The World’s Very First Christian Nation Boasting An Impressive Array Of Medieval UNESCO World Heritage-Listed Church & Monastery Complexes
Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum, Yerevan, Armenia. March 24, 2015
Armenia (March 24-27 2015)
One of the world’s oldest civilizations and the world’s very first Christian nation, Armenia is a landlocked republic in southwestern Asia. Formerly an Asian soviet, the country impresses with a pretty capital & an array of medieval UNESCO World Heritage-listed church & monastery complexes.
Posts From The Armenian Road (Presented In Chronological Order)
YEREVAN - THE CAPITAL
I arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, early yesterday off the overnight train from Tbilisi in Georgia. I leave the city later today. It was only ever going to be a quick visit to the capital of one of the world’s oldest cultures and the capital of the country that was the world’s first Christian nation – Armenia nailed its colours to the Christian cross in the early 4th century (the official date is 301 AD) becoming the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. So needless to say there’s plenty of religious history here. Maybe not in the laid-back, cafe culture capital (ironically Yerevan’s largest church is one of the city’s newest structures) but certainly where I’m headed, the village of Alaverdi in the north of the country. There are plenty of ancient remnants of the Christian past in the hills around there, or so I’m led to believe, mostly churches & monasteries, some of which are even UNESCO World Heritage-listed. I’ll explore those tomorrow but for now here’s a few pictures from yesterday & today, pictures from the limited time I gave myself taking a look around the Armenian.
Modern-day Armenia is but a fragment of ancient Armenia, once one of the world’s oldest civilizations; for over 2-and-a-half millennia the Armenian people have been invaded and oppressed by their neighbours, notably the Ottoman Turks in the early part of the 20th century, a bleak period in the county’s history that is commemorated at Yerevan’s sombre Tsitsernakaberd (The Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum).
DEBED CANYON MONASTERY COMPLEXES
Not that one would want to of course, but it’s hard to avoid churches here in Armenia. The country adopted Christianity way back in 301 AD making it the world’s very first Christian nation. So needless to say churches (& monasteries) are dime a dozen & collectively they rank as Armenia’s premier tourist attraction.
Lori’s Debed Canyon || Angkor For Churches
My time in Armenia was always going to be brief but still I couldn’t leave the country without visiting some of its medieval church & monastery complexes. Lori, one of the marz, administrative regions in the north of the country, offers these in abundance, not to mention some nice scenery. So I stopped off for a few nights en route from the capital Yerevan back to Tbilisi, Georgia. I based myself on the outskirts of the town of Alaverdi, the largest of many such villages hugging the bends of the region’s Debed Canyon. With its ugly copper mine & rows of apartment high rises, both remnants of the dark Soviet days, Alaverdi itself is a bit an eyesore. But it’s the hills – oh the hills – surrounding the town where the attractions lay, dotted as they are with ancient, atmospheric churches & monastery complexes. It’s like Angkor for churches and today I used a combination of taxis & my feet to visit three well-known monastery complexes, two of which, Haghpat & Sanahin, are UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites.
UNESCO commenting on the Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin
Haghpat has architectural splendor in abundance. Its location isn’t bad either. Perched on the lip of the Debed Canyon ensured the views on offer of the surrounding landscape and of far-off snow-capped peaks were reward enough for the effort it took to ultimately get here (the gazumping shenanigans of my Alaverdi-based taxi driver ensured I had to walk 5 kilometres to reach Haghpat, and a further 12 kilometres from here to reach Sanahin).
Founded around 976, Haghpat’s golden period of construction was the 12th century when it was a a bustling centre of learning. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, Haghpat’s location coupled with its ensemble of churches, a bell tower, a refectory, a book depository, and over 80 khachkars (an Armenian cross-stone that was a characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art, a carved memorial stele bearing a cross and often decorated with additional motifs) meant this was my favourite location of the day. With the complex all to myself, I spent quite a bit of time here poking around.
A 2 hour, 12-kilometre hike from Haghpat brought me to the crumbling, dusty, dark, eery, moss-covered & grave-infested Sanahin Monastery. Again finding it deserted and having it all to myself, this would have been the perfect place for me to play out all those ghoulish Halloween fantasies I never had.
Sanahin means ‘older than that one’, a reference to its younger cousin Haghpat. Just like Haghpat, the 10th – 13th century monastery has a prime location perched above the lip of the Debed Canyon high over Alaverdi. This was another monastery complex that was once an important learning centre – a library was created here in 1062 & a medical school flourished here in the 12th century. Of all the Debed Canyon monastery complexes, Sanahin was the first of Armenia’s monasteries to attain World Hertiage status when it was officially recognised by UNESCO in 1996, 4 years before Haghpat.
The other monastery complex I visited, & the first I visited on this day, was the 13th-century Akhtala Monastery some 25 kilometres from Alaverdi (I visited here while still having cordial relations with my taxi driver). While Akhtala may not boast UNESCO status/protection, it has something both Haghpat & Sanahin do not – stunning frescoes, the big attractions of this particular monastery.