Deep valleys surrounded by basalt plateaus and rugged peaks define Armenian landscape in the south. They have provided shelter to pilgrims, and travelers for centuries. One of them is Vorotan gorge, a steep canyon shaped by a river bearing the same name. It hides one of the most seaworthy sights of Armenia, the Tatev monastery.
Exploring Tatev and its surroundings
To this day, historians argue about the origins of the name “Tatev.” Legend has it that during the construction of the main church, an apprentice lost his balance after secretly placing a cross designed by him to the top of the steeple and fell into the abyss. During the fall he prayed to God to give him wings, which roughly translates as “Ta Tev” in Armenian. Once you spot the monastery for the first time, you’ll understand why sometimes wings may have been the only way to reach the religious complex. It is set in breathtaking scenery on the edge of the deep Vorotan gorge surrounded by cliffs creating a natural fortification.
Visitors get the best aerial overview of the area by a ride or rather a short flight in Wings of Tatev aerial tramway, the longest non-stop double track cable car in the world (as of 2019). It connects villages of Halidzor and Tatev, ‘flies’ as high as 320 meters above the valley, and offers excellent views.
Good to know: The flight takes around 15 minutes. There is enough parking adjacent to the cable cars starting point in Halidzor. Tickets are sold for a specific timeframe, you need to decide the time of your return as well. Opening times of the cable car change throughout the year. On Monday, the tramway is usually closed for maintenance. For detailed information, check the Wings of Tatev website.
Another way to get to the monastery is by car on the road H45. As in May 2019, the road was well maintained and paved with construction works still ongoing just before Tatev.
Taking the curvy road full of hairpin bends gives you the possibility to explore the sights on the way. You can stop at Devil’s Bridge, a natural viaduct carved by a river with a hot spring nearby, where you can take a dip. There are also many hiking opportunities around the valley. However, paths are steep and sometimes unmarked.
Tatev monastery complex
The monastery dates back to the 9th century AD. During middle ages, it played a significant spiritual as well as a scholastic role in Armenia. For more than 40 years, it hosted a university and served as a depository of valuable manuscripts.
Back then, Tatev was a place where religion and innovation went hand in hand. To this day, signs of this coalition are spread across the complex. For example, Tatev’s famous Gavazan (the pendulous column), an 8-meter-high stone monument dedicated to Holy Trinity, also served as an earthquake warning system. The column would swing during tremors and turn back into its vertical position after the shocks had passed.
For almost a mystical experience, step inside Tatev’s main basilica, the Church of Saints Paul and Peter. The divine, almost fearful atmosphere inside the church is extraordinary.
An ancient giant oil press outside the monastery’s walls houses a small museum and gives a good impression of everyday life on monastery’s premises.
Last but not least, enjoy the view. Form almost every room of former dormitories there’s a spectacular view over the Vorotan gorge and surrounding peaks. You’ll understand why Tatev’s apprentices prayed for wings.
Tips: For a beautiful view of the monastery with the valley, follow the road along the complex. Behind the first hairpin bend, you’ll find Tatev viewpoint. If you want to grab a bite after the visit, Saro restaurant located just opposite the main entrance offers tasteful homemade food. Their khinkali were delicious.
As for time management, it depends on your interests. An architecture and history junkie could easily spend days exploring all the frescos and khachkars of Tatev. We spent roughly four hours without rushing anywhere.
Where to stay: We enjoyed our stay in one of the en suite bungalows of Old Halizdor Hotel. The property offers a direct view of the monastery on the other side of the valley. There is a garden restaurant serving simple but tasty Armenian dishes and wines.
Tatev is (as in 2019) a wonderful do it yourself sight. There are very few restrictions, and visitors can climb from room to room, stroll around the garden and get almost to the edge of the gorge. A couple of guided groups crossed our way, but their number was pretty straightforward. Individual travelers should take the chance and visit as soon as possible before selfie-sticks and restriction signs take over.
Traveling in Armenia
Check out more information about Armenia
– Yerevan: The Pink Capital
– Garni and Geghard: Medival beauties close to Yerevan
– Sevan Lake and Armenian Stonehenge: Traveling to the South
– Tatev: Monastery on the edge of a deep gorge
– Noravank, Areni and Khor Virap: History and wine
– Practical tips for traveling