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The Debed Canyon: a natural jewel full of ancient monasteries

For thousands of years, the raging waters of the Debed River have made their way between tight mountains and have slowly formed one of the natural wonders Armenia: a canyon which is 7 kilometers long and hundreds of meters high.

To top it off, residents of this area have created authentic works of art over the centuries in the form of fortresses and monasteries. All of that has made this area one of the greatest attractions of the north of the country when it comes to tourism in Armenia.

Together with Etchmiadzin, the Debed Canyon has the highest concentration of World Heritage monuments and few places in the country can compete in terms of historical and landscape heritage. You cannot miss the area’s two jewels of religious architecture: the Aghpat and Sanahin Monasteries.

When in the area, do check out the colossal Alaverdi Copper Factory as well. This supplied a quarter of all the mineral necessary for the Russian Empire during the time of Tsarist domination.

Even today, the plant maintains high production rates. The buildings that were built during the Soviet period in the main population centres are also a shock to the eyes .

The gap opened by the forces of nature in the past has now been exploited by locals to build one of the busiest – and worst preserved – roads that connect Iran with Georgia and Russia. This is the only international railway line that remains active in Armenia after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and whose final destination is the Georgian capital.

The main town in the area is Alaverdi. This small town has the best transport connections, the odd restaurant, and B&B. However, the best hotels in the area, such as the Avan Dzoraget or the Qefo, are in nearby towns. The area offers some trekking and although most of its villages are connected by marshrutka, the frequencies of trips are not very high, thus making the transport slow and a bit chaotic. You can always take a taxi or hitchhike.

What to See in Debed Canyon?

Alaverdi

The mining town of Alaverdi is a quiet city that extends over the course of the river. It is the most important in the area and the main transport hub.

In itself, it does not have many attractions and it is not really that beautiful. One of its attractions is the old cable-car which connects Alaverdi with Sanahin.

It used to be the highest cable-car in the entire former USSR. The experience is not suitable for people who suffer from vertigo though, and when the wind blows, your heart jumps out of your chest.

However, it is the fastest and cheapest way to visit the Sanahin Monastery and the views are breathtaking. It was built to transport workers from their homes to the factory and even today it operates according to work shifts (there is one which leaves every ten minutes between 7:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.)

The most interesting place in Alaverdi is the old Sanahin Bridge, which connects the two banks of the Debed and is located near the cable car station.

It is one of the best-preserved medieval bridges in the Caucasus and, according to a khachkar found in the vicinity, it was built at the end of the 12th century.

It is about 60 metres long and it is made with basalt blocks. The felines sculpted on the walls which act as a handrail really stand out. The legend says that someday they will come alive.

Mikoyan Museum

Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 pm.

Ticket price: 300 AMD.

This small museum is located in the town of Sanahin, reachable via the cable car. It is dedicated to the Mikoyan brothers: Anastas and Artyom. They are the favorite children of the town.

Anastas was one of the top leaders of the Communist Party in the USSR for more than 50 years and he worked closely with Stalin. His brother, Artyom, was the designer of the pride of the Soviet air forces: the MIC fighter-bomber. There is a real MIC 21 in the courtyard of the exhibition centre.

This building is very close to the Sanahin Monastery and 1.5 kilometers from the Sanahin Cable Car Station. If you want to get there, when you have left the cable car station, go up until you get to the first square. Once there, turn to the left and go straight (about a kilometer) until you see a fork on the road. It is signposted. The Sanahin monastery is on the right and the museum on the left.

Sanahin Monastery

The monastery of Sanahin is a two-hectare complex with three churches, a bell tower, library, a portico, mausoleums, and royal tombs. It is a World Heritage Site. Its decadent state, its silence and its darkness transmit a sensation of calm easily perceptible by the visitor.

In its interior, some kings of the mythical Bagratid dynasty are buried, which confirms the relevance of the place. This lineage accumulated the greatest power of Transcaucasia, and it’s family branches influenced the future of both Georgia and Armenia.

The monastery has been a World Heritage Site since 1996, and its name means “this one is older than that one”, hinting at the rivalry with the nearby Haghpat Monastery. For years it was the central area of the religious and cultural life of the Kingdom of Lori, a small State that had its own identity between 979 and 1118, after the disintegration of the Kingdom of Armenia.

Its oldest building is the Surb Astvatsatsin Church, which was built between 928 and 944 by Armenian monks who had to escape from Byzantium and who turned it into the central structure.

Gradually, new constructions were added around it: El Salvador Church (966), the Saint Gregory Church (980), the library (1063), the bell tower and the two gavits – typical entrance porches of the Armenian shrines.

Apparently, hundreds of clerics used to live here at one time and their school, one of the most important in the country, taught in the six arts of the Middle Ages: grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, astronomy, and music. It is very close to the Mikoyan Museum. To get to the town of Sanahin, the fastest and most economical way is by the cable car.

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat is the ‘young brother’ of the Sanahin Monastery. Even if it is younger only by 45 years. Experts say that both are works by masters from the same school. In this respect, there is a legend that says that a father and his son were in charge of the building works of Sanahin, but one day they got into a heated argument. The son was offended, and he quit, leaving his father alone in charge of the team.

Soon afterward, a prince commissioned the son to build another nearby shrine. He accepted. The people of Sanahin immediately learned about the new building and they told the father, who went there to see the progress his son was making. He examined everything closely while the people waited for a verdict. Then he exclaimed, setting one foot on one of the walls: Hakh pat! That means something like “firm wall!” Then, father and son embraced each other and they were reconciled.

Legends aside, the Nshana Church, the oldest one, was built between 976 and 991. However, the religious complex was in the shadow of Sanahin until the twelfth century, when its Golden Age began. Both monasteries look at each other from high above, and the 7 kilometres that separate them can be covered on foot via paths that climb and descend the walls of the canyon.

In the year 2000, UNESCO included it in its list of World Heritage Sites. The precinct is also comprised of the Saint Gregory Church (1025), a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, a foyer, a refectory, a bell tower, a library, a burial area, and the grave of the Ukaniants family.

This monastery is located in the village of Haghpat, 9 miles east of Alaverdi. There are marshrutkas from Alaverdi with some regularity from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and for the return trip from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. However, we recommend you confirm the schedules first.

Akhtala Fortress

It is a fortified monastery and a less known place, but it guards inside one of its churches an interesting collection of frescoes that have lasted to this day.

The purpose of this site was both religious and defensive. Its walls played an important role in protecting the northern regions. It also protected communications between Georgia and Armenia, along with other fortresses such as Lori, Kayan, and Kaytzon.

The most important church in the complex is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was built in the 13th century. However, the fortress is from an earlier date, the 10th century. Akhtala is about 20 kilometres from Alaverdi.

There is a marshrutka that leaves from Alaverdi at noon and returns as soon as it is full of people. Which means that you may be left in the lurch for a while. For that reason, we recommend you take a car or taxi for the visit. Alternatively, walk to the main road and hitchhike.

Within this area, you’ll also find the Church and the Odzum Monument. At the top of the canyon sits the small village of Odzum. It is 13 km away from Alaverdi and it is famous for its church and its strange funeral monument, which is located on the left side of the temple. It was built between the 6th and 7th centuries. To get there, we recommend you take a taxi.

Where to Sleep in the Debed Canyon?

Cheap Lodging Type

B&B Iris

Address: 65 Baghramyan Poghots Street.

Phone: +374 91 088812.

E-mail: israyelian@gmail.com

Price: 7,000-8,000 AMD / person.

It is located on the outskirts of Alaverdi. It is the most professional and comfortable B&B in the area. This accommodation is managed by Irina, a wonderful woman who has learned English by memorising a single word from each guest. B&B Iris is a three-story house with seven comfortable rooms, very clean, and with a shared bathroom.

It is advertised on Trip Advisor. The only drawback is that the house is 3 km away from the bus station, but Irina pays a one-way taxi to her clients at the time of check-in. It offers information of all kinds and excellent service. Irina is very well connected within the region. If the B&B is full, you do not have to worry about it as she will look for some other accommodation in any of the other houses.

Medium Lodging Type

Qefilyan Hotel

Address: Haghpat 14/19.

Phone +374 55 210210.

E-mail: info@qefotel.com

It is located in the village of Haghpat and boasts stunning views of the Debed Canyon. You can find here simple but comfortable rooms. They have a private bathroom, TV, and a minibar. The hotel, which is sometimes also known as the Qefo Hotel, offers a kitchen for the guests’ use.

The hotel belongs to the chef of the Flora restaurant and, from time to time, he organizes cuisine lessons for the guests, as well as showing visitors the process of making vodka. The hotel is 200 metres (656 feet) from the Haghpat Monastery. It is one of the best options if you are looking for value for money. The staff speaks English. For more information: www.qefohotel.com

Expensive Lodging Type

Tufenkian Avan Dzoraget Hotel

Phone: +374 93 94 7889/ +374 60 501010.

It is located in the village of Dzoraget, halfway along the road between Alaverdi and Vanadzor. It is the best hotel in the area and the place chosen by some heads of state and celebrities who have visited the area. The hotel is built on the edge of the Debed River. It has a swimming pool, a sauna, and a gym.

Price: from AMD 35,000-105,000. They offer discounts of up to 20% during the low season. The restaurant, like all the Tufenkian chain ones, is always a safe bet. For more information: www.tufenkianheritage.com

Where to Eat?

Medium Type Restaurant

Flora Restaurant

Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

It is run by Chef Armen, a cuisine lover who has just opened the Qefo Hotel. It is the most famous restaurant in the city. The service is efficient, the place is comfortable, and the dishes are made with loving care. Really good value for money. It is on the other bank of the Alaverdi River. If you want to get there, you should cross the Sanahin Bridge and go uphill for a bit.

Transportation

The main marshrutkas leave at the Alaverdi bus station.

  • Alaverdi-Yerevan: they leave at 9:00, 11:30, 1:30 p.m.
  • Alaverdi-Haghpat: they leave at 8:00, 9:00, 10:30, 11:00, 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.
  • Haghpat-Alaverdi: they leave at 8:30, 9:30, 11:30, 1:00, 2.00, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 p.m.
  • Alaverdi-Vanadzor: they leave at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 and 1:00 p.m.