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Armenia: Noravank monastery

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Noravank monastery | Armenia | Asia

[Visited: May 2012]

Driving through the mountainous countryside during the day, trying to avoid potholes, overtaking Iranian trucks, through valleys and mountain passes, we finally reached the turnoff for Noravank, crossing a bridge on our left and entering the canyon that the river Gnishik had been carving out of the landscape. The sun was already so low, it did not enter the narrow gorge anymore. Passing a particularly narrow spot marked by a huge boulder, the canyon widened, allowing the sun in again, shining on a rugged landscape of pinnacles crowning both sides of the mountains. On our left, high above us, we spotted the unmistakeable shape of an Armenian church: we now only had to drive up a couple of switchbacks before we could park our car. The setting is spectacular, even more so as the warm afternoon sunlight was making the rocky landscape glow a deep red colour. Noravank is located on a relatively small terrain, the several buildings almost hug each other, and blend in perfectly with the surrounding rocky landscape.

Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Overview of Noravank Monastery complex nestled in the mountains

We found a small cemetery with the khachkars that we had grown accustomed to by now. In fact, Noravank was originally built as a resting place for the Orbelian family in the 13th century. The centrepiece of Noravank is the Mother of God church, the facade of which was now basking in the sun. It is actually built right on top of a mausoleum, and is curious in the sense that the upper floor can only be reached by two narrow, cantilevered steps flanking the door that gives access to the mausoleum below. There were people around here, and we decided to look around other parts of the monastery grounds first. We reached the low wall surrounding the complex; below us, an unobstructed view of the valley and the steep cliffs surrounding it. Not seeing any houses added to the sense of isolation of Noravank. Behind us, we found the ruins of the St John the Baptist church, dated between the 9th and 10th century, right next to it, a newer church equally dedicated to St. John the Baptist stands. Just around the corner, we stopped at the entrance to the gavit; over the entrance can be seen two tympanums on top of each other, the upper one of which shows a quite unique relief of a bearded God, with a dove, and a head in his hand, while the lower one shows Mary and Child. Inside, the sunlight was seeping in through holes and openings in the old stone walls, falling on tombstones and the inner walls. From here, I climbed to a higher point, when I turned around, the domes of Noravank were below me, and the cliffs on the other side of the valley seemed even redder than before.

Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Steps leading from the platform to the Mother of God church

Walking back, a snake disappeared next to me, making the grass rustle, before I jumped off the wall to enter the Noravank monastery complex again. It was now completely deserted, and we walked to the 14th century Mother of God, or Astvatsatsin, church again. While the other churches were now slowly being conquered by the shade, there was still sufficient sunlight to set the portal of the church ablaze. The two exterior stairs, leading steeply up from the two corners of the church to a door on the first floor, give the facade an appearance all of its own. Above the lower door, a relief with the Virgin and Child, flanked by angels; this is one of the many samples of the craftmanship of Momik, the local sculptor and miniature painter who created many of the fine carvings at Noravank, the Mother of God church, and other churches in the region and who is actually buried here as well. Strangely, you have to walk down stairs inside to reach the floor of the mausoleum. Contrasting with the elaborate exterior, we found the inside rather stark; here, the Orbelians are buried. Leaving my backpack behind, I climbed the narrow steps, leading up to yet another carved tympanum with Jesus and the apostles Peter and Paul. Once inside, a completely different scene appeared before me. High above, a dome with columns and openings on all sides, letting in an abundance of sunlight. Several more carvings and khachkars remain; most have been taken to Ejmiatsjin. Getting down the narrow stairs means threading carefully; a little later, an older man who had trouble climbing the stairs, ended up going down on his behind, step for step. I sat down watching the red colour of the church walls get more intense, before it turned to grey and the church slowly faded into the night.

Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Tombstone lit by afternoon light in the John the Baptist church at Noravank
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Domes of the churches of Noravank with the red mountains in the background
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Carving with God above the entrance of the John the Baptist church
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Inside view of the dome above the Mother of God church in Noravank Monastery
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Carved cross on the wall of the Mother of God church
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Mother and child carved out of the wall above the entrance to the mausoleum of the Orbelians
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): St John the Baptist church with double tympanum in the late afternoon
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): The Holy Mother and child with angels carved out by Mamik in the wall of the Orbelian mausoleum
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Sunset on the Mother of God church
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Detail of the carving above the entrance of the Orbelian mausoleum
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Sunset setting the Noravank Monastery and mountains on fire
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Astvatsatsin, or Mother of God, church on top of the mausoleum of the Orbelian family
Picture of Noravank monastery (Armenia): Frontal view of stairs, doors, and tympanums at the Astvatsatsin church at Noravank Monastery

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