Monasteries and record-breaking are not usually mentioned in the same sentence. Maybe there is a monk somewhere with the world’s longest beard and I suppose St Francis ought to get a mention for being able to talk to animals, but otherwise most of the world’s monasteries leave record-breaking to other folk.
The Tatev monastery in Syunik, Southern Armenia is an exception. To reach it you have to travel on the world’s longest cable car called the Wings of Tatev. This is not some public relations claim with no substance, it has been verified by the Guinness Book of Records. It takes you over 5km from Halidzor village to Tatev, flying over the Vorotan gorge in less than fifteen minutes. It is so contemporary that it has its own iPhone app.
The view of the road that snakes between the mountains gives an idea of the time saved by taking the cable car. It is a smart, Swiss-designed project, with two cabins and a visitor’s centre with a restaurant. The aerial tramway isn’t open on Mondays, but every other day of the week it will drop you a short downhill walk from the Tatev monastery.
The Tatev monastery was the location of the biggest university in medieval Armenia. Built on virtually inaccessible rocks (unless you’ve got a handy cable car…) it survived the invasion of Tamerlane in the 14th century and is still a working religious centre today. Tall eighteenth century ramparts surround a courtyard that contains three churches, the oldest of which is dedicated to Sts Paul and Peter and dates from 900AD. The newest, dedicated to St Gregory, is from the end of the 13th century, whilst the third, devoted to the Mother of God church is 11th century.
There are only two bells in the whole of Armenia that date from the 13th century and are inscribed in Armenian. They are both at the Tatev monastery. One fell after one of Armenia’s many devastating earthquakes – this one in 1931- but the other is still hanging in the bell tower which has the traditional Armenian stalactite decoration. It is still used, which shows the remarkable quality of Armenian ironwork in the 1200s.
Tatev has a good collection of ancient Khachkars (cross-stones), several of which have been built into the walls of the buildings. There are three main types – depicting grapes, blossom, or devoted to the Virgin. It also has one very early cross stone, dating from the 6-7th century, when the crosses were free-standing and had not yet developed the classical Khachkar designs.
I had a little confusion when told that one area of the monastery housed a Muslim. Unusual for a Christian monastery, I thought, but very multicultural and in keeping with the times. As the explanation went on though I realised that it housed a mausoleum, containing the relics of local saint Grigor Tatevatsi.
It was lunchtime when I returned to the carpark, so I visited the Wings of Tatev restaurant and had a taste of the local Syunik cuisine. This is a very modern, contemporary attraction that also gives great views over the gorge. Salads, flat breads and grape-leaf wrapped dolma made a traditional Armenian lunch, finished with a piece of Paklava on the balcony. This is a sweet, nutty pastry with lashings of honey. Flaky and very moreish.
The cable car has trebled the number of visitors making the trip to the Tatev monastery every year. If you like a thrilling ride before your sightseeing, and a traditional lunch afterwards, then Tatev should be on your Armenian must see list.
I was hosted in Armenia by the National Competitive Foundation.