The complex of Haghartsin Monastery includes four churches, two jamatouns, a royal burial chapel, a refectory and supplementary structures (stables, dwellings for monks etc.), which mostly survive in a bad condition. The foundation date of the monastery is unknown but may lie between the tenth and eleventh centuries. During this period, the first church of St Gregory was built alongside other monastic buildings, of which none survive because the monastery was completely demolished during the Seljuk invasion in the late eleventh century. In the twelfth century, the church of St Gregory was restored by the order of the Georgian king George III (1156-1184) in 1184. At this time, Khachatur of Taron, a poet and musician who played an important role in the cultural and political life of Armenia, was the abbot of the monastery.
The further development of the monastery was led by abbot Hovhannes Armanetsi and Ivane and Zakaria Mkhargrdzeli. In this period, two jamatouns, the church of St Stephan, and the refectory were erected; later, in 1281-87, the church of the Holy Virgin, destroyed by the invaders, was rebuilt by Ivane and Zakharia Mkhargrdzeli and the monastery’s new abbot, Hovhannes Dopian.
The monastery was severely damaged and burned when Timur invaded Armenia around 1400. During the following centuries, the buildings underwent numerous restorations, which partially changed their original appearance. The most important restorations were conducted in 1671 and in 1681 by Armenians from Tbilisi. During that period, the churches of St Gregory, St Stephan, and the Holy Virgin were restored. At the end of the eighteenth century, the complex was seriously damaged once again during the campaign of Agha Mohammad Khan. In the 1970s, some restoration works were carried out; the last large-scale restoration occurred in 2012.
The walls of the monastery complex bear a number of inscriptions – it has been estimated that overall there are 103 inscriptions that give us valuable information about foundations, donations, and restorations; records of political and cultural events; and of not only monastic life but also of life in the provinces.
The church of St Gregory the Illuminator was erected in the tenth or eleventh century, but was destroyed by the Seljuks and rebuilt in 1184. It is built of yellowish-white porous stone, which is visible on the lower part of the building. On the west façade of the church is an inscription that approximates a legal document, recording a decree according to which several villages and a vineyard in Mijnashen were given to Haghartsin monastery. It also mentions Armenian and Georgian dignitaries who took part in the restoration of the monastery. By the decree inscribed on its façade, the monastery was obliged to celebrate the feast the Divine Liturgy yearly in the name of George III, the patron of the reconstructed church. It also threatens that, if somebody changed this decree, they would be cursed by the Holy Virgin of Vardzia, the icon of the Holy Virgin kept in the medieval Georgian cave monastery Vardzia.
Around 1200, Ivane Mkhargrdzeli erected the jamatoun in front of the west wall. It served as a space with combined functions, both religious and secular, being used as a narthex, mausoleum, and assembly room. Unusually, the corner vaults are decorated with rosettes, birds, and sculptures of monks carrying crosses and croziers and with the relief of a master builder holding a trowel and possibly a hammer.
The Church of the Holy Virgin was erected in the twelfth century, and was also built of yellowish-white, porous stone. However, in the first half of the thirteenth century it was destroyed by the Mongols and was rebuilt by Ivane and Zakharia Mkhargrdzeli between 1281 and 1287. During the reconstruction works, the church was restored with dark blue basalt, but parts of the original building are still visible. The church consists of a single-nave space without free-standing piers and a large dome supported by the projections protruding from the walls, a structure named a ‘Kuppelhalle’ by scholars. This type of church was very popular in medieval Armenian architecture, and can also be found in monuments in Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Cyprus.
The east façade of the church is adorned with relief decoration, which shows two standing monks with croziers pointing at a church model depicted between them. Above the model of the church is the figure of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Presumably, one of the monks is Hovhannes Dopian, the abbot of the monastery; the other may be the abbot’s assistant who also took part in the reconstruction works. The relief depicts the church as it probably looked before restoration, probably undergone in the seventeenth century, showing the thirteenth-century so-called half umbrella type roofing, and the original pointed arched frame of the west door.
On the west part of the monastery is a refectory. According to the inscription on the south entrance, it was built in 1248, by the order of father superior Hovhannes Armanetsi. The donor was an individual named Kutas; the architect was called Minas. On the east façade of the refectory, a short inscription survives, where the unnamed group of stone-cutters at work in the monastery complex are mentioned: ‘Christ be merciful to the stone cutters from the Abasadzor.’ The village of Abasadzor was famous for its mines and quarries, and it is possible that not only the stone-cutters but also the stones for the refectory were taken from these quarries.
The refectory is divided by piers into two square bays covered with intersecting arches and ribbed vaults. Each arch rests on semi-columns and on two free-standing quadrangular piers in the centre of the room. The decoration of the interior is concentrated in the central sections of the roofing, near the main lighting aperture. The masonry technique of large ashlar blocks is an integral part of the refectory’s architectural design.
The walls are lined with stone benches, where the monks took seats in accordance with the monastery’s hierarchy,. There may also once have been wooden tables. The most important part of the building was the east section, where the abbot and special guests would have been seated. This part is emphasized by two semi-columns and a central arch between them, and by the concentration of decoration above this section.
In the year 633 of the Armenian era (1184), in the reign of King of Abkhazeti George, when the Chatolicos of Armenia was Gregory, we, Vardapet Khachatur and Sukias rebuilt this church of the name of Gregory by the order of the king and his great noblemen – Sargis, Amir-Kurda, Anton Chkhondideli, Elbek.
And the King hands over all old and new properties to St Gregory: orchard near the river Midjnashen-Djur, and villages Kurdevan, Abasadzor, Tandzut.
And the King orders to feast the Divine Liturgy for him on the day of the celebration of the Holy Cross.
And all those who object and try to call off all these decisions and to shear these properties from the monastery will be cursed with all his family and with his descendants. They will be cursed by the Holy Virgin Mary of Vardzia and by the 318 holy Fathers of church.
And let perform mass for Khachatur and for Sukias on the day of the Pentecost.