Geghard Monastery

front view Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Maxime Durocher

The monastery of Geghard is located some forty kilometres east of Yerevan, 1650m above sea level, at the mouth of the Azas valley. It is known by several names:

  • Ayrivank, meaning the monastery of the cave or cavern
  • Monastery of the seven churches
  • Monastery of the forty altars
  • Gheghardavank, or the Monastery of the Spear. This name come from the relics of the Holy Spear which are today preserved at Etchmiazdin

The foundation date of Geghard monastery is not known. According to oral tradition, the monastery was founded during the first Christian period of Armenia (possibly in the fourth century), but no buildings predating the twelfth century survive. The historian and katholicos John wrote in the first half of the tenth century that he found refuge from the Arab invasions at Gheghard, and relates how the monastery was destroyed during the Arab assault.

The surviving monastery is composed of different structures, some built on a platform and others carved from the rock. The monastery was largely built during the 13th century, in three phases:

  • At the end of the 12th century, the Church of Saint Gregory was cut from the rock
  • During the Zakarid period, construction continued between 1215 and 1225
  • Prince Prosh bought the monastery from the Zakarids in the 1240s and built the cave structures between the 1240s and 1280s

The monastery of Geghard was a renowned ecclesiastical and cultural centre of medieval Armenia, where a school, scriptorium, library and rock-cut cells could be found alongside religious buildings. The historians Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi and Simeon Ayrivanetsi, who were influential in the development of Armenian manuscript art, lived and worked at Geghard in the 13th century. Geghard was also renowned for the relics housed in the monastery. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, restorations were undertaken, and most of the cells on the east and south wall of the complex were added after the 13th century. The monastery is still in use, but when Frédéderic Dubois de Montperreux visited it in the early 19th century, there were no monks.

The complex is built of fine cut lava stone and has two entrances, on the west and the east sides.

1.      Church of Saint Gregory in the rock (Asvatzatzin Church)

The church of Saint Gregory is the oldest surviving structure, located outside the walls of the monastery to the west. Inscriptions on the west wall date this building to between 1177 and 1287.

2.      Kathoghike (1215)

This church was erected in 1215 by the Zakarid brothers Zakare and Iwane, as revealed by the donor inscriptions on its interior walls. Its plan seems typical of Armenian architecture from the 12th and 13th centuries: a cross-plan inscribed in a slightly extended square. The east arm of the cross ends in an apse. It is covered with a central dome on a circular drum. Small barrel-vaulted chapels occupy each corner, on two levels, with apses on their east sides. Carved decoration adorns the exterior of the drums, contained in round arches, displaying figures of animals, human heads and other motifs. The south portal of the main church shows a rich three-dimensional carved decoration. The portal is inscribed in a rectangular frame of geometric pattern. In the spandrels are depicted figures of birds in a style common to Armenian and Seljuk art (the birds’ tails resemble the harpies figure from Konya, Konya Ince Minare Medrese Müzesi). The tympanum is decorated with pomegranate and vine motifs. Above the frame, a lion attacking a bull is represented, reflecting a common iconographic theme in medieval Anatolia and the Caucasus.

3.      Gavit or Jamatoun (1215-1225)

The north part of the Jamatoun is not built but carved from the rock. The construction can be dated by the west wall of the church built in 1215, while the first chapel connected to the jamatoun bears the date of 1225. This suggests that the jamatoun’s construction was contemporary, or slightly later, than that of the main church. The square space of the jamatoun is divided into nine parts by four central columns, of which each has a different capital. The eight lateral spaces are covered with crossed or barrel vaults, of which some display stalactite-like shapes. The central space of the jamatoun is covered with a muqarnas dome, pierced by an oculus that gives natural light to the structure. This seems to be a very early example of this building type, comparable to structures such as the Yakutiye Medrese in Erzurum, built in 1310.

4.      First church in the rock (1240s)

The remaining structures of the monastery were constructed under the patronage of the Proshian family after Prince Prosh bought the monastery from the Zakarids, probably in the 1240s. All are carved from the rock. This church is located to the north-west of the main church. It was built during the reign of Avang (d. 1250), according to an inscription on the south wall. The plan of the church consists of a cross with equal arms and an apse on the north-east side. Carving decorates the northwest and southeast walls. Two pairs of crossed arches support a central muqarnas dome with an oculus. Above the dome is an inscription with the signature of the architect: “remember the Varpet Ghaldzak”. From this church, one has access to a natural spring (n°5-6).

5.      Jamatoun of the Proshian (1283)

An inscription provides a date of 1283 for the jamatoun. This jamatoun is accessed from the north-east door of the gavit. It is a square structure which was, in all likelihood, used as the burial place for the Proshian family. However, their tombs are no longer preserved. The building is decorated with a large cross between two doors. Additionally, harpies are carved in the spandrels of the doors on the right, and saints on the spandrels of the door on the left. A further decoration displays the so-called coat-of-arms of the Proshian (following Yovsep‘ean’s identification), consisting of a bull holding a rope in its mouth that is tied to lions. Below them, an eagle holds a sheep in its claws.

6.      Second church in the rock (1283)

On the east side of jamatoun of the Proshian is another rock-cut church. An inscription on the north wall bears the date of 1283 and gives the name of the church’s founder, Prince Prosh. The building is constructed on a cross plan, with an apse in the east arm. It is covered with a dome on pendentives with muqarnas carvings. Twelve blind windows between semi-columns and reliefs are carved on the drum, interpreted by Jean-Michel and Nicole Thierry as representing a stylised tree of life. The walls are decorated with high reliefs including khatchkars.

7.      Upper Jamatoun (1288)

A second jamatoun was built by Papak, son of Prince Prosh, and his wife Rousakan in 1288, according to an inscription on one of the central columns. It contains the tombs of the princes Merik and Grigor. The jamatoun can be accessed by an exterior staircase and a gallery. The structure is similar to the main gavit and consists of a square space divided in nine sections by four free-standing columns. The central space is covered with a dome with an oculus on pendentives with triangular mouldings. Some of the khatchkars on the rock face are not carved but painted.

Other structures

An oratory and cells were found outside the ramparts. Khatchkars, dating mostly to the 13th century, are carved in or displayed on the rock north of the monastery.

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