Petroglyphs of Mount Mets Ishkhanasar - A view from our expert author

Petroglyphs Mount Mets Ishkhanasar Armenia by Deirdre HoldingPetroglyphs from Mount Mets Ishkhanasar on display outside the museum in Sisian © Deirdre Holding

Mount Mets Ishkhanasar (3,550m), an extinct volcano, is the tallest peak of the Ishkhanasar range which lies to the northwest of Goris on what was the border with Azerbaijan and is now the de facto border with the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh. Visitors wishing to see the immensely worthwhile and fascinating petroglyphs at Ughtasar will need a local guide and probably transport; the 17km track, climbing 1,400m from the nearest settlement, requires a 4x4. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to the site from Sisian although the last 500m has to be walked as the vehicle cannot make the steep ascent when fully laden.

The petroglyphs are accessible only from mid-July to late September because of snow and it can be bitterly cold at the high site even in summer. To anyone who has seen supposed rock carvings in museums the petroglyphs here are an absolute revelation with numerous designs scattered on boulders over a large area. The 1.5km x 1km caldera is beautiful in itself with the eroded rim of the volcano towering above wide areas of natural grassland and seasonal pools. Most of the petroglyphs are on boulders around the permanent glacial lake within the caldera. It is also the haunt of bears and wolves, as is attested by the droppings and footprints.

Some rocks have just a single design but others have a whole collection of carvings, as many as 50 in extreme cases.

Petroglyphs, called ‘goat letters’ in Armenian, are found in several parts of Armenia. They are scattered over tens of square kilometres at sites in the Syunik Mountains but these at Ughtasar are among the more accessible. The site itself is at 3,300m altitude and many thousands of petroglyphs have been recorded here. Some of the carvings depict animals, mostly the wild animals of the region but also domestic ones. Wild goats are especially common. There are carvings of hunting scenes and ones showing the impedimenta of hunting. Birds are rarely depicted, while snakes and leopards feature more frequently.

People also feature in scenes depicting dancers, either two dancers together or communal dancing. Some rocks have just a single design but others have a whole collection of carvings, as many as 50 in extreme cases. The presence of hunting scenes and cattle has led to speculation that the people who carved the rocks lived partly by hunting and partly by animal husbandry, presumably pasturing their animals here in summer. They must have been at least semi-nomadic since it would not be possible to survive here in winter. The age of the carvings is difficult to ascertain but the majority of carvings at Ughtasar and elsewhere in Armenia probably date from the 5th to the 2nd millennium BC.

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