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Church/Monastery :: Tegher  
Tegher Monastery

Tegher (before Dighir, elev. 1700m) is at the end of a mountain road, surrounded by fields of grass and flocks of sheep and cattle. The old village, built in the 19th c and abandoned in 1962, is a fine example of traditional Armenian architecture and lies next to the large monastery which, for all its dark and brooding looks, appears like a fairy tale castle as you twist and wind your way uphill to its alpine location.

The monastery is dated to the early 13th century, built for Princess Khatun (a.k.a. "Mama Khatun"), wife of Prince Vatcheh Vatchutian, who had purchased the district of Aragatzotn from the Zakarian brothers and spend the first decades of the century erecting fantastic monasteries on the mountainside. Tegher is the sister vank to two contemporary monasteries built on the other side of the Amberd River at Ohanavan and Saghmosavank. Built in the same period (1200-%AC1220) and designed by the 13th c architect Vardapet Aighbairik, these three monasteries form a triptych of the best of Armenian design and experimentation in the period.

Flushed with new ideas about design and engineering and flushed with cash from the riches of the reopened Silk and Spice Trails, the period is sometimes called the Silver Age. Unable to rival the literary brilliance of the 5th c Golden Age, it was in fact Armenia's Golden Age of Church construction, when oriental, European, Byzantine and Roman ideas and decor melded into an exciting style that somehow became distinctly Armenian. Just as early Armenian ideas about the arch and the central dome influenced the great gothic cathedrals of Europe and construction in Asia; a few hundred years later Asian and European ideas about decor and towering structures found their way back to Armenia. Tegher, Hovhanavank and Saghmosavank are three great examples that show some of this influence. The monastery is still a place of pilgrimage for four nearby villages, especially on the grape blessing holiday in August.

The monastery complex consists of the 1213 St. Astvatzatzin, a 1221 gavit with two domes towers, and a 9th c. village.

The church of St. Astvatzatzin (1213) is made of dark gray basalt. The church is an enclosed cruciform type with four chambers in the corners, used as chapels and depositories. The large hall has a central dome and ends in a semicircular apse. The dome is supported by the corner columns of the square, and has a tall round drum. The decor is simple, without much design save the cornice moldings and the accentuation of the arches in the main area. The cupola of the dome is reach by a transition of layers from its base, accentuating the height of the space, the volume seeming to expand beyond its actual dimensions.

As you enter the church, look on both side walls immediately after the door: the inside walls boast niches surmounted by a pointed arch, reminiscent of central Asian design predominant among the Muslim overlords at the time.

The church was built at the time of Mongol invasions, and survived intact, a feat not often repeated in the country. The story goes that when they were building the church, Mama Khatun had the architects install these pointed arches so that invading Mongols would recognize them and consider the church one of their own. Interesting to note that the arch has two protruding arches on the below the top point, forming a trilogy of design features. The trilogy is one of the most constant symbols of the Christian faith, in this case allowing Mama Khatun to placate the Mongols while she confirmed the Christian purpose of the design.

The outside of the church, a rectangular building with two wall niches and, windows on the north, east and south, is also simply done, with little attention to detail or the ebullient decor of its sister vanks at Hovhanavank and Saghmosavank. The round tower drum is topped with a tent roof. The roof over the church is gabled, in a cruciform design with thee four corners of the central square supporting the drum of the dome,
The gavit, finished in 1221, is particularly impressive, a central plan with four thick squat columns and intersecting arches supporting the center square at transitions into the concave dome with open hole. There is little decor, the shapes of the columns, archways and dome pieces giving substance to the structure, and has a grace unmatched in mere elaborate gavits else where.

This was a seminary for deacons and acolytes, a place of serious study, and obviously the bishop must have felt Tegher's students did not need the distracting details and swirling baroque designs found at Tehger's sister vanks Saghmosavank and Hovhanavank. But the gavit is unique in one aspect: its two chapels with domed bell towers, unlike nay other gavit in Armenia, though the campaniles set on the roof are reminiscent of the triumphal arch at Horomos monastery near Ani. The towers are tall, with a second floor, where students lived. Access was by ladder near the gavit entrance, perhaps another way of keeping check in students; pull their means of escape at night.

An inscription on one of the columns credits Vardepet Aighbairik with designing the gavit and church. Among the graves on the floor, some of which are beautifully carved with the simplest of lines, is the grave for Mama Khatun herself, the church's donor (also linked with monasteries at Dadivank in Karabakh) and her husband Prince Vatcheh Vatchutian. The pictures on the stones, when there is one, lacks any attempt at faithful representation of a person lying below. The images could be any person, male or female, that almost look like figures from Neolithic pictograms.

The lack of personal features is in line with the church teachings of the time; the belief that to achieve grace, to be ready to enter the kingdom of heaven, one must subsume one's identity into a kind of nothingness, or at least to anonymity. The figures also suggest something else, not at all proven but one may be true. They seem to be what they are; ghosts. The lines of the shapes of their figures are like the lines of the aura (halo) that Christianity often illustrates as a halo when representing a saint. Presumably all those buried here were considered holy and as such filled with grace, which the halo represented.

Outside, the western wall has a dozen or so khatchkars carved into the facade, mostly towards the top of the wall, memorials of wealthy donors who supported the monastery and so were given a stone "calling card" for heaven in return.

The medieval-19th c graveyard has the ruins of a few mausoleums and some interesting khatchkars, a couple of which lean against wall ruins. They are deeply cut geometric drawings of the cross and tree of life with fancy edging in the frames, but miss the eternity symbol favored in other khatchkars of the period.

Old Tegher village is as series of ruins on the hill to the left as one approaches the church from the parking lot. The village was once quite large and the foundations for the houses and buildings remain to show just how big it was. The small church at the south end of the village is the Toukh Manuk (5th c).

Source: Rick Ney, Aragatzotn Marz, TourArmenia,, 2007