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Churches and Monasteries to see in Armenia

Faith that kept the nation alive.

“The First Christian Nation” –  a sentence that goes hand in hand with Armenia. In 301 AD the Armenian Kingdom, under the guidance of His Majesty the King Tiridates III Arshakuni and Saint Gregory the Illuminator, adopted Christianity as state religion. Christianity very quickly took the place of nation-spread paganism. Pagan temples have been destroyed, instead of which  Christian churches and monasteries started to rise. In the territory of modern-day Armenia 4000  churches, monasteries, and cathedrals are standing. Though it seems to be impossible to differentiate the Armenian churches, in any case, below we have pointed out the most beautiful and significant churches that you can visit during your tour in Armenia.

1. Holy Ejmiatsin Cathedral 

Coming to Armenia and not visiting Holy Ejmiatsin Cathedral is like traveling to Rome without visiting Saint Peter Cathedral. Widely known as “the first church in the world”, the cathedral is the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the seat of the Catholicos. Its construction can be attributed to the first Armenian Catholicos Saint Gregory the Illuminator. According to the legend, in his dream, Jesus Christ with a golden hammer showed the place where the ancient church should have been built. That is how the name of the church came up: “Ej” in Armenian is the beginning of the word “ijnel” (to descend), while “miatsin” means “the only begotten”. In other words, “Ejmiatsin” means “The Descend of the only Begotten”. In 2000, the Holy See of Ejmiatsin was included in the UNESCO World Heritage. 

The cathedral is also famous for its two museums. The first one is right under the church where the pagan altar and walls of the forgotten temple are shown (the monastery is built on the site of a pagan fire altar). While the second one is in the territory of the cathedral where very important relics, manuscripts, findings, in general, – a real Armenian cultural heritage are exhibited. The exhibition includes but is not limited to the Holy Lance that pierced Jesus Christ, a piece of Noah’s Ark, and the right hand of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. The visit to the Holy See of Ejmiatsin is highly recommended and appreciated.  

2. Tatev Monastery

Located up on the gorge, Tatev Monastery is one of the best-known Armenian monasteries. Besides being the jewel of Armenian architecture, the 9th-century monastery was a strategic political and educational center. Located right in the center of Syunik Province, the monastery was the center for tax collections, political discussions, and military gatherings. At the same time, the monastery was also remarkable for the fact of running a university. Known as “Tatev University”, it was the largest depository and university of whole Armenia where students got an education free from religious influences. Its library held more than 10.000 manuscripts which Mongols in a single night burned down and destroyed. 

Thanks to its cable car established in 2010, the monastery provides unforgettable tours over huge mountains, forests, fortresses, and deep gorges. Called “Wings of Tatev”, it is the longest ropeway in the world with its 5.7 km length. Tatev Monastery is a real must-see in Armenia. 

3. Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat

What can you find more in Armenia? Sure, UNESCO World Heritage monasteries in various parts of Armenia. Now it is the turn to explore the Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat. Located relatively close to each other both monasteries are a mixture of Byzantine ecclesiastical and Caucasian traditional architectures. Built between the 10th-13th centuries, the monasteries were centers of learning and educating. They contain a large array of khachkars (cross-stones) dating back to the 11th – 13th centuries. 

Though it does not matter which one is the oldest, in any case, let us introduce their stories. An Armenian Queen Khosrovanuysh, wife of Bagratid King 3rd founded the Haghpat Monastery up on the hill overlooking the Debed river. While Sanahin is located within the border of Alaverdi City. The name Sanahin means that this one is older than that one, suggesting some people beliefs that Sanahin was the first to be constructed. A said it does not matter which was the first, but rather how important both monasteries have been at their times.

4. Geghard Monastery

Counting the Armenian churches is like counting the stars in the sky. The next site is Geghard Monastery, a medieval monastery partially carved out of the surrounding rocks. Consisting of two churches and located on the cliffs, Geghard Monastic complex like the previous monasteries is in the UNESCO World Heritage list with enhanced protection status.

The monastery is famous for its secret healing spring waters which still run through the church. Its spring waters were the reason for Saint Gregory the Illuminator to establish the monastery inside of the cave and call it “Ayrivanq”. The name means “A Monastery Inside of the Cave”, but it is not the same as “Geghard”, meaning “Spear”. Later on, when Christ’s apostle Jude came to Armenia and brought the spear with which Jesus was pierced, the monastery was renamed the Monastery of Lance. The relic has been kept here for 500 years and later it has been transferred to Ejmiatsin Cathedral. 

However, this is not just about the story that amazes people. The monastery includes a number of churches, rooms, and cross-stones curved right into the rocks illustrating the peak of Armenian medieval architecture. This is what gets people out of their minds about Geghard. Without having any professional tools, the Armenian architects succeeded in every case. While its location among high mountains, inconsistent cliffs, and gorges makes the visit unforgettable, full of mind-blowing views of natural beauties. Geghard Monastery will not leave you bored. We guarantee it.

5. Noravank Monastery

Last but not least, Noravank Monastery concludes the list of the most famous monasteries in Armenia. The 13th-century monastic complex is a great choice for those who are interested in combining centuries-old history with stunning natural views when you sometimes get difficult to differentiate the monastery from surrounding enclaves. Though its name suggests it be a new monastery, it is already 800 years old during which it was a home for scholars, teachers, historians and etc. Despite the natural marvels and red cliffs in the backdrop, the two-story Saint Astvacacin Church is the first thing to point out in the complex. Without any exaggeration, the church is engraved with pictures of saints, angels, and apostles. While the narrow-shaped staircases indicate the professionalism of the medieval architecture. In other words, it is much better to visit once and try it on your own. 

What else?

Undoubtedly, the list of must-see monasteries cannot be this little. The land will never disappoint any of its visitors by providing mind-blowing monasteries all over the country. Some of them are hidden in the nature by making hiking and trekking tours full of adventures and discoveries. In other words, it is much better to see and feel than to read thousands of times.  

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About the author

By being specialized in the field of Communications, Elen believes in the power of words: even a single word can change our perceptions, impact our behavior and, consequently, shape our world. While her family's decades-lasting connections with tourism made her passionate about introducing Armenia and its hidden marvels to everyone. With her blogs she believes to be able to present the best of Armenia and Georgia and to be as helpful as possible for all the travel-lovers. The writing not only helps her communicate with the tourists, but also to learn, read, discover and develop as a professional. Each time, each topic opens hidden doors and triggers new ideas and fresh topics to write and talk about.