Ancient Underground City in Spitak – Once on the Caravan Route

Ancient Underground City in Spitak - Once on the Caravan RouteAleksandr Milovsky’s article published in the Russian geographic magazine ‘’Vokrug sveta” (literally meaning “around the world”) in March 1981 tells us about an underground cave settlement in the city of Spitak, Armenia. By the time the article was published, there hadn’t been any more or less serious investigations of the settlement, so the evidence Milovsky published probably needs correction.

In the underground settlement, a 2nd-century BC stone of Armenian King Artashes I with inscriptions on the mysterious Aramaic language was discovered. It was just one of the well-preserved artifacts of the city, although the best preserved monuments are 12th-century belowground settlements. In the Armenian Highlands, there are several similar settlements discovered. See more Here and Here

We don’t have detailed information about the settlement in question at the moment. Almost no photos as well, apart from an image of Artashes’ stone and some other photos published by Milovsky in 1981, as well as several photos provided by Manvel Manveli.

Once on the caravan route

Only now, it becomes evident that this is a city. A powerful explosion opened an entrance to a cave. The workers building the Leninakan (Gyumri) – Kirovakan (Vanadzor) highway peeked into it and found stairs cut in the gray tuff leading into the depths of the rock…

This happened in the Pambak Canyon near Spitak, a district center in the north of Armenia, in 1977. During the subsequent three field seasons, the expeditionary group of Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of Academy of Sciences of the republic has been pushing through the centuries-old layer of soil towards the foundation of the hill housing a cave settlement.

I no longer needed to say “Open Sesame” as the open black holes in the hill illuminated by the sunlight attracted us into the now available yet mysterious caves. Dark passageways, stairways cut out in the stone, insidious pits under the feet that once were used to store grain… Honestly, it was not so difficult to get lost in this labyrinth.

Together with archaeologists Aram Kalantaryan and Gagik Sargsyan, we made our ways from one cave into another through narrow slopes, climbed the hill with a view of the living quarters of the 12th-century underground settlement, descended into industrial quarters with a variety of pits used as furnaces, which were mostly used to fire clay and smelt iron.

A church, family crypt, a spacious caravan-barn, an enfilade of grottos going deep into the mountain were preserved in the 3-story underground city (although there have been at least 5 stories before the builders of the intercity highway damaged the upper levels). Each cave is of artificial origin.

The collection of items of the material culture retrieved during the excavations is quite rich and varied – it includes red and black polished vessels, 12th-century pottery, stone tiles with carved décor, metal tips of battle arrows, 13th-century Byzantine and Mongolian copper and silver coins, conical, pottery instruments, smelting furnaces, and remains of fabrics and leather.

During the investigation of the settlement, perhaps the unluckiest individual was epigraphist Gagik Sargsyan, who was most interested in ancient Armenian inscriptions. However, an ancient stone with Aramaic inscription of king Artashes I was discovered in a nearby river. Only 8 similar stones are known, and the Spitak stone is the most well-preserved.

“The discovered city holds many secrets,” said the head of the archaeological group Kalantaryan, “Several cave structures are known in Armenia, including the famous Geghard monastery cut out in a rock, small cave settlements in Goris and Khndzoresk, but this is the first cave city of such large scale that is known to have sheltered hundreds of people.”

Nonetheless, an analog of the Spitak cave city exists. It is Ani, an ancient capital of Armenia now located in Shirak Province. 1915 description of Ani written by D. A. Kipshidze features interesting numbers – around 400 residential rooms, 30 churches, 13 crypts, 2 monasteries, 11 underground streets, and… 16 dovecotes. However, no single word about production analogous to Spitak’s!

Spitak underground city was established on the main caravan route from Ani to Georgia, several tens of kilometers from the capital. This could explain why the city features the architecture of Ani, though it is somewhat scaled down.

Why did the Armenians, who built such gorgeous structures as the 1st-century Garni pagan temple or several Medieval Christian temples, begin to bury themselves in the years of their country’s peak development? Though the word “cave” is strongly associated with primeval lifestyle, Spitak underground settlement decorated with frescos and stone carving is rather comfortable. It differs from regular cities in the fact that it was cut out within stone rather than built with it. On the other hand, the cave city was much more secure during wars and raids. Historical examples are expressive enough.

For instance, unnamed Georgian chronicler of Queen Tamar reports that at the Easter night of 1211, Ardabili sultan suddenly attacked the temples of Ani during prayer and killed 12,000 citizens. The rest escaped only thanks to the underground districts of the city. Another advantage of underground settlements is that in winter, cold doesn’t affect the interior conditions that much.

Spitak excavations testify that in the 14th century, the city was subjected to a devastating attack. However, it came to life once again in the 16th-18th centuries, though it was soon forever abandoned. Time didn’t have mercy on the memory of the city. There are no traces of it in written sources as well.

The Spitak discovery gradually reveals the lost pages of the Armenian history to the scientists.

Magazine “Vokrug sveta”, Aleksandr Milovsky, March 1981.

Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի
Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի
Photo by the author of the publication
Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի
Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի
Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի
Photo: Մանվել Սամվելի


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