Tatev Monastery - A view from our expert author

According to legend, the architect couldn’t get down when he finished the cupola of the main church. He cried out: ‘Togh astvats indz ta-tev’, which means ‘May God give me wings’. And so the monastery got its name.

There is a legend about Tatev Monastery. It is said that the architect couldn’t get down when he finished the cupola of the main church. He cried out: ‘Togh astvats indz ta-tev’, which means ‘May God give me wings’. And so the monastery got its name. An excellent distant view can be had from the left of the road where there is a small gazebo-type structure. The short path to the gazebo starts from the layby at the top of the climb from Halidzor. The gazebo is variously stated to mark the signalling point from which the monastery could be warned of the approach of possibly unwelcome visitors, or alternatively the spot from which a young lady threw herself into the gorge rather than submit to an unwelcome marriage with a local Muslim ruler.

After the gazebo the road winds down to the Vorotan and crosses it adjacent to the so-called Satan’s Bridge, a natural bridge over the swift-flowing river: a path leads down through eroded rock formations to a popular swimming pool. The road then winds up the far side of the valley to the monastery. Adjacent to the monastery is an information centre (mobile: 093 845632; email:; www.tatevinfo.comopen: Apr–Oct 09.00–21.00 depending on the weather). The centre can arrange homestays and hikes and it runs the small café in the centre.

Tatev Monastery Armenia by Maria OlienikTatev Monastery © Maria Olienik

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. It was his successor, Bishop Ter-Hovhannes, who built the main church, dedicated to Sts Paul and Peter between 895 and 906. It was badly damaged by the earthquake in 1931 during which the cupola collapsed, but the whole has now been restored except for the bell tower which formerly had three storeys.

Tatev Monastery, Armenia by Adrian Chan

Tatev’s reconstruction has not always been sensitive – installing a marble floor rather than stone flags in the church and library rather jars, for example, but the restoration does give an excellent idea of how the monastery must have looked when it was a thriving centre of learning and 1,000 people lived here. Its greatest importance was in the 14th and 15th centuries under Hovnan Vorotnetsi (1315–88) and Grigor Tatevatsi (1346–1411). Tatevatsi was both a philosopher and a painter and is portrayed surrounded by his students in one of the few portraits in Armenian manuscript illustration. This is in the 1449 Interpretation of the Psalms of David and is presumably the work of one of his former pupils.

The complex is surrounded by a large fortified wall. The church 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. On the east façade, above the triangular niches, long snakes are looking at two heads while on the north façade, above a window, two shorter snakes are looking at a person: Armenians supposedly regarded snakes as protectors of their homes.

(Photo: Tatev’s main church, Sts Peter and Paul © Adrian Chan)

On the north façade are also representations of the founders of the church – Prince Ashot, his wife Shushan, Grigor Supan, the ruler of Gegharkunik, and Prince Dzagik. In 930, the walls of the church were decorated with frescoes but these have almost totally vanished except for some scant remnants in the apse and the interior is now rather plain. Grigor Tatevatsi is buried inside the small chapel on the south side of the main church. His tomb is the highly decorated structure which abuts the church.

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