Caucasian Vacation 13 (Armenia): Geghard

Near Garni (11 kilometers up the Azat River) is the UNESCO-listed Geghard Monastery, another medieval structure in a country that’s surely not wanting for any, though this one has more direct ties to the religious conversion of Armenia. Tradition holds that Saint Gregory the Illuminator, who Christianized the Armenian king in 301, built a small chapel in the area. The chapel eventually grew into the monastic complex it is today. The name came from the spear that supposedly pierced the body of the crucified Christ, though that spear is now housed in a church in Vagharshapat in western Armenia.

The Geghard Monastery, like the Noravank, is surrounded by cliffs, and the surrounding regions, historians believe, have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Before the Christianization of the country, pagan locals believed that the spring originating from the cave had divine properties. The spring and the cave eventually became part of the chapel and is today part of the monastery. The interiors of the chapel are filled with intricate designs, including those of a lion attacking an ox.

Today, coinciding with our visit, a religious service is going on, with what I assume to be a priest officiating the proceedings. He is reading something from a folder while another man whom I assume is another priest swings a thurible (incense burner). The smoke fills the chapel while a group of women to the side lets out a solemn song, imbuing the place with a somewhat eerie vibe.

On the second floor, accessed via a path outside of the chapel, a four-member group also belts out haunting renditions of what I assume are traditional religious songs. A roof hole provides the sole illumination. The whole scene is reminiscent of a scene from a movie.

Geghard represents the peak of medieval Armenian culture, successfully combining art, architecture, and nature into one structure that blends the natural, the artificial, and the spiritual into one remarkable complex.

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