Did you know that Armenia is home to three different UNESCO World Heritage sites? In addition to that, other 4 more sites are currently on UNESCO’s waiting list. Don’t just “buy” my bragging! 🙂 Check it yourself on UNESCO’s website.
Since all these locations are somewhat distributed across the country, you’ll probably need to put together three different road trips to see them all. And I’m here to help you plan those trips, and make sure you don’t miss anything on the way. So, I hope you’re going to enjoy exploring these UNESCO sites. Don’t forget to take pictures and share those with me on Twitter or Instagram, with #ArmeniaTravelTips. Let see what we’ve got here!
The Etchmiadzin Cathedral and nearby churches
Where are we going to start your UNESCO sites tour in Armenia? Well, I’m going to bet that you will either arrive to Yerevan during your trip in Armenia, or you will at least spend some significant amount of time in our capital city. With that in mind, I think it makes sense to start your UNESCO sites tour by visiting the location that is the closest to Yerevan.
So, download one of these Armenian taxi apps, and let’s head to Vagharshapat (also known as Etchmiadzin), which is the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican city. It’s located in only about a 30-minute car ride from Yerevan. Here you can visit the Etchmiadzin Cathedral and various churches in this city – all these places have been enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage sites since the year 2000.
And, if you want to spend a bit more time in this city, check out my post about top cities to visit in Armenia, where I share some really cool tips on what to do in Etchmiadzin.
Why is Etchmiadzin on UNESCO’s list?
The Etchmiadzin Cathedral represents the heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It has also been the main residence of the Supreme Patriarch in the 4th and 5th century AC, and again since mid-15th century to this day. It is one of the oldest churches ever build, and it is the first church built on Armenian lands.
This 4th century Cathedral is located in the historic center of Vagharshapat city. Its name, Etchmiadzin, means “The Only-Begotten Son of God Descended”, or basically “Where Jesus descended”. The legend behind its name says that the location of this cathedral was pinpointed to Gregory the Illuminator by Jesus Christ himself. Apparently, Jesus came (descended from the heaven, I suppose) to Gregory in a vivid dream and instructed him to build the first church of the first Christian nation in that location.
Without doubt, Etchmiadzin Cathedral is one of the most visited sites in Armenia, partially also thanks to its status on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
What to wear when visiting Etchmiadzin Cathedral?
It’s a known center of Christian pilgrimage for both Armenians and Christians of other denominations as well. So, since it’s an active place of worship, I recommend you to be mindful of your clothing when you visit this location.
Especially in summer months, if you can, avoid going there wearing short skirts or shorts, regardless of your gender. Women are also expected to cover their hair before entering the Cathedral. You don’t have to be fully covered – a symbolic scarf thrown over your hair is enough. I think Kim Kardashian in this picture (during her visit to Etchmiadzin) does illustrate pretty well, what I mean by “symbolic”.
Don’t miss St. Gayane Church when visiting this site
At close vicinity to the Etchmiadzin Cathedral you will find the St. Gayane Church. Historical evidence shows that the church was constructed in early 7th century. Considering its age, the construction is very well maintained.
It is indeed a beautiful church, where you can still find the tomb of St. Gayane, who lost her life defending the dignity of a beautiful virgin. Since, the history of St. Gayane Church is quite morbid, I’ll just link the Wikipedia article, as I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But the church is very much worth visiting. So, check it out.
Other churches in Vagharshapat as part of this UNESCO site
There are 2 more churches in Vagharshapat city that are included in this UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Etchmiadzin Cathedral and St. Gayane Church. And, since you are already here, I think it makes sense to visit them as well. These churches are next to each other, and they are located in only a 20-minute walk from the Cathedral.
St. Hripsime Church
You can find the St. Hripsime Church in the eastern part of Vagharshapat. It is an original architectural jewel that gained a lot of attention amongst specialists over the years. Historians continuously praise it as one of the most notable examples of traditional Armenian architecture.
The church has been built in the early 7th century, to replace a small chapel originally built over the tomb of the virgin Hripsime. The Armenian Catholicos Komitas thought the story of the virgin Hripsime deserves to be commemorated with something bigger than just a small chapel. That lead to the construction of the St. Hripsime Church, which you can see here nowadays.
In 2000 UNESCO included this church into its list of World Heritage sites along with other churches and the Cathedral in Vagharshapat.
At this point, you might be asking, who this virgin was and why there is so much buzz around her. Well, you remember I mentioned a beautiful virgin who St. Gayane was defending – that was virgin Hripsime. As much as I’m resisting going into too much details here, I think it’s fair if I briefly tell you the story behind this church. Avoiding the morbid details…
The story behind this UNESCO site in Armenia
St. Hripsime was a Christian nun who escaped the Roman empire trying to avoid being forced into marriage with a pagan emperor Diocletian. Unfortunately, as she was trying to hide in Armenia, she was tracked down and, again, had to face another forceful marriage proposal. This time it was the Armenian king Trdat III, who couldn’t resist her beauty.
Needless to say, he didn’t take it well when she refused his proposal. As a result, they tortured and eventually executed her, as well as her abbess Gayane, and several other nuns close to St. Hripsime.
Just a couple of meters away from St. Hripsime church you can find the Shoghakat church. The name of the Shoghakat means “drop of light”. The church has been standing here from the end of the 17th century. And, to be honest, the most interesting thing about it is the combination of red and black tufa stones used in its construction. This combination gives it an intriguing flair, as if it was on fire.
I don’t know why exactly UNESCO decided to include it into this site listing. Maybe, that’s because the history of Shighakat is connected to the other churches in this site. Apparently, the other nuns close to Hripsime were executed where the church currently stands. I’m not sure if that’s the exact reason for it being on the UNESCO list. But hey, this is your Armenian UNESCO sites tour #1, and you gotta see all the sites. So, let’s move to the next one.
Zvartnots Cathedral ruins – my favorite UNESCO site in Armenia
Now, let’s head back to Yerevan. And on the way back, you should make sure you don’t miss the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, another part of this UNESCO heritage site in Armenia. This one is my personal favourite, and I think it really cannot be missed! This was a 7th-century circular three-story church, that’s estimated to be around 45 meters tall, which is an incredible height for that time.
The Cathedral was ruined during an earthquake in the 10th century, and later it was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century by Toros Toramanian, the father of the Armenian architectural historiography.
Nowadays, when you visit the site, you see the majestic pillars and the remaining ruins, with the Mount Ararat in the background. It’s a beautiful, very instagrammable place, which I strongly recommend to all travelers in Armenia. And of course, you cannot miss it if you are up for visiting UNESCO sites in our country.
The Geghard monastery and the Upper Azat Valley
Your second trip in search of UNESCO heritage sites in Armenia will take you to the east of the country – to Geghard monastery complex. It takes about an hour to reach it by car from Yerevan. And you can comfortably include it into your touring plans on the same day as your visit to Vagharshapat for your UNESCO sites tour #1. Two road trips in one day! Why not?
The Geghard monastery represents a very well-preserved medieval construction in the Kotayk region. It stands out because half of the structure is carved into rock, being embraced by cliffs on all sides. That is why UNESCO granted this monastery complex its protection.
The chapel was constructed in 1215, but the monastery itself took life back in the 4th century. It was built under the command of Gregory the Illuminator, who believed that the spring inside one of the caves in this location was holy.
Impressive cliffs towering around this monastery complex are a part of the Azat River gorge, known for its natural beauty. As I wrote above, a significant portion of the complex is dug into the mountain cliff. That makes experiencing this monastery complex very intriguing as you can walk through very complex construction, in and out of the mountain.
Visit Garni Temple even though it’s not on the UNESCO’s list
Most travelers also visit Garni Temple when they reach Geghart monastery. Garni is located very close to this monastery and it’s the only fully preserved pre-Christian, pagan temple in our country. I wrote more about Garni Temple in my list of romantic places in Armenia. So, check it out if you are around. It’s not on UNESCO’s World Heritage sites list, but I really believe it is worth a visit if you are already here. And the view of the canyon that opens from that temple is simply breathtaking.
Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries – UNESCO sites tour #3
Your third UNESCO World Heritage tour in Armenia will take you up to the north of the country, where two ancient monasteries are located – Haghpat and Sanahin. Both were built in the 10th century, under the patronage of the Armenian Queen Khosrovanush.
Haghpat monastery is one of the few remaining fully functional monasteries in Armenia, and it’s been enlisted by UNESCO since 1996. It is located in a small village named Haghpat, around 10 km away from Alaverdi city. This complex is an important spiritual and cultural landmark for all of those who want to explore medieval Armenia. Also, while here, you can to enjoy some really beautiful views.
Sanahin monastery is located in only about a 30-minute drive from village of Haghpat. Constructed on a beautiful plateau above the canyon of the Debed River, this place is one of the most renown holy places in the Northern Armenia. Similar to Haghpat, this is a rather vast monastic complex, that’s been enlisted by UNESCO in 1996 as a World Heritage site.
To this day historians are not sure which of the two monasteries was built first. But a legend known among the locals says that behind the name of Sanahin is a phrase “sa nranic hina”, which means “this one is older”. I sense a little brotherly rivalry between the two villages that claim these monasteries these days. And, I think that’s sweet!
If you find this kind of remote non-urban areas interesting, I think you will love my overview of the most beautiful villages in Armenia, so check it out on that link. We’ve got some hidden gems around the country. Now, back to UNESCO!
Plan your trip to these remote UNESCO sites
I recommend you combine this UNESCO tour with visiting Sevan lake, and staying overnight in Dilijan. You can get to these monasteries by car from Dilijan in about 2 hours. Also, check out my list of things to do in Dilijan National Park, to make the maximum out of your trip. Alternatively, you can put these monasteries on your list of places to visit, when you are in Gyumri. The journey from Gyumri will take you a little less than 2,5 hours, by car.
If you happen to be in Armenia in August and want to see Haghpat and Sanahin, then check out the dates of the traditional Armenian Barbecue Festival in the village of Akhtala. Since it’s very close to these monasteries, it offers a great opportunity to enjoy an amazing event dedicated to one of our most iconic dishes. I wrote more about this festival in my post about planning for the best time to visit Armenia. So, check it out!
Final thoughts on these UNESCO sites in Armenia
These are all UNESCO World Heritage sites currently present in Armenia. The list might not be as long as those of our neighboring countries, but it doesn’t make these sites less beautiful and worth visiting.
There are 4 more sites that are included in UNESCO’s tentative list and haven’t been granted full protection yet. These are the archaeological site of the city of Dvin and that of Yererouk, the Noravank monastery and the complex of monasteries of Tatev in Syunik region. I’ll write more about them, if our government shows enough of political will to push these sites to get enlisted by UNESCO, and sponsor their preservation better.
I hope this post helps you enjoy your tours to UNESCO sites in Armenia. As I always say, don’t forget to share your pictures with me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. There is nothing better than hearing from my readers, knowing that they get to enjoy my country thanks to my recommendations. If you like this post, I think you might also enjoy reading through my list of unique places to visit in Yerevan. Check that post out and enjoy your travels.
Featured image credit: Photo by Taken on Pixabay (CC)
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