Sasun – The Heart of Ancient Armenia

Sasun, along with Taron, Ayots Dzor, and Maseatsotn, can rightly be called the heart of Armenia. This province embodies not only our centuries-old history – Sasun is the birthplace of the world-famous Armenian epic “Sasna Tsrer” (“Sasun Madmen”, an alternative name – “Sasuntsi David”) – this quintessence of the ancient pre-Christian Armenian tradition and the heroic spirit of our nation.

In line with the powerful and invincible heroes of the national epic, it was in Sasun that a whole galaxy of new heroes – fidayis, the very name of whom made the veins of the Turkish askers tremble – rose to the arena of Armenia’s military-political struggle for independence in the 19th-20th centuries. Sasun is the tenth province of the ashkhar of Akhtznik of Greater Armenia.

Fidayis Group

The oldest version of the name – Sassu, is found in the 8th century BC in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Assyrian king Tkhata Pallasar III. The etymology of this name dates back to one of the most ancient and most productive topo-forming roots of the Armenian language, namely to “sose” – the sycamore tree or plane tree, sacred to the Armenians.

In the plane tree groves of Greater Armenia (in Armenian – Soseats Antar), abundant throughout its territory, temples of the gods have been built since ancient times. And Armenian toponyms formed from the root “sose” can be found not only in our country – from Sasun and Sos to Shushi and Shushants, but also in neighboring states (for example, the capital of ancient Persia, Susa – Sos in Armenian and Shosh in Farsi).

And in Sasun itself, the three main fortresses were named Sasu (Sasun or Sanasunk – David’s fortress), Susants (Sus or Zuza) and Sos (Zuza Second). To complete the picture, let’s also present the folk etymology variants of the toponym Sasun, which best reflect the essence of this heroic province.

One of the folk versions associates the name Sasun with the Armenian root “tsasun” – furious, which is the quality endowed with the heroes of “Sasna Tsrer” – furious and ruthless to the enemies of Sasun Madmen.

Another witty tradition states that once the ceiling collapsed in the house of Mr. and Peto in the famous Sasun village of Talvorik. While all the men were looking for a new beam, one of the guests, a mighty Sasuntsi, propped up the ceiling with his hand and exclaimed: “sa msa sun” – here is your pillar!

The expansive Sasun province is located directly south of Taron and west of Lake Van and the city of Bahesh (Bitlis). It is one of the most mountainous, wooded, and inaccessible provinces of Armenia, occupying the southern foothills of the Armenian Main Taurus and the upper basin of the largest left tributaries of the Tigris – the rivers Kakhird (or Ba-Tman), Khulb, Andokajur (or Talvorik), Sasnojur and Salnodzor (in the lower course – Arzn, Kharzan). Geographically, a whole area with Sasun is composed of smaller provinces of Akhtznik – Salnodzor, Gzeh and Erhetk, as well as Turuberan – Aspakuneats Dzor and Khoit-Khut.

In the middle and new ages, all of them bore the common name Sasun, which over time (and to this day) began to be divided into 10 gavaraks – Bun Sasun (properly Sasun or Sasun Nest), Shatakh, Hut – Brnashen, Talvorik, Busank (or Psank), Hazzo, Motkan, Khulb, Khiank and Kharzan.

The Armenian Main Taurus with its branches and ridges limits Sasun from the north – these are the mountains of Khulb, Hutasar, Sevsar or Simsar and Khacharadzh, and from the southeast – the ridge of Sasun or Kharzan.

Despite the modest by Armenian standards heights (none of them reaches 3000 meters above sea level), the main peaks of all these mountains are symbols of the unattainable heights of the spirit of the Armenian people.

Andok, Tsovasar, Khozmo, Kepin, Marutasar or Maratuk – on these and many other mountains of Sasun, our fidayis fought against superior enemy forces, and along with them the rest of the Sasun people.

One such heroic peak, Tsovasar, is located in the very center of Sasun and reaches a height of 2721 meters above sea level. Folk tradition associates the name of the mountain with the spring-lake on its top, which is called Krnku lich or ts’ov (Crane Lake or Sea).

In general, the word “ts’ov”, later taking on the meaning of the sea, the Armenians initially designated any water basin, implying the sanctity of water, its life-giving power – “ts’ob” in Old Armenian meant “holy”.

Thus, the toponym Ts’ovasar means Holy Mountain – that’s how it is still called by the Kurds and Armenians-Sasun living here: Surbsar, Supsar (Ts’obsar). In 1894-1895, 1904 and 1915 Sasun people who rose to Ts’ovasar and nearby peaks Koshkrnots, Bitskar and Arjonts fought fierce battles against Turkish troops and Kurdish gangs hired by them.

Many episodes of the epic “Sasna Tsrer” are also associated with Ts’ovasar, where, for example, the story is told about the construction of a road to the top by Sasuntsi David from solid stone slabs – salovs; or about his famous shepherding, when David drove into the village not the sheep and goats that had spread over the vast slopes of Ts’ovasar, but caught wolves, foxes and bears. So, which village did he drive them into?

The discussion is about the largest of the Sasun settlements – Avan Kahkik or Kanach Kahak (Townlet or Green City), grown around the ancient fortress of Sasu, the construction of which the people also associated with the name of David – Davit Berd.

The village is now called Bozykan in Kurdish, but the fortress is still called Davit Berd. It is located at the southern foot of Tsovasar, at the confluence of the rivers Kus, Kapas, and Chahrank, which then merge into a single tributary flowing into the Sasnojur River starting from Mount Maratuk.

To the north of the fortress lies Kahkik-Bozykan, and 300 steps to the east – Chahrank. 3 km down the river is the village of Nerkin Kahkik, which has misled many Armenian scholars, who localized Davit Berd right there.

Unlike Nerkin Kahkik, the fortress and Avan Kahkik are located in a treeless area, however, abounding with orchards and vineyards. The grape varieties grown here are called Andjari, Zrnut, Etzu Ptuk, Ashnuk.

The Sasu Fortress or Davit Berd was built on the approach to the top of a steep mountain, rising between the rivers Kus and Kapas. As in many other Armenian fortresses, steep cliffs, caves, and other relief elements were skillfully used here.

According to eyewitness accounts from the Sasun people from the villages of the Talin district of the Republic of Armenia, the stones of the fortress were extensively used by local Kurds to build their homes. There were many mills around the fortress, Sasunci David himself installed the grindstone for the most famous of them, located in Chahrank.

He also, according to the epic “Sasna Tsrer”, founded the village – for Sasun women freed by him from the hands of Kozbadin. In 1847, the folk storyteller Tamo (Tovmas Davtyan) was born in Chahrank – it was from his words that one of the first full versions of the epic “Sasna Tsrer” was recorded.

Eyewitnesses describing Davit Berd tell about powerful rocks on the mountain, around which and on which the fortress was built, as well as about a staircase made of large slabs in forty steps leading to the entrance.

According to their testimonies, the height of the fortress walls was such that even the strongest Sasuns could hardly throw stones over them, and a bullet fired from a rifle at the confluence of Kapas and Kus barely reached the walls.

The antiquity of the fortress is confirmed, among other things, by the fact that there was no church inside, only crosses were later carved on the doors and some stones. Water was brought to David’s fortress from Tsovasar and other surrounding peaks – with clay pipes. The last battles in the fortress took place in the summer of 1904, after which Davit Berd turned into ruins.

The second fortress, Susants or Zuza (the same Sose-Sasu), is located on the opposite – northern slope of the mountain Tsovasar, in the Sasun gavarake Shatakh, on the left bank of the river with the same name (the left component of Talvorik), south of the villages Irityank and Tapyk, near the Bardzr Surb Astvatsatsin Monastery.

Darius I mentions it in his famous Behistun Inscription of 522-519 BC, calling it the fortress of Zuza (in another reading – Juza or Juha) in Armenia. Later, this fortress began to be called Susana or Susants-Shushants. Just above it, on the slope of Tsovasar under the name Susanats Voh, stands the small Dzoknats church-chapel.

On the same slope, there is a scatter of sandy-shale stones, which shine like gold in the sun and which, according to the same villagers’ stories, interested Americans in the late 19th century.

Finally, the third fortress, Sose-Zuza, is located in the extreme south of Sasun, in the gavar of Nprkert, directly southwest of the capital of Tigranakert – the city of Nprkert or Farkin (now Silvan), in the village of the same name – Sos, Susa.

The names of the surrounding villages – Zara or Zere (the oldest Sanskrit-Armenian Saraye – lake), Atshi, etc. testify to the former temple significance of the area. Some researchers believe that one of the cities of the god Khaldi was located here.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *