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Armenia’s Christian Monasteries

Explore the charm of the forgotten masterpieces of Armenia

Armenia, located in the Caucasus is known for its many ancient monasteries, churches, and other Christian buildings dating from around the 11th to 14th centuries. Some are deserted, some are still in use. Quite an amazing experience!


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Armenian people are not exactly thrilled when foreign tourists only come to see their ancient monasteries and churches. “Please, there is a lot more to Armenia than our old monasteries”, proclaims a frustrated local resident of Yerevan. “Why is it that the only thing tourists ask about is where the famous monasteries are”?  Well, I felt bitterly guilty because that was also all I cared about. I had heard so much about the monasteries and that was the reason why I was here in Armenia.

I entered Armenia by mini-bus from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. It was a full day’s drive to Yerevan, capital of Armenia. I only had three days before I was scheduled to fly over to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates on Air Arabia. My tight schedule was well planned in advance. A day in Yerevan and two days of monasteries. Nothing else. I did the monasteries and was totally amazed. The highlight was Geghard Monastery, 40 km east of Yerevan in Armenia’s Kotayk Province, not far from the town of Garni.

The public bus dropped me off at the village of Garni from where it was a pleasant 10 km hike to the monastery at the end of a dusty road. Halfway I came across cherry heaven. I was smack in the best time of cherry season. Tens of cherry trees covered in black-red cherries were hanging, to breaking point, over the public road. I reckoned, what hangs in pubic territory belongs to the people. I snacked away on 1,162 cherries.

As I was lying in bed that night, I was wondering if there really was anything more to Armenia than its monasteries.

When I arrived at the airport I was informed that an email was sent to me the previous day about the cancellation of the flight. Come back four days later, I was told.

More monasteries, I thought. And so it was. Five more monasteries, including, once again, Geghard Monastery for another 865 cherries. A second visit to Geghard also allowed me to take another 232 photos and to explore the surrounding forest and crystal clear streams of water.

Back to the airport, where I realized I had the departure time wrong and this time had to buy a new ticket and return three days later. More monasteries… But I decided I had devoured enough free cherries and could never again pay for cherries. I’m also convinced that Armenia is more than monasteries. They have great, free, cherries too!

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Geghard Monastery

The monastery is located about 40 km to the east of Yerevan, in the direction of Lake Sevan. Public transport, other than taxis, does not go all the way to the monastery. Take a bus from Yerevan to the village of Garni (visit the Garni Temple) from where it is a 10 km hike along a dusty road to the monastery. Taxis are scarce in Garni but you may be lucky hitchhiking. In season (June/July), many cherry trees along the way will make this an unforgettable walk!

Geghard Monastery is also known as “Geghardavank”, meaning “Monastery of the Holy Lance”. The Holy Lance was also referred to as the Holy Spear or Spear of Destiny. Early biblical text also calls it the Lance of Longinus – named after the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross as reported in the Christian Bible’s “Gospel of John” chapter.

While several places of religion claim to possess this lance, a thirteenth century Armenian manuscript entitled “Holy Relics of Our Lord Jesus Christ” claims that the lance was brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus.

The Armenians refer to the Holy Lance as Geghard, the original place where the relic was kept. Therefore, the monastery is known as Geghardavank – Monastery of the Holy Lance.

Don’t look for the relic in Geghard Monastery because it was moved long ago and is now conserved in Vagharshapat (previously known as Echmiadzin), the religious capital of Armenia. In 1805 the Russians took the relic to Tchitchanov Geghard in Tbilisi, Georgia. However, it was later returned to Echmiadzin.

Gregory the Illuminator who baptized the Armenian royal family in 301 A.D. ordered that a chapel be built in a cave with a spring, which he declared as sacred. The original name was Ayrivank, meaning “Monastery of the Cave”. From being a tiny cave chapel, it grew bigger over time. In 1215 the most prominent chapel was built which was partially carved out of the adjacent rocks.

The monastic complex we see now is a mix of elegant Armenian stonework and stone carved crosses juxtaposed with the bare rocky part of the chapel.

The monastery it partly surrounded by spectacular towering cliffs on the north side and the Azat River Gorge to the south.

At the main entrance on the west side are small caves, chapels, and a few carvings. The main church of the complex is called the Katoghike Chapel and was completed in 1215. The southern facade has a portal with fine carvings. The original chapel of Gregory is a few metres away.

The monastery is not currently in use. The doors are unlocked most of the time and no entrance fee is charged. Spend a few hours here and just appreciate the beautiful inscriptions, burial vaults, chambers, chapels, rock carvings, corridors, ceilings, and more. Test the acoustics in the main chamber. This is a truly peaceful setting.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Goshavank Monastery

Located about 120 km northeast of Yerevan (20 km for the town of Dilijan), not far north of the northern tip of Lake Sevan, Goshavank Monastery is close to Haghartsin Monastery so it makes sense to rent a car and driver in Yerevan for a day trip. En route to Goshavank and Haghartsin, also stop at Sevanavank monastic complex on a peninsula at the northwestern shore of the lake.

Goshavank means “Monastery of Gosh” as it is located in the village of Gosh, which lies about 20 km directly north of the northern tip of Sevan Lake. Sevan is the largest body of water in Armenia and the Caucasus region with a total surface area of 5,000 square km.

Goshavank Monastery was completed in the 12th or 13th century on the site where the earlier Nor Getik Monastery was destroyed in the earthquake of 1188.

It is no longer a functioning religious complex and has been lightly restored in recent years. The building is impressive and in fairly good condition. Look out for the khachkar, which are Armenian cross-stone carvings bearing a cross, and other motifs such as rosettes and floral patterns. The complex consists of several churches, chapels, bell tower, and even a 13th century school building.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries are located close to each other, in northern Armenia close to the Georgia border. If you cross to or from Georgia, visit these monasteries on the same day with a local car and driver from the nearby town of Alaverdi.

Haghpat is a Byzantine monastery built in a period of prosperity during the time of the Kingdom of Tashir-Dzoraget, also referred to as the Kiurikian dynasty (10th to 13th century).

The building is an exceptional example of ecclesiastical architecture that developed in Armenia between the 10th and 13th century. As the architecture relates to the Christian Church and its clergy, there is much blending of the Byzantine church architecture of the Eastern Roman Empire and the traditional styles of this region.

While the monastery was founded in the late 10th century, most of the structures still standing today were constructed in the 12th and 13th century. The complex was damaged a few times by earthquakes and numerous attacks by armed forces.

Its location is beautiful. Built halfway up a hillside, it overlooks the Debed River and is often wreathed in clouds. Located in the village of Hagpat, the monasteries in northern Armenia differ from those in other regions as they are normally situated in a village rather than being isolated in rural areas. The village itself is pleasant and people are friendly.

The Cathedral of Surb Nishan is the largest church in the complex. Another building is  the small domed Church of St. Gregory. Look out for the splendid khachkars (cross-stones). The flowing sunrays from small windows in the domes create a serene atmosphere.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Saghmosavank Monastery

Located about 50 km north of Yerevan, the 13th-century Saghmosavank monastic complex sits atop the precipitous gorge carved by the Kasagh River. The main building, the Church of Zion in Saghmosavank, was completed in 1221 after six years of construction. Just a few kilometres to the south is Hovhannavank Monastery. Both can be visited on a daytrip from Yerevan with a car and driver. If you leave early in the day, you can drop by the town of Echmiadzin, Armenia’s religious centre. However, Echmiadzin has so much to see that it can easily keep you busy for a full day.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Haghartsin Monastery

Located about 120 km northeast of Yerevan, not far north from the northern tip of Lake Sevan, Haghartsin Monastery is close to Goshavank Monastery, so it makes sense to rent a car and driver in Yerevan for a day trip. En route to Haghartsin and Goshavank stop at Sevanavank monastic complex on a peninsula at the north western shore of the lake.

Haghartsin Monastery was built between the 10th and 14th centuries. Its construction was started under the patronage of Armenia’s royal dynasty of Bagratuni who ruled from 861 A.D to 1118. Most of the structures we see today were completed during the 13th century.

Its location is truly remarkable. Surrounded by the Dilijan National Park, the monastery is nestled in a temperate rainforest on a mountainside. The combination of the lush natural surroundings and architectural grandeur is impressive.

The largest and artistically dominant building at this monastic complex is the St. Astvatsatsin Church. Competed in 1218, its tall sixteen-faceted dome is decorated with graceful arches. The gavit, western entrance lobby of the church, has been severely damaged with the walls almost completely destroyed. Walk though the gavit to reach the St. Grigor Church, which is the oldest of the larger structures at the complex. Its gavit, a square building, has ornamented corners decorated with rosettes and sculptures of monks.

Also look for the small St. Stepanos Church and a sepulchre which is cut in rock where some of the royalty from the Bagratuni dynasty are buried.

The refectory which was most likely used for serving communal meals are lined with low stone benches. Nowadays the space is filled with large 30 cm thick cut logs resting on smaller logs that serve as tables. The smaller logs are the chairs. You may be lucky to arrive during a wedding or baptism ceremony at which time the refectory will be used to serve meals to the guests.

During your visit you may also witness a matagh, an animal offering outside the church.

In November 2013 it was reported that the monastery had reopened after the completion of renovations facilitated by a “significant donation” by the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Sadly some visitors called the renovations a “destruction” of the historical beauty of the monastery.

Once you are done exploring the monastic complex, go for a hike in the adjacent Dilijan National Park which is one of the four protected national parks in Armenia. Known for its rich biodiversity and medicinal mineral water springs, it is 240 square km in size.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Khor Virap Monastery

Constructed over several centuries, the monastery is located about 50 km south of Yerevan, near the closed border with Turkey. It is easy to get to the monastery by public transport. Behind Yerevan’s main train station, catch a marshrutka (minibus), which will drop you at the main road near the monastery from where it is a 1.5 km walk. A bigger bus leaves from Sasuntsi David Station in Yerevan. Regular church services are held in this church and it is one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in Armenia.

Khor Virap means “deep pit”, and there is a good reason for the name. Gregory the Illuminator (St. Grigor Lusavorich) was imprisoned in a deep well underneath St. Gevorg Chapel for about 14 years by King Tiridates III.

When the king found out about the Christian faith of Gregory, he ordered him to be tortured and thrown into a deep pit. The king’s evil act was partly driven by the fact that Gregory was the son of his father’s enemy.

The pit measured 6 m deep and 4.4 m wide. After Gregory was thrown into the dark dungeon he was left to die. It was only with the help of a woman who lowered food to him that he survived.

Gregory was recalled from the pit around 297 A.D. to restore the sanity of the king. The king must have loved him for that, so in 301 A.D. Gregory baptized the king along with members of the royal court. He became the king’s religious mentor and the king ordered him to convert the entire country to Christianity. Gregory died around 331 A.D. near Mount Sebuh.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery is located a few kilometres from Haghpad Monastery. The name Sanahin literally means “this one is older than that one” which we assume refers to nearby Haghpad. The two monasteries are in view of each other along the Debed River and are similar in many ways, such as the compositional features of their architecture and decoration. It seems clear that the same craftsmen constructed both.

Standing on a high plateau, these monasteries rise sharply against the background of steep forest-grown slopes of the Bazum ridge.

The Sanahin complex dates back to the middle of the 10th century, but construction likely went on into the 13th century.  We can now see a few churches and chapels, sepulchers, bell-towers, refectories, and other structures.

The interior of the Church of Saint Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother) and Saint Amenaprkich (All Saviour) Katoghike Church were both decorated with detailed frescoes of which much has been lost over the centuries. The domed cruciform church of Astvatsatsin, is located in the middle of the complex, and was built between 928-944. Its dome was added much later in 1652 when it underwent major reconstruction. Saint Amenaprkich Church also has a domed cruciform structure and seems bigger than the rest of the buildings.

The belfry is the height of a three-story building, and was built between 1211 and 1235.

Behind the monastery are several graves, which are, just like the rest of the monastery, overgrown by grass and weeds. It is one of Armenia’s monasteries not to be missed.

Armenia Monasteries - Globerovers Magazine

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This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Globerovers Magazine.

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