Not even five minutes had passed since stepping off the minibus from Yerevan, and I’d already struck a deal for a trip around town with a local taxi driver. My main objective for visiting Alaverdi was a hike from Sanahin to Haghpat, two UNESCO World Heritage sites. ‘But why not kill some extra time on my first day?’ I thought. To my surprise, this little adventure ended up being one of the highlights of my entire Armenia trip. And Akhtala Monastery, in particular, would even impress me more than its better-known neighbors.
Situated within the picturesque Debed Canyon, Alaverdi has been a prominent religious and cultural center for both Armenia and Georgia for over 1,000 years. More recently, under Russian rule in the 19th century, Alaverdi was transformed into a copper mining town. And it continued to act as an important industrial center during Soviet times.
Today, due to concerns over toxic emissions, mining and smelting activities have largely come to a halt. But remains of former mines and factories can be seen all over town. At some points, I felt like I was on the set of an old Wild West movie, forgetting I was halfway around the world in northern Armenia.
My hotel was situated on the plateau atop the canyon, and I immediately got a glimpse of the region’s stunning scenery on the drive up from the town center. We then headed back down after I checked in and dropped off my bags, stopping first at one of the town’s most notable landmarks.
What’s now known as the Alaverdi-Sanahin Bridge has been helping people cross the Debed River since it was built in 1195! It appears to be in great shape today, and it even has some lazy lions carved into either end of the railing.
As my driver was off somewhere to get some smokes, I stood over the river, taking in the scenery for several minutes. And upon his return, we could begin our afternoon adventure, one which would end up lasting much longer than I anticipated.
Our first stop of the day was the highlight of the tour for me. In fact, I’d even say that Akhtala Monastery was the most interesting landmark I visited in Lori Province.
While Sanahin and Haghpat Monasteries (which I’d visit the next day) get most of the attention due to their UNESCO World Heritage status, Akhtala Monastery is the true hidden gem of northern Armenia. By this point, I’d already visited at least a couple dozen churches in Armenia, but Akhtala stood out among all the rest.
Back in its day, Akhtala Monastery doubled as a fortress. The hill on which the monastery stands is surrounded by canyons on three sides, making it ideal for defense in those dangerous and uncertain times.
The ruling Bagratuni family built walls around the hill and a tall tower by the northern entrance. Though much of the tower is gone, present-day visitors to the church still walk through the old entrance gate.
The original church was also built in the 10th century, though the structure standing today was constructed between 1212-1250. Archaeological excavations have continued to uncover kachkar cross-stone and other artwork from Akhtala Monastery’s past, which are now on display in the courtyard.
The site itself, however, is even far older. Bronze and iron artifacts discovered in the area suggest that Akhtala has been inhabited since as early as the 8th century BC.
Akhtala Monastery’s main structure is known as Surp Astvatsatsin, or the Holy Mother of God church. Architecturally, it was built in a fairly typical Armenian style, consisting of a cruciform-shaped structure topped with gabled roofs.
Walking inside, however, reveals an entirely different picture.
Once inside, visitors are bombarded with a beautiful array of murals. The entirety of the spacious interior is covered in them. Out of all the churches I visited in the Caucasus, this was by far the most colorful.
But why is Akhtala Monastery so different from the others? Part of this has to do with its interesting past, and the fact that it ‘switched sides,’ so to speak, from one religious institution to another.
After the Seljuk Empire took over Armenia, a joint Georgian-Armenian army was assembled in the 13th century to drive them out. And after liberating Armenia, Ivane I Zakarian, a Georgian-Armenian general who served under Queen Tamar, took control of Akhtala.
Ivane then decided to convert from the Armenian Apostolic to the Georgian Orthodox Church, and he had Akhtala Monastery converted as well. As such, the frescoes decorating the interior are Georgian-Byzantine in style. But I have yet to visit a church so vibrant in either country!
I happened to be the only person in the church, which no longer remains active. And I took my time observing the frescoes, which range from the 14th-18th centuries. As such, some are in a much better state of preservation than others.
Around the church, you’ll find fairly typical representations of saints and of scenes from the New Testament. Interestingly, despite the foreign style of the artwork, figures relevant to the Armenian Apostolic Church, such as Saint Gregory the Illuminator, make appearances as well.
Entrance is free, though there was a woman inside selling some trinkets, and I was more than happy to buy one.
Another interesting bit of trivia is that according to legend, this church once contained the cross that John the Baptist used to baptize Jesus. Supposedly, at some point, it was later transferred to Noravank.
The murals aren’t the only unique thing about Akhtala Monastery. Outside along the wall are the ruins of a multistoried palace, which was perhaps an old residence for fortress guards. Though the building is in terrible shape, you can still walk down the staircase to what would’ve been the basement.
Nearby, you can even step in some underground tunnels and chambers that appear from above as large holes in the ground. These were likely used to store relics or maybe wine. It was certainly one of the more unique things I came across at a monastery in Armenia!
But that’s not all. Ivane Zakarian himself is said to be buried on monastery grounds. And one of the nearby cliffs, according to local legend, is where Tamerlane of the invading Timurid Empire buried one of his wives.
On the way to our next destination, we briefly stopped at a mountaintop kachkar cross-stone to take in some more fantastic scenery.
Our next stop was Odzun Monastery, to the west of Alaverdi. Odzun was constructed between 5th – 7th centuries. It was then reconstructed in the 8th century by Bishop Hovhannes, who resided here from 717 AD.
The church is remarkably well preserved, largely thanks to restorations which took place in the 19th century and again in the 1980s. And even more recently, in 2014.
The elegant structure takes its pink color from a type of volcanic stone called felsite, which was used in its 8th-century reconstruction.
Odzun Church is a domed building that’s supported by four pillars, all of which are connected by stone arches. But as great a shape the structure is in, its reliefs have not survived. The mural of Mary above the altar was only added in 2009.
Coming here straight from Akhtala Monastery, the lack of color was immediately noticeable. But that’s not to say the interior is entirely void of decoration.
During my visit, I met the local monk who spoke great English. He went about showing me some small carved stone reliefs at various points of the church that I may have missed on my own. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call, but from my understanding, the carvings date back to the church’s original incarnation.
Back outside, you’ll notice spacious arched galleries surrounding the church – an uncommon feature in Armenian architecture. Elsewhere around the church grounds are a cemetery, lots of kachkar cross-stones, and a peculiar double-arched monument containing tall limestone steles.
While not nearly as impressive as Akhtala Monastery, Odzun Church is still worth the visit for those basing themselves in Alaverdi for a few days.
While Akhtala and Odzun were all that were on my itinerary for the day, my hospitable driver had a few other surprises in store for me.
Horomayri Monastery Viewpoint
Around 1 km south of Odzun, my driver slowly headed toward a small, basic church situated along the cliffside. But first, we had to wait for a couple dozen cows to pass before we could proceed.
The highlight here, it turns out, was not the ordinary-looking church along the ridge, but a view of a much more elaborate church down below.
Horomayri dates back to 1187. Its main church is St. Mark’s church, built by Ivane Zakarian, the same prince who changed Akhtala Monastery from an Armenian church to a Georgian one. His brother Zakare also had a contributing role, while later additions were built in the early 13th century.
Supposedly, it’s possible to climb up to Horomayri from the highway. And as I would read later on, some even hike down from the cliffside where I stood. But during my visit, there were no obvious trails and I wouldn’t have guessed that hiking down was even an option.
We hung out for awhile just as the sun was beginning to set. Though I’d done a fair bit of traveling around Armenia by this point, the Debed Canyon has to be among the country’s most beautiful locations.
The sun had just set and it was already getting dark. But my driver still had one more monastery he wanted me to see. ‘To see everything in Alaverdi, it takes one week. Maybe two!’ he’d tell me repeatedly throughout the day.
He stopped the car next to a train track and told me we’d arrived. He pointed to a nondescript spot partway up the mountain and told me ‘Kobayr.’ Kobayr Monastery hadn’t come up in my research, and it wasn’t visible at all from the road. But I’d end up finding out what it was before long.
I walked over the train track. And just as I was wondering how often trains pass by, I heard one approaching from behind. Then, after passing the track, I noticed a typical red and white trail marker. Apparently, I was walking along part of the official Transcaucasian Hiking Trail!
But it didn’t feel like I was on a trail, as I soon found myself in a small village built along multiple levels of the hillside. The little alleyways seemed to be arranged in a labyrinth, and I repeatedly found myself encountering dead ends. It felt like traversing a videogame.
Thankfully, I saw a local resident who pointed me in the right direction. I walked further up a steep rocky trail before seeing the ruins of the former monastery in the distance.
Construction on Kobayr Monastery first began in 1171, while more was added a century later. And the Zakarian family played a major role in this monastery’s history as well. As with Akhtala Monastery, Kobayr, originally an Armenian Apostolic church, was later converted to a Georgian Orthodox one.
Accordingly, Georgian inscriptions can be seen along some of the walls.
Supposedly, the church is undergoing some renovations, but this was hardly evident during my visit. Many of the buildings were entirely collapsed, with the ground covered in rubble. But that just adds to Kobayr’s appeal for lovers of old ruins.
It was pretty dark by this point, and I’d been all alone during the hike up. But who else did I encounter within the main sanctuary but a large group of schoolchildren!
I had no idea what they were doing there, as this was such an odd time and place for a school field trip. And their teachers were equally surprised to see another visitor, though they relaxed when it was clear I was just a random foreigner taking some photos of ruins.
The children had left some candles as part of some kind of ceremony. While waiting for them to finish, I stepped outside to admire the caves on the cliffside. Interestingly, I noticed some rock patterns very similar to those of the Symphony of the Stones.
I’d later learn that Kobayr Monastery has some excellent, albeit faded, frescoes along one of its ruined walls. But with the visibility so poor at the time of my visit, I never noticed them.
Getting back down was fairly troublesome. Not only was it dark and steep, but I had to weave my way in and out of 30 or so middle schoolers. Caught up in the human traffic jam, we had some brief chats with each other in English. But no one could speak enough to explain what they were doing there.
Thankfully, my driver was still there waiting for me in the darkness. Even in the dark, there was one more thing he wanted to show me on the drive back to town: a massive ancient wine jug just sitting there beside the highway.
The Debed Canyon certainly has no shortage of surprises.
From Yerevan, it’s possible to take a marshrutka to Alaverdi from the Central Bus Station (Kilikia). The process is anything but straightforward, however.
Researching online, I read on a few web sites that there were no morning buses at all. Meanwhile, on others, I read about a 9 or 9:30 am bus, and that the price would be 1700 AMD. And I also read that there were shared taxis departing from the station for 3000 AMD as well.
With so much conflicting information, I asked my hotel in Yerevan to double check for me. And after checking a supposedly up-to-date Armenian web site, the owner confirmed that yes, there’d be a bus departing around 9am.
Despite being the main bus terminal of the capital city, Kilikia completely lacks English signage. Getting there before 9am, I managed to find the proper waiting area by checking the Armenian spelling on my phone. But no bus ever showed up.
Note that most buses headed to Alaverdi end up going all the way to Tbilisi, Georgia. And luckily, I did end up finding a Tbilisi-bound minibus departing at 10am – a time which never appeared in any of my research. And the cost was 3000 AMD, more than I was expecting. But I was just happy to have a ride.
There were a few other English-speaking tourists on my minibus who were equally bewildered, but we all had a good laugh about it. One of them said he managed to buy an advanced ticket the day before, but the time written on it was 10:30. Had he not arrived extra early, he would’ve missed it!
Getting to Alaverdi from Yerevan seems to mostly rely on luck rather than planning.
But that’s not where the confusion ended. Though our driver confirmed with me more than once that I was indeed headed for Alaverdi and not Tbilisi, he later ended up forgetting and drove way past town! He spoke no English, so I had to shout in horribly broken Russian from the back of the bus, reminding him to stop for me.
He then turned around and dropped me off in the center of town, though the other Armenian passengers were grumbling throughout the whole backward journey.
Note that some people also visit the monasteries featured above, in addition to Sanahin and Haghpat, with the city of Vanadzor as their base. Vanadzor is the capital of Lori Province and while I didn’t go there, I heard good things about it from another traveler. But I thought Alaverdi was beautiful and certainly don’t regret staying there. Also, I could simply walk to the Sanahin Monastery from my hotel.
You can also get to Alaverdi from Tbilisi by hiring a marshrutka or shared taxi bound for Yerevan. Expect to pay the full fare even if you get off early. Supposedly, the night train even stops at Alaverdi, but just for a minute. Learn more about Tbilisi-Yerevan transport at the end of this article.
I stayed for two nights in a private room at a small hotel called Mini House, which I’d highly recommend for budget travelers.
It’s important to understand that Alaverdi is really two towns in one. There’s the lower part and the upper part (officially known as Sarahart) that’s situated atop the canyon. Mini House is on the upper part and it’s within walking distance from the Mikoyan Brothers Museum and Sanahin Monastery. You can then easily start the hike to Haghpat Monastery after visiting Sanahin.
It’s impossible to walk in between lower and upper Alaverdi. One option is to take a marshrutka for a couple hundred dram. I tried it once and all the seats were full. I needed to stand hunched over, holding on for dear life as the driver speedily zigzagged up the mountain.
Much more comfortable is taking a taxi. The standard rate is 1,000 AMD one-way, though perhaps you can haggle it down a little bit. There’s also a rickety old funicular connecting the two levels, but it was out of service during my visit.
As far as getting around to the main monasteries, there are public buses to some of them. However, I would recommend doing what I did: First, spend one day with a private driver visiting Akhtala, Odzun and other monasteries. (I paid around 10,000 AMD for the excursion.)
Then the next day, you can get from Sanahin to Haghpat Monastery on foot. The last public marshrutka leaves from Haghpat Monastery to central Alaverdi at 17:00.
As for finding a taxi driver, it’s likely one will find you upon arrival in Alaverdi. Something I’ve learned in the Caucasus is that in smaller cities, it’s best to be polite and listen to what people who approach you in English have to say.
They’re not like the typical annoying touts you might encounter in other countries. On the contrary, they may be one of the only English speakers in town who could potentially be of great help to you. Even if you need time to relax at your hotel before agreeing on a deal, at least get their contact info so you can get in touch later.