Built into the living rock, set beside spectacular gorges, under the shadow Mount Ararat and on the
shore of azure blue Lake Sevan, Armenia is home to some of the most spectacular Medieval monasteries. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301AD, the legacy of which has left this small country in the South Caucasus region wedged in between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan dotted with ancient churches and monasteries, around 4000 in fact, with some dating as far back as the 4th Century.
One of the common denominators between all the monasteries are the conical towers. These define Armenian ecclesiastic architecture, all across the country, along with khachkars, Armenian cross-stones, which are also found dotted around church or monastery grounds. However, one thing I noticed around Armenia is just how its historic churches and monasteries simply blend into the surrounding nature, becoming a part of the local landscape.
While you certainly won’t lack churches and monasteries in Armenia, here’s some of the most spectacular ones to visit should you find yourself travelling the Caucasus.
Carved partly into the rock, Geghard is one of the oldest monasteries in Armenia, said to have been founded in the 4th century, but most of the site is a later extension. Part of the monastery backs into the rock-carved cave, filled with intricate carvings and khachkars, lined with pillars and caverns where manmade blends into the living rock. The monastery is still used today, and the scent of incense hangs in the air.
Geghard one of Armenia’s most famous sites, being only an hour’s drive from the capital of Yerevan. Tourists coil up the path leading up to the monastery where old ladies sell round sweet cakes filled with dried fruits and nuts.
The church is said to have been the place that became home to the spear that pierced the side of Christ at the Calvary, before being moved to Echmiadzin, Armenia’s answer to the Vatican.
Crowning a basalt plateau on the edge of the Vorotan Canyon, 9th Century Tatev is famed mostly for its spectacular location. During the 14th and 15th century, it also housed one of Armenia’s most important universities, not only focussing on science, philosophy and religion, but also became a hub for miniature painting. While it’s possible to drive there, the historic monastery is also accessible by one of the longest cable car rides in the world.
This small monastery is more spectacular for its proximity to Mount Ararat, being poised right on the closed Turkish border – and the closest point in the country to the famous, Biblical mountain. Khor Virap is important in Armenian religious history as Gregory the Illuminator, the man responsible for Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, was imprisoned underground here prior to converting the king to Christianity. Today, you can visit this infamous pit where he was thrown into, supposedly with snakes, but it’s not for the claustrophobic. The monastery, of course, was built at a later date, and while the building is humble, it’s the view you get when driving up to it, with Mount Ararat in the background that makes it worth it – and even if there are clouds, it’s still spectacular.
Noravank blends natural beauty with manmade beauty. This medieval monastery dating back to the 13th century sits among the steep red cliffs of the narrow gorge carved out by the Amaghu River. The stone blocks of the monastery and its two-storey church are made from local rock, so carry that same mineral-rich redness. While this monastery is less famous than Khor Virap, Geghard and Tatev, its intricate beauty and striking natural surroundings make it a place worth visiting, and is perhaps one of my favourite places in Armenia.
Echmiadzin is Armenia’s answer to the Vatican, the seat of the Armenian Catholicos – the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Being the spiritual capital of Armenia, you’ll find churches and monasteries in abundance in the town.
The main cathedral, also known as The Angels of the Sky, is the oldest state-built church in the world, having been founded in 301AD by St. Gregory the Illuminator. On Sundays, the Cathedral fills up, with the country’s best singers accompanying the mass inside the fresco and icon clad cathedral. The Cathedral has seen additions and reconstruction over its lifespan of over 1700 years, such as the addition of its intricate 19th-century bell tower. On a clear day, you can see Mount Ararat clearly from the ground’s gardens.
Set up on the Debed Canyon towards the Georgian border, Hagpat is a unique example of Armenian medieval architecture, founded by Queen Khosrovanush in the late 10th century. The monastery is adorned with unique khachkars.
While the monastic buildings at Sevanavank are not spectacular in themselves, the backdrop across Lake Sevan brings out the beauty in their architectural simplicity. Sevanavank once sat on an island, but after the rivers were diverted away during the Soviet era, the lake saw a huge drop in water levels, and the island turned into a peninsula and linked the monastery to the mainland. Fortunately, Sevan did not go the way of the Aral Sea, and today it’s still Armenia’s largest body of water, with this simple monastery as its focal point.
Overgrown with moss and ivy, Sanahin is another ancient monastery in the vicinity of the Debed Canyon. Its name means “older than that one” in Armenian, probably when compared to nearby Haghpat. It’s a fascinating historical complex where you’ll find numerous khachkars, graves as well as chapels in the area.