Sanahin Monastery (Սանահին վանք)

Sanahin Monastery



Location: Sanahin, Lori Province Map

Found: 10th century


History of Sanahin Monastery


Sanahin Monastery is situated in Sanahin, Lori province of Armenia. Due to its artistic value and complexity of architectural layout Sanahin Monastery was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage List. Sanahin Monastery was constructed in the 10th century on the slopes of Mount Tchantinler. It was built on site of much older Christian church that dates to the 4th century AD, about the time when Armenia officially accepted Christianity as their state religion. According to local legends the original church of Sanahin Monastery was found by Saint Gregory the Illuminator (famous Armenian missionary) himself. Monastery complex served an important role in education of Armenian elites since its original foundation. Later it was transformed into the Academy of Grigor Magistros Pahlavuni, whose course focused mainly on the humanities stadies.


Sanahin Monastery religious complex of the Armenian Apostolic Church takes its name from a village Sanahin situated below at the bottom of the valley. The monastery is made of several buildings including main church of Saint Amenaprkitch (Holy Redeemer), small chapel of Saint Astvatsatsin, round chapel of Saint Gregory, library, academy and a bell tower. Sanahin Monastery also contained a church of Saint James from a 10th century, but it was destroyed along with living quarters of the monks during Mongol invasion of 1235. Subsequently the monastery went into decline and was abandoned. Currently parts of the Sanahin Monastery undergoes renovation. Architects attempt to stabilize the grounds of the complex to keep structure from collapsing. Abbey lies on a popular hiking route that also includes Armenian medieval landmarks like Odzun Monastery and Haghspat Monastery along its path.



The exact date of foundation of the monastery has not been established. Its occurrence, according to legends, dates back to the 4th century. However, the oldest building that has survived to this day - the church of Astvatsatsin (Church of Our Lady) - was built in 951. The rest of the monastery buildings date from the X-XIII centuries. In the second half of the 10th century, an enlarged copy was erected next to the Astvatsatsin church - the Amenaprkich temple (the Church of the Savior). The buildings were connected by overlapping, and a gallery was formed, which was given the name of the famous scientist Grigor Magistros, who taught philosophy, rhetoric and mathematics in Sanahin.

Sanahin owned vast land, the brotherhood in the X-XIII centuries reached 300-500 people, among whom were scientists, cultural workers. It is believed that these were Armenian clergymen who were expelled from Byzantium by the emperor Roman I Lakapin. During this period, Sanahin acquired the significance of the educational center of Armenia, the school at the monastery was transformed into the Academy, known in the history of Armenia as the Academy of Grigor Magistros Pakhlavuni. Much attention was paid to the study of the humanities, it was taught by outstanding scholars and enlighteners of the Middle Ages - Theodoros, Vardan, Ananias and others, nicknamed Sanahinsky.

The monastery occupies a small, about 2 ha, territory, in the central part of which, around the main Sanahin temple - Surb Astvatsatsin (c. 934) - the Amenaprkich church (957–962) and the Surb Grigor chapel (1061), the academy building were built (XI century), book depository (1063), gallery building (end of X century), narthex (1181) and bell tower (XIII century).

Surb Astvatsatsin Church is the oldest surviving monastery structure. The building, built of basalt, is a cross-domed church with four extensions on all sides. The surviving fragments of plaster with traces of murals suggest that the interior of the church was decorated with wall paintings. Over the centuries, the church was repeatedly renovated and partially rebuilt. So, in 1652 a dome was added.

Amenaprkich Church is the largest of all the monuments of Sanahin. In the X century, it served as the cathedral of the Lori kingdom. This structure belongs to the same cross-dome type as Surb Astvatsatsin, from which it is distinguished only by masonry made of purely hewn basalt quads, and details due to the large size of the church. The monument to this church is a sculptural group located in the upper part of the eastern facade - kings Curiké I and Smbat II, who are holding a model of the temple in their hands.

A narrow passage was left between the churches of Surb Astvatsatsin and Amenaprkich by the builders of the 10th century. However, architects soon became convinced that frequent earthquakes in these places could destroy churches. They made a resourceful and very correct from an engineering point of view decision - to fill the space between the churches with another structure that will create a single volumetric-spatial composition, which will significantly increase the seismic stability of the group. The Academy’s school (end of the 10th – beginning of the 11th century) became such a structure, the composition of which is a frame construction of a one-nave gallery with powerful arches and a base covered with stone slabs.

From the west, the gallery is adjoined by arched gavits (four-pillar 1185 and 1211), a three-story tower-shaped bell tower (middle of the 13th century), towering above all other buildings, the largest book depository in medieval Armenia (1063) with an octagonal tent, a chapel Surb Grigor (St. Gregory the Illuminator, until 1061). All these structures are grouped around the oldest church. The unity and compactness of the complex was achieved thanks to the mastery of architects who, over the course of three centuries, carefully adopted the knowledge and experience of their predecessors and built their creations based on previously constructed ones. The facades of most buildings are smooth, monolithic. Inside, all buildings are decorated with stone carvings, bas-reliefs, other decorative elements, including those brought from secular architecture.


Sanahin Book Depository is the largest medieval book depository in Armenia. It was erected at the expense of and on the orders of Princess Granush. Not only manuscripts were stored in it, but also various valuable utensils of the monastery. The square in the plan of the book depository is crowned with an octagonal tent. The main light penetrates into the room during the day through a round hole in its apex, it also serves for ventilation. The role of the cabinets was played by ten niches - varied in size, shape and height. To protect the book storage room from the sun, wind, rain and snow, to create a kind of climatic “gateway” in front of it, a gallery was erected along its southern wall, which was used not only as a place for conversations, but also as a tomb of noble persons. It still has the tombstone of Princess Nargis, the sister of Zakare and Ivan Zakharidov.

The vestibule of the monastery in Sanahin was built on the site of an earlier one, destroyed by foreigners and an earthquake. The new building is a square hall in plan, decorated with four central columns. The narthex's tent is elongated in height, this impression is enhanced by its octagonal shape with a light hole, focuses the viewer's eyes on the blue sky that can be seen in the sky. Unlike most of the narthexes, the doors here are arranged in the north wall. This made his connection with other services of the monastery more convenient. Laconic external forms of the narthex came to us without significant changes. The last monumental building of the monastery was a bell tower - a three-story tower square in plan, crowned with a six-column rotunda, in which bells hung. Three of its various floors were used as follows: the first, today thoroughly rebuilt, served as a monastery warehouse; the second, consisting of three small outbuildings, was used as a temple; in a spacious and bright room on the third floor, scribes of manuscripts probably worked.

On the territory of the monastery, near the main group of buildings, there are a number of other structures - the tomb of princes Zakaryan and Argutinsky-Dolgoruky in 1189; Surb-Sarkis chapel, Surb-Karapet church, etc. In the gorge of the Debed river near the Sanahin monastery there is a single-span arched bridge (1192), decorated with figures of wild cats and dedicatory inscriptions of one of the Zakharid princesses.

In the tomb of the Zakharid family, in particular, Ivan Zakaryan was buried. His no less famous brother, Zakare, as an apostate (he converted to Orthodoxy) lost the right to be buried in a family tomb.

Outside the monastery, the 13th-century Surb Harutyun church was preserved. This is a miniature square building with a vaulted hall and a gable roof. This church differs from others in the presence of two altar apses, which makes it most likely a memorial chapel. Her right altar was dedicated to the Resurrection, the left to St. Gregory, in memory of probably Grigor Tutewordi, whose tombstone is located on the territory of the monastery.

To the east of Sanahin at the top of a wooded hill stands the Surb Karapet church. This is a small one-nave basilica with vaulted ceilings, on the north side adjoining it are two miniature side altars. The church was built at the beginning of the 11th century and is interesting in that its lower parts are made of dark green quartzite with a “fish bone” masonry. The framing of the openings and the upper part of the church is composed of purely hewn basalt blocks.

In Sanahin, as in Haghpat, they studied the humanities, theology, were engaged in painting, miniatures and calligraphy. This fact largely explains the compositional similarity of the two monasteries. The architectural details and decor of the buildings have so much in common that this allows us to make an assumption that their masters belong to the same school. Undoubtedly, both monastery complexes are the best examples of the heyday of Armenian religious architecture, whose unique style was formed by mixing Byzantine and local Caucasian traditions.


The Seljuk Turks in 1064, and then the Persians in 1104, sacked the cathedral along with other temples of Sanahin. The case completed the earthquake of 1139, which significantly damaged the entire ensemble of monuments. The invasion of the Mongols in 1235 is cited as the reason for the general decline of monastic life and the subsequent collapse of the monastery itself. After this and other incursions, most of the monastery was destroyed, including the monks' living quarters, a tenth-century porch, and the grave of Kyurikyanov. The following restoration of the 12th-19th centuries, having restored the appearance of the churches, did not, unfortunately, return to them the former splendor of the interior decoration.

In 2010, Prime Minister of Armenia Tigran Sargsyan visited Sanahin, who noted that a complex program is needed to restore the monastery, which will be developed by an interagency commission led by Armenian Minister of Culture Asmik Poghosyan. At the same time, Sargsyan said that the issue of Sanahin’s legal status has not been resolved either - despite the fact that the government has already decided to transfer Sanahin to the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, however, the necessary legal procedures have not yet been completed. According to experts, 200 million drams (about 503.6 thousand US dollars) are needed for the restoration work of the Sanahin complex.