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View of the main church hall of the Sanahin Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Debed Canyon.

Your guide to Armenia: The church edition

A trip to Armenia is not complete without visiting at least one of its beautiful monasteries. In fact, it is hard to avoid them since they are built in some of the most amazing landscapes in Armenia. Armenia is the oldest surviving Christian country in the world and that speaks volume of the richness of its culture. The best way to see Armenia? Plan your vacation around its stunning churches and monasteries. Here is how you can see the churches in Armenia from north to south. Presenting to you Armenia: the church edition.

1) North: Explore the history-packed Debed canyon

Bordering Georgia in the north of Armenia is the spectacular Debed canyon. The valley runs deep in between two plateaus, and the panoramas of the area alone is worth the visit. In addition, hidden within the Debed canyon are various monasteries that are hundreds of years old. Each has its unique history and art style because the monasteries were built in different time periods. Here is my pick of the best monasteries in the Debed canyon:

a) Akhtala Monastery

Akhtala Monastery is a small, one-building church, but one of the most beautiful churches I have seen in the Debed canyon. It is built on the edge of a cliff, protected by a ruined fortress wall. As I entered through the access road, I immediately noticed its grandeur. Akhtala monastery looked like a backdrop of a scene from the Lord of the Rings: a solitary ancient church sitting right on the edge of a mountain, surrounded by peaks and forests waving slowly with the wind.

As I walked through the massive stone entrance of the Akhtala monastery, what stuck me immediately were the extremely well preserved frescos. The drawings and colours have been naturally preserved over hundreds of years. The caricatures of the characters were so detailed that I felt as if the stories from the Bible had come alive. Despite not knowing much about the various stories in the Bible, I had an interesting time appreciating the frescos and admiring all those details.

b) Haghpat Monastery

There are two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Debed canyon and the Haghpat monastery is one of them. It is a huge complex with churches, dining halls, living quarters and other small prayer rooms. There is definitely a lot to explore at the Haghpat monastery, though I would strongly recommend a guide. Alternatively, you could use your imagination and feel how it was like centuries ago to be the centre of power in the region.

More importantly, Haghpat Monastery sits on a plateau with vast views of the other plateaus across the canyon. The views of enormous grassland separated by massive ravines were amazing. I could even hear the gush of the ravaging river that ran at the bottom of the canyon. Not only was the area beautiful, it was also peaceful. Probably that explained why the early Christians chose to centre their influence in this place.

c) Hike across the canyon to Sanahin Monastery

The second UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Debed canyon is the Sanahin monastery. Located across the canyon from Haghpat Monastery, the Sanahin monastery is considerably newer and smaller than the former. In here, the architecture is not the focus. Instead, watch out for the dozens of beautifully carved khachkars. These are crosses carved out of stone and rock and scattered all over the monastery.

What I found more interesting though was the hike from Haghpat to Sanahin. The trek traversed across the valley from one plateau to another, passing through gorgeous scenery of the canyon and the valley below. The short hike took about two hours, and crossed various little villages. The old women strolling along the dirt paths were not shy to say hello. Everyone was warm and friendly, some even surprised at why a foreigner would walk through their little village. Hiking from Haghpat to Sanahin was definitely a great way to appreciate the history and the people who have lived through the generations in the Debed canyon.

2) Central: Venture out of the ancient capital of Yerevan

a) Geghard Monastery

An hour’s drive from Yerevan lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Geghard Monastery. Located deep in a canyon and accessible only by a road that passes through the top of the valley, Geghard is a spectacular site. Unlike most of its stone-built UNESCO friends, the ancient Geghard was carved entirely out from the mountain.

Nothing is more impressive than an entire monastery carved out of sheer rock. As I explored the massive halls and intricately carved stone walls, I could not help but applaud the dedication these early Christians had for their faith. Scattered on the cliffs around the monastery were various blocks of ancient Armenian inscriptions and beautiful khachkars (crosses carved out of rock). Even if you have seen many monasteries, Geghard Monastery has to be on your list simply because of its unique architectural style.

b) Hike along the Garni gorge

Located near Geghard Monastery is the gorge of Garni. Apart from a few small churches scattered near the village and the famous Temple of Garni, there is also a beautiful trail along the bottom of the valley. Known as the “symphony of the stones”, the cliffs of the mountains in the Garni Gorge boast very interesting formations. Due to erosion, the faces of the cliffs look like thin, rectangular columns densely packed together. To me, it resembled like a musical instrument, like an oversized organ (probably that was why the area is known as the symphony of the stones). These strange mountains definitely deserve a good look, especially if you are already in the area.

3) South: Discover the rural parts of Armenia

a) Noravank Monastery

Just two hours’ south of Yerevan lies the beautiful monastery of Noravank. Noravank is located on a cliff above a valley, surrounded by reddish cliffs. The landscape around Noravank is very different from what you would normally see in Armenia: forest-filled mountains full of greenery. This particular valley is considerably dryer and fiercely hotter than usual. As always, the panoramic views from the monastery grounds are excellent.

Sunset is the best time to visit Noravank Monastery, which glows in red under the waning sun. In fact, the entire valley glows in a beautiful reddish hue. Climb up the second storey of the main church hall and watch the sun set behind the overpowering cliffs. Sometimes I wondered if this church was built just for the spectacular sunset!

b) Hiking up Smbataberd fortress

An hour from Noravank Monastery lies the valley of Yeghegis. There are a few churches overlooking the deep ravines of the valley, but the best viewpoints are from the Smbataberd fortress. Located on top of a mountain that is wedged in between two valleys, the vantage points from Smbataberd fortress are massive. At one point, I could even see how the two valleys split from the main artery.

Needless to say, watching sunset here was an amazing experience. There was literally nobody to steal your enjoyment and great views of two deep valleys. For the adventurous, you could also walk along the walls of the fortress, which were exposed to deadly vertical drops off the mountain. The climb up to the fortress was tough, but definitely worth the stunning views I got of the surrounding area.

View of the Akhtala Monastery, located in the beautiful Debed Canyon that is dotted with many UNESCO World Heritage monasteries.

The best tip for exploring Armenia is definitely to plan your trip around its many monasteries and churches. Indeed there are too many to choose from, so it is wise to just pick a few along a manageable route. These monasteries in the northern, central and southern regions of Armenia are spectacular and definitely worth a visit. Moreover, they form a practical route to travel from one end to the other of Armenia. Even if you are not a fan of monasteries, the views that they command are more than worth the time and effort to get there.

However, remember that while Armenia is famous for its monasteries and churches, it is definitely not just about them! There are many things to do in Armenia and you can combine them with a religious tour of the country.

Hopefully this article would be useful in helping plan your next trip to Armenia! If you liked my guide, do share it with your friends on Facebook or Instagram. Also, I would love to hear your comments about the churches in Armenia. Which was your favourite?

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