The Geghard Monastery in Armenia

The Monastery of the Holy Spear consists of a countless number of small chapels, most of which are carved into massive cliffs and ornamented with a wealth of medieval Armenian art. Situated in a picturesque valley and surrounded by majestic peaks, the Geghard Monastery opens the entrance to the Azat Valley, the tall peaks of which served as a natural defence system for this holy place and its precious relics.

According to legend, the monastery was founded by Saint Gregory when Armenia officially converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. It was the world’s first baptism of a nation, considered to have taken place in 301 AD.

In the early period of its existence, the monastery was named Ayrivank (the Monastery in the Cave). Its development was interrupted by an Arab invasion in 923, when the monastery was plundered and burned. Further destruction was caused by an earth-quake at a later time.

Times of prosperity came with the liberation of Armenia and the political transformation of the 13th century. The foundation of the main church on the terrain of the monastery’s complex, Katoghike, dates from this period. It represents the classic style of this region - with an equal-armed cross, covered by a copula with characteristic arches and ornamentation. The walls of the church are embellished with inscriptions mentioning the donors who supported the building of the church. On its Eastern side, there's a tomb of the Proshian Dynasty, through which one can reach a second church that was carved into the cliff in 1283 AD. A kind of rock called tuff was used in the building of the church - petrified volcanic ash, the colour of which changes depending on the amount of sunshine and the weather conditions. This is why Armenia is often called "the country of screaming stones".

"The Monastery of the Holy Sword" was noted as the monastery’s name for the first time in the 13th century. The name probably came here in the 12th century, along with one of the most precious relics owned by the monastery after the remains of the apostles Saint John and Andrew. According to legend, the sword used to strike Christ on the cross was brought here by the apostle Thaddeus. From that time onwards, the monastery became a popular pilgrimage site for Armenian Christians.

On the grounds of the monastery there are many famous stone crosses - Khachkars. Richly adomed with characteristic plant ornamentation, they intensify the impression of the cross blossoming. This is meant to symbolise hope in a new life. Khachkars probably come from carved pagan pedestals which were present in the territories of present-day Armenia in pre-Christian times.

The role of Geghard Monastery in the history of Armenia is difficult to overstate. It was a major religious and cultural centre. A school, scriptorium and library functioned here. The most outstanding Armenian historiographers lived and worked in the monastery: Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi and Simeon Ayrivanetsi. The monastery was also famous as a centre which preserved famous relics.

Historians and researchers point out that the church is one of the best-preserved complexes of this type, and it's thanks to this that it has uninterruptedly fulfilled its function to the present day. Only in the 21 century has there been serious renovation work, conducted in 2006-2007, when the defensive walls were completed and reinforced, and insulation work was done.

Tags: Armenia