The Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley
Date of foundation:
The pristine nature of the Azat Valley embraces Geghard Monastery under the gaze of its giant
cliffs. With some of its parts smoothly carved into rocks, this medieval beauty was formerly
named Airivank (monastery in the rocks). It was renamed Geghard in the 14th century because
the monastery was used to keep the Spear of Destiny (also known as the Holy Lance) that
pierced the ribs of Christ under its roof for over 500 years.
The Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley contains a number of churches and tombs,
most of them cut into the living rock, which illustrate Armenian medieval architecture at its
highest point. The complex of medieval buildings is set into a landscape of great natural beauty,
at the entrance to the Azat Valley. High cliffs from the northern side surround the complex while
the defensive wall encircles the rest.
The monuments included in the property are dated from the 4th to the 13th century. At the early
period, the Monastery was called Ayrivank (Monastery in the Cave) because of its rock-cut
construction. The monastery was founded, according to tradition by St. Gregory the Illuminator,
and was built following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion in Armenia (beginning of
the 4th century AD). The main architectural complex was completed in the 13th century AD and
consists of the cathedral, the adjacent narthex, eastern and western rock-cut churches, the family
tomb of Proshyan princes, Papak’s and Ruzukan’s tomb-chapel, as well as various cells and
numerous rock-cut cross-stones (khachkars). The Kathoghikè (main church) is in the classic
Armenian form, an equal-armed cross inscribed in a square in plan and covered with a dome on a
square base, linked with the base by vaulting.
The first rock-cut church was built before 1250, entirely dug into the rock and on an equal-armed
cruciform plan. To the east, a roughly square chamber cut into the rock was one of the princely
tombs (zhamatoun) of the Proshyan Dynasty. This gives access to the second rock-cut church
built in 1283. The second zhamatoun, reached by an external staircase, contains the tombs of the
princes Merik and Grigor. A defensive wall encircled the monastery complex in the 12th to 13th
centuries. Most of the monks lived in cells excavated into the rock-face outside the main
defensive wall, which have been preserved, along with some simple oratories.
St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) chapel is the most ancient preserved monument outside
the ramparts and is located on the western side. It is partially hewed in the rock. There are
engraved inscriptions on the walls, the earliest of which date back to 1177 and 1181 AD.
Residential and economic constructions were built later, in the 17th century.
The monastery of Geghard is a renowned ecclesiastical and cultural centre of medieval Armenia,
where a school, scriptorium, library and many rock-cut dwelling cells for clergymen could be
found in addition to the religious constructions. Historians Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi, Simeon
Ayrivanetsi, who lived and worked there in the 13th century, contributed to the development of Armenian manuscript art. It was also renowned for the relics housed there. The most
celebrated of these was the spear, which had wounded Christ on the Cross and was allegedly
brought there by the Apostle Thaddeus, from which comes its present name, Geghardavank (the
Monastery of the Spear). The spear was kept in the Monastery for 500 years. Relics of the
Apostles Andrew and John were donated in the 12th century and pious visitors made numerous
grants of land, money, and manuscripts over the succeeding centuries.