Cavers ‘Caving’ in Armenia


Members of a US caving expedition to Armenia. From left to right: James Wilson, Greg Chavdarian, Chuck Chavdarian, Seda Chavdarian and Steven Johnson.

By Alice Nigoghosian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — On October 12, Dr. Charles Chavdarian, a native Detroiter whose family was originally from Keghi, provided an enlightening talk and slide presentation about the caves and caving exploration in Armenia, at a program sponsored by the Tekeyan Cultural Association, at the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)Alex and Marie Manoogian School.

Chavdarian became intrigued with the subject while traveling in the south of France in 1992, and after reading The Scientific Traveler — a book about prehistoric cave paintings. Following this trip, he became interested in caves throughout the US and Canada, learning about them through the National Speleological Society and a local caving club in the San Francisco Bay Area and by visiting various national parks. He learned how to explore caves in a proper and safe manner from his newfound colleagues.

The deepest caves in the world are located in the countries of Georgia and Mexico. As a result, he believed that there would also be significant caves in Armenia.

Chavdarian decided he wanted to do something for Armenia — and this led to his organizing the first official US caving expedition to visit and photograph caves in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia in 2007. The initial trip involved his family — his wife, Seda, a professor of French at UC-Berkeley, and son, Greg, who is a geologist — and also his caving colleagues, Steven Johnson and James Wilson — all from the Bay Area.

Chavdarian has been to Armenia three times — in 2007, 2010 and 2011 — to continue to explore and photograph the natural, wild caves and also to visit and photograph church caves and cave villages.

In addition to Vayots Dzor, his travels have taken him to Syunik and Lori provinces, and to Nagorno-Karabagh. The initial, and most significant caving expedition in 2007 was supported with a National Speleological Society (NSS) grant in the US and organized with assistance from AdvenTour in Yerevan.

The first trip included a visit to four caves, including Arjeri (Bear) Cave, Mozrovi Cave, Karmir (Red) Cave and Mageli Cave. Mozrovi Cave includes about 300 meters of known passage and is noted for its multi-colored limestone formations. Arjeri Cave — at 2.3 miles of passage with many types of formations — is the largest of Armenia’s caves and included many challenges for the group such as walking through narrow passageways, crawling, climbing up and down and using hand lines. Karmir Cave was at the highest elevation of the caves that were explored — nearly 7000 feet. A visit to Mageli Cave, with 1.1 miles of cave passage, found the cavers in the midst of a huge bat colony, narrow squeezes, climbs, crawls and even tall, long passageways. The team visited Geghard, a manmade cave monastery carved out of a side of a mountain. Known by St. Gregory as the “Monastery of the Spear,” a visit to this site resulted in a deeper understanding and appreciation for our ancestors’ devotion to Christianity, and the importance of geography for the survival of the people and their edifices.

The team also visited Jerovank, a water church cave, located at the end of a narrow, picturesque canyon in Vayors Dzor near the village of Arpi.

In fact, it was while traveling through rugged, mountainous Armenia, that Chavdarian soon realized the difficulty of getting around, and came to understand why churches were placed everywhere. True to Armenian hospitality, when the expedition set up campsites, the nearby villagers would bring them food throughout their stay in a given area.

Chavdarian’s slides helped to educate all as he identified various types of beautiful cave formations that are part of living caves, including bacon strips, pipe organs, stalagmites, stalactites, coral, draperies and flowstone —all composed of limestone. The caves in Armenia are also multi-colored, due to both mineralization and organic matter leaching into the solubilized limestone and then depositing in the caves resulting in colored cave formations. The magnitude of colors in the Armenian caves, which are quite stunning, are, in fact, rarely encountered to this degree in caves around the world.

Armenian caving colleagues, led representatives of the foundation into two caves, including Mozrovi Cave, and later developed a management plan for that cave.

Chavdarian acknowledged the assistance of several cave guides and experienced cave explorers during his trips to Armenia, including Vrezh Nazaryan, Samvel Shahinyan and Smbat Armenia and made the exploration of Armenian caves a successful and safe one.

Who knows? Perhaps in the future, if a commercial cave is created in Armenia, group tours of the cave may result in providing an additional source of pride in Armenia’s natural resources.

A brief question-and-answer period followed Chavdarian’s professional presentation.