Six kilometres from Garni there is a fantastic sample of medieval Armenian architecture, the Gegard Cave Monastery
. First mention of the monastery is to be found in the 4th century. The monastery was subsequently pillaged by invaders. In the early 13th century Gegard passed into the hands of the founders of the Zakharid Dynasty. The two brothers held high posts at the court of the Georgian Queen Tamar. They were wise rulers and talented generals who freed a considerable part of Armenia from the Seljuks. For their feat they were given the title of Kings of Armenia. Under the Zakharids economic and cultural life flourished. Many churches, secular buildings and book repositories were built.
It is at this time that the Gegard Cave Monastery is thought to have been built. The structures inside and outside the mount are one, compositionally and stylistically. The Astvatsatsin (Mother of God) Cathedral was built in 1215. Over the entrance is the coat-of-arms of the Zakharids—a lion tearing an ox apart. The narthex was added a few years later and was a typically Armenian structure—a place of public assembly and a burial place for the nobility. The austere exterior of the narthex contrasts sharply with its splendid interior. The ceiling is elaborately carved in a design that looks like undulating stalactites. The northern wall of the narthex is natural rock in which two passages have been cut. They lead to the most original part of the complex—the two churches cut in the depth of the rock.
Columns, arches, vaults, bas-reliefs—everything was carved out of stone monolyth. But that is not all. A steep staircase runs up the exterior rock into a man-made tunnel which leads to an upper storey, or, to be more exact, to a rectangular vaulted hall. The architect who conceived this remarkable structure is Galdzag. His name has been perpetuated by an inscription near a skylight. The name of the monastery was inspired by a legend about the spear with which the Roman soldier pierced the side of the crucified Jesus Christ. The spear was said to have been kept as a precious relic in Echmiadzin until the 9th century, when it was transferred for safekeeping to Airivank Monastery. The monastery was known from then on as Gegard, which means "spear" in Armenian. In the environs of Yerevan you may have noticed some vertical carved stone slabs called khachkars—steles with a cross carved in an ornamental frame— the symbol of the tree of life. Such monuments are to be found only in Armenia. They served not only as tombstones, but were put up to commemorate all kinds of events: victories in battle, the founding of a city, and the laying of the foundation of some structure.