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Haghartsin Monastery

Haghartsin lies in forest and was always one of Armenia's most-visited monasteries. To reach it head east towards Ijevan for 7km and then turn left under a railway bridge and continue up the winding road for 9km.

The handsome Haghartsin Monastery (Haghartsin means ‘Dance of the Eagles’) was built in the 12th century by two brothers, princes of the Bagratuni kingdom. It’s hidden away in a lovely forest valley by some massive nut trees. The monastery has three churches, the first for Gregory the Illuminator, the second for the Virgin Mary, named Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) and, the last, a chapel to St Stepanos. An image of the Virgin and Child by the door has distinct Mongolian features – added to convince the next wave of Mongol invaders not to destroy the church. The brothers’ family seal can be seen on the back of this church.

The ecclesiastical authorities have decided that the monastery is to be the site of a new seminary and extensive renovation was recently done. Over the centuries Haghartsin has seen many such changes but for those who prefer historic medieval buildings to look their age, the reconstruction of Haghartsin is a disappointment.

As at so many monasteries the original small church had buildings added over the centuries and is now rather dwarfed by its less ancient neighbours. The oldest part is the St Gregory Church, probably dating from the 10th century, and with octagonal tambour although the original building was damaged by Seljuk invaders and had to be reconstructed after the Georgian victories over them. 'This reconstruction was followed by a large increase in the monastery's size and an important school of church music became established here which developed a new system of notation for the Armenian liturgy. The original church acquired a gavit at a lower level reached by steps; it is unusual in that part of the pillar in the south wall to the east of the central arch rotates to provide a secret hiding place for use when the monastery was threatened. St Stephen's Church was built in 1244, the large refectory in 1248 and the bigger Mother of God Church with a high 16-sided tambour, and also with gavit, was added in 1281. A relief of the donors with a dove (symbolising the Holy Spirit) above them can be seen on the east facade pointing to a model of the church. Among the other buildings which can be seen are the monastic bakery complete with oven.

Contemporaneous with this spate of building is the large walnut tree at the southeast corner of the Mother of God Church: it is estimated to be around 700 years old and was probably planted as a source of food. Walnut trees are often found at the sites of monasteries. To the south of the gavit of St Gregory's are the remains of royal tombs of the Bagratid dynasty. At the final bend in the road as one approaches the monastery, a group of khachkars has been marooned on a small roundabout contained by an ugly concrete wall. Nearby, on the roadside east of the site (a good photographic vantage point) are some small chapels and both here and at the monastery are particularly fine khachkars. Finest of all is the khachkar carved by Poghos in the 13th century which is outside the south door of the Mother of God Church. The interesting refectory, divided into two parts by arches, has stone benches along the sides. In recent years a rather incongruous modern floor was installed.

Mass is held in the Surp Astvatsatsin at 11am on Sunday.

Getting there The monastery is 4km off the main Dilijan–Ijevan road. You can get a lift to the turn-off and easily walk the rest of the way (or possibly hitch there, especially on a weekend when there is more traffic). From Haghartsin, it’s possible to walk on trails over mountain to Dilijan, a 10km hike that requires a little more than three hours. The path is not marked, but with a compass it’s fairly easy to find the route. From the monastery, continue on the gravel road down to the river and then up the other bank toward the ridge. A path continues to the right along the tree line with Dilijan eventually coming into view. Note that this route passes precariously close to a military base where shooting exercises are occasionally conducted, so only consider this after consulting with the tourist office in Dilijan.

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