Touring the Monasteries of Khor Virap & Noravank

Last Updated on: 8th September 2020, 06:12 pm

While Armenia may be a tiny country, it’s incredibly dense in terms of historical and religious landmarks. Just about every town, it seems, is home to at least one beautiful monastery set amongst a stunning natural backdrop. And in a single day trip from Yerevan, it’s easy to go and visit two of them: Khor Virap and Noravank.

Given the general lack of public transport to many of the country’s important sites, taking an organized tour is often the easiest and cheapest option. While you may not be able to spend as much time at the monasteries as you’d like, it’s nice not to deal with the hassle of negotiating with a private driver.

Furthermore, most organized day trips include an additional site I might not have put forth the effort to see on my own: Areni Cave. The cave, it turns out, is home to some of the world’s very oldest archaeological discoveries.

Khor Virap Monastery

Khor Virap, which literally translates to ‘deep pit,’ is most known for two things: being where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for his Christian beliefs, and for being the best place from which to view Mt. Ararat. The latter, however, is entirely dependent on the weather.

The monastery is located near the town of Artashat, one of ancient Armenia’s historic capitals. And back in the 4th century AD, this land functioned as the local prison. Instead of cells, prisoners were thrown into pits. But more on that shortly.

Khor Virap Armenia
Khor Virap Armenia

Stepping inside the main compound, the first structure visitors encounter is the St. Astvatzatzin Church, or the ‘Church of the Holy Mother of God.’ The church dates back to 1662, long after Khor Virap was first established as a center of worship in the 7th century. 

Interestingly, during the time of this church’s construction, Armenia was under the control of the Muslim Persian Safavid Empire. It merely replaced an earlier structure that had been destroyed by the Timurid Empire, who wreaked havoc throughout much of the Caucasus.

While not especially impressive compared to other churches in Armenia, the structure is rather unique. Instead of the typical cruciform shape, the main hall is elongated. 

Khor Virap Armenia

Next, I headed into the St. Gevorg Chapel, the original structure of the monastery. It was constructed with white limestone around the year 640 by Catholicos Nerses III. At a time when Armenia was struggling to fend off Arab invasions, Neres attempted to strengthen Christianity in the region by building Khor Virap, along with Zvartnots Cathedral near Etchmiadzin.

And what better place to construct a church than over the pit that St. Gregory was once trapped in for years?

Khor Virap Armenia

Who was Gregory the Illuminator?

Saint Gregory, born in 257 as Grigor Lusavorich, served as an advisor to the Armenian king Tridates III. Armenia at the time was pagan, with the prominent local deity being Anahita, a healing and fertility goddess of Persian origin. 

While Tridates III was a devout worshiper of the locals gods, he was dismayed by the fact that Gregory was a Christian.

Triadates attempted on multiple occasions to get Gregory to convert to the local religion, but he refused to abandon his faith. To make matters more complicated, the king later discovered that Gregory’s father had killed his own father!

And so Tridates had Gregory thrown into a deep, dark pit and largely forgot about him.

Miraculously, however, Gregory managed to survive, largely in thanks to some nearby Christian residents who came to feed him. In total, he’d spend a grueling 13 years there.

Christians continued to be persecuted and murdered under the reign of Tridates. And as the story goes, the king gradually began to lose his mind. 

But then his sister repeatedly saw Gregory in her dreams (who most assumed had died years prior). And in her visions, she learned that only Gregory could cure her brother.

They went to go find him, and sure enough, he was still alive. Gregory managed to cure the king and he also forgave him for his numerous sins.

Tridates then became a convert and made Christianity the national religion of Armenia in the year 301. That makes Armenia the first Christian country in world history (and not long after came Georgia).

Khor Virap Armenia

Once inside the St. Gevorg chapel, visitors have the opportunity to descend into same dark hole where Gregory was imprisoned! Climbing down to the bottom of the musty pit, I encountered an icon of St. Gregory and some old crosses. Surely, it’s kept in a cleaner condition than in Gregory’s day.

I had to constantly bat flies away from my face, and after a couple of minutes, I was ready to head back up to the surface. I wouldn’t want to spend the night there, let alone 14 years!

Coming back up into the chapel, I saw that there was yet another pit people could access via a small staircase under the entrance. This pit was much tinier and contains only a small shrine.

Khor Virap Armenia
Khor Virap Armenia

I continued exploring the complex, coming across a few small chapels. While no longer accessible, there were likely once pits underneath these other structures as well, as Gregory wouldn’t have been the only person imprisoned here.

Furthermore, in addition to being a prison, the site was also home to an old pagan temple dedicated to Anahita. While no evidence of it remains at Khor Virap today, artifacts from this former temple are supposedly on display at the British Museum.

Another small chapel

Stepping out back, I went to appreciate the other thing which Khor Virap is famous for: the views of Mt. Ararat. Long believed to have been the landing point for Noah and his ark, Armenians have always cherished the mountain and considered it their national symbol.

But the land was taken over by the Ottomans when the Russian Empire controlled Armenia. And later, the Soviets failed to convince the Turks to give it back. As Khor Virap is only 100 m from the Turkish–Armenian border, it’s the closest Armenians can get to their sacred mountain from within the present borders.

Today, the land borders between Armenia and Turkey are closed, but Armenians can still enter Turkey via Georgia. I even met an Armenian woman who told me she’d traveled to Ararat before. But most people simply come to Khor Virap to admire it from a distance, or stand atop Yerevan’s Cascade Complex on a clear day.

Khor Virap Armenia
Mt. Ararat is there somewhere behind the clouds

Sadly, visibility was especially poor on the day of my visit, and we couldn’t see a thing. I’d later see it in its full glory from the the town of Dogubeyazit on the Turkish side of the border. But only briefly. Not long after, clouds came to obscure the view. Mt. Ararat sure is massive, but it’s also an incredibly elusive mountain.

Next to the monastery, there’s a large rocky outcrop which visitors can climb up for views of the monastery and the mountain. But even with the mountain view completely obscured this day, the view of the monastery from a distance was excellent.

Noravank Monastery

Our next destination was around around a 90-minute drive southeast. Located near the town of Yeghegnadzor, the scenic monastery of Noravank is situated within a large gorge. It was originally founded in 1105 by Bishop Hovhannes. And for centuries, it was strongly associated with the Orbelian family. 

The Orbelians were one of the most prominent feudal families in this part of Armenia at the time. They sponsored numerous monasteries like Noravank, and many family members have been buried here. In fact, a cemetery is one of the first things visitors encounter upon entry to the complex.

The main structure of Noravank Monastery is known as Surb Astvatsatsin (which shares the same name to that of Khor Virap mentioned above). Completed in 1339, the church is unique among Armenian religious buildings due to having two separate floors.

Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia

Outside in front, don’t miss the intricate relief carving of Jesus flanked by Peter and Paul. The church and its reliefs were largely designed by a famed miniaturist named Momik who’s buried just nearby. And all around the complex, you can find many of his exquisite kachkar stone carvings.

Noravank Armenia

Supposedly, this structure once contained a small piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified. While not there today, it might be one of the same alleged pieces now on display at Etchmiadzin.

Visitors can climb up to the second floor, but you’ll need to walk up a narrow staircase which protrudes from the side of the building. It lacks any sort of handrail, so watch your step.

Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia

Given the narrow staircase, I had to wait awhile for people to come up and down before the steps were finally clear. Once up the steps, the second floor interior felt rather barren. Apparently, it’s no longer active as a religious building and acts as a home for some local doves. The carvings on the door, at least, are amazingly detailed.

Next, I went to check out the other main structure of the monastery, the Surb Karapet, or ‘St. John the Baptist Church.’ The church was completed in 1227 and then reconstructed in the 14th century following an earthquake. The interior is fairly standard, but you’ll notice numerous graves of the Orbelian family buried in the ground beneath.

Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia

The most interesting part of the structure is the artwork outside. Take note of the depiction of God the Father at the top of the building.

At the time, the Mongols were running rampant throughout the region, destroying many villages and religious buildings in their path. And those at Noravank came up with an idea to depict God as an East Asian man, hoping the Mongols would spare the artwork and possibly the entire monastery.

Seeing as how the structure is still standing, the idea seems to have worked. Then again, history tells us that Prince Smbat offered submission to the Mongols in exchange for the survival of the region and its churches. So perhaps Noravank was never in any real danger.

Noravank Armenia

Also of note is the small chapel just next to the church, known as Surb Grigor, or St. Gregory Chapel (the same Gregory mentioned above). 

It too contains a number of graves of Orbelian family members. The most noteworthy grave is that of a prince’s son. For whatever reason, he’s depicted as half man/half lion!

Noravank Armenia

As is the case with Khor Virap, there’s an area out back which visitors can go and climb up for better views. The view of the church with the red rocks in the background is enough to make the long journey out to Noravank well worth it.

If time allows, you may even be able to squeeze in a bit of hiking, walking over to the distant cliffs for a different vantage point.

Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia
Noravank Armenia

Though I would’ve liked to keep exploring the rocky area, the bus would be departing soon. And so I headed back to the monastery for one more look around. 

I took a moment to admire more of Momik’s excellent kachkars. Prevalent all throughout Armenia, these carved cross stones serve a variety of functions. They can act as gravestones, protective talismans or just as pretty artwork.

Noravank Armenia

Noravank was also once a major center of learning, and the ruins of the academy can be found nearby. Also in the center if the courtyard, I spotted a ladder akin to the one at Khor Virap.

Without any signage, I had no idea what would be down there. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to go and check it out. It was more or less an empty cavern with a simple kachkar placed within. But at least my curiosity was satisfied.

Noravank Armenia

Areni Cave

We still had one more stop before calling it a day. Well, actually two. After Noravank, we stopped for lunch and then headed to an obligatory tour of a local wine factory. It was somewhat more interesting than I’d expected, and the samples they gave us were delicious. And to our relief, there was no pressure whatsoever to buy anything. 

Finally, just nearby the factory, we arrived at our last stop for the day, Areni Cave (also called the Areni-1 Cave Complex).

Areni Cave Armenia
Areni Cave Armenia
Areni Cave Armenia

Areni Cave is most known for being where the world’s oldest ever leather shoe was discovered (now on display at the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan). The right shoe is, amazingly, as old as 5,500 years old! 

But people of the Kura-Araxes culture (6000-3000 BC) continued inhabiting the cave complex for millennia after the shoe was created. While there were likely some periods without any human activity, our guide mentioned that people were living in the caves as recently as a few hundred years ago.

Areni Cave Armenia

Archaeologists, however, didn’t excavate the site until 2007. That’s when the shoe was discovered, but it would only turn out to be the first in a string of amazing finds. 

A few years later, archaeologists found evidence of winemaking within the caves. And studies revealed the materials to be as old as 6,100 years, making Areni the oldest winery in the world! Looking down, visitors can still see remnants of these incredibly ancient wine vats.

Areni Cave Armenia
Areni Cave Armenia

In 2009, a burial site was uncovered within the cave. And within one of the human skulls was some preserved brain tissue, making it the oldest brain ever discovered. Our guide even told us that there’s evidence of Neanderthals having lived in the cave as well.

For the time being, archeological excavations at Areni have stopped, but there’s little doubt that there are plenty more groundbreaking discoveries to come.

Areni Cave Armenia

Additional Info

I went on the day tour detailed above with Hyur Service, one of the prominent tour companies in Armenia. I don’t have many complaints about the tour. It was smoothly organized and the guide was helpful and knowledgable.

If I had to complain about something, it would be that our tour group was too big. We rode around on a large bus that was completely packed. In total, there were probably at least 40 people. But in the end, traveling with a smaller group wouldn’t have changed things much. There were always several other large tour groups at each site, so it would’ve been crowded regardless.

This would be the only tour I’d take with Hyur, and the rest of my day tours out of Yerevan would be with a company called One Way Tour. As mentioned, I had a good experience with Hyur, but One Way offers a wider variety of tour combinations. Additionally, their prices are generally cheaper. (Don’t let the name fool you – they’ll bring you back as well!)

The trip I took with Hyur Service cost 10,000 AMD, while the same itinerary with One Way costs 8,000.

Something to keep in mind is that with either company, they require you to come to the office in person the day before to pay.

There are a lot of different day trip combinations one can do in Armenia. Many visit Noravank on the same day as Tatev Monastery in the southern part of the country. As I wanted to visit an ancient stone circle called Karahunj, which can also be visited with Tatev, I decided to combine Noravank with Khor Virap.

As Khor Virap isn’t too far away from Yerevan, it can also be visited independently. Supposedly, a roundtrip taxi can be arranged from Yerevan for around $30 USD. It would be best to get there as early as possible to beat the tour groups. But if you go there with private transport, be sure that it’s on a clear day!

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.

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