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Garni Temple

A half-day excursion from Yerevan to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery is probably Armenia's most popular trip for visitors and is well worth making. About halfway from Yerevan, near the village of Voghjaberd, it is worth also stopping at the memorial arch to the writer Eghishe Charents as it offers splendid views across the valley to Ararat. The provincial capital of Hrazdan is a rundown post-industrial town. Elsewhere in Kotayk the village of Tsaghkadzor is Armenia's principal ski resort and also offers pleasant walking in the surrounding wooded countryside.

Although it has just a few thousand people, the town of Garni, about 15 miles east of Yerevan, is one of the most important to the country’s history. It was an ancient summer resident of Armenian kings and has been inhabited since at least the eighth century B.C. Although many of the ancient buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes and newer construction, the original site of the summer home is still interesting. It contains the ruins of a 1,000-foot high tower and a three-sided fortress with 14 towers. A temple built by the Romans in the first century A.D. and dedicated to the Roman sun god Helios was reconstructed in the 1960s. Inside the temple is a restored fire pit, possibly used for sacrifices. A Roman bathhouse is still on the grounds, as well as a seventh-century church. Both contain stones with interesting sayings. In the bathhouse, for example, is a Greek saying, “We worked, but did not get anything.” In the church, an eighth-century-B.C. stone says, “Argishti, son of Menua, took people and cattle from Garni to Erebuni to create a new community.”

Garni Temple - Garni Temple, as it is called, is Armenia's only Graeco-Roman-style building. Although usually said to be a 1st-century pagan temple, probably devoted to Mithra, more recently some historians have suggested that it is more likely to be the tomb built for a Romanised ruler, probably Sohaemus, in which case the construction would have been around ad175. Other scientists claim that this comprehensively rebuilt Hellenic temple, was dedicated to Helios, the Roman god of the sun.

It is the best-known building on what is an extensive archaeological site, a triangle of readily defensible land jutting out into a bend of the Azat River far below. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a neolithic encampment; an inscription in cuneiform from the early 8th-century BC on a vishap stone recording the capture of Garni Fortress by the Urartian King Argishti I (vishap is the Armenian for 'dragon; vishap stones are large carved stones from the first two millennia bc generally found near watercourses and probably of some religious significance); a Greek inscription on a huge basalt block recording the construction of a later fortress here by King Trdat I; a 3rd-century royal palace and bathhouse; churches from the 5th and 7th centuries; and the 9th-century palace of the Katholikos. Plainly the site has had a long and important history. It became a summer house for Armenian royalty after the Christian conversion.

The high promontory site is protected on three of four sides by a deep valley with rock cliffs, with a wall of massive blocks on the fourth. The wall featured 14 towers and an entrance graced by an arch. Ruins of the fortress are on the left and right sides as you walk towards the temple from the parking area. The Avan Gorge, carved by the Azat River, lies below. A Roman bathhouse, now partly covered by a modern structure, was built for the royal residence. In the 7th century, a church was built nearby. The bathhouse features an intricate mosaic, made with 15 colours of natural stones, depicting the goddess of the ocean. In the ruins of the church next to the temple is a vishap (carved dragon stone). This is a marker to show the location of water. Some marks on the middle of the stone are in fact writing from King Argishti from the 8th century BC, which reads Сargishti, son of Menua, took people and cattle from Garni to Erebuni [the original site of Yerevan] to create a new community.

The 'temple' itself was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1679 but well restored between 1969 and 1975. It is easy to see which stones are the surviving originals and which are the modern replacements. It is one of the few historical monuments in Armenia for which an admission charge is made. The building looks rather like a miniature Parthenon and has 24 columns supporting the roof with Ionic capitals and Altic bases. The frieze depicts a variety of leaves and fruits while the cornice shows  the heads of lions exhibiting a variety of expressions. Nine steep steps lead up to the interior in which are a reconstructed and probably inauthentic altar and sacrificial pit. The building differs from most other Graeco-Roman buildings in being constructed of basalt; the use of such a material probably required the employment of Armenian craftsmen skilled in the technique of carving so hard a rock.

Close to the temple are the remains of other buildings. The circular building next to the temple on the west side was a 7th-century church with four apses while northwest of the church was a palace and beyond it a bathhouse. The bathhouse has a mosaic floor which depicts sea gods framed by fish and nereids together with the ambiguous words: 'We worked but did not get anything'. If the door of the building protecting the bathhouse is locked the key can be obtained from the ticket kiosk. Some further reconstruction was started in the early years of this century and the walls of the church and palace were built up slightly. This does give an idea of the original layout but work on the church in particular was most insensitively carried out using black and bright-red stones which looked garish and out of place. There were understandable protests at the desecration and work was suspended.

From the temple it's possible to reach Havuts Tar Monastery. In the village of Garni, Tavern Restaurant & Hotel serves khoravats. Upstairs, it has clean and comfortable rooms.

Garni to Havuts Tar - Havuts Tar (Chicken Roost) Monastery is a rewarding two-hour hike from the river below Garni. The trailhead is just left of the entrance to Garni Temple. Follow it down to the gorge (continuing down at intersections). Turn left at the bottom of the gorge and after 30 to 40 minutes cross the old stone bridge over the Azat River and pick up the trail on the opposite bank. The trail forks left and leads to a ranger station marking the northern entrance to the Khosrov Nature Reserve. From the guardhouse go left along the narrow trail near the crest for 3km. The kindly old ranger who lives in the shack can point you in the correct direction. The monastery eventually comes into view, with a large khatchkar marking the route. The monastery comprises two parts, an eastern and a western side, constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries. An earthquake in 1679 destroyed much of the complex, but there is still much to explore, including underground chambers and an interesting church with a red and black chequered facade. Travellers report spectacular hiking from Garni all the way to Lake Sevan. The 50km hike takes four or five days and in summer you'll meet plenty of Yezidi and Armenian shepherds tending their flocks on the slopes of Gora Karaganchal. You'll need to be self sufficient with food, tents, sleeping bags and reliable maps.

Getting There & Away - Marshrutkas to Garni (25 minutes, every 50 minutes from 10am to 9.30pm) depart from GAI Poghots (behind the Mercedes Benz showroom). You can get to the showroom by taking marshrutka 58 or 66 from Berekamutyun metro station or marshrutka 51 from Mesrop Mashtots Poghota. In Garni the bus leaves you on the main road, a short walk to Garni Temple. The main road continues for 10km to Geghard, but public buses don’t go that far. Bus 284 continues to Goght but then it’s another 4.5km to Geghard (from where you could walk or hitch a ride the rest of the way).

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