Sanahin: This One is Older Than That One
Sanahin Monastery (Armenia)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Sanahin Monastery (Armenia)
Advantages: Breathtaking vistas, atmospheric medieval buildings, beautiful architecture and carvings.
Disadvantages: The gruelling journey. Not much on-site information.
Armenia is not a large country by European standards. However, within a relatively small area, there are wild contrasts in geography - from the flat and fertile Ararat plain, to the mountainous deciduous and evergreen forests in the Northern provinces. With harsh winters and little money in the national coffers for repairs, the roads are patchy at best and nigh on impassable at worst, making a map of the country a very unreliable indicator of the time and distance required to travel anywhere that's off the beaten track. For any intrepid tourist who has the curiosity and courage to venture beyond the comfort of the capital Yerevan and its immediate environs, there are rich rewards to be found in the most remote of places.
Lori province is at the northernmost end of Armenia, sharing a border with Georgia and a front with Azerbaijan (the border has been closed since 1992 after the quarrel over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated into a full-scale conflict, but there has been an uneasy cease-fire in place for many years now). Tucked away in this region, a good four hours drive from Yerevan, are two exquisite monastic complexes - Sanahin and Haghpat, which, due to their proximity, are usually visited together. The former is in decent repair, but is in desperate need of investment, renovation and restoration. The latter is in much better condition, mainly because it still has a working church and is considered a marquee posting for serving Armenian Orthodox priests. Both share the distinction of being on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list.
I was lucky enough to be driven to Sanahin by a friend of my sister, who has been living and working in Yerevan for the past two years. However, for the independent traveller, the most reasonable and practical option is to take a guided tour to both monasteries in the relative comfort of a coach - these are usually better equipped to handle the vagaries of the roads in this part of Armenia. Tours can be booked from most travel agents and hotels in the capital. For example, an all day trip (officially listed as ten hours there and back) that takes in both sites can be booked through Hyur Service on Nalbandian Street (www.hyurservice.com) for 10,000 Armenian Dram (around £20/$30).
We had anticipated a long trip, but we weren't quite prepared for just how long it actually took. Our friend owns a seven seater van with decent suspension, however, once we left the main inter-city highways the route was very heavy going. The trip should normally take no more than four hours, but a rock slide had closed the main highway north of Vanadzor and the diversion was little more than a dirt track.
In the event the trip took closer to five hours each way, with not only the time, but the physical rigours of being rocked about the van like clothes in washing machine making it particularly tiring. However, when we finally arrived at Sanahin, it was immediately clear that the effort had been well worth the ordeal.
Sanahin is built high up on the side of a mountain, looking over the small, dilapidated town that shares its name, and the city of Alaverdi, further down the valley. You see small snatches of the complex as you approach it, but most of it is hidden behind tall, ancient trees. There is no car park as such, you simply park wherever you can find a decent pitch, then make your way up a set of stone steps to the main entrance. To get there, you have to run a gauntlet of strategically placed makeshift stalls selling a variety of tourist-related merchandise and home-made arts and crafts.
There is no tourist infrastructure in place, per se. It seems the one restaurant/café that used to serve visitors to the complex has long since closed. A simple general store, with sparsely stocked shelves full of ancient looking goods, alcohol and cigarettes is the only amenity close to the site.
Unfortunately, given that Sanahin was "only" added as a UNESCO site in 2000 and remains well off the main tourist trail, only minor investment has been made in catering for visitors. A metal plaque, providing a potted history of the complex in English, and a site map, with its main buildings marked in three languages (Russian, English and Armenian) are the solitary nods to foreign visitors. There is no admission charge.
The Sanahin monastery complex was founded in the 10th century and was one of the principal cultural, religious and educational centres of Armenia for three hundred years. In its prime, it consisted of three churches - St Hagop (James), St Asvadzadzin (Mary) and St Amenaprgich (Holy Redeemer), two chapels, a library, bell tower and an academy, most of which have survived to the present day.
Along with the competing complex at Haghpat, it was famous for its scriptorium, which produced some of Armenia's most celebrated illuminated manuscripts, some of which can be seen at the Matenadaran Museum in Yerevan. Its name, literally translated from Armenian, means "this one is older than that one" - presumably a dig at its close rival across the Debed River gorge.
There is not a lot of room at the front of the site, especially given the towering trees, with much of the main church - St Amenaprgich (pronounced "Ah-men-ah-purr-geech") - dappled in sunlight and shade. A large steel structure sits unsympathetically alongside it in the courtyard and, despite its age, has clearly seen some recent use. One hopes, optimistically, that this functional and ugly looking structure is playing some part in the restoration work that the buildings here so desperately need.
However, this modern aberration aside, Sanahin is an oasis of calm, practically exuding antiquity and encouraging a quiet and contemplative appreciation of its faded beauty. The surviving cloisters, passageways, nooks and outbuildings look much as they would have in centuries past. All that is missing is a bit of monastic chanting and the smell of incense.
THE MAIN CHURCH
The floor of the main chapel is covered in stone tablets - clearly memorial markers of gravestones - making the footing a little tricky. The walls are adorned with carved crosses and ancient Armenian inscriptions. The bright sunlight struggles to penetrate the interior of the building given its small, slit like windows.
Monasteries such as these were often well fortified, and Sanahin is no exception, so natural light was often sacrificed for stronger defensive properties. Some independent research before my visit revealed that the walls used to be decorated with colourful frescoes, but sadly none of these have survived the centuries.
There are several atmospheric side passages and chapels in the main church. One in particular, a small corridor with three large khatchkars (cross-stones) erected at the end is especially worthy of closer investigation. The fine craftsmanship and intricate designs on these stones (there are dozens of them scattered about the complex) is wonderful.
To see the complex at its best requires a bit of legwork. The main church and side chapels are overlooked by a contemporary cemetery built into the hillside. Despite evidence of modern burials, most of it is overgrown - the flora in this part of the world, although exceedingly beautiful (if the sheer number and breadth of wildflowers are any measure) - is also very aggressive, making an ascent of the hillside hard work.
However, the views are well worth the bruised shins and insect bites. The first thing that strikes you is the canopy of vegetation on the roofs and cupolas of the main buildings in the complex. The growth is both alarming and compelling at the same time. You could imagine, if viewed from above, the complex would be virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape.
Although the medieval architects wanted their creation to blend well into its environment, I doubt this was what they had in mind. The various vines, small shrubs and weeds can't be doing much good to the stonework underneath and clearly require some attention before irreversible damage is done. The trouble is, given the country's other, more immediate needs, there is little money and appetite for investment.
This elevated view also gives you a much better perspective of the complex and its outbuildings, which you simply can't get at ground level. It is a real shame that more information is not available on site, as without preparation or a guide, there is no way to appreciate and understand the purpose, use and inter-relationship of the surviving buildings.
After the exertion of the climb, I had a rest on an opportune bench and took in some of the decorative flourishes on the exterior of each of the buildings. Apart from the hushed murmur of a few fellow visitors and the strains of everyday goings on in the village below, there was nothing to break the serene silence but the buzz of insects and the occasional bird song. It's easy to see why UNESCO consider this a cultural and national heritage site worthy of "identification, protection and preservation" and "of outstanding value to humanity".
We spent ten hours driving to and from Lori and four hours in the region. Sanahin was our first stop, followed by Haghpat and a bite to eat before returning "home" to Yerevan. I can honestly say that the arduous trip was worth every horsefly sting, spine-jarring pot-hole, and seemingly endless bleak vistas of Armenia's impoverished and rusting industrial heartland.
Along the way to Sanahin, we experienced a little of what "real" Armenia must be like for a majority of those who live outside Yerevan. If you have the time and energy to devote to a day trip to both monasteries, I would strongly encourage it - the journey is almost as enlightening as the destination.
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: A long but very worthwhile day trip from Yerevan