A Visit to Geghard Monastery and the Azat Valley — UNESCO

Spiritual atmosphere in the Geghard Monastery

During our visit to Armenia, we wanted to see as many UNESCO World Heritage sites as possible. And Armenia has remarkably many of them! Armenia was the first state in the world that adopted Christianity as an official religion in 301 AD. Therefore, it is not surprising that all the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the country are monasteries and churches. The Geghard Monastery and the Upper Azat Valley became inscribed to the UNESCO list in the year 2000. As the site is easily accessible in a day trip by public transport from the capital Yerevan, a visit to Geghard Monastery and the adjoining sites was one of the first things we did on our Armenia trip. Read in this blog post what to see at Geghard Monastery and how to get there. Is the trip to Geghard Monastery worth the effort and time?

The Greco-Roman Tempel in Garni

Garni Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site we visited in Armenia

After a somewhat lengthy, but nevertheless picturesque minibus journey, we alight at a street corner in Garni. We have only seen a few streets and a cluster of houses, but Garni is a “rich village with a population of 8000,” as a board informs us. The bus stop is not far from the remains of the Greco-Roman Temple, our first sightseeing destination of the day. The Greco-Roman Temple of Garni is the only one of its kind in Armenia. It is believed to have been constructed in the 1st century AD by King Tiridates I, and is carved from local gray basalt. Originally, he dedicated it to the sun god Mithras. According to our travel guidebooks, this is also the “easternmost building of the Greco-Roman World”.

Garni Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site we visited in Armenia

From the entrance, we can immediately spot the Greek-style temple towering over the valley and amidst some blooming spring trees. With its slender columns, the Garni temple does look very elegant. However, at closer look it does appear quite new and not 2000 years old. And indeed, we learn that it faced destruction several times over the centuries, including raids by Ottoman Turks in 1638 and a devastating earthquake in 1679. By the early 20th century, little remained of the ancient temple but a pile of stones. Thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts like Nikoraios Mar, who safeguarded its beautifully carved stones in volatile times, the remains endured. And eventually, Soviet archaeologists could resurrect the temple between 1969 and 1975 using many of the original stones.

More Roman ruins

Mosaic in a bathhouse from the Roman period, Garni Temple, Armenia

Today, the Temple of Garni is not only a remarkable archaeological site but also holds special significance for followers of Armenian neopaganism, who gather here for annual ceremonies. We also enjoyed exploring the temple grounds with the scattered remnants of a Roman bath with small pieces of mosaic flooring, a royal palace, and a 7th-century church. It reminds us of the numerous Roman ruins we have seen in Baalbek in Lebanon or in Leptis Magna in Libya or even in Jordan.  

The Azzat Gorge in Garni

As we stand at the Greco-Roman Temple’s edge, perched on a steep cliff, the landscape unfolds before us. Deep below we see the Azzat Gorge. At some souvenir stalls nearby, we inquire about the path that leads into this abyss.

Garni Symphony of stones basalt formation

Descending a somewhat slippery path into the gorge, we are greeted by a sight that seems straight out of an optical illusion puzzle. Hexagonal stones line the most famous section of the gorge. Their symmetrical arrangement recalls the mesmerizing works of Victor Vasarely, an artist we have admired in Hungary and in France.

Basalt stone formations near Garni Temple, Armenia

The basalt formation in the Azzat Gorge is aptly called “Symphony of Stone”. The beautiful smooth stones in their regular arrangement tell a story of ancient geological forces. The spectacular view also reminds us of similar stone formations we have seen at the Studlagil Canyon in Iceland. And of course, we couldn’t help but think of Ireland’s Giants’ Causeway, a place still on our travel wish-list.

Gata – a traditional Armenian cake

One Armenian gata cake was enough to sustain us on our self-organised day-trip to Geghard Monastery, Armenia

After returning to the parking area, we buy a piece of gata to sustain us during the day. Gata is a traditional Armenian sweet bread made from yeast. Gata varies in shapes and flavours across Armenia, but the versions from Garni and Geghard are renowned nationwide. The large, round cakes, roughly 30 cm in diameter, have a sweet baklava-like filling that’s simply irresistible.

Since there are no buses going to Goght, our next destination, we bargain for a taxi at the souvenir stalls. Soon we find ourselves in an old and rickety red Lada. The driver’s customers will still be busy visiting the Garni Temple for a while, so he offers to drive us to Geghard Monastery in the meantime.

Along the way, we pass the “Klub”, an old Soviet building with Taekwondo wrestlers’ pictures on the wall. “You can do everything there, like billiards, chess, and Taekwondo! I have the black belt!” our driver enthuses, a proud glint in his eyes.

Armenian landscape near Goght

Engaged in a somewhat sluggish conversation – due to our limited Russian – time flies. Before we know it, we have passed the village of Goght. Turning off the main road, we descend into another gorge toward Geghard Monastery, also part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

A short history of Geghard Monastery

Stone carvings inside Geghard monastery, Armenia

In the 4th century, Saint Grigor the Illuminator is believed to have founded a first monastery inside a cave here. As was frequently the case in that period, the saint encountered a miraculous spring and chose to construct a small church at that very location. Unfortunately, this initial church fell victim to fire and looting in the 10th century. The structures present today mostly date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The monastery holds significance among Armenian Christians, and possibly Christians in general, due to a rare relic once housed within its walls. The church was first built to house the spear believed to have pierced Jesus on the cross. Legend has it that one of the Apostles brought this relic to Armenia. And that is also where the monastery’s name originates. Geghard Monastery, namely, means “Monastery of the Spear”. Presently, the spear is reportedly kept in the treasury at Echmiatsin to the west of Yerevan. We did not manage to see it there on a later visit, however.

Exploring Geghard Monastery

What truly distinguishes Geghard Monastery from other churches in Armenia is that it is partly built into the rock. A grand entrance building greets visitors, its magnificent dome crowned with intricate muqarnas that filter sunlight into a dance of ethereal beams.  Inside we are enveloped in a fragrant haze of incense. Worshippers bow in prayer and ignite candles. Even though we’re not religious, the spiritual atmosphere is deeply touching. We linger in the twilight of the cave rooms, deeply inhale the incense, and take the opportunity to also light some candles.

Carved crosses on the rocks of Geghard monastery

Beyond the entrance area, we discover numerous smaller chapels intricately carved into the rock. Our attention is drawn to the magnificent main chapel adorned with captivating depictions of trees, doves, oxen, and lions.

The surroundings of Geghard Monastery

Surrounding the Geghard Monastery, the grounds are adorned with numerous khachkars, carved memorial steles bearing a cross. Behind the church, visitors tie handkerchiefs to bushes for good luck. They may perceive it as a Christian rite, but we recognize an old pagan custom that has transcended into other religions. We have observed this practice in Central Asia among the Muslim population, too. For example in Kunya Urgench in Turkmenistan. As we approach the parking area, various vendors offer a diverse array of food and souvenirs for purchase. Again, there are the fantastic gata breads for sale, but the piece we bought earlier is quite sufficient for us!

Armenian woman selling Gata Bread at Geghard monastery

After our visit, we embark on a roughly 4 km walk from Geghard Monastery to the quaint village of Goght. Comprising scattered farmsteads and a handful of greenhouses, Goght surprises with its relatively large number of pubs for its size. Isa strains her eyes to read the strange Armenian characters. “հանգստի գոտի” (Hangsti Goti) is prominently displayed everywhere, denoting recreational areas. These private gardens feature picnic tables, barbecue spots, and playgrounds. Along the roadside, locals bake lavash bread and sell herbs. Fortunately, upon reaching the minibus stop, we find the bus just about to depart.

A picknick area we passed during our self-organised daytrip to Geghard monastery in Armenia

Should you visit Geghard Monastery and the Upper Azat Valley?

We loved our trip to Geghard Monastery and the Upper Azat Valley and enjoyed visiting the Garni temple as well as the monastery. Keep in mind that Geghard Monastery primarily serves as a place of worship rather than a sightseeing spot! Given its accessibility as an easy do-it-yourself day trip from Yerevan, we wholeheartedly recommend experiencing it firsthand.

Travel blogger Natascha exploring Geghard monastery in Armenia

How to get to Gehard Monastery from Yerevan

There are numerous tours that also visit the Geghard Monastery and the Upper Azat Valley. Of course you can also hire a driver for the day. But the cheapest and most authentic way to go is using the local minibus. There are minibuses to Garni and the village of Goght from the city centre in Yerevan too, but we took a minibus from the Nork Nor Bus Station in the outskirts to Garni. We bargained for a taxi to bring us from Garni to the Geghardt Monastery. After our visit we walked back to the village of Goght, from where we caught another bus back to the city.

+++We were not sponsored to write this post and paid all expenses ourselves.+++

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  1. Good to know that the Gaghard Monastery is an easily visited site by public transit in Armenia. Always interesting to see the Greco-Roman ruins in such far reaching spots. We have been fascinated by other churches like this built into the rock wall. We would certainly want to see the basalt columns on the Azzat Gorge too. A great visit to the upper Azat Valley.

    1. Dear Linda, yes the area offers a good mix of religious/ cultural sightseeing and spectacular nature. I am sure you would enjoy it.

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