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Noravank monastery

(always open although it may not be possible to reach it in winter)

This church complex, by the 13th-century architect Momik, is a masterpiece both for its architecture and its dramatic setting. Approaching the monastery today the striking two-storey building that one reaches first is actually a mausoleum with another church on top of it and is the newest part of the establishment. The larger complex of buildings beyond is older; the oldest part of all, the 9th- or 10th-century Church of John the Baptist is the ruin at the southeast corner.

Noravank (New Monastery) was founded by Bishop Hovhannes in 1105, but was developed mainly in the 13th century by the Orbelian princes. They were a branch of the Mamikonian family, which had settled in Georgia in the 9th century and members of which had held the position of commander-in-chief of the Georgian forces in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Georgian army, which included many Armenians, defeated the sultan in 1204 and many families from Georgia moved into Armenia including the Orbelians who settled in Syunik. The Orbelians built several churches to act as burial places for the family and the see of the bishopric of Syunik was moved here to Noravank. The oldest surviving church is the one in the centre of the further complex of buildings. Erected in 1221-27, it is also dedicated to John the Baptist and is of the cross-dome type with two-storey corner rooms. To judge from a fragment of the church model which has survived, it originally had an octagonal tambour with an umbrella cupola but this collapsed during an earthquake in 1840 and has been replaced by a circular tambour and conical cupola. The more modest Church of St Gregory was added on the north side in 1275 as the burial place of the Orbelians. In the floor are gravestones including one dated 1300 for Elikum, son of Prince Tarsayich Orbelian, who is represented by a lion figure resting its head on one paw. There are two carved doves by the altar dais, which is flanked by khachkars, and the remains of frescoes can be seen. The window is set slanting in the east wall, probably so that on some particular day of the year the rays of the dawning sun will illuminate the grave of Prince Smbat who is also buried here.

The original gavit of the John the Baptist Church was built on the west side in 1261 by Prince Smbat Orbelian but it was completely rebuilt in 1321 following earthquake damage. Both the gavit and the Mother of God Church nearer the car park are the work of Momik who was also responsible for the fine carving at Areni. The two tympana (one above the other, separated by a window opening) of the doorway are in every way remarkable. The carved relief of the upper, pointed one shows God, with his almond-shaped eyes looking straight ahead while a dove is entangled in his beard. He is raising his right hand in blessing while holding a head in his left. Whose head must remain a matter of speculation: possibly that of John the Baptist to whom the church is dedicated and who was decapitated, or perhaps it is the head of the Son or perhaps that of Adam. Above the head is a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit. To the right there is the winged head of a child, the medieval symbol of a seraph, while to the left the scene of Crucifixion. The lower tympanum is semicircular and depicts Mary, wearing a dress whose folds are accurately depicted, sitting with Jesus in her arms, on a patterned rug that is adorned with tassels. On the right is the Prophet Isaiah together with a banner that reads 'Holy Virgin Isaiah'. On the left is St John the Baptist with further words visible in the tracery. The whole is surrounded by an inscription which, according to a recent Armenian booklet describing Noravank, reads: 'Here is the blessed and awful name of my God from the beginnings to the verge of edges that is out of ends and ruptures.' Unfortunately the rest of the booklet achieves a similar level of obscurity. Inside the gavit there is further carving but nothing to rival the tympana. The site was last restored in the 1990s.

Climb the narrow stone stairs outside Surp Astvatsatsin (1339) to get a closer look at its dome. This two-storey church nearer the entrance also has very fine carving. Astvatsatsin is also known as Burtelashen, after its patron, Burtel Orbelian, who is buried here with his family. Built by Prince Burtel Orbelian, it is dedicated to the Mother of God and was completed in 1339, proving to be Momik's last work. Historians say the church is reminiscent of towerlike burial structures created in the early years of Christianity. Considerable damage was caused by the 1840 earthquake, and the church lost its tambour and cupola which were not restored until 1997, using fallen fragments as a pattern. The appearance of this church is very unusual: the lower storey is rectangular but the upper is of cross-dome form. The lower storey can be accessed by descending six steps at the west end and comprises the burial vault of the donor and his family. Over the doorway the tympanum depicts Mary with Jesus in her arms, but sitting on a throne this time, flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. Inside the vault can be seen the figures of the evangelists. The church, in the upper storey, is accessed by narrow steps cantilevered up the outside face of the lower facade. Only those who are happy on narrow ledges should climb them. The tympanum over the upper doorway depicts a half-length Christ flanked by the apostles Peter and Paul. From the ceiling of the corner room to the right of the altar the head of a lion looks down.

The reinstated conical cupola is, unusually, not supported by a tambour but by 12 columns. On three of the columns at the western end can just be seen (binoculars help) carved figures of Mary with Jesus and of two donors of the church, one of whom is holding a model of it. There are still some very fine khachkars here although the finest of all have been moved to Ejmiatsin. One good and very intricate one which remains was carved by Momik in 1308.

The smaller St Karapet Church (1227) next to Surp Astvatsatsin is the original shrine built by the miracle-working Bishop Hovhannes.

From a gateway behind the Church of St Gregory a path goes up the hillside to a good viewpoint.

Descending into the gorge again, but then turning to the left by the river, a track leads to the small Chapel of St Pokas, in which is a 4th-century khachkar, oval with a simple cross, and a spring whose water is covered by a film of oil, supposedly oil from the saint's burial ground. According to Stepanos Orbelian writing in the late 13th century, surprising miracles formerly occurred here: all manner of pains, whose cure by men was impossible, such as leprosy and long-infected and gangrenous wounds, were cured when people came here, bathed in the water and were anointed with the oil. However, in cases where the diseases were incurable, the people died immediately upon drinking the water!

Noravank once treasured a piece of the True Cross stained with the blood of Christ, acquired from a mysterious stranger. The side chapel of St Grigor includes a carved lionhuman tombstone dated to 1300.

Noravank can be seen high on the cliff face to the left. The site is at its most spectacular around sunset when the reddish hues of the cliffs are accentuated by the setting sun. Its construction in red stone set against the similarly coloured rock of the mountainside is particularly evocative in the early morning or late evening light. If at all possible avoid coming here in the middle of the day as that is when the place is thronged with tourist buses from Yerevan and it is also stiflingly hot in the valley in summer. During medieval summers the monks of Noravank retired to a mountain retreat.

Noravank features on many travel-agency tours from Yerevan, about 90 minutes away by road - many combine a visit with a stop at Khor Virap and a winery. There are picnic spots and springs around Noravank, as well as an excellent restaurant by the car park.

Public transport from Yerevan or Yeghegnadzor takes you as far as the turn-off on the highway, 6km from Noravank. Get out at the Edem restaurant and hitch the rest of the way, a fairly easy process on weekends.

About 4km from the turn-off to Norovank is an unusual cave-cafe dug out of the side of the cliff. There is no sign, but you'll see the metal grating between the boulders on the right side of the road. Since there is no sign it would be reasonable to suppose that the cavern is the premises of a carpet vendor, but that would be wholly incorrect as it is actually a pleasantly situated cafe, which will be open whenever there is a chance of visitors passing. There is no sign indicating that it is a cafe since the proprietor believes one to be unnecessary: 'everyone knows it is a cafe'.

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Noravank monastery