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Geghard Monastery

  • By Thong Do
  • 01 Oct, 2016

One of the absolutely Must See Places to visit while in Armenia has to be Geghard Monastery located in the Kotayk province just 45 minutes outside of Yerevan. This is a very ancient monastery that is partially carved out of the mountain and dates back to pre-Christian times. This medieval site was believed to be built in the 4th century when Armenia adopted Christianity as it’s state religion by the first Armenian Catholicos Gregory the Illuminator. The monastery was built around a spring that was found in a cave that was believed to have healing properties and now enclosed by the main gavit

The monastery was originally named Ayrivank. This translates as the “Monastery of the Cave”. The name currently used is Geghardavank. This translates as the “Monastery of the Spear”. The spear is referencing the spear of the Roman soldier that pierced Jesus during his crucifixion and brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus. The spear was later moved to the Treasury of the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin along with other surviving relics. Geghard Monastery is surrounded by cliffs and the Azat River gorge and is only minutes away from Garni Temple. Historical records show that the monastery included several churches and it also served as a manuscriptorium, music academy, and a pilgrimage site. The monastery has been destroyed and plundered numerous times by Arabs, Turks, and Mongols

As you walk up the stone path you are greeted by these khachkar (cross stones) replicas.
Western entrance into the complex
Entrance into the gavit.

I visited Geghard Monastery right after visiting Garni Temple in the beginning of autumn and was blessed to have great weather with clear skies. The drive from Yerevan will take you past small villages and you’ll likely run into sheepherders and their large flocks like I did on the road. Upon entering the monastery complex you are greeted by various vendors selling various types of food and souvenirs on a stone path. As you walk up the stone path towards the western entrance you’ll be encountered by some khachkar (cross stone) replicas on your right hand side. As you turn the corner and look above you’ll be able to see caves in the cliffs and others signs of domestication. Right before you enter the monastery you will see some grooves carved into the cliff. Throw a pebble and hope it lands and your wish will come true!

As you walk past the entrance you are immediately hit by the immense size of the complex. The first building I entered was through the gavit to the Katoghike Chapel. Constructed in 1215 the architectural forms of the building are well proportioned and harmonious. Pay close attention to the details and designs on the walls. The light coming through the windows and through the dome is a site to see since it’s quite dark in there.

Turn north towards the cliff and you’ll see the western entrance will take you to Avazan Church. You’ll be able to come to the spring and get a sip of cold water from here as many have done before. On the wall you’ll be to see many designs carved into the stone. The Avazan Church was constructed by hand in the mid 13th century (1230-1250 A.D.) An inscription at the base of the dome recorded the church was built by the architect Galdzag who was contracted by the royal Proshian family.

Avazan Church is just a few meters from the spring.
Proshian Sepulcher room (see the hole above the left lion)

The adjoining room from the main room will take you to the Proshian Sepulcher where you will encounter elaborate high relief carvings on its walls and niches for holding the remains of noble families. Originally commissioned in 1215 by the Zakarians, the current room was carved for Prosh Khaghbakian, who purchased the monastery from the Zakarians and had the chamber englarged in 1283. A huge Proshian crest is carved above the northern wall, underneath which lay the remains of the Proshian family.  The actual crest shows two lions tethered by an iron ring held by a bull’s head, over an eagle clutching a lamb. Pay attention to a small hole the size of a watermelon in the upper left of this chamber because this is part of another chamber on the upper level.

Next to this is room is the St. Astvatsatsin Church. The most impressive feat about this structure was that it was built from the top and worked its way down. The room is symmetric and the attention to detail is amazing. The light coming through the dome gives a special ambience to the mood. This church was carved by hand and took 40 years to complete. In terms of ingenuity and grit, this complex reminds me of the Petra in Jordan.

St. Astvatsatsin Church

The last place to see is the Katoghike Church. Once you walk inside you’ll notice numerous inscriptions carved into the stone in old Armenian. Most of these inscriptions on the wall are the names who donated towards the construction of the church. The ceiling is incredibly high and it’s a visual delight to witness.

same image but during an actual Sunday service...
Katoghike Church

As you exit the complex take the carved out staircase above to the second level and you’ll be able to see various kachkars scattered throughout the cliff. The first thing I noticed was hearing faint singing in the background. As it turns out, the chamber and hallway have great acoustics and a quartet was singing and it sounded incredible. It’s perfect for sharakans (Armenian religious songs) As you walk through the hallway towards the tomb chamber of princes Merik and Grigor you see the numerous khachkars engraved in the stone. As you enter the chamber you are encountered by 4 large columns that the roof is resting upon. The room is divided into 9 equal parts with the dome in the center.

Hallway of khackhars leading to the tomb on the second level.
The tomb chamber with incredible acoustics.
The view looking down into the Proshian Sepulcher room.

The last part of Geghard Monastery is towards the eastern section. It is here you come across another carved staircase with enormous khachkars engraved on the side of the cliff. The view from the second level gives a great view of the entire ground and its hard to not be inspired by the beauty and ingenuity involved in the creation of this magnificent complex.

There is an eastern entrance and this takes you to a nearby river. Many animal sacrifices are done in this area in conjunction with the pagan roots. A small little bridge overlooking the nearby rocky mountains offers a nice panoramic view of the complex too.

The southern entrance door into St. Astvatsatsin

At the entrance of Geghard Monastery there is a stone staircase that will take you up to the side of the mountain where you can see many caves and also get a great view of the surroundings.  I managed to hike up there and take some pics with my cell phone.  It's quite steep and make sure you have good shoes with traction since there's a lot of loose gravel up there.  Sneak inside the ancient caves and see the writing carved into the stone walls.  

the writing on the wall is to a mini chapel inside the mountain...
a close up of the Armenian language...
just on the outside is a small stream with this bridge to get a good view...
By far, this has to be one of my favorite places to visit in Armenia. The beauty of the architecture and the surrounding landscape makes an amazing and magical experience. Throw in the history too and this place is completely nostalgic and perfect to visit any time of the year.

Happy traveling.
By Thong Do 06 Jan, 2018
As a world traveler the biggest joy I get in the places I've encountered is learning about the local customs, practices, and rituals.  The world is such a large place and to see things up close rather than through a television screen is the way I want to experience things.  I've been living in Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer for nearly 2 years now and been able to see most aspects of the traditions here.  The dominant religion practiced in Armenia is Apostolic Christian and it is practiced quite strongly here.  Last year, on New Year's Eve, I went down to the major church in the Gyumri downtown area to observe the church services and that was quite a site to see and you can read and see pictures on that from my previous travel blog too.  This year, one of my friends from the local tour company invited me to come with them take part in an old pagan ritual on New Year's Eve.  

My friend Anna, a local tour guide let me know that her colleagues would be going to Hatsik, a small village just a few minutes outside the city of Gyumri.  They would be visiting an ancient religious site and taking part in some old pagan tradition so of course I jumped at the opportunity to witness this.  Since I wasn't sure what would happen I just wanted to be surprised at what I saw.  
By Thong Do 30 Oct, 2017

One of the interesting sites to explore and admire is the Htilominlo Temple. This very large 3 story brick structure was built in 1218 and stands at 46 meters. It was named after its builder, King Htilominlo who is also referred to as Zeya Theinkha and Nadaungmyar. Filled with complex roofs, ornate décor, and a large corncob tower, it’s easy to spot from afar.

The legend of how Htilominlo was chosen as king is quite interesting. Out of the five sons of King Narapatisithu, he was selected. The legend stated that the five sons stood in a circle with a white umbrella in the middle. Whichever direction the umbrella leaned towards, that son would become the next King! It’s also believed that the Htilominlo complex was built on the spot where he was selected.

By Thong Do 28 Sep, 2017

Nearly 45 minutes outside of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, lays 2 very interesting sites worth checking out. Off the highway, towards the city of Aparan lays the 33 meter high Holy Cross and the Holy Trinity Altar of Hope. These two monuments are settled in the triangle of Ararat, Aragats, and the Ara Mountains.

The amazing thing about the High Cross is that it is comprised of over 1,700 pipe-like shaped crosses. It was designed that way to perform like a church pipe organ so the winds could play sacred music. The number of pipes corresponds to each year Armenia has adopted Christianity and each year a new pipe cross is added in October. Armenia adopted Christianity in the early 4th century.  At night it’s also well lit and creates a dramatic effect too. The Holy Cross was founded by the then Prosecutor General of Armenia, Mr. Avghan Hovsepyan, Chairman of the Nig-Aparan Patriotic Union.

By Thong Do 27 Sep, 2017

Nearly 45 minutes outside the capital of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, lays an interesting site near the city of Aparan, in the Aragatsotn Province, known as Alphabet Park. Standing next to a small pool of water and with the high Holy Cross hovering in the background lays a monument of 39 giant carved Armenian letters in stone and statues of famous Armenians such as H. Tumanyan, M. Gosh, and A. Shirakatsi. The park was dedicated to the creator of the Armenian language, Saint Mesrop Mashtots whose language he created over 1,600 years ago is still spoken today.

The Armenian language was created in 405 CE to make the Bible accessible to the new Christian nation and spread the word of Christianity. Armenians had to use Greek, Persian, and Syriac scripts to communicate before but now their new language was more able to handle their complex sounds of the local dialect. The Holy Scriptures, being written in Syriac, was thus, unintelligible to the devout followers requiring the constant need of translators.

By Thong Do 31 Aug, 2017

One of the most beautiful natural landscapes to visit in northern Armenia can be found near the border of Shirak and Lori provinces along the Chichkan River. Chichkan River begins from the slopes of the Shirak Mountain Range and continues its 29 kilometer trek east through the Bazum Mountain Range. Supplied mostly by melting snow and groundwater the overflow is usually in the late spring to the beginning of summer. Trchkan Waterfall stands at 23 meters and is one of the highest in Armenia in the sense that it has one of the highest vertical drops compared to the other waterfalls (Shaki Waterfall has a vertical drop of 18 meters, Jermuk Waterfall stands at over 72 meters but the water falls along the rocks at a 60 degree angle and Kasakh Waterfall is 70 meters but multi-tiered)

I finally managed to visit this beauty of nature after living in Armenia for a year and a half during the end of summer. I was hoping to visit during spring when the background would be full of green and color rather than the sea of yellow but was too busy. Located only 33 kilometers from my city of Gyumri, I had my driver take me in his Russian made Lada jeep and take me through some small villages and through some spectacular landscapes of endless fields of wheat. There is nothing but endless cows and sheep grazing in the fields and once in a while you’ll be able to see hawk soaring in the sky.   After driving past a small bridge we finally made it to our destination. There’s a small area where people parked but for those with good 4x4 capability you can take a small steep path down and cross two streams by car too. I got dropped off at the top so I had to walk down and then take my shoes off to cross the two streams that are about shin deep.

By Thong Do 16 Aug, 2017

One of the greatest joys I’ve had to experience while living in Armenia is hike its tallest mountain. Mount Aragats’ name translates to Ara’s Throne but also believed to be named after an ancient Armenian god Ara. Mount Aragats is an extinct volcano and can be seen from the capital, Yerevan, the Shirak province where I live, and the Kotayk and Aragatsotn provinces too. Mount Aragats is comprised of 4 peaks, the highest is the Northern peak at 4,090 meters (13,420 feet), the next is the Western peak at 3,995 meters (13,107 feet), the next is the Eastern peak at 3,908 meters (12,756 feet), and the shortest is the Southern peak at 3,888 meters (12,756 feet).

The best time to hike Mount Aragats is in the summer months between June-early September when the trails are dry and stable. Unless you’re a professional climber then you can go year round. My friends in the IT sector were on vacation and asked me if I was interested in going with them so naturally I jumped at the opportunity. We left from the city of Gyumri where we live and it took us over two hours to get to the base. The base is next to Kari Lake and situated at 3,200 meters. You can’t miss it because there is a hotel there as well as a scientific research station there. I even saw some campers out in this area too if that’s what you’re interested in.

By Thong Do 15 Aug, 2017

By far the most beautiful and memorable place to visit in Myanmar is the ancient city of Bagan. This was the only place that stuck out to me initially when I saw travel shows do episodes on this country.  This was once the capital of the mighty Bagan Empire that governed most of present day Myanmar. At the apex of the empire’s power between the 11th and 13th century there were more than 10,000 temples, shrines, stupas, and pagodas. Now, there are over 2,000 left standing in various states of repair. Scattered across a 50 square kilometer arid plain this area is great place to explore on your own or with a guide.   

I had the great fortune to spend time about two weeks in Myanmar in early January of 2017 and was able to spend about 3 days in this area. The weather was warm and the overall scenery and vibe was great. I spent the first day with a tour guide taking me to the major sites and then I went exploring on my own in the vast open space. The amazing thing is that there is only supervision at the major sites and all the smaller and lesser known stupas and pagodas. This enabled me to walk around on top of these pagodas and get some amazing photos.

Bagan is separated into two areas. The first is referred to as Old Bagan where a nice portion of the ancient temples, pagodas, and shrines are surrounded by a massive stone gate. New Bagan is referred to where all the newer hotels, restaurants, and shopping areas are. To enjoy the beautiful temples and stupas here you must pay for a Bagan Archaeological Pass for small fee that you can purchase immediately at the airport or at the any of the major temples. The pass is good for a few days and you must carry it with you at all times because the staff at the major temples will ask to see it. I made the mistake of leaving it behind on my free days and had to pay again.

By Thong Do 10 Aug, 2017

One of the most remarkable sites to see that remind us that humans have come a long way is the Ughtasar Petroglyphs. Located on Ughtasar Mountain just about 35 kilometers from the town of Sisian in the Syunik Province of Armenia, these reminders of our past lay here undisturbed since the Paleolithic Era. Ughtasar is derived from the Armenian words “ught” meaning camel and “sar” meaning mountain. The mountain’s peak is a resemblance to the hump from a camel.

I had the great opportunity to visit this area in the peak of summer since it’s only accessible for a limited amount of time throughout the year. The elevation, terrain, and snow make it quite difficult to visit. I was able to hire a guide through Goris Tours and get a driver who had 4x4 capability. To get to the petroglyphs you must take main highway and turn into Ishkhansar village and the only dirt road there will take you. The road is steep at times but the road is scenic and relaxing when you’re not bouncing around and I even got to see some eagles from a reasonable distance. The way to the petroglyphs is challenging but it’s also great for backpackers looking for serenity away from the hustle and bustle of city life. If I had the time I’d love to spend 4 or 5 days camping here.

By Thong Do 09 Aug, 2017

One of the most spectacular natural sights to see in Armenia has got to be Jermuk Waterfall. Located in the northeastern region of the Vayots Dzor province lays this well-known health resort town. Surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains, the name “Jermuk” is derived from the Armenian word “jerm” meaning warm. The Jermuk area is abundant in springs and mineral water. The most remarkable among them are the thermal mineral springs similar by their composition to the famous Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. The warm underground geyser water is used for drinking, medicinal baths, and curing other ailments.

I had the great fortune of visiting this area in the peak of summer when the south of Armenia was dreadfully hot. Due to its elevation (2,500-3,500 meters) and topography the weather is cool in the summer and mild in the winters. I was only able to spend a few hours here and didn’t get a chance to spend a few days as I had hoped but I could see there was a lot to offer in this town. What I liked most was that the air was so refreshing and I understand why people come here for medical treatment or relaxation.

By Thong Do 08 Aug, 2017

One of the most mysterious places to visit in Armenia is located in the Syunik Province near the southern city of Sisian. Over 223 large stones are placed in peculiar fashion over a 3-hectar area. Karahunj gets its name from two Armenian words. Kar, meaning stone, and hunj meaning sounds end up meaning “speaking stones”. It’s sometimes referred to as Zorats Korar too and foreigners will call it Armenia’s Stonehenge. Researchers believe these heavy stones are arranged in such a way that it could be the world’s oldest astronomical observatory, and is at least 3,500 years older than the iconic British Stonehenge.

I had the good fortune of seeing this place on three separate occasions. The first time was in the winter, then at the end of spring, and just last week at the peak of summer. The first thing you notice regardless of the seasons is the high winds that sway you back and forth when you’re walking around. It’s not far from the main highway and a little dirt road will take you to the parking area. You’ll immediately see a small information/souvenir center as you step out of your vehicle. It’s filled with mostly t-shirts and jewelry and there are plenty of signs in the area with detailed facts about the history of Karahunj.

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