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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.