The Fortress of Amberd
Photo by Vit Gotis
Facts about Amberd
Amberd is one of the most powerful Armenian fortresses remaining from the Middle Ages. It was built in the province of Aragatsotn on the southernmost slopes of Mount Aragats, approximately 10 km north of Byurakan village.
The fortress is difficult to reach, located about 2200 meters over a precipice. As a result, not many excavations have occurred at the site.
The first known reports of Amberd came from a historian named Vardan in the middle ages. He claimed that Amberd was bequeathed to Hovhannes-Smbat by Gagik the first of Armenia. Another historian, Kirakos Gandzakeci, said that Zaqare Amirspasalar liberated Amberd from Seljuk Turks. There is also some information about Amberd which originated from Mkrtich Amberdci, a Bishop during that time.
Feudal castles like Amberd were often built in the territory of Armenia to protect its land from Romans, Parthians, Byzantines, Persians, Mongols and Turks. In the middle ages, the province of Aragatsotn was called the country of Amberd. A famous Armenian architect named T.Toramanyan noted that Amberd was extremely ancient in origin. He called Amberd “a huge fortress” and compared it to a big city.
Amberd contains many of the characteristics of a feudal stronghold, including a difficult to reach location, protected by natural defenses. It had a solid defense system and could supply water to the inhabitants in peacetime and during sieges.
The architecture of the fortress is simple; it was limited to basic needs, especially reliable protection against attacks. Large blocks of its stone walls were designed to take hits from enemy projectiles and battering rams. There are no ornaments, only bright spots of faience plates set into the brickwork.
In 1949-72, Vahramashen Church and the bath-house were repaired and reinforced. This project was completed by the architect Tamanyan, along with K. Ghafadaryan, V. Harutyunyan, A.Zhamharyan, S. Kyurkchyan and A. Mirijanyan.
There is a Cyclopean fortress almost in 4km to the east of Amberd. It was poorly located, while Amberd placed in an ideal spot. Some may suggest that because there are many other Cyclopean fortresses around Amberd, it may have been Cyclopean too.
Many archaeological excavations proved this guess to be wrong. T. Toramanyan and H. Orbeli claimed that the fortress was built in primeval times or BC. Beginning in the 10th century, Cyclopean fortresses were typically mass inhabited. Armenian castle-building was just developing in 10th century.
Arshakuni and other dynasties could have 70-80,000 men in their armies. Armenians were able to battle near enemy-borders, even compel them not to enter into their lands. During the Bagratuni (Bagratid) dynasty, each battle took place with the help of fortresses. These battles were smaller in scale.
Bagratuni kings often had 30,000 man armies. Beginning with King Ashot Yerkat, when Armenians were banishing Arabs from Armenia, the Bagratunies were able to build many castles and fortresses to strengthen their country. Many of these castles were built in mountainous areas.
In the 11th century, the local diocese was moved from Byurakan to Amberd, mostly because the Byurakan fortress was ruined in the beginning of the 10th century.
Many middle-age fortresses were built by the wealthy king, Ashot Yerkat. Many people credit him for Amberd; it is called the fortress of Ashot Yerkat. This monarch had already banished the Arabs and used his wealth to strengthen and fortify many other large fortresses, including Amberd, during ten years of peace. He organized and strengthened the Armenian military force, resulting in the country becoming a real military camp.
No one could attack the Armenians and their fortresses. Ashot Yerkat had everything he needed to defend his land. The people loved him, and called him Yerkat, which means ‘Iron.’
All of this information about Ashot and fortresses being built by him are just a guess; nobody can prove them to be fact. Some historians say that Aragatsotn was in the east of the Shirak kingdom. The enemy should have been passing Aragatsotn before reaching the capital of the Bagratunies. Based on this information, the most probable time frame in which Amberd was built is likely the 10th century.
The first written notes about Amberd relate to the 11th century. The Middle Age historian Vardan Bardzraberdci said: ”King Gagik died in 444 and gave the kingdom to his three sons: Hovhannes, Abbas and Ashot. He gave the crown to Hovhannes. He also gave him the Ani and Shirak kingdoms, Amberd, lowland Ararat, Kayan, Kaytson and Tavoosh provinces. The other regions he gave to Ashot and Abbas.”
Amberd was a very important fortress during Gagik’s time. This is likely why Amberd was given to Hovhannes-Smbat after his father’s death.
The Pahlavuni dynasty’s role was very important in the Bagratuni kingdom. They were the most faithful princes of Bagratid kings, protecting the country. Because of this, Amberd was entrusted to the Pahlavunies.
The Pahlavunies’ role grew in the 11th century. This role grew even more during the reigns of both Hovhannes-Smbat and Gagik II. Hovhannes-Smbat was a very effeminate ruler, so the Pahlavunies took the kingdom in their hands.
One of the Pahlavunies, Vahram Pahlavuni, was a very patriotic prince. During his time, Byzantine aggression increased. Vahram demolished the Byzantine army with a brilliant victory. The Byzantines were not able to invade either Amberd or the Bagratunies’ capital, Ani. In the last years of Vahram’s life, he devoted his attentions to the Amberd fortress.
In 1045, Gagik II was called to Constantinople. Emperor Monomakh compelled him to abandon Ani in order to give it to the Byzantines. The inhabitants of Ani wanted to give Ani to the Georgian king Bagrat IV; the castle was given to Bagrat’s mother, Queen Mariam.
All nine fortresses were given to Georgians except for Amberd. At the time, Vahram was still living there. He did not want to give anything to Georgians or the Byzantines. Amberd remained Vahram’s castle till his death in 1048, under Dvin’s walls. His son Grigor died with him.
Zakare and Ivane Zakarians liberated Amberd and whole Aragatsotn province from Seljuk Turks who had invaded it in the 1070s. Amberd was given to Vacheh Vachutian.
Vacheh called himself Amberdci, a word in Armenian that means “a man from Amberd”. Vacheh used to live in Amberd, and it became his administrative center. Many of the buildings of Amberd relate to this period, including a new room in the east side of the fortress, new gates, a pond, restoration of the bath house and chapel.
Vachutian Vacheh is famous based on lapidary inscriptions. His wife was named Mamakhatun; she also participated in the construction of many wonderful buildings. Vacheh and Mamakhatun supported construction of various churches in the region.
Qurd Vachutian, Vacheh’s son, left Amberd. Vardenis village, located in front of mount Ara, became a governmental seat. The King of Kilikia, Hetum I, came to Qurd when Hetum was visiting Möngke Khan.
After the Mongolian invasions, Qurd Vachutian was the first person who called himself an Amberdci, allowing the Vachutians to regain the fortress. When Qurd Amberdci died around 1343, his son Chrqeen became the lord of Amberd province.
The fact that the Vachutians were given Aragatsotn province and Amberd proved that the Vachutians were very faithful and powerful vassals of the Zakarians. Aragatsotn was extremely important during both the Zakarian and Bagratuni dynasties as it was the southeastern military base.
Amberd’s role increased as a protective fortress during the Zakarian dynasty. During the Vachutians’ rule, Amberd became their administrative center because it was in the middle of the province. In the 14th century, “the province of Amberd” meant “the province of Ararat.” The Vachutians strengthened it more, built more extensive fortifications and many other buildings. It should be noted that while this was the case, the real owners of Amberd were the Zakarians.
The Vahramashen church
Amberd’s church was built by Vahram Pahlavuni in 1026. This information is inscribed on its northern door, and as a result residents call it Vahramashen. The church is a prominent figure, made with local basalt stone, polished both inside and out.
When you look at it from the outside, it appears to be rectangular. Inside, it actually has a cruciform layout. The church has 2 entrances, one on the north side and one on the south. There is an unusually wide center dome.
Builders used plates in the construction of the roof for cover and acoustics. Some of these plates are visible today under the roof’s cobblestones. The cornice stones are held in place with iron; the church’s stones are very heavy and solid. During construction, the stones were raised using winches. Each stone has a small hole in it so the builders could use rope to raise them.
The church has no windows; only four small, narrow apertures in the bottom, and four wider apertures on the dome’s drum.
The architect of the church is unknown. The inscription on the door says it was built by Vahram Pahlavuni, but it is believed that Vahramashen was actually built by the architect who designed the gorgeous Marmashen church.
Vahramashen was repaired in 1936 and again in 1970. Full of quality architecture, its measurements have no differences between inside or outside walls, including on the diagonal.
The chapel is located to the west of the bath house by about nine meters. It is a small building with a pond, about 5m by 4m in size. There is only one entrance to the chapel from the south.
The chapel is located to the west of the bath house by about nine meters. It is a small building with a pond, about 5m by 4m in size. There is only one entrance to the chapel from the south.
Harisa, also known as qashika, is a delicious Armenian dish with ancient origins. Mkrtich Khrimian (Khrimian Hayrik) told a story about harisa in his book. A pot of harisa would be placed into a furnace overnight and would be served the next morning. The name of the dish comes from the phrase “hari sa,” which means “mix this.”
Women in Amberd made wrapped dolma with grape or cabbage leaves. Dolma has been cooked since the beginning of Armenian history and is believed to have originated in the Armenia.
Panrakhash is a rural, primitive dish, and is served for a typical, everyday dinner. It was and still is cooked in all Armenian regions, and there are many variants. Panrakhash can be made with fried onion, or with hot red peppers and garlic. It can be made with eggs, cheese, dry lavash and bread and is cooked in water during preparation.
Water was of paramount importance to the life of Amberd and for fortresses in general. No fortress would be built before the water supply issue had been resolved. Clay pipes brought water into the fortress from a distance of several kilometers, but enemies could obstruct these during a siege. For this reason, the issue of reservoir construction in all medieval fortresses became a matter of special concern.
In case of a failure of the pipes or their detection by enemies, the defenders needed another water reservoir, so many secret paths were built to bring water from Amberdadzor. One of these begins inside of Amberd, from the south of the fortress, and reaches up to the river.
For the construction of these secret paths, natural stones were used—hewn from the rock if needed. And this was a regular and extensive road. The entrance starts inside of the enclosure, then goes down, turns to the west, and continues to the river. To make the entrance of this secret path safer and more protected, special walls were built in two opposite cliffs that guard the path. In general, secret paths acted as a means of communication with the outside world during fortress siege.
There was an impact of Arab and Byzantine costumes in Armenian elite dress during early Medieval times. In the late Medieval period, Turkish, Kurdish and Tatar conquerors had an influence on the traditional taraz.
Armenian dresses, called taraz, were very colorful, with each color symbolizing something different. Earth was represented by black, water and purity by white and yellow represented fire. Apricot was a symbol of wisdom and chastity. Red represented Air, courage and martyrdom. Blue was a symbol for heavenly justice.
Amberd’s female head adornments were typically very simple and floral. They wore veils as a head cover.
Men’s costume consists of two main components. This included a shirt, vest and jacket and zonal, the name for trousers. Armenian men’s shirts has elaborately embroidered collars. Most clothing was made of cotton. Men typically wore hats made of lamb skin.
Centuries ago, guests entered the castle via broad stone stairs which lead to the state rooms in the upper floors. A guest would enjoy cool water brought in from distant mountain springs. They could relax after a tiring journey among luxurious carpets and tapestries.
When the first star showed up in the sky, the aroma of resins streamed from censers. Amber wine imported from Ashtarak or Vagharshapat gardens was poured into fancy cups and painted bowls for the guests to enjoy.
Amberd had an important military role. The Seljuks strengthened the fortress, rather than destroying it when they conquered the land. Meliqshah had wanted the fortress destroyed when he took possession of it. Nizam al-Mulq did not let him to do that because the fortress created a strong defensive border for the Seljuks. Meliqshah decided to strengthen the fortress instead, providing a garrison and food for its inhabitants.
The name of the fortress
Scholars believe that “Anberd” was the fortresses’ original name, and the name “Amberd” appeared later. The name “Anberd” is used in some inscriptions, only once have we seen “Amberd.” Almost all authors of the Middle Ages used “Anberd” with the exception of Grigror Pahlavuni.
Academician Gr. Ghaphantsyan believed that Anberd became Amberd due to assimilation. He said that the word “Anberd” means “fortress of God”, as “An” means “God” in the region’s ancient language of Khurit, and “berd” means “fortress” in Armenian.
The Khurits were pagans and there was no fortress like Amberd at that time, so this may not be the case. The variant of “Anberd” which means “without fortress” is incorrect. Amberd means “fortress in the clouds” and is more likely to be the intended meaning.
Mount Aragats is the highest point in the South Caucasus Mountains at 4,090 meters. It is a permanent home for mountaineers, has unique natural features including sub-alpine and alpine zones, along with four peaks. The northern peak is 4090m, the western is 4080m, while the eastern is 3916m and the southern peak is 3879m high.
There is a legend about Mount Aragats. According to this legend, St. Grigor Lusavorich climbed to the top of the mountain to say a prayer. At that very moment, a beacon of light came down upon him from heaven. The legend says that the heavenly light still appears, but only chosen people can see it.
You can see the beautiful mountain lake Kari on Aragats, which is located on 3250m above the sea. All Armenians adore Mount Aragats. They are grateful to the mountain, some say thank you to it every day.
A Brief Guide to the Archeological Excavation at Amberd
The Arkhashan gate
The wall was cut away to open the gate. After the excavations of 1964, it became possible to access the east side of the entrance. To straighten the gate, a second double-gate entrance was built 15 meters away. The entrance gate is protected by walls that are three meters high and act as rectangular towers, girding the entrance so the enemy could not attack. It is noteworthy that the right wall is raised higher than the left one.
The road’s position toward the gate and fence is interesting, too. Soldiers were instructed to hold their weapons in the right hand, and their shields in their left—leaving the right shoulder unprotected. Thus, the road was built considering this fact.
Preserved sections of the Arkhashan valley show that the residents of Amberd were very careful with roads, indeed.
The new entrance of Amberdadzor
The most significant building of the second period is the double entrance of Amberd, with its rectangular tower. It is located 30 meters to the north of the former gate, and is connected to the old gate from the west side by walls and conical pyramids. From the west side, the wall continues to the northern part of Amberd.
This was a strong defense measure for the fortress. Its structure is similar to Arkhashan gate in that they both employ a two-centered arch and are protected by a quadrangular tower on one side and by an enclosure on the other side. There is a tower-like building at the entrance of the tower, now mainly destroyed, that was built to protect the gate.
There are two holes on the external wall of this building. They present as very tiny slits on the outer wall and widen as they travel inwards so that one soldier could stand by one hole and shoot with a wide horizontal range without sacrificing the reliable protection of the building’s walls. A rectangular tower protects the western gate.
Examples of so-called Cyclopean masonry can also be found among the enclosures, but they are mostly made of lime mortar and ashlars. Construction with small stones and hard lime mortar is typical of the second construction period. The voids, or empty spaces, between the rows’ walls are also filled with lime mortar, and master’s signs can be found on certain stones.
In the first period, the fortress was made of processed basalt stones bound with hard lime mortar. The stones weren’t closely fitted together and most have rounded corners; the junction areas between the stones are filled with lime mortar. During this period, the only entry to the fortress was from the southern side, from inside the fortress: One had to first enter the gates of the Amberd gorge and then enter the fortress from that door. This entry is small and is safely protected by the basalt door which rotates around an axis supported by thick logs that enter into the special matching holes on the inside walls.
The two cisterns
There were two cisterns in Amberd. The little cistern was inside the fortress, under the floor of a quadranglar building with a volume of 45m³. The inside of the cistern is covered with a strong layer of lime mortar.
The water poured from the top, for which special fixtures were built both on the roof and floor. From there it poured into clay pipes through which a part of the water was taken out of the fortress to the cistern in the south of Amberd. This cistern, with a volume greater than 100 m³, is in an oblong building and is very similar to the first cistern in its construction method. During a siege, bathhouses could be used as cisterns; in peacetime, these cisterns were used for basic needs.
There is a circular building in the smooth area to the west of the church, measuring 2.5 m in height. Like other cisterns, this one is covered with waterproof lime mortar. It was difficult to wrap a large building like this, and water from an open cistern is not potable. As such, it was probably used as a water supply for animals. In those times, livestock was mainly herded out in the valleys and mountainsides of Armenia, especially around Amberd. Bagratuni kings had large reserves of hay and grass in Amberd. However, there were no pantries or storehouses for wheat and barley found in Amberd.
The bath house
The bath house is located about 70 km from the fortress, near the eastern enclosure, and is a key part of Amberd. Bath houses were common in big cities; Ani had seven, while Dvin had four or five.
It is constructed using polished basalt and clay. During the time period it was built, no clay was used in residential areas or government buildings, so this is very unusual. The entrance to the bathhouse had low stairs, and there were small red squares embedded in the walls.
The layout of the bath house is a rectangle with three rooms: a fireplace room, bathroom and cloakroom.
The cloakroom and bathroom each measure 25 m2. The fireplace room is vaulted and small, while the other rooms are domed with open skylights to let in light. Hot air and smoke traveled into the bath house from the firehouse and vented through four clay pipes to the roof.
The cloakroom’s tiled floor was raised to allow for piping which heated the building. Waste was removed through a different set of pipes.
Scientists believe the bath house was constructed sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries.
The bridge and the watermill
Amberd’s church inscription mentions the existence of a bridge, a watermill and a gristmill. The roads to Amberd are located between two rivers, which overflow in the spring. During that season it would be very difficult to cross without a bridge. The ruins of this bridge no longer exist.
Amberd had several watermills. The inscription reads “…jaghacn karmnchin vera…” In old Armenian, this means there was a watermill on the bridge, differentiating this particular watermill from the others in the region.
Amberd was originally built as an apartment for Amberd’s lords. The homes had wide rooms and southern oriented windows which allowed light and warmth in.
There are ruins of these houses in existence; some of the walls are still visible. These walls were likely covered in wooden logs, but they were made with polished basalt. These houses were built long before the fortress existed.
The apartment complexes
During the 1963 excavations, an apartment complex was unearthed near the western enclosure that, judging from archaeological materials, dates back to the thirteenth century. The complex consists of an oblong rectangular/quadrangular habitable room (30 square meters). The walls are built of half-hewn large basalt stones bound with earthen mortar. The enclosure acts as one of the walls of the room. Two other smaller buildings were unearthed adjacent to this room, natural auxiliary buildings. In 1964, excavations were conducted in a part of another apartment complex in the southern edge of the fortress that unearthed a tonratoon—a traditional Armenian bread bakery—and a small, luxurious living space (eight square meters). The walls are built of carefully hewn, 50 cm high, basalt stones. An ornately sculptured belt stretches upward from the first row of the walls. The room is cobbled. It is noteworthy that the walls of this so luxuriously constructed room were also built without any lime mortar. It must have been included in the apartment complex, because a lot of household articles, including large amounts of pottery items, were discovered here.
Another such room was uncovered during the excavations in 1968. The room size resembles that of the one discovered in 1964, only there is an irregular quadrangle in the former’s plan. Fewer archeological objects and pottery items were discovered in the latter room.
It turned out that the entry had been laid directly on the earth, and there were no further archeological layers under it. We may look at these circumstances and leap to the conclusion that this entrance of the fortress is the oldest, having existed from the very beginning of the construction of the fortress, and was closed probably in the twelfth century, when it was considered reasonable to open other entrances to the fortress. In later years, eastern and western walls artlessly built of small stones were attached to the two walls of that entrance and it became used as an apartment complex.
A cleaning-filtering cask, the strainer, was found that had a narrow mouth and a height of about 50cm . There are round holes on the two opposite sides of this cask that were designed for the water pipes. It was discovered that, prior to entering the reservoir, a pipeline left the Citadel separate from the common water pipe. Further studies showed that it was designed for supplying water to the reservoir; however, here we failed to study some areas because of the terrain.
Iron crosses and other artifacts
Crosses in medieval Armenia were generally made of copper or bronze. All the crosses found in the vicinity of the churches of Ani city were made of copper. Nevertheless, the crosses found near Amberd fortress were made of iron.
One such large iron cross is preserved in the museum at Holy Echmiadzin, and has been ascribed to Ashot the Iron. According to Professor B. Araqelyan, that iron cross was carried in front of the troops and dates back to the tenth century. The crosses found in Amberd are of a smaller size than those ascribed to Ashot the Iron.
It is very likely that the crosses found in Amberd were also carried in advance of troops, just like those ascribed to Ashot the Iron. At that time, Armenians had already adopted Christianity, and it is quite natural that their flags would be decorated with crosses. It is noteworthy that the procession of Mushegh Mamikonyan is depicted in one of the manuscripts preserved at the Matenadaran, during which flags were carried behind him, and here we see such crosses as those found in Amberd.
Many crosses can be found in the surroundings of Amberd, like the one discovered in the southern part of the church.
During the excavations conducted in 1963-1964, the following items were unearthed:
Many beautiful khachkars (cross stone)
Triangular sculpted stone found in the vicinity of the church
A bronze candlestick
A shield found in the Citadel
The water cleaning-filtering cask
A circular lance
Lances found in 1968
A tetrahedral arrowhead
A rhomboid arrowhead
A big axe
Parts of a sickle
A bronze tap
The excavations carried out in Amberd in the year of 1936 and during 1963-1968 have produced abundant archaeological material much of which is pottery. Though the excavations were not carried out on a large scale, nevertheless the findings stand out with their number and especially their significance.
If you are a tourist who wants to visit Armenia, you should definitely visit the ancient fortress of Amberd. It is an amazing place, which shows the power and glory of its kings and lords.
A trip to Amberd can be a really wild adventure, mostly because reaching the fortress is so difficult in the cold seasons. Late spring, summer and early autumn are the perfect time to visit Aragatsotn province.
Amberd is reachable by car, autobus and bicycle from Armenia’s Capital of Yervan, or many other cities and towns in the region. The roads in Armenia have been recently renovated and are in excellent condition. The highway to Aragats was included in this renovation.
As the road to Amberd starts to ascend, you will pass through an old village with an ancient graveyard full of stone markers. As you continue, you will begin to see only stones, and lots of them. The temperature will begin to drop as you get closer to the fortress. The wind is pretty strong, and it is cold at the altitude of more than 2000m.
There are some very beautiful mountain streams on the way to Amberd. Located on a cliff and visible from afar, the fortress stands harmonious with its surroundings. The view is breathtaking.
Video and Map
Video by Aren Galstyan
References and Credits
- E. Sinanyan
- S. V. Harutunyan
- K. K. Ghapadaryan
- A. A. Mirijanyan
- R. Hakobyan
- V. Gotis
- A. Galstyan