The complex is walled, with arched entry to the inner yard that includes the main triple nave basilica, monk cells, university buildings and service buildings. The monastery was abandoned at the same time as Tatev, during the Timurid raids, and rebuilt in 1613, serving as a school and nunnery until it was closed in the late 19th c. The complex sustained some damage in the 1931 earthquake, but most of it survived to this day. In its heyday, it was a famous center of learning and culture, with a manuscriptorium that copied medieval script.

According to legend Tatev was named for St. Eustathius, one of 70 disciples who accompanied the Apostle Thaddeus into Armenia, and that it was built on the remains of a pagan temple. Bronze and Iron Age settlements were at the site, and a number of old burial stones have been worked into monastery structures.