Karahunj – “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”
Karahunj (also known as Zorats Karer) stands in Syunik Province, in the south of Armenia. Over a broad swathe of land, there are tombs and rows of megaliths dating back 7,000 years. It is older than England’s Stonehenge.
The name Karahunj comes from two Armenian words: car, meaning stone, and hunge, meaning sound. Together they mean “sounding stones”, not unrelated to the fact that on a windy day they make whistling noises.
Historians believe Karahunj served as a prehistoric burial ground, since during the Bronze Age it was common for the dead to be buried in cists and covered with slabs of stone. A third of the 223 stones have small, circular holes that some believe might be related to astronomy. This would make Karahunj the world’s oldest observatory.
Archaeologists who explored the site in 2000 think itmay once have served as a place of refuge in times of war, possibly in the Hellenistic-Roman period (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE). At some time a wall of rocks and compacted soil was built around the site with vertical rocks rammed into it for reinforcement. Today only the upright rocks remain.
In the nearby city of Sisian, there is a small museum dedicated to finds made in the area, including Palaeolithic petroglyphs found on local mountains and grave artefacts from the Bronze Age burial site itself.
Among the numerous stones found at Karahunj, there are some with curious carvings: human figures with elongated heads and almond shaped eyes. One figure is riding a horse or a mule while others appear to be carrying a chest or coffin on which there may be an early version of the Armenian six-pointed star.
According to Louis A. Boettiger in Armenian Legends and Festivals (1920), across several thousands of years Armenians have been shaped by a physical environment consisting of mountain ranges, gorges, broad river valleys, and treeless expanses of country. This natural solitude, rugged and bleak, left its mark on its people:
“There is space to make one think of other worlds and other shores, and there are mountains suggestive of strength, that rise majestic above the plateau, to fill one with awe and wonder. Religious the people are naturally, but more than that, they are thoughtful, reflecting, considering. No writer that I have read but has spoken of the Armenian as intellectually alert and capable. That this thoughtfulness, this robust element in their idealism is in part the stamp of physical nature, there can be little doubt.”