Armenia claims to be the world’s oldest Christian nation and visitors there will be enchanted by the country’s many monasteries. But with all that choice, which of Armenia’s monasteries should you visit – and why?
The views are incredible
Many of the country’s monasteries occupy enviable locations but perhaps the ultimate Armenian monastery in terms of panoramic views is that of Sevanavank. To reach it, you’ll have to climb 243 steps, but the sight that awaits you as you reach the top is breathtaking. The monastery church is a delight, its graveyard full of khachkars, the standing stones that you’ll see all over Armenia. But it’s that extraordinary expanse of blue lake that will command your attention.
Rivalling Sevanavank is Khor Virap. This monastery stands atop a hill with a backdrop of biblical Mount Ararat, which stands just over the border in Turkey. Pick a clear day for the best vistas; morning tends to be best for visibility. Noravank monastery also gives the others a run for their money, but to score the best views you’ll need a head for heights. The viewing platform from the church is reached by a steep and extremely narrow staircase positioned on its outside wall – and there’s no handrail.
You can ride the world’s longest ropeway
The monastery at Tatev is reached via the Wings of Tatev, a cable car that whisks you high above the valley to deposit you in a lofty and remote setting. The Guinness Book of Records officially records it as the world’s longest cable car, but the time will pass quickly as you gaze at the magnificent scenery that surrounds you. When you reach the top, look for a column bound by metal rings. It’s alleged that it can predict earthquakes and advancing enemy armies.
Many of Armenia’s monasteries have a really good story to tell
My favourite of all the legends I learned associated with Armenian monasteries is that of Hayravank. This monastery is also called Aghavnavank, which translates as “church of the human pigeons”. Faced with an invasion from Tamerlane, a 14th century Turkic-Mongol leader; the locals negotiated the safety of anyone who could fit inside the church. Legend has it those people were turned into pigeons in order to increase the monastery’s capacity. Meanwhile, Haghpat and Sanahin, twin monasteries in the Debed Canyon, are evidence of a touch of one-upmanship. Sanahin monasteries name means “older than that one”.
Some are too close to Yerevan to miss – even on a short visit
If your time’s limited in Armenia and you still want to visit a monastery then make it Geghard. It’s an easy morning or afternoon excursion from the capital Yerevan and often visited as part of an organised tour with nearby Garni Temple. The acoustics inside the church are superb and you’ll find a couple of noteworthy features to the monastery. There’s a holy spring inside – look for exiting tourists with wet faces – and there’s also a hole in the floor inside one of the rooms which offers an unusual view of the church below.
You don’t have to remember a scarf
Covering your head isn’t compulsory, though you will find signs suggesting you should in some of Armenia’s monasteries. The Armenians I spoke to confirmed I was welcome to cover my head if I wished, but that no one would kick me out if I didn’t. But obviously you’ll still need to be respectful, as well as mindful of the fact that some visitors will be there to worship or receive a blessing. You’ll recognise a working monastery because there’ll be a curtain that can be drawn in front of the altar. Should you see someone back out of a church doorway; they are doing so in order to avoid turning their back on God.
Have you visited any of Armenia’s monasteries? Which was your favourite?