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Monasteries of the Debed Gorge - A view from our expert author


Armenia’s beautiful monasteries in the Debed Gorge provide a taste of the fantastic medieval Armenian architecture.

Sanahin Monastery

Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, this famous monastery complex is just outside the city limits of Alaverdi. Nowadays one of Armenia’s most frequently visited sights, it was established in 966 by Queen Khosrovanush, wife of King Ashot III Bagratuni, on the site of two existing churches, St Jacob which dates from the 9th century and the Mother of God which was built sometime between 928 and 944. Sanahin became a centre of considerable cultural influence during the 10th and 11th centuries with its monastic school and important library where copyists worked to produce illuminated manuscripts. Sanahin’s role declined as Armenia suffered waves of invaders although the local Argoutian family was exceptional in managing to retain its estates through to the 20th century.

Sanahin Monastery Armenia by Deirdre Holding© Deirdre Holding

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat is contemporaneous with Sanahin and very similar in style. Both were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, the first Armenian sites to be so listed. Pilgrims in the monasteries’ heyday were inevitably driven to compare the two and from this comparison derive the present names: Haghpat means ‘huge wall’ because that was one of its striking features, whereas Sanahin means ‘older than the other’. It is nowadays much more attractively sited than Sanahin, and consequently more pleasant to visit, as the approach is not through an area of rundown Soviet-era buildings. It is, however, also touristy.

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia by Adrian ChanThe interior of Haghpat Monastery, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Adrian Chan

Haghpat means ‘huge wall’ because that was one of its striking features, whereas Sanahin means ‘older than the other’.

The main church with its huge dome is dedicated to the Holy Cross and was built between 976 and 991 at the behest of Queen Khosrovanush, also the founder of Sanahin. From the exterior it appears rectangular but internally is cross-shaped and, as at Sanahin, there is a relief of Smbat and Gurgen holding a model of a church on the east façade. Frescoes were added to the church in the 13th century; some are still faintly visible in the apse. Unlike Sanahin the buildings, which were gradually added, do not lead directly off each other. A smaller church, dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, was added in 1005 at the southwest side of the site and a domed Mother of God Church was added on the northwest side in 1025. The St Gregory Church lost its dome during rebuilding in 1211. A gavit was built in 1185 to the west of the cathedral and the cathedral itself gained a magnificent porch in 1201.

Akhtala Monastery

Akhtala is further north towards the Georgian border and receives only a tiny fraction of the visitors who go to Sanahin and Haghpat. It is built in a quite different style but its setting is equally dramatic, perched up on a cliff . Unfortunately the view is marred by copper mining taking place on the opposite side of the valley, but the wooden scaffolding, which for decades obscured the view of Armenia’s finest frescoes, has now been removed making a visit to Akhtala even more worthwhile. To reach it, take the main road east from Alaverdi for about 15km. The monastery is well signposted from the main road.

Akhtala Monastery, Armenia by Adrian ChanThe dramatic Akhtala Monastery is another monastery in a spectacular location, perched on the edge of a cliff © Adrian Chan

Odzun Monastery

Odzun itself is on the plateau and the road winds up the valley side to reach it. It is worth visiting for its church constructed of pink felsite (open: usually in the tourist season 10.00–19.00. If shut, the caretaker can often be found & the priest lives nearby). It is a large building, dating from the 6th century, reconstructed in the 8th, and one of Armenia’s finest basilicas with a cupola. It stands on the site of an early 4th-century church (303–13) which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 5th century. Remnants of the 4th-century church were found under the apse of the present church. Tradition holds that the apostle Thomas ordained priests at Odzun on his way to India and that before he left he buried Christ’s swaddling clothes where the present altar stands. A 6th-century inscription above the southern door of the church records this tradition.

The most notable feature of the exterior carving is on the east façade above the central window where Christ can be seen holding open the Gospel of St John with angels below.

Odzun church Debed Gorge Armenia by Deirdre HoldingThe church of Odzun stands on the plateau above the gorge of the Debed River © Deirdre Holding

The two small bell towers at the east end were a much later addition in the late 19th century. The church had an exterior gallery on its north, west and south sides, those on the north and south were arcaded while that on the west had a blind wall with an arched entrance in the middle. The arcades on the north no longer exist but restoration, ongoing at the time of writing, may change this. The gallery ends on the southeast in a small chapel and on the northeast in an open apse. Inside the church there are three naves, the two side naves very narrow. The roof is barrel vaulted and the ribvaulted octagonal tambour is supported by four free-standing columns. There are two additional supporting columns at the west end of the church.

Carved stones from the 4th-century church were built into the wall of the church, most notably a carving of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child above the font in the north wall. The 2009 fresco in the apse depicts the Virgin and Child in the same postures. The most notable feature of the exterior carving is on the east façade above the central window where Christ can be seen holding open the Gospel of St John with angels below. At each side of the central window on the south side is an angel with traces of another figure, probably Christ. Above the central window on the north side is a weathered full length figure, possibly another image of the Virgin and Child. The west portal is surrounded by curving foliage and above the tympanum of the west entrance is an enigmatic fragment of a larger carving.

Kobayr Monastery

Kobayr is the site of one of Armenia’s most impressive ruins. According to an inscription, the main church was built in 1171 by Mariam, daughter of Kyurik II. At this time the Turkish Seljuks ruled Armenia but delegated control to local princes. Following Georgian victories over the Seljuk Turks in 1195 and 1202 the monastery came under Georgian rule, passing into the control of the Zakarian family who adhered to the Georgian Orthodox Church rather than the Armenian Church. (The Georgian Church differed in having accepted the views of the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in 451, over the duality of Christ’s nature.)

Kobayr is the site of one of Armenia’s most impressive ruins and contains a number of beautiful frescoes.

Frescoes of Kobayr Monastery Debed Gorge Armenia by Deirdre HoldingFrescoes of Kobayr Monastery © Deirdre Holding

This explains the occurrence of Georgian features, notably the Georgian-style frescoes and carved inscriptions. Much of the south side of the complex has descended into the gorge below but the roofless apse and parts of the other walls survive with Georgian-style frescoes in the apse and chapel. The frescoes were well restored in 1971 but those in the apse have been exposed to the elements for years. Restoration of the church is now under way. While it will no doubt better protect the frescoes it is making the church darker and the dramatic view from inside the church down to the river in its gorge may eventually be blocked. In the apse the frescoes comprise three rows: in the top row the Virgin Mary and archangels; in the middle row Jesus and the Last Supper; in the bottom row figures of saints.

The frescoes in the chapel on the north side of the church are in a similar style with vivid portrayals of Jesus and the disciples. At the time of writing the chapel was locked and even on peeping through the door the frescoes were not visible because the chapel was full of building material. Presumably at sometime in the future it will be possible to admire them again. Note that a torch is needed to see them.

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