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Sevan Monastery (Sevanavank) is up a long flight of steps on the peninsula’s turtlebacked hill and has commanding views of the lake. It is on the southwest slope of a hill overlooking the west end of Lake Sevan. This monastery is one of Armenia's most-visited tourist sights. The reduction in the level of the lake has both reduced the picturesqueness of the setting - it is now on a peninsula rather than an island - and boosted the number of tourist buses arriving. Although worth visiting, it is not really one of Armenia's most appealing places and owes its popularity largely to its proximity to the lake and to its accessibility from Yerevan.

In summer and autumn a thick carpet of cloud pushes over the Areguniats mountains to the north and evaporates at the lake’s edge. The first monument on the steps leading up to the monastery is dedicated to a 20th century navy captain, commander of the Russian fleet on Lake Sevan. The first church is Arakelots (Apostles), followed by Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) with a courtyard filled with khatchkars.

The surviving buildings comprise the Mother of God Church, the smaller Holy Apostles Church, together with a ruined gavit. St Mesrop Mashtots had a vision of 12 figures walking across the lake, who showed him the place to found a church. An inscription on the Holy Apostles Church, the oldest of the churches and situated at the northeast of the complex, states that the monastery was founded in 874 by Princess Miriam, wife of Prince Vasak of Syunik, and daughter of the Bagratid King Ashot I. This was a time when Armenia was emerging from subjugation under the Arab caliphate and the church was one of the first to be built in Armenia after more than 200 years of Arab Islamic domination. Not surprisingly the architects resorted to 7th-century practice in developing the design. Despite what the inscription says about Ashot being king, in 874 this was a little premature, by judicious exploitation of others' enforced absence at the caliph's court in Samarra, Ashot was able to amass great power and in 862 the caliph awarded him with the title Prince of Princes. Ashot managed to remain neutral in the wars between the caliph's Arab forces and the Byzantine Emperor Basil I which were being waged when Sevan Monastery was built. The caliph was only to give Ashot the title King in 884, ten years after the date of the inscription; he was later followed in doing so by the Byzantine emperor.

Holy Apostles is a typical and plain cross-dome church and, in the absence of corner rooms, its interior shape can be seen from the outside. There is a large doorway between the south and west arms and a small chapel with an apse between the south and east arms. The octagonal tambour has four small windows. Pending renovation it is kept locked.

The larger Mother of God Church is in similar style and lies to the southeast of the Apostles Church; it too has an octagonal tambour. The small chapels were probably later additions. There are two features of particular interest. One is an extremely elaborate 13th-century basalt khachkar. At the top right is God the Father with right hand raised in the Armenian style of blessing - tips of thumb and ring finger touching with the other three fingers upright representing the Trinity. He is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists - eagle, bull, ox and angel. At the top left is God surrounded by angels. The central panel shows Jesus on the cross flanked by Mary and St John. To the right of Jesus are panels showing his birth, the ox and ass, and the three kings. To his left are panels showing scales weighing good and evil, three figures and abstract decoration. Below Jesus, God is shown expelling Adam and Eve from Eden. The other notable feature is the wooden altar screen, part carved and part painted. It is most un-Armenian, being a gift in 1824 from the Monastery of St Thaddeus, south of Maku in present-day Iran.

Off the Mother of God Church is a ruined gavit in which are displayed pieces of khachkars found hidden in the cupola of the church. Its roof once rested on six detached wooden columns. The finely carved wooden capitals from the gavit depicting a chalice and the tree of life flanked by two doves are now in the Historical Museum in Yerevan, as are two carved walnut doors also from the gavit, one dating from 1176 and the other from 1486.

The monastery was one of the first seminaries to reopen in Armenia after the Soviet period. In the past being here was not necessarily a matter of choice. The French expert on the Caucasus Jean-Marie Chopin who visited the island monastery in 1830 reported that the regime was extremely strict with no meat, no wine, no youths and no women. It therefore served as a reformatory for those monks banished for their misdemeanours from Ejmiatsin. Another visitor reported that as late as 1850 manuscripts here were still being copied by hand. On the peninsula today is also the guesthouse of the president.

Continue up the hill past the foundations of the Surp Harutyun Church to the highest point of the peninsula, with panoramic views. On the far side of the hill are two buildings: one belongs to the National Writers’ Union (closed to the public), the other is the president’s vacation home, protected by a high fence. The building on the north side of the peninsula is a new seminary for the Armenian Apostolic Church. The students sometimes play football in the car park near the stairs. There are a couple of souvenir stalls and the Ashot Yerkat restaurant too. There’s no public transport out here, so arrange for a taxi to wait for you.

Getting There & Away - By car Yerevan is only 30 to 40 minutes away by freeway. Transport (40 minutes, every hour 9am to 5pm) to Yerevan leaves from the corner of Nairyan Poghots and Sayat-Nova Poghots in the centre of Sevan town. There’s a marshrutka to Vanadzor from the corner of Nairyan and Shinararneri Poghots at 10am that can drop you in Dilijan. This corner is also a taxi stand. A taxi to Yerevan (67km) costs about AMD7000, to Dilijan AMD3500, to Tsaghkadzor AMD2000, and to Sevanavank with 30 minutes’ waiting time about AMD2000. A taxi to one of the hotels around the peninsula costs AMD1000. In summer a train runs from Yerevan to Sevan (AMD200, four hours, 8am), though it’s so slow that it could only be considered for the experience.

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