Akhtala Monastery (Ախթալա վանք)

Akhtala Monastery


Location: Akhtala, Lori Province Map

Constructed: 10th century


Description of Akhtala Monastery

Akhtala Monastery is located 185 kilometers (115 mi) north of Armenian capital of Yerevan near a town of Akhtala of Lori Province. Akhtala Monastery is a religious complex that was constructed in the 10th century on a steep mountain slope near Debit river. Its name is taken from a town near by and has Turcic origin that can translated as a "white glade". It is one of the most fortified monasteries of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Akhtala Monastery was initially constructed as a Royal residence on top of older Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements. In the 13th century it was turned into a Armenian Apostolic monastery. Today the monastery is inactive and abandoned.
Despite centuries of abandonment Akhtala Monastery is one of the best preserved religious complexes in Armenia. Akhtala Monastery is particularly famous for its highly artistic murals that cover the interior walls of the main church. Frescoes depict the faces of saints and religious scenes from the Bible. Other structures of the abbey include two storey living quarters with cells for the monks and pilgrims. Additionally Akhtala Monastery contains a large network of underground tunnels that were probably dug when it was a royal residence. Military defenses encircle the whole complex. As you walk around Akhtala Abbey and its vicinity you can notice large boulders with carvings of crosses that are known as "hachkara" ("hach" means "cross" in Armenian).



In the X century, the Pgnzaank (Akhtala) fortress became the most important strategic point of the kingdom of Kyurikyan-Bagratids. An inscription in Armenian in khachkar reports the construction in 1188 of Mariam, daughter of Tsar Tashir-Dzoraget Curik, the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the beginning of the XIII century, Atabek Ivane Mkhargrdzeli from the Zakaryan family, an influential person at the court of the Georgian Queen Tamara, who transferred from the Armenian Apostolic Church to the bosom of the Georgian Orthodox Church, transfers the monastery to Chalcedonites and rebuilds the Armenian church.

Kirakos Gandzaketsi, author of the mid-13th century, reports:
“Ivane, the brother of Zakare, also died, and was buried in Phindzaank, at the entrance to the church he built; he took it from the Armenians and turned it into a Georgian monastery. "


In the XIII century, the owners of the monastery were Zakaryans, Pgndzaank became the largest Chalcedonian monastery and cultural center of Northern Armenia, but administratively was the center of the diocese of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the altar apse of the main temple, a niche intended for the hierarchal services was made, which was not typical for the Chalcedonian temples of Northern Armenia. In the middle of the XIII century, Simeon Plindzakhanetsi worked in the monastery, as evidenced by the colophon preserved in the manuscript of 1248, “made by the hand of an unworthy Simeon”, which translated “from Georgian into Armenian in the Armenian country, in the Georgian monastery called“ Plindzakhank ”. In the XIV century, the name "Pndzaank" disappears from historical sources. Presumably, from the 30s of the XIV century, the monastery entered the Akhtal Metropolitanate of the Mtskheta Catholicosate. Georgian church letter of 1392 reports:

“In Akhtala, ten smokes of Armenians with their estates and with the payment of taxes ...”
In 1438, for the first time, a village with the name Akhtala was mentioned in the sources as the property of the Georgian Catholicosate. At the beginning of the XVIII century, the monastery fell into disrepair; under Ateni Sioni there was a courtyard of Bishop Akhtalsky. In 1801, by decree of the Russian Emperor Alexander I, Akhtal was transformed into the center of the Greek Orthodox Church in Transcaucasia. At present, it remains the most important place of pilgrimage for the Greeks, annually on September 21 celebrating the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin in Akhtal.

The main temple of Akhtala - the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary - is a cross-domed building, the unexploded dome of which rested on 2 octagonal pillars and pre-apse pilasters. The syncretism of the features of Armenian and Georgian architecture of the 13th century, characteristic of this temple, was particularly evident in the forms and decorations of the exterior, where large Georgian crosses and window frames are typical Georgian, and the portals are consonant with Armenian patterns. From the west, approximately in the middle of the 13th century, the tomb of Ivane and a portico with open arches were rectangular in plan. The murals of the church date from between 1205 and 1216. In accordance with Georgian tradition, the sails contain images of evangelists in medallions, and on the front sides of the arches the text is Ps 103. 19 on the asomtavruli. The iconographic program of the altar apse (in the conch Mother of God with the Child on the throne, below the composition "Communion of the Apostles", below it 2 rows of saints) reproduces the most stringent byzant. samples. The connection with the national cultural tradition of the Armenian Chalcedonites was manifested in the location in the center of the lower tier of the image of the enlightener of Armenia St. Gregory the Illuminator. At the bottom of the western wall are the saints of the Georgian Church, among which St. Equal-to-the-Apostles Nina and John Zedazneli. In the southern and northern arms of the spatial cross, cycles of paintings are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Savior. A study of the stylistic features of the frescoes and the nature of the inscriptions suggests that at least 8 artists participated in the work, among them there was an Armenian Chalcedonite familiar with Byzantine painting of the late Komednikin era (altar apse); an artist who followed the samples of Byzantine painting of the 1st half of the 13th century (upper registers of the northern and southern walls and the main arches); masters from Georgia, painted the western wall.


In addition to the main church inside the monastery, there is a small hall church of St. Basil and the ruins of a two-story residential building. Around the monastery at different distances are four chapel churches dedicated to the Holy Trinity, St. Apostles, Saints Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Restoration work in Akhtal was carried out from 1979 to 1989 by the Department for the Protection of Monuments of Armenia.