The Orbelians were a wealthy, noble, Caucasian family who hit their stride during the 13th – 14th Century CE. They were the lords of Syunik, a province in southeast Armenia, and they built and/or financially supported a suite of monasteries throughout the region – the most famous of which is Noravank. They also built the magnificent Selim Caravanserai at Vardenyats Mountain Pass.
Selim Caravanserai was completed in 1332 CE at the order of Prince Chesar Orbelian. The caravanserai, made from massive basalt blocks with a gabled shingle roof, provided shelter for the traders and merchants plying the arduous Dvin – Partav trade route through the Caucasus.
Selim Caravanserai has no windows, which means the central hall is kept in a state of perpetual gloom (take a torch), although there are several oculi (circular openings in the ceiling) which let in beams of sunlight at the height of the day.
The long trough that runs through the centre of the hall was exactly that. The trough could be filled with water from a local spring; it allowed the trader’s horses and other beasts of burden to drink their fill from the relative safety of the caravanserai.
The small, dark niches that line the sides of the hall were the sleeping quarters; for both the travellers and their animals.
Inscriptions inside Selim Caravanserai, written in both Armenian and Persian, informed passing travellers that the facility in which they were resting was paid for by:
Chesar son of Prince of Princes Liparit and my mother Ana, grandson of Ivane, and my brothers, handsome as lions, the princes Burtel, Smbat and Elikom of the Orbelian Dynasty, and my wife Khorishah daughter of Vardan
A modern, bitumen road now follows the ancient Dvin – Partav trade route across Vardenyats Mountain Pass. The road is only open from May to October; the rest of the year it is cut by snow.
Venture over the mountain pass in summer and you’ll find fertile – albeit windswept – alpine meadows, beneath mountains still patchy with snow.
The fields are occupied by the odd herd of grazing horses, and the even odder collection of Ladas.
Ladas remain the automobile of choice for many rural Armenians. In summer the local villagers head to the alpine fields in droves to collect wild herbs and grasses – in particular aveluk (a type of sorrel), which is dried and stored in long braids.
The entrance to the caravanserai is decorated with two sculptures: one a winged creature of some sort (possibly a winged lion), and the other a bull (an animal that features on the crest of the Orbelian family).
Selim Caravanserai collapsed sometime during the 15th or 16th Centuries, but the large basalt building blocks were still in good shape in the 1950s when the structure was restored. It remains the best preserved caravanserai in Armenia.
Practical information and how to reach Selim Caravanserai:
There is no public transport option for this remote part of Armenia. You might be able to find a taxi in Yeghegnadzor (the nearest city) that will drive you to the caravanserai, but you’d be much better off having your own car. More transport info here.
There is little in the way of tourist infrastructure at the site. However, an industrious local couple has set up a stall next to the caravanserai (on the side of their own Lada), selling homemade wine and honey amongst other things. The couple showed us around Selim Caravanserai free of charge, pointing out various points of interest inside the building that we might otherwise have missed. We purchased several fridge magnets from them as a show of our gratitude.