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Sacred wandering: Armenia’s unmissable monasteries

Armenia has a wealth of monasteries – here’s our hitlist of what not to miss.

Hidden within canyons and balancing on mountain tops, the monasteries of Armenia are among some of the most magnificent cultural heritage sites in Europe. Boasting architectural perfection, rich histories and deep spiritual significance, these remarkable places of worship cannot be missed.

Akhtala

Close to the Georgian border, this monastery receives only a tiny fraction of the visitors who go to the more well-known monasteries, but that only heightens its appeal.

The beautiful Akhtala monastery remains largely undiscovered by tourists © Adrian Chan

It is built in a quite different style to the other monasteries in the country but its setting is equally dramatic, perched up on a cliff. Unfortunately the view from outside is marred by copper mining taking place on the opposite side of the valley, but the inside of the main church, featuring Armenia’s finest frescoes, makes the visit to Akhtala worthwhile.

Geghard

One of the great sites of Armenia and on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2000, Geghard (Spear) Monastery in its gorge setting should ideally be seen when several of the country’s less extraordinary churches have been visited. It is then easier to appreciate what makes this one different. Its unusual feature is that it is partly an ordinary surface structure and partly cut into the cliff.

Geghard should be on every visitor’s must-see list © Adrian Chan

The name dates from the 13th century and reflects the bringing here of a spear said to have been the one which pierced the side of Christ at Calvary. (This spear, a shaft with a diamond-shaped head into which a cross has been cut, can now be seen in the treasury at Etchmiadzin. It is inside a gilded silver case made for it in 1687). Visiting Geghard on a Sunday morning is an enthralling experience with beautiful singing from the choir, and beautifully groomed animals brought for matagh (sacrifice) after the service.

Haghartsin

Haghartsin sits deep in a picturesque forested valley and has long been one of Armenia’s most visited monasteries. On the approach to the monastery are some small chapels (a good photographic vantage point) and some particularly fine khachkars (the modern construction beyond was once planned to become the upper terminal of a cable car from the road below, but it was abandoned before completion).

Haghartsin is also the starting point for several good hikes, including a short walk to a nearby waterfall and two much longer routes, one back to Dilijan over the mountains and another to the village of Hovk in the direction of Ijevan. The latter route incorporates sections of ancient footpaths found in the surrounding forests and mountains which at one time probably linked Haghartsin with Aghchkaberd.

Hayravank

Just south of Berdkunk, and about 22km from Sevan, the monastery of Hayravank can be seen on a knoll to the left of the road overlooking the lake. The monastery and surrounding rocks are all conspicuously covered with reddish-orange lichen.

Hayravank monastery is aptly located among some of Armenia’s most impressive natural landscapes © Adrian Chan

It consists of a domed four-apse church from the end of the 9th century, a gavit from the 12th and a small 10th-century chapel off the south wall of the church. The topography of the rather cramped site with the ground falling away quite steeply led to the gavit, at a lower level than the church, incorporating the western. apse of the church, which now protrudes into the interior of the gavit. The east arch of the gavit spans the church asymmetrically in relation to the west door and crosses the top of the west apse window.

Makaravank

Makaravank, on the slopes of Mount Paytatar, is beautifully situated with fine views over the Aghstev Valley and into Azerbaijan. It is well restored and has probably Armenia’s finest carvings. Road improvements have made this splendid monastery more accessible.

Makaravank is known for its fine carvings © Adrian Chan

The oldest church, whose dedicatee is unknown, was probably built in the 10th century. Inside it has beautifully carved window surrounds and an equally beautiful front to the altar dais with floral and linear designs. However, even this fine carving is wholly overshadowed by the amazing carving of the main Mother of God Church built in 1204 by Vardan, son of Prince Bazaz. The carving here is wonderful. In particular the front of this altar dais is covered with eight-pointed stars separated by octagons in each of which is a different elaborate design: a man in a boat, sphinxes, sirens, birds, floral arrangements and other unusual designs.

Noravank

This is one of Armenia’s best-known tourist sights, and certainly shouldn’t be missed. Try to come here in the early morning or late evening. You’ll want to avoid the crowds, and the monastery is even prettier in low light, with its red stone set against the similarly coloured rock of the mountainside.

Noravank is perhaps the most famous monastery in Armenia © Hovhannes Boranyan, Shutterstock

As you approach the monastery itself, the striking two-storey building that you come to first is actually a mausoleum with another church on top of it, and is the newest part of the establishment. The larger complex of buildings beyond is older; the oldest part of all is the ruined 9th- or 10th-century church of John the Baptist at the southeast corner.

The site was developed mainly in the 13th century by the Orbelian princes, a branch of the Mamikonian family which had settled in Georgia in the 9th century and members of which had held the position of commander-in-chief of the Georgian forces in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Georgian army, which included many Armenians, defeated the sultan in 1204 and many families from Georgia moved into Armenia including the Orbelians who settled in Syunik. The Orbelians built several churches to act as burial places for the family and the see of the bishopric of Syunik was moved here to Noravank.

Saghmosavank

This monastery was built by Prince Vache Vachutian. The oldest part of Saghmosavank (Monastery of Psalms) is the Zion Church of 1215 with its round tambour and conical cupola. Inside there are four two-storey corner rooms; those in the west have cantilevered steps going up the west wall of the church, those in the east currently have no permanent means of access but there is a suggestion of cantilevered steps having been present up the north and south walls.

The smaller Mother of God Church to the south, a plain barrel-vaulted church, was built in 1235 and was followed by the large gavit which has an impressive entrance doorway similar to those found at the entrance to mosques.

Tatev

The fortified clifftop monastery of Tatev dates to the 9th century. The date of the now vanished first church at the monastery is unknown, but in 844 Bishop Davit persuaded the Princes of Syunik to grant lands which would support the founding of a monastery worthy to house the relics which the church in Syunik possessed.

His successor, Bishop Ter-Hovhannes, built the main church, dedicated to Sts Paul and Peter between 895 and 906. (Incidentally, legend has it that the architect couldn’t get down when he finished the cupola, and cried out: ‘Togh astvats indz ta-tev’, which means ‘May God give me wings’ – and so the monastery got its name).

Tatev monastery is steeped in legend © Adrian Chan

It is somewhat intermediate in style between the earlier domed basilica churches and the later cross-dome churches. The umbrella cupola is supported by an unusually tall decorated circular tambour.


More information

For more information, check out our guide to Armenia:

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