Armenia is often referred to, justifiably, as an open air museum. With a long and storied religious history (Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion in 303 AD) many of its rich architectural treasures take the form of Orthodox churches and monasteries. To keep cultural and religious treasures safe from marauders, churches - and monasteries in particular - were often built in remote areas, heavily fortified, and crafted to blend expertly into the local terrain. As such, many of them remain remarkably preserved and still serve the community as working churches. The 13th century monastery of Geghard is a fine example and is easily one of the most accessible, both in terms of time and distance, from Yerevan.
Geghard is about an hour and a half’s drive from the centre of Yerevan. There is no public transport to the site because of its remote location, off the beaten track. However, as a popular tourist destination, most major hotels will run guided tours to the monastery complex, usually combined with a visit to the Temple of Garni and Lake Sevan, Armenia’s biggest freshwater lake. Expect to pay around £30 for a half-day excursion to these sites. As a working church, there is no admission fee, but you will be encouraged to leave a donation and light a candle. It is possible to negotiate a taxi to take you there and back, but the language barrier (few drivers speak English) will probably prove a significant obstacle.
Geghard first hoves into the view of the attentive traveller on breaching the crest of a hill, which slopes gently down and then abruptly up again into the “driveway” of the monastery complex. The parking area is a modern addition, and is often full of private cars, mini-buses and coaches in various states of repair (you can tell the tourist ones because they are much newer). Without them, and the parking lot, the complex blends extremely well into the rock face it sits under. In fact, part of the monastery is actually carved into the side of the cliff. There is a nominal 200 Dram charge for parking.
The winding, cobbled drive leading up to the ancient gate of the complex is lined with merchants and entrepreneurs of various descriptions, selling anything from hand-knitted socks, religious icons, postcards and souvenirs, to dried fruits and the delectable cake-bread called “gata” – a sweet doughy pastry filled with butter and honey. There is even a trio of mercenary Armenian musicians, who play traditional Armenian instruments - the Zoorna (a high pitched flute), the Duduk (a clarinet-like reed wind instrument) and the Dumbeg (a handheld drum). They start when they spot you, and cease mid-tune if you go by without making a “donation”.
You pass through a large stone arch to get into the main complex (which doubles as shelter for yet another souvenir stand) and end up in a picturesque paved courtyard, with several options to explore. A set of steps leads off to the left, the main entrance, partially obscured behind a megalithic rock, is straight ahead, and further along, a path snakes around toward a set of “khatchkars” – traditional, intricately carved Armenian stone crosses. There has been a fair deal of investment in making Geghard more tourist friendly than in the Soviet era (my first visit was as a callow 16 year old in 1986). There are not only some excellent sign-boards in Russian, English and Armenian setting out the history and various features of the site (with accompanying maps) but also a five language Braille sign-board (although I can’t actually tell you what it says). Given the distinct lack of literature and the patchy quality of guidebooks on Armenia, this information is a welcome addition and helps provide context to the visit.
Although an exact date for the founding of the monastery is not known, it is believed the first monastery on the site was constructed in the 4th century, serving as an important seminary, scriptorium and academy of church music. It was plundered and severely damaged in the 10th century during an Arab incursion, after which, over time, it was rebuilt and fortified, with a large part of the complex dating from around the 13th century. It takes its name from the Holy Lance – the spear said to have pierced the side of Christ during the crucifixion (Geghard means “lance” in Armenian) – which was allegedly held in the monastery’s reliquary (along with wood from Noah’s Ark).
The main cathedral is still used on a daily basis and is a marquee venue for traditional weddings, funerals and baptisms. As you enter the antechamber ahead of the cathedral proper you leave the bright sunshine outside for an atmospheric, and dark interior with little natural light penetrating through the narrow windows. There are a number of large rectangular metal stands, filled with sand, on which thin tapered candles, mostly placed by visitors, burn brightly, providing both light inside the church and, traditionally, conveying prayers of believers up to heaven.
The air inside is slightly chilly and damp, but infused with the aroma of centuries of burnt frankincense and melting wax. Take some time to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness and you will be rewarded for your patience with hundreds of inscriptions and carvings which, barely visible in the limited light, seem to slowly materialise before you. There are also several smaller chambers off the main ante-room, which are even darker and feature side altars with less polished religious carvings. Be careful with your footing, as the floors are very uneven. The main cathedral, which hosts the high altar, is crowned by a typical octagonal cupola, which remains stark and unadorned. Although perhaps lacking the scale and grandeur of its occidental cousins, there is also something to be said for its spartan simplicity.
THE UPPER GAVIT
Back outside, take a left up the stone stairs onto a mezzanine level which leads into a narrow corridor carved straight into the cliff face. The sides of the passage are covered in elaborate crosses and centuries old carved Armenian script, and lead eventually into an upper chapel, called a “gavit”, that is enveloped in an almost impenetrable velvety darkness but for a single circle of light, high above, and a hole in the floor that looks down upon the candle-lit chamber below. Left alone for a few minutes, I used the benefit of flash on my camera to reveal some smoke stained hollows in the walls where candles had once been lit, and the columns holding up the ceiling above, each also intricately carved. The fact that this large chamber was hewn out of stone is breathtakingly impressive. The only downside is that so little of its contents are visible to the naked eye.
THE CELLS & KHATCHKARS
When you walk around the cathedral toward the monastic cells and khatchkars, don’t forget to take in the exterior of the church, particularly the disused side entrance which used to lead directly into the main church. The arch and ancient wooden doors are worthy of close inspection. Further along, as you turn the corner, you are greeted by a collection of khatchkars embedded high up on the cliff face, with a set of stone stairs leading upward to a stone platform from which a number of others are visible behind an iron fence.
The steep, narrow and uneven stairs, such as they are, are well worn from centuries of pilgrimage and are a chore to get up and down – good footwear and a head for heights are a must. However, the short detour is well rewarded. It’s a minor miracle that these stone works of art, dating mainly from the 11th to 13th century, have survived the centuries of earth tremors, severe weather and invasion. The deep red colour of some is not natural to the stone – it is a dye called Vortan Garmir made from native Armenian red beetles. The dye, which was a valuable medieval export from the region is especially resilient – as evidenced by these 800 year old khatchkars. Monastic cells – little more than spartan little hollows are littered across the rock face, and provided haven and solitude for medieval monks. Geghard is a working monastery, but I doubt today’s novices lead a similarly ascetic lifestyle.
The place had changed in the 23 years since my previous visit. Last time, the tourist-related paraphernalia was strikingly absent – no stalls, no souvenirs, and no sign boards. Some of the new infrastructure is welcome, but in some cases there simply isn’t enough of it. Better lighting, sympathetically installed would highlight some of the cultural and religious treasures lost in darkness. Other developments – such as tatty souvenir stalls, cheeky car park “attendants” and mercenary musicians are less welcome, but a minor inconvenience. That said a visit to Geghard is one of the most worthwhile trips you can make out of Yerevan.