Between Heaven and Earth. The monastery of Geghard in Armenia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In the gorge of the mountain river, about 40 km southeast of Yerevan, there is an amazing place — the monastery of Geghard. Founded according to legend by Saint Gregory the Illuminator and associated with the Holy Lance, today it is one of the most visited places in Armenia. Since 2000, the Geghard monastery complex has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Sacred Rocks 

The Geghard monastery complex and the upper Azat River valley contain several churches, caves, and tombs most of which are rock-cut. The complex of medieval buildings is located in a picturesque landscape at the entrance to the Azat River valley. High cliffs guard the monastery from the north side, and the rest is surrounded by a defensive wall. It seems that this marvelous architectural complex and the beautiful landscape are one whole.

According to medieval Armenian written sources, after the adoption of Christianity by Armenia in 301, a tradition appeared to build monasteries in pagan sacred places. The foundation and prosperity of the monastery are 

traditionally attributed to first Armenian Patriarch Grigory the Illuminator (302–325). Natural caves were previously used for the monks. That is the reason why from its foundation until the 13th century the monastery was called Ayrivank (“Monastery of the Rock”), and beginning from the 13th century the name Geghard was used more often due to the holy Geghard (the lance) kept in the monastery. According to the Bible, Roman soldier Longinus pierced the side of the crucified Christ with a lance (i.e. Armenian Geghard), after which the lance became one of the most precious relics for Christians. The Armenian Church tradition says that in 33 AD the Holy Lance was brought to Armenia by apostle Jude. It was kept in Ayrivank from the middle of the 13th century until 1760 when it was transferred to the Holy Etchmiadzin.

Center of Faith and Enlightenment

The pilgrims called Geghard a monastery of “Seven Churches” and “Forty Tabernacles.” Over the centuries, the monastery was captured and destroyed several times by Arab and Seljuk invaders. As a result, structures built at different times before the 12th century were destroyed once and for all. The dominant part of the current architectural group of Geghard Monastery was created in the 12th–13th centuries. Throughout the first half of the 13th century, Geghard Monastery belonged to the Zakaryan noble family. During the rule of the Zakaryans, one of the main structures of the monastery complex was built in Geghard Monastery — Saint Astvatsatsin (Katoghike) Church and its famous narthex adjacent to the church from the west. Since the 1340s, the monastery became part of the Proshyans princely house. Prince Prosh bought it from the Zakaryans in order to make a family cemetery.

With this achievement of the Proshyans, a new period begins in the history of the development of the monastery. During their reign, Geghard reached its highest level of development and became an important religious, educational, and cultural center, where the Ayrivank school, which was a part of the Armenian medieval educational system, started functioning again. At the same time, the monastery’s scriptorium experienced a revival, where many manuscripts were copied throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest manuscript that reached us from the monastery’s scriptorium was copied in 1190. The manuscript stands out for its beautiful bolorgir script.

Conquered Stones

Geghard Monastery becomes one of the distinctive examples of Armenian Church architecture with its unique combination of masonry and above-ground structures. The complex of its rock-hewn structures was built in a huge monolithic rock as a result of skillfully organizing the construction works at different heights, precise orientation in the rock mass, competently cutting the rocks, purposefully “conquering” the inner space in terms of volume and spaciousness. The core of the architect Galdzag’s constructions was the Katoghike Church and the narthex adjacent to it, around which this architectural environment was created, characterized by the exceptional unity and harmony of the architectural forms.

In addition to the rock-hewn structures in the territory of the monastery, khachkars (cross-stones) were erected and carved on the rocks at different times, which — being unique examples of khachkar art — are remarkable for their composition and execution of sculptures. The main part of them was created in the 11th–13th centuries.

Under UNESCO protection

The monastery of Geghard with its remarkable rock-cut churches, tombs, khachkars, and other tangible and intangible attributes is still preserved in its natural setting. The authenticity of the group is high, not least because the property has been in continuous use as a monastery for many centuries.

At the same time, Geghard Monastery is one of the most visited monuments in Armenia, receiving thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year. Moreover, it is also one of the most beloved sanctuaries of the Armenian people where marriages are often performed. Everything is organized so that, on the one hand, the religious ceremonies of the church are not disturbed, and, on the other hand, people have the opportunity to see and admire this unique example of Armenian church architecture.

In 2000, the Geghard monastery complex was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List under criterion II as «an exceptionally well-preserved and complete example of medieval Armenian monastic architecture and decorative art, with many innovative features that had a profound impact on the subsequent development of the region.» The monastery complex is on the List of the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Khachik Arutyunyan, Arutyun Vanyan
Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports of the Republic of Armenia
The material was prepared in partnership with the National Commission of Armenia for UNESCO.