In the mountains near the industrial town of Alaverdi in the north of Armenia, two Christian monasteries from the 10th century offer peace and spiritual enlightenment. The monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin are also recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is possible to make a daytrip out of your visit by hiking between them. On our visit we went hiking from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery, but you also could do the hike vice versa.
Visiting Haghpat Monastery
“I am living partly in Dubai, and partly in New York – but I was born in a village near Haghpat. For me the most beautiful place in the world!,” raves a fellow visitor to Haghpat Monastery.
Indeed the Hapghpat Monastery stands perfectly within the lush green and hilly countryside of Northern Armenia. It was a Queen by the name of Khosravanush who built it in the 10th century for her two sons. There is a relief on the Eastern Wall of the main church showing the sons sporting some oriental hats.
One of Queen Khosravanush’s sons, Prince Pahlavuni, founded an academy with a huge library, the remains of which we can still admire. Only dim light is filtering into the huge empty room from an opening in the roof. The library contained numerous parchment scrolls that were quite sensitive to daylight.
Beautiful frescoes at the Haghpat Monastery
Frescoes of Christ and saints cover parts of the church walls, which is quite unusual for Armenian churches.
We have seen similar frescoes quite often on our travels, for instance in the beautiful monastery of Gracanica in Kosovo or in many of the very old churches in Lalibela/ Ethiopia. Sometimes they are even on the outside. In the Bucovina churches of Romania, for example, the outer walls are covered with bible stories. But the Armenian churches usually do not depict frescoes. Maybe one reason for this is the proximity of the Islamic world. Islamic law, after all, forbids the depiction of humans.
Hiking from Haghpat monastery to Sanahin monastery
10 km, 450 m up, some way-markers
The trail between the two UNESCO monasteries is called somewhat unimaginatively “Unesco Trail”. To our surprise it even has some way-markers. Sometimes we must climb down in side valleys of the river Debend, cross a small tributary, and climb up again on the other side. As it is spring, we see a lot of flowers, but also a lot of animals, like this tortoise slowly crawling on the UNESCO trail.
Shortly before the village of Sanahin we pass the crumbling ruins of the church St. Karapet, which also belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage. A perfect place for a short rest. And soon we can spot the first houses of the village of Sanahin, located on a huge plateau above the industrial town of Alaverdi.
The two monasteries are actually almost in a viewing distance, so hiking from Haghpat monastery to Sanahin monastery is a pleasant way to combine a visit to both sites. If you are driving by car you must return to the bottom of the gorge and then drive uphill again. So, if you are fit enough, we would definitely recommend the hike.
Visiting Sanahin Monastery
Within Sanahin village we make our way to the magnificent Sanahin monastery. Just like Haghpat Queen Khosrovanush also built Sanahin Monastery during the 10th century. Similar to most church and monastery complexes in Armenia, the Sanahin monastery is a sprawling affair with several churches, courtyards, halls, and pillars. The oldest part of the complex, the small round St Gregory church, exists already since the 7th century. But most impressive are the large, vaulted halls with internal pillars. They are called gavit and are a typical feature of Armenian monasteries. In Sanahin the monks added them during the 13th century. We are the only visitors marvelling at this forest of columns flooded with light and shadows. Tomb stones of former monks and patrons of the monastery cover the floor beneath our feet. Also on the premises is the first bell tower built in Armenia, also a later addition from the 13th century.
The Mikoyan Brothers’ museum in Sanahin
We walk a little bit down the street and stand in front of a MiG military fighter jet, which seems strangely out of place in this tranquil village. The plane is mounted in the garden of the museum dedicated to the brothers Artjom and Anastas Mikoyan. Born in Alaverdi, the brothers later both entered an impressive career in the Soviet Union system.
Anastas, the older brother, became a member of the Soviet politburo. He played an important role in shaping the trade relations with Germany after WWII. And from 1934 onwards he was responsible for the supply and food industry in the Soviet Union. In this capacity Anastas Mikoyan introduced the industrial production of baked goods and made canned and dried products available to the population, such as “Erbswurst” – lit. “pea sausage”. This was one of the earliest industrially produced ready meals. It’s not actually a sausage, but tablets pressed from pea flour and packed in a sausage-shaped aluminium-coated paper roll. Dissolving the tablets in cold water and boiling them gave a creamy, but quite salty pea soup. We do remember this product from our childhood.
Did you ever wonder why tomato juice is so popular in the states of the former Soviet Union? Anastas also promoted the consumption of tomato juice as a healthy substitute for the orange juice so popular in Western countries. Most parts of the Soviet Union were too cold to grow oranges.
The younger brother, Artjom Mikoyan, became an engineer and was one of the military specialists who developed the MiG fighter jet.
The town of Alaverdi
We stayed at a guesthouse in the industrial town of Alaverdi. Until a few years ago, Alaverdi was a centre of the copper smelting industry, but today most of the factories are in decay. Some cabins of a now defunct cable car that connected the lower part of Alaverdi with the upper village of Sanahin are still clinging to their steel wires. This means great opportunities here for “lost place” pictures.
In the town of Alaverdi the old Sanahin Bridge from the 12th century is also worth a look. It connects the two banks of the Debed river. This bridge was the usual way for pilgrims up the mountain to the Sanahin monastery and on to the Haghpat monastery.
Should you visit the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin?
We enjoyed our two-night stay in Alaverdi. However, it takes a few hours to reach Alaverdi from the capital Yerevan, changing minibuses in Vanadzor. The Armenian monasteries are very quiet and spiritual places and visiting them is a pleasure. But of course, there are several monasteries much closer to the capital of Yerevan that you can easily reach in a daytrip.
How to arrange the hiking from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery
According to the locals there are public buses from the town of Alaverdi to Haghpat as well as to Sanahin. But while an old yellow school bus (bus No. 3) runs to Sanahin fairly regularly, we could not find out departure times for the buses to Haghpat. We asked around a lot and finally concluded, after comparing contradictory statements, that there should depart a bus to Haghpat at 10am. However, no bus showed up at 10 am. The next best guess would have been 11.30 am, but we opted for a taxi instead. With 1500 Dram (less than 4 €), it was quite affordable.
From Haghpat Monastery we hiked three hours to Sanahin Monastery and took bus No. 3 back to Alaverdi.
NB: We had no sponsoring for our hiking trip to the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin. We organised and paid everything ourselves.
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