Armenia’s monasteries: Magic views and medieval graffiti

When you travel in Armenia (and Georgia, too) it seems that there’s always yet another monastery or church around the corner that is worth visiting. 

So, rather than boring the pants off you by listing (or worse, describing!) every single one that my friend Annegret and I have seen in the past weeks, here just the „best of Armenian religious sites“.

For the mystic monastery mood, listen to Annegret testing the famed acoustics of one of the chambers carved entirely from the rock at Geghard monastery as you continue.

Before starting my travels I got quite a few vaccinations but when reading the „highlights of Armenia“ section in my travel guidebook I wondered whether despite all precautions I wouldn’t succumb to Monastery Fatigue.

Fortunately, antidotes were plentiful. To start with, almost any medieval church / fortress / monastery or other building will be an interesting sight against the backdrop of the varied and and beautiful landscape(s) of Armenia.

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The Ararat mountain, here seen from the ruins of Zvartnots, is one of the more well-known of those “backdrops” – sad to look at in its beauty for many Armenians as it is unreachable for them (as the Ararat mountain today is on Turkish territory and the borders between Turkey and Armenia are still closed). Less tragic but somewhat unfortunate for those traveling in Armenia, views of the mountain are often hazy or it’s hiding behind clouds.

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Another “church with a view”: The Airavank church overlooking lake Sevan. (Read more about our stay at Lake Sevan: Out of season at lake Sevan)

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In the mountainous surroundings of the Tatev monastery we even managed to do some hiking (well, a at least it was a two-hour walk). The people at the information center in Tatev were the first ones who didn’t just shake their heads in astonished disbelief when we asked for hiking trails. Most other Armenians seemed to think there’s no need to unnecessarily walk around on foot. (So, if you are planning on hiking in Armenia, try not to rely too much on locals being able to provide useful information.)

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Beautiful to look at and fascinating in their symbolism are the khachkars – Armenian stone crosses. Unlike Celtic crosses they are not crosses made out of stone but they are carved onto stone. Khachkars often show a cross forming a tree of life while crosses depicting Jesus are very rare; the few that exist (like the one on the photo) do not show the crucifixion but portray Jesus being taken off the cross – focussing not on the suffering on the cross but rather on the promise of life and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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I don’t know about you, I usually forget every historic date within a few seconds of hearing it; and I couldn’t care less which local king built one church or another and is buried there (and even less which of his sons, nephews, siblings joined him later). But what I love is when a monument, in its totality or just one little detail, helps me better understand the spirit of the time, what people did and believed in, what kind of historic and cultural changes it has seen. For example, one of our guides told us that the steps leading up to many churches in Armenia were so steep so that you would automatically bow before God as you approach the entrance. We also heard that the very steep and narrow steps leading up to a church at the Noravank monastery (see photo) were meant to remind believers that the way to God was not an easy one… (Getting down again certainly was a challenge, too!)

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Annegret and I were somewhat baffled by seeing both the outside and inside of many churches covered by crosses of totally different styles and sizes. We learned that people who had visited these sites left them to be remembered – a kind of medieval graffiti, though with a much more spiritual meaning and probably only possible for those of some importance (if every single pilgrim had done it, there’d not be much left of the walls).

Of course, historians and archeologists (unlike most tour guides) will caution us that often we don’t know for sure what the exact functions and meanings of what remains of the past were. But it’s fascinating to hear and think about nevertheless…

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Often it was just odd little details that caught our attention – like the pig-shaped door handle in what used to be a monastery’s refectory, or the ribbons that people still today tie to trees and shrubbery next to holy sites to make a wish come true.

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And then, let’s admit it, there’s just something about medieval places and ruins that makes the Indiana Jones in us come to life, don’t you agree? The steep narrow steps, dark chambers, and holes in the ground (which in Germany probably we’d never be allowed to climb onto or into, while Armenian heritage managers kindly provide ladders)….

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In any case, Annegret and I look forward to returning to Armenia – to explore yet another monastery!

This post is also available in Deutsch.

One thought on “Armenia’s monasteries: Magic views and medieval graffiti

  1. Jean-Michel

    Maike, you should work for the Caucasus Tourist Board :) Annegret, you should join a new age pop band 😉

    Reply

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