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Gandzasar Monastery

Gandzasar is once more a working monastery and seminary and is open daily. Gandzasar ('Treasure Mountain') Monastery, dedicated to John the Baptist, is on a hilltop outside Vank ('Monastery') village, Martakert district. The name derives from the presence of silver deposits in the district. To reach it, turn left after crossing the bridge over the Khachenaget and continue a further 14km to Vank, following the river valley. Gandzasar has been fully restored since 1991. It is particularly notable for its exquisite carved detail. Surrounded by walls, outside which are graves, it is a cross-dome church with its 16-sided tambour topped by an umbrella cupola. Owing to its inaccessibility, Nagorno Karabagh partly avoided the large-scale Seljuk invasion in the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as the Mongolian invasions in the 13th century. Consequently some of the finest church architecture of the period is found here. The monastery was founded in 1216, the church being built between 1232 and 1238, while the gavit was added in 1261. The founders were Melik Jalal-Dolan, ruler of Khachen, the most important of the principalities of the region, together with his wife Mamkan and son Atabeg. The monastery was to serve as the burial place of the Khachen rulers, and until the 19th century as the seat of the Katholikos of Agvank.

The tambour is an outstanding work of art, decorated with numerous sculptured images. On the western side two bearded figures with long moustaches are sitting in an oriental posture with their feet tucked under them. On the south side are kneeling figures facing each other with arms outstretched and haloes round their heads while angels spread their wings over them in blessing. One side shows the Virgin and Child, there are two bulls' heads and an eagle with spreading wings. The gavit obscures another sculptural composition - a crucifix under the gable of the west facade with seraphs hovering over Jesus and Mary, and John the Baptist kneeling in prayer with outstretched hands. The north facade shows a bird in the west and the south facade shows galloping horses. The west and east facades have large relief crosses. The gavit has an immense door portal which shows two birds as well as much varied abstract design. It is surmounted by a belfry supported by six columns. The interior is also pleasing with the finely carved front of the altar dais, the pattern of each triangle or square being different. There are further carvings of bulls as well as abstract designs.

Compared with the tranquil traditional appearance of the monastery, Vank village is certainly a contrast. Someone with a fondness for yellow and green has painted all the gas pipes to match the tiered plastic seats of the outdoor theatre attached to one of the hotels, part of which is in the form of a ship.