Saint Hovhannes church in Meghri. People used to call it “Anapastanats” church, which means a place that  gives shelter to the ones who need it.
Saint Hovhannes church in Meghri. People used to call it “Anapastanats” church, which means a place that gives shelter to the ones who need it.

Rock Solid

The unique Syunik identity is etched in stone

Nestled in the southern part of Armenia, the Syunik region is a unique magnet that immed-iately attracts visitors with its breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cultural traditions, and rich history, rooted in the mountains.

Historically known as Zangezur, this area has always been of exceptional security and strategic importance and has witnessed the rise and fall of various empires over the centuries while keeping its identity intact. Therefore, it is little wonder that, these days, Syunik is also at the center of various geopolitical interests.

Today, visiting the region means seeing Russian soldiers serving there, along with the members of the European Union observation mission. In addition, since 2023, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran are officially deployed in the Iranian consulate in the city of Kapan, the region’s center. Moreover, despite the flags of Azerbaijan now visible beyond the roadblocks in different parts of the region, the people of Syunik remain firmly attached to their sacred ground, just like the mountains that surround them.

Local entrepreneur Garik Veziryan describes his compatriots as uniquely strong and stoic. “The mountains and valleys here give us great strength to live. Syunik has great energy and wonderful nature.”

Reverend Father Avetik Martirosyan has been conducting spiritual services in Vahanavank, the medieval monastery complex of Syunik, for more than seven years. After moving to Armenia from Iraq years ago and immediately entering spiritual service in Syunik, Rev. Fr. Avetik immediately fell in love with both the natural wonders of the region and its people, saying, “A Syunetsi is just like these mountains: rough, dry, and rocky. Yet there is treasure inside.”

The mountains had a direct impact on the character and identity of the people of Syunik. They are solid, stubborn, clinging to their land, but striving for new heights.

According to 2023 data, the population of this second largest region of Armenia is 134,600. Syunik ranks second in industrial volume after Yerevan. Its share in the total volume of Armenia’s industry in 2023 was 18.8%. The mining industry is particularly prominent, owing to the region’s rich natural resources: deposits of copper, molybdenum, iron, gold, silver, and other metals.

For Anna Grigoryan, a member of the Parliament of Armenia, Syunik is different from other regions of the country not just because of its scenic landscape but also the significant industrial potential. She also points out another key feature that makes Syunik special. It is the only region that shares a border with Iran. “It is no coincidence that today the attention of various geopolitical stakeholders and powers are focused on Syunik,” she says.

After the Artsakh War of 2020, the priorities of the region completely changed, with the security issue coming first. Grigoryan mentions how, in her childhood, the only flag she ever saw in the mountains of Syunik was the flag of Armenia. “Today the residents here see the flags of Azerbaijan, Russia, the European Union, and Iran every day. Now the whole of Syunik is a border region—a staging ground for colliding geopolitical interests.” She goes on to say, “And I bow down to the residents of Syunik, who, even under these conditions, realize the dire security threat and understand that Azerbaijan can start a new aggression at any moment, yet remain in their places, ready to take up arms and face any attack. The mountains had a direct impact on the character and identity of the people of Syunik. They are solid, stubborn, clinging to their land, but striving for new heights.”

Along with the security challenges, today the residents of the region continue to lead full lives. In cities and villages, local people go about their daily business, hoping that the next sunrise will be peaceful. For example, Karen Hayrapetyan, a cattle breeder who has been living in the village of Verin Khotanan for 57 years, notes that, like other residents of the region, they have adapted to the new post-war reality in their village. Speaking about Syunik, he does not stop talking about the natural landscape of the region, emphasizing that it makes the southern province of Armenia so unique. “Syunik is our treasure, literally and figuratively,” he says. In his opinion, it is no coincidence that both domestic and foreign tourism has developed in the region in recent years.

Syunik is renowned for its mountains. Among them is the second highest peak of Armenia, Kaputjugh (3,904m), the highest in the Zangezur range, as well as Mount Khustup (3,214m), considered sacred for the locals․ On its slopes lie the relics of Garegin Nzhdeh and the mountain’s wonderful vista opens from the first minutes of entering Kapan. The Tatev Monastery complex and ropeway, the Devil’s Bridge, Carahunge ancient observatory, and the swinging bridge in Khndzoresk are some of the many historical, cultural and scenic places that especially attract tourists. In recent years, there have also been plans to develop extreme tourism and ecotourism.

In 2023, the Syunik airport was put into operation in Kapan. It currently operates only domestic flights: Yerevan-Kapan-Yerevan. Although the airport is very close to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and is under the target of the Azerbaijani military, in March 2024, the Armenian government announced its desire to use the airport for international flights as well.

One could talk endlessly about the peculiarities of Syunik. Culinary features are also an integral part of the region’s identity. For example, Kapan’s kurkut (a tender beef dish with wheat groats), included in the list of intangible cultural heritage of Armenia, or khashil (a local dish made of roasted ground wheat and served with butter and yogurt), traditional cheese of Sisian, Goris chakhattu (a sort of pickle made from the beetroot) and even mulberry vodka of Carahunge․ Every year, on July 6th, people from all over Armenia gather in Carahunge village for the mulberry festival to learn from the locals about the various uses of mulberry. Regarding the fruits growing in Meghri, particularly pomegranates and figs, its reputation has long gone beyond the borders of Armenia.

A Syunetsi is just like these mountains: rough, dry, and rocky. Yet  there is treasure inside.

Governor of Syunik Robert Ghukasyan is convinced that today the regional administration is working diligently to solve the problems faced by the region. He asserts, “Syunik is destined to be united. This is what history demands. The pillars of Syunik must be strong, and the people of Syunik show that they possess such character with their brave spirit and hard work. The mountains have created a special identity for us.”

In every corner of Armenia’s southern gem, one can find indescribable beauty, inspiration and a profound sense of connection to something greater than oneself. The mountains and old historical, cultural and spiritual monuments rising above tell the story of the endurance and strength of the historical Armenian lands—like silent witnesses to the unbreakable will that defines the people of Syunik.

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.