Charents Arch, Garni Temple, and Geghard Monastery

Okay, here we finally are… Day 7! The week with my family was simultaneously the longest and shortest week ever. Each day was a jam-packed experience, but when the week was over, it felt like they had just arrived. I think that’s just the way life goes. It feels long when you’re living through it, but looking back, it seems like it all passed in a second.

Charents Arch

In the last few years, I’ve been trying to really savor the good moments and those times when I have that feeling of inner peace like everything is as it should be. For me, that’s just making an active effort to recognize when things are great and memorizing everything about those moments. It’s almost like I take a second to step outside of myself, look at the scene around me, see the people, remember the feeling, and then go back into experiencing it. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but since I’ve started thinking that way, it’s made it easier for me to access those times and that peaceful feeling in my memory. Wow okay, bit of a sidetrack, sorry!

View from Charents Arch

Like I was saying, Day 7! Our final day’s schedule was to visit Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery with a stop at Charents Arch along the way. Another one of my brother Mike’s requests (besides the hiking one) was to go somewhere with a good view of Mount Ararat. As far as I know, the two best places to see Ararat from Armenia are Khor Virap and Charents Arch. Unfortunately, my family was here during an incredibly hazy/cloudy/foggy week, and despite scheduling Khor Virap and Charents Arch 5 days apart, the visibility was equally horrible on both days.

Hey, Ararat! Oh, you can’t see it? Yeah, exactly.

The arch was built in 1957, named after Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, and features words from one of his poems, For My Sweet Armenia, talking about how the beauty of Ararat is unrivaled in all the world. I’m sure we would have agreed if we had seen it, but mostly it just looked like someone pulled off an amazing magic trick and made the mountain disappear. I can’t complain though. If the worst part of the trip is the fact that we never got a good view of Ararat, I can live with that.

The fam with Ararat (supposedly)

Pretty tree

Charents Arch was a new stop for me, but I had already visited Garni and Geghard with Sarah. You can read more background information about those sites HERE.

Garni Temple

Views from Garni

So pretty!

Fall!

❤ ❤ ❤

Garni selfie

Geghard selfie

I did see some new things at Geghard, though. When I went with Sarah, we went with a taxi and had an hour to explore. This time, we had as much time as we wanted, and Mike and I did a little extra exploring. After we finished checking out the monastery and crawling into every nook and cranny we could find, we started heading back to the parking lot. Mike spotted a path going up the mountain and asked if I wanted to check it out with him. Hmm… random, semi-overgrown path leading to who knows where? Did he even have to ask? That practically screams “Lara!”

Tossing for wishes

Fall! Fall! Fall!

Inside Geghard with Mom and me peeking in from a hole at the top

Fancy khatchkar wall

Some cave holes and the cave chapel, including an itty bitty me and an itty bitty Mike hiding in the chapel (don’t even bother trying to see us because you don’t have a chance. Just trust me. You can see my mom though! Hey, purple jacket!)

I wasn’t exactly dressed for a side excursion (black pants = dirt everywhere, boots with no traction = possible death), but you can’t let small details like that get in the way of adventure! Mom had read about how the Geghard monks used to live in caves surrounding the monastery, so we were hoping that’s what we were about to find. There were a bunch of caves, plus another little cave chapel popping out of the side of the mountain. I’m not completely sure how they managed to build some of these things…

We went into a few different caves that were definitely monks’ quarters. In one of them, Mike tested out what looked like a bed nook, or a “monk bunk” as we decided they should be called. Very comfortable, I’m sure. The Geghard monks were known for their simple, minimalistic, and hermit-y lifestyle, and what better way to live that life than in a remote cave with a stone bed?

A lot of the cave homes have been destroyed by earthquakes, so there isn’t a definitive number for how many there were. Some estimates are in the hundreds, and they weren’t all as accessible as the ones we saw. Supposedly there are/were some that can only be accessed by ropes or ladders! I guess I’ll have to take my ropes and grappling hook with me next time I go.

Cave chapel with awesome carvings

The cave chapel we saw is named after St. Gregory, and it’s said that he lived in one of the cave dwellings back in the 4th century when he was preaching in the region. I personally am just amazed at the fact that St. Gregory managed to do something at practically every place in the entire country. “This is where St. Gregory was imprisoned in a pit.” “This is where St. Gregory lived in a cave while he preached in the surrounding area.” “This church was built on a rock where St. Gregory once sat to rest on a long journey.” “This monument displays the grain of sand that touched the actual foot of St. Gregory when he vacationed briefly at Lake Sevan to regain his tan after being imprisoned in a pit.” “St. Gregory had a vision that this field was filled with flowers and when he came here and sneezed, flowers immediately grew.” “This village is where St. Gregory once got a flat tire and had to stay the night until it was fixed.” It seems like no matter where you go, St. Gregory did SOMETHING there. (Okay, yes, I made some of those up, but they could just as easily be real claims.)

I know, I let myself get sidetracked again. Sorry. In summary: there are caves at Geghard where monks used to live. St. Gregory maybe lived there. Cave chapel. Monk bunk.

St. Gregory’s cave chapel

Mike on a monk bunk!

Cliffs and cave holes

After finishing up at Geghard, we headed back to Yerevan to wander around until dinnertime. I took my parents to see the office bunker where I work (it’s underground and has no windows), and we did some last-minute perusing at Vernissage.

Even though the planning for my family’s trip was a LOT of work, and I was semi-stressed the entire time because I wanted everything to go perfectly, it was so much fun to have them here. I certainly didn’t feel physically refreshed after they left (honestly, I could have used a vacation after the vacation), but I was emotionally refreshed.

Can you believe that practically everything went exactly according to plan? And the one thing I couldn’t control, the weather, was fantastic! I’m calling it a success! If you need an Armenia vacation planner, I’m basically a professional now.

Garni Temple, Geghard Monastery, and Levon’s Divine Underground

Our last day of sightseeing unintendedly ended up being somewhat rock themed. Since we obviously hadn’t seen enough monasteries yet, we had another one, Geghard, on the docket for the morning, plus the only remaining pagan temple in the country, Garni Temple.

Temple of Garni

By now you’re used to the process of getting around… we took a city bus to a marshrutka station and a marshrutka to Garni, the town where Garni Temple is. It took under an hour to get there, and the walk from the bus stop was less than 10 minutes. Easy peasy.

Back in the day (like waaay back), the Armenians were sun worshippers. It’s interesting because you can look at the Christian art and architecture that came after the country’s conversion to Christianity and see how it’s connected to the art and architecture that came before. Pagan symbols were re-explained in Christian terms, rather than getting rid of them. For example, the pomegranate is used A LOT as a symbol here. In the pagan days, it was a symbol of fertility. In the Christian days, it was changed into a symbol of unity (people are the seeds, all individuals but part of the same body of Christ).

Temple from the back

Anyway, I kind of went off on a tangent. The point is that Garni Temple was a temple built in the first century AD and dedicated to the sun god, Mihr. The reason it survived even after Armenia’s conversion was because it was turned into a royal summer house. An earthquake in 1679 caused it to collapse, and it was finally excavated and reconstructed in the 1970s. They used almost all original stones to reconstruct it, but the ones that are not original were made obvious. It’s built in the classical Greek style with a little bit of an Armenian twist. The temple is cool, and the location makes it even better. You can get a great view of the Azat River gorge which is part of a big national park, Khosrov Forest State Reserve, one of the oldest protected areas in the world. It was founded in the 330s AD! I’m getting sidetracked again, but I’m definitely putting it on my list of places to visit while I’m here.

Such cool detailing!

The gorge

Looking out into Khosrov Reserve

After Garni Temple, we headed to Geghard. That required getting a taxi which we weren’t too excited about, but it ended up being extremely easy! Walking back towards the main street, we met an older gentleman who asked if we were going to Geghard. He asked if we needed a taxi and offered to take us in his, there and back for 2000 dram (a little more than $4). It’s about 10km away, and he said he would wait for an hour which is plenty of time to see everything. We agreed because that price was definitely lower than it should have been (and we gave him some extra at the end because we kind of felt like we were cheating him), and we were off!

First glimpse of Geghard

Geghard Monastery has a connection to everyone’s favorite historical figure… that’s right, St. Gregory! In its current form, it has multiple churches and tombs, but it started out just as a cave church. There’s a spring inside where you can wash your hands and face or drink some fresh, freezing cold water. There’s some great water in this country. The name “Geghard” comes from the word for “spear” because the monastery used to house the spear that was supposedly used to wound Jesus during the crucifixion and brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus. That spear is now kept in the museum at Etchmiadzin.

Geghard scenery

The monastery has a few different chapels now, with most carved into and one built out from the cliff. There’s one chapel in particular that is completely carved into the cliff and has some amazing acoustics. There are khachkars (stone crosses) EVERYWHERE, with some stuck into the cliff. They’re there to commemorate donations or in memory of the deceased. The “khachkar style”, if you will, was developed because stone crosses with the stone following the shape of the cross broke too easily. With a khachkar, the stone is a rectangle, and the cross is carved into it with elaborate decorations surrounding it.

This is all carved into the cliff!

Hallway into the big chapel with khachkars lining the walls. Ignore my finger in the picture (oops)

The biggest chapel completely inside the cliff

Khachkar party!

You’ll see tons of people trying to toss pebbles into little shelves in the rocks. If you get your rock to stay, your wish comes true!

Into the depths…

Our day ended with a trip to a slightly more offbeat attraction. Sarah and I are very into going to see things that are a little bit weird, so when we found the information about Master Levon’s Divine Underground, we knew we had to see it. The story goes (and this I know for a fact is a completely true story) that a man named Levon, a builder by trade, was asked by his wife to dig a potato cellar. He started digging, hit rock, moved over and kept digging more. And then he kept digging. And digging. And digging. And digging. He said that he had divine visions that told him to keep going, so he did. He dug for 23 years, until his death, with just a hammer, a chisel, and a bucket to carry out the rubble. The underground complex he created still isn’t complete according to his plans, but my gosh it’s amazing. My favorite quote by his wife, Tosya, is, “all I wanted was a good house and a potato cellar, and I got neither.” On the bright side though, she now has an ongoing revenue stream from visitors, so maybe Levon knew exactly what he was doing (it’s free to enter, but they accept donations).

At its deepest, the complex goes down 70 feet below the house! How crazy is that?!?! There are seven rooms connected by corridors and staircases, and decorations are carved into the walls at every turn. The pictures don’t do it justice, but they can at least give you the beginnings of an idea of what it was like.

Column carvings like these were all over the place

Awkward self-timer pictures

This room is huge. It was at least a two-story space with an overlook where I propped my mini-tripod and sprinted downstairs for this picture

This is crazy, right?

We were welcomed in by Tosya, and she left us to explore the caves on our own. At 50 degrees F (10 C), it’s fabulously cool down there, and thankfully, there are arrows marking out the route or we would have been hopelessly lost. When we came out, Tosya showed us to a little museum inside the house where you can see the hammers and chisels that Levon used, plus his clothes and a bunch of news articles that have been written about his creation. She spoke no English, but once again, we managed to communicate enough. After that, she led us outside into the garden where the walls were covered with stone mosaics and two paintings: one of Levon, and one of Tosya. This was one talented guy. We signed a guestbook with notes by visitors from all over the world and headed back into the city, our minds still blown by what we had just experienced. Who knew that this would turn into a cave exploration day?