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The monastery at Marmashen is about 10km northwest of Gyumri, just past the village of Varambert in the wide gorge of the Akhuryan River. The Monastery is one of Armenia's most interesting and is beautifully situated. That said, it is not on a main tourist route and is consequently little visited. To reach it take the main north road out of Gyumri and then fork left on the road to Vahramaberd just after a Russian military base on the left. There is an inconspicuous wrought-iron signpost to Marmashen but it is very easy to miss, especially when driving. The monastery can be seen below the road, just as it starts to descend into the valley of the Akhurian River, picturesquely situated by the river and surrounded by fruit trees. The road eventually zigzags down to it.

There are three churches hewn from lovely apricot-coloured tuff clustered together next to an orchard, plus the ruins and foundations of other structures nearby, particularly on the northwest side.

The main church, Surp Stepanos, was built between 986 and 1029 in red tuff and is in the style of those at Ani, the former capital. It is particularly elegant with decorative arcatures on each facade and columns supporting the corners of the umbrella cupola. Inside, the front of the altar has been restored using the original carved stones where possible but supplemented where necessary with other stones found on the site. One of the ruins is of an unusual circular church, recently excavated. An Italian team led restoration work in the 1960s, so intricately carved old church stones have been incorporated into newer building blocks. Beautiful carved tombs and khatchkars dot the land around the churches, and it’s a peaceful, rural environment typical of Shirak, with grassy horizons.

The 10th-century church to the north of the main church is now roofless. The church on the south side is rather like a smaller version of the main one. Archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of a fourth, circular, much earlier, church which lies to the west. There is also a good array of khachkars, those marking the graves of men in front of the church with those of women to the sides and back. Close by the monastery complex there are several waterfalls on minor tributaries of the Akhurian.

The caretaker is here 8am to 8pm daily, and he can recite some of the inscriptions on the sides of the churches by heart. A return taxi to Gyumri is about AMD3000. Make sure the driver understands that you want to see the monastery and not the nearby village of the same name. There are hourly buses from Gyumri’s avtokayan to Varambert between 9am and 7pm.

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