A short guide to Khor Virap, Armenia’s most sacred monastery
Planning a trip to Armenia’s iconic Khor Virap monastery? Here’s everything you need to know, including how to get there, things to do, travel tips and advice, and a brief history of Armenia’s most sacred site.
We’re bumping our way through the Ararat Valley, faces pressed to the glass of our dusty minibus as we strain to catch the first glimpses of our destination: Khor Virap monastery and its breathtaking Mount Ararat backdrop.
Our Jayway Travel guide laughs at our enthusiasm and leans over to warn us not to get our hopes up. After all, she says, in a lifetime of growing up in Armenia she’s only witnessed this iconic landmark a couple of times without its blanket of cloud covering some (or all) of the view.
“The mountain is shy, it takes time to reveal itself!” she advises.
You can only imagine our excitement then, when we rounded a corner and the landscape finally came into focus. A medieval walled monastery cutting a silhouette against the snow-capped flanks of Mount Ararat. Better yet, both stood proud against a pale blue cloudless sky.
With a history over a thousand years old, steeped in mysticism, biblical events, and ties to Armenia’s Christian history, Khor Virap is already one of Armenia’s best-loved attractions (so loved, in fact, that Khor Virap and Mount Ararat are symbols of the country). To witness this beautiful place on a day when all its glory was revealed was an experience we’ll remember forever.
For those planning a trip to Armenia, Khor Virap is an easy day trip from Yerevan and an absolute must-see on any Armenian travel itinerary, or trip through the Caucasus. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Khor Virap.
a guide to khor virap: Armenia’s most sacred monastery
history of khor virap
Though its presence is far more sacred these days, Khor Virap actually began life as a castle and royal dungeon right near the ancient Armenian capital of Artashat around 180 BC. Writhing with snakes, notorious for torture, and stinking of decaying flesh, Khor Virap was not the kind of prison people returned from.
In fact, its name is derived from ‘Virap Nerk’in', or “deep dungeon”, and it was into this deep dungeon pit that King Tiridates (Trdat) III threw Grigor Lusarovich to die for practising Christianity and openly defying the Armenian pagan religion of the time.
Legend has it that Grigor was kept alive by a Christian woman from a neighbouring village dropped fresh-baked loaves of bread into the pit for thirteen years. That was, until the King fell ill and was convinced by his sister (via a prophetic dream) to release Grigor, who eventually cured him. According to the legend, this was all King Trdat III needed to convert, and in 301 Armenia became the first official Christian country in the world, while Grigor became the revered Gregory the Illuminator.
Since then, Khor Virap has seen many lives as a chapel and monastery, a Middle Ages education and learning centre, an important pilgrimage site, and also survived a colossal earthquake in 1679 CE. Needless to say, this little complex on a hill that played such a crucial role in Armenia’s religious history has become one of its most sacred and visited sites today!
things to do at Khor Virap monastery
ADMIRE THE VIEWS OVER MOUNT ARARAT
In addition to the iconic photograph of a silhouetted Khor Virap against, the area also lays claim to another Mt Ararat drawcard: one of the best uninterrupted viewpoints of the towering 5137m tall mountain in the whole of Armenia.
Historically, Mount Ararat and the Ararat plain have been the centre of Armenia’s cultural heartland; Noah’s Ark is supposed to have landed here after the floods, battles have been won and lost in its foothills, and for centuries it was a revered symbol of Armenia’s landscape. Today, the mountain has an even more poignant presence; it’s officially in Turkish territory, having been annexed by the later in 1921, despite still dominating the skyline of Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan.
You can either take in the views from the south side of the monastery complex, or, hike up the hill right behind it and admire it from there.
CLIMB INTO THE DUNGEON WHERE GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR WAS HELD
Once in the chapel, you’ll notice two stairways descending to pits on either side of the altar. The stairway to the right side leads down to the small pit where Gregory the Illuminator was kept during his captivity, where the braver amongst you can descend the 27-step iron ladder to experience what it must have been like to live for so long in this stuffy, damp underground cavern of only a few metres long.
Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a national holiday in Armenia and the arrival of about 8 busloads full of jostling international tourists, so we felt claustrophobic enough just looking into it from above without attempting to join the pushing and shoving.
EXPLORE THE ANCIENT RUINS OF KHOR VIRAP
There’s been a chapel standing on this site in some form or another here since 642AD, though various iterations of it have been repeatedly rebuilt over time. Whilst the currently standing church, St Astvatsatsin, was built in 1662, you’ll still come face-to-face with what remains of the old chapel, monastery, cells, and communal eating area that remain within the grounds.
our tips for visiting khor virap
THE EARLIER, THE BETTER
Learn from our mistakes people: do not go to Khor Virap on a public holiday, and try and get there before the masses do. By the time we arrived at the monastery around 10am we already found it to be unpleasantly busy, particularly around the chapel area.
If you can, plan your visit for early morning before the buses start arriving and you’ll be guaranteed the best Ararat viewing spot and a chance to explore the underground caverns without fear of getting stuck down there like a sardine in a can. It may require you to book a private cab there, but it’s worth it!
DON’T BUY AND/OR RELEASE WHITE DOVES
Around the grounds and near the exits of the monastery, you’ll likely encounter a few locals encouraging you to buy a caged white dove to release in the hope that they fly to Mount Ararat (bringing prosperity and luck). It’s our belief that doing so only promotes animal cruelty and unethical treatment of wildlife, so as the responsible and kind travellers we know you guys are, we’d recommend you avoid partaking.
For those who might consider releasing them as an act of kindness, unfortunately birds bred in captivity and then set free are generally unable to survive in the wild, while those who are caught wild and released in a totally different environments suffer a similar fate.
Religion is critical to daily life in Armenia, so it’s obvious that the site at which Christianity was formally adopted by the country would be considered its most sacred. St Astvatsatsin is also a working church, so whatever your religious inclinations, be sure to show respect for the locals and their beliefs by dressing conservatively here and covering your shoulders / wearing longer clothing that covers knees.
COMBINE YOUR VISIT TO KHOR VIRAP WITH A DAY TRIP TO NORAVANK MONASTERY
If you have a spare day and the means to get to both sites as well, we’d recommend combining your visit to Khor Virap with a day trip to the 13th century Noravank Monastery too. Set in a deep gorge and and nestled into the side of a mountain, the UNESCO-protected monastery is worth the visit for the stunning location alone while its history - from surviving Mongol invasions (thanks to the almond-shaped eyes on a relic of God) to emerging relatively unscathed from a later earthquake - is long and varied too. Both sites are stunning, extremely important to the cultural and religious history of Armenia, and definitely amongst the very best things to do in Armenia.
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khor virap opening hours
Khor Virap monastery is opens for visitors at 8am, and closes at 18:00pm in winter and 20:00pm in summer. We recommend getting there are early as possible to beat the crowds, and (hopefully) get some beautiful morning light to photograph.
WHERE IS KHOR VIRAP
Khor Virap proudly stands high on a hill overlooking the green pastures and rural plains that make up the foothills of Mount Ararat, 40km south of Yerevan and next to the (now closed) Turkish / Armenian border. Fun fact: from Khor Virap, it’s actually possible to look out over four countries at once: Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
Check this Google map of Khor Virap for the exact location.
HOW TO GET TO KHOR VIRAP
For many, joining an organised tour of Armenia, with the benefit of a local guide and the ease of having your tour arranged for you by the specialists, is the most appealing way to see the destination. If that sounds like you, we recommend JayWay Travel.
For those looking to experience the area independently, here’s some further information on how to get to Khor Virap by yourself.
HOW TO GET TO KHOR VIRAP BY CAR
If you have your own car, the journey from Yerevan to Khor Virap takes about 40 minutes and is pretty straightforward (see the route on Google Maps here). Just head south from the city and trace along the Turkish borderline before
HOW TO GET TO KHOR VIRAP BY TAXI
A round-trip taxi journey from Yerevan to Khor Virap will set you back around $30USD, and generally will include the taxi driver waiting for you at the monastery while you explore.
HOW TO GET TO KHOR VIRAP BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT
There’s no public bus that goes directly to Khor Virap just yet, so your best bet is to catch either a local bus or a marshrutka (mini bus) to Ararat from just behind the Sasuntsi David Metro Station in Yerevan. Buses leave at 9:00am, 11:00am, and 14:00pm from the west side of the station, cost 400 AMD one-way, and you’ll need to let the driver know you’d like to get off at Khor Virap so they drop you in the right place.
Some (nice) drivers will actually drop you off at the monastery, but otherwise you’ll need to walk about 1-1.5km from the bus stop to Khor Virap itself or ask a friendly local taxi-driver to take you the rest of the way! Check the return bus times with the driver too, because to return to Yerevan from Khor Virap by public transport you’ll just retrace the same journey back again.
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Our time in Armenia was made possible by the Eastern Europe + Caucasus specialists (and legends!) at JayWay Travel, who sponsored our trip.
As always, all opinions, musings, and general ramblings are very much our own!