Garni Gorge: Armenia's Stone Elegy

Garni Gorge

In the Kotayk region of Armenia, just 30 km east of Yerevan, there is an unusual place that has long been given epithets by tourists: pagan, holy, stunning, inspiring and leaving an indelible impression. The first contrast evokes many questions at once: how could two so different religious creations - the pagan temple of Garni and the ancient orthodox monastery of Geghard could coexist among the bizarre stone beauties. We are going to search for the answers to that question in the multifaceted past of Armenia, and in the meantime we'd like to give you practical advice, truly a tourist tip. If by the will of fate you happened to find yourself in hospitable and certainly very colorful Armenia, and in particular in its capital Yerevan, be sure to include a trip to the Garni Gorge in your itinerary: it's worth it.

How many corners on our planet are bright, full of picturesque charms, which you just want to "eat with your eyes", capture in memory, to stop the moment forever and then retrieve from the home photo archive to admire again. In Garni Gorge in Armenia all these feelings surely arise, but the mountain kingdom charms tourists not only with this solid collection of emotions. From the first moment the travelers as soon as they get to the epicenter of local dominions they are captivated by some special, seemingly mystic energy, which is difficult to put into verbal form. The physical sensations can be tried to be described differently: pinch me quickly, the surrounding reality is unreal, it seems that you were magically transported somewhere to Mars, because such stone roulades could not be created by water, wind and sun.

The shocking portrait of the Garni Gorge is not meant to be seen as a well-trodden tourist trail near the pagan complex and the ancient temple. Before plunging into the mighty stone treasury, you must visit the "bottom" of the gorge near the river, where the tourist's footstep is much rarer, because you can get here only by all-terrain vehicle and in clear sunny weather.

It is not that the locals do not welcome the crowds of curious travelers in this place, but they consider it a corner of Armenia: strangers do not walk here. The natives themselves more often come down here on foot from the village of Garni, or arrive by car to have a picnic on an important event in the house. The people of Armenia love their "Symphony of Stones" so much that they carefully protect it from prying eyes. For this reason, guides, who are well aware of this fact, try to avoid the unique non-human-made monument of Transcaucasian nature.

Garni Gorge

The magnificent music video performed by Tata Simonyan and Anatoly Dneprov, "My Armenia", has a multimillion army of ardent fans, and it was filmed just on the banks of the Azat mountain river, in the place where the "stone organ" of the Garni Gorge rules. No scientist could explain how these huge basalt columns, frozen above the ground at a height of about 50 meters, came to be formed here. The regular hexagonal shape and almost strict vertical positioning of rocky "pencils" even suggested to particularly impressionable people that a giant alien musician wandered here once and forgot his fabulous organ in the mountains.

Over the years, the Armenian Gulliver did not appear in the neighborhood; the bizarre stone ensemble grew more and more ingrained into the ground, and was overgrown with stubborn greenery and thickets of flowers. In the spring all this splendor blooms to the measured sounds of the running river, submitting to the winds of the sun, and in the fall it wears gold and scarlet, turning the surroundings into even more picturesque paintings. The followers of the official version incline to the opinion that there could be no extraterrestrial intervention in the Garni Gorge, and the old volcano made a good job of it, but it seems that no fire-breathing friends are nearby. Tourists do not hurry to "take apart the toy" for parts, why look how it is arranged inside, if you can just enjoy its existence and admire the basalt drawing of the unknown sculptor.

Having sung the praises of the lower part of the exotic gorge, it is time to return to the sinful land and tell how best to get to the famous Armenian natural landmark.

The coordinates of the gorge are 40°07′00″ north latitude, 44°43′05″ east longitude.

We should mention right away that it is better to travel around in a car of "off-road" class, so you should refuse offers to make a walk in a car with a low landing. There is only 3 km between the tourist fiefdom of the pagan temple of Garni and the tempting lowlands, but it is almost completely off-road on time-worn paving stones. Active tourists often go to the "stone organ" on bicycles or on foot, but to make such a voyage is worthy only for well physically prepared travelers. Another way to get to the basalt kingdom is to seek help from the residents of the nearby village, for them it is often an additional source of income, so they will prompt, and help, and give a lift. In any case do not rely on the help of public transport, ordering excursions in an individual format is the right decision. To stop near the Azat river to organize a picnic in the bosom of nature is also a great idea, complete privacy and the absence of prying eyes of the tourists will be guaranteed. Rare passers-by are very colorful here. Sometimes, an old woman with a goat munching on a heap of grass materializes out of nowhere, then a leisurely traveler glimpses between the stones and immediately disappears.

Garni Gorge

If you are traveling in Armenia by private car, pay attention to our following tips:
- even dashing drivers with a long driving record get lost on the winding downhill, full of dangerous uncharted turns;
- The cost of renting a car from the local natives together with the driver is 400-500 rubles round trip, which is safer and quieter than a personal debut on the mountain trails;
- Experienced tourists have noted that cars with a "mechanic" overcome the road in this region more confidently than modern units on "automatic";
- going out, do not forget to get acquainted with the weather forecast on the Garni Plateau, after and during the rain you can become hostage to a completely washed-out trail and settle at the bottom of the gorge until the sun appears in the sky;
- Time on foot from the village down and then back up takes from 20 minutes to one hour, but the physical load can be compared to three hours of grueling workouts in a fitness club.
Steep mazes are sure to be "overpowering" older tourists and young travelers in the campaign will be useful sports shoes, clothing and hats against the scorching rays of the sun, especially active in the summer.

Garni Gorge

The next important point to stop in the gorge after the rugged beauty of the basalt complex is the pagan temple of Garni, which Armenia inherited from the ancient Hellenes. The breathtaking structure was erected in the 1st century B.C. to glorify the sun god Mithras. The piquancy of the moment is that Armenia was the first country in the world to give priority to the Christian religion, and suddenly a cult architectural rarity was perfectly preserved in the vicinity of the state capital. The bewilderment about this is easy to dispel. The fact is that the ancient Armenian kings admired the architecture of the Greek heritage so much that they could not neglect the temple and turned the structure into a summer residence of the rulers of the state in 301.

It may also seem interesting that the French term "garrison" arose precisely because of the construction of a military barracks in the Garni Gorge. For centuries the pagan "house" has been a source of anxiety to the powers that be, and so it has gone through ups and downs, changes of lords and short periods of oblivion, reconstruction and restoration after the earthquake, until it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Armenia. The temple offers absolutely stunning views of the gorge and pieces of the Azat River valley, and the pictures from these places are definitely worthy of the highest lines of the hit-parade of beautiful sights in the world.

Buses arrive here every hour. You can also take public transportation to Garni by minibus № 266 and № 51 which leave from the Mercedes show-room and Mashtots Avenue respectively and by bus № 284 from Yerevan bus station. Get out of the car better at the turn to the temple, walk half a kilometer and there you are at the foot of an ancient pagan relic.

To ensure that tourists do not feel deprived and neglected during their visit to the temple of Garni, the enterprising Armenians have set up a whole tent city with delicious culinary products, drinks, handicrafts and agricultural products in the form of honey, fruits and vegetables. After a walk through the territory of the pagan complex you can satisfy your hunger and thirst and buy original souvenirs.

Garni Gorge

A short stop on the way around the gorge is not worth it for a long time. Having left behind the ruins of an ancient temple, a fortress, royal mansions and a bathhouse that once saw better days, we must hurry to the next Armenian curiosity - the Geghard Stone Monastery. The monastery complex was once a great honor to the masters of orthodoxy. It was in its hinterland that the monks diligently kept the great shrine - the spear of Longinus, which is believed to have struck the body of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The "Monastery of the Sacred Spear" has the full name Geghardavank, according to scientists, was built in the ΙΥ century AD. The ancient structure amidst the majestic mountains is part of the UNESCO cultural collection and is protected by credentials of the Armenian administration with a special pride.

The rock complex was built directly on the steep stones and to this day rises above the valley of the mountain river and forms a kind of dead end, at least the transport road stops here and the hiking trails lead nowhere.

Garni Temple

The history of many religious monastic complexes is usually carefully recorded in monastic manuscripts, but this was not the case with Geghard. Even now, scholars argue over the exact age of the temple and the legend of the storage of the spear, which gave the stone statue in the mountains the name Geghardavank - translated from the Armenian language as "monastery of the spear.

The sacred rarity itself was eventually moved to the main religious complex of Armenia - Echmiadzin, and the cave monastery is still visited by a great number of travelers, ready again and again to admire the picturesque pictures of the surroundings. The point of the religious establishment is that the cells of monks here are cut out in rocks and only much later buildings of above-ground character appeared in the courtyard of the monastery. The exterior of Geghard bears the marks of a seriously destructive earthquake and the raids of barbarians who wanted to enrich themselves from the supposed treasury of the rather modest and ascetic lifestyle of the monks.

Geghard acquired its present appearance after a series of negative influences in the 12th-13th century. The key church with a vestibule, the hall for the monastery council, the chapel of Gregory the Illuminator, and the cave church of the Holy Virgin appeared in the courtyard at that time. The monastery is still reminded of its stone past by the slabs with crosses carved on them, which serve as burial vaults for the clergy.

In the collection of the monastic possessions one often wishes to linger farther away. For inquisitive tourists Geghard is ready to show traces of ancient frescoes, ancient openwork ornaments and patterns, cross-stones and other fragments of architectural milestones of the past centuries.

Travelers who believe in the holy magic of the stone masterpiece's miraculous walls stand for hours near the wall with its garland of rocky recesses. The rumor persists that one must manage to throw a pebble into the stone recesses, remembering to ask for good luck and prosperity at the same time. The lucky ones who were lucky enough to send a message to God would leave Geghard under his patronage. Tourists did not do without the popular ritual of tying ribbons on trees near the bridge, which is located in the immediate vicinity of the monastic complex.

The locals take advantage of Geghard's holiness in their own way, and it's time to remember the proverb: There is no place without space, but in a slightly different context. Another souvenir town has long since sprouted up alongside the vast monastery grounds, with shops selling handicrafts, food and drink. It is only by evening that the square near Geghardavank becomes empty again. The parking lot is empty and the noisy sellers of Armenian rarities go home.

Garni Temple

In the second decade of the 21st century, the life of the monks themselves underwent significant changes. Now they have a comfortable dormitory with all the trappings of innovative technology. No more than a dozen monks work and live in the religious complex all the time, some of whom go home to their families in the evening. In any case, no one stays in the rocky cells for the night and does not eat scanty food, going from bread to water.

We called the Garni Gorge a "stone elegy" and we are not going to retract our words. The collection of sights in the vicinity of Yerevan, from the "basalt miracle" to the pagan temple and on to the Geghard Monastery is a series of vivid impressions, which will allow you to know the true spirit of Armenia, and also generate a desire to return here again. Let's go, Lord, the sunny country awaits tourists with peace in their hearts.

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