundred feet to stare in awe at the village complex. "You are too young to imagine a village of people living there, she said. "Every night, when they lit their candles or their lamps, it looked like the heavens above had come down to visit us. We had our own heavens right here. And when we went to church at Christmas, oh! To see those processions going down to the church! It was so beautiful."

"Here, above, we have too much space," she added as we thanked her and began to leave. "It is too close to God. He gave us a canyon to live in, and good earth to grow his graces on.”

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