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and we were shown our path climbing the side of the cliff and
entering the jaws of the gorge.

We had crossed or skirted the volcanic circus, with the lake in
the extinct crater, of which Dubois has furnished us with a learned
account.^ Before us lay the defile through the gigantic dam of
volcanic mountain which has opened, as if by miracle, to the
puny stream.

Soon we are winding along that path, about at mid-height of
the cliffs, the river brawling far beneath us, a tortuous thread of
foam. It is a remarkable scene, a freak of Nature on a large
scale, of which none of us, at least, has seen the like. The volcanic
layers have been split by vertical fissures, and huge masses of
conglomerate rock tower high above us, almost separated from
the mountain side. Their masonry of cemented blocks gives
them the appearance of castles, the work of a more than human
hand ; they threaten to tumble headlong into the valley, a fate to
which some have already succumbed. They remind me of the
Devil's city of Montpellier-le-Vieux, in the Cevennes country — a
mere sprite's village by their side. The dark colour of the rocks,
the gloom of the passage, the height of the cliffs, soaring from the
twilight in the hollow to jagged summits some 500 to 600 feet

^ Dubois, op. cit. vol. ii. pp. 308 scq. ; Biosset, Voy. air/i. 2me rapport, p. 165, who
gives an account of the adjacent church of Tsunda ; and Abich, op. cit. part iii. p. 34. I
would refer my reader to the last of these writers for an account of the geology of the
gorge of Zeda Tmogvi (part iii. pp. 35, 36).



8o Armenia

above the gulf, all contribute to enhance the impression of
mystery and to suggest the presence of a prince of fiends.

Opposite us, on the left bank, the bold outline of the fish-
backed ridge is crowned with the ruinous remains of masonry,
barely distinguished from the rock. A long line of crumbling
edifices m.arks the site of a considerable fortress ; in the depths
beneath, at the foot of the perpendicular mountain, a wall descends
the last slope to the margin of the water and cuts off access to the
valley from the river-bed. A few miserable huts are seen in
the hollow : who could inhabit such a weird and lonely spot ?
Kurds, they say, as though they were no human beings — a
lingering remnant of Turkish times. The ruins are the relics
of Zeda Tmogvi, a stronghold famous in the history of these
lands. ^

Beyond this gorge the valley opens and resumes the more
normal character of a torrent bordered by lofty hillsides. The
further you proceed, the floor of the hollow is covered by richer
verdure, while a grove of fruit trees spreads shade. Are they wild
or were they planted ? The extreme loneliness of the scene was
scarcely broken by a sign of human life. We forded the Kur,
and, after winding through these orchards of the river margin,
doubled a projecting spur of the valley wall. We were at the
foot of a perpendicular cliff which displayed irregular rows of
gaping caves at a considerable height above the river-bed. These
grottoes have been cut in the face of a layer of volcanic rock of
extraordinary smoothness and of flesh-coloured hue. The layer
does not extend to the summit of the cliff, which is composed of
a conglomerate with greyish tints (Fig. 18).

It was Vardzia, a troglodyte city of a remote antiquity,
which the Georgians and Armenians believe to have been founded
in the twelfth century by the father of Queen Thamar, and to
have been completed by that princess. They say it was a
favourite residence of Thamar ; you are shown the cave in which
she resided during winter, the terrace where she spent the summer
days, the chapel where her brilliant court assembled, even, it is
affirmed, the tomb where her remains were placed. This last
object had evidently escaped the knowledge of the resident priest,
although Dubois has sought to establish its identity with a
curious structure which he found in the little sacristy on the

' IJrosset is not quite sure about it {Voy. arch. 2me rapport, p. 165). The
governor of Akhalkainki had no doubt about the correctness of the identification.




Fig. 13. Vardzia. the Troglodyte City.



To Akhalkalaki 8i

inner side of the church.^ Vardzia is, in fact, the city of Thamar,
just as every castle in Georgia is the castle of Thamar and ever)^
antiquity a relic of the great queen.

We picked our way among the boulders up the steep side of
the cliff until it became a perpendicular wall. There commence
the irregular horizontal rows of caves, stretching eastwards, where
the escarpments are most abrupt. A narrow path ends at a
polygonal structure of which the roof has fallen off This edifice
is either modern or has been extensively restored ; it forms a
gateway and seals the approach to the caves. The gate passed,
you stand on a level footway, partly hollowed in the rock and
partly supported by rude masonry, which takes advantage of the
inequalities of the cliff-side. In the steepest places this footway
is tunnelled through the rock, and it can, of course, be barricaded
at any point. Thus it would appear that Vardzia is inaccessible
to siege, at least by any of the usual means. But one remembers
that Timur employed an ingenious contrivance to reduce the
Georgians, when they fled to their caves. From the heights above
he suspended wooden stages, from which his warriors leapt into
the crowded grottoes or scattered fire among the panic-stricken
foe. Vardzia itself is said to have been taken by this conqueror,
by what methods I do not know.

We were met by an old archimandrite and his deacon, the
only inhabitants of this long-deserted place (Fig. 19). They are
supported by the occasional contributions of pilgrims, who visit
the church in great numbers at certain times. Both were sunk
to an equal degree in abysmal ignorance, and the deacon was so
shy in manner and movement, he seemed a half-tamed creature
of the rocks. I asked them the meaning of the name Vardzia,
which, according to Dubois, signifies, both in Georgian and
Armenian, the fortress of the roses. They derived it from zia,
which means uncle, and vcird, I am here. They stoutly maintained
this extraordinary derivation, in face of the doubt which we dis-
played.

We passed along the footway for some distance, with grottoes
above us and beneath. Then we came to an imposing vaulted

1 Dubois, op. cit. vol. ii. p. 319 ; and see also Brosset, Atlas (plate xii.) to the I'oyage
arcki'ologiijue and text, pp. 163 setj. I shall not attempt to reconcile the text of
Brosset with his plan of the church, his plan with that of Dubois, or the measurements
of either with my own. JNIy own measurements at Vardzia and throughout the journey
were made by myself with a long tape-measure which I always carried with me. The
height of the church is given by Dubois as 40 feet.

VOL. I G



82 Armenia

balcony, of which the inner side and roof are hollowed in the
rock, and the other parts are built up with masonry. The foot-
way forms the floor of this balcony, which looks important when
seen from below. The vaulted ceiling is adorned with old frescos,
which are in a state of advanced decay. A doorway opens from




Fig. 19. Archimandrite and Deacon at Vardzia.

the inner wall to a spacious cave — an oblong area with an arched
roof, disposed in the familiar shape of a simple nave and apse.
This church has a length of 46 feet 3 inches and a breadth of
27 feet. For decoration it depends upon richly-coloured frescos,
some of which may still be seen. In the apse are depicted Mary
and the infant Christ ; on the Virgin's right is placed a female
aurcoled figure, clad in white and with embroidered bands. On
a pilaster, left of the apse, you discern the features of a woman



To Akhalkalaki . 8



o



whose dark complexion impresses the eye. It seems an Egyptian
type ; she has been honoured with an aureole ; the old priest
declared the portrait to be Queen Thamar's, but he was almost
certainly in error. In the panel of the arch, which lies beyond,
a king and queen are represented, aureoled, their hands extended
towards a stage upon which are seated the Virgin and Child.
An angel is flying towards the Virgin, bearing an object the
nature of which we were unable to ascertain. A passage leads
from the church to an adjoining chamber, in which the articles of
value are preserved. Dubois informs us that above this church,
and as it were a second storey, a second temple has been hewn
of equal size. A subterranean passage connects it with the
sacristy ; and this same passage tunnels the cliff and debouches
at the caves where the wine of the city was made and stored, and
which are situated in an adjoining gorge. Dubois, who discovered
this passage, found it blocked with debris and in disuse ; its
existence was not mentioned to ourselves.

Beyond the church we were taken to the apartments of Queen
Thamar, which are situated further to the east. On our way we
were shown a cave which must have served as a bath-chamber ;
an oblong well has been sunk into the floor. In the recess
behind, a broad drain is visible, said to be the receptacle of the
water -vessels. We also noticed a grotto which displayed a
number of hewn pigeon-holes, and which had probably served the
requirements of a chemist's shop.

The queen's grotto is a spacious vaulted chamber, 32 feet
4 inches in length, 20 feet i inch in breadth, and some 14
feet in height. A doorway gives access to this interior, and there
is a small aperture or window on either side. On the opposite
wall, and towards its right corner, you see a communicating
apartment of much smaller dimensions ; and to the left of this
recess has been hewn an arched niche with a depth of over 4
feet. Several smaller niches adorn the chamber, of which a
feature is a low divan, cut at the foot of each wall, a continuous
ledge only i 3 inches broad. On the right of the entrance, in the
wall which runs at right angles, is situated another small apart-
ment, lit by an aperture on its outer side. It may be that these
smaller chambers served as sleeping-places ; the ingenious Dubois
boldly assumes that the first was a wardrobe and the second a
kind of boudoir. In the floor are several hollov/ spaces, as usual
in these caves. Above the crrotto is situated the so-called summer



84 Armenia

apartmeiit — an open cave issuing upon a terrace from which a
fine view is obtained.

But what impressed us more than the caves and their associa-
tions was the sohtude of the place, the sense of extreme remote-
ness — some pulseless corner, as it seemed, of the living world. A
torrent winding between grave cliffs, covered with a scanty growth
of parched herbage ; no runnel diffusing life, and by our side the
precious water collected in a cistern with a f^oor of cement.
Where are the vineyards which must once have clothed the lower
slopes, protected by the walls of the volcanic valley against the
rigorous climate of a region over 4000 feet above the sea?
Nature had blighted the scene with layers of lava and cinders ;
man reclaimed the spot with laborious patience, until the work
perished under the curse of his fellow- man. But what enemy
would penetrate to this hidden valley, concealed behind the most
inaccessible zone of the border mountains, defended by the Devil's
gorge ? Perhaps the appearance of the opposite cliff affords a
clue to this mystery. It is higher than the summit which towers
immediately above you ; the outline is horizontal and the edge
flat. It is in fact an exposed rim of the great tableland, broken
here by the caiion of the Kur. A series of plains extend hence
to the furthest skirts of Persia, vague divisions of a single elevated
stage.^

The afternoon was far advanced as we retraced our steps to
our encampment, and night already rested in the gorge. We
were disappointed of a photograph of its solemn horrors, and
made our way in silence beneath the twilight, following the
murmuring stream. On the following day we proceeded to
Akhalkalaki up the valley of the Toporovan. The posting station
of Abazbek, 14 versts from Aspinja, is situated some distance
up the valley, and the stage between it and Akhalkalaki is
one of 18 versts or 1 2 miles. It was between these points
that we travelled for the first time in a briclika, or spring-
less posting cart. The drive occupied about three hours, and the
road, which was well constructed, mounted continuously, following

1 In taking leave of Vanlzia may I refer the reader to the excellent description of
Dubois. He mentions the existence of a third and smaller church, which he says is
adorned with ancient frescos, with inscriptions which are all in the Greek language.
The frescos are in the Byzantine style, and cannot be much later than the middle of the
eleventh century. Brosset, who also saw this chapel, maintains, on the other hand,
that all the inscriptions are in the Georgian ecclesiastical character ; he adds that there
is a Greek inscription disposed about the emblems of a Calvary in an adjoining niche
{,Voy. arch. 2me rapport, p. 106).



To Akhalkalaki 85

and fronting the swirling current of the Toporovan. The gardens
of Khertvis extend for some distance beyond the castle, and a
portion of the township lies upon this side. Then the margin of
the river contracts to the verge of disappearance, and stony cliffs,
with an elevation of about 200 feet, border the water on either
bank. It is in fact a deep crack in the surface of the plateau,
upon which the town of Akhalkalaki stands. Not a village did
we pass, or any oasis among the rocks ; it was indeed a bleak
scene. But the sky, flaked in places with wandering white clouds,
was intensely clear and blue, and the foaming river refreshed the
scene. After passing the low edifice of the castle of Akhalkalaki,
which lines the edge of the cliff on the left bank, we crossed to
that bank by a wooden bridge and wound slowly up the hillside.
It was evident that we had arrived almost at the head of the
formation, the point where the watercourse descends from the
surface of the plateau and eats deeph" into the volcanic soil. It
was almost night when we reached the level summit of the cliff
and breathed the crisper air. A place was found for our tents in
an open space of the little town, which is situated at an elevation
of 5545 feet above the sea.



CHAPTER V

AT AKHALKALAKI

At Akhalkalaki we had reached a country which is peopled in
large preponderance by the Armenian race. The town is the
centre of an administrative division {ouezde), which is dependent
upon the Government of Tiflis. This division is partitioned into
two administrative districts, of which the most northerly takes its
name from the village of Baralet, on the way to Lake Tabizkhuro ;
while the more southerly is called the district of Bogdanovka, a
Russian settlement on the road to Alexandropol. The population
of the division amounts to a total, according to the published
statistics, of 59,500 souls ; or, according to the figures which
were kindly communicated to me by the Governor, of 66,000
souls. The numbers of the Armenians are given in the first of
these lists as over 42,000, a proportion of seven-tenths of
the whole ; while in the Governor's list, which, I presume, is
the most recent, they are censused at 58,000, a proportion of
seven-eighths. I am inclined to place more reliance on the total
furnished by the Governor than upon his subdivision according
to race; and I shall conclude that the Georgians contribute a
sixth of the inhabitants and the Russian settlers something less
than a tenth. These figures do not comprise the town of
Akhalkalaki, which, out of a total population of something over
4000, contains 4000 Armenian inhabitants.^

Be they immigrants or aboriginal, the character of their
surroundings is in harmony with the instincts of their race. A
vast and elevated plain upon which the snow lies in winter and
a southern sun shines. A fertile volcanic soil, abounding in

' The published total of 59,496 is made up as follows: — Armenians, 42,301 ;
Georgians, 9771 ; Russians, 6617 ; Kurds, 689 ; others, 1 18 (official statistics based on the
lists of 1886, Titlis 1893). It is noticeable that the Governor's list places the Russians
at 6300, a diminution since 1S86.



At Akhalkalaki ^7

springs and favourable to cereals of every kind. Measured from
north-east to south-west, the plain of Akhalkalaki has a length of
nearly forty miles ; ^ its latitudinal extension may be gauged by
the course of the Kur on the west, and, on the east, by that of
the stream which issues from Lake Madatapa and skirts the
outworks of the eastern meridional range. The plain is situated
at an altitude which ranges between 5500 and 7000 feet. The
soil, when exposed by the plough, is black in colour, or, perhaps,
dark chocolate, and reveals the influence of the lavas below. The
extreme evenness of the surface is due to the fluid nature of
these lavas, which streamed, at a comparatively recent period,
from fissures at the southern base of the Trialethian Mountains
and from vents at other points of the mountain girdle which
encircles the flat expanse. On the floor of the plain itself the
effects of volcanic action are visible in the forms of hummock
and rounded hill. Volcanic emissions have produced the lap-
like enclosures which are the reservoirs of the lonely lakes. Their
waters are fed by springs from beneath the surface, and by
copious rains from the clouds of the Pontic region, which fly the
topmost bulwarks of the tableland and distil on the western
slopes of the meridional volcanic barrier, the limit on the east of
the even ground. From Agrikar to Karakach is the section of
this barrier along which this process of condensation is most
pronounced ; the mountains are known by the natives under the
collective name of Mokrl Gori, the wet mountains. The principal
stream, besides the Kur, is that which issues from Lake
Toporovan, and, descending south, flows through Lake Tuman.
After emerging on the southern shore, it receives an affluent
from Lake Madatapa, and pursues a northerly course. Where
we arrived upon its margin, half an hour south of Akhalkalaki,
it was a nice flash of water, flowing slowl)' over the surface of
the plateau. Below the town it is joined on the left bank by a
stream which has descended from the northern slopes of the
Chaldir Hills ; and further west, on the right bank, by the river of
Samsar, which brings the drainage of the north-easterly arm of
the plain and flows in a deeply eroded bed."

1 The plain has a gulf-Hke extension or arm on ihe side of Lake Tabizkhuro.
Coming from the lake, Radde estimated that the plain proper commences at the
village of Kestano, which I take to be the Bejano of the Russian map, and that this
village lay some looo feet lower than the level of the lake. The plain would therefore
have an altitude of 5650 feet at its north-eastern extremity. From Bejano to the
south-western shore of Lake Khozapin is a direct distance on the map of thirty-six miles.

2 Radde in Petermann's Mitth. 1876, p. 143.



S8 Armenia

At Akhalkalaki the Toporovan is bordered by lofty cliffs, a
canon or trough which lias the appearance of a sinuous crack
in the surface of the plain. Gaining the summit of either cliff,
}'ou stand on level ground, with a flat or undulating country
sweeping around you to the distant limits of the mountain chains.
You breathe a keener air when you emerge from the narrow
\'alle\- ; the town is placed at a little distance from the edge of
the cliff which rises along the left bank. But how present my
reader with a picture of a settlement which is nothing more than
an agglomeration of one-storeyed, flat-roofed houses, placed, as it
were at random, on the floor of the plain ? It seemed ridiculous
to focus the camera at such an insignificant object — the flat
roofs, with their covering of withered turf, repeating and lifting
the texture and colour of the ground. Moreover Akhalkalaki is a
fortress ; the camera is interdicted — a happy thought in this
particular case. Fortress-spying would be a poor amusement in
this country ; like the fleet of Spain, they are so extremely
difficult to detect. The old castle above the river has been
restored and converted into a barrack ; a similar purpose is
served by some stone buildings in the environs of the town. I
do not know that the god of war is otherwise represented ; but
greater honour has been paid to the demigods of justice, and the
Governor remarked to me — what was indeed sufficiently evident
— that the prison on the outskirts was the only two-storeyed
edifice in the place. Just a house or two, including that of the
Governor, had been provided with a roofing of metal sheets,
painted a pleasant red. But all the tenements appeared well
built, of solid stone masonry ; and the street or two which the
place contains were certainly spacious, although ill -maintained
and deep in dust. When we arrived, we were greeted by a
chorus of the pariah dogs, as though we were entering a purely
Eastern town. Still there are a few modern shops, notably a
large drapery establishment, where the necessaries of civilised life
may be procured. A feature were the wooden hoods on the tops
of the houses, a feature not uncommon in the towns of Armenia ;
they serve as screens to the apertures of the chimneys, and appear
a dangerous contrivance to European e}es. Such was our
impression of the aspect and character of Akhalkalaki, the new
fortress. Vague tracks lead away into the surrounding country,
which is bare and bleak in the immediate neighbourhood of the
settlement.



At Akhalkalaki 89

In addition to the principal avenue of outside communication
by way of Akhaltsykh and the passage of Borjom, the town is
connected with Georgia by a road which crosses the Trialethian
Mountains and debouches by a short cut at the last-named place.
We were shown this road, where it mounts the cliff on the right
bank of the river, as we crossed to the left bank. Leaving Lake
Tabizkhuro on the right, it mounts to the spine of the system,
which it crosses by a pass of about 8000 feet.^ Tiflis may no doubt
be reached by the valley of the Khram, but I have no information
upon the nature of the route. Metalled roads are scarce in these
distant provinces ; it may surprise the reader to learn that the
road we travelled over from Akhalts}'kh was only completed in
1892. During all those previous years of Russian occupation
the post was carried from the important centre of Alexandropol
to foreign countries along a stony track in the valley of the
Toporovan.

Akhalkalaki has belonged to Russia since the campaign of
1828, when it was taken under Marshal Paskevich by assault.
It was not the first time that Russian troops had entered the
fortress ; it had fallen in i 8 i 2 to the arms of General Kutlerusky,
who marched from Gori and took the garrison by surprise. In
the time of Paskevich the defenders were a determined body of
men, recruited from among the most warlike of the inhabitants of
these countries, and serving in their own land and under their own
chiefs. Flushed by the fall of Kars, the general appeared before
the place and summoned the Turkish commander to submit.
His emissaries received the reply that the women and children
had been removed, and that the men were determined to die at
their posts. They numbered looo, with fourteen cannon ; and
they reminded the Russians of the proverb that one soldier of
the province of Akhaltsykh was equal to two of Kars and three
from Erivan. Red standards were displayed on the walls, and,
during the progress of the siege, the garrison was heard making
the responses to the moUah, who led their prayers from the gallery
of the minaret and w^ho had himself sworn to share their fate. A
Cossack officer stepped forth and endeavoured to parley with
them ; he fell, pierced by a number of bullets. No opposition
was offered to the establishment of the batteries ; no attempt
appears to have been made to outwit the foe. The Russian

1 Radde is almost certainly in error in making the pass of Karakaya, which is the
shortest route, over 9500 feet high {Petermami's JMitth., 1S76, p. 141).



90 Armenia

cannon beat down the walls, their rifle fire decimated the de-
fenders, following them from wall to wall. Paskevich then gave
the order to cease firing, and called upon them afresh to submit.
The old answer was returned ; the assault was sounded ; nor were
the Cossacks appeased and the honour of the defenders satisfied
until six hundred of the men of Akhaltsykh had eaten the dust.^

At the time of our visit Colonel Tarasoff was civil governor



Online LibraryH. F. B. (Harry Finnis Blosse) LynchArmenia, travels and studies (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 49)