A pagan temple once occupied this elevated site overlooking the lake, but was replaced by a now-ruined church in the 4th century. Two further churches, Surp Astvatsatsin and Surp Arakelots (aka Surp Karapet), were built in the 9th century. A gavit was added to Surp Astvatsatsin at a later date; now ruined, it is filled with handsome khachkars. Accessed via a long flight of steps, the monastery is one of Armenia's most popular tourist sites and is horrendously overcrowded in summer.
Legend tells us that St Mesrop Mashtots had a vision of 12 figures walking across the lake, who showed him the place to found a church. Queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, built the churches in 874, and they were heavily restored in the 17th century. In the 19th century the monastery was a place to reform errant monks – there was a strict regime and no women were allowed.
Views from the top of the hill are expansive and can be spectacular; in summer and autumn a thick carpet of cloud pushes over the Areguniats mountains to the north and evaporates at the lake’s edge.