Orbelian’s Caravanserai, Vayots Dzor
Orbelian's Caravanserai (Օրբելյանների Քարվանսարա), Armenia’s best-preserved medieval inn, was built more than 2400 meters above sea level in the Vardenis Mountains of Vayots Dzor Province.
Visitors to this unique monument can easily envision the traders who would stop here for a rest during their Silk Road travels. The structure itself is fascinating, the views over the valley unfolding below are great and the road to and from the caravanserai an absolute delight. If you are traveling in the area and wish to catch a glimpse of medieval life, Orbelian’s Caravanserai is well worth the stop.
History of Orbelian’s Caravanserai
Contrary to popular belief, there were many Silk Roads which connected East and West, mainly by land and occasionally by sea. Silk Road caravanserais served as guideposts on the often dangerous paths and were the primary stopover for traders and their pack animals along the way.
Orbelian’s Caravanserai is a valuable example of such lodgings in Armenia. A descriptive engraving inside its arched entryway gives us a clear picture of its builders and origin: “In the name of the Almighty and Powerful God, in the year 1332, during the worldwide reign of Busaid Khan - I, Chesar son of Prince of Princes, Liparit; my mother Ana, granddaughter of Ivane; my brothers, handsome as lions, the princes Burtel, Smbat and Elikom of the Orbelian Dynasty; my wife, Khorishah daughter of Vardan [and ...] of the Senikarimans, built this spiritual house with our own funds for the salvation of our souls and those of our parents and brothers reposing in Christ, and of my living brothers and sons - Sargis, Hovhannes the priest, Kurd and Vardan. We beseech you, passers-by, remember us in Christ. The construction of the house [took place] during the high priesthood of Esai, and its completion, thanks to his prayers, in the year 1332”.
The Orbelians were an influential feudal family in Georgia. They settled in Armenia after being exiled from Georgia for rioting against King Giorgi III the Kind in the 12th century. By the 13th and 14th centuries, the present-day regions of Vayots Dzor (Vayots Sar) and Syunik belonged to the Kingdom of Syunik, which was ruled by the Orbelian Dynasty.
Based on the inscription quoted above, we know that Prince Chesar Orbelian and his brothers built Orbelian’s Caravanserai in 1332. Thanks to its location on an international trade route, it played a vital role in the region as it welcomed lodgers loaded with goods who were traveling between Europe and the East. After remaining open for centuries, Orbelian’s Caravanserai was destroyed in the 15th -16th centuries. It sat in ruins until full reconstruction in the 1950s and today is considered an invaluable link to caravanserai history.
The site was formerly known as Sulema Caravanserai and Selim Caravanserai (Armenian: Սելիմ). However, in 2014 the governor of Vayots Dzor enacted a change to the names of both Selim Mountain Pass and Selim Caravanserai, as Selim was said to be the name of a destructive foreign invader with whom the governor did not wish the area to be associated. The name of the caravanserai was officially changed to Orbelian’s Caravanserai and Selim Mountain Pass to Vardenyats Mountain Pass.
Orbelian’s Caravanserai is a rare piece of medieval Armenian civil architecture, a truly unique structure for 14th-century Armenia. Built of basalt, the inn consisted of an entryway and a long, cavernous hall for animals, divided into three sections and containing a reservoir in one corner. The animals were kept in the hall's narrow aisles, where stone troughs were built for them between its 14 pillars. The entire vaulted hall was illuminated by three roof windows. Additionally, two rooms were furnished to accommodate people.
The caravanserai’s interior consisted of plain walls and an ascetic layout, with the only decorated corner being the vestibule’s southern wall and entrance. The latter is remarkable for a support beam inscribed with Arabic writing, which unfortunately has been seriously damaged. The main entrance was noted for its stalactite decor. Two distinct reliefs above the caravanserai entrance, one of a winged creature and the other of a bull, have become symbolic of the lodging. To the east of the caravanserai sits an old chapel.
Vardenyats Mountain Pass connects the provinces of Vayots Dzor Province and Gegharkunik. According to legend, the son of the Kurdish leader Suleyman fell in love with a girl from Gegharkunik and would often sneak across the pass to visit her. One harsh winter, during his attempt to cross, the young man lost his way and died. In memory of his son, Suleyman built a lodging at the pass so that strangers could find respite during snowstorms and be spared the fate of his son. Orbelian’s Caravanserai now marks the place where the grieving father’s inn once stood.