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Visiting the Medieval Fortress of Amberd in Armenia

Having arrived in Armenia as an independent traveller, I had a distinct advantage over others in my position. I spoke the lingo, I could read the funky looking native script, my parents had a flat in Yerevan and my sister, having lived there for almost two years, was very well connected. The upshot was that several of her friends were only too happy to put themselves and their vehicles at my disposal, each of them keener than the next to introduce me to Armenia’s architectural treasures. So, on a sunny, cloudless morning I set off from the heart of Yerevan in the well maintained and lovingly pampered Nissan of my new best friend Andranik – an affable chap with a tasteful number of gold teeth and a passion for Euro-pop. I had packed the tentative itinerary with visits to churches, tombs, monasteries and various other ancient ruins, but the highlight of my trip was to be a visit to the fortress of Amberd (meaning “Fortress in the Clouds” in Armenian), which had been keeping diligent watch over the foothills of Mt Aragats since the 9th century. The 11th century church of St Asdvadzadzin, which stands alongside the fortress, was to be the added bonus.

Having checked it out on the map, the distance between the T-junction from the main highway from Yerevan and the road to Amberd didn’t look too challenging – about 30km as the crow flies – but two unforeseen issues significantly dampened my initial hopes for (what I thought would be) a quick side trip. Firstly, the winter snows had significantly damaged the roads, causing massive potholes and erosion, parts of which were so bad, I had to actually get out of the car to avoid damage to the underside of Andranik’s beloved motor. Secondly, the winding, twisting roads snaking their way through the wild and beautiful foothills suggested we were in for a much longer trip than anticipated. I had budgeted around 45 minutes for the trip from the main road. In the event, it took twice as long to reach our destination.

To be fair, between the potholes, large expanses of wild flowers and local fauna, and the occasional appearance of storks, eagles, inquisitive livestock and darting lizards, the time passed very quickly, and my anticipation heightened when I spied the ruins of Amberd, nestling amongst the hills, looking more dramatic than I could ever have imagined. In fact, my sister had warned me off this trip – she claimed that the distance and hassle of getting there to see a bunch of dilapidated ruins was hardly worth the effort. She is not often wrong, but on this occasion, her misjudgement bordered on the spectacular. It took another twenty minutes of driving on the ribbon-like, winding roads before we reached our destination.

After the untamed and wild countryside, interrupted only by man-made roads and an occasional car passing us by, the car park was something of an unwelcome (but necessary) scar on the otherwise picture-perfect landscape. A small stall, sheltered from the sun by a blue tarpaulin, was selling the type of mass produced tourist tat which invariably originates from the Far East, so held little interest for me. Further back, behind the stall, was a simple picnic table covered with a plastic table cloth, and a red and white umbrella paying homage to Coca Cola. A ramshackle and rusting hut sat alongside it, providing shade to the ancient and wizened old man who had taken up residence in front of it. There was nothing else to advertise the purpose of this arrangement, reminding me that Armenia is remarkably unsympathetic to those without a natural sense of curiosity.

More on this later.

There is a small viewing platform laid out over the top of a purpose built and new looking toilet block, beside which, a set of steep steps led down the slope, leading toward the picturesque ruins. The site looks over the Arkashen gorge, with the eponymous river a small, sparkling silver ribbon a considerable distance below. One of the major modern improvements at most such sites in Armenia is the inclusion of placards which provide a decent history of the place in three languages (Armenian, English and Russian) as well as site maps. Amberd apparently had four of these signs, but only the one in the car park survived the rigours of winter. Given the paucity of information available in English from other sources (guidebooks on Armenia are hard to come by) I had to make do with this general overview of the site. For the record, the place is thought to have been built in stages, with its earliest sections dating from the 7th century. The ruins visible today date mainly from the most productive period of construction and fortification which, according to the placard (whose sources remain unattributed) was between the 12th & 13th centuries and is most associated with a powerful noble family called Pahlavuni.

Having noted the history and taken a few snaps of the impressive looking vista from the platform, I impatiently urged Andranik to join me, and we made our way down the steps. The fortress is built on an earthen mound and is completely inaccessible without climbing gear (assuming of course, you are given permission to get up it) large portions of it have crumbled due to the ravages of conquest, earthquake and the passage of time. However, what is left of it is quite impressive. You can walk all the way around the ruin, catching odd glimpses of the interior, overgrown with vines and plants and full of crumbled rock where it has fallen in on itself. A number of the outlying fortifications still remain relatively intact, but it would be wrong to describe this once-proud fortress as anything other than a shadow of its former self. According to the placard in the car park, despite an ongoing program of renovation and restoration (neither of which appear to be immediately evident) it is considered one of the most endangered ancient sites in Armenia, and it is feared that the next big earth tremor (the last was in 1988) could finish the old boy off completely.

Further down the slope from the fortress is the 11th century church of St Asdvadzadzin. In many ways, it is relatively unremarkable – relative being the operative word here. In a land full of fairly intact and well used 11th to 16th century churches, after a while it takes something special for the casual observer to avoid thinking “oh, yet another old church”. The interior of the church itself is bare, but careful examination of its walls reveals intricately carved, but weathered inscriptions and stone crosses (khatchkars) which seem to have stood the test of time with greater fortitude than the much more recently installed placards. The building, like many of its type, was built with precisely cut local tufa stone, so that the joins are almost seamless. Whilst, when viewed from a distance, the church looks a fairly homogenous if patchy grey, close up, the differences in the colour and hue of the stone become more obvious, making it much more like a patchwork quilt – creating a quite striking effect.

Back in the car park, Andranik suggested a coffee and a bite to eat. I could not for the life of me see how or where refreshments were served, but he ushered me up the stairs next to the souvenir stall and we were soon ensconced under the only Coca Cola umbrella for at least 30km in any direction. There was no menu, so I left him to it, and before long, the owner of the shack (the wizened old fella in front of it was his father apparently) materialised with small bowls of fresh yoghurt, a lump of sweet butter, freshly baked lavash flat bread, local cheese and the most delicious wild mountain honey I have ever had the privilege to taste – all for the princely sum of around £3. We were kept company by a goat, a cat, a pair of inquisitive hens and disconcertingly observed from a distance by a distinctively miffed looking cow, but I couldn’t have asked for better food in better surroundings. We polished off our peasant feast with a couple of strong Armenian coffees before buying half a litre of the delectable honey to take home with us. Perfection achieved, we reluctantly left Amberd behind and set off for the next stop in our grand tour.