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The Stunning Churches of the World’s First Christian Nation

Discover the remarkable structures and the legends within.

A journey to Armenia means discovering one of Eurasia’s legendary enclaves. The tiny nation in the Caucasus was the first to adopt Christianity as the state religion in A.D. 301. And Armenia’s early Christian structures—sprawling, majestic complexes nestled in the folds of wildly green canyons and hilltops—bear brilliant testimony to the creative power of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Armenia’s deeply religious past is also manifested in its pagan temples and monasteries tucked deep in the wildflower-dappled hills and valleys.

Surprisingly, all of these apostolic complexes have been immaculately preserved from the medieval ages. While Christian churches across Europe with ornate frescoes and heavily decorated interiors look beautiful, the Armenian churches are markedly different with a signature architectural style.

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Khor Virap

Khor Virap monastery is at the foothills of the biblical Mt. Ararat (elevation 16,854 feet) near the closed Turko-Armenian border. Originally established as a prison site, it had held Grigor Lusavorich in a subterranean pit (Khor Virap in Armenian means “deep dungeon”) for 13 years. The story goes that Lusavorich cured the Armenian monarch of a fatal disease and subsequently converted him to Christianity. Soon after, the Caucasian kingdom became the first official Christian nation in the world in A.D. 301. Lusavorich was sainted as Gregory the Illuminator and Khor Virap, which took its current incarnation in the 17th century, has remained the most visited sacred pilgrimage site of Armenia.

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Zvartnots was an early Christian cathedral, consecrated in A.D. 652, about 10 kilometers west of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Zvartnots stood as one of the tallest structures in the world at 45 meters for 320 years before its collapse in the 10th century. The reason for its destruction is still contested: it could be an earthquake or a result of Arab invasions. The cathedral has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

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Sevanavank, one of the earliest monasteries of Armenia, is located on the northwestern shores of Lake Sevan, the largest freshwater lake in the Caucasus region. According to an inscription in one of the churches, the monastery of Sevanavank was founded in 874. The church buildings were constructed from black tuff, which probably gave the monastery its name Sevanavank—“the Black Monastery.”

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The ornate and massive complex of Geghard monastery, another UNESCO World Heritage site, stands at the entrance of the Azat Valley in central Armenia. Founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century, it is also known as the “Monastery of the Spear,” named after the spear used to stab Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. It was brought to Armenia and housed inside Geghard monastery, and is now stored in the treasury of Echmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Inside the rock-cut chapel of Geghard runs a natural spring, and its water is considered holy.

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Located 122 kilometers from Yerevan, the sheer brick-red cliffs of a narrow gorge cut by the Amaghu River nestles Noravank monastery within its deep folds in a spectacular setting. The double-storeyed monastery is best known for its upper floor church, accessible by a dank stone staircase that protrudes from the façade of the 13th-century building—one of the earliest examples of cantilever architecture.

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Hovhannavank monastery on the edge of Kasagh river canyon adjacent to the village of Ohanavan. The monastic complex consists of the 4th-century basilica church of St. John the Baptist and the main church of St. Karapet (St. John’s other name). The basilica was completely renovated between 1652 and 1734.

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The medieval Haghpat monastery was built between the 10th and 13th centuries. It is a brilliant example of early Armenian architecture where small niches were created to fit stones in such a design that would survive an earthquake. In its earliest stage, Haghpat was a center of copying ancient manuscripts and had a huge book depository. Much of its interiors have remained intact including the food storage area, 13th-century grindstones, and a community eating space for the monks.

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Garni, the 1st-century Hellenistic temple, stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ravine of the Azat River, at a distance of 26 kilometers from Yerevan. The temple is a part of the fortress of Garni, strategically located for the defense of the kingdom. It is also the only remaining example of Greco-Roman colonnaded architectural style in Armenia and the whole of the former Soviet Union.