The Pearl of Lori
Visitors to Armenia - one of the world's oldest nations - will find it difficult to grasp the antiquity and history of the country without enjoying the pearl of Lori Region, Stepanavan.
Situated approximately 1375 meters above sea level, the town of Stepanavan is pleasantly warm in the summer and bright and cold during the winter months. Stepanavan was established during the reign of Catherine the Great of the Russian Empire and developed a more European appearance as the result of the modern military presence of Russian garrisons. However, even these historical references cannot capture the entirety of beauty and appeal held by Lori region's first settlement to become a city.
The breathtaking Dzoraget gorge divides Stepanavan into northern and southern banks, the latter having a particularly interesting history, which is also home to the city of Tashir, founded in the 10th century. The city of Stepanavan in its current location on the southern bank was founded in the 12th century, as evidenced by St. Sargis church, the active Armenian apostolic church in the center of town. Contemporary Stepanavan is joined with its historical origins on the left bank by a bridge (220m). This bridge was built in the 1980s and traverses the gorge allowing visitors back in time to the Dzoraget kingdom of the 10th century. Specifically, there are remains of a royal palace complex four kilometers away from Stepanavan. At Lori Berd (or Lori "Fortress"), you will find the faded, moss-covered ruins of a 10th century royal bathhouse and palace. On the eastern rim, at the bottom of the gorge, you will see a vaulted stone bridge that dates from same period. According to the local legend, Lori Berd was home to the great Armenian king Bagratuni Ashot-Yerkat (Ashot the Iron), so locals often refer to the fortress simply as "Ashot Yerkat."
In later centuries, David Jalalyans of the Yesayi dynasty came to Lori Region from Karabakh and lent his name to the site of his picturesque summer residence after himself. The name "Jalaloghly" was used until the beginning 1923, the year the town was renamed "Stepanavan" in honor of the great marxist revolutionary Stepan Shahumyan. Evidence of Shahumyan's role in contributing to the revolution still exists in the form of the mysterious "Mayori Dzor" (Majors Gorge or Communist) Caves, located in the face of the Dzoraget gorge cliffs, where Stepan Shahumyan and his co-conspirators held illegal meetings. Bas-relief carvings depicting Shahumyan on the cliffs near the caves. They were created by the self-taught artist Kamsar.
Historical features of Stepanavan and surrounding villages aside, Stepanavan has always been a destination for those seeking to relax in the fresh mountain air and enjoy the dramatic scenery. The forests, deciduous and coniferous, help produce a quality of air known throughout Armenia for its curative qualities.
Visitors will find more than 400 types of trees at the Dendropark arboretum in Sotchut park, located near Stepanavans Gyulagarak village. Trees both local and imported from all over Eurasia, all of which have taken deep root in this botanical paradise.
Over the course of the last several years, Stepanavan has been in recovery mode from the 1988 destructive earthquake and is almost completely restored. Today, the fountains which form the focal point of the town square are newly-renovated. Nonetheless, a cross stone on the square commemorates the victims of the earthquake. December 7th is the marked day of the anniversary and people of the town lay wreaths and flowers at the memorial. Other victims, those of the 1915 Genocide, are also remembered with flowers and wreaths on National Genocide Memorial Day, April 24th. The people in Stepanavan need not be reminded of these dates; their hearts summon them to the cross stone in remembrance of those lost and in testament to the enduring nature of our town. Also located at the square is the Cultural and Leisure Center, formerly known as the Museum of Stepan Shahumyan, which offers visitors the opportunity to learn more about Armenian traditions and history through exhibits of tools, handcrafts, and the life and times of Stepan Shahumyan, whose house is contained within the museum.
Stepanavan offers a range of amenities for visitors--cafes, restaurants, and hotels, including the centrally-located Hotel Lori, Anahit's Resort and Vahagn's Resort both nestled in the forest, Paradise Hotel in Amrakits village on the outskirts of town, as well as numerous locally-run B&Bs, many of which are located on the northern bank. For more details, please see ACCOMODATIONS
Another way to learn about Stepanavan's past is through the people themselves, who are proud of their origins, history, and the traditions of everyday life. The people of Lori have been described by the Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan, who spent part of his life in Stepanavan, as "naive Loretsi," that is to say, people who are sincere, conscientious, and who possess a rich spiritual inner world. In any of the villages surrounding Stepanavan visitors are likely to be treated to warm hospitality and a sampling of delicious homemade goods such as broad sheets of fresh lavash, sour cream so rich it must be spread with a knife, golden newly-churned butter, fresh white cheese, and vitamin-C-rich rosehip juice made from wild rosehips. In the spring, the blossoms of these rose appear as white as snow across the fields of Stepanavan.
Stepanavan's deep gorge is bordered by villages and at the point where the Dzoraget river meets is joined by a tributary lies the village of Kurtan, striking in its beauty and the abundance of its harvest. Nearby is Hnevank monastery, built in the 6th century.
The tree-lined roads of Stepanavan bring the visitor to Lori Berd fortress, to Sotchut botanical garden, to Bear Mountain, to Narzan spring in the mountainside, and to tiny Surb Nshan chapel perched on a hill overlooking the city, where locals come to burn candles and leave their illness and sorrows behind along with the scraps of cloth they tie to the branches. Seen from Surb Nshan, Stepanavan nestles like a pearl amid the green mountains rising in the distance.