The Ashtarak District of Armenia lies at the foot of Mt. Aragats, 35 kilometres to the northwest of Yerevan, along the Ashtarak Highway.
Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia, is an extinct volcano which has a circumference of 200 kilometres. The highest of its four peaks (the northern peak) is 4,090 metres, the remaining three are slightly lower. Aragats is an inexhaustible reservoir of water.
It is covered with snow virtually all the year round and gives rise to endless streams and brooks. The beauty of the mountain has been a source of inspiration to poets and artists, and has been mentioned in tales, songs and legends. Its picturesque glens, cliffs and babbling brooks never cease to amaze. The sky in summer is an almost unbelievable blue and everything seems to be in blossom, even the rocks and boulders look as though they have come alive. But it is the brilliance of the flowers and their number that is the most remarkable thing about Aragats.
The slopes and foothills of the mountain have been inhabited since time immemorial. Here, people found everything they needed: water to drink and to irrigate their fields, pastures for cattle, stones to make implements and to build homes, and, finally, inaccessible rocks to protect them from foes.
The southern slopes of Aragats are visible from the highway as it approaches Ashtarak, the regional centre which spans the two cliffy banks of the river Kasakh. This verdant town is believed to be one of the most ancient sites where primitive man settled. Tsiranavor
, is the oldest structure to be found in these parts. This 5th-6th-century basilica is a marvelous illustration of the grand scale on which the early churches were built.
A short walk from Tsiranavor Church will bring you to Karmravor
, a small pendentive built in the 7th century as a palace chapel. Its elegance and perfect proportions are a feast for the eye. An ancient tiled spherical roof, common to all ancient structures, has remained intact. It was only in the 9th century (when thin tuff tiles became available) that spherical roofs were replaced by conical. Another interesting landmark in the town is an old three-arch bridge
dating back to the 17th century. It has a stepped parapet of tuff.
Of the other tourist attractions on the southern slopes of Aragats, the Am-Berd Fortress
merits special mention. It was built at a height of 2,300 metres above sea level in the 11th-13th centuries in strict accordance with the art of building fortifications. The walls are of roughly hewn rock cemented with mortar. The fortress had a reliable defensive system.
The church, built by the architect Vagram Pakhlavuni in 1026, is the best preserved part of Am-Berd. Following the river Kasakh southwards, the traveller arrives in the village of Oshakan where the enlightener Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, | lies entombed in a local church. He died in 440 in Vagarshapat and his remains were brought to the village of Oshakan, the estate of his best friend Prince Vagram Amatuni. A basalt monument to Mesrop Mashtots in the form of an open book inscribed with the Armenian alphabet has been put up in the village.