Hovhannavank is a medieval monastery located in the Hovhannavan Village about 6km north of Ashtarak. It resides on the right bank of Kasagh River, from where opens a scenic view of Mount Ara.
The monastery has been presumably established in the early 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator (Grigor Lusavorich). Today, only its ruins remain. The oldest structure of Hovhannavank is the Surb Grigor basilica erected in the 5th century, which has been repeatedly renovated over the centuries.
The basilica houses one of the few iconostases in Armenia. From the south, it is adjoined by the ruins of the 4th-century church of the first Christians, which has probably been built at the site of a pagan temple.
The main temple of the monastery is Surb Karapet built in 1216-1221 by prince Vache Vachutyan. It belongs to the cross-dome architectural style and features two-level chapels at its every corner. Particularly remarkable is the temple’s chess layout with black and red stones.
Surb Karapet is richly ornamented, the main element of its decorations being a bas-relief of Jesus and “wise and unwise maidens.” In this depiction, Jesus is portrayed sitting on a throne in the center. With his right hand, he blesses wise maiden humbly looking at him, while his left hand censures the unwise maiden who turned their backs on him.
A four-pillar gavit has been attached to the church in 1250. It featured a belfry-rotunda measuring 6.5m in diameter, which makes it the biggest structure of its kind in Armenia. The belfry was built after the gavit, possibly in 1270 during a renovation.
The vestibule of the temple boasts astonishing khachkars and bas-reliefs. The southern wall of the temple, as well as its high dome on a 12-side tholobate were ruined in a 1919 earthquake. Between 1970 and 1990, the monastery underwent a major reconstruction, during which these elements were restored. Apart from the wall and the high dome, the remains of the 12th-13th-century fortress walls with towers as well as ancient gravestones are preserved in the monastery.
There is one legend connected to this monastery. When the hordes of invaders barged in Armenia and headed to the monastery devastating everything on their way, monastery’s abbot decided to drown himself in the nearby river to not see how the monastery falls and how his brethren are killed.
But God didn’t allow this – the waters of the river didn’t accept the abbot, and he walked on the river’s surface as if it was firm ground. Tamerlane witnessed the miracle and told the abbot, “As you showed us such a marvelous sign, ask whatever you want.” The abbot answered, “Give me as many of my people as the church can accommodate.”
Tamerlane agreed. But although he brought a large number of people, all of them entered the monastery. Surprised Tamerlane peeked into the church only to see that everyone inside turned into doves and fled away…