Visiting off the beaten path villages in Tavush, Armenia

Within the framework of the Mets Gyughakarg (Great Rural Order) project, launched by Sevak Arevshatyan and Sofia Hakobyan, a group of us visited the Berkaber, Barekamavan and Baghanis villages in the Tavush province of Armenia in early March 2024.

We set off at the crack of dawn from Yerevan for the day trip. In an endeavor to get off the beaten path and get back to nature, we passed through long winding roads to reach our destination, seeking something out of the ordinary. Notwithstanding the cloudy weather, we were able to unwind and enjoy the picturesque sights due to the inhabitants’ exceptional hospitality and kindness.

Berkaber is a village in the Ijevan municipality of Tavush, situated in close vicinity to the Armenia-Azerbaijan line of contact. Located 17 km away from the city of Ijevan and 700 m above sea level, it lies on the southern bank of the Berkaber reservoir and in the valley of the Voskepar river. The latter is the left side tributary of the Aghstev river.

Berkaber village has been populated since 4000-3000 BC. The village boasts a mausoleum field (4000-2000 BC), a rural settlement (3-19 AD), a cemetery (13-19 AD), khachkars (9-12 AD) and a memorial erected in memory of the victims of World War II.

Received with effusive welcome at Berkaber, we strolled through the hub of the village. We spotted the newly built St. Gevorg Church and museum, founded by Norayr Arzumanyan. One of the inhabitants invited us to their house and laid a lavish table, full of the harvest from their garden and traditional thyme tea, a healthy herb picked from the Armenian mountains.

The soil of Berkaber is fertile with different kinds of fruits, namely pomegranate, peach, apple, persimmon and mulberry. The fruits of Berkaber have a unique taste, as sweet as honey. Berkaber’s pomegranates taste like those of Artsakh. Berkaber has great potential for producing wine and honey as well.

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Barekamavan is a village in the Noyemberyan municipality of the Tavush province, lying on the northern slopes of the Voskepar mountain chain. Formerly known as Dostlu, the village was renamed Barekamavan on January 25, 1978. Situated 1.5-2 km away from the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the village boasts numerous historical and cultural monuments. Surrounding Barekamavan are ancient rural settlements, a mausoleum field dating back to 1000 BC and a cemetery.

To the west of Barekamavan, on top of a forested mountain, is Bartsryal Khach (the Most High Cross). It is a polyhedral mausoleum dating back to pre-Christian times. In the Middle Ages, a cross was added to its window, a khachkar was erected, and the mausoleum was turned into a chapel. Bartsryal Khach possesses a unique medieval Armenian architectural form. It is cylindrical on the inside and 14-hedral on the outside resembling a tower. The cornice consists of high reliefs of animals, including the bull, ram, dog, deer and wild boar.

At Barekamavan village, we were received with great warmth and hospitality. In preparation for our arrival, the men of the village had made delicious barbecue, the taste of which we will long remember.

Changing cars, we drove to see Bartsryal Khach, situated sky-high on top of a mountain. The breathtaking view was awe-inspiring and skin-crawling. We stood by age-long ancestral Armenian heritage whose walls had witnessed generations pass over the course of centuries.

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Yet the most exciting moment of the memorable day was to follow. On our way to Bartsryal Khach, a schoolchild from the village joined us whose family had moved from Artsakh to Barekamavan. When we reached our destination, standing on top of the mountain, he said to me: “We are so far from the village. Do you see our village? Do you see the church in the village? The village church guards Bartsryal Khach, Bartsryal Khach guards our soldiers, and the soldiers guard us.”

The schoolchild’s words were music to my ears and the sacrament of the day. The philosophy of the words he uttered reflected the truth. For the first time in my life, I comprehended what it means to live on the border and to be a border guard. Although he lost his home in Artsakh in the wake of being forcefully displaced in September 2023, the child has not lost his faith and believes in God. Missing his home and his bicycles left behind in Artsakh, the child still believes in the prosperity of his homeland and dreams of peaceful years to come.

Descending the mountain, we returned to Barekamavan. In the center of the village we ran into a beautiful girl, possessive of typically Armenian facial features. She escorted us to St. Gevorg Church and showed us the ancient stone sculpture. She also informed us of another church in the village, St. Gayane, which we did not have time to visit. Baghanis village still awaited us.

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Before leaving, we paid tribute to the monument erected in honor of Armenian heroes from Barekamavan who fell as martyrs during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). Amongst many prominent heroes on the list is Levon G. Gharakeshishyan, the grandfather of the girl who escorted us to St. Gevorg Church.

Upon leaving Barekamavan, we ran into the child from Artsakh, who was carrying buckets in a hurry to fetch water for his family. His childish eyes were full of the joys of spring. We smiled at him, and he smiled back. We pledged to return and recharge our batteries in the Barekamavan village heights, in the scenic wonders of the Tavush province.

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Our next stop was Baghanis. At first sight, it seemed thickly settled with linear, neatly piled houses. Like Barekamavan, Baghanis is a village in the Noyemberyan Municipality of Tavush. Formerly known as Baghanis Hay, the ancient village boasts numerous historical monuments. To the southwest of the village, on the left side of the road leading to Voskepar, on a round hill is Baghanis fortress, an ancient settlement (2000-1000 BC), a church (12-13 AD) and St. Astvatsatsin Church (10 AD). In the center of the village, there is a memorial dedicated to the victims of World War II.

St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) is a medieval church surrounded by a mausoleum field, made of red tufa stone. Each tombstone portrays a vivid picture, mostly knights on horseback, suggesting the person who is buried underneath. It seemed like the stones could speak, and they had so many tales to tell.

Upon leaving the three villages, I recalled the short story entitled “The Alpine Violet” by Armenian writer Aksel Bakunts. It is about an arduous life, racked with suffering and beaten beauty. The story opens with a description of the picturesque sights of Armenia. The author conjures vivid images of the Armenian landscape with semi-ruined fortresses and castles, the Busata river swishing in the canyon, the stony eagles, village life and rural scenery. Many generations lived in patched tents and gave an ear to the sound of the river. When the alpine flowers grew on top of Kakavaberd fortress, they took the herd towards the fortress, and in the winter they ate bread and goat cheese.

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Two city dwellers, an archaeologist and a painter, visited the off-the-beaten-path village. They had profoundly different views on reality. The archaeologist was obsessed with the past. His thoughts were on the history of the ancient fortresses and parchment manuscripts. The archaeologist was so absorbed with things reminiscent of the remote past that he failed to notice the playing children, the flowers and the bush. In contrast, the painter grasped the beauty of nature. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to one village woman, whose divine eyes were reminiscent of memories of a woman he had loved. The painter decided to portray the woman, sitting near the hearth and staring at a fire.

“The Alpine Violet” presents the juxtapositions between beauty and reality. The painter’s character symbolizes the artist who grasps beauty on the surface, without delving deeper into complex phenomena. He portrayed the woman’s beautiful facial features, without noticing her worries. The painter left Kakavaberd with faded recollections of the past and faded love. Meanwhile, when the village woman’s husband returned home, his blood boiled at the news that a stranger had entered his tent during his absence and painted his wife. Out of jealousy, he attacked his wife like a wild bear and expressed his rage through the blows of a cudgel. His wife left the tent to silently weep bitter tears.

In the remote village, people live hard lives, full of worries and troubles, of which the visitors are ignorant. They spot only the tip of the iceberg, the beautiful and the pleasant. The alpine violet is a metaphor in the story, which embodies an interplay of contradictions: the unearthly beauty of homeland landscapes, the relationship between people and nature, and Armenian villagers’ pain and tragedy. The metaphor expresses that despite the beautiful land, Armenian village populations do not have a minute to call their own and enjoy that beauty as they are engrossed in the everyday chores of hard rural life.

A mausoleum field near St. Astvatsatsin Church, Baghanis village

Turning back to the three villages of Tavush, seeing the population’s love for the soil and land, despite the hazards and hardships they bear living on the border, I recalled Khrimyan Hayrik, Mkrtich A Vanetsi, the Catholicos of All Armenians (1982-1907). Khrimyan Hayrik was born in Van and educated in Lim and Ktuts monasteries. He is the author of many works, including the books Grandfather and Grandson, The Family of Heaven, Sirak and Samvel, the periodical The Eagle of Vaspurakan and other works. In his writings, Khrimyan Hayrik highlighted the love of soil and motherland. Here are some of his words addressed to the rural population:

“My heritage to you is not gold, but it is more precious and more profitable. What is gold if it never remains still anywhere? It spreads like mercury, goes and vanishes, off and on the agile thieves uncover it and steal the piled enormous treasure. I leave you our homeland heritage, the fields and the soil which are solidly and firmly permanently settled…You are much richer than the city dwellers in your soil, your fields, your mountains, your water, your green meadows, your draught-horses, your milch cows, sheep and the other animals. As a villager and an experienced grandfather, I admonish to never leave the village. Don’t leave the soil for the sake of the city.”

“Your tonir’s dust is much better than a stranger’s sugar,” Khrimyan Hayrik wrote, citing a woman’s words from Mush addressed to her husband.

The people of Berkaber, Barekamavan and Baghanis are the border guards of our homeland and the protectors of our peace. They are people of dignity, courage and wisdom, superior to any material interest. They preserve the homeland soil and ancient Armenian cultural heritage. In these remote border villages, the fruits have a unique taste, the sun’s rays smile, and the air smells of fresh spring flowers. We left the three border villages with the hopes of returning with the full diary of a real culture, to have the time of our lives and enjoy the company of kind-hearted people. These villages should be visited nine times out of ten, not once in a blue moon. 

Gayane Barseghyan

Gayane Barseghyan

Gayane Barseghyan is a lecturer at Brusov State University in Yerevan, Armenia. The scope of her research comprises studies in Linguistics and Romano-Germanic Philology.
Gayane Barseghyan

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