From stunning landscapes to sites of historical and cultural importance, monasteries provide a wealth of interest for the avid traveller. Here is our selection of six of the best monasteries in Europe.Read more...
Off-the-beaten-track highlights - A view from our expert author
In the central provinces
The most important site in the vicinity of Gavar is the field of khachkars at Noratus but for those who enjoy visiting small village churches there are a number of some interest in and around Gavar. Although the churches are often locked the key holder can usually be found or will soon appear, having spotted visitors arriving. In the southern suburb of Hatsarat are two adjacent, well cared for, working churches, 9th-century Mother of God and 19th-century St Gregory. (The road to the churches goes west off the Gandzak road where the latter makes a right-angle turn.) The Mother of God Church, entered from St Gregory, is a domed three-apse church. St Gregory is a three-aisle basilica with very narrow side aisles. The front of the bema has khachkars. The gravestones in the cemetery around the churches have interesting carvings, including men on horseback, deer, horses, animals fighting, flagons and people with musical instruments.
Going southwest from the Gandzak road the very rural village of Tsaghkashen (when I was there water still had to be collected from a standpipe) has the church of St John (9th–10th century). Externally the church has a rather curious appearance, four wings of rough stone around a central rectangular red tuff upper part surmounted by a small belfry. Inside it is a four apse church, elongated north to south, with a central dome and a wooden balcony in the west. Obviously a much used church it is festooned with pictures and other offerings. Gandzak, just south of Gavar, has two small churches, St George (9th–10th century) and the small Mother of God (4th–5th century). St George has been restored externally and has a new roof with a small belfry perched on one corner. Inside it is in some ways a typical village zham its wooden pillars holding up a temporary hardboard ceiling when I was there. However its blue, white and red paintwork, the paintings on the walls and the delightfully uneven bema fronted by khachkars make it a ‘one-off’.
Externally the church of St John has a rather curious appearance, four wings of rough stone around a central rectangular red tuff upper part surmounted by a small belfry.
There is a large tombstone among the stone floor flags, which seems to be that of a person of significance. Both doors have carved lintels. Mother of God Church has also seen some restoration and now has a corrugated iron roof. Its floor level is significantly below present ground level and the eastern apse is very obviously an addition to a previous rectangular building; given its age this may well indicate conversion from a pagan to a Christian shrine. Some 10km further south is Lanjaghbyur village. On the steep hillside behind the village is the tiny restored 7th-century chapel known as Ilkavank and above it, on top of the hill, a 70ha cyclopean fort. Neither the chapel nor the fort of themselves justifies the detour unless you are particularly interested in such places but it does make a good walk and the views across the plain to the Geghama Mountains are splendid. If you go quietly you may spot one of the foxes which seem to favour these cyclopean forts. The track from the village to the chapel goes up through the cemetery.
Karmirgyugh, southeast of Gavar, also has two restored churches. Mother of God Church has a bell tower on its south side and another small belfry on the roof. Internally it looks as if what is now the chancel, to the east beyond the stone balustrade, was once a small cross-dome church with the typical stone columns and arches which would have supported a dome. The west part of the church is a typical zham with pairs of wooden pillars supporting the wooden ceiling. Externally the new walls show no east/west division apart from the fact that only the western part has windows. Within the bell tower the south portal has old masonry with carved details. Inside the church, khachkars, some of them painted, have been incorporated into the walls. St Gregory is built of rougher boulders which are also visible inside in the wide apse.
A painted khachkar in Mother of God Church, Karmirgyugh © Deirdre Holding
About 14km south of Gavar a small church can be seen on a knoll near the lake. It marks the site of Kanagegh medieval settlement and a cyclopean fortress. The remains of both cover a vast area; khachkars, two small churches and innumerable low walls, some in concentric circles near the lake, can be seen. Walking across the grassland to a headland overlooking one of Lake Sevan's attractive bays gives some idea of the size of the settlements. There are no signposts but a church symbol appears on the most recent maps.
According to the plaque on the church it was renovated in 2000 by one Surik Jraghatspanian. Inside are before and after photographs and the church is surrounded by khachkars. The second church remains in a more ruined state but it too has had some restoration. Entering through the low door one finds oneself in a tiny but typical zham with wooden posts supporting the wooden ceiling all protected by a corrugated roof. The well-kept interior has a large stone in front of the small bema, such stones said to be an indication that the site was originally a pagan shrine, later converted for Christian use. In this small church the past can somehow be felt. The new cross outside commemorates the renovation in 2008 ‘in honour of St George’.
In the northern provinces
On the way to Lake Arpi
On the way north to Lake Arpi there are sights of some interest, all of which can be combined with a walk which can be as long or short as you wish to make it. This is a particularly attractive option in spring or early summer when the whole countryside is awash with the colours of an amazing variety of wild flowers.
At Hoghmik a Hellenistic site has been excavated on a small plateau above a tributary of the Akhurian River. There is not a lot to see apart from low walls, floors and fragments of columns but the complex is thought to have been a 6km long complex of three temples along with their associated buildings, fields and villages. Ceramics, altars and statuettes were found during excavation. Part of the pleasure for me lay in walking through the masses of early summer wild flowers then down a grassy track and along the river. Later in the year when the vegetation has died it might not be so colourful but the excavation would be easier to see. The site is 800m east of the leaving Hoghmik sign.
Colourful flowers at the Hellenistic site of Hoghmik © Deirdre Holding
More interesting are the four ancient graves just northeast of the church and now within a small building which the villagers built in the 1960s to protect what they regard as a holy place, akin to a Tukh Manuk shrine.
The village of Tsoghamarg is on another tributary of the Akhurian River. Follow the turn-off as it bears right into the village. Immediately obvious is a roofless, black and red tuff village church or zham. It is of no particular interest although it does have some carving on its south façade and still has the wooden columns and roof beams typical of such churches. More interesting are the four ancient graves just northeast of the church and now within a small building which the villagers built in the 1960s to protect what they regard as a holy place, akin to a Tukh Manuk shrine.
The four graves are massive stone sarcophagi, thought to date from somewhere between 4,000–1,000BC but little is known about them. Immediately above, on top of the plateau, is a small cyclopean fort which can be reached by a 15-minute scramble up the steep, rocky slope. A gentler route is via the small ravine to the left as you face the cliff. Once on top not only is one rewarded by the fort, its size and easily traceable walls making it more comprehensible than some larger cyclopean sites, but there is often a pleasant breeze. The plateau is a good place for a walk, either along the small ravine or along the edge of the cliff with good views across the village to the hills to the south.
Perhaps even older and certainly just as mysterious are the megaliths near the village of Hartashen. Thought to date from 6,000BC, two lines of three long parallel rows of standing stones, all inclined downhill, stretch across the hillside in regular formation, one line half way up the hill following the contour, the second triple row lower down the hill and at a right angle to one end of the upper series, although not contiguous. The road I took to reach them was through the old village of Zuygaghbyur (in the few references to the stones they are called the Zuygaghbyur megaliths) but it may be easier to reach them from the Vardaghbyur turn-off.
Mysterious lines of standing stones - the Zuygaghbyur megaliths © Deirdre Holding
(Note that the Zuygaghbyur village marked on the Collage maps to the east of the main road is ruinous. The present day village of the same name lies on the main road just north of the turn-off for the old village.) The configuration of the stones reminded me of anti-tank defences I had seen in Estonia and, interestingly, some villagers are reported to have said that their grandparents erected the stones. Early 20th century or 6th millennium BC? Mysterious megaliths, indeed!
Northeast from Ijevan
Continuing south the main road winds up and down the hills with views across the plains of Azerbaijan. Here it is easy to appreciate that historically Armenians inhabited the hills and Azeris the plains. From the village of Tsaghkavan a very bad dirt road (parts of which are impassable even for a 4x4 with high clearance and mud-terrain tyres) leads to Shkhmuradi Monastery (or Getakits), about 6km from the main road. An alternative to walking through the woods is to contact one of the local farmers, Farmer Ararat, on his mobile phone (094 554786) who, if he is free, is willing to take two visitors there on his SAME German tractor. The ride takes about 45 minutes perched on the slippery mudguards of his tractor and you have to hold on very tightly. He asks just for the cost of fuel but it seems appropriate to add something more for his time away from his farm. Even if walking, a local guide is advisable.
The overgrown monastery is picturesquely situated below towering rock faces amidst the forest.
The overgrown monastery is picturesquely situated below towering rock faces amidst the forest. Were it not that the main church abuts the road it would be easy to miss it. Most of the buildings are below road level. What looks at first like a grassy mound to the west of the church is in fact the roof of a gavit. There are no written records about the monastery apart from inscriptions on the buildings themselves. Descending round the end of the gavit, whose south door is blocked off, one enters the Mother of God church, built 1248, on its south side through a smaller, ruined second gavit which has an interesting khachkar with several human figures. The church is a cross-dome church of yellow felsite. From its west end steps lead down to the larger gavit. The earliest building, the Khoranik of 1149, lies to the east of the smaller gavit, only its west and north walls still standing. It was a single-aisle vaulted basilica with an east apse.
In the southern provinces
The large village of Angeghakot (7km west of the western entry road to Sisian), overlooking the Shaghat Reservoir on the Vorotan River, must be a cartographer's nightmare. Streets seem to go in all directions in this ancient settlement of low houses, haystacks and khachkars but it is possible to find the most interesting features by doing a big loop through the village. The asphalt road from the highway becomes the dirt road which runs along the top of this long village. On entering the village, turn left to reach the large open area in front of the post office. Apart from a small modern cemetery with a statue of Zoravar Andranik, and one semi-derelict building, the open space, once a cemetery, is bare.
Angeghakot Reservoir from the Mother of God Church in Angeghakot village © Deirdre Holding
Old gravestones are dotted around, some still upright in the ground, some piled up with junk in corners, some used as seats in warm weather. There were once seven churches, most of which are now totally ruined. Two still stand. Continue downhill from the post office to the gorge. Where the road bends sharply right a path leads down through rocks to the medieval church of St Stephen, rebuilt in the 17th century. The single-nave church of rough stones is built up against the hillside. The road continues to the Mother of God Church a short distance away on the edge of the plateau. The three-aisled barrel-vaulted basilica (5th-century, several rebuildings and recent restoration) is built of rough stone inside, dressed stone outside. The roof, with a small central belfry, has been turfed for protection. If the church is locked the key is available from a nearby house if the keyholder is at home.
Continuing uphill the road brings you back to the west end of the top road on which you reached the village. The main cemetery (on the northwest edge of the village), with burials from the Bronze Age to the present day, is up a narrow track off this road (third left, if I remember correctly, but ask for the gerezman). There are some unusual gravestones. The most striking is a three-tier memorial which has what is thought to be a christianised vishap for its base, surmounted by a stone with an eye-hole, topped with a small khachkar.
Nearby is a khachkar on a seven-stepped pedestal and base with carved sun symbols, thought to be the grave of a Syunik prince. It is surrounded by other graves, some of which are also unusual: recumbent slabs with disc-shaped stones at each end. Carved with both the Armenian swirling eternity symbol and the star of David, they are believed to be the graves of members of a Jewish community who served rulers in Syunik and Vayots Dzor. There are khachkars carved from earlier eye-hole stones, and tombstones with a variety of carved human and animal figures.