The monasteries are situated in the north of Armenia, in the Lori Region. Sanahin is now within the limits of Alaverdi town, and Haghpat is to the north-east of it, in the village of the same name. The two villages and their monasteries are similar in many ways, and lie in plain view of each other on a dissected plateau formation, separated by a deep crack. The exact date of the foundation of Sanahin and Haghpat is unknown. Documentary evidence and monuments of material culture suggest that the present-day buildings of the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin date from the period of prosperity during the Kiurikian dynasty (10th to 13th c.) and the Zakarian Princes. The monasteries, which were housing some 500 monks, were not only the significant religious centers but also the prominent educational centers and repositories of manuscripts. In the monasteries, especially in Sanahin, humanitarian sciences and medicine were studied, scientific treatises were written and paintings, mostly miniatures, were created. The two monastic complexes represent the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture, whose unique style developed from a blending of elements of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and the traditional vernacular architecture of the Caucasian region.
Pearched atop the rim of the gorge Haghpat, meaning the “huge wall’, is one of Armenia’s most beautiful monasteries. This fortified monastery was founded, by Queen Khosrovanush around 976 and served as the religious headquarters of the Kiurikians. The monastery was known from early times as Sourb Nshan (the Holy Cross) of Haghpat. Construction to the designs of the architect Traat was completed in 991. The plan of the gavit, built in the second decade of the 13th century, differs markedly in style from the main church. A large narthex-type building used for meetings, teaching and funerary rituals is based on vernacular architecture in wood, with the roof supported on four pillars in the center of the structure. The church is joined by a vaulted passage to a large jamatoun (chapter house), in the same style as the gavit, built in the 13th century. Also connected to the church is the library, a compact square building dating back to the 12th century. The monastery suffered from earthquake damage on several occasions, and in 1105 it was taken and burned by the Seljuk prince Amir-Ghzil. Nonetheless, monastic life continued and new buildings were added later in the 13th century, as well as the frescoes, out of which some are still faintly visible in the apse. Haghpat was major literary center, and maintained rich feudal lands until the monastery properties were confiscated by the Russian Empire in the 19th c.
The name Sanahin literally translates from Armenian as "this one is older than that one", presumably representing a claim to having an older monastery than the neighbouring Haghpat The oldest references to the monastery were found in early 10th century Armenian manuscripts and relate that the monastery was constructed over the ruins of a 4th or 5th century church. Sanahin monastery represents an entire complex consisting of several buildings which date from different periods. Present day monastery was established in 966 by Queen Khosrovanush, wife of King Ashot III Bagratuni, on the site of two existing churches. The main church, built in the 10th century, is the Cathedral of the Redeemer. To the west there is a four-columned gavit built in 1181. The Church of the Mother of God (Astvatzatzin), located to the north of the cathedral, is the oldest building in the complex, built between 928 and 944 by monks fleeing from Byzantium. The large library (scriptorium), built in 1063, is square in plan and vaulted, with ten niches of varying sizes in which codices and books were stored. At the south-eastern corner of the library is the small church dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator. The 11th-century Academy of Gregory Magistros is located between the two main churches. The cemetery, located to the south-east of the main buildings, contains the late 12th-century mausoleum of the Zakarian princes. Sanahin was renowned for its school of illuminators and calligraphers. An invasion by the Mongolians in 1235 is cited as a cause for the general decline of monastic life and the subsequent decay of the monastery itself. It was during this and other invasions that much of the monastery was destroyed. Sanahin’s role declined as Armenia suffered waves of invaders although the local Argoutian family was exceptional in managing to retain its estates through to the 20th century.
Sanahin and Haghpat complexes are especially rich in khachkars (more than 80 of them have survived), which were intended not only as memorials, but also to mark various events.