Sevan Region The Lake Island Monastery
Lake Sevan is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world, hemmed in by dormant volcanic mountains. On the Southwestern edge are the Geghama Lehr (Geghama Mountain Range), on the South and Southeastern rim lie the Vardenis Mountain Range, and to the East, North East lie the Sevan and Areguni Mountain Ranges. All were formed by a series of volcanic explosions occurring over millions of years, and which give the lake its present shape . In its earliest period (380 million years BCE), almost the entire Republic lay under water. Around 170 million years BCE volcanic activity began to from land masses and by 10 million years BCE the Geghama Lehr (Mountain Range) and the mountains making up Southern Armenia were formed. As recently as 500,000 years BCE (by which time Ancestral Armenians had been inhabiting the area for 500,000 years), at least five volcanoes were still active: Aragats, Azhdahak, Spitakasar, Vardenis and Astghonk.
On the Geghama Lehr, which separates Sevan from the Ararat Valley, stone pictograms dating back to 20,000 BCE have been discovered, and they include some of the first constellation designs known. Vishaps (Dragon Stones) which were erected beginning around 5000 BCE, can be found at the sources of water throughout the mountain range.
In ancient times the name for Sevan region was Geghard-kiunik, named for Gegham, the son of an Armenian king. During the Urartu period, Sevan region was the Northernmost region of the Urartu empire. The Urartians constructed several outpost fortresses to protect the kingdom, one of which was discovered in the village of Lechashen when the water table receded as the result of massive irrigation and hydro-electric power use during the Soviet period. The fortresses were built on top of older cyclopic walled cities dating back to the 4th millennium BCE. Within Lechashen a cuneiform inscription remains which is credited to he reign of the last great Urartian king, Rusa I.
Most inhabitation occurred on the Southwestern side of the lake, at Lechashen, Kamo and Martuni, though 3rd millennium settlements have been unearthed on the opposite side. The cyclopic walled city near Lechashen housed up to 50,000 people within its confines, and was a major metallurgical and trading city for the Ancestral Armenian territory. Under the Urartians the region continued contact with Northern and Asian cultures, forming a link in the Silk and Spice Trails, which received their official status and names in the 2nd century CE during the Roman empire.
The region was one of the last regions of the country to convert to Christianity, and was an area of fierce resistance to the new religion. As a result little remains of churches or signs of Christianity until the 9th c. CE, when rapid development of the region during Arab invasions beginning in 859 CE, leading to the establishment of the Bagratid Armenian Dynasty in 885 CE. Churches, monasteries and fortresses were constructed throughout the region, forming lines of defense against the Arab, Seljuk and Mongol invasions.
The development of Khachkars in the 9th c. achieved master piece status in the 12th-13th cc, and Sevan region has hundreds of examples. Noradus, near Kamo, has a field of Khachkars dating back to the 9th c. CE, one of the largest collections in the Republic.
The jewel of Sevan Region is Lake Sevan, which was known in ancient times as the Gegham Sea. Lake Sevan is divided into two sections: Big Sevan and Small Sevan. Big Sevan is 972 square kilometers, with a maximum depth of 46 meters. Small Sevan is 284 square kilometers, with its maximum depth at 99 meters. The lake is 1897 meters above sea level.
The lake is fed by 28 rivers and streams, and is the source for the Hrazdan River, which connects Sevan with the Arax River in the Ararat valley, and is the site where a 1 million BCE Homo sapiens skull was discovered near Bjini.
Some of the purest water in the world is kept in Sevan, which is strongly affected by variable weather patterns. The surface of the water can be placid and a sparkling aquamarine mirror reflecting the blue mountain skies, and within a matter of minutes can change a churning black sea whipped by Northeastern winds. Because of its altitude, the water temperature never rises above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a favorite summer retreat from the broiling Ararat valley heat.
The lake is graced with pebble and granular sand beaches on all sides, and the formation of a Nature Preserve in the 1970 s has created some of the most dramatically beautiful wilderness areas in the country. A rare mountain lake marshland on the Southernmost side is home to wetland birds never seen at this altitude in other parts of the world, among them the Stork and Pelican. The lake itself is home to a protected species of Ishkhan (a trout called the Prince of fish), which is officially protected from capture, but often appears on beach side restaurant menus.
The lake you see now is in jeopardy, and has been the focus of constant study (but little actual assistance) from the United Nations, the World Bank, and before that, the Soviet regime. By diverting part of its water resources to increase irrigation and to generate electricity, the lake was a key component of the Soviet era technological development of the country. As a result, though, the water table dropped dramatically, endangering the entire ecosystem, and the water supply for the country. In the 1970 s to 1980 s, partial restoration of water tables was achieved with several reservoirs built near the lake as well as a huge 49 kilometer tunnel bored through the southern mountains which diverted water from the River Arpa to Sevan; but the energy embargo against the Republic by Azerbaijan and Turkey forced the government to reverse its gains and increase use of the lake to generate power at the Hrazdan hydro-electric station, among others.
Several planned reservoirs and systems to divert water from other rivers to Sevan have not been built, due to the collapse of the economy with the fall of the Soviet Union. Ongoing studies begun by the United Nations and the World Bank are designed to restore the Lake to an acceptable water level (though none propose to restore it to its pre 20th century levels), but to date, four years of studies has not resulted in any funding for actual work. Without immediate pressure on funding bodies to actually do something about the situation (and not just duplicate another study), the lake is in danger of permanent water loss.
The Island Monastery
Originally made from three churches, the monastery was built on an island. Receding waters in the 20th century created the current peninsula. The island was uninhabited until the end of the 8th c. CE, when monks built a chapel and a group of cells. The monastery was founded in 874 by King Ashot I, the founder of the Bagratid Dynasty, and his daughter Mariam. Two churches remain, St. Arakelots and Astvatsatsin. The island monastery was, according to historians of the time, used both for worship and pilgrimage, and as a place of exile for Armenian noblemen who had fallen into disgrace. It also was the residence and headquarters for King Ashot, from which he led a battle against invading Arabs beginning in 859 CE.
During the battles monks and clergy fought alongside the army to defeat the Arabs, but repeated Arab and Ottoman invasions continued. The monks on the island continuously led battles to protect the monastery, and such was the life in and around the monastery for almost 500 years until the Persians and the Ottomans divided the Armenian kingdom. The monks in Gegham-kiunik specialized in medicine, and some of their natural cures are still used, based on herbs that grow in the wild around the lake. The monastery continued until the 20th century, when the last monk left the in 1930. Today the monastery is maintained by the church, which has a summer retreat for seminarians on the peninsula.
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