Into the unknown & Chasing Holy light in the mountains of Armenia

It felt like going back in time. A strangely familiar sensation. Soviet cars everywhere, clearly still from Soviet times. I hadn’t seen so many since I was a child back in the USSR. And then there were ruins of ancient monasteries and fortresses. Every few kilometres I’d come across more ruins. Familiar and at the same time – mysterious. This was my first impression of Armenia. 

There would be a lot of churches, monasteries and mountains.

I actually wasn’t too keen to visit Armenia at first. Not because I had something against it. I was enjoying my time in Georgia too much. But, the three month visa was running out and I was near the Armenian border. It made sense. I knew almost nothing about Armenia, except that it’s reputedly the first country to have embraced Christianity. There would be a lot of churches, monasteries and mountains. This is what I focused on in the beginning of my trip. 

During one of the first nights we camped outside of a ruined fortress. The gate was open even after dark. With a nearly full moon I took some photos under the moonlight. 

Ancient monuments always feel a little more mystical after dark. The darkness of the night, the stars – they speak of eternity. The ruins haven't been around for eternity, of course, but by human measures 1000 something years is very close. 

We took the route going through Debed canyon – the area is absolutely spectacular at times. It's also sparsely populated and it's easy to camp in peace and quiet virtually anywhere. 

The canyon is sprinkled with ancient monasteries. The one above wasn't even in any of the guidebooks. I saw it in a local brochure. The way down was a very steep climb. Having a drone, I opted not to go down myself. Instead, I came close to the edge and flew the Mavic to get the photos I wanted. 

The monasteries of Armenia are impressive. So many little details must have been thought through by the architects. Once the light peaks in through the windows and illuminates the dark interiors, there's a sense of the divine presence. 

Since Christianity is a huge part of Armenia, I decided to try to make it to Sunday mass at least a couple of times. This was the first one. Surprisingly the church wasn't completely full with locals. There were many folks who weren't from the village. They'd come in, do the religious part and then they'd take plenty of selfies. 

As I've said, the thing that stands out right away about Armenia, apart from the dramatic landscapes, the ancient churches and monasteries are the Soviet cars. Zhiguli/Lada are everywhere.

Any cars without high ground clearance would scrape their undersides on regular village roads. The Soviet cars were made back when many of the roads were in poor condition. Much of the village roads are still in very poor condition, so Ladas and especially Nivas are perfect for moving around here. 

This was one of the strangest, yet most innovative uses of old Ladas. What you see here is a wall above a river. It's reinforced with the metal from the sides of non-functioning Ladas. I saw dead cars like these being used for fences and cattle enclosures. 

Another Sunday, another mass in Geghard monastery, which is fairly close to the capital – Yerevan. In the morning, before the crowds came, the priest blessed the entire perimeter of the monastery complex with incense.

There was a time after the mass when people would come up to have the father pray for them and bless them with the cross. The interplay light in almost any Armenian monastery is very dramatic. 

I drove through most of Armenia. Roadside vendors are a common sight in many parts. In the former USSR, Armenia was always famous for great produce. Once the season came, watermelons and melons from Armenia were something that we looked forward to in Belarus. 

I bought a couple of melons from this gentleman. His stall was on the highway to Iran and he had just sold some produce to tourists on an Iranian bus.

It hasn’t rained for 4 months here. This is bad. Bad for the animals. Bad for us.

Martin was given his name because he was born in March. Seems this kind of name-giving is a common thing here and in Georgia. He’s a full-time shepherd in a village on the south side of Lake Sevan. There are 8 months of herding per year. So, there’s work for Martin most of the year.

With dark skies above us, I asked Martin if he thought it would rain. “It hasn’t rained for 4 months here. This is bad. Bad for the animals. Bad for us. It’s not gonna rain today.” Turned out to be a sombre topic.

I went elsewhere with our conversation and asked Martin about his dog. It ran towards me barking. Was I in danger? “No, don’t worry. I’m here. It won’t touch you. We keep dogs to protect the flock from wolves. There are many of them here.” “What about if you weren’t nearby. Would the dog get me?” I continued. “Oh yes, most definitely.”

Vayots Dzor is another canyon. Dramatic scenery and great vastness, which can be appreciated better from above. 

Noravank monastery in Vayots Dzor. It's one of the more impressively located monasteries in Armenia – on a cliff with rocky mountains all around it. 

At times, the natural features of the landscape become otherworldly. This is Goris, a town in the South of Armenia. Besides the natural pyramids there are also countless caves. The caves used to house people people in the past. These days, some are used to shelter animals.  


This woman had an unusual role at Tatev monastery. She would spot any woman without a head scarf and would provide one for temporary use while inside the church. Headscarves are compulsory attire in Armenian and most Orthodox Christian churches. In some places the rules are not enforced, but this lady didn't let a single scarf-less woman go past. 

When I visited Tatev, they were celebrating an anniversary. A traditional church choir came to mark the occasion. 

The voices of these women were spectacular. The acoustics inside the church were incredible too. The young ladies created complex, nuanced melodies, without a single musical instrument. I came to take photos, but ended up just sitting and enjoying the singing. 

Khor Virap monastery with Mount Ararat in the background is one of Armenia's iconic sights. I wanted to create a photo which would be a little different from those that I'd seen. I found a spot behind some high grass and made this image, creating a bit of depth with a foreground layer.

Khor Virap and some grape vines from above. The perspective is entirely different, but you can still see Mount Ararat towering over everything. 

That's it for now. I'll write about one of my most successful photographic days in Armenia in my next photo diary entry.