Note: This video was created by the students participating in the travel blogging workshop at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Armenia.
There’s a certain irony in riding a five-year-old tramway to reach a 1,200-year-old monastery. Kind of like Snapchatting the Mona Lisa to your friend. But that’s what I did recently, and I couldn’t be happier that the technology now exists – it’s made an Armenian historical treasure more accessible to visitors, and as you reach the other side, the shiny cable car to Tatev Monastery feels more like a time machine.
Perched dramatically on the edge of a rugged plateau that falls into the Vorotan River Gorge in southeast Armenia, the monastery inspires easy analogies to Game of Thrones. But unlike Winterfell, this place actually lived those stories. Built as far back as 848 A.D., the monastery near the village of Tatev has seen religious prominence, economic influence, foreign invasions, massive earthquakes, an important Medieval university, destruction, and restoration.
Don’t visit the monastery without hiking 1 kilometer away for this shot that begs for a panorama. (All photos: Greg Keraghosian)
These days it’s just a tourist site, but a magnificent tourist site at that. You reach Tatev Monastery by taking the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway, which floats up to 1,050 feet above the gorge. After that, for some real Instagram street cred, you’ll want to capture one of the best photo ops nobody knows about: looking down at the monastery in all its glory as it seemingly teeters on the cliff’s edge.
Amazingly, my crew and I were the only visitors enjoying that view, from a vista point that’s a 1 kilometer hike away. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, tourists stuck to striding around the monastery’s three churches and adjacent grounds. I had come here leading five high-school-age members of my Tumo travel storytelling workshop in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
The view from Wings of Tatev on the ride toward the monastery.
And while I was at least 20 years older than my companions, I was probably the most impatient – like a restless kid who just wants to cut past the line at Disneyland, I just wanted to find that shot of Tatev Monastery, the one I’d been thinking about for days.
From the tramway, you can look down on these cloisters from the 1600s.
But we had to save that for last. First, we had to drive four hours from Yerevan to reach the village of Halidzor. From there we had two options to reach Tatev Monastery: drive 40 minutes through the deep ravine with its narrow, switchback-laden roads, or simply float there on Wings of Tatev, a 10-minute tramway ride away. The latter made more sense for us considering our time constraints, though I would have loved to take the scenic route, which includes a natural crossing called the Devil’s Bridge. (A more sensible base of operations for a visit to Tatev would be from the town of Goris, under 20 miles away.)
Plus, at least you can say you rode something in the Guinness Book of World Records. Wings of Tatev launched in October 2010 in an effort to revive tourism in the region, and it cost an estimated $18 million to build. The tramway extends 3 ½ miles, with the cable cars reaching 23 mph. These are hardly ziplining speeds and the ride is smooth, though people who fear heights may tense up at times.
The monks’ machinery can still be found on the grounds.
You’ll want to look down, though, because there are landmarks of note, such as the Devil’s Bridge and a grand cloisters that dates to the 1600s and connected monks to Tatev Monastery. During the ride, I chuckled a bit at the contrast of traditional Armenian music playing in our car, accompanied by an audioguide with a soothing British accent.
Search the monastery and you can find all kinds of dark, tiny rooms.
Stepping off the tram and approaching the monastery, you’ll find elderly Armenian women selling everything from bread to vodka from their kiosks, and they just might charm you into buying something. But don’t delay too long outside, because you can spend hours exploring within.
There’s a lot to take in here: near the churches you’ll find rows of Medieval stone khachkars, or cross-stones, one of Armenia’s most recognizable symbols in the world’s first officially Christian country. You can enter a restored 17th-century oil mill, called a dzit-han, that’s been turned into an interactive museum complete with a huge press.
The gorgeous view from inside the dome of Sts. Peter and Paul Church.
Our Tumo class was guided by a teenage Tatev native named Alina, who kept modestly insisting she wasn’t a true tour guide but kept giving us fascinating information anyway. She walked us under the gorgeous, window-lit dome inside the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, inside rooms that belonged to a university that thrived from 1390 to 1434 (before a Persian invasion shut it down), and inside the monks’ former cells.
An Armenian kchachkar, or cross stone.
Those monks had to watch their step in those cells, with steep gorge drops just outside, and you’ll have to watch your step too. Around the cells I noticed some exposed, circular gaps in the floor that seemed to fall several feet. When I asked Alina what function the holes served, she said the monks used them to hide during invasions. Kind of like Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon.
Alina also told us the story behind a lovely 25-foot stone pillar in the courtyard that’s topped by a khachkar and dates to the 10th century. It’s known as a gavazan, which directly translates to “cane” in Armenian, but it served as a Medieval pendulum and earthquake detector. While much of the monastery was damaged by serious earthquakes in 1138 and 1931, the pillar remains.
The 10th-century pendulum, topped by a cross stone, in the courtyard.
I was drawn to all this, but like a moth to flame, I was more drawn to the monastery’s rugged edges. I was wearing hiking shoes, and I had to step so far down that if I took one step further I’d be risking a deadly fall into the gorge. This wasn’t a bright idea considering the structures were placed there to fend off invaders, but I was able to snap some photos looking straight up at the monastery this way.
One of the exposed holes in the ground you’ll have to watch out for.
But I still hadn’t taken the shot I was looking for. My students and I had lunch at a small restaurant in Tatev, noshing on delicious Armenian cheeses tucked inside flatbread. And finally, it was go time: two other young locals walked us 1 kilometer up an inclining dirt trail wrapping around a hill. We passed two horses grazing in the grass, and a crossed paths with a vagabond cow. We saw not a single tourist.
The kids setting up for the prize shot.
And then we’d reached the lookout point. In my travels I’ve been overwhelmed (Yosemite’s Half Dome) and underwhelmed (the Leaning Tower of Pisa) when I finally got to see a famous photo opportunity in person. But gazing down at the monastery’s asymmetrical, beautiful angles and taking several panoramic shots of the surrounding green valley delivered all the emotional and photographic payoff I was looking for. Seeing that same payoff in the eyes of my students, who were Armenian natives yet had never been here, made it doubly special. We needed Wings of Tatev to get back to our van that day, but my spirit was soaring without it.