Armenia’s southern provinces of Vayots Dzor and Syunik are a spectacular strip of land at the very bottom of the Caucasus. They cut Azerbaijan in two: the highway between Yeraskh and Meghri passes over the mountains that separate the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the east from the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan to the west.
The journey is breathtaking, and takes in some of Armenia’s cultural treasures: the monasteries of Noravank and Tatev and the wine-making town of Areni are all on the road to Meghri.
The most unusual place in Syunik province is the Zorats Karer stone formation, near the settlement of Sisian – 223 giant boulders that are described, inevitably, as the Armenian Stonehenge, but which you are free to wander between, touch, and photograph.
For all that travellers have always been free to explore Zorats Karer, no-one knows for sure what the stones really are. In the last 20 years archaeologists from Germany have unearthed enormous tombs from the Bronze Age and Iron Age underneath the site, while Armenian studies into the spy-holes that have been made in some of the rocks revealed an astronomical observatory that charted the movement of the sun, moon and stars.
Zorats Karer means Army Stones in Armenian, but they are also known as Carahunge – Speaking Stones, for the whistling sound that fills the site when strong winds blow through the holes. The best guess is that the rocks were placed 7,500 years ago; at the time that Stonehenge was created the army stones had already been standing in Sisian for over two thousand years.
The boulders are less neat than those at Stonehenge – covered in moss, shoulder-height or smaller, and scattered over the hilltop above the canyon that rises from the Dar river. The visitor centre is a roomy wooden shack, where you can buy books about Carahunge in several languages. Two young men tend to the site, and will treat you to potent Armenian coffee while you browse.
Zorats Karer can easily be included into a Silk Road itinerary; Armenia has open borders with Georgia to the north and Iran to the south. You can arrive in Yerevan by road or overnight train from Tbilisi, from where Sisian is a 200km drive, past Mount Ararat as well as Noravank, Areni and Tatev. Zorats Karer is one of the last places before Meghri, on the Iranian border.
This is a guest post from Jonathan Campion.