We left Shushi in Artsakh, passing Tigranakert, the remains of one of Armenian King Tigran II’s regional capitals. King Tigran ruled 95-55 B.C. I would have loved to have revisited the site, but other places were on our agenda that day.
When visiting here last year, we stopped at the intersection just before Tigranakert. We bought some fruit at the fruit and melon stand there and also got directions and a bit of insight from the vendor, Vahan, originally from Vanadzor, in northern Armenia. He volunteered to fight in the war for Artsakh’s liberation; he stayed in Artsakh, got married, and has three children and 14 grandchildren.
While standing at our car’s driver-side window, he talked eloquently and with determination about protecting Armenia and its land. Walking over to the passenger-side window, where I was seated, he stuck his head in and asked “You’re not from Armenia, are you?” “No,” I answered. Much to my embarrassment, he said “Thank you for all your support for Artsakh, and when you return, please thank the Diaspora.” My embarrassment stems from the fact that during one day of battle he has probably helped Artsakh more than I have during a lifetime. He, and unnamed individuals like him, should be thanked.
This year, passing Vahan’s fruit stand again, we stopped to say hello and buy some tomatoes and cucumbers to eat during our travels. Vahan remembered us. Once again he had volunteered, this time fighting in the April conflict last year. He had suffered some medical problems and is no longer able to till his fields. He now sells fruit and vegetables grown by another villager. He did not want to charge us for the produce we bought, but that was out of the question; he has a family to support. It was great seeing Vahan again, though of course we were saddened to hear of his health problems. He remains an inspiration. How many more are there like him? I hope and pray for his health and the wellbeing of those like him.
The next stop was Mokhratagh, a sizable village near Martakert—a highly militarized city in Artsakh. In Mokhratagh’s village center are memorials to the village’s WWII and Artsakh martyrs. The WWII memorial was sculptured by Ara Sargsyan, who was born near Constantinople, studied art in Europe, and became a noted sculptor. All the while he was a clandestine Operation Nemesis operative helping track down the Turkish criminals responsible for the Armenian Genocide. He subsequently moved to Soviet Armenia, keeping his Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and Nemesis activities secret from the KGB. In Armenia, he made enormous contributions to Armenia’s artistic development. He sculpted a number of war memorials, the most notable perhaps being the WWII memorial in Janfida village, which suffered extraordinarily high casualties during that war. Sargsyan’s most familiar works are probably the Tumanyan and Spandiaryan statues in front of Yerevan’s Opera House. Sargsyan was hospitalized for a non-life-threatening leg injury. The day before his scheduled release, he died. An autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death. KGB involvement is suspected, as the KGB probably found out about Sargsyan’s ARF and Nemesis activities. The subsequent honors Sargsyan received in Soviet Armenia were now an embarrassment for the KGB. (See https://armenianweekly.com/2017/06/07/unseen-armenia-janfida/)
Our next stops were to be the churches of Yerits Mankants, in Martakert province, west of the Sarsang Reservoir, and Yeghishe Arakyal, west of the village of Mataghis. I doubted whether we could visit both sites in a single day, but we’d try. Heading toward Yerits Mankants, we encountered a soldier at the Sarsang Reservoir. At first he directed us toward Mataghis, confusing the two churches we wanted to visit. Mistakenly, he directed us toward Yeghishe Arakyal. When I pointed out the mistake, the soldier realized the mistake as well. He added that to get to Yerits Mankants, we’d have to hike through six kilometers of forest… There is no road.
Visiting Yeghishe Arakyal would be fine. We headed toward Mataghis, the last stretch of which was down a long, dry, unpaved, and dusty road. Mataghis is heavily armed; it is near Talish, where Azerbaijan made incursions into Armenian-held territory in April last year. Had we continued, the road to Yeghishe Arakyal would have passed right through the military base there and ended well before our destination, which was on a forested hill. So I guess both churches were out of the question. Disappointing!
Exiting Mataghis on the same dry, dusty road, we stopped for a rest. I stepped outside the car to eat one of the tomatoes we bought from Vahan, the fruit vendor. It had been a disappointing day— two of the sites we wished to visit weren’t accessible. From Mataghis, a car with closed windows (it obviously had air conditioning—it was a hot day) came speeding toward me. The car stopped in a cloud of its own dust. There were three or four men in the car. The rear passenger side window opened. An arm extended out the window and handed me a loaf of dense, recently baked bread. The man connected to the arm asked, “Do you want some water?” “We’re fine,” I replied, “we have water.” The car sped off leaving a trail of dust.
Where but in Armenia could this have happened? I guess it wasn’t such a disappointing day after all!