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architecture about them, ought really to be ashamed. The largest
of them is called the cathedral, and belongs to the Gregorians ;
there is also, not far from it, an Armenian Catholic church.
West of the cathedral on the hillside — it appears in my illustration
— we were shown a second church belonging to the Gregorian
community ; but I do not remember its name. It was at
Akhaltsykh that we were first impressed by the custom of the
Armenians to kiss the ground when they face the altar in prayer.
Such abject prostration in the dust we had never before witnessed
in any Christian church. It was Oriental ; it w^as pathetic — the
gesture of a poor ray a at the feet of his savage lord. . . . Last
of all we were shown the Court of Justice, where a resident
magistrate and visiting judges from Tiflis dispense the law behind
a barrier of baize-covered tables beneath a life-size portrait of
the Tsar. And that is what we saw of the modern town of
Akhaltsykh ; I doubt whether there is much more to be seen.

The old town on the left bank presents a striking contrast to
its young rival across the water. You gain the bridge and pause
for a moment to follow the many-channelled river threading the
banks of yellow pebbles in its bed ; flowing through a landscape
of wild and bare hills, which streams with the garish daylight of
the East. The road mounts the slope of the opposite cliff or
convexity, which, a little further west, joins the more abrupt ridge
of crag and precipice crowned by the battlements of the fortress.
In this cliff, with its sw^elling shapes, soft soil and irregular hum-
mocks, the Armenians have discovered a burrowing-ground exactly
suited to their requirements ; the gaping apertures of chimneys
and windows threaten to engulf the guileless traveller who walks,
unwitting, between the houses up the hillside. No vegetation
relieves the monotony of the constant hues of ochre, and the tiers

70 Arnienia

of clay and stone which represent the larger tenements mingle
naturally with the stone-strewn surface of the friable earth. We
saw two churches; one is administered by the Armenian Catholics,
the other, which is situated a little above the first, is a Russian
Orthodox church. Besides these larger buildings there are two
chapels or prayer-houses, which scarcely attain the dignity of a
church. These belong to the Gregorians, and we were told that
the Roman Catholics have a small chapel within the precincts of
the old town. But what interested us most was the Jewish
quarter with its two spacious synagogues. We admired the
simplicity of these airy chambers — in the middle the pulpit, the
benches disposed around ; and we pictured to ourselves the eager
faces of the congregation, upturned from those benches to the
grave preacher and mobile to every turn of his discourse. The
Jew is a rare creature upon the tableland of Armenia ; he finds
it difficult to exist by the side of the Armenian, who is his rival
in his own peculiar sphere.^ There is a saying that in cleverness
a Jew is equal to two Greeks, a single Armenian to two Jews.

The community gathered round us and almost filled the syna-
gogue, in which we sat and rested for a considerable space. Two
distinct types of physiognomy were represented ; on the one hand
the fat, florid cheeks and thick lips which are so characteristic of
the coarser strain of Jew, on the other the cavernous features,
wrinkled skin, aquiline nose and penetrating eyes which are the
monument of the ancient refinement of the Jewish race. When
we contrasted the destitution and even the misery of this quarter
with the air of prosperity which the synagogue displayed, it
was evident that the community were undergoing a period of
adversity, and we enquired the reasons of this decline. They
attributed their fallen state to the competition of the Armenians ;
the Armenians, they said, were good workers and a great people,
the Jews few in numbers and isolated. There was nothing left
for the poor Jew but to tramp round the villages, carrying his
goods upon his back. They must emigrate, they were emigrating.
. . . Alas ! we thought, to what distant land across the mountains,
across the sea, shall the poor Jew wander out ? How shall he
escape the dangers of the way, with the hand of the Government
against him, with hatred and contempt dogging his weary steps ?

' Eli Smith informs us that at the time of his journey (1S30-31) Akhaltsykh was the
only place, coming within the range of his enquiry in Turkish Armenia, that contained
any Jews {Missionary /■Researches, p. 100).

To Akhaltsykh 71

And the Christianity by our side appeared detestable to us,
doubly odious by its want of every Christian virtue and by the
mummery of its gaudy symbols and vulgar shows. The Jew
carries with him the vastness of Asia, the sublimity of the worship
of a single God ; may the nations be fertilised by the powerful
intellect and their religions elevated by the high conceptions of
the Hebrew race !

The fortress, with which the old town naturally communicates,
was to us strictly forbidden ground. Although I urged its worth-
lessness as a reason why we should be permitted to visit it,
Captain Taranoffsky would on no account give way. The
mosque, the present church, to which I have already alluded, was
of course all that we wanted to see. It stands on the northern
side of the fortress enclosure ; the base of the minaret still
remains and is crowned by a little cupola to which is affixed a
cross. An inscription on the gate by which the court is entered
gives as the date of construction the year of the Hegira i 1 66
(A.D. 1752-53).^ Dubois informs us that the architect was an
Italian ; "- but Brosset, who says that it was built upon the model
of St. Sophia, is silent upon this point. For the character of the
interior as it existed before the Russian occupation I may refer
the reader to Dubois. The fountain in the centre of the court is
supplied by an underground aqueduct which conveys the waters
of a limpid spring, some seven miles off.^

From the old town we slowly made our way back to the
encampment, enjoying the scene, observing the. passers-by. Here
and there we would meet a group of Russian soldiers in their
white tunics, taking their evening stroll. Their large frames, fair
hair, shaven faces and coarse features contrasted with the neatness
of the Oriental type. Their little eyes, deeply set behind the flat
nose, were answered on every side by the glances that proceeded
from the large and lustrous eyes of the Armenian race. ' The
sheep and cattle were winding into the town from the meadows,
each animal finding its stable for itself

1 Brosset, op. cit. p. 149. - Dubois, op. cit. vol. ii. p. 267.

•'' Brosset, op. cit. pp. 139, 149.



The distance by road between Akhaltsykh and Akhalkalaki is
66 versts, or nearly 44 miles. The post divides the journey into
four stages, of which the shortest is 9, the longest i 2 miles. The
charges, which, I think, were uniform, whenever we were able to
avail ourselves of posting facilities, were three kopeks or farthings
per verst for each horse supplied, and twelve kopeks for the
carriage between each two stations, said to be a charge for greasing
the wheels. In addition, a tax of ten kopeks for the whole
journey is levied upon each horse, the proceeds of which are due
to Government by the contractors who supply the teams. A
victoria may be procured in the larger centres, and for this luxury
there is, I believe, no extra charge. Four horses will usually
be harnessed to it abreast, and an equal number to the luggage

August 31. — At ten o'clock we left Akhaltsykh on our
journey southwards and followed the tripping river on the right
bank. It was the same road we had taken for a short distance
on our way to Safar, the same aspect of the picturesque site of
the town (Fig. 15). Between us and the stream lay the stretch
of meadow where the sheep and cattle of the townspeople browse
— a grassy plain set in the barren landscape, a rare incident in
an Eastern scene. Beyond the water the ground rose in gentle
undulations of bank and hummock and hill, the parched and
friable surface yellow with stubble or with the exhausted growth
of weeds. In the background, some five miles distant, stretched
the spurs of the border ranges, scantily wooded along the summits
and upon the slopes. On our other hand, towards the south, all
prospect was excluded by barren hummocks of crumbling soil.

We had covered about 2^ miles, when before us lay the

To Akhalkalaki

/ 3

junction of the rivers, of the river of Akhaltsykh with the Kur or
Ardahan river, for it is known under both names. From their
nearer margins to our road extended a stretch of alluvial ground,
filling the angle between the two streams. Their further banks
are high, and are bordered by hummock hills, a feature most
pronounced on the bank of the Kur. The united waters break
through the soft hummocks and become engulfed in the rocky
barrier of the border ranges — a bold and lofty wall of mountain,
partially covered with wood. In the hollow is situated a village
with trees and pleasant verdure, an oasis in the sterile landscape
around. We were told that its name was Tsinis and that it was
inhabited by Mussulmans ; beyond it, through the glasses, we
discerned the road to Tiflis entering the jaws of the gorge.

Skirting the barren convexities which closed the view on our
right hand, and upon slightly higher ground, we gained the left
bank of the Kur and proceeded along it for a short space up
stream. Leaving on our right a small Armenian village, we then
descended to the river-bed ; strips of vegetables had been planted
along the water, which is here crossed by a strong wooden bridge.
The stream was flowing towards us, newly escaped from the
narrows, where it is confined by rocky cliffs of forbidding aspect,
harbouring a scanty growth of stunted bush. A few poplars lined
its immediate margin, and a slender fringe of green. It had a
width of some 30 yards at the mouth of the passage, a rapid
current, charged with soil and tawny, which divides into several
channels and forms a broad and pebbly bed as it issues upon the
open plain. After crossing the bridge to the right bank, we
passed a Mussulman village where the women were sifting the
season's grain.

Our course for the rest of the day lay on this bank of the
river ; the road leaves the plain and dives into the narrows, where
walls of rock enclose the swirling stream. The Kur is following
the base of the border ranges, piercing the spurs where they meet
the outskirts of the Dochus Punar. In places it has a width of
some 50 yards or more, and the eye cannot penetrate the dull
depths ; but more often it is a narrow and shallow torrent,
wreathing and foaming over the rocks. On the left bank, as we
passed a break in the mountains, it is joined by the clearer waters
of a little tributary, the Uravel, which wound below us at Safar.

The weather was delightful ; a cool air, a brilliant sun, a few
white clouds floating in the blue. Eagles, a small species, circled

74 Ai^meiiia

against the heaven or alighted on grisly crags. The sides of
these low mountains are composed of a lava, dry and barren,
which in places is disposed in layers of conglomerate, like the
masonry of a Cyclopean wall. We passed the seventh verst-
stone from Akhaltsykh, having covered over 4|- miles. A short
space further and we were opposite a Georgian village, placed on
the hillside of the left bank.

Between the thirteenth and sixteenth verst-stones (8|- and
\o\ miles) the range opens, and is seen, beyond a plain of about
half a mile in width, pursuing a direction from south-east towards
north-west on the right bank. On our left hand we passed a few
miserable houses which, we ascertained, were inhabited by Kurds.
We entered a country of bleak hummocks, where barren and
yellow hills closed the view. Among such surroundings lies the
posting station of Rustav, i 8 versts or 1 2 miles along our road.
By half-past twelve o'clock we had changed horses, having arrived
a quarter of an hour before.

The characteristics of the landscape between Rustav and
Khertvis may be summarised in a few words. For awhile the
bare, low mountains again border the river on either side, at no
great distance from the shore. But they tend to circle in amphi-
theatres and to leave a respite of even ground. Little rills descend
from the heights above the valleys and give birth to verdure and
shade. The further we proceed, these oases increase in extent,
enhancing the contrast between sterile, lonely walls of rock, and
luscious gardens where bright birds flit through the scene.

Thus on the left bank, shortly after leaving Rustav, the eye
was greeted by such welcome relief A high ridge of grey rock
descended to the river, but rich verdure clothed its base. The
lower slopes were terraced with plantations of Indian corn, and
among the stubble herds of heifers grazed the sweet herbs.
Rivulets started from the very summit, where a grove of trees
was outlined on the sky. The falling water was diffused into a
network of tiny channels, which fed the fertile earth. Such were
the outskirts of a Mussulman village, of which the name is Gobet.
The foreground, on our side of the river, was strewn with boulders
of volcanic rock. Large lizards darted from cranny to cranny,
and brilliant birds with blue breasts and yellow collars took wing
at our approach.

The note, thus early sounded, attained increasing volume in
the valleys of Akhashen, of Aspinja and of Khertvis. The first

To Akhalkalaki 75

is situated some five miles from Rustav, and takes its name from
a Mussulman village on the left bank/ Akhashen is a character-
istic Eastern village ; the tenements are built in terraces up the
slope, scarcely distinguished from the soil. W'e admired the bold
site and pleasant setting of garden ; at our feet, in the fuller light
of this open circus, the Kur sent flashes of blue, reflecting the
bright zenith, from the transparent surface of its yellow stream.
On our left hand we recognised the familiar outline of the border
ranges stretching away from south to north.

Next, Aspinja lay before us, an open valley, a bower of trees,
water trickling from the hillside and collected in little channels
which seamed the floor of fertile earth.- We were skirting the
gardens of two Mussulman villages, and some of the inhabitants
happened to pass by. They looked unhappy ; we spoke to one of
their number and elicited the usual quantity of doubtful truths.
It is certain that all the Mussulmans of the Kur valley are dis-
contented ; and these two communities were preparing to emigrate.
Mention was made to us of a recent ordinance of the Russian
Government under which they would be required to serve in the
Russian army, and perhaps to fight against the forces of Islam.^
Aspinja, which we soon reached, is also inhabited by Mussulmans.
The slopes above the village are planted with orchards, and every
corner of the little plain is cultivated. Indian corn, tobacco and
the stubble of cereals were on all sides present to the eye. It is
some distance beyond the oasis to the posting station, a stage of
1 6 versts ( i o|- miles) from Rustav.

It was nearly three o'clock when we arrived at this station ;
luscious water-melons grew in the little garden and relieved the
dulness of our mid -day meal. But the smiling landscape lay
behind us, long out-distanced ; and we were again in the fork of
a barren gorge. Low ridges break off to the river in rocky cliffs,
which descend to a narrow margin of level ground. From the

1 Brosset speaks of the church and tower of Akhashen as being remarkable both as
an example of composite architecture and for possessing a fine sculptured cross on the
door and a figure of .St. Theodore on horseback ( Voyage archiologique en Transcaiicasie,
St. Petersburg, 1849, ire livraison, 2me rapport, p. 150)-

2 Neither Dubois ( V^oyage autourdti Caiicase, Paris 1839-43, vol. ii. p. 330) nor Brosset
{Voy. arch. 2me rapport, p. 176) has more than passing notices of Aspinja. But
Dubois tells us that in his time all the inhabitants spoke Georgian except the mollah,
who had recently arrived from Asia Minor. He adds that they were formerly Georgian
Christians, and their ancient church still existed in a ruinous condition.

'•'• I have not verified their statement, which was repeated in other places, that
according to a decree of 1890 they would be liable to military service in ten years after
the date of the decree.

76 Armenia

valley of Aspinja these uninteresting walls are continued to the
outskirts of Khertvis.

Such was the monotonous scene through which the Russian
road wound during the course of our afternoon's drive. Beside
us raced the river ; we faced the current ; at short intervals large,
loose stones were disposed in the shape of circles in the shallows
at no great distance from the shore. We were told that in winter
fish are caught within these circles by means of traps placed at
opposite sides. In summer the Georgian fisherman trusts to his
casting-net, a laborious process which was being pursued by one of
the fraternity for the reward of a few small fish. On the opposite
bank we were impressed by the proportions of a cliff of lava,
of which the face was disposed throughout in spheroidal blocks
rising immediately from the water's edge.

At last the landscape opened, the most extensive of these
oases, the fertile valley of Khertvis. It is heralded from afar by
a line of orchards and by gardens terraced up the slope. A well-
planned and elaborate system of aqueducts and channels dispense
water on every side. Then the road rises up a hillside and
commands a startling scene. Below you, crowning a crag at the
confluence of two rivers, a well-preserved example of a mediaeval
castle on a large scale lifts its towers against a background of lofty
cliffs (Fig. 1 6). A village cowers at the foot of the fortress, almost
hidden by dense trees. Such is the castle and township of
Khertvis, situated at the junction of the river of Akhalkalaki with
the Kur. The road follows the right bank of the first of these
streams, and the station is some distance from the town. We
were obliged to leave the carriage and entrust our effects to the
villagers, who carried them down the steep sides of the high cliff.
It was six o'clock ; we crossed the river of Akhalkalaki by a little
footbridge, and pitched our tents on the floor of a shady garden,
not far from the margin of the Kur.

A motley group of people collected about us ; of what race,
of what faith ? Mussulmans ! We expected and received the
answer, although there was little except our knowledge of the
checkered history of these valleys to indicate their adhesion to
Islam. The owner of the garden bore the name of Bin AH Bey
Vishnadzi, and was of mixed Georgian and Turkish blood ; he
stands in the centre of my illustration, in Cossack dress, with his
cap on one side (Fig. 17). His cast of countenance is Georgian,
and the hair is somewhat fair ; yet his uncle, Hasan Bey, has the

To Akhalkalaki


Turkish type. His mixed ancestry is no exception among- the
villagers, and they all call themselves Turks. Their number was
given to me as i 500, with 200 houses ; the Russian census, which
classes them as Georgians, bears out these figures as approximately
correct.^ Among them are a handful of Armenian Christians ;
the old man with a staff, seated in the foreground of my picture,
was our guide from the road to our pleasant camping-ground, and
belonged to the Armenian race.

If reliance can be placed on the figure given by Dubois, the

Fig. 17. Group of Villagers at Khertvis.

population of Khertvis has almost doubled since 1833." How-
ever this may be, the township is now in full decline ; misery was
written in the faces of a great part of the inhabitants, of whom
many were preparing to leave Russian soil. As we passed
through the streets, between the tumble-down houses, we observed
that some of the shops had been permanently closed. Is it their
unfitness to flourish under systematic government ? Or the policy
of the Russian Government to discourage Mussulmans, with their
Turkish sympathies, or some special causes which we were unable
to ascertain ? Our stay was too short to sift fact from fable ; and

1 229 houses, with 1360 inliabitants (Family lists of 1886).
- He gives a population of 800 souls (^/. cit. vol. ii. p. 304).

yS Arinenia

a rigid reticence was observed by the leading people, who were
evidently under the influence of fear.^

The river of Akhalkalaki, or the Toporovan river, as it is
sometimes called, enters the valley from a little north of east. It
appeared to us to contain as much water as the Kur, into which
it swirled.^ The united streams for a short space pursue a
westerly direction until they settle to a normal course towards the
north. The affluent washes the northern side of the castled rock,
which protects a tongue of alluvial ground at its southern base.
On this land is situated the little township, embowered in leafy
groves. The castle dates from a remote period ; and even the
present structure is ancient, although it belongs to different epochs.
The citadel with the little chapel, occupying the summit of the
perpendicular rock, is a work of the middle of the fourteenth
century, when the Georgian atabegs were the lords of the land ; the
remaining portion, with its several towers, is more modern.'^ We
ourselves were unable to visit the edifice, which we were never
tired of admiring from the river-bed. Behind it soar the walls of
volcanic material, where the younger have been forced through the
older lavas and have produced fantastic contortions of the rocks.*

September i. — From Khertvis we made an excursion up the
valley of the Kur to the crypts of Vardzia, situated on the left
bank, some nine miles above the confluence with the Toporovan.
For the greater part of the journey, which is performed on ponies,
you follow the right bank of the river, along a path which in
many places becomes a mere track. We had soon left the shady
groves behind us, our clever little ponies often obliged to pick
their footsteps, where an outcrop of rock or blocks of fallen stone
obstructed the margin of level ground. On either bank, beyond
this margin, high hills enclose the narrow valley ; here and there

' Dul)ois {op. cit. vol. ii. pp. 29S, 299) informs us that tlie Mussulmans of these districts
are the old Georgian inhabitants whom Safar Pasha compelled to embrace Islam in
1625. He adds that the Armenians escaped this persecution, having been accorded by
the reigning Sultan liberty of conscience, like the Jews in France under similar con-

The river Kur is essentially a Georgian river, even where it traverses districts which
belong geographically to the Armenian tableland. For the history and character of the
country about its upper course one may usefully consult the works of Dubois and Brosset
already cited in this chai:)ter, and Koch's Keise ini poiitischen Gebirgc, Weimar, 1846.

' Dubois {op. cit. vol. ii. p. 314) calls the Kur a torrent above Khertvis, and says it
only becomes a river after the junction with the Toporovan river.

2 I must refer the reader to Dubois, op. cit. vol. ii. pp. 302 scq., and Brosset, ]'oy.
arch. p. 152.

^ So Abich explains the phenomena {Geo/ogischc Forsciiungoi in den lcatil;asischen
Ldndcru, part iii. p. 31).

To Akhalkalaki 79

with naked crags, more generally with stone -strewn slopes,
harbouring a scanty growth of parched grass. No oasis, not a
sign of a human being, no visible animal life. The landscape
streaming with light, and the brawling Kur breaking over the
boulders which encumber its bed. But the climate was delicious,
and the blue zenith was flaked with luminous cloud.

After over an 'hour's ride in this confined valley, we reached
the ruins of a fort, or small castle, and issued upon more open
ground. The valley expands on the right bank of the river in an
irregular series of hill and dale. We passed the rush-grown banks
of a little lake, so blue and clear that it lay like a jewel on the
waste. It is called Sliluk, or lake of leeches ; and Hasan Be}^,
our guide, told us that leeches abound. In a hollow on the
further side of this lake we came upon the gardens of the Mussul-
man village of Margistan. Beyond this oasis, and beyond the
open ground about us, we could see the valle}- contracting, the
river flowing through a gorge, overhung by perpendicular cliffs ;

Online LibraryH. F. B. (Harry Finnis Blosse) LynchArmenia, travels and studies (Volume 1) → online text (page 9 of 49)