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Armenia: Geghard monastery

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Geghard monastery | Armenia | Asia

[Visited: May 2012]

It was our first day in Armenia, and there were so many places we wanted to visit in the country, we almost did not know where to start. After an exploration of Yerevan in the morning, we decided to hire a taxi for an excursion to Garni and Geghard. After seeing the unique Parthenon-style Garni temple, we drove further east, and when we passed a small roadside restaurant on the right hand side, we saw the towers of the Geghard Monastery complex a little ahead of us. The driver parked the car at the very end of the road, and we walked up the steep cobble-stoned street leading to the main gate. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was casting a warm light on the beautifully carved entrance gate. After passing through it, we saw a small square in front of us, with the Geghard Monastery on our left. Geghard is surrounded by defensive walls on three sides, and the monastery is built right against the cliffs next to it. The name derives from the word for lance in Armenian; this was the place where the lance that wounded Jesus at the crucifixion was once stored - now, it is on display in the Echmiadzin treasury. The complex was originally founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, and used to be called the monastery of the cave. For some reason, the rock-carved churches reminded me strongly of the rock churches in Ethiopia that I had seen years before.

Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Looking up a row of khachkars at Geghard Monastery

There was a tour group with old French tourists, the kind of groups we would see more frequently on the tourist spots of Armenia. We decided to first explore the outside, to take advantage of the soft afternoon light. The southern wall of the gavit (vestry) of Geghard showed some fine examples of reliefs of animals, notably doves, and a lion attacking an ox - the emblem of the Zakarian family who got possession of the Geghard Monastery after they helped defeat the Seljuks. Walking to the east of the compound, we saw rock dwellings, climbed a stair to chapels hewn out in the vertical cliffs, above which we saw our first khachkars, intricately carved memorial stones. Normally standing freely, these particular ones were embedded in the cliffs, giving it a peculiar appearance. Walking down the stairs, we noticed the sunlight was receding behind the high cliffs of the Azat gorge, and walked through the main entrance door of the Geghard gavit. There was still sufficient light to appreciate the stark beauty of its interior, and we explored the gavit and adjoining rooms. Just like some of the rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, part of Geghard has been carved out from above; it is not a free-standing church. We walked to a square room where water flowed; this spring was the very reason the original 4th century church was founded at this site, and the water is still considered sacred. The subterranean rooms were constructed by the Prosh family who bought the monastery from the Zakarians in the second half of the 13th century. We entered their mausoleum, and at the entrance, saw several remarkable carvings; of an eagle with a lamb in its claws, with two lions watching, or sirens, and several crosses of various sizes, while the other small church in this part of Geghard showed other extraordinary rock carvings. The faint daylight reaching these underground chambers, from openings in the rocks above, adds to a unique, mystical atmosphere.

Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): View of Geghard Monastery seen from the main entrance

It was time to walk up the stairs to a chapel with khachkars above its entrance. I entered a passageway leading to the burial vault of the Prosh family, when I heard singing coming from inside. The sound was so pure, so beautiful, I realized I had goose bumps all over my arms, and felt a lump in my throat. When I entered the room, I noticed three women and two men singing, while it had sounded like a choir. I forgot about my camera, about seeing more of this magical place, and just stood there, and listened. After all the beautiful things we had seen during this intense day, it was good to be able to enjoy something different. Standing in the back of the dark room, I noticed a hole in the floor, and to my surprise, I saw part of the mausoleum we had just seen before, from above, from a different perspective. When the singers finished, we walked down again, through a second gate in the walls, to a small bridge over a stream, and went in to the subterranean part of the Geghard gavit where a priest was just swaying incense, leaving behind a trail of smoke in the interior of the church that was getting always darker. We just wanted to see all those carvings again, and realized that perhaps the churches and monasteries we would see in the rest of Armenia would not live up to the unique beauty of Geghard. On the way out, I followed a trail up, offering a good view over the Geghard monastery complex that was now firmly in the shade cast by the cliffs of the Azat gorge. It was time to climb down, wake our driver, and return to Yerevan. Our first day in Armenia promised a lot for our visit to this small country with a long history.

Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): The 13th century gavit at Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): The elaborate cross and other decorations hewn out of the wall of the mausoleum seen from the gavit above
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Column at Geghard Monastery with carved cross and hewn out inscriptions
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Rocky entrance to a rock hewn church at Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Elaborately decorated entrance door of the Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Walls with carved out decorations at the mausoleum in Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Cross carved out in a wall of the Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Doves and lion on both sides of a cross carved out on the wall of the gavit of Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Covered passage next to the first rock church of Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Carving on the wall of the Geghard Monastery with a lion attacking an ox
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Stairs leading up to dwellings with khachkars at Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Eagle with lamb in its claws with lions: detail of a relief in the mausoleum of Geghard Monastery
Picture of Geghard monastery (Armenia): Altar in Geghard Monastery

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