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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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The Other Side of Garni

The peace and natural beauty of this area is hard to imagine when it is so close to Yerevan.

Almost anyone who comes to Armenia visits Garni, and they think it is the 76 AD temple and Roman style baths. Many learn when they visit that the cyclopic stone walls that surround the royal summer residence and temple are were in fact first laid in the 3rd millennium BC by ancestral Armenians who developed the region into one of the greatest metallurgical and trading powers in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

The temple itself was built on top of an Urartian temple, and has the same floor dimensions as the temple of Sushi in Erebuni (5.05 X 7.98 meters). A common feature of sacred structures from oldest times through the Christian era is to orient the structures to the East, that is, to the rising sun. The temple of Garni itself was dedicated to the sun goddess Mythra. Armenians shared Zoroastrian entities with Persia (and by the time of Garni Temple, with the Eastern Roman empire, which had adopted Mythra as a patron goddess), and worshipped fire as an ultimate gift from the gods, an entity in itself. Garni was designed according to the sacred geometry of the day: It perfectly follows the Pythagorean and Platonic theories of sacred geometry in its design, a design for civilization carved form the wilderness.

And then there is the Other Side of Garni, the wilderness itself.

On a mountain trail between Lake Sevan and the fertile Ararat Valley, 7000 years of history wound its way through the Goghi and Azat River canyons below Garni and left indelible prints on the stone walls. Prints that can only be seen--just as Garni is best seen-- from inside the canyon walls.

"When I look up from the canyon to the temple of Garni and see how the sun plays upon the stone and actually makes it glow, then I understand how perfect that world was," Rafael Hakopian, says. Hakopian is the associate director for the Kanaz Culture Center in Yerevan, and often leads small informal tours into "Symphony Canyon" below.

The Goghi and Azat Rivers meet at Garni, dropping more than 300 feet below the temple site, creating an impenetrable natural fortress above, and a remarkably diverse eco system below. While dry summer winds whip the mountain plain above the canyon rim, below the river forest is always moist and cool: towering trees form a canopy above the foot paths along the river, and wild boar, deer, leopards and bears call the nature preserve home.

Symphony canyon was named for its rock formations, a series of perfectly cut diamond shaped granite, basalt, slag and andesite. Inside the canyon are the remains of a 16th c. bridge, its finely engineered arches at one time leading to a narrow road that surmounted the Geghama mountain range and ended at Lake Sevan.

A few yards beyond, past a series of caverns yawning in the side of the canyon walls, the Goghi River joins with the Azat, and to the right is one of the most beautiful sights in Armenia: About 600 meters away and 300 feet above is the temple of Garni. "In the morning it is yellow gold," Hakopian says as he points to the geometrically perfect monument. "In the evening it drips red with the setting sun."

Inside the canyon, the upper rim and sky are soon blocked from view: tangled vines wrap themselves around centuries old trees that shade the hot sun from the fetid ground. In Spring, swarms of blue, yellow, gold and violet butterflies nest along the sun-dappled river bed, as many as a thousand might be resting on the banks or the side of a tree. Hakopian dashes into a bed of ferns as he spots something, and soon is holding one of the rare finds in this part of Armenia, a Loti. Looking every bit like a lime green snake, loti actually has gills for breathing and projections where a million years ago or so it had legs. Harmless, the loti is endangered and listed on the Red Book, an official listing of endangered species in the former Soviet Union. Hakopian is careful to release the passive reptile, and it soon slithers into the underbrush. A cloud of pale blue butterflies suddenly flutters into view, flying in a circle in a pool of sunlight. Above it is close to 85 degrees, but here in the forest it rarely gets above 70.

A short distance from Garni is an electric station and picnic area, rarely visited. The electric station is gratefully partially hidden from view with thick trees and greenery, and several huge wild rose bushes. An old wisteria vine clings to the sides of the deserted station, and the pastel purple blossoms hand like grapes, sweetly scenting the air.

From here the canyon grows wilder and more beautiful, with occasional meadows and fields of sweet hay and goldenrod covering the patches of open land. In May the river swells and covers some of the natural path, but the terrain is easily navigated. Just after a narrowing in the canyon, the land widens into a dense forest, and it seems to be the most remote place on earth, only the sounds of birds and a startled fox the residents. Just beyond, thought he signs of civilization are seen in the ruins of stone buildings covered with moss.

Once a thriving village, the forest settlement was forcibly removed to the canyon rim by revolutionists, and for a while residents hid in caves and rock outcroppings in Mt. Yeranos, which plunges to the river edge on the other side. What is left of the settlement are a few white-washed walls standing alone in the thick underbrush and a chimney that juts defiantly into the trees. That, and a single family dwelling butted up against the edge of the canyon wall. Descendants of those who hid on the opposite side of the river, a mother and her daughter greeted our party as we wandered through the settlement ruins. "If you see Ashot, tell him to come back for supper," the mother called out, as if we were neighbors from just across the street. We nodded and plodded on in search of Ashot.

The river widens long before it reaches the lake. As suddenly as the turn in one bend on the path, the rumbling sound of the river crashing over rocks disappeared and was replaced with a few cicada and the faint cry of a seagull off in the distance. Backing up more than a kilometer from the edge of the lake, the water flooded the forest floor and entire tree trunks torn from their base formed a log jam and natural bridge from one side the river to the other. "Just a few more ledges," Hakopian said encouragingly, "and we’ll be there."

Spotting Ashot who was swimming in a natural cove formed by the logs, Rafael informed him of his mother’s message, and smiled as he plunged one more time into the cold, clear water before scampering off to home.

The Young Man and the Sea

The clear blue waters of the lake lap softly against the rocks, and Tzknor, Sazan, Koghak, Carp and the rare Karmera Khast jump in the afternoon light. On the far side of the lake is a large mound encrusted with mineral salts, traces of a natural spring. Further up the steep hill is a caravan style tent, and a flock of sheep. And standing in the middle of the lake is a small house on piers. After a few echoing calls across the lake, one of the men on the far side waves and slowly makes his way to the lake edge. Soon a motorboat appears with two men inside.

One of the men is Armen. His taut body, sinewy arms and grizzled faze make him look much older than his 25 years. Deep set eyes and a sun weathered face shine as he smiles and welcomes us on board for a tour of the lake, ‘his home’. A few minutes later the boat lands on the other side, and we settle into a carved pool of mineral water, the source of the traces we saw from the other side. The water is cold but rich with minerals, a natural salve for weary legs that just hiked 5 kilometers to get here. Amen smiles and then beckons to a circling hawk, perfectly imitating a mating call. The hawk swerves in its flight and begins to descend, swerving away just as it spots the human source of the cry, furiously flapping its wings and shrieking in anger.

The peace and natural beauty of this area is hard to imagine when it is so close to Yerevan. Calling the city ‘a place for machines’, Armen thrives on the solitude of the lake. ‘People are people,’ he shrugs as he looks off to a jumping fish about to be entangled in one of the nets he has set in the lake. "On the lake, everything is understood. I know my place." Robert nods in assent. Neither speaks except when asked, and only then after carefully considering the question.

Armen used to play in the lake when he was a boy, and as soon as he completed his tour in Karabakh, he and a friend named Robert (both names have been changed at their request) decided they didn’t want to go back to the city, they remembered the pristine world on the shores of the lake, and decided to make it a home. Tending sheep on the far side of the lake, they also fish for a living, living in the tent or in the house set in the center of the lake.

Neither man had much to say about their time in Karabakh, it was "our duty and it was necessary," as Armen put it, and they would do it again if they had to. But a weariness in their faces showed as they spoke about their time as soldiers, a weariness of age too soon. I told him about the story "The Old Man and the Sea", and he quickly dubbed himself a "Young Man of the Sea," saying he had always loved the lake, diving and swimming in it when as a boy, that he and Robert got through the long winters in Karabakh by reminiscing about the lazy afternoons swimming and fishing by the lake, promising each other they would set up a fishing business at their boyhood lake. He proudly gestured at their private kingdom as he said, "we got our dream."

Neither man is a hermit, they welcome visitors, and repeatedly asked us to return with more guests--they had fish ready to fry, could build a campfire on the lake shore, and there is plenty of room on the pier for people to sleep. The offer was good for anyone who found their way to their little Sea kingdom, "just call across the waters when you reach the reservoir’s edge. We’ll hear you." True hosts, they almost grew angry when we offered to help them out with the fuel for their motorboat.

But as we boarded the boat to return to the nature preserve and the temple of Garni, the sun set on the crystalline waters that formed diamonds of light on the canyons walls and underneath the pier, the sound of a gull hung in the air, and I thought that if this life was not perfect, it was the most nearly perfect one these men had made for themselves, in the solitude of nature, in an island on piers in the center of a beautiful lake, by a campfire on a mountainside with each his own thoughts and the star studded night for companionship, he is free from the restraints of the other side, the side we call civilization.

On to Dvin: By boat the reservoir dam is only 2 kilometers away, from there it is about an hours walk through villages and farmland to Dvin and the excavated site of the 4th-9th cc capital. Dvin has an excellent museum with displays of pottery, ceramics and artifacts uncovered at the excavation. Buses from Dvin to Yerevan run fairly regularly, but stop around 5 p.m. (500 AMD one way).

How To Get There: To get to the Other side of Garni, walk or drive along the road back out of the Garni complex and take the first village path to the right. The path begins a steep descent as it passes village homes shaded by huge walnut and native oak trees, a 12th c. church with sections of carvings from the basilica carefully laid on the churchyard wall. The path gets steeper as the walls of the Goghi Canyon begin to rise. The nature preserve begins at the canyon proper, and officially cars are not allowed beyond.

Practicalities: A moderately easy hike can be taken from Garni into the Symphony Canyon and beyond for an hour, half-day or full day trek through the nature preserve. From Garni Temple to the juncture of the Goghi and Azat river canyons it is roughly 2 kilometers, and another 2 kilometers to the electric station picnic area. From there to the Azat Lake it is a little more difficult 4 kilometers, and good sturdy walking shoes with ankle supports are recommended. The boat ride to the lake dam is half an hour, with superb views of the quickly changing rock formations on the canyon walls. From the dam to Dvin it is about 3 kilometers.

Other: The nature preserve is home to wild animals, but they are as reluctant to meet you as you are them. All wild creatures have keen sense of smell and hearing, and it is highly unlikely you will run across any. Between May 1 and early June and between September 1 and 20 snakes are most active, and may be spotted sunning on warm rocks. All except one are harmless. The giurza is poisonous but extremely rare. The Garni Canyon is close enough to inhabited areas there is almost no chance of coming across one, but you can detect it by its sand colored to dark gray coloring and hexagonal shaped markings. If you do happen to spot any snake, simply stop. The snakes avoid contact with humans at all costs. The giurza warns before it strikes by coiling and raising its head. Even at a few inches distance, if you stop moving, it will not bite. If you are bitten by a snake, tourniquet the limb about 20 cm from the bite and seek help immediately. Keep your eyes open and look around you and you should be OK.

What To Bring: in Spring and Fall, bring a weather proof jacket, as rainfall is sudden and unannounced. A day pack is good for bringing picnic food and stashing your camera. Sun screen and/or a visor cap is recommended for the lake and Dvin walk. A small first aid kit will come in handy if you run into some thorn bushes while gawking at the towering rock formations.

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