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Geghard Monastery

Named after the holy lance that pierced Christ's side at the crucifixion, Geghard Monastery (open during usual church opening hours 09.00-18.00) stands in a steep scenic canyon 9km beyond Garni. Legend has it that Geghard Monastery was founded in the 4th century. The most ancient of the cave churches, St Gregory's, dates back to the 7th century.

One of the great sites of Armenia and on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2000, Geghard ('Spear') Monastery in its gorge setting should ideally be seen when several of the country's less extraordinary churches have been visited. It is then easier to appreciate what makes this one different. Its unusual feature is that it is partly an ordinary surface structure and partly cut into the cliff. The name dates from the 13th century and reflects the bringing here of a spear said to have been the one which pierced the side of Christ at Calvary. This spear, a shaft with a diamond-shaped head into which a cross has been cut, can now be seen in the treasury at Ejmiatsin. It is inside a gilded silver case made for it in 1687. Visiting Geghard on a Sunday morning is an enthralling experience with beautiful singing from the choir, and beautifully groomed animals brought for sacrifice after the service.

The first monastery at this site was called Ayrivank ('Cave monastery'). It was founded as early as the 4th century but was burned down and plundered in 923 by Nasr, a subordinate of Yusuf, the caliph's Governor of Azerbaijan. Yusuf had just spent five years in prison for rebellion against the caliph. Nasr continued the rebellion, seeking to extend his own power and to enforce conversion of the Christian population to Islam.

Thereafter the monastery declined until the revival of monastery building in the late 12th century. The earliest surviving part, the Chapel of the Mother of God, dates from before 1164 and is situated above the road just before the gateway to the main monastery complex. It is partly a surface structure and partly hewn into the rock, rectangular in plan but with a semicircular apse. Adjoining it are other passages and small rooms in the rock.

In total, surrounding the main site are more than 20 other rock-hewn chapels and service premises, many of which have carvings. Also outside the gate are small ledges onto which visitors try to throw stones. If a stone remains on the ledge then the thrower's wish is supposed to come true.

The main buildings of the monastery - Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) - are surrounded by walls on three sides and a cliff face on the other. Construction was started by the Zakarian family who came into possession of it after they had commanded Armenian forces which joined with the Georgians to defeat the Seljuks. The main cathedral was built in 1215 and is of the cross-dome type, the circular tambour being decorated with graceful arcature and narrow windows and topped by a conical cupola.

The adjoining vestibule, larger than the church itself, with an intricate carved ceiling and nine arches, dates from 1215 to 1225. Between the spans of arcature and on the portals and cornices are depicted a variety of birds and animals as well as floral and geometrical patterns. The southern facade is particularly interesting. Outside, above the south door, is a coat of arms (lion attacking an ox) of the family of the Zakarian prince who built it. The theme is a common Near Eastern one, with the lion symbolising royal might. On the right-hand side of the vestibule are two entrances to chapels hewn from the rock. The left-hand one dates from the 1240s. It contains a basin with spring water believed to be lucky or holy. Splashing some of this water on your body is said to keep your skin youthful.

The gavit at the west side which is attached to the rock face was completed by 1225. It is much plainer than the main church though the tympanum has an attractive floral design within an ogee arch.

The right-hand chapel, constructed in 1263, includes the four-column burial chamber of Prince Papaq Proshian and his wife, Hruzakan. The family's coat of arms, carved in the rock above, features two lions chained together and an eagle. Outside, steps on the left lead up the hill to a 10m passage into another church that has been carved out of the raw rock. The proportions in this room are nothing short of extraordinary, considering it was carved from the rock around it. The acoustics of the chamber are also quite amazing. In the far corner is an opening looking down on the church below. On the right-hand side of the church are steps that lead to some interesting monastic cells and khatchkars. Outside the monastery, next to the stream, is an active matagh (sacrifice) site.

The Zakarians sold the monastery to the Prosh family who constructed the subterranean part carved out of rock. In the first cave church, on the northwest side, is a spring. It bears the architect's name, Galdzag, and incorporates some fine khachkars as well as stalactite decoration around the roof opening. The Prosh family mausoleum and the second cave church at the northeast were probably by the same architect and completed by 1283. On the north wall of the mausoleum above the archways is a relief carving of a goat with a ring in its mouth to which is attached a rope whose two ends are round the necks of two lions which are looking outwards. The ends of the lions' tails are dragons looking upwards. Below all this an eagle with spreading wings grasps a lamb in its talons. Both here and in the rock-cut churches there is much elaborate carving of crosses, geometrical shapes and khachkars. Rather surprisingly to the right of the entrance to the mausoleum are carved two sirens, mythical creatures with the crowned head of a woman and the body of a bird. These creatures who lived on rocky islets off the coast of Sicily lured men to their death, either by enchanting them with their singing so that they were shipwrecked on the rocks or, in some versions, by lulling the men to sleep with their singing so that the sirens could murder them while they slept.

The second cave church, dedicated to the Mother of God, leads off from the mausoleum. Some of the khachkars show human figures including one who holds a spear pointing down while he blows an uplifted horn. To the right at the stairs leading to the altar dais is the figure of a goat. At the left side on the altar dais is a stone seat with a lion's head forming the end of the top of the back and to the right of the dais is a khachkar of two doves each side of a cross. The church, despite being underground, retains the same cross shape with tambour and cupola as other Armenian churches. There is an opening to the outside world at the top of the cupola which admits light.

The gavit which formed the burial vault of Prince Papak Prosh and his wife Ruzukan was hewn in 1288. It is at a higher level and to reach it, go up the steps at the west end of the complex and then follow the narrow subterranean passage to the right decorated with khachkars carved into the rock. The roof is supported by four pillars and in the floor is a hole looking down into the mausoleum below. The acoustics in this gavit are amazing. Anyone standing here and singing, particularly by the northeast pillar, sounds like an entire choir.

Other features of interest are the small rock-hewn chapel adjacent to the steps leading up to the gavit. Over the door is a carving of a figure wearing what appears to be a Mithraic-style hat. The orhnakar is in the middle of the paved area within the monastery walls but the mataghatun is outside the small eastern gateway. Around the boundary wall are various service buildings; that at the northeast corner is a bakery complete with tonir. Most date from the 17th century but those at the southwest corner only from 1968-71.

After so much culture it is worth, on leaving Geghard, buying some fruit lavash  from the women who sell it near the entrance. The plum is particularly good.

Botanists may wish to explore the river valley with its wealth of herbaceous plants, including orchids, and trees. Oriental wild apple Malus orientalis and Caucasian pear Pyrus caucasia flourish on boulders in the middle of the fast-flowing river and wild grape vine Vitis sylvestris scrambles through trees, including Euonymus, Cornus, Sorbus, and Acer ibericum, on the riverbank.

As you approach the monastery, look to the left up the hill for caves that house monastic cells built by monks. Trees here are often dotted with strips of cloth, as are trees on the other side of the monastery near the river. It is said a person can say a prayer or make a wish and tie a strip of cloth to a tree near the monastery to make it come true. Inside the monastery walls, Geghard's two main churches date from the 13th century.

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