Syunik's best-known site, Tatev Monastery, is reached by continuing down the main road beyond the Sisian turn-off for a further 25km and then turning right. The road to Tatev (29km), having been in very poor condition for years, has now been improved although it still lacks an asphalt surface. The journey time to Tatev, for those with a head for heights, has been still further shortened by a cable car (© 09.30-17.30 in winter, 09.30-19.00 in summer, both daily) which transports passengers from a terminal near Halidzor village to Tatev village. The longest cable car ride in the world, it spans the 5.7km between the two villages and was built by an Italian company. It opened in October 2010. Each cabin carries 25 passengers for the 12-minute ride high above the valley of the Vorotan River. It is hoped that the 'aerial tramway', as the Armenians like to call it, will make Tatev village and monastery accessible even in winter, something which will certainly benefit the villagers who travel free. For those who prefer a less exalted form of transport there is a daily, excluding Sundays, minibus from Goris to Tatev at 15.00, taking 1,5 hours. The bus returns to Goris at 09.00 the next day.
Before reaching Halidzor the road passes Shinuhayr, whose 17th-century church dedicated to St Stephen is on the valley side a long way below the village. The first part of the path to the church offers good views into the broad valley of the Vorotan with its striking rock formations but it then winds down through orchards and after one zigzag becomes the bed of a stream in which it is difficult to find a dry route. The three-aisle basilica church is ruinous as are the ancillary buildings formerly used by the monks. Many of these ancillary buildings have been adapted by the local residents for growing vegetables: one monk's cell now supports a good crop of runner beans while another houses potatoes. The climb back up to the village is long and hot.
Built on a fairy-tale natural fortress of rock on the edge of the Vorotan Canyon, Tatev is as jaw-dropping as any of the World Heritage–listed churches in Lori. The views down the gorge reach to the peaks of Karabakh.
There is a legend about Tatev Monastery. It is said that the architect couldn't get down when he finished the cupola of the main church. He cried out: ' Togh astvats indz ta-tev ' which means 'May God give me wings'. And so the monastery got its name. The first sight is in some ways more impressive than seeing it close up. An excellent distant view can be had from the left of the road where there is a small gazebo-type structure. The short path to the gazebo starts from the lay-by at the top of the climb from Halidzor. The gazebo is variously stated to mark the signalling point from which the monastery could be warned of the approach of possibly unwelcome visitors, or alternatively the spot from which a young lady threw herself into the gorge rather than submit to an unwelcome marriage with a local Muslim ruler.
The road to Tatev turns south of the main highway and reaches the northern edge of the gorge at Halidzor. Near the start of the descent is a gorgeous little cone-roofed stone shelter, at the end of a ridge; it’s well worth stopping to look. At the bottom of the canyon are mineral springs and Satan’s Bridge, a natural bridge over the swift-flowing river: a path leads down through eroded rock formations to a popular swimming pool. Legend tells that villagers fleeing to Tatev were blocked by the raging river. Before the invaders attacked, a bridge was magically created by a huge falling rock and the people were saved. The site includes two natural spring pools, so bring a swimsuit. Just past the second pool is a steep slope that leads down to the river. A rope and ladder are on hand to help you down, but it’s very dicey and potentially dangerous as you are putting your life in the hands of the rope. A caretaker may be on hand to help you down – if he is not then just forget it. If you do make it safely down the ladder, move to your right to find two limestone caves with rushing water and gorgeous pools. Local authorities are planning to build a staircase down to the caves but until then consider this a very dangerous little trip.
A steep climb up the south side turns left before Tatev village. The date of the now-vanished first church at the monastery is unknown, but in 844 Bishpp Davit persuaded the Princes of Syunik to grant lands which would support the founding of a monastery worthy to house the relics which the church in Syunik possessed. It was his successor, Bishop Ter-Hovhannes, who built the great fortified monastery’s main church of Surp Poghos-Petros (St Paul and St Peter) between 895 and 906. It was badly damaged by the earthquake in 1931 during which the cupola collapsed, but the whole has now been restored except for the bell tower which formerly had three storeys. It is planned to complete the restoration of the bell tower in due course which is why the large crane has been left in situ for several years disfiguring many visitors' photographs. Tatev's reconstruction has not always been sensitively carried out: installing a marble floor rather than stone flags in the church and library rather jars for example, although its removal is now promised. However, the restoration does give an excellent idea of how the monastery must have looked when it was a thriving centre of learning and 1,000 people lived here; its greatest importance was in the 14th and 15th centuries under Hovnan Vorotnetsi (1315-88) and Grigor Tatevatsi (1346-1411). Tatevatsi was both a philosopher and a painter and is portrayed surrounded by his students in one of the few portraits in Armenian manuscript illustration. This is in the 1449 Interpretation of the Psalms of David and is presumably the work of one of his former pupils.
The complex is surrounded by a large fortified wall on which it is possible to walk. The church is somewhat intermediate in style between the earlier domed basilica churches and the later cross-dome churches. The umbrella cupola is supported by an unusually tall decorated circular tambour. On the east facade, above the triangular niches, long snakes are looking at two heads while on the north facade, above a window, two shorter snakes are looking at a person: Armenians supposedly regarded snakes as protectors of their homes. On the north facade are also representations of the founders of the church - Prince Ashot, his wife Shushan, Grigor Supan, the ruler of Gegharkunik, and Prince Dzagik. There are faint signs of frescoes, intricate carvings and portraits of the main donors on the northern side. In 930, the walls of the church were decorated with frescoes but these have almost totally vanished except for some scant remnants in the apse and the interior is now rather plain. Grigor Tatevatsi is buried inside the small chapel on the south side of the main church. His tomb is the highly decorated structure which abuts the church.
In the courtyard, on the south side of the church look for the 8m octagonal pillar built of small stones with an elaborate cornice topped by a khatchkar. This monument erected in 904 called the gavazan (meaning a priest's or clergyman's pastoral staff or stick). The 9th century monument is said to have predicted seismic activity (or the roar of hooves by approaching armies) by shifting. The pillar detected earth tremors by rocking on the horizontal course of masonry on which it is constructed. It does not appear to have worked, however, for some years and the lower part is bound up by iron bands.
The modest St Gregory Church adjoins the main church also on the south side, and there’s a masterfully miniaturised chapel above the gatehouse. Dating from 1295, it replaced an earlier 9th-century building. To the west of the St Gregory Church there was a vaulted gallery with arched openings on the southern side, and to the west of Paul and Peter church, the bell tower built in the 17th century on the site of a gavit which had been destroyed in an earlier earthquake. The fortifications, added in the 17th century, have been restored and are full of dining halls, towers and libraries.
Built over the main entrance to the complex and the adjoining chapel is the unusual 11th-century Mother of God Church. It is a small cross-dome church with an octagonal tambour and umbrella cupola. The chambers of the clergy, the refectory with a kitchen and storerooms, and the dwelling and service premises form a rectangle around these structures within the fortified wall. They date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Outside the walls can be seen the ruins of various buildings including an oil press and the school. Wild red tulips Tulipa julia grow behind the monastery; unfortunately they often end up as cut flowers.
At the monastery’s peak some 600 monks lived and worked at Tatev, and national icon St Grigor Tatevatsi (St Gregory of Tatev, 1346–1409) is buried here.
Just uphill from the monastery is a cafe and an Information Centre (working hours 9am-9pm), run by the English speaking Sarmen Arshakyan. This is the place to ask about hikes in the area or B&Bs where you can spend the night. The scenery around Tatev is gorgeous and there is plenty of scope for short hikes. One trail leads to Svarants (population 100), a hamlet 30 minutes’ walk away on the other side of the valley. Another trail heads north to the top of Petroskhatch mountain, 4km away from Tatev (the round-trip hike takes under three hours).
Getting There & Away - Each day a bus leaves Goris for Tatev. The bus returns to Goris the next morning at 9am. The other way up here from Goris is by taxi. There is also a bus from Tatev to Kapan on Tuesday and Sunday at 3pm, and Thursday at 8.30am. The same bus leaves Kapan for Tatev on Tuesday (8am), Thursday (3pm) and Saturday (3pm), from outside the Lernogratz Hotel.
You can find all usefull information about Armenia travel here. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at any time and we will gladly answer your questions.