Armenia is the first country that adopted Christianity in history. Noravank Monastery, often called “The Pearl of Armenian Medieval Architecture”, is one of the most notable religious complexes in the country. Survived devastating earthquakes and a Mongol invason in the 13th century, Noravank Monastery marvels its visitors with its great state of preservation.
Noravank (Armenian: Նորավանք, meaning “new monastery”) is a medieval Armenian monastery that was built in the 13th century. It is near the town of Yeghegnadzor, located on a cliff in a narrow valley through which the Amaghu river flows. In 2002, the Noravank Monastery was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List.
I visited Noravank in January, therefore it was very cold and snowy (the temperature was -19 °C). People say that Noravank should be visited during summer because it is when the snow melts away and it offers the most picturesque views. However, the snowy winter ambience had also given a serene, unique look to Noravank. The historical landscape was simply remarkable; it felt like a movie set, surrounded by high snowy mountains.
The Noravank Monastery complex consists of 3 churches: Surp Karapet Church, Surp Grigor Chapel and Surp Astvatsatsin Church. A side note – surb means “saint” in Armenian language.
Brief History of Noravank
Noravank was founded in 1105 by Bishop Hovhannes. Besides 3 churches, the ruins of various civil buildings and khachkars (traditional Armenian cross-stone craftsmanship) are found both inside and outside of the compound walls.
Noravank was the residence of a princess from the 13th century feudal Armenian Orbelian Dynasty. The Armenian architect and sculptor, Momik, who is known for his stylish khackar works, and the famous architect Siranes spent portions of their lives here and contributed to our common world heritage with their unique works.
Culture Note: Khachkars
A khachkar, also known as an Armenian cross-stone, is a carved, memorial stone slab bearing a cross, often with additional ornaments such as rosettes, botanical motifs and complex patterns. Khachkars are considered to be a characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art.
An interesting fact about khachkars is that every single khachkar has a different design. It is believed that 40,000 khachkars survive today.
Surb Astvatsatsin Church
The main structure of Noravank, Surb Astvatsatsin Church was built in 1339. The architectural style of the church and the art works in it were designed by the prominent Armenian architect and sculptor, Momik.
The first floor of the church is the burial place of the Orbelian family. On the second floor, there is the cross-shaped chapel where people still light candles and pray. However, climbing to the second floor is not easy, since visitors have to take the steep and narrow staircase without any banisters.
There is a well-preserved relief sculpture above the entrance, depicting Christ with Peter and Paul.
In 1997 the church was reconstructed by re-using the existing fragments scattered around the structure. Here you can see Surb Astvatsatsin Church before and after restoration.
Surb Karapet Church
Surb Karapet Church was built between 1216-1227 by the order of the Orbelian Prince Liparit.
In 1340 it was destroyed by a severe earthquake. Subsequently, in 1361, Surb Karapet was reconstructed by the Armenian architect, Siranes. Again, in 1931, an earthquake struck the area and this time the dome of the church collapsed. 18 years later, in 1949, the roof and the walls of the church were reconstructed. Later on, with donations from an Armenian family in Canada, the rest of the dilapidated parts of the church were restored.
The hall following the entrance of Surb Karapet Church has many gravestones with vivid carvings on the floor. Many Orbelian and other Armenian nobles are buried here. The reason that the gravestones are on the floor is to make people read the names of the nobles written on the slabs as they pass along and revere the nobles occasionally.
Surb Grigor Chapel
The chapel of Surb Grigor was built in 1275 by the architect Siranes at the northern wall of Surb Karapet Church. There are a few Orbelian family tombs in the chapel. One notable spot here is the 14th century tombstone of Elikum, son of Prince Tarsayich Orbelian, covered with lion and human carvings.