Akhtala Monastery, Armenia

Currently inactive, the 10th-century fortified monastery of Akhtala, located about 180 km north of Yerevan in the town of Akhtala in the Lori province of Armenia, is often not visited by travelers, who come to the region for the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. Frankly speaking, I myself, though I passed by the town of Akhtala many a time on my way to Georgia and back, never actually visited the monastery, and our hitchhiking trip along the Silk Road of Armenia was a good excuse to finally make up for this lack. And so on the morning of November 15th, me and my travel companion from France, Emée, arrived in the town of Akhtala and were dropped off at an intersection, from where one could see the monastic compound in all of its grandeur.
Athtala Monastery Armenia

Between the years of 1887 and 1889 Jacques de Morgan, a French mining engineer, geologist and archaeologist, discovered 576 rectangular stone sepulchers and cultural items made of clay, bronze and iron near Akhtala dating back to the 8th century BC. The fortress of Akhtala itself was built on top of Bronze and Iron Age foundations by the Kyurikids, a branch of the Bagratuni royal dynasty that originated from Kiurikeh I, the first king of the Kingdom of Lori, a medieval Armenian kingdom also known as the Kingdom of Tashir-Dzoraget. Surrounded by deep canyons from its three sides, the fortress provides an access to the compound through its main gates on the northern side protected by walls with round, cone-shaped towers.
Akhtala Monastery main entrance
The road from the town to the fortress went up along the edge of the canyon, and as we approached the fortress, Akhtala stood up in front of us in the morning mist down in the gorge. Emée was ahead of me hurrying to the gate, while I was trying to get a better shot of the town, and when I reached her, she pointed at the big lock on the gates: “It’s closed.” It wasn’t; the lock was hanging on the gate, creating an illusion. We pushed the gate and entered the monastery. Not too far ahead was the main structure of the compound – the St. Astvatsatsin church.
St. Astvatsatsin Church of Akhtala Monastery
It is unknown when exactly the church was built, and although the church was built on an earlier foundation, today it is generally regarded as an 11th-13th century building. In 1118, King Kiurikeh II’s daughter, Princess Mariam, had made a record on a khachkar found near Akhtala, which refers to the construction of the church: “I, the daughter of Kiurikeh, Mariam, erected St. Astvatsatsin at Pghndzahank, those who honor us remember us in their prayers.”

Window frames of Akhtala monastery Patterns on the walls of Akhtala monastery

Armenian medieval historian Stepanos Orbelian mentioned that St. Astvatsatsin church held a cross used by John the Baptist to baptize Jesus Christ, which I doubt, because as far as I know John didn’t use anything but his very own hands and the waters of Jordan River. There was no talk about a cross back then.
St. Astvatsatsin Church of Akhtala Monastery
The St. Astvatsatsin church is famous for its frescoes, depicting scenes from both Old and New Testaments, saints, the Holy Virgin with Child, the Communion, the apostles Peter, John and Paul, as well as the evangelists Matthew and Luke and other Christian saints. Unfortunately, the church was locked and we couldn’t go in the see the murals, so we went the explore the other structures of the compound: the 13th c. three-story tower, built into the fortress walls; the ruins of cells attached to the walls and a two-story friary or dining hall to the north of main church; the remains of a 13th century single nave church that had a semicircular apse protruding from the eastern wall.
13th century single nave church of Akhtala Monastery
When the Tashir-Dzoraget kingdom fell to Seljuk raids, the Kiurikids migrated to Tavush and Metsnaberd, maintaining ties to their ancestral fortress and compound in Akhtala. Starting from the late 18th century the Akhtala monastery has served ethnic Greek workers who settled in the town to work in the nearby gold and silver mines. They called the monastery “Meramani” and have left inscriptions on its walls. Finally, in the 19th century Akhtala was taken over by the Armenian princely family of Melikovs, and today Akhtala has its pilgrimage days on September 20–21.

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11 thoughts on “Akhtala Monastery, Armenia

  1. A fortress built on top of Bronze and Iron .. what a solid foundation!

    Very fascinating! I love how you are showing us places that we may never have the chance to visit in this lifetime. Thank you.

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