If ancient pagan temples, rock-carved monasteries and otherworldly geological formations are what you’re after, Armenia’s Kotayk Province is home to all three. Garni Temple, Geghard Monastery and the ‘Symphony of the Stones,’ all must-visit destinations in their own right, can easily be combined into a single day trip from Yerevan. And best of all, it’s relatively easy to do independently (more below). If you can only choose one day trip out of Yerevan, make it this one.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000, Geghard Monastery’s exact origins are a mystery. Scholars suspect, however, that it was originally an active pagan center of worship. It was later likely converted to a monastery in the time of Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century AD.
St. Gregory, the man who converted Armenian King Tridates III to Christianity, would go on to desecrate many of the region’s existing pagan temples, establishing Christian churches in their places. It’s safe to assume, then, that this mysterious location, with its caves and natural spring, has been a center of worship of some sort or another for well over 2,000 years.
Entering the monastery complex through its arched entranceway, I started my explorations in the main structure: Katogikhe Church. Like much of what we see today at Geghard Monastery, this church was constructed around the year 1215.
Sadly, most of Geghard was destroyed by invading Arab armies in the 10th century. Many manuscripts were lost, but the monastery was rebuilt along with numerous fortifications around it to prevent future attacks. Nevertheless, the territory would be later conquered by the Seljuk Turks.
It was Queen Tamar of Georgia, along with Armenian generals the Zakarids (vassals of the Orbelians), who finally drove the Seljuks out in the 1200s. And it’s from that point that much of Geghard Monastery was reconstructed.
Aside from the ornate and elegant main church, be sure to explore the adjacent gavit and its accompanying cave shrines. It’s here that you can find a natural spring that locals have long believed to have curative properties. Even today, people line up to scoop up a sip with their hands.
This part of the monastery has largely been carved directly from the natural rock, giving it a look and atmosphere unlike any other monastery I encountered in Armenia. Numerous detailed patterns and kachkars (cross stones) have been meticulously carved into the walls. The carvings are largely believed to be the work of a 13th-century architect named Galdzak.
In one room, don’t miss the mysterious image of two lions on either side of an eagle carrying a ram! It’s a type of symbol not normally found in a Christian church, and it’s said to be the ancestral blazon of the Proshyan princes, vassals of the Zakarids. The details in the nearby cross, meanwhile, are stunning.
Considering this was all carved from the natural rock, there was absolutely no room for error!
What’s more, is that you can even walk up to the second floor and spy on the room below through a hole in one of the corners. The upper floor is only lit by the natural sunlight, giving it an especially mysterious and eerie vibe.
Next, I went to explore the exterior area. From the outside, Katogikhe Church looks fairly standard, but there are some additional carvings around the door that you shouldn’t miss.
This church once contained remnants of a spear used by Roman soldiers to attack Jesus. Geghardavank means ‘Monastery of the Spear,’ and this spear is now on display at Etchmiadzin. The church also once contained a supposed wood fragment from Noah’s Ark, now kept in Etchmiadzin as well.
Over to the side, visitors can walk up to Proshyan prince Papak and his wife Ruzukan’s tombs. Carved into the natural rock, they’ve been decorated with various kachkars. Prevalent throughout Armenia, these carved crosses serve a variety of functions. They can act as gravestones, protective talismans or just as pretty artwork.
There are even a few more cave areas to explore throughout the complex. And there’s no shortage of kachkars, whether carved into stone slabs or on the wall of the rock itself.
During my visit, I saw a few people walking around on the upper part of the rocky area. Wanting to go check it out for myself, I was blocked by a locked gate. I’m still not sure exactly how the other visitors managed to get there, but there was likely some kind of secret passageway that I missed.
In any case, my time was running out, as our taxi driver would be expecting us soon (more below). I headed back to the main entrance, which is where I made a surprise discovery.
In the front of the entrance is a staircase taking visitors up to yet another rocky area. And it’s here that I came across a sizable cave featuring a tiny shrine dedicated to Mary. For a long time, monks used to live in the many caves that were carved into the surrounding cliffs.
And it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some kind of ancient religious connection between Geghard and my next destination, Garni Temple.
Garni Temple is one of Armenia’s most popular landmarks. And for a number of reasons, it’s one of the country’s most unique. First of all, it’s the only surviving Greco-Roman colonnaded structure within the former Soviet Union. And it’s also the only surviving pagan temple in all of Armenia.
Pre-Christian Armenia would’ve been full of fascinating temples, often constructed at the country’s most scenic locations. Sadly, these were nearly all destroyed by early Christians who built churches right over them. So how did Garni Temple manage to survive?
We’re not really sure, but there are a couple of theories. A king named Tridates III was ruler when Christianity became Armenia’s official religion. Supposedly, his sister used Garni as a summer palace, thus sparing it from destruction. But some say the structure is a tomb and not a temple, which is why it was left alone.
Most believe, however, that it was indeed a temple dedicated to Mihr, the local sun god. But Mihr was likely just the Armenian name for the Persian deity, Mithra.
A Greek inscription, now on display near the entrance, names King Tridates as the temple’s founder. Experts believe this was Tridates I, who ruled from 52 – 88 AD (with numerous interruptions in between). And according to historical records, Tridates was both a devout Zoroastrian and Mithraist.
During Tridates’ reign, and as would be the case for the next several centuries, Armenia was right in the middle of a dispute between the Romans and the Persians. And Iran at the time was controlled by the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD).
Interestingly, Tridates was himself a Parthian prince of mixed Greek and Persian descent. But later in his reign, Tridates even went to Rome to be officially appointed as a Roman client king by Emperor Nero!
The political history of Armenia from this period is confusing and convoluted, to say the least. But a quick overview helps explain why one of Armenia’s most significant pre-Christian structures was built in the Greco-Roman style in dedication to a Persian sun god!
Scholars have even suggested that Tridates I was one of the main people responsible for promoting and spreading Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire. Interestingly, Armenia’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century would also inspire Rome to convert to the religion just a few decades later.
Garni Temple was built in the Ionic order of classical architecture, which is characterized by scroll-like ‘volutes’ at a column’s top, or ‘capital.’ Columns of Ionic buildings also have bases, as you can see at Garni.
The height of an Ionic structure is divided into five parts. The column, including the capital, should take up 4/5ths of the total height. The remaining fifth is comprised of the structure’s roof, made up of an ‘architrave,’ ‘frieze,’ and ‘cornice.’ And this is all topped with a triangular ‘pediment.’
Garni Temple appears to be in good condition today, and that’s largely thanks to reconstruction efforts which took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. Looking closely, you can see the different colors of the stone.
Today, as the only complete remaining pre-Christian temple, Garni acts as the main center of worship for the Armenian neopagan movement. The movement hopes to strengthen national identity while bringing back worship of old local gods like Anahita and Mihr. And what better place to do it than here?
Notably, centuries before this temple was even built, the land was conquered by Yerevan’s founder, King Argishti I of Urartu. And a cuneiform inscription from the 8th century BC was discovered at the site which praises the ancient god Khaldi!
In addition to the ruins of an old palace next to the main structure, don’t miss the well-preserved Roman baths. At the far end, you’ll find a mosaic tile floor with Greek lettering. Part of the original is now on display at the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan.
Symphony of the Stones
When finished with Garni Temple, don’t head back to Yerevan just yet. Just below the temple, within Garni Gorge, is one of Armenia’s, if not the entire region’s, most amazing geological oddities.
First head back outside the main entrance. Next to a water fountain, you should find a trail leading downward (toward the left if facing Garni Temple). If in doubt, there should also be a small sign leading visitors to the ‘Symphony of the Stones.’
After ten or fifteen minutes of walking, the mysterious rock formations will start to come into view. But be sure to keep walking all the way down into the gorge, as the best views are yet to come.
The preserved basalt columns almost look like a modern art exhibit rather than an act of nature. And parts of the gorge closely resemble the pipes of an organ, hence the ‘Symphony of the Stones’ moniker. It’s an otherworldly and truly extraordinary sight.
Supposedly, such shapes are formed when rock of volcanic origin cools down and then contracts, creating a series of long, narrow cracks. While some of the columns are perfectly straight, water erosion has caused others to twist and bend.
Reaching the bottom, where the road splits into two, the most impressive formations can be found by heading left. (This was the only refurbished portion of the road at the time of my visit, though they may have finished the rest of it by now.)
Occasionally you’ll find small caverns in the side of the rock (surely used for rituals by the ancients?). And you’ll notice that the layered basalt columns form both stalactites and stalagmites – if those are even the right terms in this case!
In some sections, the hexagonal columns can reach as high as 50 meters. While I’ve visited some impressive and unique geological formations in various countries around the world, I’d never seen anything quite like this before.
All in all, you should be able to explore the gorge in around 30 minutes on foot. Even if Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple didn’t exist, Symphony of the Stones would still be well worth the trip from Yerevan. For whatever reason, many organized day trips don’t even stop here, which is why it’s highly recommended to do this excursion independently.
This is one of the few day trips out of Yerevan for which an organized tour isn’t necessary. However, getting around to all the sites can still be a little bit tricky, and you’ll want to hire a private taxi at some point.
A marshrutka (minibus) departs from Yerevan straight to Garni Temple. But getting to the bus stop to begin with poses a bit of challenge, as it’s well outside of the city center. It’s at a place called the Gai Bus Stop, which isn’t a regular bus station. It’s just a little area along a normal street with no special signage.
The bus stop should show up on Google Maps, but you might not be able to input it into your ridesharing app. If not, just ride to the Mercedes Benz dealership which is right around the corner. The minivans won’t be found along the main road but a minute or two on foot down the nearest side street.
Confusingly, you’ll find minivans with Garni written on them on both sides of the street. Coming across one that was empty, I waited for awhile, assuming that another one had just left before my arrival.
Thankfully, some helpful locals asked me if I was going to Garni, and then pointed me to the other side of the road. Sure enough, there was a van there that was just about to depart. (It had no writing on the back, so I couldn’t tell from across the street.) The ride only costs 250 AMD per person, and you have the option of either getting off at Garni Temple or the village of Goght, somewhat nearby Geghard Monastery.
As is typical with marshrutkas, the ride isn’t very comfortable at all. But since the Garni Temple and Geghard are just 20-30 km away, it doesn’t last too long.
I decided to get off at Goght first and then walk to Geghard Monastery before finishing the day at Garni Temple and Symphony of the Stones. I was told that I could walk from Goght to the monastery in about 30-40 minutes. Getting off the minibus, however, Google Maps told me the walk would take 90 minutes!
I started walking with a couple of other tourists who were on the same marshrutka. But we were only a minute down the road when a local driver stopped, telling us to get in. Hitchhiking is common in Armenia, but we were simply walking and didn’t have our thumbs out. I had a hunch he was going to ask us for money, and I was right.
He asked for 3,000 AMD for the three of us, and he would also come back an hour later to take us back to Garni. We agreed, and everything worked smoothly from there. On the ride to Geghard, I felt that the Google Maps estimation was accurate, and was really glad that we didn’t end up walking that whole way.
Later, when dropping us off at Garni, the driver pointed out the stop for the marshrutka back to Yerevan, about a 6 or 7-minute walk from the temple entrance.
I’d recommend the route I took, and don’t think it would be too difficult to find a taxi to Geghard from Goght. Or, you can just visit Garni/Symphony of the Stones first and arrange a roundtrip deal to Geghard with a taxi driver when finished.
Marshrutkas back to Yerevan from Garni leave pretty regularly until the evening, and they cost the same amount as the ride over.
For whatever reason, accommodation prices in Yerevan are considerably higher than those of nearby Tbilisi. This is in spite of most other things, like food and transport, costing the same amount. If budget isn’t an issue for you, then you should base yourself in the city center (within the circle or just outside of it).
Yerevan makes a great base from which to explore many other parts of Armenia. If you’re doing an extended stay in the city and want to save some money, staying outside the center will be fine. Just make sure that you’re within close distance of a metro station.
I stayed at Glide Hostel which I’d highly recommend for budget travelers. I opted for the private room with a private bathroom, but they also have some shared bathroom and dorm options available.
The guesthouse is located about 5 minutes on foot from Baregamutyun Station, the northernmost metro station. But you can still walk to the city center in about 30 minutes if the weather is nice. The staff were friendly and helpful, and a tasty breakfast was provided each morning.
As Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, most visitors enter the country overland from Georgia. And from Tbilisi you have a couple of options.
You can take a minubus from Ortachala Station or from outside Avlabari Station. Additionally, shared taxis depart from outside the central railway station. Prices will vary depending on the transportation method, but expect to pay around 20 GEL for the minibus and up to 50 GEL for a shared taxi.
The ride typically lasts 5-6 hours. There will usually be at least one vehicle departing per hour. But rather than a set schedule, most drivers will wait until the vehicle fills up. Typically, you’ll be dropped off at Yerevan central bus station Kilikia, from where you’ll need to take another bus or a taxi to get to the city center.
Not being a fan of long minibus rides, I opted for the train instead.
The only train option is a night train (train 371) which departs at 20:20 at arrived at 6:55. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to buy tickets online, as you’ll need to navigate through a web site that’s only in Russian. To make matters worse, the site is unsecured. It’s best to buy tickets in person at least a few days in advance at Tbilisi Central Station. Be sure to bring your passport.
I got a second-class ticket for around 90 GEL – considerably more expensive than the prices I’d read about online. I was in a cabin with three other travelers but we had enough space and it was fun chatting and sharing snacks up until it was time to go to bed. Unlike my prior night train experience to Zugdidi, this time we got sheets. Be sure to bring earplugs in case someone’s traveling with an infant!
Supposedly, during non-peak months (late September – mid-June), the train only leaves every other day. While I’d read that it only departs on even-numbered days, I asked if they had a ticket for the 17th, and they said yes. I didn’t inquire further, and am not completely sure how the system currently works.
The train is both slower and more expensive than the other options. However, it’s the easiest and most straightforward when it comes to passing through immigration. Normally, immigration officers at both sides of the border will come on the train to check your passport. No need to wait in line with all your luggage. While I did have to get off the train and line up at a booth while leaving Georgia, it only lasted a couple of minutes.
Upon arrival in Yerevan, you’ll encounter an ATM, and the central railway station is connected to the metro. There aren’t any SIM card vendors in the station so be sure to print out or pre-load your accommodation info on your phone. I later got a SIM card at the Beeline shop on Northern Avenue.