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Echmiadzin, often called the Mayr Dajar (Mother Church or Temple) in Armenian is the heart of Armenian Christendom. The oldest Christian nation in the world, this is the seat of the Armenian Catholicos, equivalent to the Catholic Pope. The church construction dates to 301, the year Armenia accepted Christianity, but little remains of that structure. It was however built over an earlier pagan fire worshiping pit. That ancient pit remains intact directly under the altar and can sometimes be seen by visitors. Most such pits were destroyed with the ascent of Christianity.
You can learn much about the Cathedral from other sources. Basically, it's a nice building, the bell tower is very intricately carved. The inside is covered in frescoes. Nice altar, seat for the Catholicos, etc. There is much that is less known, and off the beaten track here however.
Behind the altar, on the right, is a door to a small museum of some of the churches treasures. These may be gold bible covers studded with gems, or similar staffs of the Catholicos, or beautiful rare ceramics or other relics brought over from churches in Western Armenia, saved from the genocide. In the back room of this small museum is a set of stairs going down. Above the stairs rests the lance that pierced Jesus' side as he was taken to be crucified. At the bottom of the stairs is a door, and if you can convince a priest to let you in, you'll see the pagan fire worshiping pit that is thousands of years old. The priest will likely make it obvious that a donation left at the pit would be most welcome!
Outside, across the entrance to the cathedral and through an arch is the gate to a closed off area housing the Manoogian Museum. It can be hard to gain access, but the treasures kept here are worth the effort. Massive tapestries, goldsmith masterpieces, ceramics, hand embroidered costumes with gold thread, all compete for your attention and all tell the history of the church. The really fun stuff though is a room full of all the gifts received by Catholicos Vazgen I, who died in 1994. His 29 years, mostly under communism saw countless gifts over the years, and the collection has all kinds of things - from keys to cities around the world, to very interesting handmade arts. A tribute to a man who ran the church during the difficult years of communism, and was loved by many.
The entire compound of Echmiadzin is landscaped, and has khachkars (carved cross stones) all over. If you pay attention to the plaques and have a map of Armenia with you, you'll be able to see how this diverse collection is possibly the best in the world. Spanning many historic periods, and many styles, you'll even be able to see examples from the largest collection which ever existed - Jugha. These masterpieces from Jugha are all that is left, as the remaining 20,000 were destroyed completely by Soviet and in the past few years Azeri governments.
Around the town of Echmiadzin - technically named Vagharshapat - are two other noteworthy churches. Both are named for Christian Roman virgins that refused to marry the Armenian King before he had converted to Christianity. Both paid with their lives. The 7th century church of Hripsime is a masterpiece of architecture, and Gayane is an interesting smaller church in town as well.
So go to Echmiadzin, a must see, but check out more than just the Cathedral - or you'll miss out on the best stuff!
Written Dec 1, 2008
The monastery of Geghard is an absolute must-see in Armenia. Just an hour from Yerevan, you cannot miss the experience of visiting this place. At the end of a canyon, with fortified walls, your entrance will be lined with villagers selling local breads and dried fruit sheets, a small group of musicians, and then the archway through which you enter the monastery grounds.
The first thing you notice is the main church of Katoghike, with a big cupola over it. This was one of the last structures of the complex to be built, completed in 1215. It is built attached to the mountain. Before reaching it, is the large adjacent building called the gavit. Partially built adjacent to the mountain, partially carved out of it, this room is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. The ceilings are beautifully carved, and in some ways mimic a natural cave. Off from the gavit are two rooms, and one of those leads to a third room. These are all carved from solid mountain. The two attached rooms have beautiful carvings, while the third room has a small natural spring in it, said to have curative powers.
Next to the gavit, to the LEFT of the buildings are some stairs leading around and up. Near the top is a tunnel maybe 10 steps long, and to your right you'll see another huge church, completely carved from the mountain. There are four massive columns, and some crosses carved into the back wall, with just one hole in the ceiling for light. What makes this chamber stunning are the acoustics. One man singing in the middle of the room sounds like an entire choir in perfect tune! If you can catch a priest during some Gregorian chants, you'll never forget it. Off on the far right corner of the room, in the floor there is a small hole from which you can see one of the lower chambers - a great spot for a photographer to get a great angle/shot.
On the other side of the churches are another set of stairs leading up to some small prayer rooms. Outside of the complex can be found small structures, prayer rooms, a small bridge and a spring. Wish trees, covered in handkerchiefs can be found near this spring.
When the monastery was originally built, it was known as Ayrivank - Cave Monastery, but the name changed to Geghard (meaning spear) when the lance that pierced Jesus' side was brought here for safekeeping, before being moved to Echmiadzin.
You can take a cheap day trip from Yerevan from one of the many companies offering guided tours to Garni/Geghard.
Written Dec 1, 2008
Yep, around the time of Christ, the Armenian King Trdat agreed to go to Rome, where he would accept that Roman Emperor Nero would recrown him. Emperor Nero, in return, gave him treasures, and Roman architects to take back with him to Armenia. The result was this beautiful little masterpiece, on top of a peninsula of land jutting out atop sheer basalt cliffs. The adjacent ruins of the tiled Roman baths, and the foundations of later churches and castles, as well as ruins of massive fortification walls are all there for you to explore. There is a ticket booth, and tours are available.
This is an obligatory stop, on your obligatory Garni/Geghard tour, to Geghard Monastery.
In the area, you can also hike over to Havuts Tar Monastery, or if you're feeling very ambitious, spend the entire day hiking from Garni Temple, over to St. Stepanos (Aghjots Vank) Monastery in Khosrov National Preserve.
Written Dec 1, 2008
Up in Lori Marz, along the deep canyon of the Debed River, on opposite cliffs are the Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries. Built a thousand years ago, these monasteries were a product of an Armenian-Georgian dynasty that ruled during a golden period in Armenian history.
In a land famous for its monasteries, these two stand out for their beauty, both architectural, and in their natural setting. They're both built of basalt, and both have bell towers, halls, covered areas, storage vessels, stunning khachkars and more for visitors to enjoy. They once were regional centers of learning and to this day you can feel their importance during a visit, and imagine them humming with activity and prayers at all of their churches.
It is possible to get up to Sanahin Monastery from the bottom of the canyon by car, or, by a cable car built in Soviet times. It is also possible to hike from Sanahin to Haghpat by means of the old footpath down one canyon wall, across the ancient footbridge with the black cats, and then over and up to Haghpat. This will take over a half a day, but will allow you to feel the connection between the monasteries the way it used to be back when they were built. Otherwise you can catch a ride back down to the highway.
Written Dec 1, 2008
Most visitors have never heard of a "Khachkar" before arriving in Armenia, but this word, meaning "cross stone" will be ingrained in their memory after seeing thousands of them scattered across Armenia. This highly developed art form is almost unique to Armenians, who have been carving intricate patterns and designs in stone, surrounding crosses, for well over a thousand years. They've been used to mark tombs, memorials, to honor donations to the church and by those on pilgrimages to mark their passage.
Travel across Armenia will expose you to many styles and khachkars from many difference epochs of Armenian history, but the collection in Noratus is now the largest in the world.
Located in the village of Noratus, near the western shore of Lake Sevan, Noratus is just 25 minutes south from the popular Sevanavank Monastery on the peninsula to the north. A day trip to Lake Sevan could easily fit in Sevanavank Monastery, Hayravank Monastery and Noratus Cemetery.
Written Dec 1, 2008
It's incredible that many visitors to Armenia never see Tatev Monastery, built in 895 CE. It's a bit off the beaten track, and the road leading to it is rough, but the rewards are extremely worthwhile!
This stunning, huge monastery complex, with massive fortifications, rises out of the edge of a cliff nearly a kilometer high. The setting in the gorge is amazing - mountains, gorges, plains, a river with a natural land bridge (known as Satan's Bridge) worthy of exploration in its own right.
Mostly rebuilt after a devastating earthquake knocked parts of it down, the huge Peter and Paul Cathedral has been mostly restored, but the bell tower remains at a fraction of its former height. There is another chapel in the compound, a spring, and many levels of rooms, some quite expansive for lay purposes. Just outside of the compound are more ruins and a mill building with a massive millstone intact.
An interesting "swinging column" stands in a circle of stones, and is capped by a small cross. Legends say this octahedral column named "Gavazan", built in 904, would tilt at the push of a finger, and return to its previous location.
Satan's Bridge - the land bridge at the bottom of the canyon is a fun place to explore as well. There is a naturally carbonated spring just on the side of the road crossing the bridge, a couple of spring fed mineral baths (not hot, not cold), and if you climb down the cliff to the river, you'll see the caverns underneath, with stalagmites and stalactites.
Written Dec 1, 2008
At the top of the mountains near Sisian, there is a peak called Ughtasar. In a bowl of peaks is a mountain valley thousands of meters high, with a small lake, and snow patches which remain year round... there are thousands of large boulders strewn across the valley, many of them covered in petroglphs - caveman drawings. The variety of subjects includes people, animals, dances, hunting and some scenes nobody understands for sure. The feeling of being up there, cut off from the modern world, transports you to the land before time.
Getting there is tricky. You can only go for a few months a year - July-September, due to the heavy snow cover. If you're there at the right time, you have to find a way to get there. Best is to contact some of the travel agencies in Yerevan, or spend an evening in Sisian looking for a guide who can arrange transport. The ride is straight up the side of the mountain, no roads at all, and takes almost 2 hours. Well worth making the effort to get to see something almost nobody even knows about - and even fewer have been.
Written Nov 28, 2008
If you've ever wanted to feel like a caveman, or maybe like an Aztec or Mayan, spend a night camping in the canyon past Yenokavan Village (near Ijevan). The canyon is breathtaking and pristine, with sheer cliffs, lush forests, a river with rapids, and a few caves. One of them has ancient carvings, in a style found nowhere else in the region, which will remind you much more of the Aztecs and Mayans than anything else you see in Armenia.
A couple of really nice and easygoing guys have set up a comfortable if basic campground near the river, where you can spend the night, and they'll arrange your food, cook it, guide you in and out, all for a very reasonable price (I think it was around $25 a person a night with food, but I forget exactly. They're flexible on price if you bring your own food, gear, etc). Take a swim while they bbq some food they've brought for you, then have a drink by the campfire when the sun goes down...
Note: Call to make arrangements ahead of time!
Updated Nov 28, 2008
Phone: Vahakn (091) 36-54-37 mobile
Vanadzor is a town situated in northern Armenia, in Lori region. It is surrounded by green hills and is built on the banks of Pambak River. Many of the buildings here are built of the pink stone, so common in Armenia. In the outskirts are some big factories, like an ammonia plant. It is a quite big city with about 70 000 inhabitants.
I haven’t spent much time in Vanadzor. In 2003 I changed buses here, going between Yerevan and Alaverdi, and spent some time at the bus station. In 2006 I stayed a night on my way between Tbilisi and Dilijan. I arrived too late to visit the museum, but walked around, went to a restaurant and an Internet café.
Written Aug 18, 2006
On our way to Khor Virap, we stopped by the statue of Gevorg Chavush, a historic Armenian freedom fighter in the late 1800's. There are many stories in history books of the battles he led and his expertise on the battle grounds. The site where the statue is situated is breath taking.. It is not to be missed when visiting Khor Virap by the road leading to the monestery. The background is of mount Ararat with its to peaks, Sis and Masis currently situated in Turkey. We enjoyed our stop by this statue and the great view of mount Ararat in the background along with Khor Virap on the right hand side.
Written Sep 13, 2005
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