Sper, the Capital of the Gavar of the Same Name

The capital of the gavar Sper was the eponymous city, built in ancient times on the right bank of the Chorokh, in the northeastern part of the gavar, not far from the Darbenka mines. Sper is one of the oldest settlements in Armenia, mentioned by Armenian, Greco-Roman, Arab, and Georgian historiographers.

As for the name of the city and the entire gavar, it most likely derives from the root “aspar” (which translates from Armenian as “shield”) and symbolizes the border position of the gavar, which defended Greater Armenia in the northwest direction.

However, the etymological connections of the toponym with “asparez” (arena, place of action) or with “spyur” (dispersed over a large territory) are not without foundation. The Greeks called the gavar and the city Sisperis, the Turks – Ispir.


Both the city and the entire gavar in ancient and medieval times gained wide fame mainly thanks to the same iron mines of Darbenka, as well as the already mentioned silver and copper mines, which, according to Strabo, earned the Armenians the fame and honor of the first miners in the world.

Near the city, on a high rocky mountain, the ruins of the fortress and the city of Smbatavan, founded around the 2nd century BC, and destroyed by the Seljuks in 1048, are preserved. Both the fortress and the city that grew around it were often simply called Berd (fortress, citadel) by the Armenians, which served as the basis for their identification not with Sper, but with another city of the gavar – Baberd. Now Armenian studies consider this version to be incorrect.

In addition to the ancient iron ore developments of Darbenka, where the remains of mines and other structures are still visible, the city of Sper is famous for its surrounding villages, which have almost merged with it. This is primarily Matosants Gyukh with the ancient monastery of Surb Gevorg and the suburb of Matsants (Mants) located slightly higher in the mountains, where there was a large center of Armenian writing in the Middle Ages; this is Kaj with the church of Surb Astvatsatsin;

Kan with the ancient Horotka bridge over the Chorokh; Kohonts, Aygedzor (Egedzor), Djurnkets and others. Another picturesque bridge was located directly in the city, at the foot of the fortress. Both in Sper itself and in all the surrounding villages, there were Armenian schools, as well as khachkars and other monuments until 1915.

Despite the status of the capital of the gavar, Sper was inferior in its significance and trading activity to another city – Baberd, renamed by the Turks to Bayburt. Baberd is located on the left bank of the Chorokh almost in the middle of the Chorokh arc, in the west of the gavar Sper. Within the city, the river on the left takes two tributaries – Chorak and Djuirukh.

Here, in the bend of the Chorokh, on the steep mountain Kop, stands the famous Baberd Fortress, around which the remains of Cyclopean buildings have been preserved. The fortress of Baberd is first mentioned by Khorenatsi in the 5th century. According to Khorenatsi, it was a fortified city already from the 3rd century BC. Originally, the fortress belonged to the Armenian princely family Bagratuni.

It was completed and rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Sultan Mahmed in 1544. And in 1271, Marco Polo visited here on his way to China, leaving many testimonies about Baberd. The fortress suffered greatly during the Russo-Turkish war in 1829.

Many researchers identify Baberd with the Armenian fortress Pa mentioned in Hittite sources, which fits perfectly into the topo-linguistic framework of the Armenian language – Paberd, Baberd (Fortress of Pa, Ba).

According to archival data, in Baberd in 1914 there were over 450 Armenian houses. There were 5 Armenian churches in the city – Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Astvatsamayr, Surb Khreshtakapet, Surb Nshan and Surb Ohan. On 4 Armenian cemeteries, khachkars and 13-14th century tombstones were preserved.

In addition, there were Greek churches and mosques converted from churches in Baberd. Five ancient bridges were thrown over the Chorokh and its tributaries. Finally, there were two Armenian schools – Mesropyan and Ripsimyan, as well as a Greek school.

Throughout almost the entire Middle Ages and modern times, Baberd was a major trade center of Sper and all of Armenia, a transshipment point on the way from Karin to Trabzon. The Armenians of Baberd were known as skilled jewelers, and Baberd carpets and silk products were highly valued in all Middle Eastern markets.

In the 17th-19th centuries, Baberd also concentrated on the processing of Trabzon tobacco. The annual fairs held in Baberd in May-June, which lasted for about two weeks, were very popular.

The Armenian population of Baberd was subjected to acts of genocide three times. After the Russo-Turkish war of 1829, when the city was given to the Turks by the Treaty of Adrianople, 1000 families fled from here to Eastern Armenia and the Akhaltsikhe region.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the subsequent Berlin Congress were even more disastrous for the Armenians of Baberd. On September 30, 1895 alone, about 1400 Armenians died in Baberd and the surrounding villages. For the third time, the Russians liberated Baberd on July 15, 1915, but in 1918 they again gave it to the Turks. 10,000 Armenians either died or scattered around the world.

In Baberd, as in many areas of northwestern Armenia (Derdzhan, Karin-Arzrum, Taik, etc.), a fairly significant number (according to some estimates, up to 3 million) of so-called “crypto-Armenians” still remain, whose veins carry the blood of their ancestors, who were forcibly Islamized in the 17th-19th centuries.

Directly north of Baberd lies the quite extensive and very fertile plain of Balahora, among whose settlements the village of Tomna should be specially mentioned – the birthplace of the Armenian national hero Sepuh (Arshak Nersesian). A fedayee, military leader, comrade-in-arms of Andranik and Murad Sebastatsi, participant of the Sardarapat battle, Sepuh was born in 1872, his ashes rest in Detroit (USA).

On the way from Baberd to Little Armenia, near the Trabzon pass, which ends the Balahora plain to the west, lie the ruins of another major city of Sper, where Armenian life thrived in the Middle Ages. This is Varazahan or Varzaan, mentioned in written sources from 1314.

Among the churches of Varazahan, Ut Horan Surb Astvatsatsin occupies a special place with its extraordinary architecture. According to sources, during the period of its heyday, Varazahan had 1800 houses of Armenian population.

In the ancient vast cemetery of the former city, there are many khachkars, as well as the oldest “hoyakerp” tombstones – with relief images of a ram. In the vicinity of the ruins, finds of clay pipes – remnants of ancient irrigation systems – are still not uncommon.

To the southeast of Sper, between it and Karin, lies one of the relatively little-studied gavars of ashkhar Bardzr Aik of Greater Armenia – Shahagomk. The first mention of it we find in the Armenian historian of the 5th century, Ghazar Parpetsi. Shahagomk is located in the interfluve of the two great river systems of Armenia – Chorokh and Euphrates.

The northwestern part of the gavar is formed by the valley of the regi Shohaga – a left tributary of the upper course of the Chorokh-Chormairi, bounded by the Bozon and Shahagomk ranges, and the southeast is occupied by the valley of the right tributary of the Upper Euphrates – the Shahagomk or Serchem river.

The ruins of the administrative center of the gavar with the same name lie in the upper reaches of Shahagomk-Serchem, in the Eriza mountains, between the settlements of Vank-Shahagomk (among Turks – Uch Kilise, which means Three churches) and Ehaberd (Ihalikala).

Here, in the monastery of Shahagomk, according to the testimonies of Armenian historiographers, Mesrop Mashtots in the beginning of the V century founded one of the first schools of Armenia. Ghazar Parpetsi also mentions that Vaan Mamikonyan fortified himself in this gavar during the military campaign against the Persian military leader Khazaravukht.

A little to the north of the ruins of Shahagomk lies the village of Hnaberd (Toprak-Kala), after which, over the Akhske pass, begins the gavar Sper and the forest of Maireats Antar. In the mountains of Shahagomk, numerous ruins of ancient shepherds – gomov have been preserved, the abundance of which, most likely, gave the gavar its name.

Let’s not forget at the same time that the most ancient meaning of the root “gom” is a sanctuary, dicatun, a temple of the gods. Over time, the meaning of the root transformed into a suburb or “outs”, located mainly above the main village; and finally, it acquired its present meaning.

Among the villages of Shahagomk, Gutannots (gutan in Armenian – plow, variants of the name – Kotanis, Kotanes) located in the lower part of the Shohaga valley, and Tsiranevank (or Ziravank) with the monastery of the same name in the Shahagomk-Serchem valley stand out.

Movses Khorenatsi characterizes the gavar of Shahagomk as “anapat and ovanavor” (desolate and shady). Indeed, the valleys of Shohaga and Shahagomk – Serchem, as well as the Shenaevran (Janaoren) valley lying between them, are comparatively sparsely populated, and the Bozon and Shahagomk mountains lack vegetation.

The gavar is often mentioned as part of Karin. In any case, Shahagomk is a part of our country that needs further research.

Taking into account the meaning of the oldest root “gom”, as well as considering the proximity of the mountains of Vishapasar with Armenian vishap-stones, one can speak about the importance of Shahagomk as one of the earliest centers of Armenian pre-Christian culture and the oldest Armenian pantheon.

In support of this, one can also interpret the meaning of the aforementioned definition of Khorenatsi “ovanavor” – after all, in addition to shade or shelter, this word means patronage, and such a quality “father of history” could well endow the ruins of “gom”-temples, and not “gom”-sheepfolds.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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