The road unwinds outside our vehicle. We do the same on the inside, quietly resting after our experience of Ağrı Dağı. My head bumps against the glass, eyes half closed. This, despite the extraordinary landscape.
The hills are draped in velvet, devoid of trees, except for the creased lines where small streams run. Flocks of sheep feed here and there. They are tendered by older men, boys, or even young girls. The grass is still green at altitude despite the late summer sun.
We ride south from the base of the legendary Mt. Ararat toward the city of Van. We follow a well-worn route through the volcanic spills of eastern Turkey. I contemplate how a memory of the vistas before us was preserved in early Armenian legend. In fact, it was the description of this very path, written by the 5th century (AD) historian, Moses of Khoren, that led to the rediscovery of the “Lost Kingdom of Urartu.” The rediscoverer was the French scholar Jean Saint-Martin. The year was 1823.
As Saint-Martin eyed the words of the Armenian Moses, his curiosity was piqued. The story before him was as timeless as humanity itself: the tragedy of unrequited love. Queen Shamiram (Greek, Semiramis) of Assyria loved Ara the Beautiful, an Armenian king. But when her love was spurned, she went to war. Despite specific warnings to her soldiers to spare him, Ara was killed by an inadvertent shot in the midst of the fray.
Broken-hearted by the death that she herself initiated, Shamiram left the shadow of Ararat and returned south. The course took her along the path that we now travel. And just as we admire Tondrak’s slopes, so too was the Queen impressed. She decided to make this northern world her summer home.
The 5th century account of Queen Shamiram’s passage is compelling enough to bear repeating. I pull it as quoted from M. Chahin’s excellent, The Kingdom of Armenia (revised ed, 2001: 45-46).
“After these events, Shamiram remained but a short time on the Plain of Armenia, which is called, after Ara, ‘Ararat’. She travelled southwards, while it was still summer, journeying leisurely through the valleys and flowering countryside. Impressed by the scenery around her, the purity of the air, the limpid springs which gushed out everywhere in abundance, and the gentle murmur of the rivers, she said: ‘In this delightful land, where the climate is so temperate and the water so pure, a city shall be built, our royal residence in Armenia, where we shall spend one quarter part of the year; the remaining months, consisting of the colder seasons, we shall pass in our city of Nineveh.’”
“Searching carefully for a suitable site, Shamiram came upon a valley as she approached it from the east; its western extremity skirted the shores of the great salt lake Van, where she observed an oblong-shaped mountain, its northern slopes gently falling towards the valleys, while the southern, cliff-like face rose sheer to a high peak, pointing toward the sky. Not far to the south, a flat valley bordered upon the eastern side of the mountain, and extended toward the shores of the lake, where it broadened out like a gorge. Across this land of marvels, crystal-clear waters tumbled down the mountain side into the valleys and ravines below and united at the broad base of the mountain to form a great river. To the east of that smiling mountain-side, there was a small hill. Here, the energetic, sensual queen Shamiram, inspired by the beauty of the region, decided to build her city. She caused 12,000 workmen and 6,000 skilled craftsmen to be brought from Assyria and from other parts of her empire, to work on wood, on stone, on bronze and on iron. By forcing the pace of the workers she completed in a short time a magnificent city (which she called Shamiramakert) consisting of wonderful places, each of two or three storeys high, made of stones of various colours. Each district of the city had a distinctive colour, and each was separated from its neighbour by a broad street. There were also artistically designed and decorated baths in the midst of the city. Part of the river was diverted by canals to supply the city’s domestic needs to water its gardens, orchards and vineyards and to perpetuate the fertility of the earth She then had a magnificent palace built for herself and she peopled the city with a huge population. The whole city was girt with immense walls for its protection. Now, the eastern side of the mountain had such a hard surface that even an iron-pointed stylo could not impress a single line upon it; yet, palaces, long galleries and strong-rooms for the queen’s treasure were hewn out of its side. Over the whole surface of the rock, as if it were on wax, she caused a great many characters to be traced. The sight of these marvels throws everyone into amazement.”
The vehicle slows. A young man carrying a stick presses his flock to the side of the road so we can pass. Two shaggy dogs, Anatolian Shepherds, bring up the rear of the pastoral parade. In another hour we should arrive in the lost city of Shamiramakert.