stylistic rendition of a person, or a bottle, at the petroglyphs site of Ughtasar

It takes a bit of effort, but ultimately getting to the petroglyph site of Ughtasar is greatly rewarding.

High up in the mountains opposite Sisian, 45 minutes’ drive from Goris, is Armenia’s best known and richest petroglyph site. Inside the crater of a dormant volcano are hundreds, if not thousands of rock boulders decorated with this primitive art form, variously interpreted as Shamanist figuration, or early communication, or perhaps it was doodling avant-la-lettre.

the not-so-sturdy jeep, with Sas studying the egine

We had underestimated the effort to get to Ughtasar. From Sisian it is some 1.5 hours’ drive, but when I found out it was only 25 kms, I realised that our rented car was not going to be up to the task. Initial internet resources either didn’t respond, or demanded exorbitant prices for the half day excursion, but luckily, after some further investigation, we did find the right contact. When we arrived in Sisian, a sturdy-looking ancient Russian army jeep was ready, driven by Sasun, Sas for short, who was also to be our guide.

sheep on the way

Half an hour later, the sturdy jeep proved to be more vulnerable than we thought, and was not going to go any further today, that much was clear. But Sas called a friend, with an even older Russian jeep, who came to the rescue, and after another hour of severe shaking on a road that our sedan, indeed, would not have survived, we reached the small crater lake, where the petroglyphs could be found. The scenery had changed from dry agricultural land to moonscape, volcanic rocks everywhere. The highest mountain, 3584 m high Mount Tsghuk, an extinct volcano, towers above the lake to the east.

the road to Ughtasar, with to the right Mount Tsghuk

Despite his bad luck, Sas had come with us, too, which was a blessing, otherwise we would have spent much more time finding much less petroglyphs. There are thousands of boulders, but somehow the petroglyphs occur in groups, a few boulders have been carved, many others haven’t, and it helps to know where they are. Afterall, we have climbed to some 3300 m – for the first time this trip, it is not so hot anymore, but each little extra climb is an effort we feel.

the idyllic crater lake (to the left, outside the picture, some army tents that we were not allowed to photograph)

the crater rim, seen from the lake

panel full of animals, the curved horns of the goats dominant

And Sas knows a lot. That there are about 9000 petroglyphs here, but there are many more locations, some with over 12,000 (but which can only be reached walking). That some 60-65% of the images are goats, that there is one panel that represents Adam and Eve – or so they say -, that all the signs of the Zodiac can be found back here – or so they say -, that there are images of ships, quite unusual at this altitude. I am a little sceptical about over-interpretation, but we enjoy his explanations. The images may be 4000 years old, or 8000, or 12,000, just after the last ice age – Sas points to glacier scratches on many of the boulders.

I am just fascinated by these petroglyphs, which we have seen in many other countries as well, from South Africa and South America to Central Asia. These actually bear similarities with the ones from Tajikistan and Kirgizstan. And you know what it is with these art forms? You have to enjoy them in situ, unless someone is prepared to take one of those enormous boulders to a museum. Which is precisely what makes it special to come all the way up here.

Next: Sisian

panel with goats, also note the two fighting men on the left

the two fighting man in close up

classic redition of a goat, with huge horns

the characteristic goat, left, and what looks more like a deer, right

another woman, no doubt

convincing image of a woman

convincing image of a man

another man, with big hands

two men, in what looks like a fight

man with a bow-and-arrow?

a jaguar, or another type of cat?

a monkey, perhaps?

this is the famous Adam and Eve panel, complete with snakes (I doubt it, for starters these are supposed to predate the bible by quite some time)

what has been interpeterd as a ship, curious to say the least at such great distance from the coast

and like at every other petroglyph site, there is graffiti

not all of these boulders contain petroglyphs…

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