Vishapasar – The Sacred Mountain of Nakhichevan

When I was very young, my youngest aunt would seat me on our balcony in an overturned chair and keep me occupied with toys. Despite the colorful toys, I would stretch my hand towards the marvelous blueish-grey “air balloon” hanging over the horizon…

The “toy” of my dreams was Vishapasar – the sacred mountain of the people of Nakhichevan, the magnificent arch of which clearly stood out at any end of the region and has today become a symbol of the enduring homesickness for Armenians living in foreign lands from Nakhichevan.

This mountain is situated between two provinces—Erndjak of the Syunik Ashkhar and Gokhtn of the Vaspurakan Ashkhar of historical Armenia—at the southwestern foothills of the Zangezur mountain range, at the watershed of the rivers Gilan and Erndjak, 20 km east of the city of Nakhichevan, at an altitude of 2412 meters above sea level.

The sight of its slender column, rising directly from the plateau, lends it a unique grandeur and beauty, making it dominate the surrounding area. Its summit is twin-peaked, rocky, and almost devoid of vegetation but in places is wrapped in juniper bushes. Its slopes are furrowed with sharply outlined ravines and gorges.

The French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier compared this astonishing mountain to the French Tenerife, and the Catholic priest Augustin Bazhents compared it to the Spanish Montserrat. In Armenian primary sources, it has been mentioned under various names like Vishapasar, Odzasar, Ajdanakan, Bolu, Groom and Bride. The Persians called it Kuhe Daak and Kuhe Zaak, the Arabs – Ajdanakan, and the Turkic-Tatars – Ilanlu, Ilandag, Plandag…

The image of this mountain accompanied me throughout my childhood and adolescence. It imprinted itself onto my infant soul as the first astonishing sense of the beauty of nature, which amazed me with its grandeur and mystery from the roof of the Church of Saint Gregory in my native Aznaberd…

…And now—a vision of visions… I recall one of the legends I heard about this mountain, which I put into verse years ago.

In ancient, primordial times,
When a devastating, cataclysmic flood
Engulfed, covered the entire God’s world,
When the Almighty unleashed a flood
Of His own deep and terrible wrath
Upon the sinful heads
Of pitiful humanity,
When by God’s will, Noah, the forefather,
Sailed on a massive ark toward the Summit of Salvation,
At midnight with a new thunderous noise
The ship was pierced; it trembled, crashing
Against the rocky mountain peak, the ark.

And Naapet, waking from his sleep,
Cursed in fury
The ominous peak
That shattered the ark carrying the seeds
Of salvation for a life thirsty for redemption;
“Be cursed,” he said, “let snakes inhabit
Your waterless, barren, bare cliffs.”
And from that terrible curse, the mountain split open,
Becoming a vishap with an open maw…

… Many, many years have passed since then,
On the heavenly-turquoise foothills of the land of Gokhtan
Stands the mountain—like a massive vishap,
The mountain Otsasar—
In ancient times
It was called Vishapasar and Ajdanakan;
In the spring, its slopes are covered with a green velvet carpet,
And on its bare, pointed cliffs in the summer heat,
Snake families stir,
Wriggling, crawling, glittering with their shimmering skin,
Reminding us
Of Noah’s distant curse…

Around Vishapasar (Dragon Mountain), a multitude of legends and tales have accumulated since ancient times. These stories have passed from generation to generation with some variations and have reached us today. Part of the legends were recorded in his “Avandapatum” by the distinguished folklorist Aram Ganalanyan, while the rest are remembered by the elderly inhabitants of Nakhichevan.

One of these legends tells of a King of Snakes that lived on Mount Masis, with a gemstone-encrusted crown on his head. Every seven years, all the snakes in the vicinity would come to visit him. Once, the King of Snakes went for a ride in his fiery chariot. Along the way, the chariot collided with a mountain, splitting its peak into two parts.

Since that day, the mountain, which resembles the head of a snake with an open maw, is called Otsasar (Snake Mountain). According to a third legend, Otsasar was home to seven snake brothers who were bound by such strong love that if six were killed, the seventh would pursue the murderer and undoubtedly avenge his brothers.

Here also lived the King of Snakes with his two brothers. Every day, as the sun poured fire from the sky, he would gather his subjects; they would descend to a stream to drink water and then return to the mountain slopes.

One of the romantic legends is about Otsasar. A loving couple, unable to unite, decided to run away to the mountains. But when their pursuing relatives caught up with them, God turned them into stone; hence, the mountain is called Bride and Groom.

Another legend says that Alexander the Great, during one of his campaigns, placed the female half of his camp on this mountain and set snakes to guard it. From that day on, the mountain became abundant with snakes.

According to yet another legend, ten thousand brave men from the Ararat country once perished on this mountain. Their memory is traditionally commemorated with an annual liturgy and ritual ceremonies.

The seventh legend, though not the last, claims that the relics of holy virgins are buried on Vishapasar, and in their memory, the Kusanats Chapel (Virgin’s Chapel) was built.

…A unique picture unfolds before my eyes: ahead, in the apricot-raspberry sunset against the sky-blue turquoise sea spread right in front of me, rises my Vishapasar—looming over the entire mountainous region of Vayots Dzor, Zangezur, and Nakhichevan…

With unspeakable longing, my gaze glides from its majestic peak to the plateau stretched out below, where I try to discern the traces of once-existing Armenian villages—Norashen, Krna, Poradashta, Hoshkashen, Kznuta—the birthplaces of Garegin Nzhde, Abrakunis, Aparanner. According to historian Argam Ayvazyan, these are the native villages of Tigran Petrosyan’s parents…

A skinny soldier, originally from Ashtarak, hands me binoculars, but I prefer to savor the real view, absorbing it with my eyes and storing it away in the most cherished corners of my memory…

“By the greatness of God Khaldi, Ishpuini son of Sardur says: Menua son of Ishpuini conquered the land of the city of Artsine, conquered the land of the city of Artsikume, conquered the land of the city of Ish…, conquered the land of the city of Ayaniane, killed people, expelled. Upon returning, erected a monument to Khaldi on Mount Bulua.

He established the order: let one calf be sacrificed to Khaldi on Mount Bulua.” This five-line lapidary inscription from the Ararat Kingdom (Urartu) was discovered on August 11, 1989, on the western slope of Otsasar (possibly, at the location of this monument, the Kusanats Chapel was later founded) by Moscow archaeologist Valeriy Igumnov. This was when Nakhichevan had already been entirely emptied, and a new, more rampant phase of the destruction of Armenian cultural monuments began at the state level by Azerbaijan…

… My uncle is taking me from our summer shelter in the mountains to the village. It’s the end of August, and in a few days, I will be going to school. We ride on our red steed, and I grasp tightly onto my uncle’s leather belt with both hands.

As the horse’s gait alternately quickens and slows, the mountains seem to move up and down, forward and backward, whirling in a dance. Our mountains are variegated—black and white, pink and apricot, even purple and lilac…

Their colorful dance is interrupted by the peaceful and tranquil sight of the dazzlingly white massive mountain—Anapata, followed by a panorama of apricot-pink cliffs, which according to legend, are none other than a wedding turned to stone ages ago.

From here, you can already see our village, the green gardens stretching across its three ravines, houses with white roofs, and the grayish-blue smoke rising from ovens where bread is being baked, and… the most wonderful toy of my childhood, hanging on the horizon…

That day—on the eve of the first school day—I finally became convinced that Otsasar is a mountain, and that mountains, like seas, lakes, and rivers, appear blue and azure from a distance… And my uncle showed me the Araks river stretching far away like a shining blue ribbon, and the Parspatuniats mountains, which were exactly the same color as Otsasar… And later, years after, I realized that Vishapasar is my mountain, my eternal mountain, the millennia-old spirit and symbol of my lineage, the cryptogram of its survival and the omnipotent key to its rebirth…


Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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