By Greg Keraghosian
There’s a certain irony in riding a five-year-old tramway to reach a 1,200-year-old monastery. Kind of like Snapchatting the Mona Lisa to your friend. But that’s what I did recently, and I couldn’t be happier that the technology now exists – it’s made an Armenian historical treasure more accessible to visitors, and as you reach the other side, the shiny cable car to Tatev Monastery feels more like a time machine.
Perched dramatically on the edge of a rugged plateau that falls into the Vorotan River Gorge in southeast Armenia, the monastery inspires easy analogies to Game of Thrones. But unlike Winterfell, this place actually lived those stories. Built as far back as 848 A.D., the monastery near the village of Tatev has seen religious prominence, economic influence, foreign invasions, massive earthquakes, an important Medieval university, destruction, and restoration.
These days it’s just a tourist site, but a magnificent tourist site at that. You reach Tatev Monastery by taking the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway, which floats up to 1,050 feet above the gorge. After that, for some real Instagram street cred, you’ll want to capture one of the best photo ops nobody knows about: looking down at the monastery in all its glory as it seemingly teeters on the cliff’s edge.
Amazingly, my crew and I were the only visitors enjoying that view, from a vista point that’s a 1 kilometer hike away. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, tourists stuck to striding around the monastery’s three churches and adjacent grounds. I had come here leading five high-school-age members of my Tumo travel storytelling workshop in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
And while I was at least 20 years older than my companions, I was probably the most impatient – like a restless kid who just wants to cut past the line at Disneyland, I just wanted to find that shot of Tatev Monastery, the one I’d been thinking about for days.
But we had to save that for last. First, we had to drive four hours from Yerevan to reach the village of Halidzor. From there we had two options to reach Tatev Monastery: drive 40 minutes through the deep ravine with its narrow, switchback-laden roads, or simply float there on Wings of Tatev, a 10-minute tramway ride away. The latter made more sense for us considering our time constraints, though I would have loved to take the scenic route, which includes a natural crossing called the Devil’s Bridge. (A more sensible base of operations for a visit to Tatev would be from the town of Goris, under 20 miles away.)
Plus, at least you can say you rode something in the Guinness Book of World Records. Wings of Tatev launched in October 2010 in an effort to revive tourism in the region, and it cost an estimated $18 million to build. The tramway extends 3 ½ miles, with the cable cars reaching 23 mph. These are hardly ziplining speeds and the ride is smooth, though people who fear heights may tense up at times.