Sacred Wonders: Tracing Armenia’s Historical Sites

18/01/2024

Armenia’s history is long and sometimes rocky, but the melting pot of historical sites left behind makes this nation one of the most interesting to visit. With many religious and cultural influences throughout history, Armenia has become an incredible blend of beautiful landscapes and ancient history.

Karahunj – Armenia’s Stonehenge

Nestled near the town of Sisian in Armenia’s Syunik Province lies one of the country’s most remarkable historical sites. Often referred to as Karahunj, Carahunge or Zorats Karer, the original name roughly translates to ‘speaking stones’, due to the sound made when wind passes through the multiple holes bored in the rocks. Perhaps the most popular term for this monolithic structure is ‘Armenia’s Stonehenge’, a nod to England’s more well-known rock structure.

Carahunj Armenia, Crooked Compass
Karahunj, located on a mountain plateau near the town of Sisian.

Over the years, researchers have suggested that Karahunj could be the world’s oldest astronomical observatory. Others dispute this, stating it may be the ruins of a city wall, while some suggest it could be a burial site for someone important. Regardless of the origins, this display of standing rocks is a must-see.

In total, 223 stones have been identified, many of them weighing up to 10 tonnes. Mostly, the arrangement of the stones appears circular, with two main rows stretching to the north and south. While its history is largely unknown, many suggest Karahunj dates back to the Middle Bronze Age. Importantly, it remains a popular attraction for anybody exploring the Caucasus Mountains.

Noravank Monastery

Near the town of Yeghegnadzor in Armenia, located in a gorge created by the Amaghu River, lies the Noravank Monastery. A 13th-century building, the site was founded in 1105 by Bishop Hovhannes. Easily the largest and most impressive section is the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church, which is often referred to as Burtelashen, after Prince Burtel Orbelian, who financed its construction.

Also included are the Surb Karapet Church and the Surb Grigor Chapel. Those who visit Armenia can also see several remaining khachkars, which are carved memorials featuring a stone and cross with other decorative elements. While the architecture is impressive, visitors are also treated to the beautiful landscape around the site, particularly the sheer, red cliffs towering above. 

The beautiful Noravank Monastery was built in the 13th century.
The beautiful Noravank Monastery was built in the 13th century.

Tatev Monastery

Often called ‘the monastery built on the edge of nothing’, the Tatev Monastery is another beautiful relic in the Syunik Province of Armenia. The 9th-century Tatev Monastery sits on the edge of a deep gorge in the Vorotan River and has been a huge part of Armenia’s history. While obviously having much religious significance, the site also housed the University of Tatev, which has been credited for preserving Armenian culture during turbulent periods of its history.

There are three main churches that form the monastery. The church of Saints Peter and Paul was built first, between 895 and 906. The Church of the Holy Mother of God was added in 1087. The Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, existed at some point before 1295, but this was when it was redeveloped following an earthquake.

Importantly, the Tatev Monastery and its surrounding areas have now been added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From a traveller’s point of view, you should definitely enjoy the ride out to the monastery. Since 2010, access to the site has been via an aerial tramway called the Wings of Tatev, which is the world’s longest non-stop double-track tramway.

The 9th-century Tatev Monastery stands on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River.
The 9th-century Tatev Monastery stands on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River.

Echmiadzin

Known as the country’s spiritual centre, Echmiadzin is one of the Armenia historical sites you can’t afford to miss. Prominent in the area is the Echmiadzin Cathedral, which dates back to 303 AD when it was built over a pagan fire altar. It is the oldest standing church in Christendom, making it a significant cultural, religious and historical site for Armenians. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most importantly, the cathedral is one of the most-visited in Armenia, as it serves as the spiritual centre for all Armenian Christians. It is so significant because it was built over a pagan altar, signifying the country’s shift from paganism to Christianity. In fact, Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as an official state religion.

Haghartsin Monastery in Dilijan

Dilijan is a beautiful place, often called the ‘Little Switzerland’ of Armenia. Nearby is the stunning 13th-century Haghartsin Monastery. The monastery is a great example of medieval Armenian architecture and comprises several church buildings. The major part of this site is the St Astvatsatsin Church. The oldest structure is the St Gregory Church, while the smallest section is St Stepanos Church.

The monastery lies in the Dilijan National Park, making it a protected area. In 2011, the monastery also underwent a major renovation in order to preserve it for much longer. So, while today it features a gift shop, bakery and other facilities, it hasn’t lost any of its cultural or historical significance.

There is no doubt that when you travel Armenia, you’ll be treated to a number of significant cultural and historical sites. There are many more than those mentioned above, so if you’re keen to explore the rich history of Armenia and the Caucasus region, contact Crooked Compass today.