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Garni Temple: Visiting Armenia’s Ancient Past

Kyriakos Velos




Nestled on a plateau overlooking precipitous ravines and ragged mountains in the Armenian Highlands lies Garni. Approximately an hour’s drive east of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, this small town holds one of the greatest jewels of Armenia’s rich ancient past, Garni Temple. Adding to the allure of its breathtaking location and aesthetics is the fact that Garni houses Armenia’s only remaining pagan religious structure.


While the temple’s exact date of construction is still debated, the prevailing view is that it was built circa 77 AD by King Tiridates I of Armenia. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to the Armenian sun god, Mihr – an attribution which will definitely not surprise any visitor during the sun-drenched summer months. The temple was fortunately spared during the destruction of Armenia’s pagan places of worship following the country’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century AD. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1679 severely damaged the temple, causing its entire colonnade to collapse. The temple’s ruins remained in situ for the next three centuries until reconstruction works were undertaken by the Armenian Soviet government in 1969. As approximately 80% of the temple’s original masonry was still in place, the temple was rebuilt mostly from its original stones. The missing pieces were replaced by blank, grey stones, which are meant to be readily recognisable.



Walking through the site’s gates after paying the 1,500 AMD (£2.50) fee, the visitor’s eyes are immediately drawn to the temple, which stands on an elevated platform. The temple was built in the Ionic order, is ringed by twenty-four 6.5m columns, and comprises a portico and a cella. Although the temple is Garni’s main drawcard, the site also contains the remains of a Roman bath, which has partly-preserved mosaics with Greek inscriptions. These colourful mosaics depict mythological scenes, with the main one showing Thetis, the Nereid, sitting on a fish. A Greek inscription from one of them fits in with this maritime theme, reading:


ΜΗΔΕΝ ΛΑΒΟΝΤΕΣ ΗΡΙΑΣΑΜΕΘΑ ΚΑΝΕΝΑ ΝΕΚΡΟ ΔΕ ΜΑΣ ΕΔΩΣΕ Η ΘΑΛΑΣΣΑ ΟΥΤΕ Ο ΩΚΕΑΝΟΣ (We receive no dead [fish] from the sea, nor from the ocean).

On the day that I visited Garni, I was surprised to see that a wedding was taking place within the temple’s cella. What was even more surprising is that the officiating priest was wearing what looked like a vibrant blue chlamys. I later found out that Garni Temple has become the main shrine of Armenian Neopaganism and is used for religious ceremonies, including pagan weddings. If anyone is interested in witnessing pagan ceremonies first-hand, Garni is definitely the place to go!

Although it is an hour from Yerevan, Garni is still fairly accessible. Taxi fares in Armenia are relatively cheap so it is possible to negotiate a reasonable price with a driver to take you up to the site. Alternatively, there are many tour companies which offer tours of both Garni and the nearby UNESCO-protected Geghard Monastery complex. For anyone with a sweet tooth who visits Garni, the trip would not be complete without buying a loaf of gata, the delicious Armenian sweet bread, from one of the stalls by the site’s gates.

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Fran Liu
Fran Liu
26 nov. 2022

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