Historical places in Europe
On the slopes of Mt. Aragats lie the ruins of Amberd fortress and a bit further down right on the edge of the gorge, Vahramashen church (which sometimes also is called Amberd). The fort dates back to the 7th century while the church is from the 11th century. The name Amberd means "the fortress in the clouds", giving a hint that it can get cloudy here at 2,160 m at the foot of volcano Aragats. The inside of the fortress can be explored and any trail you find will lead you to another breathtaking view of the wildflower covered landscape.
Geghard is probably the finest cave monastery in Armenia. It stands deep in a canyon and blends in with the surrounding cliffs. The complex is partly dug out of the mountainside with annexed buildings. It was supposedly founded in the 4th century but invading armies have left nothing from that time. The two cave churches and vestibules you see today are all from the 13th century. Above the main entrance to the churches is a 10 m passage which leads to a cave chapel that is fully carved out of the mountain and has amazing acoustics. A small peephole in the corner makes it possible to look into the cave chamber below (see picture). The monastery got its name Geghardavank - meaning "the Monastery of the Spear" - since the spear that wounded Christ on the cross was kept here (the spear is now displayed in the Echmiadzin treasury).
Garni temple is a temple from the 1st century A.D. dedicated to the Roman God of Sun, Helios. Later, a summer palace and a Roman bath (with heating) were added for Armenian royalty leaving the temple untouched for novelty. In the 9th century, a church was built on the cramped sites right at the edge of the cliff. An earthquake in 1679 knocked the temple into rubble leaving it like that until 1970s when it got fully reconstructed. The only things left from the summer palace and the church, however, are the foundations but the Roman bath has been excavated.
Another fine monastery from the 12-13th century. It is located in the little village of Gosh and is a compact complex (almost all the buildings are touching one another) with several chapels with finely ornamented facades along with equally detailed cross stones, khachkars. There is a chapel further up the hill which offers good views of the monastery and the beautiful surroundings. Goshavank is fairly popular with local pilgrims/tourists due to the proximity to Dilijan town.
Haghartsin monastery is nicely tucked away in the forest on the mountainside. As with many other monasteries in Armenia, it dates back to the 13th century. It is under serious restoration, getting a total makeover apparently sponsored by Sheikh of Sharjah in the UAE, losing some of its ancient magic to sparkling nenovated splendour. There are some overgrown cross stones on the left handside of the road before you get to Haghartsin.
Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries lie in plain view of each other separated by a canyon. Haghpat is also on UNESCO's World Heritage list and dates from the 10th century as well, though Sanahin is 50 years younger. Haghpat is a compact monastery complex with several chapels, some fine cross stones (khachkars) and a groomed garden setting. The views are splendid and the village of Haghpat is charming and easygoing.
The Noraduz cemetery has the largest collection of cross stones, called khachkars. There should be almost a thousand cross stones (though we didn't count them) spread out over the green hill, all finely ornamented. The oldest cross stone dates back to the 13th century, though most are from the 16-17th centuries when the cross stone tradition boomed. A cross stone normally depicted, besides crosses, the life story of the deceased, what he/she did and how he/she died. So a cross stone for a fisherman will have a fish on it and if he died from a serpent bite, a carved snake will zigzag across the stone. There are also tombstones, again, with fine carvings, for example, one showing how a wedding party got raided by foreign warriors.
In a village above Alaverdi lies the monastery complex of Sanahin, which dates back to the 10th century. It is listed on UNESCO World Heritage list along with neighbouring Haghpat monastery due to their architecture style that was developed in Armenia in the 10th to 13th centuries. It is charmingly moss-covered and sits under shady trees in a messy garden, which just adds to the great atmosphere. There are lots of dark corners to be explored and the ancient graveyard offers some strange modern tombstones with pictorial explanations of the cause of death.
Sevan monastery, Sevanavank, consists of two churches which were both built during the 9th century. It was located on the top of an island, which today is a peninsula, in Sevan Lake. The view across the lake is magnificent though the sight of abandoned Soviet buildings might spoil the magic a bit. Throughout the history, the place has been plundered by various invading armies and it was totally abandoned during Soviet times where stones from the big church, Astvatsatsin, even got used to build a new house in Sevan city. Astvatsatsin church has since be reconstructed and the courtyard holds a fine collection of cross stones, called khachkars.
Former home of Khans (kings) the town of Sheki, in western Azerbaijan, is a treasure-trove of historical architecture. On a small fortified hill, near the centre of town, sits the wonderful Palace of Sheki Khans. An amazing example of period architecture in all it's splendour. Also within the fort grounds are several excellently preserved Albanian churches. And while the town has a number of hotel choices, one cannot resist staying in the 18th century Caravansary Hotel. Although rather simple, this is an absoute bargain considering the building seemingly transports you back to a time long since past. Priceless!