Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss

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Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

When my father told me that we were going to Armenia, I have to admit, I had never heard about the country except for a brief mention in a few Elif Şafak's books. I quickly googled and learned that the Republic of Armenia is a country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia and is bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south.

A little about the history of this country for those of you giving me company living under the rocks ; Armenia is one of the world's oldest countries and the first country to have adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.

Though I knew nothing about the country, I had pictured Armenia to be a predominantly Muslim country. However, my first stint of research about the country admonished all those notions because this country was sprawling with Christian Monasteries! Beautiful Christian Monasteries to be precise.

When we sat down with our copy of Lonely Planet to pick and choose the monasteries we ought to visit, we learned that this country had over 4000 monasteries and churches, and each a better masterpiece than the other. It wasn't going to be easy zeroing in on the few. However, we somehow managed to prioritize 5 monasteries that fit with the rest of our itinerary and drove our way up to all of them.

However, to make your itinerary crafting easier, here's the list of five I went to and can absolutely vouch for. This should save you from going through multiple websites and tour guides like we did.

Fun fact about Armenian monasteries before we start; you will notice that most Armenian monasteries on highlands, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking green valleys. This was to keep away from invaders and external attacks. Clever move right? So, if you're going monastery trailing in Armenia, brace yourselves to drive up meandering serpentine roads.

And when you do visit these monasteries, be prepared to immerse yourself in Armenian history as these monasteries hold not only significant religious and historical importance, but also immense architectural importance. Armenian monasteries are some of the most well-known masterpieces of cultural heritage to be seen in today's world.

Photo of Khor Virap, H11, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

Hillocked near the snow capped mountains of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, this fortified monastery is one of the most worshiped monasteries and an important place of pilgrimage. Khor Virap which translates to deep dungeon has a story of biblical importance behind it.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

The story goes that Khor Virap was where Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for 13 years in the nondescript St. Gevorg Chapel away from the main church as a punishment for preaching Christianity to the people of Armenia. He was imprisoned in a pit that was 4.4 m in diameter and 7 m deep. Khosrovidukht, the then ruler Trdat’s sister repeatedly had dreams where God advised that her brother will be cured from insanity only if St Gregory is released from prison. No one expected him to be alive after 13 years of living in a pit, but he was and once he was released, the king regained sanity. Trdat rewarded St Gregory by sending him to Caesaria to be consecrated a bishop. This caused the conversion of the king and Armenia into the first officially Christian nation in the world in the year 301 AD. Later in 642 AD Catholicos Nerses built the Khor Virap monastery over the jail-dungeon to commemorate this miraculous incident.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

We were allowed to descend down the pit via a narrow ladder in order to experience where St. Gregory stayed for 13 long years. This was quite scary because its dark until you reach the bottom and even when you step foot down, the dimly lit dug can be quite claustrophobic. It's truly a miracle that St. Gregory survived in there for 13 years.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Standing in Khor Virap, a place entrenched in biblical history alongside the breath taking views of green pastures, stretches of vineyards and stork nests set on the backdrop of Mount Ararat is a postcard perfect scenario.

Image courtesy : Healthy Clan

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Distance from Yerevan : 30 KM

Image Courtesy : Photorator

Photo of Noravank Monastery, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

Built in the 13th century ,the Noravank monastery is an exquisite example of ornate architecture. Set against the soft red cliffs overlooking a gorge, this ones a drive off the Yerevan-Goris highway along a beautiful stretch flanked by brick red rocks and green moss.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Though Noravank translates to “New Monastery”, it is 7 centuries old and has only 3 surviving churches carved with intricate designs conveying religious beliefs - church of Surp Karapet, Surp Grigor chapel and the church of Surp Astvatsatsin.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Said to have been last restored in 1990, this monastery barely made it through the Mongal invasion during the 13th century. The Mongols were on a mission to destroy monasteries around the country and though they raided Noravank in 1238 AD and destroyed certain parts of it, the monastery has retained its medieval charm.

It is a two storeyed monastery and a narrow flight of stone stairs lead you up to the main alter. Not too many people venture to the top, but I made my way up and what I liked the most was the eerie silence I experienced under the dome structured church. The church is said to look its best during sunset with the rays of pinkish sun against the brick red valley and cliffs around. There is a tiny museum in this compound that displays medieval artworks, religious artifacts and paintings of how Noravank looked before the Mongol Invasion.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

In front of the main church to it's right lies a pit into which people could go down in a single file and barely had enough space for 3 people to comfortably stand. With meek rays of sunlight percolating into the pit, I saw faded illustrations on the walls of the pit. Though I could not make sense, I believe they convey stories of the monks who lived in Noravank.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

If you make it here, don't forget to grab a bite from the nearby restaurant on the cliff top. They don't have an extensive menu and you may have a tough time communicating with the jovial lady running the restaurant, but its worth the effort. Basics like kebab, chicken and salad are your key words and the rest will fall in place.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Distance from Yerevan - 122 km

Formerly known as Ayrivank ( Monastery of Caves ), the history of the then cave chapel dates back to the pre-christian era. Located in the central province of Kotayk, this monastery is at the head of the Azat Valley surrounded by towering cliffs.

Image courtesy : Arara Tours

Photo of Geghard Monastery, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

Geghard translates to 'spear' and this monastery is said to have been christened after the spear that was used to pierce Jesus after he was crucified to check if he was still alive. Geghard is thus a derivative of the Armenian word meaning "Monastery of the Spear". This World Heritage–listed monastery is carved out of the rock face and cliffs and faced the Azat River Gorge. The trickling of the lake at the onset of this grand monastery against the rugged mountains is a ravishing sight.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

This monastery is the perfect blend of elegant Armenian stonework embedded with khachkars ( Armenian cross-stone, a characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art).

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

This monastery is literally hang off cliffs and from the rock walls many monastic cells and several small churches have been carved out in Armenian architectural style.

The interiors of the rooms are dimly lit with prayer candles and one of the churches here has been designed so that the acoustics produce a remarkable and authentically holy and mysterious reverberation of sound, almost a divine echo.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

On your back from the Geghard Monastery, pick up a Gata with Geghard written on it and relish the sweet delicacy.

Distance from Yerevan - 36 km

Image Courtesy: Travel Armenia

Photo of Tatev Monastery, H45, Tatev, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

Founded in the 4th century at the site of a pagan temple, Tatev Monastery is one of the most dramatically placed monasteries in Armenia. it is set atop a cliff , about 1600 feet above sea level in the mountains of Zangezur. In its fine geometrical carved ornament, it blends in with the landscape in perfect harmony and has added a charm to the already breath taking scenery.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Overlooking the Vorotan river gorge, this 1000 year old monastery was the bishopric seat of the Syunik region and wielded great fame in the region due to this. There are faint signs of European frescoes, intricate carvings and portraits of the main donors in various parts of the monastery.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

This impregnable masterpiece is a working monastery till date and if you're lucky, you may see Armenian monks in black garbs wandering the premises. I saw a baptism taking place while I was here and was delighted that I got to witness a bit of Armenian rituals during my visit.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

A labyrinth of rooms and altars, this monastery has a lot to explore. It also boasts an upright pendulum known as the Gavazan(staff) which withstood the 1931 earthquake , despite the Cathedral, St. Grigor Lusavorich Church and porch being brought down to crumbles.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Outside the monastery complex there is a stone hewn building that houses an oil press, flour mill, stone grinders and many artifacts from the past along with well illustrated videos that show how these instruments were used in earlier times. Without automated technology, they managed to do almost all that we do today using primitive tools and applying the basics of science.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

My favorite part of the monastery is the part where the architecture amplifies the acoustics of the rivulet running by. It was apparently the bishops favorite part of the monastery too!

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Tatev Monastery also guards the tomb of Grigor Tatevatsi, the last saint of the Armenian Church and hence is an important religious site for Armenians.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Image Courtesy : English Russia

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Getting here was the most thrilling part. Wings of Tatev , recorded the world’s longest non-stop reversible aerial tramway is what swooshes you from the village of Halidzor to the secluded Monastery of Tatev in the Syunik Province. This rope way takes about 12 -15 minutes and offers jaw dropping views of the villages below, green-lands in the Vorotan Gorge and a stunning view of the far flung mountain ranges. One can drive down to the Tatev Monastery but the steep switchback road takes around 40 minutes but is equally appeasing, barring the bird eye view from the rope way

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Distance from Yerevan - 280kms

Image Courtesy: People Of Ar

Photo of Sanahin Monastery Complex, Alaverdi, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

Burrowed in moss and ivy, Sanahin Monastery is a medieval monastic complex located in North Armenia in the Lori province. Situated on the banks of Debed river, this UNESCO World Heritage Site means was founded by Armenian monks who immigrated from Byzantium as they refused to follow the Chalcedonian faith forced upon by the Byzantium emperor.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Image Courtesy: Go Travel

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

The name Sanahin translates to 'older than that' which is eliciting fingers at the nearby Haghpat monastery. In its good days, it was renown for its school of illuminators and calligraphers. Adorned with khachkars, ancient graves and darkened chapels , its scenic location with a plethora to explore makes it an immersive experience.

Image Courtesy: Go Travel

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Image Courtesy: Go Travel

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Haghpat Monastery Complex, Haghpat, Armenia by Lakshmi Menon

7 kms away is the Haghpat Monastery which translates to 'huge wall' attributing to its hefty fortifications. This monastery has the queerest location as it is not all the way up a peak, but midway a hill. Overlooking the Debed river similar to Sanahin, the reason for being halfway up the hill is to afford concealment from prying eyes. Despite 2 earthquake attacks and numerous military attacks over the years, Haghpat is an atmospheric and architectural treat. It is under the protection of UNESCO and is listed a world heritage item.

Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon
Photo of Monastery trailing in Armenia - Top 5 breathtaking monasteries you cannot afford to miss by Lakshmi Menon

Sanahin and Haghpat complexes are rich in khachkars (over 8o today), which were erected not as memorials, but to mark important events. For example, one Khachkars in Sanahin, shows the occasion of a bridge being built in 1192.

While Sanahin is obscured by a trees and greenery, Haghpat has a picturesque backdrop of the Debed Canyon. However, both are mesmerizing visits.

Distance from Yerevan - 185 km

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