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Khor Virap Monastery

Khor Virap ('Deep Dungeon'), prominently situated on a small hill in the Ararat plain, can be seen in the distance from the main road which passes 5km to the east. In contrast to Dvin, where few visitors ever go, Khor Virap receives so many that there are even souvenir stalls. They sell not only conventional souvenirs but also 'doves' - in reality homing pigeons - which the purchaser can then release to 'fly to Mount Ararat'. At any rate that's what the vendor claims they will do. In reality they fly straight back to him.

Khor Virap Monastery, 30km south of Yerevan, is a famous pilgrimage site with an iconic location at the foot of Mt Ararat. You’ll see plenty of tempting pictures of the place on postcards and souvenir books long before you get there. The monastery is on a hillock close to the Araks River, overlooking river pastures, stork nests and vineyards, 4km off the main highway through the village of Pokr Vedi (sometimes also called Khor Virap).

Khor Virap's historical significance is considerable, but architecturally the monastery is not particularly interesting. It is famous above all as the place where King Trdat III imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for 13 years in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, and it is still possible to visit the subterranean cell where he was kept. St Gregory the Illuminator (Surp Grigor Lusavorich) was kept in a well (khor virap means ‘deep well’), where he was secretly fed by Christian women.

The king was later cursed by madness (or cursed by sprouting the head of a boar in a more colourful version) and miraculously cured by St Gregory. Historians contend that Trdat may have switched allegiances to tap into the strength of Armenia’s growing Christian community in the face of Roman aggression. In any case the king converted to Christianity and St Gregory became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and set about building churches on top of pagan temples and teaching the faith.

Access to the cell where Gregory was imprisoned is from the smaller St Gregory's Church which is the barrel-vaulted structure at the southwest corner of the walls. To the right of the altar dais is the entrance hole from which a long ladder with 27 steps leads 6.5m down to the surprisingly large underground chamber; the first 2m of descent is very narrow, after which the hole widens. It tends to be stuffy in the chamber because of a lack of air circulation combined with the number of burning candles. It should be shunned by the claustrophobic and those who do venture down should take a torch. (Do not be confused by a second hole to the right of the door of the church. This leads to a separate underground chamber, possibly another prison. The entrance shaft: is even narrower than that of St Gregory's prison, but children have been known to climb down.) A path goes uphill on the north side of the monastery. From the top of the hill it is possible to see minor evidence of the archaeological digs about which much detail is given on the USAID information boards; there are extensive views over the plain.

The ground-level buildings at Khor Virap have been repeatedly rebuilt since at least the 6th century, and the main Surp Astvatsatsin Church dates from the 17th century. Construction of the modern buiding started in 1669. A large perimeter wall surrounds the main church with its 12-sided tambour and cupola. It is dedicated to the Mother of God. Rather plain otherwise, it has an elaborately decorated front to the altar dais. High on the eastern facade is a carving of St Gregory curing the possessed King Trdat.

Khor Virap is an important pilgrimage site and people often visit for a baptism or after a wedding to perform a matagh (sacrifice, often of sheep or chicken), which keeps the priests busy on weekends. It’s a shivery experience to climb 60m down into the well. The well is lighted, but you need to wear sturdy shoes to scale the metal ladder.

On a hillock to the left of Khor Virap as one approaches is a statue of Gevorg Chaush (1870-1907) who led Armenian fedayi (armed volunteers) in their struggle against the Turks in Sassoun province, the area in western Armenia around the source of the Tigris. He was killed in battle.

Just outside the monastery walls are some excavations on the site of Artashat, Trdat’s capital, founded in the 2nd century BC. The Armash Fish Ponds, 25km downstream from Khor Virap near the border town of Yeraskh, are home to a great variety of migrating birds in spring and autumn as well as local species. The ruins of the ancient capital of Dvin are on the edge of the plains near Verin Dvin, about 13km from Artashat.

Getting There & Away - There are two marshrutkas a day to Khor Virap from Yerevan (11am and 3.30pm), and three buses per day (9am, 2pm and 5pm), all from the Sasuntsi Davit metro station. The main highway is 4km away, with lots of public transport to and from Ararat and towns further south.

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