The Origins of Maritime Navigation in Armenia – Nav-kats

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Armenian Maritime Research Club “Ayas,” one of whose founders is your humble servant.

After the completion of the construction of “Cilicia” – a replica of the medieval merchant ships of Cilician Armenia, and its famous journey around Europe (your humble servant also served as the boatswain on “Cilicia”), the club engaged in other projects to restore the history of Armenian navigation and shipbuilding.

In this publication, we would like to talk about the many amazing and, at the same time, logical discoveries made by the club during its scientific activities, which continue to this day.

The first reaction to the topic of Armenian seafaring has always been somewhat banal, but perhaps also a rather sacred question about whether we are restoring Noah’s Ark.

Griqor Narekatci

Naturally and understandably – the Armenians, the keepers of the world’s first Christian hearth and the hosts of the Biblical stronghold of humanity, the mountain refuge of Ararat, view shipbuilding and seafaring primarily through the prism of the legendary journey of Noah, who came from Palestine to the Armenian mountains.

But the roots of our nation’s self-awareness, the genetic memory of the many-thousand-year history of our own nav-kats, are alive in today’s Armenian thinking.

Language is a pure mirror of the mentality and history of a nation; our language preserves and cherishes the most ancient concepts, the original meaning of which, when understood impartially and correctly, is astonishing…

So, the most ancient, concise, striking roots that go to the very essence of the phenomenon. Nav – a vessel, a ship, a means of moving through water, having a corresponding form. From here “nav” – a burial, a cemetery, which in essence is our last refuge, and at the same time, the means for a person’s final “sailing” into another world.

From this comes “nav-kats” – a haven on a ship, more broadly – navigation, the rules of ship management, navigation. From this also comes “nav” or “nef” – the longitudinal part of a church. Navaz – sailor, navavar – helmsman, navants – fairway…

All concepts and terms of “nav”igation were borrowed from the Armenian language by Latin, and from Latin – by many European languages. Why? Because the Armenian nation was one of the first in the world to engage, among other things, in fishing, shipbuilding, and seafaring, creating corresponding words in its ancient language.

Next – “tsov.” “Tsov” – sea, water space, extensive water basin. Along with it is the twin word “tsob” – sacred, holy, revered. And a whole series of concepts associated with these meanings – Tsobadzor (sacral, temple gorge), Tsopk or Tsovк, Tsobk – a region in Greater Armenia, a land of temples, pilgrimage; also a lake with a temple – and from this comes the Hellenized Sophene of ancient Greek authors, which over time became Sophia. Hagia Sophia of Constantinople – literally Holy Temple, Tsob.

From this also comes Sufis – “pure,” that is, holy pilgrims and hermits of Islam. Here we also find Tsovinar – literally “sea water,” “born by the sea” – this is the name of the primordial mother of the Armenian pantheon, as well as the mother of the wild Sasun heroes.

And here is the most interesting part. The word “tsov” was originally used by Armenians to denote not only the sea itself but also a lake, which is also a water space. To this day, for example, Lake Sevan in Armenian toponymy is called Geghama tsov (Geghama Sea), Van – Vana tsov or Tsov Bznuneats, Urmia – Kaputan tsov (Blue Sea).

Even tiny ponds scattered across the Armenian Highlands are named with the term “tsov” – Lake Tsover near Dsekh, Tzrkatsov (Leech Sea) in Artsakh. The fact is that the concepts of water and sacredness in ancient Armenian were identical, hence the connection “tsob-tsov” – the sanctity of water, providing life to all living things, was initially understood.

And the confirmation of this is the widespread cult of Vishap – the dragon, the guardian of water, initially – of the phallus, that is, of the life-giving principle. The lake itself, as well as the swamp, was designated in ancient Armenian by the word “mar” or “mor”. And it is from here that “mare” – sea – appeared in Latin.

Thus, all concepts with the meaning of “mar”itime, “mor”ine are borrowings from Armenian. Here, it is worth recalling the direct calque in Russian – the evaporations above a swamp, called “marevo”, and the Armenian “mar-mor” – swamp. And the Artsakh ridge Mravsar – cloudy, misty, smoky.

And the oldest, still existing center of Armenian metallurgy – Metsamor, a large swamp. The remnants of this swamp, born from the wandering of the Araks River bed, are Lake Metsamor (Aknaich) and the Metsamor River (Sevdjur) in the Armavir region.

And finally, the root “nar” – water, flow, stream, which gave rise to the ancient Armenian Nairi and the ancient Arabic Nahr – the land of rivers and water. Major rivers in the Arab world (and in the Turkic world that calqued it) still bear names with the term “nahr” – nar, nairi, water.

With the same meaning in ancient Armenian and ancient Persian, there existed the root “ab” – water stream, river. In Armenia, there are rivers named Ab and derivatives from it; in Greater India – the Punjab region, that is, the land of five rivers. In modern Armenian, “ab” or “ap” means shore (Arapı – on the shore, Jrapı – water’s edge, Srav – coastal gorge, Dzorap – bank, slope of the gorge).

Here is a powerful cultural and linguistic series, born many millennia ago in Armenian and passed into many languages, associated with water, sea, sacredness, and navigation – nav, tsob, tsov, ab, nar, mar, mor. To all this, let’s add “dan” – the most ancient Indo-European (Armenian) root with the same meaning of water, river – Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, Don, Ardon, Hrazdan – all these are names of rivers.

Where did ancient people build their homes? Near water, a source, on the shore of a lake, sea, or river – closer to life-giving moisture. And what is the word for home in Armenian? Tun – and it is not only a structure, a dwelling, – it is a hearth, homeland, country – Tun Torgoma, Hayots Tun. So, “don” or river, water stream – is the same Armenian “tun,” that is, a dwelling, home, native land.

Question – could a nation, possessing such a unique and ancient linguistic layer reflecting maritime themes related to primal beliefs and myths, not be associated with maritime types of economic activity? The answer is, of course, it couldn’t. And the club “Ayas,” established in 1985, took on the task of restoring the history of this aspect of Armenian reality.

One of the first “minor” sensations discovered during the research was a legend associated with a place on the shore of Lake Van. On the southwestern coast of Van, not far from the large medieval Armenian port of Datvan, there is a rock named hAyek.

In general, this root in Armenian toponymy is quite common and productive. hAyek, hAyeleak means a high lookout point, a rock, or a mountain with a convenient viewing platform.

By the way, the toponym gave birth to the term “hAyek” – which refers to the so-called “crow’s nest”, a platform arranged at the top of a ship’s mast for observing the surrounding area. Now, connected with the rock on the Van shore is an ancient Armenian legend about the worldwide flood and a life-saving vessel…

Yes, besides Noah and his ark, according to this legend, another ship was built on Van, which, however, was not destined to sail the waves. A certain woman asked the captain of the ship to take her only son onboard, but her request was denied.

In retaliation, she wove a rope overnight, to which she tied the ship to the rock hAyek, and when the water rose, the ship couldn’t float. Thus, another one should be added to the list of flood legends – an ancient Armenian one, constructed, as we see, in such a way as not to “interfere” with Noah in carrying out his mission.

The second sensation was the discovery, again on Van, of a shipbuilding node developed by Van specialists “nav-katsa,” used exclusively on this Armenian sea lake.

In any case, nothing like this has been discovered anywhere else in the world so far. The thing is, on Lake Van, as on many other lakes, the winds blow with sufficient consistency for several hours or even days in the same directions.

One of these winds on Lake Sevan, for example, is very well known to our yachtsmen and sailors and is called “mazra” after the Masrik valley from where it blows. Naturally, the ancient Armenian shipbuilders of Van were familiar with the characteristics of the local winds.

Resourceful craftsmen decided to use them to simplify the management of the vessel. On many Van ships, the images of which are found in Armenian miniatures, a mast with a bifurcated top (upper end) was installed, similar to the branching of a tree into two trunks. In the Armenian language, such branching is called “hacha.”

Hence our toponyms hAchadjur – the place where two rivers merge (the related root “had” gave the name to the ancient Armenian-Ancient Persian hAdrut – river merging), hachasar or Jukhtak sar – double mountain, double peak.

From this comes the term Van shipbuilding – “hacha,” which is a mast with branching at the top. Into this branching, by means of the corresponding ropes, a yard – a wooden pole to which the sail is attached – was raised and inserted.

Since the wind blows in a constant direction for 12 or more hours, the people of Van inserted the yard into the hacha of the mast and during the entire voyage from Datvan to Van, they did not touch it, did not change the course, and the position of the rigging (the totality of the ship’s wooden equipment). And in the morning, the wind changed precisely to the opposite – and again there was no need to change anything.

Sometimes they even replicated the shape of the bow and stern – they built so-called “makuyk” – small boats, so as not to turn the vessel. Such is the ingenuity of Van, which has given the world this unique shipbuilding node!

Certainly, many pages of the Armenian “nav-katz” are associated with Van. The great Armenian poet of the Middle Ages, Grigor Narekatsi, who has been canonized by both the Armenian and Roman churches, made an invaluable contribution to the history of Armenian shipbuilding terminology.

Born in the coastal village of Narek in the province of Rshunik of the Vaspurakan ashkhar of Greater Armenia, who lived by Lake Van and was buried in the Narekavank Monastery of his native village (now partially destroyed and turned into a mosque), Grigor Narekatsi in his “Book of Lamentations” – “Matean vohbergutyan,” commonly known simply as “Narek,” in the chapter dedicated to the catastrophe of a lost soul, compares it to a shipwreck.

So, the poet describes the shipwreck and the breakdown of its parts so precisely and, most importantly, in the correct sequence that it became possible to restore an entire Armenian linguistic layer – the shipbuilding terminology that the now deceased founding member of the “Ajas” club, historian Bagrat Sadoyan, was engaged in.

Among the ancient Armenian “maritime” terms are the most beautiful and melodious, but now forgotten words, – and we are trying to reintroduce them among the Armenian navaz-sailors. These include aragast – sail, and arasank – shrouds, and kaim – mast, and tahtakamats – deck, and many others.

Narekatsi’s description also contributed significantly to the reconstruction of, for example, the processes of building ancient Armenian ships, which the Ajas members followed when attaching the planking and the deck to the skeleton of “Kilikia” – this is the same hacha, the strong nodes of the tree fork that many parts of the frames were attached to, copper (instead of the oldest wooden) gams – rivets for planks, etc., and so on.

It’s laughable to recall the surprise our traffic police officers showed, seeing how “these madmen” were transporting from Ijevan to Masis two trucks of wooden forks-hacha, which we had lovingly collected in the forests from fallen (and only!) trees. And this was during the years of the “wood” boom-deficit!..

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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