The base of operations for the MASC project is the Kasakh River Valley, located in the northwestern highlands of the Republic of Armenia. Situated in the center of the Caucasus region, the contemporary Republic of Armenia shares borders with Turkey, Iran, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
Map: The contemporary Caucasus. (Source: Wiki Commons)
The geography of Armenia is highly varied, ranging from the arid (though fertile) valley of the Arax river, to the broad and sunny Shirak plain, to the deeply forested mountains of northeastern Tavush. The Kasakh valley is part of Aragatsotn Province (called Marz in Armenian). Aragatsotn Marz is named for its primary landmark, the broad and looming volcanic peak of Mt. Aragats, the highest mountain in the country.
Mt. Aragats, viewed from the Pambak foothills to the north
The capital of Aragatsotn is Ashtarak, which is an ancient city straddling the Kasakh River where it emerges from the mountains into the broad plain between Aragats and Ararat mountains. A late medieval bridge in Ashtarak marks the point where medieval highways left the valley and took to the highlands. From Ashtarak these medieval roads passed up through the broad saddle between Aragats and Mt. Arailer, before emerging into the highland air of the valley of the Kasakh. The elevation of the Kasakh valley cimbs 800 meters between Ashtarak and the equally-ancient town of Aparan, which is located at the top of the valley. For this reason, the climate is quite different from one end to the other—the locals will relate that farmers in the south end of the valley enjoy two weeks more of summer than those in the north! The southern Kasakh, around the villages of Ushi, Hovhannevank and Saghmosavank (named for their medieval monasteries) are crammed with fruit orchards, which in summer produce cherries, pears, apricots, and apples of impossible sweetness.
Cherries from Hovhannavank
Moving into the northern part of the Kasakh valley, the fields are full of grain, and of winter fodder for the herds of sheep and cattle which spend their summers on the flanks of Aragats and the easterly Tsaghkunyats range. Herds maintained by the valley villages share space with the animals kept by semi-nomadic Yezidi kurds, who camp on the mountain slopes all summer as well, returning to their villages when the meters of snow fall in the winter.
Yezidi horses pastured in summer on the Tshaghkunyats, with the Kasakh Valley to the southwest
Throughout the medieval period, the Kasakh valley was part of an Armenian administrative region called Nig-Aparan. During much of the early medieval period (second half of the first millennium AD) this region was ruled by a family of highland princes called the Bagratids. These princes, of the House of Bagratuni, were quite important players in Armenian medieval history: they were favored vassals to both Byzantium and Persia, and kings of Armenia in their own right starting with Ashot I Bagratuni, who was recognized as king by both Caliph al-Mu’tamid and emperor Basil I in AD 885. Many of the strong fortresses and castles in Aragatsotn date to this period of Bagratid power in the region.
The Bagratid-era fortress at Anberd
During the 11th century, Nig Aparan and surrounding Armenia were conquered and administered under the Great Seljuk Empire, centered in Iran. Though Armenian historical sources describe this as a dark time of destruction and vagabondage in the highlands, there are also suggestions that many local farmers continued to work lands granted to them by their Muslim rulers.In the late 12th c AD, Nig-Aparan was reconquered by the generals Ivane and Zakare Zakaryan, who were vassals of Queen Tamar of Georgia, herself a member of a northern branch of the Bagratids. The Zakaryans appointed their own vassal lords to rule the provinces they had conquered from the Seljuqs, choosing men who had fought with them in battle as well as merchants from the highland cities who could afford to buy castles, lands, and titles. One of these was Vache Vachutyan, whose family ruled the Kasakh valley under the Zakarids and then, after AD 1236, under the Mongol Ilkhanids.
The late medieval period is very visible archaeologically, because the Zakaryans and the Vachutyans were avid builders, reconstructing and expanding monasteries from previous centuries and building new churches. These churches are dedicated to the memory of their builders: for instance, at Harich Vank in eastern Shirak you can see the Zakaryan brothers carved into the wall of the church they built.
Images: The Zakaryan brothers on the wall at Harich Vank, the Vachutyan-restored monastery at Hovhannavank, overlooking the Kasakh River
At Hovhannevank, Tegher, and Astvatsnkal inscriptions ask the congregation to remember Vache Vachutyan, his wife Mamakhatun, and their son Kurd and daughter-in-law Xorishah.
The focus of the early work of the MASC project is the daily lives of the people who lived in the Kasakh valley during the time of the Vachutyans: the people who worked to build their churches (and then prayed in the gavits of those buildings) and who made the pots and bowls that were used to serve travelers at the road-inn or caravanserai the Vachutyans built on the medieval highway passing through the valley. We are interested in what crops they grew and what herds they raised and tended, as well as what their houses—hearths, courtyards, sleeping places—looked like. Finding out more about these things will allow us to imagine more about life during a historically dynamic time in a fascinating landscape.
Arailer mountain from a wheat field in the Kasakh valley (photo by R. Hovsepyan)
*All photos by the Author unless stated otherwise*