by Aris Ghazinyan
Administrative center: Yegeghnadzor. (Population: 35,800), 120 kilometers from Yerevan.
Education: 51 schools of general education, 3 music and art, 4 sport, 1 college, 19 pre-school institutes, 1 state and 1 non-state secondary specialized education institute.
Healthcare: 8 out-patient polyclinics and 3 hospitals.
Industry: Mining (gold, silver, lead, granite, basalt). Jermuk mineral water plant, wine production.
Agriculture: In addition to the common fruits and vegetables, Vyots Dzor is home of vineyards, producing the Areni grape from which a popular wine is named.
A visitor to the villages along the Armenia-Nakhijevan border is given crucial advice:
"Be careful, there is no shooting in the air at the border."
In other words, when gunshots are heard, there is usually a meaning, and it is often not good.
It is a winter day in the Vayots Dzor province village of Arpi, just two days after the frontier guards captured an Azeri soldier who'd crossed into Armenia. The soldier said he could no longer bear the conditions of his post and crossed the 3,000-meter mountain range dividing the territories, to take his chances with the enemy.
Shots are heard as the story is being told, and the impact makes for nervousness.
This time, though, it is the sound of hunting.
Every winter, hunters come to Vayots Dzor in search of quail and partridge, particularly plentiful in the Gnishik Ravine. It is a favorite hunting ground to some of Armenia's top officials, including President Robert Kocharian, says villager Onik Grigoriants, who sometimes serves as a hunting guide.
On the day of this visit, the mayor of Yeghegnadzor, the administrative center of the province, is out for a hunt. (And a group of visitors, including journalists, are pleased to learn that it is "friendly" gunfire breaking the peace.)
Grigoriants also says that were it not for "the royal hunt", no official would ever bother with the village of Gnishik.
Nor would any have much reason.
The village of Gnishik is situated at 2,000 meters and is probably the least populated settlement in Armenia. Population: 6.
The youngest villager is 44-year-old Sonik Hovhannisian, who says what is apparent even to outsiders: "Gnishik has no future".
"Everybody left a long time ago," Hovhannisian says. "And today there can be no return. Meanwhile, the expectations of our ancestors who immigrated here 175 years ago from Persia were different. It is a long and sad story."
In the early 19th century Gnishik was settled by Persians escaping the Islamic yolk from their homes in the Khoy and Salmast regions into what was then the Christian Russian Empire.
"It is curious that the two branches of the stream suffered quite diverse fates," says Mesrop Melkonian, alluding to the eventual separation of the original settlement. "Today, 175 years later, the contemporary descendants of the first immigrants are members of very different communities."
Melkonian is the village head of Gnishik.
Yes, in Armenia, even a settlement of only six must elect a village head.
And, like a majority of the leadership in rural Armenia, Melkonian is not even a resident of the village over which he is the head. (Typically, one official is elected to serve as head of a few villages that fall within the same administrative regions.)
Melkonian is actually a resident of the village of Mozrov, about five kilometers to the north and by comparison to Gnishik a megalopolis, with 150 residents.
"Though Gnishik and, for instance, Gndevaz are quite different villages at present, anyway, we never cut the roots that then were to spread out into the terrific piece of land called Vayots Dzor," says the village leader (comparing Gnishik with the distant village).
On the edge of volcanic massifs, a vast world once extended was known as Hayots Dzor (Armenian Ravine) before the 7th century AD. The place got its new name of Vayots Dzor (Woeful Ravine) on July 4, 735 AD, the day after the devastating earthquake of Moz.
Medieval historian Stepanos Orbelian wrote: "Voices in human language could be heard from the precipices and the air. 'Woe is the ravine! Woe is the ravine!' Ten thousand people were buried alive under the ground. And the region was called 'Vayots Dzor' after the event."
Perhaps foreshadowing the defiance of tragedy by which their descendants are still known, the people of the region moved from Moz to a place some 25 kilometers away and named their settlement "Chiva", which is interpreted to mean "down with woe".
The historic quake also forced the settlement of Mozrov, as it is believed that residents of the area became fearful of being buried in the gorge and fled to higher areas such as today's Mozrov and Gnishik. And their descendants would later spread farther, to the 55 villages of contemporary Vayots Dzor, such as Gndevaz.
"Most of the current residents of Chivay and Mozrov are the descendents of the 19th century immigrants," says Vanik Hayrapetian, 70, who, by himself, is 50 percent of the male population of Gnishik.
Born in Gnishik, raised in Gnishik, Hayrapetian will likely die in Gnishik, where his burial will have the choice of more cemeteries than the village holds residents.
"The silent witnesses of the village's rich biography are more than 10 medieval cemeteries," Hayrapetian says.
Hayrapetian remembers a village that had 914 families and a childhood spent climbing Mount Harsnasar to the ruins of the Hrosakaberd fortress.
"Today my childhood memories resemble the ruins," he says.
Gnishik once had a school, a flour mill, a church and a chapel. None of the things that it is today.
But, unlike other stories of the hardship of Armenian villages, Gnishik's demise cannot be blamed on the collapse of communism, but on the vagary of Soviet Union politics itself.
Sometime during the Soviet regime, Gnishik became the Voroshilov Kolkhoz (collective farm, named for a communist party leader of the Stalin era) and when, by 1970 its population had diminished to 372, a decision was made to abolish the settlement. An attempt in the late 1980s to keep it vital was useless.
Armenia's littlest village exists mostly with help from relatives in the lowland.
With no store, no telecommunication, etc., the only reason there's a Gnishik today at all, Hayrapetian speculates, is "solely to serve the 'royal' hunters." And then he repeats the 7th century cry that forced his village into existence: "Woe is the ravine! Woe is the ravine."
Bigger is better
Fifty kilometers away, descendants of survivors of that same 7th century earthquake inhabit one of Vayots Dzor's largest villages, Gndevaz, with a population of around 1,000.
With the population increasing steadily, according to village head Vardan Poghosian, Gndevaz will soon equal its highest number of around 1,200—the peak before Josef Stalin started sending Gndevaz residents off to gulags.
Gndevaz profits from having two essentials that many villages suffer a lack of: water and transportation.
The Yerevan-Jermuk highway (reconstructed two years ago) runs nearby the village. And, while having water trucked in (for purchase) is a common occurance in other villages, Gndevaz, 1,750 meters above sea level, has a steady supply from a canal built in the 11th century.
Pipes for delivering natural gas into homes is currently underway in Gndevaz—a "luxury" most of Armenia, including Yerevan, has not had since independence.
Located about 10 kilometers from the resort town of Jermuk, known for its mineral waters, residents of Gndevaz also have a market for their goods. They sell butter, cheese, meat, fruits, vegetables and bread to merchants in Jermuk.
The end of the cattle birthing season left Gndevaz resident Sevak Mkrtchian with extra reasons to feel fortunate. Two of Mkrtchian's eight cows (he also keeps seven sheep) delivered calves, a cause for feast in the life of a villager.
"Sure, there is always work," Sevak said. "But most troubles are already behind. Fodder is secured for the cattle and there is a good mood for us."
The women of his village shared the mood, sitting around the "tonir" where bread is baked in the earth. Over just two days, they would make more than 1,000 sheets of the thin, essential, bread in their stone pit.
"At the beginning of winter, the main work of the women is to secure a winter store for the upcoming three to four months, to bake lavash and prepare ghaurma (cooked meat preserved in fat)," says Melanya, Sevak's wife. "No woman can overcome this work by herself, that's why we get together with neighbors and work in each other's houses by turn."
Each woman sitting under the roof of the tonir shed submits to the exact rules of work division. One prepares the dough, the other rolls it, the third conjures thin tinplates with the intricate maneuvers of a skillful fakir (a flat long-handled paddle).
It is a ritual that links the young, happy, women of the 1000-member Gndevaz village to the beleaguered and bemoaning six members of Gnishik. A ritual that survives time, among survivors of a place named for woe.