The following itinerary describes daily activities which may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents prior to departure. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=evening meal.
Baku, Azerbaijan - 3 nights
Day 1: Tuesday 29 August, Arrive Baku
- Airport Transfer for participants arriving on the ASA ‘designated’ flight (QR251 at 1025hrs)
- Heydar Aliyev Center (Zaha Hadid architects)
Participants taking ASA’s ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive in Baku mid-morning and will transfer by private vehicle to the Hilton Baku. Participants who have made alternative air arrangements should meet the group at the hotel. After checking in and taking some time to freshen up from the flight we commence our program with a light lunch.
In the afternoon we travel north of the city to view the extraordinary fluid shell-like Heydar Aliyev Center by the Islamic world’s foremost contemporary architect, Zaha Hadid. (Overnight Baku) LD
Day 2: Wednesday 30 August, Baku
- Short Introductory Meeting
- Coach Orientation Tour including view of Baku city from Martyrs’ Lane & view of Flame Towers
- Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old City including the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Maiden Tower & Multani Caravanserai
- National Museum of History of Azerbaijan
- Welcome Dinner
Following a brief introductory meeting we take a coach orientation tour of Baku. Modern Baku constitutes three cities: the UNESCO Heritage listed old walled city (icheri shekher), the boomtown and the Soviet-built town. The boomtown, south of the old city, developed during the early 20th century when Azerbaijan was the world’s greatest oil exporter. The boomtown that oil export supported has interesting beaux-arts architecture particularly of mansions of pre-Revolutionary millionaires. Modern Baku spreads out from the walls rising up hills that rim the Bay of Baku. It has some fascinating contemporary architecture.
We begin with a visit to Martyr’s Lane, dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January and later to those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. From this memorial there are excellent views of the city and Bay of Baku. Adjacent to Martyr’s Lane we also view the iconic trio of flame-shaped towers which have transformed the city’s skyline. Designed by HOK, they were inspired by Baku’s history of fire worship.
Next, we take a walking tour of the tightly packed old walled city of Baku, visiting major historic monuments. These will include the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, whose complex includes a palace, mosque, bathhouse and other buildings. Nearby is the powerful Maiden Tower, a remnant of the city’s 12th-century fortifications. We also visit the Multani Caravanserai and Hajji Gayyib bathhouse, the Bukhara Caravanserai and Gasimbey bathhouse, the Synyk-Kala Minaret and Mosque and the Lezgi Mosque.
After lunch we move to the State Museum of History, Azerbaijan’s largest museum, housed in the Neo-Renaissance mansion of the oil baron Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. The collection includes a wide variety of artifacts dating from prehistory to the 20th century. It also displays parts of the original house interior, including highly decorated oriental rooms that evoke the interiors of the Alhambra.
Our day ends with an evening welcome dinner at a local restaurant. (Overnight Baku) BLD
Day 3: Thursday 31 August, Baku – Gobustan – Baku
- Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape – an important site of ancient petroglyphs added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2007
- Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (opened August 2014) displaying the vivid colours and bold designs of Azeri, Caucasian and Iranian carpets
- Painting Gallery dedicated to 19th and 20th-century Azeri painters
This morning we drive out of Baku to Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, an outstanding site with more than 6000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of human settlement. The remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials reflect an intensive use during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.
In the afternoon we visit Baku’s extraordinary new Carpet Museum that takes the form of a huge rolled up carpet. It boasts the country’s greatest carpet collection as well as a large corpus of ceramics, jewellery from the Bronze Age, medieval metal work, gold and silver adornments, national garments and embroidery and modern applied art works. Carpets constitute the most eloquent expressions of Azerbaijani ethnic identity. Praised by Marco Polo, they were prized throughout Europe during the Renaissance; Holbein depicted them as a sign of wealth in a number of portraits. For eons they have been used in Azerbaijan to adorn marquees, huts, houses, nomads’ tents, and other structures.
We also visit a painting gallery located on the promenade overlooking Baku Bay. Opened in 2015, this small, modern art gallery, displays an interesting collection of Azeri art from the 19th and 20th centuries. (Overnight Baku) BL
Sheki, Azerbaijan - 1 night
Day 4: Friday 1 September, Baku – Shamakhi – Muganly Pass – Sheki
- Friday Mosque, Yeddi Gumbez Mausoleum (Seven Domes) and graveyard of Shirvanshahs, Shamakhi
- Muganly Mountain Pass
- Khan’s Summer Palace (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Sheki’s caravanserai
We drive this morning to Shamakhi, located at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. One of the most ancient of Silk Road emporia, it claims to be the city of Kmakhia mentioned by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolomy in his Geography. Much of the city was destroyed by a series of earthquakes over five centuries, but a number of important monuments have survived. We shall visit the 10th-century Djuma Mosque, which has been rebuilt several times. It is the oldest mosque in the Caucasus and was constructed on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian temple. The Seven Cupolas (Eddi Gyumbez) Mausoleum is the burial place of the Shirvanshahs and their families, for whom Shamakhi was the capital for several centuries. On the hills just outside Shamakhi stands the derelict 11th-century Gulistan fortress. After exploring Shamakhi we shall drive through the awesome Muganly Mountain Pass to Sheki.
Situated 700 metres above sea level in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by mountains and oak forests, Sheki rises above fertile yaylags (pastures) and fields. The picturesque town has brick houses, shaded streets, with weeping willows lining canals carrying spring water. Originally a late Bronze Age settlement, it was occupied by Arab invaders in the 7th century. In the 9th century, when Arab power in the region weakened, a Christian kingdom was established here. The Shirvanshahs, a Persianised Arab dynasty then ruled the region as vassals of various overlords such as the Mongols and Timur (Tamerlane) until it was absorbed into Safavid Persia (1609). In the 18th century Sheki became capital of a Khanate, only to be taken by the Russians in 1805. Memories of its long history of silk manufacture remain in cottage silk production that can be seen today.
We shall visit the Khan’s Summer Palace, built in 1762 by Hussein Khan, the famed poet ‘Mushtaq’. The interior of the two-storey building is decorated with magnificent frescoes and lit by exquisite stained glass. We also visit Sheki’s reconstructed upper caravanserai located on the right bank of the river Gurjanachai. (Overnight Sheki) BLD
Sighnaghi, Kakheti, Georgia - 1 night
Day 5: Saturday 2 September, Sheki – Kvareli – Gremi – Sighnaghi
- Lunch and wine tasting at Kvareli Gvirabi, Khareba Winerary, Kakheti
- Gremi: Royal Citadel & Church of Archangels
- Evening meal at Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant, Sighnaghi
We pass today from Azerbaijan into Georgia, visiting the Kvareli Gvirabi wine cellar and Gremi’s royal citadel on our way to Sighnaghi. Kvareli Gvirabi in the Khaketi region, is Georgia’s largest wine cellar – 7.7 kilometres of tunnels and galleries that maintain a constant temperature of 12-14 degrees Celsius and 70% relative humidity all year round. Originally built for military purposes during the Cold War, the tunnels (gvirabi) were purchased by Khareba Winery who use them to store and age about 25,000 bottles of wine. We shall enjoy a light lunch catered by the winery’s excellent restaurant. This will be followed by a wine-tasting in the tunnels.
Gremi was the 16th-century capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti. Founded by Levan of Kakheti, it remained a lively Silk Route trading town and royal residence until razed by Safavid Shah Abbas I of Persia (1615). Gremi died and the Kakheti royal house transferred its capital to Telavi in the mid-17th century. Gremi, like many other Georgian cities, had a large Armenian population with its own churches and market. The town was composed of three parts, the Church of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael and its complex, the royal residence and the commercial neighbourhood. We shall visit the church complex that includes a three-storey citadel, a bell tower and a wine cellar (marani) encircled by a wall defended by embrasures, turrets and towers. King Levan of Kakheti built the cruciform, domed church in 1565. Its construction is of traditional Georgian masonry but its design is a local interpretation of contemporary Iranian architectural styles.
In the late afternoon we continue to the lovely, typically Georgian village of Sighnaghi, known for its production of wine and traditional carpets. In the evening we dine together at the Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant which specialises in traditional organic Georgian cuisine served with top-class natural wines made by the traditional qvevri method at their local winery. (Overnight Sighnaghi) BLD
Tbilisi, Georgia - 2 nights
Day 6: Sunday 3 September, Sighnaghi – Tbilisi
- Optional walk along Sighnaghi’s stone walls
- Monastery of St Nina at Bodbe
- The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia with its exquisite gold treasures (formerly known as the State Museum of History)
- Performance of Marionettes at the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre (performance to be confirmed in 2017)
At Sighnaghi there are over 4.5 kilometres of well-preserved stone walls which offer wonderful views of the vast Alazani Valley framed by the distant Caucasus Mountains. You may wish to join an optional walk along a section of the walls or take a short stroll along the town’s charming cobbled streets.
Located two kilometres from Sighnaghi is the beautiful Monastery of St Nina at Bodbe. Here we visit the grave of St Nina, who brought Christianity to Georgia, and the monastery’s magnificent gardens.
Mid-morning we drive to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, where we shall be based for the next two nights. Following lunch at a local restaurant offering wonderful views of the old town, we visit the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia to see its exquisite gold treasures. Of special note is the 5th-century BC Akhalgori hoard that contains unique examples of jewellery, blending Achaemenid (Persian) and local styles and gold pieces brought here from various archeological sites in Georgia. There is also a collection of medieval icons.
In the early evening we plan to attend a performance of marionettes at the Gabriadze Theatre. While puppet shows have traditionally been targeted largely towards children, those created by Rizo Gabriadze, the Georgian director, have a distinctly adult focus. The theatre has toured extensively, including the Lincoln Centre Festival, New York; The Barbican Centre, London; and the Kennedy Centre Festival, Washington DC. (Overnight Tbilisi) BLD
Day 7: Monday 4 September, Tbilisi
- Walking tour of Tbilisi, including: Metekhi Church, Mosque, Orbeliani Baths, Synagogue, 19th-century caravanserais, The Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary, Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
- Afternoon at leisure
- Tbilisi’s Art Nouveau architecture (optional walking tour)
- Dinner at Azarpesha Restaurant incl. recital by ‘Ensemble Tbilisi’ (by special arrangement)
Georgia’s capital Tbilisi (pop. 1.6 million) was founded in the 6th century by the monarch of what was then the medieval kingdom of Iberia. We shall spend the morning walking through the historic core of the city that has been Georgia’s capital for the greater part of 1500 years. During our walk we visit a number of important churches, including the 13th-century Metekhi Church, the 6th-century Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary and Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition housing the Cross of St Nina. We also view (exterior only) 19th-century caravanserais, the blue-tiled Orbeliani Baths and the Old Town’s mosque and synagogue.
From below, we also view the powerful Nariquala Fortress, founded in the 4th century and expanded by Iberia’s Umayyad (Arab) rulers and by king David the Builder (1089-1125). Most of the extant fortifications you will see date from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Lunch will be served at a local restaurant in the Old Town which features organic Georgian produce with meat and fish dishes cooked in the josper (pronounced ‘hosper’), a unique super-hot charcoal grill that seals in flavours. The remainder of the afternoon is at leisure for you to further explore the Old Town.
Tbilisi’s architecture is a fascinating mix of different period styles. Historic local architecture shows strong Byzantine and Middle Eastern influences. Tbilisi’s 19th-century precincts have many buildings in the Russian Neo-Classical style. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the Art Nouveau era, politics in Georgia were directly controlled by the capital of the Empire, Saint Petersburg, and Russian influence was evident. Despite all this, Tbilisi’s privileged location between Europe and Asia – that is, a city-bridge between two continents – helped to bring Art Nouveau inspired architecture, an unquestionable image of internationalism and modernity that was called ‘Modern Style’ in Georgia. In the late afternoon there will be an optional walking tour in the vicinity of our hotel viewing some examples of Tbilisi’s Art Nouveau buildings.
This evening we dine together at a local restaurant where we have engaged some members of the ‘Ensemble Tbilisi’ to sing for us. Formed in 1989, this ensemble consists of eleven professional male singers who specialise in polyphonic and country songs. Directed by Robert Gogolashvili, the ensemble have performed in concert halls in Georgia, Germany and Russia. (Overnight Tbilisi) BLD
Kazbegi National Park, Georgia - 2 nights
Day 8: Tuesday 5 September, Tbilisi– Mtskheta – Ananuri – Kazbegi
- Mtskheta, the UNESCO-listed capital of the early kingdom of Iberia including: Jvari (Holy Cross) Church and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
- Ananuri Fortress, built by the 17th century dukes of the Aragvi Valley
We drive north today into the awesome Greater Caucasus Mountain Range where we shall stay two nights high amongst snow-covered peaks. On the way we stop at Mtskheta, the UNESCO-listed capital of the early kingdom of Iberia where we shall visit Jvari (Holy Cross) Church and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Mtskheta, capital of Iberia before Tbilisi, was founded around 1000 BC. It is one of Georgia’s oldest cities and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Jvari Church was founded in the 6th century. Its façades are decorated with bas-relief sculptures that show strong Hellenistic and Sasanian (Persian) influences. Inscriptions on the façades are extremely important for documenting the earliest Georgian script. Grand Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th century over a much older sacred site, is Georgia’s second largest church. It is believed to be the burial site of Christ’s mantle and has long been the principal Georgian church; it remains one of the country’s most venerated places of worship. It is the seat of the archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi, who is at the same time Catholicos – Patriarch of All Georgia.
Further north we visit Ananuri Fortress, a large complex consisting of two castles connected by a curtain wall, situated in an extraordinarily beautiful site overlooking the broad Aragvi River. Built by the eristavis (Dukes) of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty that ruled the area from the 13th century, it has seen many fierce battles. We continue to Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), which at 1740m above sea level nestles beneath Mount Kazbegi (5034m) and Mount Shani (4451m). We stay for two nights in a beautiful mountain lodge with fine views of the surrounding peaks. (Overnight Kazbegi) BLD
Day 9: Wednesday 6 September, Kazbegi
- 4WD excursion to Gergeti Trinity Church
- Dariali Gorge and small waterfall walk (optional)
This morning we make an excursion by 4WD to one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sites in the world. Isolated in a mountain vastness, 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church sits at an elevation of 2170 metres right under Mount Kazbegi.
Following a buffet lunch at the hotel you may wish to spend the afternoon at leisure enjoying the lodge’s facilities. Alternatively, you may join an excursion to Dariali Gorge followed by a short walk through Alpine flora to a small waterfall. The strategic Dariali Gorge controlled passage in and out of the region. Dariali derives from Dar-e Alān, Persian for ‘Gate of the Alans’. A Georgian myth claims that Alexander the Great had an iron gate there; the Sasanians, Western Turkic Khans, Arabs, Mongols, the Kingdom of Georgia and the Russians have variously controlled this vital pass. Today the gorge marks the border between Russia and Georgia. We shall return to Kazbegi in good time to allow you to enjoy at leisure the wonderful scenery surrounding your lodge. (Overnight Kazbegi) BLD
Kutaisi, Georgia - 1 night
Day 10: Thursday 7 September, Kazbegi – Gori – Kutaisi
- Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori
Today we drive south and west to the important western Georgian city of Kutaisi. Along the way we stop at Gori to visit the house-museum of Russia’s most notorious Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. In a pavilion in front of the museum is the tiny wooden hut in which Stalin was born (1878) and spent his first four years. Stalin’s father Vissarion Jughashvili, a local shoemaker, rented the one room on the left hand side of the small building and maintained a workshop in the basement. The museum also has Stalin’s personal railway carriage, as well as a large number of photographs and various memorabilia.
On arrival in Kutaisi we enjoy an evening meal at a charming local restaurant featuring live music. (Overnight Kutaisi) BLD
Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - 2 nights
Day 11: Friday 8 September, Kutaisi – Borjomi – Akhaltsikhe
- Gelati Monastery, Kutaisi (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Borjomi Gorge
- Rabati Castle Complex incl. the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum, Akhaltsikhe
Before leaving Kutaisi we visit Gelati Monastery. It is surrounded by thick, verdant forest and contains the Church of the Virgin founded by the King David the Builder (1106), as well as the 13th-century churches of St George and St Nicholas. UNESCO World Heritage listed, Gelati was an extremely important medieval centre of learning. The monastery, with its distinctive Georgian church architecture, contains a number of royal tombs, including that of King David and a number of Georgia’s most important mosaics, frescoes and icons dating from the 12th to the 17th century.
Mid-morning we drive south and east through the Borjomi Gorge to the lovely town of Akhaltsikhe, where we stay for the next two nights. The picturesque Borjomi Gorge is a canyon cut by the Mktvari River through the Lesser Caucasian Mountains.
In Akhaltsikhe we explore Rabati Castle Complex composed of a citadel, mosque and the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum. The complex has recently been restored to its former glory when, from the 13th to the 16th century, it was the residence of the local Jakhely princes. Its great diversity of building types is equalled by the fascinatingly eclectic styles of its buildings, with strong Georgian, Byzantine and Islamic elements. Opened in 2012, the museum, which is part of the Georgian National Museum, is especially known for its collection of 13-19th century manuscripts, including the oldest version of Vepkhistkaosani (‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’), of the 16th century. (Overnight Akhaltsikhe) BLD
Day 12: Saturday 9 September, Akhaltsikhe – Vardzia – Akhaltsikhe
- Cave city of Vardzia including the Church of the Dormition
- Khertvisi Fortress (exterior only)
We make a day excursion to Vardzia, a vast complex of religious buildings and dwellings cut into the living rock on the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. This site, inhabited from the Bronze Age, reveals four major building phases after it had become an important monastery. The site was first laid out and the first cave dwellings quarried during the reign of King Giorgi III of the medieval kingdom of Georgia (1156-1184). The second phase occurred between his death and the marriage of his successor Tamar in 1186, when the Church of the Dormition was excavated and decorated. The third phase lasted from 1186 until the Battle of Basian (c.1203), when many more dwellings as well as defences, a water supply, and irrigation network were added. The fourth phase was a period of partial rebuilding after heavy damage in the earthquake of 1283. The site was abandoned when the region was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
Vardzia is particularly important for its wall paintings, which we shall view. Queen Tamar at Vardzia is an iconic image of Georgian history. Dating from 1184-86, her image forms part of the wall paintings adorning the Church of the Dormition, the focal point of this famous rock-cut monastery. Comprising images of the Virgin, donors and nationally revered saints, with scenes from the Passion of Christ, the wall paintings survive almost complete.
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Khertvisi is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, having been particularly important in the Middle Ages. The fortress sits atop a steep, high crag in a narrow canyon at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers. Its church was built in 985, and its present walls constructed in 1354. We make a brief stop to view the fortress (exterior only) before returning to Akhaltsikhe for some time at leisure. (Overnight Akhaltsikhe) BLD
Tbilisi, Georgia - 2 nights
Day 13: Sunday 10 September, Akhaltsikhe – Tbilisi
- Museum of Fine Arts
- Private Classical Concert at the Elene Akhvlediani House Museum with wine and snacks
This morning we return to Tbilisi where, after lunch, we visit the Museum of Fine Arts housed in a former seminary where Joseph Stalin studied for the priesthood from 1894 to 1898 until he was expelled for revolutionary activities. Its treasury contains works from the Bronze Age, Hellenistic and medieval periods, as well as significant artefacts. Objects include fine icons, crosses and jewellery of costly metals encrusted with precious stones.
In the early evening we attend a private classical concert at the house-museum of Elene Akhvlediani (1898-1975), a 20th-century Georgia female painter, graphic artist, and theatre decorator. Having studied in France and Italy for many years, Elene Akhvlediani returned to Tbilisi where her house became an art salon hosting poetry evenings and concerts. Her exhibitions turned attention of French art critics and artists (she was a friend of Pablo Picasso and Paul Signac). Eminent musicians such as S. Richter and H. Neihaus are known to have played at her salon. The artist collected more than 4000 paintings during her life, which are on display in this house-museum. (Overnight Tbilisi) BL
Dzoraget, Armenia - 1 night
Day 14: Monday 11 September, Tbilisi – Akhtala – Haghpat – Dzoraget
- Georgia/Armenia Border Crossing
- Akhtala Monastery with 13th century frescoes
- Haghpat Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
This morning we cross into Armenia and visit three magnificent monasteries, foundations of medieval royal houses. Thirteenth-century Akhtala monastery’s great jewel is its cycle of medieval frescoes, arguably the finest in Armenia. It also has fine façade relief carvings. This isolated, seldom-visited complex, like so many Caucasian monasteries, perches high in its fortress enceinte dominating the surrounding countryside. Unlike the other two monasteries we visit today, Akhtala shows a strong Georgian architectural influence.
The second monastery we visit, Haghpat, is justly famous. Located on a hillside looking down on the Debed River and across to a 2500-metre peak, it was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh, wife of the Bagratid king Ashot III (c.976) and constitutes a superb example of the 10th-century flowering of Armenian architecture. The Cathedral of Surb Nishan (c.976-991) dominates the complex. Its high dome rests on four imposing pillars, typical of Armenian architecture of this period. The church has frescoes and fine relief sculptures, depicting Christ Pantocrator, the donor Prince Khutulukhaga, and his sons Smbat and Kurike with Queen Khosravanuche. A small hamlet usually surrounded monasteries in this region and over time the complex grew to include the small domed church of Sourb Grigor (1005), the so-called Hamazasp House (1257), the small 13th-century chapel of Sourb Astvatsatsin, a scriptorium, free-standing bell tower (1245) and refectory. We shall also view superb khachkars, cross-stones that were ubiquitous in medieval Armenia.
In the late afternoon we continue to the mountain resort of Dzoraget. (Overnight Dzoraget) BLD
Tsaghkadzor, Armenia - 1 night
Day 15: Tuesday 12 September, Dzoraget – Fioletovo – Haghartsin – Lake Sevan – Tsaghkadzor
- Russian minority town of Fioletovo
- Haghartsin Monastery
- Sevanavank Monastery
We begin this morning with a visit to Fioletovo, a small village in the Lori Province of Armenia founded in 1842 by Russian Molokan (Russian for ‘milk-drinkers’) exiles from the Tambov Governorate of the Russian Empire. Molokans are members of a spiritual Christian sect. They were Russian peasants who refused to obey the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. In the 19th century, the government’s policy in Tsarist Russia was to send heretics away from the centre of the country to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Central Asia, and Siberia. Molokans do not accept icons, the church hierarchy and clergy, do not venerate the cross, don’t eat pork, don’t drink alcohol and do not smoke. Today we visit a private home of a Molokan family where refreshments (light lunch) will be served.
Haghartsin, the first monastery we visit today, is also a royal foundation of the Bagratuni Dynasty. Located in a fine, heavily wooded location, it is also in the style initiated in the 10th century, when Armenian culture flowered after the collapse of Arab dominion. Its major church, St Astvatsatsin (1281), has a 16-faced dome articulated with arches. The columns of this blind arcade have bases that are connected by triangular ledges and spheres to a band around the drum’s base. Trefoils adorn the south portal’s architrave and the church’s eastern façade is decorated with bas-reliefs similar to those at Haghpat and Sanahin. Two figures dressed as monks – probably the church’s first Abbot and his assistant – support a model of the church. One is more richly attired than the other and the styles of their faces, with their long whiskers, luxuriant combed beards and large almond eyes, differ markedly.
In the afternoon we visit Sevanavank Monastery, one of the few active monasteries in Armenia, consisting of two rough-hewn churches built on a peninsula overlooking Lake Sevan. Its courtyard has distinctive khachkars carved from a plentiful local green stone and one church’s altar is among the finest in Armenia. (Overnight Tsaghkadzor) BLD
Goris, Armenia - 2 nights
Day 16: Wednesday 13 September, Tsaghkadazor – Noratus – Vardenyants (Selim) Pass – Karahunj – Goris
- Noratus Cemetery
- Ancient caravanserai and Vardenyants (Selim) Pass
- Karahunj (Carahunge) Observatory
Today we skirt Lake Sevan and journey south to Goris, a town in the mountainous southern Syunik Province of Armenia. Our first site today is Noratus Cemetery, with the largest cluster of khachkars (cross-stones) in Armenia. More than 1000 of these intricately carved stones, some sporting scenes of daily life, were produced from the 10th century. 16th- and 17th-century khachkars, created by three of Armenia’s greatest sculptors, show strong influences from Safavid Persia, which demanded fealty from Armenian leaders at this time.
We follow a major trunk of the trans-Eurasian Silk Route up the Selim Mountain Pass where we visit Orbelian’s Caravanserai, constructed by prince Chesar Orbelian in 1332 for merchants making the long trek through the mountains. The basalt caravanserai, like Armenia’s medieval churches, sports interesting relief sculptures. Muqarnas gracing its portal and wall niches reflect the strong influence of Islamic architecture.
En route to Goris we make a short visit to the Karahunj Observatory where hundreds of huge vertical stones (menhirs) with accurate through-holes are arranged in an oval. Two archaeological investigations in the mid 1990s concluded that this cyclopean construction served as a temple for the Deity of Sun, an accurate ancient astronomical instrument, and a major centre for learning. It was built 6000 years ago and had been used for 4000 years before the adoption of Christianity. (Overnight Goris) BLD
Day 17: Thursday 14 September, Goris – Tatev – Khndzoresk – Goris
- Tatev Monastery
- Khndzoresk Cave Village
This morning we take the ‘Wings of Tatev’, a 5.7-kilometre cable car, from Halidzor across deep valleys to Tatev Monastery, built on a natural fortress of rock overlooking the Vorotan Canyon below the peaks of Karabakh. Tatev Monastery began to develop in the 9th century as the seat of the bishop of Syunik. It played a significant role in the history of the region as a centre of economic, political, spiritual and cultural activity. By the 11th century 1000 monks and a large number of artisans lived there. In the 14th and 15th centuries the monastery hosted one of the most important Armenian medieval ‘universities’, which contributed to the advancement of science, religion and philosophy, reproduction of books and development of miniature painting.
Tatev monastery has three churches: Sts Paul and Peter, built in the 9th century to house important relics, the 13th-century St Gregory the Illuminator, and the 11th-century St Mary. The fortifications added in the 17th century have been restored and the complex includes a library, refectory, belfry, mausoleum (St Gregory of Tatev (1346-1409) is buried here), as well as other administrative and auxiliary buildings. In the courtyard stands a 10th-century pendulous column topped by a khachkar, known as the Gavazan Siun (staff). This 8 metre-tall monument dedicated to the Holy Trinity is said to have predicted seismic activity and the drum of enemy horse beats by rocking backwards and forwards.
From Tatev we return to our coach by minivans through the precipitous Vorotan Gorge. At its deepest point we view the ‘Devil’s Bridge’ – a natural rock bridge 30m long and 50-60m wide surrounded by mountainous springs. Here, waters of the springs have given pink, yellow and green colouring to the rocks of the canyon.
Khndzoresk village is located on the steep slopes of Khor Dzor (Deep Gorge), and is widely famous for its canyon with picturesque rock formations and ancient cave settlement. The artificial caves, some of which are currently used as stables and warehouses, were inhabited until the 1950s. Estimates suggest that the population grew to as many as 15,000 people and that the village included two churches and three schools. We walk to the village across a 160-metre-long suspension bridge, built in 2012. (Overnight Goris) BLD
Yerevan, Armenia - 4 nights
Day 18: Friday 15 September, Goris – Noravank – Khor Virap – Yerevan
- Noravank Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Khor Virap Monastery, Ararat Valley
Today we continue northwest to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. On the long drive we shall enjoy some of Armenia’s most powerful scenery. We first enter the scenic upper Amaghou Valley to visit another of Armenia’s most famous monasteries, Noravank. Its site is particularly dramatic; it occupies a narrow gorge with tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs above the Darichay River. S. Astvatsatsin Church (1205) is a narrow high structure topped by a lovely drum consisting of an open arcade.
Even more dramatically situated is the last monastery we visit before driving to Yerevan. Khor Virap Monastery sits on a spur above the Ararat Valley, looking across to majestic Mount Ararat (5163 metres). In many ways the image of the monastery framed by a backdrop of one of the world’s highest mountains encapsulates the rugged beauty of this mountainous country. Khor Virap owes its fame to the fact that Armenia’s most famous churchman, Gregory the Illuminator (c.257-c.331), was imprisoned here by the Parthian-Armenian (Zoroastrian) King Tiridates III before Gregory eventually converted him, his court and aristocracy – and thus the country – to Christianity (301). Within the church stairs lead down into the pit in which Gregory was incarcerated. (Overnight Yerevan) BLD
Day 19: Saturday 16 September, Yerevan
- Short orientation coach tour of Yerevan: incl. House of Government, Victory Park and the Cascade
- History Museum of Armenia
- Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum
- Matenaderan: a repository of 17,000 illuminated manuscripts
We begin today with a short coach tour of Yerevan’s major sites including the House of Government and Victory Park that affords dramatic views of the city framed by Mount Ararat. Victory Park also displays some interesting Soviet weaponry, including a Mig-19, the aircraft used by the communists during the Vietnam War.
Next we tour the History Museum of Armenia. Of particular importance are its archeological collections that span a vast period from 100,000 BC to the Middle Ages. They comprise the Paleolithic Collections (100,000-12,000 BC); the Neolithic-Chalcolithic Collections (8th millennium-2nd half of 4th millennium BC); the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Collections (2nd half of the 4th millennium-15th-12th cc. BC); the period of the great Kingdom of Urartu (Kingdom of Van) (9th century. BC-early 6th century BC); Collections of the 6th-4th c. BC when Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty dominated the region both politically and culturally; the Hellenistic collections (4th century BC-3rd century AD) when Greek and Roman forms predominated, and the Medieval collections (4th-15th century).
We shall also visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) that records one of the darkest hours of Armenian history, when the failing Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I. The Turkish government still denies that this holocaust occurred.
On a less confronting note, we end our day with a visit to one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval manuscripts. The Matenadaran is a repository for 17,000 precious illuminated works that document the rise of Armenian literary culture and the country’s particular form of Christianity over more than a millennium. (Overnight Yerevan) BL
Day 20: Sunday 17 September, Yerevan – Vagharshapat – Yerevan
- Church of St Hripsimeh Martyria
- The Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Echmiadzin (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins
- National Gallery of Armenia
- Vernissage Market (weekend flea market)
- Folk Show (performance to be confirmed in 2017)
This morning we drive the short distance to Armenia’s ancient religious centre and the Holy See of Armenians throughout the World. Here we shall visit the Church of St Hripsimeh Martyria and The Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
St Hripsimeh is one of Armenia’s oldest surviving churches. Built between 395 and 618 AD this church of the ‘classical’ Armenian period was to influence profoundly the architecture of the 10th century revival. It has a very sophisticated tetraconch (four apsed) plan and the powerful supports that carry its dome have enabled the structure to withstand the earthquakes that have occurred regularly since it was built.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is a complex that is dominated by the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, built by Saint Gregory the Illuminator in 301-303. This cathedral, which was reconstructed in the 5th century and has been much added-to since, is believed to be the oldest Christian foundation initiated by a state in the world. Our visited is timed for the Sunday service marked by the pealing of church bells at 11.30am. Inside you may join the crowds to enjoy the Cathedral’s Choir. Should a second round of church bells occur, we may be fortunate enough to view His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians who traditionally proceeds from his palace into the Cathedral.
We shall also visit the 7th-century ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral before returning to Yerevan. This centrally planned tetraconch cathedral, which now lies in ruins, was built at a time when much of Armenia was under Byzantine control or influence and during the early invasions of Armenia by the Arabs
This afternoon we tour the National Gallery of Armenia which is situated in the Republic Square. Its collection of European, Russian, Armenian and Oriental art includes works by the great Armenian / Russian maritime artist Aivazovsky, Vernet, Kandinsky, Donatello and other masters. Of special note are Aivazovsky’s Descent of Noah from Ararat (1889) and Lord Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro degli Armeni (1899).
We also enjoy some time at leisure for a relaxing stroll through Yerevan’s Vernissage market, Armenia’s largest flea market. The market, founded by artists in the 1980s, sells carved wood and art works, traditional carpets, old collections of coins and medallions, books, jewellery and musical instruments. Its program permitting, we also attend a professional Armenian Folk show. (Overnight Yerevan) BL
Day 21: Monday 18 September, Yerevan – Geghard – Garni – Yerevan
- Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Hellenic Temple of Garni
- Time at leisure
- Farewell Dinner
This morning we drive east from Yerevan to the Monastery at Geghard and the extraordinary Hellenistic temple at Garni, one of the most important early cities of Armenia. Geghard Monastery, like so many Armenian monasteries, is located in a spectacular landscape. Formed in part by chambers carved out of the rock, it clings to the high cliffs of a gorge carved out by the Azat River. The complex was founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave. The main chapel, however, was built in 1215. The monastery originally housed the spear that wounded Christ.
The area around Garni was first occupied in the 3rd millennium BC on easily defensible terrain on a bend of the Azat River. The Urartian King Argishti I had conquered the area in the 8th century BC. It was probably fortified sometime in the 3rd century BC when it became a summer residence of the Armenian Orontid and the Parthian-Armenian Artaxiad dynasties. Timur (Tamerlane) eventually destroyed the fortress in 1386. The temple collapsed during an earthquake in 1679 but was reconstructed brilliantly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a peripteral temple set on a high podium and was probable dedicated to the Zoroastrian god Mythras. It was the only pagan temple to survive the Christianisation of Armenia in the 4th century AD.
We return to Yerevan in the afternoon to allow you some time at leisure to relax or further explore the city. This evening we shall enjoy a farewell dinner together. (Overnight Yerevan) BLD
Day 22: Tuesday 19 September, Depart Yerevan
- At leisure/Check out
- Airport transfer for participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
Our tour ends in Yerevan. In the morning you will be required to check out of the hotel. There will be some time at leisure, before joining the coach transfer to Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport for the ASA ‘designated’ flight back home to Australia. Alternatively, you may wish to extend your stay in Armenia. Please contact ASA if you require further assistance. B