Behind a door in an unassuming residential district of Yerevan is a portal to another world. It’s hard to believe at first, but this vast underground network of caves was carved out over the course of decades by one single man. But for what? I hopped in a taxi to Levon’s Divine Underground to find out for myself.
While Levon Arakelyan is sadly no longer with us, his jaw-dropping creation is now a museum operated by his wife and daughter. Not only can visitors walk through the dimly lit caverns, but a small museum helps explains the long, arduous work required to create them. And it also helps provide some insight into Levon’s motives, making it hard to leave the quiet neighborhood of Arinj without feeling inspired.
While Levon’s family members typically give visitors guided tours, there were no English speakers at home on the day of my visit. And so I was allowed to walk through the caverns on my own.
Traversing Levon's Divine Underground
Levon’s Divine Underground started simply enough. His wife Tosya requested that he dig out a small potato cellar beneath their home. But once Levon had the tools in his hands, he was struck by inspiration. One could even call it divine inspiration.
Having once worked in construction, Levon was no stranger to manual labor. But the rock he first encountered was incredibly hard, and he struggled to even make a dent. But as the story goes, Levon claimed that he felt spirits urging him on, and he refused to give up.
Even after eventually digging deep enough for the potato cellar, he kept on working. In fact, he envisioned something on a much grander scale – a masterpiece that he’d continue working on for the next 23 years.
After a decade of hard work, he managed to dig through the incredibly hard top layer of rock, encountering a much softer tufa limestone underneath. This, of course, made the rest of his job much easier. And the immense cavern he saw in his visions and dreams gradually began to take shape.
Levon was already 44 years of age when he started the project. Nevertheless, he’d sometimes work as long as 18 hours in a single day, citing divine assistance from spirits or angels for helping him carry on.
Levon’s Divine Underground feels like a place you might encounter beneath an ancient church. A secret chamber containing the tomb of a saint, or perhaps a place where monks would hide manuscripts and riches in times of turmoil.
The cavern network, however, is not beneath a church but a normal residence. While Levon was creating his holy project underground, townsfolk up on the surface would’ve been carrying out ordinary tasks, like watching TV or preparing borscht.
Even without knowing the full backstory, it’s immediately apparent that this wasn’t just a pet project for Levon, but a work of sacred art. The whole underground cavern network is teeming with crosses and other Christian symbolism, while many of the pathways lead visitors to religious shrines.
But what struck me most about Levon’s Divine Underground was its size. While I’d seen some photographs before my visit, they didn’t prepare me for the sheer scope and magnitude of the project.
All in all, there are six main rooms, but with numerous hallways and staircases connecting them all together. In total, Levon’s Divine Underground takes up over 300 square meters, with the deepest part of the cavern descending 21 meters, or 70 feet below the ground!
‘How could one man do all this?’ I found myself wondering again and again.
And later, when I visited the small museum upstairs, I learned that Levon carved everything out with nothing more than simple hand tools. Supposedly, he outright refused to use anything more powerful.
The cave is so big that it’s easy to get lost. Thankfully, there are numerous arrows placed above the passageways to help unacquainted visitors make their way through the labyrinth.
In addition to the shrines, you’ll find numerous Greek columns and other interesting geometrical patterns. It’s unclear, though, whether Levon had any artistic background. During my visit, I recalled the sculpture parks of Bunleua Sulilat in Laos and Thailand – monumental projects started by a single man with a vision and no artistic experience.
Just as Sulilat kept on building religious sculptures until his death, Levon had grand visions for his project up until the very end of his life in 2008. Supposedly, he talked about expanding the caves to something with dozens of more rooms! If Levon was still with us, I imagine he’d still be chiseling away at the rock right now.
After a nearby tour group finished up, I took some time to appreciate the silence of the caverns. But it wasn’t just peace and tranquility that I felt, but some kind of magnetic pull. Perhaps this was the same force that compelled Levon to make the project his life’s work.
Before long, I encountered a set of stairs that brought me back up into the ordinary world. I was probably only down there for 20-30 minutes, but I felt as if I was returning from a great adventure.
And the next thing I knew, I was inside Levon’s family home, where one of the rooms is being used as a small museum. Among the items on display were various newspaper and magazine clippings about Levon and his project.
While Levon’s Divine Underground has been increasingly growing in popularity in recent years, Levon and his project received plenty of media attention while he was still alive. And rightly so.
Additionally, Levon’s entire collection of tools that he used over the years are now being preserved behind a glass case. As you can see, he used little more than a basic hammer and cutter, shunning the use of any type of power tool.
And also on display are his collection of hard hats that he wore throughout the decades-long project. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of souvenirs on offer (though there’s no pressure to buy anything).
Levon’s wife doesn’t speak much English, but she suddenly handed me her cell phone as I was checking out the museum. “Hello?” I answered, unsure of who was on the other line.
It turned out to be Levon’s granddaughter who speaks fluent English. She wanted to know if I had any questions about anything.
While there was plenty of English info on display at the museum, it was nice to hear about Levon in his granddaughter’s own words. Clearly, his family takes a lot of pride in his accomplishments.
His family also showed me the nice rock sculptures out in the garden. Supposedly, Levon once dug his grave out here, but I wasn’t actually sure if this is where he ended up buried!
On the walls are colorful murals of Levon and his wife – who, quite appropriately, is holding a potato.
Located in the suburb of Arinj, Levon’s Divine Underground can be accessed in a 15-20 minute drive from central Yerevan.
You can get there by a local marshrutka (minibus). According to one online review, the #47 bus can get you there, but it’s best to double check at your accommodation. Note that the marshrutkas have no English signage and it might not be obvious where to get off once you arrive in Arinj.
That’s why I recommend just using a ridesharing app like Yandex.
The address of the museum is Arinj 5th Street, 9. However, house 9 wasn’t accessible as a choice on the Yandex app. So I just chose the nearest possible house that I could, which was #15. It was just a 20-second walk down the street and I arrived with no problems.
Doing it this way was much easier than trying to explain things to the driver, who likely never heard of Levon’s Divine Underground.
The direct ride from my hotel cost me 1,400 AMD (roughly $3 USD) one-way. But you may even get a cheaper rate depending on demand.
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.
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.
When getting to places within and around the central circle, Yerevan is largely walkable.
The city has one simple metro line. While it’s certainly better than nothing, there are numerous sites around the city that can’t be accessed by train.
Luckily, there are a number of ridesharing apps you can use to get around, such as Yandex Taxi or GG Taxi. (Without a local credit card, you’ll most likely only be able to pay in cash.) While the drivers usually don’t speak any English, I had no problems using these apps or with any of the drivers.
To get out of town, you’ll often need to use a ridesharing service just to get to one of the city’s multiple bus stations, as they’re nowhere near a metro. The ride to the bus will typically cost more than the bus itself. The main railway station, on the other hand, does have a metro station attached to it, but most places around Armenia can only be reached by vehicle.
Additionally, Yerevan has marshrutka (public minibus) system but I never tried taking it. While the cheapest option for getting around, marshrutkas have no English signage and are terribly cramped. If you want to give it a shot, be sure to ask for advice at your hotel regarding which number bus to take.