The History of Ancient Taron – Armenia

Beginning another cycle of conversations about Armenia, about travelling around the homeland, I pondered for a long time on how exactly to organize this journey. Geographically, it would be justified to plan it in some sequence, for example, from west to east, or alphabetically – from Ararat to Utik, and so on.

However, from a geopolitical perspective, if you will, such an approach is overly utilitarian and does not achieve its main goal. And our goal, as has already been discussed in one of our conversations, is to acquaint the Armenian reader with his entire country, to restore the deepest connection of people-land-faith, which, originating from the times of Hayk Nahapet, still nourishes our nation.

Indeed, sometimes it fails. That’s why we will travel through our great country haphazardly, not subjecting ourselves to any sequences. Because there is no difference between Yerevan and Arabkir, Stepanakert and Mush, Baberd and Arzn-Rum, between Artsakh and Akhdznik, Javakhk and Korchayk – all these are cities and provinces of a single country – Great Armenia. And this unity cannot be eradicated from our genofund.

I would like to say one more thing before the journey. When our path will take us to Western or extreme Eastern Armenia, we will not repeat time and again that the vast majority of villages, cities, or monuments we will talk about are now either in ruins, completely destroyed, or distorted beyond recognition. We will talk not about their present state – but about their past and the future, which we hope to be equally glorious.

We will start the journey itself from the very center of our Armenia. Between Lake Van and the Byurakn plateau – the very one where the Biblical paradise is located – in the southwestern part of the ashkhar of Turuberan of Greater Armenia, in the basin of the middle course of the glorious river Aratsani (Eastern Euphrates) and its left tributary Mehraget, one of the most famous and renowned provinces of our country, Taron, is located.

The history of Taron dates back to the immemorial times of Hayk the Forefather, – a history rich in various events, glorious names, world-famous monuments, a history sung by many poets and writers. According to the testimony of Movses Khorenatsi, the name of the province was given by Noah’s grandson Taravn (Tarban).

“The Father of History” writes that after Noah had sailed to Armenia and reached land, one of his sons, Shem (or Sim), headed northwest. Here, in the valley through which flowed a river heading towards Assyria (Aratsani-Euphrates), he settled down.

The elongated mountain outlining this valley, he named after himself, Shem – these are the famous Simsar or Sevsar mountains rising south of Mush. The village he founded still exists to this day and is also named after him – Semal.

These are the gates of Sasun. Through Semal and the neighboring Shenik goes the only road from Mush to Sasun. Taravn, or Tarban, was the youngest of Shem’s sons. With his numerous offspring (30 sons and 15 daughters!), he parted with his father and stayed to live near the Aratsani River.

Here his sons dispersed across the vast plain and founded their villages. After Taravn’s name, the whole province got the name Taron. And in the place where Taravn parted with his numerous sons, the village of Tsonk – Scatter, still stands.

In Tsonk, there were two Armenian churches and a school, opened in 1861 through the efforts of Mkhitar Vardapet. On April 24, 1899, in Tsonk, there was a battle between a group of Armenian fedayis led by Gurgen and the Turkish regular forces. In the unequal battle, Gurgen and most of his squad were killed.

The information provided by Khorenatsi is confirmed by the historian Olympiodoros, who also adds that the above history was recorded in manuscripts that did not even reach ancient times. However, Olympiodoros claims that all this was often told by the “elders of the Aramean people”.

In Hittite sources, Taron is mentioned under the name Taruishi, in Latin – under the name Tavrancium. Many Armenian studies scholars associate the name of the province of Taron with a branched system of parallel mountain ridges crossing Armenia from west to east – Tavros.

There are mountain ranges such as the Main Armenian Tavros, Southern, Northern and Inner Armenian Tavros, as well as Cilician Tavros. The name of the entire ashkharh (province) in which Taron is located, Turuberan, is also connected with this root, meaning the foothills (mouth – beran) of Tavros, Tavru Beran.

The root itself, “tavr” or “taur” – is pre-Indo-European, with the meaning of “mountainous” – Tavros ranges in Armenia and Tauern in the Eastern Alps of Austria, the ancient Greek name of Crimea Taurica, Taurida, etc. Let’s add for completeness another Armenian topographic root – “tar” (nest), because “tarel” – to sit on a nest, carries the meaning of “to settle down”, to stay somewhere to live, to establish oneself…

A very poetic and beautiful description of Taron is given in the 4-7th centuries work “History of Taron” (Patmutyun Taronoy): “This is a good country and its territories, the air is fragrant, the valley is rich in water, and there are many fortresses on the mountains around.

This country is covered with lush grass, it is honey-bearing, and like manna from heaven, its greenery and forests, sweeter than honey, and is called gazapen… This country is full of all kinds of riches, it is fortunate, and healing…”

Pay attention to the term “gazapen” or “gazpen”, which the Armenian language uses to denote “manna from heaven” – that is, fertility, abundance of harvest. Don’t you notice the connection with the toponyms Gaspe, Caspi, Kesab, Caspian Sea, etc.?!

The oldest center of Taron was Ashtishat – one of the main holy cities of pre-Christian Armenia, located on the right bank of the Aratsani River, at the foot of the sacred mountains Karkeo or Avatamk, almost opposite the famous fortress Vohakan.

In Ashtishat, the main sanctuaries of Armenia were located, dedicated to the god Vahagn and the goddesses Anahit and Astghik. Here, with a large gathering of people, the holidays of Navasard and Vardavar were held on a grand scale, with the participation of the king himself and the high priest. The city itself was sometimes called Erek Bagink (Three Temples).

With the adoption of Christianity, the temples and their rich decorations were destroyed and plundered, but the city did not lose its importance. In 439, Catholicos Saak Partev, and later his daughter Shushanik, were buried in the church founded by Gregory the Illuminator, which has since been called Surb Saak Monastery.

The lands of Ashtishat became the personal property of the Armenian Catholicos, and later – the princely house of Mamikonians. The city hosted many church councils, one of which in 356 strictly prohibited polygamy. The name Ashtishat is associated with “asht” – sacrifice, that is, a place of sacrifice (temple).

The root “asht” can also be associated with “ashtanak” – candelabrum, and with “hasht” – either a sacrifice, or a porch, the anteroom part of the temple. In any case, the meaning is associated with the temple, sanctuary. The ending “shat” carries the oldest meaning of a settlement, a city, from where later “shahr”, “shahar” – Persian-Arabic “city”, and shater – a nomadic camp.

In Armenia, many cities have this ending – Ashtishat, Artashat, Arshamashat and others. Now on the site of Ashtishat there is the village of Derik. The Kurds put in the word “derik” borrowed from the same Armenian “dzorik” the meaning of a small gorge, ravine.

In reality, the root comes from the ancient Armenian, and later – Assyrian “Der”, “Deyr”, which meant “desert”, “secluded temple” – hence, for example, Der-Zor, Arabic Deir-ez-Zor. As we can see, the sanctity of the place is preserved even in the absence of carriers of this sanctity – Ashtishat, City of Temples, became Derik – Temple.

A beautiful legend is associated with the name of the goddess of beauty Astghik. Astghik loved to bathe in the Aratsani river near the fortress of Vohakan and the waterfall Grgur (i.e. bubbling). Young shepherds, enchanted by the beauty of the goddess, made it a habit to spy on the bathing of the naked Astghik.

Noticing this, she began to fog the entire valley of Aratsani during her bathing. It is because of the frequent fogs that Mush was named – that is, mshushapat, foggy. The fortress of Vohakan – perhaps the most famous of the Armenian medieval fortresses – is located on the left bank of the Aratsani, 6-7 km from the river, near the once large city of Dagonk, above the village of Artert or Erteft.

The villages located on the site of Dagonk and Vohakan bear eloquent names – the first is called Ziyaret, which means “holy martyr” or “almighty” (Zoravor), and the second – Khurbe Khyfekyan, in the Kurdish transcription – Old (harab – damaged, destroyed) Vohakan. Hittite sources mention it under the name Ulakan.

Vohakan was the most famous fortress not only of Taron, but also of all Armenia, owned by the princely houses of Slkuni, and then Mamikonians. Vohakan is mentioned in the 4th century by Zenob Glak, in the 5th century – by Buzand, Khorenatsi, Yeghishe.

The last page of the fortress’s history relates to the 10th century, when King Gagik Artsruni, who had fortified himself in Vohakan, resisted the Arab conquerors for a whole year. After that, the fortress is no longer mentioned in the sources. The great Raffi gave a wonderful description of its ruins. The remains of defensive walls, ruins of towers and buildings are still preserved.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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