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Armenian Monasteries: Where Time Stands Still

Step into a world frozen in time as we explore the ancient monasteries of Armenia, where history, faith, and nature converge in harmony.

An old monastery

The Tatev Monastery | Photo by Norayr Grigoryan

by Alessandro Ramazzotti

7 de nov de 2023

Armenia – or Hayastan – was the first to adopt Christianity as the national religion back in 301 AD, and the inhabitants of this landlocked country in the South Caucasus region are so proud of that!

Comprehensibly, after all, 1722 years is not a short time.

Apart from an incredibly strong religious faith, Armenians developed Christian “infrastructure” too: they live in a country literally covered in monasteries, churches, and crosses! From my balcony alone, three luminescent crosses can be seen lighting up at night on the hills around Vanadzor.

Moreover, every time an Armenian sees a church, no matter what they are doing, they say a short prayer and touch a cross – there is always one nearby, either as a necklace or on the car’s rearview mirror.

Most churches have a specific, traditional shape, that is square with a pointy dome right in the middle. Crosses are also quite peculiar, as most of them are finely carved in stone, with exquisite labyrinthic motifs – these are called khachkars, and they are part of Armenian rich religious culture.


However, monasteries are the real treat of the country! Last weekend we had the opportunity to visit three of them.

Interior of a monastery all in stone

Inside the Sanahin Monastery complex | Photo by Nikolay Werner

Sanahin and Haghpat: an ancient father-son dispute

The first stop of the day was Sanahin, a 10th-century monastery located above Alaverdi, in the northern part of Armenia. The complex is quite majestic, and it comprises three main buildings (the church, the library, and the bell tower) surrounded by a big park and a graveyard.

Within the church, there are also graves covered by stones with interesting human-shaped lines to indicate the presence of the dead below. Fat columns stand above them to sustain the roof.

From the park around the monastery, one can gaze at the sinuous shapes of the Debed Canyon, surrounded by green plateaus and high peaks, with small villages dotting the landscape.

When we entered the altar room in the church, looking here and there to explore the structure and look for details, we heard a familiar voice. When we turned towards it, we recognized the mum of our friend, a school teacher accompanying her class on a cultural tour. She also saw us, and when she finished explaining the history of the place to her students, we greeted each other and she passionately repeated the history to us.

Sanahin literally means “the older one”, given that it was presumably built a few years earlier than its neighbor, the monastery of Haghpat.

Our friend’s mum told us an interesting story, according to which Sanahin and Haghpat were built by a father and a son respectively, who were competing to build the best monastery. Thanks to this dispute, today visitors can enjoy two architectural masterpieces, deservedly inscribed in the list of UNESCO heritage sites, that were once important educational centers as well.

Thanks to our friend’s mum – who got “teacher’s privileges” – we could also visit the library of Sanahin, where wonderful manuscripts were created during the centuries (although they are not exposed there). The four stone columns on the library’s walls were the highlight there. The intertwined snakes carved in one of those are even represented on the 5000 Armenian dram banknotes!

Another unusual experience – given that it is usually closed to the public – was to climb the bell tower, from which we could see the landscape around and the roof of the church. The steep and narrow steps to reach the top of the tower were an experience themselves.

Before leaving Sanahin, we enjoyed one last time the golden color of the autumn leaves reflecting the sunlight all around us. It is definitely a place to go back to!

The ruins of Kobayr

We were invited to join the school group on their bus, which was great and unique! We could feel the energy of a school trip that we both did not experience for years now. And everyone was incredibly friendly – as most Armenians are: we were offered ice cream, little cheese sandwiches, apples, sweets, and other fruits.

A girl sang on the bus, pleasing everyone’s ear with her nightingale voice, and everyone laughed when one of the teachers tried to convince me to sing Italian songs.

Monastery with mountains and sky in the background

Monastery of Odzun | Photo by Ani Adigyozalyan

We stopped at the monastery of Odzun, on the other side of the Debed Canyon, which is located on a nice plateau and surrounded by a little village. Although less impressive than Sanahin, inside it there is one of the oldest stone carvings in the world representing the Nativity scene, which dates back to the 4th century AD.

We enjoyed taking photos of the structure of the monastery and the khachkars around it, located on old headstones. Next to the monastery, there is an arch donated by a foreign country, with columns on which there were bas-reliefs depicting scenes of Armenian history that were unfortunately consumed by time and are no longer observable nowadays.

On the road back to Yerevan, we asked our school hosts to leave us in Kobayr, where there is another monastery that they suggested we visit. We said goodbye to everyone and got off the bus.

We crossed the train tracks and climbed up the path to the monastery for about 20 minutes. On the way, a nice old lady was selling the typical yellow candles that are lit during the prayers. When we reached the monastery, a family, the only visitors, were just going down. We were alone among the ruins of Kobayr.

It is quite a mystical place, stuck into the walls of the Debed Canyon, overlooking the surrounding mountains and the river below. Next to it, there is a cave with a small waterfall trickling inside. Although only half of the church is still standing (renovation is ongoing) the amazing frescos representing Jesus and other saints survived the destruction. They are really worth the climb! We spent about half an hour wondering at them, exploring the details that monks of ancient times carefully painted.

When the sun had just set, we started to climb down to the road, passing the candles of the old lady – who was then closing her activity for the day – and the only guest house in Kobayr.

Our hitchhike back to Vanadzor went smoothly, although it was already dark.

The life of monks

The ones we visited are only three of the dozens of monasteries scattered around Armenia. Some are nicely preserved, others are not, but all of them offer unforgettable experiences.

Indeed, most of them are built in such remote places that one cannot help but wonder how monks in ancient times used to live there. What did they eat? How did they protect themselves from harsh winter temperatures? Did they communicate at all with the outer world?

Armenian monasteries are an unmissable stop for travelers in the Caucasus, and there are so many to see, and they are all so diverse from each other, that it’s impossible to get bored.

Are you ready to feel – at least for a day – the vibe of ancient monks’ life in the country that proudly claims to be the stronghold of Christianity? If that appeals to you, then come to Armenia – you won't regret it!

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