Armenia is a country known for its churches. It’s no surprise, since it was the first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion, all the way back in 301 AD. It may not seem like it now, but this was quite innovative at the time! And since the beginning, Armenian churches have played a central part in the history of the country, and the daily lives of its people. It’s no surprise that most tours of Armenia will include quite a few stops at these impressive monasteries.
If you’re not so much into churches, that’s ok too, because Armenia has a lot more to offer as well! But if you want to full Armenian experience, make sure you check out a few of these amazing religious sites.
Most of the Armenian churches were built in medieval times. The ones that were destroyed during wars and earthquakes have usually been rebuilt as per their original plan, with some modern touches. Although the Armenian churches built in different periods have distinct features, they also have quite a few common characteristics.
Here are some ways to spot typical Armenian churches. Their pointed domes resemble the volcanic funnel of Greater Ararat and are attached above arched ceilings. Often, the vertical accent of the whole building and its height exceed the length of the church. They are almost entirely made of stone and have arched, stone ceilings.
The 10 best churches in Armenia
It’s important to note that these churches and monasteries are not presented in any order. They all hold something unique and beautiful to discover. Although we’re not religious, it’s hard to deny the work and dedication the people who built these churches had. If nothing more, the churches are works of architectural art.
This is probably one of the most important churches in Armenia. Its history is also quite impressive as it is said to be the birthplace of christianity. The story dates back to 287, when Tiridates III was put on the throne by the Romans. His predecessor had been murdered by St Gregory’s father, but the young Gregory managed to escape to Cappadocia where he became a Christian.
He then came back to Armenia to start converting others to the religion. This didn’t work out too well since Tiridates threw Gregory into an underground pit where he remained for thirteen years, surrounded by snakes and rats. You can actually go down into this pit when you visit Khor Virap. It’s tiny enough as it is, it’s hard to imagine what it was like back in his time!
The story says that God struck the King with a terrible illness. The King’s sister, obviously the wise one in the family, said that the best way to cure him was to release Gregory. As a result, the King miraculously recovered and converted to Christianity, along with his court. It was in 301 that Armenia was declared a Christian country.
Not only is this church beautiful, but its surroundings are as well! Its backdrop is non other than the stunning Mount Ararat. This is probably the best spot to see this impressive mountain.
Noravank, about 2 hours out of Yerevan, was built in the 13th century. It’s a great example of the ornate architecture of the period. On the site, you will find three surviving churches, each decorated in intricate designs and religious reliefs, mainly created by Momik. He also carved many “khachkars”, typical Armenian religious monuments that usually consist of a cross surmounting a circular symbol.
The monastery is best known for its two-storey Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church. You can climb up to the second level by a narrow stone-made staircase jutting out from the face of building. Luckily, there is a rope to help you up.
The church is also set in the most beautiful place. Up on a cliffside, surrounded by tall rock walls.
The monastery of Geghard is probably one of the most impressive in Armenia. Most of the monuments here were built between the 4th and 13th century, and large parts were carved straight out the mountain it sits on.
This beautiful complex of medieval buildings is surrounded by great natural beauty, at the entrance of the Azat Valley. With high cliffs that surround the northern side of the monastery, and a defensive wall that circles the rest. It’s clear to see why this medieval monastery is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What makes Geghard even more special is that the spear, which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion, was allegedly brought to Armenia by Apostle Jude, and stored amongst many other relics at this church. The name “Geghard” actually means “spear”. But don’t expect to see the spear at the church, it has since been moved to Etchmiadzin.
St Grigor Lusavorich cathedral
This is the newest of the churches on this list. Its construction started in 1997 and was completed 4 years later, in 2001. The Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, which is also known as the Cathedral of Yerevan is currently the world’s largest cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s also the largest Armenian cathedral and is conveniently located in the central part of Yerevan, in the Kentron District.
As if it wasn’t big enough, it’s also considered to be one of the largest religious buildings in the South Caucasus. It’s also home to the relics and holy remains of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, brought from Naples, in Italy. Make sure to go during the day, and at night. It looks quite different when it’s lit up!
Tatev monastery is probably the furthest to get to in Armenia. The route there will take about 3-4 hours from Yerevan, but it’s well worth it. Not only is Tatev a beautiful monastery, but it has a really cool mode of transportation to get there. The Wings of Tatev! This is the World’s longest reversible ropeway, measuring a whopping 5,752 m. The views from the tramway are just epic!
This monastery was built in the 9th-century, on a large basalt plateau. The monastic complex stands on the edge of a deep gorge and offers spectacular views of the mountains and valleys.
Tatev played a significant role in the history as a centre of economic, political, spiritual and cultural activity. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, it hosted one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, contributing to the advancement of science, religion and philosophy, reproduction of books and development of miniature painting.
Today, parts of the monastery are under renovation to restore it to its past glory. The experience of getting to Tatev, combined with the beauty of the complex and the impressive surroundings make it one of our favourites!
Etchmiadzin Armenian Apostolic Church
About 30 minutes outside of Yerevan, in the city of Vagharshapat, this cathedral is a very important landmark of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s basically like the Vatican for Armenians and is considered to be one of the first and oldest cathedrals not only in Armenia, but the whole world.
The original church was built in the early 4th century by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. We hope you guys remember who this guy is after everything we’ve mentioned about him! It was believed that the church was built where where Christ had struck the earth with a hammer. But after many archaeological studies, it was shown that beneath the cathedral, there is in fact, a Roman temple.
The shape and structure of Etchmiadzin are actually the blueprint for most Armenian churches that were built after it. The museum of the church is quite impressive to visit as well.
This is one of Armenia’s most visited churches, mainly because it’s set on the beautiful and beloved Lake Sevan. The monastic complex of Sevanavank is set high atop the peninsula of the Lake.
Fun fact (that’s not so fun): the monastery was initially set on top of an island, but because of the artificial draining of Lake Sevan during Stalin’s era, the island turned into a peninsula. The water levels dropped 20 meters, which is considerable (and a shame).
The church is small, but really beautiful. It’s a short climb to get to it, but the views you get up there are really stunning!
Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, Haghartsin is near Dilijan, about 2 hours outside of Yerevan. It’s actually situated in the Dilijan national park and is a stop on the Transcaucasian Trail, a long-distance hiking route.
Hagartsin’s name actually comes from the eagles who soar above it, as it means “games of eagles”. That’s probably why the image of this proud bird can be seen on its walls.
Sitting atop the the canyon, Haghartsin is one of the most mysterious places in Armenia. On the site, you will find 3 churches, St. Gregory church (11th century), St. Astvatsatsin church (1281), St. Stepanos church (1244) as well as the 13th century chapel, the tomb of Bagratids (12th century), the refectory (1248) and various premises built in the 12th & 13th centuries.
Again, the surroundings of the church make it even more beautiful to discover. Make sure you walk around to get a full sense of how impressive this whole site is.
Churches in Artsakh
Some may argue that Artsakh is not part of Armenia, but we beg to differ. Artsakh has been inhabited by Armenians for generations, and it was only when the maps for the post Soviet Union were drawn that this beautiful plot of land was given to Azerbaijan. Today, the Republic of Artsakh is a de facto independent country in the South Caucasus.
If you are in Armenia, we strongly urge you to visit Artsakh. It is very safe to go to, you just need to get a visa at the border, and you’re all set! When you’re there, there are 2 main churches to visit.
Built between the 10th to 13th century monastery in the Mardakert district, welcome to Gandzasar monastery. The monastery holds relics believed to belong to St. John the Baptist and his father St Zechariah. It’s also the seat of the Archbishop of Artsakh appointed by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
“Gandzasar” actually means treasure mountain or hilltop treasure in Armenian. It’s probably because it really does look like a treasure atop the hill. The surrounding mountains and valleys are also a beautiful sight to see… just don’t make the same mistake as us and go when it’s still light out!
Ghazanchetsots is in Shushi (or Shusha) and is the seat of the Diocese of Artsakh. Although the cathedral was recently rebuilt, it is quite a historic place. They started building the cathedral in 1868 and it was consecrated 20 years later, in 1888.
During the 1920 massacre of the Armenians, it was heavily damaged and it only fell into a decline in the following decades. Then, during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990’s, Azerbaijan used the cathedral as an armoury, knowing Armenians would never attack a church. When the Armenians won the war, they restored to its current glory in 1998.
At 35 metres (115 ft) high, Ghazanchetsots is one of the largest Armenian churches in the world. It’s also a beacon of hope and a beloved landmark of Shushi and Karabakh.
There are a ton of other beautiful churches to visit in Armenia. Seriously, a ton! From Saghmosavank, to Zvartnots, Goshavank, Vahramashen, and Sanahin, the list goes on and on! Depending on your style of travel and what you like to see, you can easily cross a few of these off your bucketlist, as most are easy to get to.
Have you been to Armenia? What were your favourite churches to see? Let us know in the comments.
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