We are in Armenia’s Upper Azat Valley, east of Yerevan. At the turn of the fourth century, only this nation in the world had accepted Christianity as its official religion, led by Gregory the Illuminator, who had been forced to flee to modern-day Turkey. During this time, he was introduced to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and, years later, he brought them back with him to Armenia. His goal was to convert the King Tiridates III, and thus force the conversion of the entire country. While he was imprisoned for over a decade, eventually he won the king over, and Armenia became the first officially Christian country.
When Gregory the Illuminator baptized the Armenian royal family in 301, the nation plunged into religion, collecting artifacts and building spectacular monasteries along the way.
Outside chapels carved from cliffs and caves, elderly women sell sweet, beautiful breads rooted in Armenia’s Christian traditions.
The Geghard Monastery, called Ayrivank at the time, a complex of churches and caves, began only as a small cave chapel, which Gregory declared held a sacred spring in the 4th century. From there, the complex grew, becoming more quaint and massive. The main and most prominent chapel was built in 1215. Partially carved out of the rocks on all sides of it, the stone monastery melds beautifully with its surroundings and stands out among the greenery of the cliffs offsets the stark gray of the stone.
According to its entry on the UNESCO website:
“The monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley contains a number of churches and tombs, most of them cut into the living rock, which illustrates Armenian medieval architecture at its highest point. The complex of medieval buildings is set into a landscape of great natural beauty, at the entrance to the Azat Valley. High cliffs from the northern side surround the complex while the defensive wall encircles the rest.“
The buildings of the complex are a mix of elegant Armenian stonework and carved crosses juxtaposed with bare cave chapels, a mix that gives the complex a feeling of antiquity, especially when combined with the relics the area once held.
Its original name, Ayrivank, means monastery of the cave, and you can see of these to this day. The name used now, “Geghard”, is a derivative of an Armenian word (Geghardavank) meaning Monastery of the Spear.
The complex was named after the spear used to wound Jesus during the Crucifixion. Allegedly, the spear was brought to Armenia after the Crucifixion and is now housed in the Echmiadzin Treasury, in the spiritual center of Armenia.
Inside the rock-cut Avazan Chapel, there is a holy spring, the same one that’s been flowing here since the original days of Gregory the Illuminator.
Visitors come to drink from the spring, lining up to fill bottles from home to take the holy water with them.
Along with the religious importance of the site, the monastery offers stunning views of the Azat River Gorge surrounding the complex.