Sanahin is said to be the older monastery (its name in Armenian translates into “this one is older than that one;. The Monastery is in Lori marz, in Alaverdi.
It is about 170 km from Yerevan, or 2.5-3 hours from Yerevan. Sanahin was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996.Sanahin and its nearby cousin Haghpat, shared in the fortunes and travails of the times, intertwined in history while each unique as a center of learning, religious study and font of spirituality.
The exact date for the founding of Sanahin is unknown. It is believed to have been founded in the 4th century when a St. N’shan (Holy Sign) cross was erected at the site. Sanahin is said to be the older monastery (its name in Armenian translates into “this one is older than that one”).
Documentary evidence suggest that the structures date back to the reign of king Abbas Bagratuni (930s). The historians Kirakos Gandzaketsi and Vardan Areveltsi wrote that the first structure of the monastery, St. Astvatsatsin church, was built by Armenian immigrants from Byzantium who had rejected the Chalcedonian sect.
Sanahin later became the Kiurikian Seat of power, a royal patrimonial sepulcher (until mid-12th c.), and residence for the Kiurikian diocese (until mid-11th c.), resulting in the construction of many religious and civil structures. In both monasteries, especially in Sanahin, humanitarian sciences, music and medicine were studied, scientific treatises composed and artworks (mostly miniatures) painted.
Between them, Haghpat and Sanahin had more than 20 churches and chapels, annexes, sepulchers, bell-towers, an Academy (Magistros’ seminary), book depositories, refectories, galleries, bridges and other monumental structures, to say nothing of numerous dwelling and service structures.
Like Haghpat, Sanahin was sacked during the Mongol invasion, which first captured the fortress Akner built halfway between them for protection. In 1996 Haghpat, and then Sanahin (1999) were jointly registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Original text edited by ICOMOS-Armenia and approved by the Holy See of Echmiadzin.
The southeast part of the 10th-11th cc. Zakarian Sepulchre (11) is a semi-underground crypt with a vaulted ceiling with partially preserved chapels on top. The side chapels are stylistically close to Grigor chapel. The western end, built in 1189, is simpler with a large ornamental doorway.
St. Hakop Church (13) is a cross-winged dome church with four (half-ruined) annexes in its corners. The church was built in the second half of the 10th century, making it one of the earliest structures in the complex. About 20 m east is the 13th century St. Harutiun Church (14), a vaulted hall, interesting for its two identical eastern altar apses.
The khachkars at Sanahin include one carved in 1192, commissioned by Queen Vaneni, who had Sanahin bridge built over the Debed River and memorial khachkar carved for her husband King Abbas Bagratuni, who died prematurely. The single span bridge is in central Alaverdi and still used by city dwellers.
Other significant khachkars include the 1205-1222 khachkar known as Tsiranavor, east of the main cluster of buildings, carved by the master David. According to the inscription on its pedestal, it was erected by Father Hovhannes to commemorate the construction of an inn.
Most khachkars have the traditional cross with fennel seeds and branches of the Tree of Life on its sides. 10th-11th cc. khachkars are generally not as ornamented as 12th-13th cc. stones and overall ornamentation is geometrical (floral motifs, squares and rosettes).
Directly in front of you, in the distance and across the gorge, are two important monuments; the fortress of Aknaberd and Monastery of Haghpat, Haghpat located in the village of the same name on the slope above the far cliffs and Aknaberd fortress directly below on a rock promontory.
Haghpat’s founding is traced to the reign of King Abbas Bagratuni (r. 929-953) while the current monastery’s oldest building was begun in 976 during the reign of King Ashot the Merciful (r. 953-977). In the mid-11th century, Haghpat-along with Sanahin- was an important religious center in Lori, growing under the patronage of the Kiurikians and Zakarians, who liberated the region from the Seljuks in the late 12th century.
Haghpat and Sanahin are also connected to one of Armenia’s greatest medieval bards, Sayat Nova, who studied as a child at Sanahin (1712-1719) and later lived at Haghpat first as a clergyman (from 1768), then as Grand Sacristan (1778-1795).
Just below Haghpat, on a rock precipice are the ruins of Aknaberd, erected in 1233 on order of Haghpat’s bishop Hovhannes to protect both monasteries. His cousin, Prince Shah’n’shah, whose father is buried at Sanahin, had the fortress demolished before advancing Mongol troops, who captured both monasteries and sacked them. The site is still accessible on foot, from the Haghpat village road.