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Doorway at Tatev Monastery in Armenia - History
The inner yard of Tatev monastery looks abandoned when arrive here at the end of the sixth day of our hitchhiking journey along the Silk Road of Armenia. On our right is a water spring. We drink some fresh water, and leave our backpacks here to wander around. At the other end of the monastery we notice a dim yellow light in the fog. Hoping to find someone there, we cross the yard, and behind the window glass we see a silhouette of a woman. We knock the door. She is surprised to see visitors. “Please, come in, you must be cold. I just prepared some rose hip tea, it’ll warm you up,” she says and invites us in.
Herself from Yeghegnadzor, Ophelia comes to Tatev from time to time and prepares food for the monks. As we sit down by the table in the refectory, Ophelia checks the shelves for jams and other food for us, meanwhile I briefly introduce ourselves and tell her the story of our journey, asking in the end if we could camp somewhere around. Ophelia says that we need the abbot’s permission for staying in the monastery. “Father Mikael is on the way from Goris to Tatev now, he teaches at the schools in the villages around Goris during the day. His phone is out of coverage at the moment, so let’s wait,” says Ophelia.
A young parish clerk named Harutyun joins us soon, and we continue our conversation. While Emée and Ophelia, who speaks a little French, discuss the recipes of the dishes she cooks, me and Harutyun talk about the relations between the villagers of Tatev and the monastery. Suddenly, we hear someone knocking on the door. As Ophelia opens the door, we see three tourists from Germany, Italy and Brazil, who ask if this is a restaurant for tourists, because they saw the pots through the kitchen window. We say it’s not. Ophelia invites them in, and they join our conversation. “I’m not religious at all, but when I hear Armenian religious music, it makes me cry. The music reminds me of the days I used to go to church every Sunday,” shares his feelings the traveler from Italy. Since their taxi is waiting for them outside the monastery, they soon leave us and walk away into the night.
Meanwhile, Ophelia receives news from the abbot. Instead of camping outside in the rain, he suggests us to spend the night in a little stone building behind the monastery walls that used to be the oil press of the monastery back in the old days, and was now turned into a museum. Harutyun helps us to move our backpacks to the oil press, and also gets us camp-beds and extra sleeping bags and blankets. Father Mikael arrives not long after. He is tired and exhausted. He sits silently by the table, his eyes are closed, and he says nothing. When the food is served, he blesses the meal, and we then take our dinner: a delicious aveluk (wild sorrel) soup, a bulgur porridge with mushrooms, a beet and carrots salad, and potatoes. We enjoy our food in silence, and when the dinner is over, father Mikael and Harutyun leave us and begin the preparations for the evening service. We help Ophelia to wash the dishes, then drink tea.
Upon hearing the bells ringing and calling everyone for the mass, we go to the Saints Paul and Peter Church. Built between 895 and 906 AD, it is the oldest remaining construction within the complex and the largest church of Tatev. Father Mikael and Harutyun, dressed in their black robes, begin the service. For the next 1,5 hours we stand on a carpet in front of the altar, following every movement of the abbot and the parish clerk. Father Mikael’s voice sounds tired, and his final “Amen” brings relief to all of us.
We wish them good night, and then slowly walk to the oil press. We lock the door, turn off the lights and go to our beds. It takes me some time before I fall asleep, thinking of father Aspet – the abbot of the Haghpat monastery , whom we met earlier on our journey and who perhaps had just finished the evening service, too, and is about to go to sleep. Did anyone attend his service in Haghpat, or was he all alone by himself?
After over four hours on the bus, we finally arrived at Tatev. And Tatev Monastery, it turns out, is so remote that even the long bus ride wasn’t quite enough. Making it over to the monastery requires a ride on a cable car, locally known as the ‘Wings of Tatev.’
The Wings of Tatev, completed in 2010, happens to be the longest double-track cable car in the world. It was constructed as part of a larger effort to restore Tatev Monastery and promote it to visitors. While people always could, and still can, access Tatev by road, it’s not nearly as exciting as the ropeway.
The ride takes visitors a distance of 5.7 km and lasts around 15 minutes. It’s accompanied by an English narration and some soothing background music.
Just be sure to stand on the left side of the cablecar on the way there, as that’s where all of the landmarks are. I was stuck on the opposite side of the cramped car, but made sure to change sides for the ride back.
Situated atop a basalt plateau, Tatev Monastery overlooks a gorge formed by the Vorotan River. It’s easily one of Armenia’s most scenic monasteries. And that’s really saying something, given all the competition.
The monastery dates back to the late 9th century, though it’s believed that an earlier church existed here from as early as the 4th century. As is the case with many monasteries in Armenia, the spot was also once home to a pagan temple before early Christians destroyed it.
There are a few structures to check out even before the main gate. In addition to an old tomb, you can enter the original Oil Mill. Built in the 17th century, the mill was used to produce vegetable oils like linseed, sesame and hemp. It was deliberately placed outside the walls so people could come and buy oil without bothering the monks.
The oil mill now acts as a mini museum. Rather incongruously, it features informational plaques dedicated to famous Armenian musicians of the 20th century.
Tatev Monastery’s main structure is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. It’s the oldest structure of the monastery, and it possibly replaced an earlier pre-10th century church. Oriented east-west, it’s an elongated rectangular church which is relatively rare in Armenia.
The interior isn’t nearly as remarkable as the outside. Few of the ancient frescoes survive, and those that do are hard to make out. Looking closely, you might spot relief carvings of Prince Ashot and Princess Shushan, the church’s original benefactors.
Just next to, or south of, the main church is the small St Gregory the Illuminator Church. The original structure was built between 836-848 before being completely destroyed by the Seljuk Turks. After that, it was rebuilt before being destroyed yet again by a 12th-century earthquake.
Given the region’s susceptibility to earthquakes, resident monks came up with a brilliant idea: the Gavazan Column. The column was an ancient seismograph designed to tilt upon sensing a tremor.
Supposedly, it would then automatically shift back into place. Pretty innovative stuff for over 1,000 years ago! But even a functioning seismograph couldn’t save many of the structures from crumbling.
While still standing, the pillar no longer does its job. Erected in 906 by Bishop Hovhannes, it also has a religious significance, having been erected in honor of the Holy Trinity.
There’s still a lot more to see around the complex. Out in the courtyard, you’ll find a plethora of ancient kachkars, or traditional Armenian cross stones. And considering how Tatev Monastery once housed around 1,000 monks and even functioned as its own university, there are a lot of rooms for visitors to explore.
You can check out things like the former bakery, library and Archbishop’s residence. The monastery was not only entirely self-sufficient but was booming economically in its day. In fact, due to the old feudal system, Tatev actually outright controlled dozens of surrounding villages.
Peasants, however, weren’t happy about their land being controlled by the monastery, leading to a few uprisings in the 10th century. Ultimately, they had to be quelled by the local king.
Many artisans also lived here, and Tatev became a thriving center for calligraphy and miniature painting. And from the 14th century, Tatev University was founded by the ruling feudal family, the Orbelians. The university was also instrumental in resisting the attempted Latinization of Armenia by the Roman Catholic Church.
Don’t miss the intricate carvings on one of the doors which clearly evokes symbolism from Armenia’s pre-Christian past. And over in a room near the complex’s edge, notice the large holes in the ground. Supposedly, this is where monks hid treasures and manuscripts during foreign invasions.
After the Seljuk Turks were driven out, Tatev Monastery was largely safe during the Mongols’ incursion into the region. As the Orbelians had promised submission in exchange for the survival of Armenia’s monasteries, Tatev was spared and it even functioned tax-free.
But Tamerlane’s Timurid Empire later demolished it. It was rebuilt but later destroyed again by the Persians in the 18th century. So even during times of peace, the resident monks were probably constantly lying in wait for the next attack.
History and architecture aside, one of the main reasons to come to Tatev is for the views. Various rooms within the complex offer spectacular vantage points of the surrounding countryside and mountains of Syunik Province.
Before heading back to the bus, I took some time to explore a few of the other structures that I’d missed. At the far northern end of the monastery (close to the entrance) is the Surb Astvatsacin Church.
Founded in 1087, it was largely damaged by a 1931 earthquake and had mostly collapsed by the 1960s. Though it was restored in 1980, the dome was at a lower angle than the original, making the overall structure shorter. It was finally fixed in 2018 to perfectly match the original building.
Over to one side, I came across a small museum featuring artifacts recovered during the restoration. Tatev once had its own ‘Matenadaran,’ or manuscript storage room, which lasted from the 10th century up until 1911.
The manuscripts were likely transferred to Russia for safekeeping at that time, before being returned to Armenia upon the opening of the main Matenadaran in Yerevan in 1959.
On the cablecar ride back, I made sure to stand on the more scenic side. The main highlight to look down at is a much smaller abandoned monastery in the middle of the valley. Amazingly, this monastery was connected with Tatev by an underground tunnel network!
Over the centuries, monks would escape here during invasions with sacred relics and manuscripts. It’s considerably far away, however, and this other monastery’s position appears much more vulnerable than Tatev itself.
In 40 Days, 'Wings of Tatev' Brings 7000 People to Medieval Monastery
YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–More than 7,000 people have visited the Medieval Monastery of Tatev in Southern Armenia since the October inauguration of a 5.7-kilometer-long aerial tramway that transports visitors from the village of Halidzor across the Vorotan gorge to the village of Tatev, within walking distance of the monastery.
The cable car line, dubbed “The Wings of Tatev,” is the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway, allowing tourists and visitors to bypass a grueling 90-minute drive on a dilapidated road in and out of the rocky Vorotan River Gorge.
The tramway’s director, Tigran Ghazaryan, spoke to reporters Tuesday about the Monastery’s recent influx of tourists, underscoring that in 40 days, from October 23 to December 1, the tramway has carried 7,000 people to Tatev. 30% of those visitors, he noted, have been tourists.
Since it began operation on October 16, the Monastery has experienced a boom in tourism, with the number of visitors to the area doubling compared to the same months in 2009, according to Syuzanna Azoyan, the Director of Programs at the Armenian Tourism Development Agency, who was with Ghazaryan.
“I would like to stress that we expect a sharp growth in the number of visits in 2011, as the world’s longest reversible passenger aerial tramway is a separate source for tourism,” she told reporters. “Tourists arrive in Armenia only to see the reversible passenger aerial tramway, which is unique by its length.”
The ropeway has also created 30 new jobs in the area, including 29 for residents of neighboring villages, Azoyan said, adding that the average salary of employees working on the tramway is 100,000 AMD a month (roughly $360).
The reversible cable car line was constructed by the Swedish-Austrian Garaventa Doppelmaye Group. It cost 18 million dollars to construct, with much of the funding coming from private donations, according to the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, which oversaw the project through its Tatev Revival Project.
The cable car travels at a speed of 37 kilometers per hour (23 miles per hour) and a one-way journey takes 11 minutes. At its highest point over the gorge, the car travels 320 meters (1,056 feet) above ground level.
It has two cabins, each capable of carrying up to 25 passengers. Local residents will be able to ride the cable car for free while others will have to pay 3,000 Armenian drams (eight dollars/six euros.)
A two-way ticket on the tramway costs 3,000 AMD ($8.30), while a one-way ride costs 2000 AMD ($5.50). Residents of the villages surrounding Tatev can enjoy the tramway once a day for free.
The cable car is part of a 50-million-dollar (36-million-euro) public-private effort to develop tourism at Tatev and in the overall region of Syunik, one of the traditional 15 provinces of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia.
The Tatev Revival Project will leverage the monastic and touristic significance of the complex to develop the region into an attractive destination nestled in a prospering local community.
The project consists of several components: conserving the monastery, reviving its monastic and scholarly traditions, and developing tourism in the adjacent river gorge and six local communities. A hotel chain will be developed in the area to accommodate tourists visiting the region.
One of the several pleasures of blogging is receiving comments from people whose knowledge is different and more extensive than mine, and those who have the time and ability to find things on the 'net.
In January I blogged the top photo above, of an unidentified building in a remarkably scenic location somewhere in Armenia. I was fascinated first and foremost by the location the outcrop of rock overlooking a valley looked like a place which would have been strategically favorable since neolithic times. I imagined hunter-gatherer priests putting temples here millennia before this apparent monastery.
Secondly, I was fascinated by the structure (click to enlarge the photo). A cross-shaped building with a cross atop it, but with fortifications, perhaps arrow-windows, and at the left of the photo a large gaping arch that seems to open to a vertical cliff - too patent for defensive purposes. Was it where debris and garbage was tossed to the wolves/peasants? It reminded me somewhat of the larger building in the cinematic version of The Name of the Rose .
Literally within hours of my posting the photo, Rich H identified it as Tatev Monastery and provided some links. Shortly thereafter John McNulty tracked down more information. Armed with those data I was able to piece together a bit of this history of this interesting place, including the monastery's home page. (maps and sat photos here at GeoSat, coordinates already logged in - just click.)
The monastery was founded in the ninth century at the location of much older temples the first churches per se were chapels in the 4th century. The main Church of Pogos and Petros (Peter and Paul) was built in 895-906. At that time the monastery had a population of 1,000 and controlled numerous villages by the 13th century it owned 680 villages.
The peasants did not always welcome being “owned” by the monks on several occasions they rose up (presumably with fire and pitchforks), attacked the monastery, and plundered it.
“In XV century the band of bloodsucker Lank-Tamor reached Tatev and set fire to the temples and stole the treasures of the monastery. He plundered the whole library . They destroyed all the holy-chipped stones from the monastery walls and took to Samarghand….”
“It is difficult to say what happened in the next XVI-XVII centuries. There is nothing in the history about this land.”
The earthquake of 1931 caused considerable destruction - the dome of the St. Paul and St. Peter church and the bell tower were destroyed. In the latter years the St. Paul and St. Peter church was reconstructed
Some walls “are decorated with representations of human faces, to which snake heads with stings sticking out are turned. Armenians believed snakes to be the protectors of their homes .”
“ The monument "Gavazan", erected in 904 in the yard, near the dwelling premises of the monastery, is a unique work of Armenian architectural and engineering art. This is a octahedral pillar, built of small stones eight meters tall, it is crowned with an ornamented cornice, with an open-work khachkar towering on it. As a result of seismic tremors, and even at a mere touch of human hand, the pillar, hinge-coupled to a stylobate, tilts and then returns to the initial position.”
The door of Tatev Church is an outstanding work of woodcarving art (1253 and 1614, the State History Museum of Armenia).
The residential and service premises, arranged in a single row on the perimeter, set off the polyhedral rock foundation and seem to be an extension of it. “Besides dwelling rooms, there was also writing-house, teacher's-room, school, bathroom and a great number of production buildings: workshops, reserves, and etc.”
Stepanos Orbelian, the medieval bishop/historian of Syunik, recounts that Tatev housed 600 monks, philosophers "deep as the sea," able musicians, painters, calligraphers, and all the other accoutrements of a center of culture and learning. The monastery produced teachers and manuscripts for the whole Armenian world .
At the top is the original photo from January, then a view of early reconstruction efforts, a view of more recent work inside the complex, the monument, and a millstone in the residential/work complex. The bottom photo is the best it enlarges to wallpaper size and thereby generously rewards a click.
But I still don't know what that big arch in the wall overlooking the cliff was used for.
Within the confines of the monastery complex, there are 3 churches, a library, refectory, belfry, mausoleum, and other minor buildings.
St Paul and St Peter Church
This church was built during 895 and 906 AD. It is named after Christ's 2 apostles. There is a khachkar on the western wall of the church bearing important historical details related to the construction of the church. In 930 inside of the walls were decorated with frescos depicting nativity scenes, Christ surrounded with apostles and angels, the Judgement Day and so on. Only a small part of those frescos survived the challenge of time.
St Gregory the Illuminator Church
This church was built during 836 - 848 AD. The church collapsed in the earthquake of 1138 but was rebuilt a century and a half later. The church has an unpretentious architecture, simple ornaments near the entrance and no-dome structure.
St Mary's Church
St Mary or St Mother of God church was built in 1087 on the top of a covered mausoleum. It was considerably damaged during the 1931 earthquake but was restored later.
Review of Tour to Tatev with One Way Tour
One Way Tour was one of two tour companies recommended to me, and I was very happy with my choice. The tour was comparatively priced with all of the other options I found (10,000 AMD for the entire day, excluding the Wings of Tatev ticket and lunch). It also contained all the sights I wanted to see along the way, namely Noravank and the Areni wine tasting. Checking out Shaki waterfall was a nice little bonus!
Alla was a fantastic guide, speaking fluently in 3 (!!) languages to cater to all the members of our group. The tour was planned very well time-wise, but when we were inevitably delayed for some reason, Alla and the driver tweaked the order of the itinerary to make the whole day flow seamlessly. If you decide to explore Tatev with One Way Tour, say hi!
I was very impressed with the number of places we visited, the free time we had at each, and the professionalism with which the tour was run. Overall a wonderful experience, and I’d highly recommend One Way Tour to anyone thinking of traveling around Armenia!
The Last DoorTatev Monastery on the road to Artsakh, May 2019 (Photo provided by the author)
Dwelling at the sword’s edge of uncertainty,
Haunted remnants of fears fall away from me,
Turn back into the highland clay formed
Long before being remade by our գոյամարտ.
Howling at the grey wolves prowling madder,
Inside, imperial lies fall silent,
Hammered hate goes unrequited,
Echoing the pulse of eleven million դհոլներ.
Look into our determined Armenian eyes,
Hear into the heart of our Beloved Mothers’ cries,
And all becomes clear as stone.
Fair-weather friendships never fail
Shortsightedly to set sail
At the first hint of troubled waters,
Be it one month
Or a hundred years ago.
Who can still dream of being immune
To humanity colonially out of tune
With life itself?
Phosphor fires rain down from the sky,
Burning Artsakh forests born to thrive.
Native groves uprooted, clamoring,
Stand tall and unwavering in the call
For truth and self-determination.
Alone and not alone, adorned with living histories
We cannot—will not—deny,
Our nightmares play out again, this very hour.
Strengthened by birdsong and mountains on high,
We cannot—will not—cower.
Whether ’tis nobler to disrupt this madness
Or enact inaction, that is the question?
While lives are bread for wolfish profit,
False neutralities are cold comfort
To children raised underground,
Now loosed into unneighborly machinations.
Breathing into the heart’s bleeding edge of sorrow,
Behind the last door, there awaits hope for tomorrow.
There, a hidden bow quivers with promise of sun and moonlight.
Circle-dancing at the threshold, our silver throughline shines bright.
Tenderly, the arrow coaxes the archer to rise, whispering
“Together, let us aim ever farther, ever higher, ever wise.”
Author’s Note: Visit Art for Artsakh to browse works from a growing interdisciplinary and global community of artists, including myself, who are donating all proceeds from sales to the Armenia Fund , supporting humanitarian aid for the people of Artsakh.
Regarding the two Armenian words in this poem, գոյամարտ means “fight or struggle for survival,” and the դհոլ ( plural, դհոլներ) is a type of drum played in Armenian folk music.
Khor Virap – Noravank – Tatev
Trips by car can be ordered any day, time and to any destination. The presented prices include transportation expenses, below you can see the prices of entrance tickets:
- Price for the entrance ticket for Tatev-Ropeway will be 6 500 AMD per person
- Lunch at local restaurants or rural houses will be: 3 000 – 5 000 AMD
- You can also use the guide service if you wish: 15 000 – 25 000 AMD
Do you want to see the main site of origin of Christianity as Armenia’s state religion? Then visit Khor Virap which holds a special place in Armenian history as from this spot Christianity spread around Armenia. It’s the place where the first Catholicons of Armenia Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for 13 years. He was locked in a deep pit by King Trdhat III as he was propagandaing Christianity in pagan Armenia. He stayed there 13 years until the king had proclaimed Christianity as its official religion and Gregory had been appointed as the first Catholicos (Patriarch) of the Armenian Church. The dungeon of St. Khor Virap monastery is worth visiting not only for its significance and beauty but also because it is stunningly located in front of the massive Mt. Ararat, the traditional resting place of Noah’s ark.
Do you want to see one of the masterpieces of Armenian architecture, feel the harmony of Christian spirit and fabulous nature? If the answer is yes make your way to Noravank. Situated in the narrow gorge and surrounded by astounding red cliffs this monastery has become a must see destination. Though translated from Armenian Noravank means new monastery it was founded in the early 13th century and became the residence of bishops of Syunik region. The site is comprised of three surviving churches, each decorated in intricate designs and religious beliefs. In 2002 the temple was included into UNESCO World Heritage Sites List. Take the chance to listen to nature while looking at the manmade masterpiece and bear in mind that the way to get there offers great views! You will then have the opportunity to taste wine in Areni village which is considered to be the birthplace of wine as the oldest winery in the world has been uncovered here! Your trip will be concluded in Jermuk spa town where much of the country’s mineral water comes from.
Have you ever felt how it is traveling by the longest non-stop double track cable car in the world? If not take the aerial tramway called Wings of Tatev recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for its length (5752 m). It will take you to the natural and historic treasure of Armenia through a deep and breathtaking gorge. By the ropeway, you will get to Tatev monastery which is one of the main outstanding tourist objectives in Armenia due to its historical significance and the beauty of the natural surroundings. The monastery is the pearl of Armenian architecture and was one of the oldest spiritual centers of medieval Armenia, as well as the biggest university of its time. Built on the edge of giant gorge in the 9th century the walls of the monastery seem a natural extension of the rock. According to a legend when the construction of the main church was completed the master prepared a cross for placing on the dome. However, after he installed the cross he did not manage to come down so he threw himself into the gorge asking God for wings which in Armenian sounds like “tal tev”. Here is how the name of the monastery originated. Remember that this place is a must see and enjoy the sensation of being above a deep gorge.
South of Armenia tour details
Unlike other tours offered by Hyur Service, this one departed from Yerevan at 9am due to the really long day ahead – we came back to the capital 13 hours later! This tour seemed to be the most popular one as there were two more buses besides mine going the same route. I shared mine ride with around 20 more people from all over the world. The bus was a little bit packed but it wasn’t that bad considering the long journey. And the size of the group was really fine, not too big so everyone could talk to each other and be in the bus back on time. We had our lunch break in the restaurant next to the Wings of Tatev, overlooking the gorge – eating in such a scenery was a pure pleasure! The price of the tour was really good, 15.000 AMD (
37$ / 27€ / 115PLN) for such a long journey, a cable car trip and a great guide felt like a bargain. It is another of Hyur tours I can easily recommend to everyone visiting Armenia!
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