The cultural heritage of Armenia and Georgia reaches back to ancient times. Perhaps because of their proximity to the Holy Land, they were the earliest countries to embrace Christianity as the official religion, in the early 4th century. Faith was so central to daily life that dozens upon dozens of monasteries were built amid awe-inspring mountains and valleys, villages and cities. In our small group, we access 8 of these most sacred of places.
Geghard (4th century). This UNESCO World Heritage Site was partially carved into a rocky mountainside. Gregory the Illuminator, who is credited with converting the country to Christianity, built the monastery where sacred waters sprung from inside a cave. Its original name, Ayrivank, means “Monastery of the Cave,” while the current name translates into “Monastery of the Spear,” referring to the Crucifixion weapon which wounded Jesus and was later brought here by the Apostle Jude. Seemingly carved from the cliffs, it is an astonishing and inspiring sight.
Khor Virap (7th century). Because of its proximity to Mt. Ararat – the peak on which Noah’s Ark is said to have landed after the floods subsided – Khor Virap is one of Armenia’s most visited pilgrimage sites. Set on a hill in the Ararat plain with crystal-clear views of Noah’s mountain, this is where, centuries before the church was built, Gregory the Illuminator healed the King of Armenia, Tiridates III, who went on to convert his country.
Noravank (13th century). This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in a narrow gorge carved by the Amaghu River. The gorge’s brick-red cliffs create an otherworldly setting for this historic monastery. Soon after its opening, it houses the region’s bishops and subsequently became a major gathering place for religious, cultural, and academic pursuits. Noravank’s stone carvings and rust-hued architecture feature highly artistic flourishes that take the breath away.
Tatev (9th century). Perched on a rocky outcropping, Tatev has played a vital role in the culture and heritage of Armenia. Here, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the University of Tatev educated students in science, religion, philosophy, and the arts. In those days, visitors had to hike far distances to get here; today, you will reach its heights via the “Wings of Tatev,” the world’s longest non-stop double-track cable car.
Haghpat (10th century). Located on a green hillside in a mountainous amphitheater, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is hailed as one of the highest expressions of Armenian ecclesiastic architecture. A center of learning in the Middle Ages, its church remains much as it was when it was constructed. The scriptorium still has holes in its floor, used to hide valuable scrolls when marauders and thieves came calling.
Alaverdi (6th century). Set in an emerald valley against the drama of alpine peaks, Alaverdi boasts the second tallest cathedral in Georgia (the tallest is in the capital, Tbilisi). When the Assyrian monk Joseph Alaverdeli arrived here and founded his monastery, he had to be sure-footed: the village’s pagan population worshipped the Moon. Alaverdi is located in the world’s oldest wine region; still today the monks who live here make their own.
Ikalto (6th century). Founded by a group of 13 Assyrian missionaries who came to Georgia from Mesopotamia to spread Christianity, Ikalto became a bustling center of culture and learning. All manner of studies took place here in the 12th century, contributing to the Renaissance-like Golden Age of the region – from theology to astronomy, philosophy to geometry, wine making to pharmacology.
Jvari (6th century). Dramatically perched atop a hill, this UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooks the small town of Mtskheta. Its origin seems to rest in the 4th century, when a female evangelist, Saint Nino, raised a large wooden cross on the hilltop where a pagan temple once stood. The cross is said to have performed miracles, which attracted pilgrims from throughout Caucasus.
No matter your beliefs, these ancient monasteries inspire – with their dramatic settings, their innovative architecture, their intricate decoration, and their perseverance over a long and sometimes turbulent past. We know you’ll discover some inspiration of your own during our new Armenia & Georgia Discovery small group tour. Join us.