If you visit Armenia, the year 301AD is likely to become imprinted indelibly on your brain: as you will be told numerous times, it’s when Armenia became the first country to officially adopt Christianity as its state religion. Thousands of pagan sites were replaced by monasteries and churches and, as many still survive, they’re likely to be a key feature of any itinerary.
During our eight night tour we visited nine monasteries and four other religious buildings, not including the ones in the capital Yerevan and second city, Gyumri. At times, this felt like monastery overload, particularly as we were regaled with facts and figures we knew we would instantly forget. However, each was different and the settings often isolated, unique and beautiful.
These are the monasteries we visited in alphabetical order with some of the facts we did remember.
Akhtala Monastery – built in the Georgian style, its distinctive feature was outside the monastery: a large ‘wedding rings’ monument, a testament to the close Georgian-Armenian relationship. At the crossing of the rings, the sculptor had placed a pomegranate, as a token of love and fertility and under them, a scorpion and snake, for people to trample the evil while walking through them. This appeared to be the most functioning of all the monasteries with music playing, carpet on the flooring and a priest parading in the grounds on his mobile.
Geghard Monastery – a walk up a steep slope took us past hawker stalls and khachkars (outdoor stele carved from stone). Outside a large boulder was engraved 3 June 1975, the date of a large landslide whilst inside five ladies were singing. As the church is partially carved out of an adjacent mountain the acoustics are excellent, but it was dark and the floor uneven. In one area a stream of holy water ran through a channel in the floor, and one door had a lion, bull and pigeons carved above it.
Goshavank Monastery – was located in a valley with two 1000-year-old walnut trees in the grounds with a legend about climbing through them to bring about your dreams. Outside was a new statue of Mkhitar Gosh, the founder, who having authored a book of law, had the book on his legs and scales of justice in his hand. In the complex were three churches, two chapels, a library and large refectory with only two columns holding up the roof.
Haghartsin Monastery – again surrounded by tall trees and located within Dilijan National Park. In 2011, it had undergone major renovation supported by the Ruler of Sharjah who despite not being a Christian had found it a spiritual place.
Haghpat Monastery – was perched on the edge of a mountain and cliff, and although it should have delivered fabulous views, it was a wet weather day, and the cloud level was low. It was a huge complex and at its peak, around 500 monks would have lived here.
Hayravank Monastery – said to be little visited as it was not particularly noteworthy, but the setting on a peninsular jutting out into Lake Sevan was spectacular with the blue lake and snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Khor Virap Monastery – the approach was stunning with green vineyards in the foreground and the snow-clad Mount Ararat behind. At the entrance, white doves in cages were being sold, but it wasn’t clear whether you paid to release them like Noah, or just have your photo taken with one. We continued through a line of souvenir stalls before climbing nearly 100 steps and a slope to reach the monastery which was really busy due to its proximity to the capital Yerevan.
Noravank Monastery – situated at the bottom of a canyon surrounded by mountains. There were three churches, although one was in ruins. The main church, the Holy Mother of God, had two storeys and until a recent accident, it had been possible to climb the narrow stone-made staircase jutting out from the face of the building.
Sevanavank Monastery – involved a climb of 240 plus steps to two churches near Lake Sevan and had excellent views. Inside the Holy Mother of God church was a unique Khachkar, where Jesus was depicted with long, braided hair.
Our tour should have also included a 10th monastery, Sanahin, but the road leading to it was being renovated and not accessible. We were somewhat relieved.
Saint Hripsime Church – the Christian nun Hripsime, was stoned to death for refusing to marry King Trdat III, and her body was buried in a small side room, and inside a glass recess in the wall, were the three stones which killed her. Triangular niches in the outside walls were said to make the church earthquake proof.
Etchmiadzin Cathedral – Pope John Paul II visited Armenia in September 2001, to mark the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity and as he was unable to pray in the same place as the Armenian Catholicos, a huge outdoor alter was built at the entrance. The massive complex comprised of what was said to be 30 buildings including a domed seminary, library, bell tower, and a monks refectory turned into a restaurant. In addition to the building of a new sepulchre, the main cathedral, often regarded as the oldest in the world, has been closed for years for ongoing renovation works. We both left wondering where the funding was coming from.
Zvarnots Cathedral – the path leading up to the ruins was lined with boards with information and photographs of the original site. Six huge steps led to the ruins, a replica of a stone sun dial and a small museum. Here we learned that the outer walls would have been a 32 sided polygon which, from a distance would have appeared circular. There were also photos of other churches built in what became known as the ‘Zvarnots style’.
Temple of Garni – an avenue with rocks on either side, led to the Greek style temple. There were nine very steep steps into the temple which was surprisingly bare and small but a hole in the roof shed light in on certain days/times which would have illuminated the walls which would have been covered in silver and gold. We also explored the ruins of a circular ‘Zvarnots style’ church and covered bath houses with the faint traces of a mosaic with images connected with the sea.
If you have finished reading this article, you will know how we felt at having visited them all.