Armenia’s Khor Virap Monastery rests in the shadows of Ararat Mountain. // © 2014 Devin Galaudet
Armenia hails itself as the first Christian nation and the “Cradle of Christianity,” after adopting the religion in 301 AD due to the efforts of Saint Gregory. The destination is perfect for the traveler who is interested in history, architecture or making a pilgrimage. With over 1,700 years of official devotion under its belt, Armenia has one of the best collections of well-preserved, historic churches and monasteries, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The double rings in front of Akhtala Monastery in Armenia are tall and wide enough that they practically begged to be walked through – a romantic gesture that had the couples in our tour group lining up for photo ops and smooches within the rings. The grounds of Akhtala Monastery date back to the 11th century and the rings are only a small part of its attraction. It also features earthy ruins and a church with original frescos inside.
Khor Virap may be the most frequently visited pilgrimage stop along the road from Yerevan, Armenia, and rightly so. Its most famous captive, the aforementioned Saint Gregory the Illuminator, was held in a dungeon at Khor Virap for 13 years before he converted the Armenian King to Christianity, which eventually led the nation to do the same. Moreover, with Turkey’s Ararat Mountain looming in the background (the legendary final resting spot of Noah’s Ark), Khor Virap is sacred ground and a spectacular photo site all in one. And yes, the dungeon to St. Gregory’s cell is open to the public — and it’s spooky.
Described as the Armenian Vatican, Echmiadzin Cathedral is widely believed to be the oldest cathedral in the world, built in approximately 300 AD by St. Gregory. Once inside, visitors should crane their necks to see the magnificent painting within Echmiadzin’s main dome. The grounds now offer a new addition in the Echmiadzin Memoria, an architectural inspiration at the entrance gate.
Other incredible Armenian Christian sites include: Sevanavank at Lake Sevan, the Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin and Geghard Monastery, a monastery built into a cave. Dozens of other notable churches of religious significance can be visited as well.
For Pagan tastes, the Temple of Garni (dedicated to the god Mihr) in Garni was built in the first half of the first century. Sacred Geometry buffs will love this place, and those lucky enough to visit during a choral performance will hear its perfected mathematical acoustics.
Visitors can also find impressive secular attractions. The Cafesjian Sculpture Garden offers incredible modern art, including Botero bronzes, for free admission. The Matenadaran Research Institute houses a fine collection of ancient manuscripts. Perhaps Armenia’s most important destination is the Genocide Memorial Museum in Yerevan.
Flo Tours currently offers group tours (fams for agents, too) covering Armenia as well as Georgia and Azerbaijan with up to 20 percent commission for private escorted itineraries.