On foothills of Mt. Ararat, looking towards chasm and Akori village (buried under landslide), Yenidogan Kurdish village to right

Unseen Armenia: Kamaris – Akori

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By Hovsep Daghdigian

KAMARIS, Armenia — Kamaris is a village in Kotayk marz (province) with a population of about 2,000, according to figures from 2001. There are reportedly Bronze Age tombs in the vicinity. Atop the hill past the old and new cemeteries are scant remains of an old Persian settlement.

Adjacent to the old cemetery is the small Soorp Astvatsatsin church, rebuilt in 1258, but on a much older foundation, with extensive inscriptions in “coded” classical Armenian. This form of script often has multiple letters inscribed upon each other making decipherment difficult for non-specialists. According to an inscription on the church, its construction or renovation was financed by a wealthy woman from the village. Villagers indicated that during Tamerlane’s invasion of the region he apparently viewed Soorb Astvatsatsin with favor, and thus decided not to destroy it.

Nearby is a small, crudely-built chapel, recently constructed, but built on the foundation of a holy site probably from the 12-14th c. Within the chapel are remnants of much older stonework.

Nearby is the remnant of what once was a beautiful 18th-century home built in classic Armenian architectural style by a wealthy family. The most recent owner of the house, the granddaughter of the original owners, did not want to live there. An Armenian film producer, who produced an award-winning film in that house, offered to buy the house and preserve it as a museum while providing a home for the granddaughter in Yerevan. The granddaughter refused, abandoning the house which was then sold off piece by piece as construction material. Neighboring villagers lamented the loss of such a beautiful structure containing lovely balconies and a tonradoon.

The main church in the village, Soorb Hakob, was the primary focus of our visit. This large church was built in 1840. A small inscription at the entrance memorializes the destruction of the village of Akori, an Armenian village high up on the slopes of Mt. Ararat, during a devastating earthquake in 1840. This was the same year the church was built. Below this inscription another disaster is cited. About eight years later, locusts ruined Kamaris’ crops. Over the church’s altar is a large mural whose style was heavily influenced by Czarist Russian religious art. The church was renovated around 1980 (during the Soviet era), but needs renovation again. Following independence, renovation of the church began but now remains negligently undone. The wall opposite the altar is bowed out; it is buckling with large cracks in the masonry near the windows. The interior floor was partially torn up and never repaired. Protecting the structure from water and ice damage remains completely and negligently ignored. This structure urgently needs first aid. The villagers we spoke to were very concerned about the church’s survival.

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Why was the destruction of Akori memorialized here? My friend Vova and I were curious about the connection between Akori and Kamaris.

Akori was an Armenian village on the northeast slope of Mt. Ararat, at 1.7 kilometer altitude. The village was situated at the bottom of the vertical chasm or cleft which can be seen from Armenian sites such as Khor Virap on clear, haze-free days. On June 20, 1840, a strong earthquake, estimated to be magnitude 7 on the Richter scale, created a huge landslide which buried the village.

Tradition has it that when Noah descended from the Ark’s resting place on Mt. Ararat, he planted grape vines at a site on the mountain’s slope. It is speculated that the name Akori is derived from the term argh (he planted) and urri (the vine) to signify the site of Noah’s planting. These may be terms from classical Armenian or perhaps a dialect.

A monastery was established near Akori by Soorb Hakob, who became bishop of Nisibi. To allay beliefs that the story of the ark was mere legend, sometime around 300 AD Soorb Hagop made a number of attempts to ascend Mt. Ararat and retrieve a piece of wood from the ark. During each ascent, Soorb Hakob lay down to rest and would wake up below his resting place. Finally, he had a vision in which he was told that access to the ark is forbidden, but that he would be given a piece of wood from it. Nearby he found the piece of wood. In 341 he founded a monastery at the site, a few kilometers from Akori. The monastery became the monastery of Soorb Hakob of Nisibis (or Saint James). There may have also been a church within the village of Akori. It is said that the monastery is at the site where Noah built an altar after the arc came to rest.

Friedrich Parrot of the University of Dortmund, Germany, accompanied by his translator and author, Khachatur Abovian, made the first documented ascent of Mt. Ararat in October 1829. Parrot visited Akori before the earthquake, writing that the monastery was built in 1288 as evidenced by an inscription on the wall. Perhaps there were a series of renovations to the monastery and this date indicated a recent one. Parrot cites a population of about 175 families living in firmly-built stone houses.

  1. F. B. Lynch, an English member of parliament and explorer, visited Eastern and Western Armenia on two separate trips. He climbed Mt. Ararat, visiting Akori in 1898, after the earthquake. Lynch, in his two volumes, Armenia, Travels and Studies, described a lone vine growing where no other vegetation survived. Villagers, he said, believe it sprouted from a plank of the ark. Lynch cited a population of about 1,000 people before the earthquake. He indicated that a church, Arakelots Vank, was built on the site of Noah’s altar. He also indicated that Soorb Hakob (Saint James) was a contemporary and relative of Saint Gregory and later became Bishop of Nisibis. Lynch was able to interview survivors of the earthquake who described the violent shaking of the earth, and a hurricane of black debris engulfing the chasm in which Akori was situated. All of this was followed by another earthquake with a flood of water bursting out from the side of the Ararat on June 24. Lynch presents some theories as to whether this was an earthquake or some type of volcanic eruption; perhaps of steam rather than molten lava.

In 2016 I visited Akori as part of a small tour to Western Armenia conducted by Arevi Tours in Armenia. We encountered no difficulties either from officials or the condition of the roads; our vehicle was a 4-wheel drive minivan. We arrived at the Akori cemetery, which was below where the village was. My photographs of the rocky chasm where the village was situated were remarkably similar to a photograph in Lynch’s book. The chasm appeared to be filled with boulders and rubble. The view of Ararat’s summit, with turbulent clouds swirling about, hiding and then revealing Ararat’s peak, was spectacular. The cemetery still had khachkars over the grave sites. In a shallow valley below the cemetery, near the road, was the very small Kurdish village of Yenidogan, only a decade or two old from what I was told.

The memorialization of the Akori earthquake, the date of Kamaris’ Soorp Hakob church, and the fact that Soorp Hakob was both the name of the monastery on the outskirts of Akori and the church in Kamaris, led us to believe there was a strong connection between the two villages. At the center of Kamaris we found a group of men sitting by the side of the road. We asked them about this connection. Indeed, they answered, survivors from Akori migrated to Kamaris and built the church. They subsequently left Kamaris preferring to live in Ijevan and Dilijan, but often visit Kamaris to pay their respects to family members who are buried in Kamaris’ cemetery. A villager wrote a history of Kamaris, but it would probably be difficult to find a copy, though I’ll try. An inquiry at Yerevan’s Madenataran revealed that they do have one or more manuscripts from Soorb Hagop vank in Akori, though these are not on display and probably accessible only to scholars.

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