Geghard Monastery (Գեղարդի վանք)

Geghard Monastery

Location: Goght, Kotayk Province Map

Found: 4th century


History of Geghard Monastery


Geghard Monastery originally found in the 4th century AD is one of the oldest Christian monasteries. It is situated in Goght, Kotayk Province of Armenia. Geghard Monastery was carved from a side of a mountain and today it is added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Geghard Monastery is a famous monastery in Armenia located in the North- East part of the country, 7 km from the village of Garni. It is perched on the mountain above the gorge of the river Azat. The main landmark on the road to the monastery is the figure of a lioness on a pedestal near the sharp bend of the road. From here a vire of Geghard Monastery suddenly opens up.


According to local legend the site of Geghard Monastery was chosen by Gregory the Illuminator on a site of an ancient pagan sacred spring  that was located in a cave. Thus it is often called by its second name of Ayrivank that literally means "monastery of the cave". Its official name of Geghard means "spear" in Armenian. According to local legends this monastery housed an spear of a Roman soldier who used it during crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is commonly known as a Spear of Longinus. In a New Testament spear was used to check if crucified were still alive by cutting or puncturing their bodies. According to Armenian Apostolic Church apostle Jude (aka apostle Thaddeus) brought it here during his missionary work. Today the spear was moved to the church of  Echmiadzin.


During World War II Adolf Hitler tried to reach Armenia and steal the legendary treasure. His secret and highly specialized unit Ahnanerbe (inheritance from the ancestors) tried and failed to capture the spear due to defeat of the German army.


Geghard Monastery was not spared in its long and turbulent history. In the 9th century it was sacked by the Arab forces who completely demolished Geghard Monastery. All monks were killed and riches plundered. It was subsequently destroyed and most of buildings that you see today date back to the 12th- 13th century. The oldest building in Geghard Monastery is a chapel of Saint Gregory the Illuminator that is situated highe above the road, about 100 meters from the main entrance to the religious complex. Small chapel is notable for stone ornaments along with small preserved fragments of frescoes.


The main church on the grounds of the Geghard Monastery, Church of Katoghike, was constructed in 1215 on the ruins of the older structures. Church is directly linked to the sacristy attached to the rock- Gavit, built in the first half of the 13th century. Gavit was used for education, meetings, and hosting of the pilgrims. Geghard Monastery was more than a spiritual place. It was an important concentration of artists, writers, philosophers and historians including famous Armenian historian Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi who lived in one of the cells here.


Above the main (western) entrance are small cave cells, chapels, khachkars and other structures carved in the side of the hill. Immediately after the entrance there are ramparts protecting the complex from three sides, as well as cliffs that protect the fourth. After passing through the complex, you can see the second (eastern) entrance, as well as a bridge over the stream.

One- and two-story office premises located around the perimeter of the monastery courtyard have been rebuilt twice since the time of their construction, for the first time in the 17th century, then in 1968-1971. It is known that most of the monks lived in cells hollowed out inside the rock, outside the fortress wall. Throughout its length, the cliffs are covered with khachkars carved into them. More than twenty structures of various shapes and sizes were hollowed out in a solid rock mass surrounding the main cave structures. Those located in the western part of the complex were intended for official purposes, the rest were rectangular chapels with semicircular apses, as well as an altar. There are twin and triple chapels with one entrance, some of the entrances are ornamented with carvings. There are many, often richly ornamented, khachkars carved in rock and on the walls of structures or erected on the ground, within the monastery complex, erected in memory of the dead or to commemorate gift-giving celebrations.

Katogike is the main church in the complex and traditionally the most revered. The church was built directly opposite the impregnable mountain. The outlines of the plan resemble an equal-arms cross inscribed in a square and covered with a dome on a square base. In the corners are small two-story chapels with cylindrical vaults and ladders protruding from the wall. The inner walls contain many inscriptions mentioning the gifts brought to the monastery.

On the southern facade of Katogike, gates with excellent carvings are installed. The tympanum is decorated with images of trees with pomegranate fruits hanging from their branches, as well as leaves intertwined with bunches of grapes. Images of pigeons are located between the arch and the external supporting structure. The heads of the pigeons are turned towards the gate. Above the gate is a scene with a lion attacking a bull, symbolizing princely power.

The vaulted top of the dome drum contains detailed reliefs depicting birds, human faces, animal heads, etc.

To the west of the main temple there is a sacristy fixed in the rock, built between 1215 and 1225, which is connected with the main church.

Four massive free-standing columns in the center support a stone roof with a light-transmitting hole in the center. The peripheral premises resulting from the appropriate arrangement of the columns have different roofs, while the central space is crowned with a dome with stalactites - the best example of such a technique than anywhere else in Armenia. Gavit was used for training and gatherings, as well as for hosting pilgrims and visitors.

The western gates differ from other gates of that time in the form of door edges, which are decorated with magnificent floral patterns. Tympanum ornamentation consists of large flowers with petals of various shapes on interwoven branches and oblong leaves.

Rock Church with a spring
The first cave church, Avazan (literally - "reservoir"), is located northwest of gavit. It was carved in 1240 on the site of an ancient cave with a spring (a place of worship in pagan times).

The church is completely excavated in the rock; in plan it is an equal-armed cross. A feature of the interior of the room are two intersecting arches with a stalactite dome in the center. The inscription says that this church is the work of the architect Galdzak, who for forty-odd years also was engaged in the construction of other rock churches and zhamatuns. His name is carved on the basis of the ceiling, decorated with reliefs with images of pomegranates.

The main space of the church, rectangular in plan, is crowned with a pulpit and an apse connected to the altar, as well as two deep niches that give the interior the shape of an unfinished cruciform dome. Two pairs of pointed intersecting arches forming the base of the floor, the rest is held on half-columns of walls. As in Gavit, the inner surface of the ceiling is cut in the graceful form of stalactites, which also adorn the capitals of the half-columns, as well as the semicircular ledge of the apse of the altar. Compositionally, the most interesting decoration of the southern wall. The triple arcs cut on it with different apse shapes at the top and bottom are connected using brilliantly executed floral ornaments.


The tomb of Proshyanov and the second cave church of Our Lady (Astvatsatsin) are located in the eastern part of Avazan. They were cut down in 1283, presumably also by Galdzak. They are also gavit passages. Zhamatun is a practically square room hollowed out in the rock with deeply carved reliefs on the walls. The relief on the northern wall, above the vaulted passages, is quite old-fashioned for that time: in the center are the heads of lions with a chain on their necks, their heads are turned towards the observer; instead of bundles of tail - the heads of dragons looking up - all this brings the relief closer to images of pagan times. Between the lions, above the chain is an eagle with half-open wings and a lamb in its claws. This is probably the coat of arms of the princely family of Proshyanov.

The reliefs of the eastern wall are no less picturesque. The entrances to the small chapel and the church of Astvatsatsin are decorated with rectangular platbands connected by two reliefs with the image of crosses. Images of sirens are carved on the gates of the chapel, and on the walls of the church are human figures with arms bent at the elbows, dressed in long dresses, and with halo over their heads. Perhaps these are members of the princely family.

Under the floor is the tomb.

Rock Church Behind Jamatoon
The path through the tomb leads to the second rock church. It, as indicated in the inscription, was built in 1283 on the donation of Prince Prosh. The plan has a cruciform shape. The corners are crooked, and the dome drum is marked by half columns interspersed with dull windows. The dome is decorated with a circle. The surface of the walls contains reliefs depicting animals, warriors, crosses, as well as reliefs on plant motifs.

Unlike stalactites in the form of a trefoil and a four-leaf, ornaments of the church of Astvatsatsin (Our Lady) include ornaments in the form of rosettes and various geometric shapes. The front gates of the altar department are decorated with patterns in the form of rectangles or rhombuses. A realistic image of a goat is found at the junction of the steps of the altar. On the khachkar, to the left of the apse of the altar, human figures were found. A man with a staff in his right hand and in the same position as the figures on the walls of the zhamatoon may be the image of Prince Prosh, the founder of the church. Another figure holding a spear in his left hand, lowered down, and blowing in a raised up wind instrument, is depicted almost in profile.

Upper Jamatoon
Zhamatun Papak and Ruzakan was built in 1288 on the second level, north of the tomb of Proshyanov, as an external staircase (next to the door to the gavit). The upper zhamatun is also carved into the rock. Its shape follows the shape of gavit. It contains the tombs of princes Merik and Grigor, as well as the tombs of other princes, now missing.

In the southern part of the corridor leading to the upper zhamatun, numerous crosses are carved. Columns carved in solid stone hold much smaller semicircular arches that fit into trapezoidal frames that are square in plan. They serve as the basis of a spherical dome, from the top of which light penetrates. The hole in the lower right corner allows you to see the lower floor of the tomb.

This zhamatun has pronounced acoustics.

Chapel of St. Gregory
The Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator (formerly, the Chapel of Our Lady) was built no later than 1177. Located above the road, a hundred meters from the entrance to the monastery. The chapel was partially carved into a solid rock, and most likely its structure was influenced by the shape of the cave there. The chapel, rectangular in plan and having a horseshoe-shaped apse, from the east and northeast adjoins corridors and extensions, dug at different levels and even one above the other.

Traces of plaster with the remains of frescoes indicate that there were samples of mural in the chapel. Khachkars with various ornaments are inserted into the outer walls, as well as carved on the surface of the adjacent rock.