Khor Virap offers a dreamy picture. It is surrounded by vineyards where the grapes are picked to distil the Armenian cognac and it stands at the foot of the impressive Mount Ararat.
In this place, the two symbols of the country are united: their sacred mountain – although it is currently in Turkey, it remains the national totem for them – and the corner where Gregory the Illuminator was locked up for almost thirteen years. In fact, the word Khor Virap means deep dungeon.
As a result, the monastery has become a cultural icon. It is a walled complex that has a couple of churches and the cells of the ancient monks.
It is located on the right bank of the Arax River, which marks the border with Turkey – today closed – and is located about 18 miles south of Yerevan. A visit to the monastery is a nice half-day tour that is especially pleasant if the weather is good.
A Little Bit of History
This is where Christianity in the country all began. The construction of the monastery led to Armenia becoming the oldest Christian nation in the world. According to tradition, King Tiridates III confined Saint Gregory the Illuminator (patron of Armenia) in a dungeon full of snakes and scorpions for thirteen years.
He did so as a punishment when he learned that Saint Gregory’s father, a nobleman from the neighbouring state of Parthia, had murdered his entire family in a conspiracy to snatch the throne a few years prior. But Saint Gregory did not die. The prisoner survived the captivity thanks to a miracle, and to a widow who slipped some bread through an opening of his cell every single day. The story claims that when Tiridates III killed the 36 nuns who arrived from Rome, Gregory freaked out.
He had fallen in love with Saint Hripsime, a beautiful nun with whom the very emperor of Rome had also fallen in love. It is said that as the emperor was not able to possess her, he killed her with all her companions. Soon, Tiridades III began to lose his head. Out of remorse, some people claim. Then his sister Khosrovdukht had a revelation.
A dream told her that the only person who was able to restore his brother’s sanity was the man locked away in the dungeon. She set him free and Saint Gregory healed the king in return. In gratitude, the monarch decreed that from then on, the only religion in his kingdom would be the faith of Christ.
The cell is still well preserved and you can visit it. But you really have to be brave enough to go down the six and a half meters of narrow metal stairs situated on the right of the altar of the Saint Gregory Church.
The Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin Church is in the centre of the courtyard of the monastery, which was built in the seventeenth century in red and black tufa.
We must highlight the bas-relief situated under the window of the altar, where Saint Gregory appears on the right side with a bible healing the king.
Today, Khor Virap not only represents the place where his patron and first Catholics were tortured but also the place where the conversion of Armenia began. Therefore, it is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in the country. It is the mecca for Armenians.
The Ararat, the Sacred Mountain
“On the seventeenth day of the seventh month, the ark rested on Mount Ararat.” In Genesis 8:4 begins the legend of this impressive mountain that stands tall at 5,165 meters (16945 feet) above sea level. According to the Old Testament, this is where the boat which Noah built with his own hands came to rest after drifting for 40 days and 40 nights in the Universal Flood.
Inside, he took a male and a female of each species who survived the flood. Some say that the cataclysm could have occurred 4,800 years ago. They say that one of the first things that the patriarch did when the waters receded and set foot on firm land was planting a vine.
For the Jews, Christians, and Muslims the top of Mount Ararat represents the second opportunity that God gave to the world. It is a kind of totem for Armenians, its sacred mountain. Its culture is full of songs, odes, and praises to its snowy summit.
Although today it is located in Turkish territory, it used to be within the limits of so-called Historical Armenia and is its national symbol since the beginning of time. Losing the holiest summit in the country in 1921 was a severe disappointment for the newly created Armenian state.
The Ararat is settled in an area known as “the quadruple border.” Here Turkey meets Iran, Armenia and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.
In fact, this mountain is a stratovolcano, a type of high-altitude cone-shaped volcano formed by several amounts of layers of solidified lava, pyroclastic, and ash.
In general, this kind of geological formations are quite cool, and it is not difficult for them to surpass the 2,500 meters mark (8202 feet).
Nobody knows exactly when was the last time the Ararat erupted, but in 1840 the area suffered an earthquake. It probably caused the activity inside. This gigantic volcano boasts of two peaks: the elder sister at 5137 m. (16583 feet) and the little sister at 3896 m (12782 feet). It is the highest peak in Turkey and it is one of the most beautiful mountains on the planet.
The fact that its summit could conceal the Ark of Noah has attracted numerous expeditions by archaeologists and scientists, some more serious than others. The last one was a joint expedition of Chinese and Turkish citizens who said they had found the remains of the boat with a certainty of “99%”.
The people in charge claim that the carbon 14 test carried out on the remains indicated that they were 4,800 years old. The news was echoed in the media of several countries, but suspicion and scepticism soon began.
The roof of Turkey has become a lure for climbers from all over the world. A special permit from the Government of Ankara is needed to reach the summit. It is a demanding ascent that can last several days, and you must be in good physical shape.
The first time the peak was summited in modern times was in 1829. Dr. Friedrich Parrot, along with the Armenian poet Khachatur Abovyan, reached the top during the autumn of 1829. A month later, they reached the Summit of Masis and they became part of the History of one of the most mythical mountains on the planet.
The marshrutkas and buses to Khor Virap leave the parking lot of the Central Railway Station of Yerevan (Sassountsi Davit metro station) at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. They drop you off at the junction between the road to the small town of Lusarat and the one going to the monastery. From there, you have to walk a mile and a half to the monastic complex.
On the way back, transportation stops at the same place (opposite direction) at 1:20, 3:20 and 5:00 p.m. A round-trip taxi from Yerevan to Khor Virap, along with a one-hour waits costs around 10,000 AMD. If you manage to share it amongst a few people, it will be cheap for you. You can also join a tour (the Envoy Hostel organizes a pretty fun tour to the wineries of the village of Areni and this also stops at Khor Virap).