Armenians have a knack for building churches in the most scenic, most uplifting, most spiritually pleasing landscapes they can find. And the monastery of Noravank, set in the dramatic Amaghu Valley of southern Armenia, is no exception.
Armenians build their churches on the tops of mountains. They build them on promontories that jut into lakes. They build them in narrow ravines; they build them atop sheer cliffs.
This one, Noravank, is set at the end of a long, winding gorge; perched halfway up the mountain, surrounded by steep, rugged cliffs.
Does the sombre grandeur of Noravank monastery accentuate the drama of the rocky gorge? Or is it the drama of the rugged gorge that highlights the architectural finery of the monastery?
Or is it the two together that does the trick?
Noravank, which means New Monastery, was built in 1205 CE – which means use of the word new here is strictly a relative term.
The monastery was financed by the Orbelians, an affluent family from southern Armenia that became the movers and shakers of the times (the Orbelians also built several other churches in the region, and were the financiers of the famous caravanserai at Selim Pass – more on this later).
Noravank is the final resting place for numerous members of the Orbelian clan (they even have their own family mausoleum within the monastery).
Surb Astvatsatsin Church, Noravank
Surb Astvatsatsin Church, the largest of the churches at Noravank, was designed by an illustrious Armenian architect, sculptor, and painter who went by the moniker of Momik.
Surb Astvatsatsin Church is famous for its stairs of death: a set of narrow stone steps that jut out of the exterior of the building. The stairs of death are the only way to reach the second floor of the church.
Climbing the stairs has become a popular thrill for tourists and pilgrims alike. Keep a firm grip on the rope railing provided and you should be able to climb to the top of the stairs without falling to your death.
The way back down is a little more tricky though .
Practical information on reaching Noravank:
Noravank is 120 kilometres from Yerevan and can be accessed from the capital as part of a long day trip (expect a 1.5 to 2 hour drive each way).
A more relaxed way to do it is to base yourself in nearby Yeghegnadzor (20 kilometres away; a 20 to 30 minute drive). If you stay in Yeghegnadzor you’ll also be able to visit Noravank during the late afternoon when the monastery is looking its best.
The monastery of Noravank and the upper Amaghou Valley are on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.