Shirak is Armenia’s northwestern Marz (region in Armenian), with its semi-desert wastelands falling away from the snowbound crests of Mt. Aragats. First recorded in Urartian inscriptions found on the stone cliffs near Gyumri, the region reached its zenith as part of the Bagratuni Dynasty (8th – 11th centuries) and then again in the 19th century when Gyumri, known then as Alexandropol, became the most important city in what would later be known as the “Belle Époque” of independent Armenia.
Bumpy roads head west from Gyumri towards the Marmashen Monastery, close to the border with Turkey. Partially restored during Soviet times, these beautiful 1,000 year-old apricot-colored churches remain beautifully canonic in harmony.
Artik, a small historic town in southern Shirak, shelters the historic churches of Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Gevorg (of the 5th and 7th centuries respectively); whilst the larger Harichavank lies off the beaten track to the east – with multiple chambers and fine carvings, the nicely sited monastery is a blessing to experience.
Through a tour agency or contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, arrangements can be made to see the spectacular ruins of Medieval Ani. This former capital of Armenia was once one of the largest cities of the world, but due to countless earthquakes and invasions was abandoned in its present state. Just across the river delineating Armenia’s current border with Turkey – from a viewing area in a restricted military zone due to the sensitive border – great panoramas are offered of the massive ramparts, many churches and the myriad of ruins.