Compiled by Edvard Sargsyan
Translated from Armenian.
For thousands of years, Armenians inhabited the Armenian Highlands, an area located between the Black, Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. In some parts of the area winters are so snowy that people say that if a sparrow lay on the snow and raised its legs upwards, its feet would reach the sky1.
Elements are formidable in the Armenian highlands, and people have learned ways to cope. According to Strabo, caravans were sometimes buried under thick snow when venturing to cross the mountains. There was, however, a simple method to stay alive in a snow storm; mounted travelers would hold long sticks and use them to open holes in thick layers of snow, to prevent suffocation and mark their location. Once the snowstorm subsided, only the tips of the sticks protruding from the snow marked human presence.
Armenians excelled in search and rescue in rugged alpine terrain. They employed specially trained dogs, and did so much earlier than the monks of St. Bernard in Europe. First documented evidence dated the 20th century B.C. speaks of Avdeh, a sister of Abgar, a King of Armenians in the 1st century B.C., and Sanatruk, the future king of Armenians. Movses Khorenatsi, an Armenian historian of the 5th century AD, describes the events as follows2:
It should be explained why he was called Sanatruk. Avde, the sister of Abgar, was traveling to Armenia in winter and got stuck in a snowstorm in Kordvats mountains. People lost their way and scattered all over the area. The child’s nurse, Sanot by name, a sister of Byurat Bagratuni and wife of Khosren Artsruni, took the child, which was still very young, in her lap, and stayed under the snow for three days and three nights. The legend had it that some amazing white animal was sent by Gods to rescue the child. What actually happened was that a big white dog came with a rescue team, and the dog found the woman and the child. This is why he was called Sanatruk (truk-given), presumably after Sanot, his nurse2.
Another story, from the 20th century, refers to rescue dogs used in Dersim province of historical Armenia. G. Halajian, an expert of Dersim Highlands, describes it as follows.
A stormdog is a type of Gampr that according to popular belief, enjoyed the protection of Saint Minas who endowed the dog with an exceptional ability of finding its way in the storm.
High in the mountains, storms were extremely strong, their onset was usually sudden and they could last for as long as five days. Such storms made any movement and communication between villages impossible.
Travelers often started off in clear weather and were caught in a heavy storm. There were signposts in particularly dangerous areas but storms were so strong and mists were so thick that people would lose sight of each other and they would be disoriented and overwhelmed by inclement weather. Rescue dogs would be sent to retrieve such people. They were few in number, as only mighty lords and bishops owned such remarkable dogs. They would release them from their chains and send them into the storm, to search for people and rescue them. Dogs themselves would decide which way to take and often worked in packs of three, four or even five, depending on how challenging the conditions were.
With dogs on a rescue mission, their masters would fire a distress gun and would keep firing to encourage the dogs and to guide lost travelers towards the village.
People rescued by storm dogs were considered to be protected by St. Minas and were accordingly revered and honored. Houses of such dog owners were thought to hold the sacred fire of St. Minas and people would swear by the name of the saint. At the end of the grain harvest season, those delivered by St. Minas would visit holy shrines and offer sacrifices for their deliverance to the saint who sent his agents, the dogs, to rescue them. No one would ever raise a hand on a rescue dog.
When a rescue dog grew old, it did not die at home. In anticipation of close death, it would leave the village and retreat to a remote secret place.
There are many stories, half-truths and half-myths, about people and families rescued by storm dogs.
According to a man named Seid Alin, his uncle, Seid-Temen, inherited the title of the family’s spiritual leader. His father, Seid Jafer, together with his younger brother, Seid Suleyman, and their families, children and grandchildren, lived at the bottom of Bagher Pap Mountain, east of Zeranik and some three hours away. Their grandmother lived with them too.
Seid-Temen did not have a male child and we were all concerned. In the first days of January, a messenger came with incense, candle and a red apple to tell us the happy news that the head of the Aghujan family had finally had a male child, after five girls, and was inviting his grandmother to come and bless the family heir. My father announced that the grandmother, his children and grandchildren would come to Zeranik in a few days to congratulate the family. After the messenger left, my father changed his mind and decided that we set off the next day.
The day was bright and clear. The road from Bagher to Mendzur Mountain could be covered in half a day. Although the snow was waist-high, the path was open. My father was in a hurry to take advantage of the clear weather and reach his father’s house to congratulate them on the happy occasion.
We took off shortly after the sunrise. The grandmother, who was in her eighties, walked confidently and jauntily like a new bride, my father followed her, with my uncle, his two children and his wife, and five bundle carriers, all together.
The path was steep and winding. We covered the greater part of the road and there was just one hill left to cross before we would reach Zeranik. We could see a big Kerkan stones sign ahead. The sky suddenly grew dark and a strong wind started. The grandmother stopped, pointed at storm clouds descending from the saddle between Gagher and Mendzur Mountains and cried, a Gelkheghd (a strong wolf-killer storm) is coming!, and started to pray.
We found ourselves on a brink of a deep gorge. The winds could throw us down the cliff, into the gorge. It snowed heavily and we could hardly breathe because of the raging wind.
My father ordered that we stop and come together, because we could get lost or fall down the rocks. My father and the uncle kept encouraging us but they too felt that we were in a tight spot.
The adults and stronger ones made a circle and put women and children inside the circle, to protect them from the raging wind and keep each other warm. As the storm grew stronger, people could no longer stand on their feet, they held hands and covered themselves and those inside the circle with their cloaks.
We did not know how long the snow lasted, and we were covered with thick snow. We had no idea how much time passed and found ourselves buried in a thickest pile of snow. We could see nothing and could not make it out of this snow grave. My father and uncle, brave people and no strangers to inclement weather, tried to push the snow up with their shoulders to make some room for us to breathe and to move. I have no memories of what happened later as our limp and frozen frames were lifted from the snow and taken to safety. We were given a warm bath and put in a quiet and warm corner of the house, and drank tea of ginger and cinnamon.
As we drinking cup after a cup of the honey-sweetened tea on the right side of the fireplace my uncle knelt on carpets of satin and gave a prayer of gratitude to the Aghujan family saint who sent the rescue dogs to save us in our misfortune.
- My lord Tevresh-Kulab, the saint of the Aghujan family, and Saint Sargis the savior of people and nations, came to the aid of my family and recued eleven people, - my uncle prayed, wept and told the story to villagers who came to rejoice with us.
- Oh God, oh Sargis, oh lord of the Aghujan family, - said everyone and knelt to pray together.
Sirap Agha, a distinguished chieftain of Mamikonyan family, who had arrived in Zeranik to bring his best wishes and to become a godfather of the child, was also there, still unaware of the details of our misfortune. He turned to my uncle and asked him to tell the story of our miracle.
- Agha, you know our rescue dogs who enjoy the protection of Saint Sargis, our patron saint. Every year, he guides them to travelers who get lost in a storm and helps them save lives. What happened to our family was a true miracle. This time as well, as we were not expecting any guests, we released Zulum (bane), Yeldrm (lightning) and Azrayil (taker of souls), as we always do in a storm, and let them go the way their instincts would take them. The dogs, guided by Saint Sargis went against the gushing winds of the storm, in the direction of Anahit stables, where the post sign is. Two or three hours after they left, as the storm was raging making it impossible to go out, we heard Yeldrm bark three times, then howl and bark three times again, as he would always do when calling for help. The dog was alone, and he would not listed to our calls to come inside, but wagged his tail and moved his head, insisting that we go out and follow him.
As the custom goes, an alarm shot was fired from a big rifle; it is so powerful that it sounds like a cannon blast. Experienced trailers, twenty strong and young mountain men came all armed and clad in warm clothes. They took six stretchers and followed the dog.
We came to know later that when the dogs found the storm victims, two of them stayed along to keep them safe, and the third one ran to the village to call for help.
When the rescue team reached the spot of the drama, they stopped short in sight of an amazing scene. The two dogs who stayed not only found the unfortunate travelers but also gave them first aid! Zulum and Azrayil, with their amazing strength, dug under the snow to reach the group where only three were still conscious. They lay next to them and yelped to encourage them. The first one to come to was my mother who opened her eyes and whispered, - Hey children, saint Sarkis came to our aid, - and hugged the neck of Azrayil and kissed his eyes as he was licking her face.
As I said, my mother and my two brothers, seasoned mountain travelers, did not succumb to the elements and helped the dogs bring others back to consciousness. The dogs used their breath and their warm tongues, while my mother and my brothers used their frozen fingers to keep them warm till the rescue party arrived.
We covered the wretched souls with manure to warm them up, and gave the dogs some hot porridge of roasted wheat and fat and dry bread. And you know the rest of the story.
Eleven offerings were sacrificed in the honor of the miracle, an offering for each rescued person. Three of the best rams were sacrificed as well in honor of the patron saint and his agents the rescue dogs2”.
1. E. Sargsyan, Calls of the Abysses, Yerevan, 1986, page 28-38.
2. Movses Khorenatsi, History of Armenia, Yerevan, 1968, page 171.
3. Armenian Ethnography and Folklore, Vol. 5, 1973, Gevorg Halajyan, Ethnography of Armenians of Dersim, page 283-285: