Armenia Debed gorge – monasteries, spirituality and copper

We are going to talk about Armenia Debed Gorge.

This gorge is a very particular area of Armenia. It is both spiritual and very materialistic, with monasteries side by side with industrial complexes. You can find the last remnants of the Soviet Union era industrialization next to the most spiritual construction of the X century AD.

It seems to me that, even if I’m not a spiritual person, the monasteries are winning the battle. They have around 1000 years and seem in better shape than the Soviet industrial complex, that are only 80 years old. Well, let’s start.

Armenia Debed gorge, my travels

I have been in Armenia twice, both times in recent years (2014 and 2016) and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I feel a certain sympathy for the Armenian people.

The sympathy derives in part from the ability to know how to react to the terrible adversities that struck them (unfortunately the list is long and begins with the genocide of 1915, to arrive Nagorno-Karabakh war) and partly because of the great generosity with which I have always been welcomed.


Armenia is a landlocked country and this makes it a little more complex to be on the routes of world trade.

Armenia map
Armenia map – all rights of (nationsonlineproject). Alaverdi is that tiny town in the north, near the border with Georgia. The Debed gorge and its monasteries are all around the city.

First I have to mention the tense situation with Turkey. The turkish government denies the 1915 genocide and the bordere between the 2 nations remains closed.

As if that was not enough, the state of perpetual conflict with Azerbaijan (for the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomus Republic) means that even the Azeri border is closed to traffic of people/commercial (if you are interested about the general situation of Armenia you can have a look here).

…and umbilical cords!

The land borders that can be used for travel and trade stretches for about a hundred kilometers in the north, and about thirty in the south (respectively with Georgia and Iran). You don’t need to be a geopolitical expert to understand that, until a few years ago, when the nuclear deal with Iran was far away and Tehran was hit by international sanctions, the umbilical cord that bound Armenia to the world only passed for Georgia *.

Out of pity for you, I do not write anything about Nagorno-Karabakh and even less about Naxcivan, an Azerbaijani exclave (no, it’s not a bad word) stuck between Armenia and Turkey.

As far as I know it may even be possible to enter Iran passing by land from Agarak/Norduz border. In this regard, I assure you nothing. I wanted to try it but time is what it is and I decided to postpone it. If anyone has news I would be happy to learn from you.

Armenia Debed Gorge, UNESCO world Heritage

So, the Debed Gorge is very close to the Georgian border, (in the 2016 the road was partially closed due to construction but once completed the main connection with Georgia will return to be the one that passes through the gorge) and so we have visited it while we were returning from Yerevan to Tbilisi.

Debed gorge. . Credit to Spetsnaz1991
Debed gorge . Credit to Spetsnaz1991

As a lazy man I would not have stopped in the gorge and instead taken a direct marshrutka to the Georgian capital. My girlfriend thought otherwise and so we ended up in Alaverdi, the regional capital of the province of Lori, a small town of 15,000 inhabitants about a three-hour drive north of Yerevan.


Alaverdi is the easiest point from which to explore Armenia’s Debed Gorge and its sanctuaries. The aforementioned roadworks meant that the marshrutka passed through an alternative route (Stepanavan and Agharak), from which the real dimensions of the gorge could really be appreciated.

In fact, the road crosses a cultivated plateau and then plunges down into a series of impressive bends carved into the rock to reach the center of Alaverdi.

Armenia, Alaverdi, view of the copper foundry, just to make you understand what we are talking about when we talk about landscapes. On my second trip to Armenia, I crossed the border into a secondary pass between Guguti and Gogavan. The Armenian border guard was very skeptical about my intentions and repeatedly expressed concern that I wanted to go, or had gone, to Azerbaijan, which would not have let me in. The mistrust between the two countries is enormous and the winds of war blow one day yes and one day.
Armenia, Alaverdi, view of the copper foundry, just to make you understand what we are talking about when we talk about landscapes. On my second trip to Armenia, I crossed the border into a small mountain pass between Guguti and Gogavan. The Armenian border guard was very skeptical about my intentions and repeatedly expressed concern that I wanted to go, or had gone to, Azerbaijan, which would not have let me in. The mistrust between the two countries is enormous and the winds of war blow almost every day.

From Alaverdi a nice taxi driver, Vanushan, immediately offered us a standard tour…”Armenia, the monasteries of the Debed gorge”. With small bargaining we paid 12,000 Drams (around 24 euros).

Everything, as anyone who has a habit of traveling knows, works in an unofficial but very fluid way. The fact that we were the only tourists in Alaverdi and then the only tourists to go for monasteries, tells us quite clearly that the season was not “peaking” and then that the site was not yet very well known or even properly advertised.

Armenia Debed Gorge, now time for the monasteries!

Admission to all monasteries is free, only in the first one you can take a guide. Outside all the monasteries there are a number of souvenir sellers and a few small restaurants. “The air” is very retro, like Russia in the ’70s and ’80s, a sign that the great tourist flows have not yet been seen, even though the monasteries are UNESCO world heritage sites.

In a certain sense it is a good thing, given that it has allowed us to visit three monasteries practically alone, in a foggy but vaguely “mystical” climate.

For the local inhabitants, I believe it is not a good thing. As much as the local copper mine and the associated foundry, still give work to several thousand people (and offer a Dantesque vision to us tourists), it’s sure that the locals would need more work opportunities.


First of all Sanahin, the nearest monastery to Alaverdi, about seven kilometers right on the mountain opposite the city. It could also be reached from the center by cable car, but unfortunately at the moment it was not in operation and, judging by the state of the cable car, it will not be for a long time.

Sanahin monastery
Armenia Debed Gorge, sanahin monasteries

Most of monasteries located between Georgia and Armenia have similar characteristics and the one in the Debed area are not different. The complex is rather large, probably founded around the 10th century after Christ and made up of various elements. The church and religion played a central role, but Sanahin was also a cultural center where art was produced, manuscripts copied, the Bible and other texts were studied.

Armenia, Debed gorge, Sanahin monastery
Armenia Debed gorge, Sanahin monastery

The interior of the monastery is bare but fascinating. The light, especially on that misty day, penetrated through holes made in the vault or small windows and gave the rooms, often enormous, a cold gray tone that was very reminiscent of Winterfell of Games of Throne.


The second monastery we visited is the one of Haghpat, about fifteen kilometers from Alaverdi. It is located on a mountain overlooking the town of the same name. From the monastery you have a beautiful view of the entire gorge and nearby cities (weather permitting of course). This monastery is a complex consisting of various chapels, an academy, libraries, refectories, tombs and actual churches.

Haghpat is perhaps more detailed and preserved than Sanahin, but shares its aims and construction techniques (the large arched hall in the central chapel for example).

Armenia, Monsatero di Haghpat
Armenia Debed gorge. A classic view of the Haghpat monastery
Armenia, Debed gorge,  Haghpat monastery
The bare interior of the monastery


Finally the most pleasant surprise of the whole trip, the Akhtala complex. Akhtala is a monastery/fortress that is located twenty kilometers north of Alaverdi and hosts, before entering, a small tourist office (that was another surprise).

The complex is clearly visible from the road and the walls are still partly intact. Inside, only the church remains intact but preserves some stupendous frescoes dating back to the 1200s, in Byzantine style and with Greek inscriptions. After seeing two fascinating but very rigorous and bare places, Akhtala gives an impression of liveliness and color that is difficult to forget.

Monastero di Akhtala, ingresso.
Armenia Debed gorge. Between all the monasteries in the Debed gorge,the one of Akhtala, is definitely the more colorful. Here you can see the entrance.
Monastero di Akhtala, affreschi
Monastery of Akhtala, frescoes. The photo doesn’t do justice to the frescoes.

This is more or less everything. Our Vanushan then took us to the border with Georgia and from there we found another taxi to Tbilisi (30 Lari, about 13 euros).

Less lazy than usual

I don’t deny that my girlfriend’s idea turned out to be a winner. It was really worth stopping at Alaverdi and being accompanied by someone for a brief “tour of the monasteries in the Debed gorge”. But keep in mind one thing, start your tour early.

We arrived at Alaverdi at around 1 pm and then at the border with Georgia at around 5 pm. At that time there was no longer any marshrutka for Tbilisi and so it became obligatory to negotiate with a Georgian taxi driver to arrive in the Georgian capital.

It may also be worth stopping for a night in Alaverdi and doing everything a little calmer. Because in the Debed gorge, apart from monasteries, you could add a detour and have a look at the museum of the Mikoyan brothers (Artem one of the minds behind the Russian jets MiG and Anastas, one of the most powerful politicians of Soviet Russia) stop at the Queen Tamar bridge, or spend some time to try to find a good restaurant. Did I tell you that Armenian food is delicious, especially if you are vegetarian?

Alaverdi, ponte della regina Tamar.
Alaverdi, Debed gorge, Queen Tamar bridge.

The post on Armenia Debed gorge and its monasteries is now finished. If you want I have a few other suggestions in case you want to keep reading

Here you can find my 5 reasons why you must visit the Caucasus.

Travel to Petra, Jordan.

Or a European classic, what to see in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

*Update 2018. Thanks to Trump’s decisions, the US unilaterally withdraw from the agreement with Iran. The reflections on the Armenian / Iranian border are still uncertain.

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