Geghard Monastery - A view from our expert author

Detail on the Geghard Monastery by Adrian ChanVarious stone-carved detail on the side of the Geghard Monastery © Adrian Chan

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.

Visiting Geghard on a Sunday morning is an enthralling experience with beautiful singing from the choir.

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 Ejmiatsin. 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 sacrifice after the service.

Geghard Monastery, Armenia by Adrian Chan

The first monastery at this site was called Ayrivank (‘Cave monastery’). It was founded as early as the 4th century but was burned down and plundered in 923 by Nasr, a subordinate of Yusuf, the caliph’s Governor of Azerbaijan. Yusuf had just spent five years in prison for rebellion against the caliph. Nasr continued the rebellion, seeking to extend his own power and to enforce conversion of the Christian population to Islam.

Thereafter the monastery declined until the revival of monastery building in the late 12th century. The earliest surviving part, the Chapel of the Mother of God, dates from before 1164 and is situated above the road just before the gateway to the main monastery complex. It is partly a surface structure and partly hewn into the rock, rectangular in plan but with a semicircular apse. Adjoining it are other passages and small rooms in the rock.

In total, surrounding the main site are more than 20 other rock-hewn chapels and service premises, many of which have carvings. Also outside the gate are small ledges on to which visitors try to throw stones. If a stone remains on the ledge then the thrower’s wish is supposed to come true.

(Photo: The interior of Geghard Monastery; the building is partly cut into the cliff © Adrian Chan)

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