Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

As convenient as cities are for a home base, I’m always happy to escape and see another part of the country. I let Grig, the lawyer who works for Interpol, figure out where to go and I just had to hop in the car and enjoy! According to my guidebook, Garni and Geghard are must-dos or people won’t believe you’ve been to Armenia (conveniently, they’re close together so easy to see on the same day). Khor Virab Monastery is important historically (as the location responsible for turning Armenia Christian) and has some incredible views. All three places are less than an hour from the capital so they make perfect day trips from Yerevan and you’ll pass pretty scenery on the way!

“When I look up from the canyon to the temple of Garni and see how the sun plays upon the stone and actually makes it glow, then I understand how perfect that world was”
-Rafael Hakopian

Garni temple: a side trip from Yerevan, Armenia

Garni temple: a side trip from Yerevan, Armenia

Garni Pagan Temple
The first stop was the most ancient attraction of our day trip- Garni temple from the Hellenistic Period (1st century AD). This was the only pagan temple that survived the Christianization of the country three centuries later. They constructed it out of basalt, in a Greco-Roman style, and it used to have a bath next to it. Supposedly the king loved the bath and the views from the temple so much, he made an exception to his command to destroy it. Although the temple was impressive, the views made the structure especially imposing. Two rivers meet at the temple site, dropping over 300 feet with dramatic rock formations on either side- aptly named “symphony canyon” because it looks kind of like organ pipes.
The temple had collapsed in 1679 but was restored about 30 years ago and now is the perfect well-formed place for tourists to climb all over.

Geghard Monastery in Armenia

Geghard Monastery in Armenia

Geghard Monastery
Just when visiting churches was beginning to get boring (the ones in Georgia and Armenia tend to be quite plain… at least their interiors), Grig took me to Geghard Monastery, a UNESCO site, which was unlike any church I’ve ever been in. This 12th century monastery was built around a sacred spring and named after the spear stuck into the side of the wounded Jesus Christ, which is supposedly stored here. Just down the road from Garni, this scenery surrounding this site similarly makes it spectacular. The church is cozily nestled between towering cliffs from the river gorge. Certain rocks have caves cut in them, where monks used to live, reminiscent of Cappadocia. To enter the monastery, you’ll walk past a parking lot of Soviet cars, a line of old ladies selling sweet bread and sheets of dried fruit. Before the main entrance, you can toss a pebble to see if it lands on a ledge, which will grant you a wish. You can up stairs to look down on the church, while having an opportunity to examine the elaborate crosses (khatchkar) carved in stone into the hillside. Just through the back door, by a river, we found three men butchering a sheep that they hung from a shed… it seems like a lot of trouble for a picnic!

Holy Spirit light beam inside Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Holy Spirit light beam inside Geghard Monastery, Armenia

So although the church doesn’t look particularly unique from the outside, entering the church is an Indiana Jones-esque adventure! The door opens to the main room, which is completely dark except for candles and extraterrestrial-like spotlight shining from the ceiling. People line up to take photos in this sacred spot, where you supposedly receive the Holy Spirit (and simultaneously look like the victim of an alien abduction). This room opens up into several smaller side rooms, filled with stone carvings of animals and crosses, with another mini-Holy-Spirit photo opportunity. The sacred spring flows through one of the rooms, which people take home in bottles for its holy properties.

Grig, my host for the day, lighting candles at Geghard Monastery

Grig, my host for the day, lighting candles at Geghard Monastery

Grig made sure we each bought three candles to light to ensure that our dreams would come true (because we weren’t too good at throwing pebbles). He also taught me how to exit a church properly, walking backwards so you don’t turn your back to the altar. Some of these practices and traditions are similar to what I saw with Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Georgia but Armenia actually has its own unique sect with its own bible and patriarch. Geghard was a mystical place to get acquainted with some of these practices in person.

Khor Vhap Monastery
To see where Armenian Christianity all began, Grig took me to Khor Virap Monastery 30 km on the other side of Yerevan. The scenery on the other side completely changed from craggy river canyons to flat, fertile farmland and the roadside has an endless selection of vegetable stands.

Mount Ararat, Armenia... when the clouds finally cleared!

Mount Ararat, Armenia… when the clouds finally cleared!

After some slight scenic detours, we arrived at Khor Virap. Like Garni, the scenery surrounding the monastery stood out more than the church itself. The monastery overlooks fields of sunflowers, a cemetery and on a clear day, you can see the Turkish border and the real geographical attraction: Mount Ararat. Mount Ararat is the biblical place where Noah offered a sacrifice and made a covenant with God that prevented the destruction of the Earth with a flood. Grig joked that Mount Ararat technically belongs to Turkey but “they can’t look at it and we have all the beautiful views but it’s not ours”. For Armenians, Ararat is more than their local beer. It’s a symbol of national pride and embodies the country’s identity. Even in Yerevan, people are willing to pay significantly higher monthly rentals for views of this majestic mountain. We came on a foggy day so we could barely make out the mountain, but when the clouds parted to reveal Ararat, I felt I could better understand the obsession.

Khor Vhap monastery... it looks like a fairy tale!

Khor Virap monastery, Armenia… it looks like a fairy tale!

Anyway, back to the church itself! This 4th century church was built around a deep hole where a pagan king imprisoned the famous St. Gregory the Illuminator (I told you he’s everywhere in Armenia!). Although deprived of food and drink (or so they thought!), he survived for three years at the bottom of this hole (actually an old woman kept him alive with food and drink through a side tunnel). After 13 years of imprisonment, he cured King Trdad III of a disease, which subsequently caused the king and the country to convert to Christianity. Hence, Armenia became the first Christian nation in the world in 301. We climbed down the ladder to his surprisingly large imprisonment chamber and saw the hole, which was his secret source of food. There wasn’t much to see in the chapel itself but it’s definitely a worthwhile destination on a clear day!

Song of the Moment: Կարոյին (Karoyin) – Ներսիկ Իսպիրյան (Nersik Ispiryan) (as recommended by Ruben!)

If YOU want to go to Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap: All these sights took about 7 hours to see, starting and ending in Yerevan.  I haven’t explored the cheapest backpacker transportation option but I know there’s plenty of tours to chose from, taking a cab probably won’t be too expensive and if you’re lucky like me, you might be able to recruit a friend to take you! Garni cost 1000 drams for entrance (less than $3) and the other two sites were free. Don’t wear a skirt if you want to climb down the ladder to Gregory the Illuminator’s hole without flashing everyone!

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