Nature’s Fortress: The Dark Beauty of the
Forests of Shikahogh
The road leading to the village of Tsav, the Shikahogh reserve, the Plane-tree grove, and Mtnadzor passes through the forest of Krnas 40 kilometers to the south of Kapan.
Eighty years ago, Axel Bakunts wrote a story that he entitled “Mtnadzor”, which begins: “The only path leading to Mtnadzor is closed after the first snowfall and no one can pass through the forests until spring. However, even today there are dense forests in Mtnadzor where the foot of man has never trod.Trees fall and rot, a new tree grows instead of the fallen one, bears dance whistling like shepherds, wolves howl with their muzzles turned to the moon, wild boars dig black soil with their tusks picking up last autumn’s rotten acorns.”
Little has changed since then, only the fauna has become scarcer. Villagers tell that during the years of the Karabakh war freedom-fighters would hunt with submachine-guns and open fire on wild boars, killing several at a time. Now the Shikahogh reserve, which also includes the Mtnadzor forest, is under stricter control and its director Ruben Mkrtchyan says that seven poachers were caught in recent months.
The Red Book of protected species in the reserve includes Caucasian gray bears, wolves, foxes, porcupines, wild boars, deer, forest cats, and 27 species of birds. Nevertheless, the decoration of Shikahogh is considered to be the Middle Eastern leopard. Photographs and other studies show that there are a couple of leopards which have given birth to two cubs.
Many people know the “Mtnadzor” story from school textbooks and remember how a bear skinned hunter Avi’s skull: “He felt a heavy blow on his back, a fleecy paw had clawed a hold of the skin on the back of his head.” In the next passage Bakunts writes: “Avi is still alive. One can see him with horror when hiding from the passers-by in a corner, he makes moccasins for one or another. Avi wears a chukha (robe), moccasins, has an ordinary body and healthy hands, which very skillfully pierce hide, make knots from leather threads. And on an ordinary body instead of a head here is a human skull, totally skinned, without hair, without skin.”
Avi was Shikahogh villager Gabriel Dayi (Uncle Gabriel), who died in 1944. Even now, the villagers remember him: “He lived with a sack on his head and made moccasins,” says Mkrtchyan, who lives in Shikahogh. “He was a very strong person. An ox had fallen into a tonir, several people could not get it out, but Gabriel came and dragged it out by the horns.”
The forest got the name of Mtnadzor because it practically sees no daylight. Bakunts writes: “The hills of Mtnadzor are high – it is because of them that during long summer days the sun gives light to the Mtnadzor forest only for several hours. And when the sun still turns to the west in the remote plain, the shadows in Mtnadzor become dense, it is pitch dark under the foliage, bears go hunting, wild boars come down to drink water, a wolf howls shrilly in front of its lair, the howl echoes across Mtnadzor in thousands of voices.”
Mtnadzor, which is located on a 40-degree hillside, is also today a dense forest, undevoured by the energy crisis of the early 1990s in Armenia. “Mtnadzor differs from other forests by the fact that man visits it very rarely, there are impassable places,” says forest-guard Andranik Abelyan from the village of Tsav.
The government had approved a plan to build a 17-kilometer-long and 30-meter-wide highway over Mtnadzor towards Meghri. The project required the felling of 145,000 trees and could cause the disappearance of several species of birds nesting in Mtnadzor. People in Kapan were sure that the goal of building the road was to get the timber, especially oak, which is one of the most expensive types of wood. If they cut the forest, the oak would mostly go for export, while some would be taken by local wineries to make brandy barrels.
The reserve’s director Mkrtchyan opposed the project, saying: “I will do everything to scuttle plans for the road construction.” He says that recentlu he had shown a number of ministers Mtnadzor from a helicopter to try to convince them that the project will be too destructive.
Thanks to the campaign launched by environment-protection groups and Syunik authorities against the government plan, the rout of the road was changed.
Numerous monuments of nature and history are hidden in Shikahogh. Mkrtchyan guides tourists to them with great enthusiasm.
Plane-tree grove, which is protected, begins from Mtnadzor. It is unique in the South Caucasus, since very few plane-trees have been preserved in their natural condition. The trees of the 60-hectare grove stretching along the ravine are 800-1,000 years old, and are matched by similar trees on territory seized from Azerbaijan.
It is not known how the grove emerged, though the scientific explanation is that it is the residual remains of a much larger plane-tree forest. The popular version of its history relates that caravans from Persia took a rest on the bank of the river and people planted sticks here, from which the forest grew (a plane-tree takes root very easily and a tree may grow after a branch is planted into soil). A plane-tree has a light-colored trunk and in these territories leaders of mule caravans planted plane-trees near mountainous and forest springs so that they could see water sources from a distance. Probably this formed the basis of the popular version of the origin of the grove.
In pagan times, the plane-tree was a sacred tree. The rustle and movement of plane-tree foliage was used in fortune-telling. The trees near the Opera House in Yerevan and along the streets and in orchards of Kapan were planted with saplings from the Plane-tree grove.
Derenik Hovhannisyan from the village of Hand has established plane-tree arboretums. Saplings are sold at a higher price than fruit-bearing seedlings – 1,200 drams (more than $2.50) each – and in five years Derenik has sold 2,500. Plane-tree is one of the most suitable trees for planting green areas because it has a large green mass, long life and does not break.
Today, Plane-tree grove is facing the threat of disappearance, as the natural reproduction of the forest has slowed down. Derenik says that 10-12 trees collapse every year. There were 2,500 trees in the grove in the 1960s, now only some 1,800 remain.
“If it continues like this, in 30 years’ time the grove will disappear,” says Derenik. “I am trying to find partners to enlarge the grove by 20 hectares, and we will plant new trees in place of the fallen ones.”
The river Tsav (Basuta) passes through the grove and Bakunts wrote it in his “Cyclamen” story, saying: “The river Basuta makes noise only in the ravine, scrapes the banks and polishes the blue quartz of the riverbed. The river Basuta rolls in its narrow riverbed, it seems that thousands of hounds are howling under its white foam gnawing stone chains.”
The village of Shikahogh, first recorded in the 13th Century, is surrounded with numerous medieval monuments and cemeteries.
East of Kapan’s Halidzor district, there is the Halidzor monastery and fortress on a steep hill. Although visible from Kapan, a closer look at the structures reveals that the forest has already started to conquer them.
Taxi reaches by an earth road the foot of Halidzor, from where there is a path of about 100 feet to the buildings. The monastery was built in the 17th Century and in the 18th Century it became the main stronghold of David Bek’s liberation struggle. In 1725, the battle of Halidzor took place here during which Armenians were besieged in the fortress for seven days, before breaking out and routing the Turkish army.
The building has numerous secrets, such as underground passes to the water spring. Halidzor’s closest resident, Serzhik Alexanyan, has been linked with it since the day of his birth.
“A hundred meters up from the spring there is a tunnel , now it is covered,” says Alexanyan. “We were little kids, picking up khazaz (a garlic-like plant), and we saw the pit, walked a few meters, then were frightened and ran away. It was in the ‘60s, once we were coming down on donkeys and a donkey’s foot stuck and we saw an underground path. It seems to me that the path was used for coming from the fortress and taking water. It runs for 500 meters, but now it is ruined in places.”
He says that when he was kept guard on the territory, he cleaned up the surroundings and put a door on the monastery so that cattle would not go inside. There is no door now and cows find shelter inside the monastery.
Several kilometers to the west from Halidzor is Baghaberd. The ruins of Baghaberd’s walls come to the edge of the road in places and in others reach the top of the mountain. At some points, the walls yield to natural barriers of rock. Built in the 4th Century, it is one of the oldest buildings of the territory and one of the largest defensive constructions in Armenia. The walls stand 6-8 meters in height.
Behind these walls, Syunik’s prince Andovk Syuni defeated the army of the Persian King Shapuh. In 1170, the Seljuks conquered the fortress, massacred the residents and burned 10,000 manuscripts. The destruction of Baghaberd put an end to the Syunik Kingdom.
Between Baghaberd and Halidzor there is Vahanavank monastery, in a forest under a vertical mountain. It was built in 911 by the son of the Syunik prince Vahan. The main church of the monastery now lies in ruins. During Soviet years there were plans to rebuild the church, but the effort was left half finished. The two-storied crypt-church built by the Syunik Queen Shahandukht remains standing. There is a similar building in another place in Syunik – Tatev.
In the center of all these monuments and ravines is Kapan, which stretches along the gorge of the river Voghjy and lets through itself rivulets descending from the mountains. Tourists can find four hotels (with rooms from $5 to $70) and several restaurants. Last year, a tourism development center opened at the town’s municipality with USAID funding. The head of the center Armen Movsisyan can organize tent trips around Kapan.
For further information about Kapan contact the Tourism and Business Centre of the Municipality of Kapan at (+374 91) 33 22 83, (+374 285) 226 66, email@example.com