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Monday, May 27, 2024
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Star Gazing Through History

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.

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 the red glow 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, the amateur astronomers recreate 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. astronomical manuscripts by Shirakatsi 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."

Ancient Astronomy

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 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 trapezium carving 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, and made allowances for the leap year. Like the Egyptian calendar which had 365 days, every four years the Metsamorians had to shift Sirius’ rising from one day of the month to the next.

"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."

The Oldest Stonehenge?

Another observatory is located near Sissian. Sitting on top of a wind-swept mountain plain is a complex of 204 stones arranged in the shape of an egg with three tails stretching to the North, South and West. At first, the stones seem to be nothing more than rough chunks of stone, but a second look shows that many of them have carefully polishes holes carved in them, which point to horizon lines in the distance. They are actually very accurate telescopes that point to sunrises and sunsets at specific times of the year. Other stones chart lunar phases, while at least one points directly up to a specific point in the sky, leading recent investigators date the site to the 5th millennium BCE. If true, this would make the stones a part of the oldest known observatory in the world.

Previously called Ghoshun Dash, the name was changed to Zorats Kar. Parsamian and her assistant Alexan Barsegian conducted the first astronomical study into its mysteries in 1983. Archeologists thought the stones were simply placed around the circa 3000-2000 BCE graves located nearby as monuments. Refuting their theory that the holes were cut into the stones so the builders could lift them by crank and set them in place, Parsamian showed that only the stones on the Eastern side had holes, and that each pointed to a specific horizon point. What the ancients saw when they looked through them were sunrises, planets and stars. Others charted lunar phases.

Parsamian published her findings beginning in 1984, and shared her discovery with others, one of whom was Paris Herouni, the director of the Radio Physics Measurement Institute and the designer of the first optical radio telescope in the world, located just above Byurakan on Aragats mountain. Using Parsamian’s findings, Herouni organized four expeditions to the site, each during an equinox or solstice. He and his assistants brought chronometers, telescopes and other astronomical equipment to test the accuracy of the stones. They verified Parsamian’s findings that the stones were indeed an astronomical instrument, and that is was very accurate. Though the exteriors of the stones are rough and lichen covered, the holes are still polished and finely cut, measuring between 5-7 cm in diameter. Wafer thin obsidian glass uncovered at the site led some to suggest that an optical insert may have been placed inside the holes for magnification. "Perhaps," says Herouni, "but no one has uncovered anything like an insert, so it remains to be seen."

There was one stone, though that intrigued Herouni as the expeditions continued. While other sight holes pointed to the horizon, one bent in the center and pointed directly up. Using a reflective insert, it is possible to look through the hole to zenith point straight above. "The chances of something like that happening are very small," Herouni said. "But the chances of it actually pointing to some constellation or star is infinitesimal."

Figuring that even with a polished object as a reflective mirror, the ancients would not have been able to observe any distant stars, he chose five of the brightest stars in the North sky for his study. Using the same method Parsamian had to uncover the age of Metsamor,

Herouni plotted the sky directly above the stone hole and compared it with a stellar calendar showing the stars ascendant in Sissian region during different epochs. Did the stone hole point to a specific star? "The calendar showed there was a 100% probability of it pointing to two stars," Herouni said, "each at different times. The interesting thing was that the latest star, Arktur, was ascendant at the time the old style Armenian calendar began (2492 BCE). If that is so, then I calculate it would have taken many years--perhaps thousands-- to create the system necessary to begin a calendar. Therefore, I chose the earlier star, Capella, which was ascendant around 4200 BCE."

An hypothesis, to be sure, Herouni’s dating of the site supports recent theories about the origins of the zodiac and the Indo-European language. Both are now believed to have come from the Armenian plateau. Perhaps the most famous investigator of stone observatories in the world, Gerald Hawkins, wrote to Victor Hambartsumian saying he believed that stone henge in the West was not unique, and that the same monuments would be found in Armenia. Both Herouni and Parsamian would welcome additional studies by Hawkins’ expertise.

A new name has been suggested for the site, taken from the nearby village of Karahundj. Parsamian first noted the ‘coincidence’ of the name with its translation into English, an Indo-European language. "The word ‘Karahundj’ is a complex word, made up of ‘Kara’ (from stone) and ‘hundj’. The philologist Babkin Chukasian told me that in old Armenian the word ‘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’. Hawkins supposed that ‘hundj’ might be an old version of the word ‘hung’ or ‘hang’, which would make Stonehenge ‘hanging stones."

Herouni thinks that "hundj" might be a variant of the Armenian word for voice (‘hunchuin’), and the name Karahundj means "Voice Stones" or "singing stones". He notes that at the March equinox, hundreds of people visit Stonehenge in England to listen to the stones, as the winds whistle through them. Most people know England’s Stonehenge, but there are others in England, Scotland, Ireland, even in Iceland and Brittany. One in the Hebrides is called "Kalinish". The first part ‘Kali’ is close to the Armenian ‘Kara’. A town near another henge in England is named "Karnak", but in old English it was "Karnish," which is close to the Armenian for Stone Sign."

Parsamian remarks that there are 100’s of ‘megalithic’ monuments or henges in the world, found only in Europe. "We don’t find them in India, or in Egypt. Even the Mesopotamian Ziggurats were not built in this way."

Whether 5th millennium or 3rd millennium BCE, the age of the site is impressive, since it predates the henges in the in the west. "Most people know of the temple of Karnak in Egypt," Herouni adds. "It was dedicated to the god Amon-Ra, which was a new god, not at all in the Egyptian pantheon before then, nor the word "Karnak". We know that people from this part of the world were trading with Egyptians during that time. What if they shared our ancient god "AR" with them?"

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?’"

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 Google, 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.

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 Byurakan 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 Byurakan, bring boxes of Kodak III a0 astronomical plates, 16 cm X 16 cm in size.

Armenian Names For Planets and Constellations

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

    • Mars: H’rat
    • Mercury: Pailatsu
    • Jupiter: Lusentak
    • Saturn: Yeryevak
    • Orion: Haik
    • Hercules: Vahagan
    • Ursa Major: Metz Sayel
    • Ursa Minor: Poker Sayel
    • Chameleon: G’tnarutz
    • Aries: Ohven
    • Taurus: Tsul
    • Gemini: Yerkvoriaknehr
    • Cancer: Khetsketin
    • Leo: Ariuts
    • Virgo: Kuis
    • Libra: Ksherk
    • Sagittarius: Agheghnavor
    • Capricorn: Aitsyeghjur
    • Aquarius: J’ghhos
    • Pisces: Dzuk

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