Armenia is a small country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia with history dating to about 4000BC. Imagine how much it has to tell considering the long history. It has unique places to see with specific architecture. Today I will tell you about few places close to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, that are easy to reach in 30-60 minutes by car. All these places that you’ll see today are probably the most visited places in Armenia for those, who are short with time and can afford a quick trip only. So let’s see which sites are located nearby Yerevan and what will you find there.
If you are here and ask anyone about any recommendations for a day trip, everyone will tell you to go to Garni and Geghard. Those are two well known and much visited places in Armenia located one close to each other, so it’s easy to make a combined trip.
Garni Temple is in about 30km far from Yerevan, which will need a 40 min drive by car. This is the most unique place to go in Armenia with its different architecture. When you reach here, you’ll feel yourself as in Greece, as the temple itself is a Greco-Roman colonnaded building, and is the only standing pagan temple in Armenia. Let’s find out the reason! There is a Greek inscription found in this area, on which with Greek letters was curved that the temple was found by king of Armenia Tiridates I in the 11th year of his reign. Considering this, can be assumed that the temple is dating back to the 1st century AD, more closely to 77 AD.
A short historical note:
In 66 AD Tiridates I visited Rome where he was crowned by Roman Emperor Nero. Before his return Nero gave him 50 million drachmas and provided him with Roman craftsmen to rebuild the city of Artaxata (nowadays Artashat), which was destroyed by the Roman general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. Upon his return Tiridates I started a global reconstruction, during which the temple have been built. It is dedicated to the sun god Mihr from Armenian Mythology.
The interior of the temple is impressing. It has 24 columns, each of them has 6.5m height. All the columns are reach decorated with ornaments and sculptures, including plants and geometrical figures. The staircase has unusually high stairs – 30sm each. The possible explanation is that high stairs compel a person ascending the staircase to feel humbled and make physical effort to reach the altar (sacrificial table). On both sides of the staircase there are roughly seen pedestals with Atlas (Greek mythology Titans) sculpted on them, which seems are trying to hold the entire temple on their shoulders. The cella wasn’t too big, up to 20 people can fit inside.
Later on, after Armenia’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century (this happened in 301AD when Armenia became the first country adopting Christianity), it was converted into a royal summer house of Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. Except the temple, the complex contained a church and a Roman bathhouse. This is probably another impressive part of this complex. The 3rd century building of bath contained 5 rooms: a dressing room at the eastern end is followed by a cold water bath, a warm room, a hot water room and steam room. There was a water reservoir with a heating system built in here. Hot air from the furnace (fireplace) circulated through an underground passage lined with baked clay bricks under the floors, which which are seen even today. You’ll notice that the floor is covered with mosaics made from stones in 15 hues and depict figures in mythology. That in the main mosaic you can notice a water scene with the sea goddess Thetis and other mythological figures set against a light green background.
The temple and the complex was almost totally ruined during earthquake in 1679, but luckily most of the original blocks was possible to reuse for reconstruction of the temple and today it stands with its almost original view. The Bath is also mainly survived. But from the church there is only the base left.
The entrance tickets at Armenia’s Garni Historical-Cultural Museum-Reservation costs 500 AMD (a bit less than 1€) for the Armenian citizens, and 1500 AMD (~3€) entrance fee for foreign visitors. The price of tickets for children under 18 is 100 AMD. If you need a guide to show you every corner of the reserve-museum with all historical details, you can always find them there. Just ask for a guide at the ticket office. The fee is 2000 AMD for Armenian-language guide services and 4000 AMD for explanation in a foreign language.
Now let’s see what else interesting you can see on your way to Garni. Before reaching the temple, on a small hill there is a monument known as the “Arch of Charents” erected by Armenian architect Rafayel Israyelyan in 1957. It is also known as the “Arch of Ararat” because of the breathtaking panoramic view of Mount Ararat it offers. Lines with words from a Yeghishe Charents (one of Armenia’s most famous poets) poem glorifying the mountain are inscribed into the monument and the translation is the following: “Travel the world: you will never find a crest as pure as Ararat’s, As an impassible road to glory, I love my Masis Mountain.” The ones who’d been here will confirm my words – you need to see this, better on a clear day. The view you will have will stay in your mind forever.
Once you are already in Garni, before or after your visit of the temple, don’t miss to walk around the magnificent natural monuments of Armenia – “Symphony of Stones”. It is said that this natural monument is the result of the collapse of the volcanic rocks. Those are cliff walls of well-preserved basalt columns, carved out by the Goght River. The monument consisting of huge symmetric basalt columns of ~50m height will remind you a giant organ. This is probably the reason that monument has been compared with a musical instrument and took a name of “symphony”. This is a “must see” and “must take a photo” place in Armenia. So, don’t forget about it once you’re in Garni. You can also see it from the left side of the temple!
There are several ways to reach this beauty, but if you take a road that leads to the Garni gorge through the village, down a cobblestone road, you will also see an 11th-century medieval bridge in the valley.
Time to talk about another “must see” place close to Garni, which is just 5-10 minutes far from the temple. This is well known Geghard monastery complex, which is surrounded with huge rock-mountains and has defensive walls around.
A short historical note:
The monuments included in the property are dated from the 4th to the 13th century. The main chapel was built in 1215, while the complex was founded in the 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator and was built following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion in Armenia. Previously the Monastery was called Ayrivank (Monastery in the Cave) because of its rock-cut construction. Its current name Geghardavank (the Monastery of the Spear) comes from the relics it housed, from which the most celebrated was the spear which had wounded Christ on the Cross, allegedly brought there by the Apostle Thaddeus, first recorded in a document of 1250. The spear was kept in the Monastery for 500 years but currently it’s kept in the Cathedral Treasury at Echmiadzin.
The building was completed in the 13th century and at that time it was also known as the Monastery of the Seven Churches and the Monastery of the Forty Altars. When you’re here, you will notice that all around the monastery are caves and khachkars (curved cross-stones).
When you enter the gavit (entrance hall to the church) you will face with 2 passageways that connect the gavit to the most impressive parts of the monastery. Both are amazing and important, but first take the NW passage, which will be left as you face the north wall. Here you will enter the northwest rock-cut Avazan (basin) church which is carved out of rock at the site of a prehistoric cave shrine. There is a spring water coming out from the rock, which is considered sacred to this day.
Upper Gavit, accessible by external staircase was carved from solid rock, like the Avazan and the Proshian Sepulcher. An inscription inside shows it was completed in 1288. The narrow passageway leading to the gavit has a number of high-relief crosses carved in solid stone. The huge room has remarkable acoustics, perfect for Sharakan (Armenian religious chant). In Armenian churches, such as in all religious places, it’s supposed to be quite, but here if you make any sound, you will hear the echo in amazing way. The monastery complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with enhanced protection status.
The site is unique in all manners, with its perfect unpredictable architecture, with surrounding nature, huge defensive rocks and what’s more important, the spirit and feeling you will have here. The main Cathedral and churches suffered during several earthquakes, were destroyed, but reconstructed again and again. You will never find such a piece of art anywhere in the world. So make sure you have time during your trip to Armenia to make a tour to those amazing and unique places, learn all their secrets and enjoy.
By the way, all the pictures from Geghard, on which you don’t see my signature, are taken from http://photo-armenia.com/ , Photographer: Vigen Hakhverdyan