Armenia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. Armenia, as one of the most ancient countries, not only has an ancient culture and rich history, but also ancient religious history, dating back centuries — Christianity from 301 AD, and prehistoric pagan religions dating back centuries before Christ.
Armenia, also known as the “Land of Churches,” is said to have over 4,000 monasteries and churches, which can be found all over the country. The Christian faith has shaped the Armenian culture so intimately that it permeates the very landscape of the country, with khachkars (cross stone carvings) strewn across even the most remote valleys, and ancient monasteries and churches nestled on the peaks of mountains surrounded by breathtaking nature.
This post is dedicated to the various must-see churches in Armenia, from being set atop rocky cliffs to those with a gorgeous valley in the background. Even though I am not a religious person, I enjoyed visited the various churches or cathedrals around Armenia. As a non-Christian, I do not really know the difference between a church, a monastery or a cathedral.
1) Etchmiadzin Cathedral
It is the oldest church in Armenia and is also known as the Mother Church, since the church was foreseen by “Gregory the Illuminator” who in 301 A.D. converted the Armenian King to Christianity, thereby becoming the world’s first Christian State. The destination hosts two large museums. Inside the church itself there are remnants of Noah’s Ark as well as a separate “ethnographic” museum which hosts treasures, art, and religious relics that have important significance for Christians all over the world.
Etchmiadzin was also a former Armenian capital. This church is the spiritual homeland for the Armenian people, and it has formal control over all Armenian Apostolic Churches throughout the world. In this respect it plays a fundamental role in the preservation of the Armenian identity.
2) Noravank Monastery
Located at the end of a spectacular blood-red canyon; home to two of Armenia’s most well known cave systems, a nesting eagle sanctuary, and some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.
In its heyday, Noravank was a major cultural center, closely connected to the many seats of religion and learning in the kingdom. Owing to its Orbelian benefactors, the monastery was also steeped in the politics of the day, its bishops influencing Mongol rulers and Georgian Orbeli kings alike. Sadly, numerous earthquakes and invasions destroyed much of the original complex, which was slowly rebuilt during the Soviet period, and finished just in time for the 1,700-year anniversary of the adoption of Christianity, in 2001.
3) Saint Mesrop Mashtots Church
Oshakan village’s Mesrop Mashtots Church was built in the 19th century, replacing a 5th century chapel built over the grave of the creator of the Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots, who died in 440. The church is a relatively plain basilica with a bell tower. The grave is in an underground chamber in the back of the church, and the grounds have a statue to Mashtots as well as large freestanding carvings of each of the letters in the Armenian alphabet.
The Armenian alphabet monument is located near this church and I had an enjoyable time finding the various letters with the help of the locals. Of course I posed for a photo beside D, the first letter of my name.
4) Hovhannavank monastery
Hovhannavank monastery (5th-14th cc.) is a wonderful example of Armenian Apostolic Church architecture, perched atop the Kasakh River in the village of Ohanavan. The oldest section of the monastery was built in the 4th century by the first Armenian Catholicos, Grigor Lusavorich. The centerpiece of the monastery is the cruciform domed Church of Karapet built between 1216 and 1221 through the donation of Prince Vache Vachutian.
The high protective wall which surrounds the monastery dates back to 13th-14th cc. The cathedral has an umbrella-shaped dome, unique to the architectural design of Armenian churches, and several important carved scenes. Between the 12th and 17th centuries, Hovhannavank was known as an important educational and theological center within the region, complete with a scriptorium.
5) Saghmosavank Monastery
Within the vicinity of Ohanavank, another majestic monastery complex peaks over the Kasakh River gorge: the Saghmosavank Monastery. Its main temple, the Church of Zion (1215 AD), belongs to the same type of cross-winged domed structure with two-foor annexes in all the corners of the building as the Church of Karapet in Hovhannavank. Saghmosavank was a significant center for quality scholarship and calligraphy, with an established medieval higher structure of schooling. A constant rivalry among the monasteries of Saghmosavank and Hovhannavank raged for the title of the most beautiful of all the churches in the province. To decide which of the two deserves the title, one must visit them both!
6) Matosavank monastery
On the outskirts of Dilijan lies the semi-buried Matosavank monastery, the forgotten in the forests of Armenia. This is an interesting one because of the cool green moss hued interior, including beautiful khachkars covered in green, a result of the moist climate. The small church dedicated to Saint Astvatsatsin of Pghndzahank was built in 1247 under Avag Zakarian, son of Ivan, after he had pledged submission to the Mongols and a become Georgian/Armenian military leader for Mangu Khan, grandson of the great Genghis.
7) Saint Grigor Lusavorich Church
It is the icon in Yerevan, the capital. Being the largest Armenian Church, Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral stands in all its beauty. The cathedral can be reached via three ways, one of them being rather long. There are no trees along the way, so in summer reaching the cathedral might simply seem unbearable, especially if we consider the fact that Armenia has most expressed summers.
8) Holy Saviours’ Church
It was said that an Armenian believer was not allowed to enter a Greek church in the past. That is how the Gyumri people decided to build their own church. The highest church was the Greek Orthodox Church called “Urums” at that time. So people wanted to build a higher church that would stand between the Greek and Armenian Catholic churches and throw a shade on them. This new church which stands tall in Gyumri would be named the Holy Saviours’ Church.
At beginning of the 1930s, it was confiscated by the Soviet government and the belfry was destroyed in 1932. Later in 1964, the belfry was restored. However, during the Soviet rule, the church building was used as a museum, and later as a classical music concert hall. During the 1988 devastating earthquake, the Church of the Holy Saviors’ was severely damaged and went through an entire renovation process since 2002.
While this list of churches to visit in Armenia is non-exhaustive, I have listed down the more important ones. Due to the lack of public transport in Armenia, except for the mashrutkas which depart when full, I advise fellow travelers to go on a day tour to visit these churches. For example, the road to Noravank is 8km from the main highway which the mashrutka driver dropped me off, and I was walking for nearly two hours as hitchhiking did not really work out. There were also fewer visitors during winter. Maybe the chances of hitchhiking were higher in summer.
Etchmiadzin cathedral is about half an hour outside of Yerevan and this is the only one that can be accessed by public transport easily.The marshrutkas to Echmiadzin (line 203) start at the central bus station of Yerevan every half an hour. The price are 250 dirham, no matter if you leave the bus a bit earlier at the Zvartnots ruins. The buses end at the corner Movses Khorenatsi street and Baghramyan street.
That’s all folks! Have you visited Armenia? Let me know your thoughts about visiting the churches.