To north-east of Garni, higher up the gorge of the Azat River, there is a magnificent monument of medieval Armenian architecture - Geghard monastery. The specific character of this monument reflects, no doubt, the peculiarities of the austere and majestic scenery around it. The picturesque gorge of Gegharda-dzor with its high and precipitous cliffs is extremely winding, and the monastery opens to view unexpectedly behind a turn of a steep path leading to it. In the 1950s a road sign was put up near this turn - a lioness on a high pedestal, with its head turned as if showing the way. Its figure is stylistically connected with the decoration of the monastery.
The exact date of Geghard’s foundation is unknown. In one of the caves of Gegharda-dzor there still gushes a spring which was believed to be a sacred one in heathen times. Following a tradition, it continued to be worshipped even after Christianity had spread in Armenia. As a result, a monastery called Ayrivank, or a «cave monastery», was founded there at the beginning of the fourth century. The present name can be traced back to the 13th century when, as a legend says, the legendary spear - geghard - (that pierced Christ) was brought there.
Nothing has remained of the structures of Ayrivank. According to Armenian historians of the 4th, 8th and 10th centuries the monastery comprised, apart from religious buildings, well-appointed residential and service installations. Ayrivank suffered greatly in 923 from Nasr, a vice-regent of an Arabian caliph in Armenia, who plundered its valuable property, including unique manuscripts, and burned down the magnificent structures of the monastery. Earthquakes also did it no small damage.
The existing ensemble dates back to the 12th-13th centuries, the time of the flourishing of national culture, especially architecture. Under the princes of Zakharia and Ivane the chapel of Grigory the Еnlightener - the most ancient structure of the monastery - its main temple and its vestibule, as well as the first cave church was built. In the second half of the 13th century the monastery was bought by princes Proshyan. Over a short period they built the cave structures which brought Geghard well-merited fame - the second cave church, the family sepulcher of zhamatun Papak and Ruzukan, a hall for gatherings and studies (collapsed in the middle of the 20th century) and numerous cells. In one of the cave cells there lived, in the 13th century, Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi, the well-known Armenian historian. The one- and two-storey residential and service structures, situated on the perimeter of the monastery’s yard, were repeatedly reconstructed.
The chapel of Gregory the Еnlightener, built before 1177, stands high above the road, a hundred meters away from the entrance to the monastery. It is partly hewed in massive solid rock; its composition was, in all probability, largely influenced by the shape of the cave which existed there. Traces of plaster with remnants of dark frescoes show that there were murals inside the chapel. Khachkars with various ornaments, inserted into the exterior walls and hewn on the adjacent rock surfaces, enliven the outward appearance of the chapel.
The main monuments of Geghard take up the middle of the monastery yard surrounded with walls and towers on three sides and blocked by a steep cliff on the fourth one. This gives the ensemble a unique appearance.
Erected over a short period, the monuments make up a single architectural and artistic whole in which ground structures are compositionally and stylistically connected with the premises hewn in rock.
Built in 1215, the main cathedral (catoghike) belongs, in its spatial arrangement and layout, to a type of structure spread in Armenia in the 10th-14th centuries - rectangular in the plan, on the outside, and cross-winged domed interior with two-storey side-chapels. The architectural forms of the building are well-proportioned and harmonious.
The sculptural decoration of the temple is most interesting. The decorative elements are fortunately combined with the three-dimensional representation of the animals. The sculptural group of the southern facade a lion attacking an ox, a symbol of the prince’s power - is executed in a rather realistic manner.
West of the main temple there is a rock-attached vestibule built between 1215 and 1225.
The architectural forms and the decoration of Geghard’s rock premises show that Armenian builders could not only create superb works of architecture out of stone, but also hew them in solid rock.
The first cave rock, Avazan (basin), situated north-west of the vestibule, is hewn in place of an ancient cave with a spring in the forties of the 13th century by architect Galdzag. The Proshyans’ sepulcher and the second cave church of St.Astvatzatzin (Holy Virgin) situated east of Avazan were hewn in 1283, presumably by Galdzag, too.
The poor lighting made for the sharp profiling of the reliefs that decorate the walls. Of interest is a rather primitive high relief on the northern wall, above the archways. In the center, there is the head of a lion with a chain in its jaws; the chain is wound around the necks of two lions with their heads turned to the onlooker. Instead of the tail tufts there are heads of upward looking dragons - symbolic images gong all the way back to heathen times. Between the lions and below the chain there is an eagle with half-spread wings and a lamb in its claws. This is presumably the coat-of-arms of the Princes Proshyan.
The zhamatun of Papak and Ruzukan was hewn in 1288 in the second tier, north of the Proshyans’ burial-vault. One can get there by a steep outer flight of stairs and a narrow corridor cut through solid rock. On the southern side of the corridor numerous crosses are cut.
More than twenty premises, varying in shape and size, were hewed, at different levels, in solid rock massifs which surrounded the main cave structures and limited the western side of the monastery grounds. Those situated in the western part of the complex are intended for service purposes, and the rest are small rectangular chapels.