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Chapter 42
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 44

 p425  Chapter XLIII
Architecture in Armenia
by Arshag Fetvadjian​1

Mixture of Religious Art

After having been ruled for centuries by feudal princes independent of each other, Armenia was reconstructed in 150 B.C. as a kingdom, under a Parthian dynasty known as the Armenian Arsacide (Arshakuni).

At this time there were several religions existing side by side in Armenia, with the gods of Greece in the ascendency. There were  p426 statues of Artemis, Herakles and Apollo set up at Armavir. Other images, including those of the Olympian Zeus, Athene, Hephaistos and Aphrodite, were brought later and placed in the stronghold of Ani (Kemakh). Representations of the native divinities which most resembled them were placed alongside them. The temple in the Ani stronghold, where Zeus was housed, had been consecrated to Ahura-mazda, the father of gods. Athene found a home in a temple of Nina (Naneh) at Til. Artemis was placed in the temple of Anahit in Eriza; while to Aphrodite was assigned another temple at Ashtishat, in the house of the goddess Astghik.

After the importation of the Greek images, the temples presumably remained native in character. Up to the present time, the only evidence regarding art under the Hellenophile kings is the beauti­ful head of a Greek goddess in the British museum, found at Sadakh (the village Sadagha in Turkish Armenia, near Erzinjan).

Near Erevan there is the ruin of an edifice of Roman style for the pantheistic idol cult fashionable in the days of the Arshakists. It is said to have been built by King Trdat as a summer residence for his sister Khosrovidoukht.2

Development of Armenian Architecture

[image ALT: An engraving of a small two-story building more or less reduced to a single circular tower with eight arched windows under blind arcading, and a conical roof. It is the remains of the church of St. George at Ani, in Armenia.]
Church of St. George at Ani
In my collection I have two water-colors which are faithful pictures of the ruins of the churches of Ererouk and Tekor, both built in the sixth century. The Tekor Church was damaged by lightning in 1912, after 1,500 years of existence. These two monuments are nearly identical in plan, details and technique, and also in the sculptures and decoration of their façades. The interiors are bare. They are examples of a charming archaism, and are generally supposed to be the work of masters who had been apprenticed to Syrian architects. I think, however, that the art of these two structures represents a step in an evolution, of which the genesis remains unknown.

One particularly notices in these drawings the engaged columns which directly support the springers of the arches; the plinth of expanding courses and the elliptical cupola. The cupola, externally enveloped in masonry, shows a lack of experience; and the low tambour which supports it is also remarkable, for later this feature was  p427 developed to an extraordinary degree. The Church of St. John at Puragan and the Sourb-Nshan at Kassakh are other examples of contemporary churches. The more ancient houses of worship are larger and more sumptuous than later ones, which fact may be traced to the relatively greater prosperity of the country at an early time than later.

The Church of Avan, near Erevan, dated 577, has a central cupola, supported on eight round arches. Possibly it once had also four small cupolas at the angles. There is likewise a little basilica at Kassakh which seems very ancient. It is of the same age as a church at Eghivard, which dates from 574.

Originality of Religious Architecture

From the hour when Armenia became riper for the task of creating a Christian architecture, its churches were of a specific type; they are in no sense imitative works. Constructed when and where the word of a prince was law, they reveal an artistic taste and a  p428 power­ful technique to those of the Syrian masters from whom, as certain scholars assume, the Armenians learned their architectural art. In Syria there was an immense heritage of artistic tradition — Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Roman — and at the flowering time of Christian art, the land was still flecked with examples of ancient architecture. Syrian masters were in contact with artists of many countries. The architects of Tekor and Ererouk had not this advantage, and therefore deserve to be held in greater esteem.

The monuments of the second architectural period of the Christian era in Armenia were basilicas, sometimes having a cupola; or constructions on a central plan, always surmounted by a cupola; or churches of tri-apsidal plan, the invention of which Strzygowski attributes to Armenians; and finally, churches in the form of a cross. The following are the churches of this period; — St. Gregory of Douin (601‑611); church at Avan (beginning of seventh century); two churches at Vagharshapat, Sainte Hripsimé and Sainte Gaiané (618 and 630); the old church in the citadel of Ani (622); the Cathedral of Bagaran (631); St. John at Bagaran (631‑639); St. Anania at Alaman (637) and the Cathedral of Mren (638‑640).

 p429  Notwithstanding the disturbance caused by the Arab invasion around 648 A.D. and after, Armenia, still rich and prosperous, maintained by her own resources her culture, art and industry. A number of chefs d'oeuvre of architecture were created during the time of her quasi-political vassalage to the Arab Khalifate. Armenian masters strove to create works captivating in originality, though modest in dimensions. While fighting off Arabs with one hand and with the other repelling the incursions of the Byzantines, who sought to bring Armenia under the confession of Chalcedon, monuments of architecture without precedent were erected — such as the following:— The Church of Our Lady of Masters, a construction of quatrefoil plan (650); the churches of the great and little Artiks (650); the Church of Adiaman (650‑660); St. Stephen in Akrak; the large Church of Arouj (Talish); the great Church of Eghivard, Our Lady of Ashtarak; the Holy Apostles at Agori; St. Stephen of Maghart; the fine structure of Our Lady of Talin, on a tri-apsidal plan (690); the lesser Church of Talin, of cruciform plan surmounted by a cupola; Our Lady of Petchni; St. John at Brnakot, in Sewniq, the Church at Nakhjavan — these remarkable structures were all created between 650 and 700 A.D.

[image ALT: An engraving of a small stone church with two prominent polygonal towers, set in a hollow at the foot of several steep hills, that it almost touches. It is the church of St. Stepanos and the Monastery of Maghard, in Armenia.]
Church of St. Stepanos and the Monastery of Maghard

As artists, the Armenians were content to remain within the limits of humble proportions. Some of these buildings in toto might be placed with the great galleries of modern museums. The work of each district had its own distinct characteristics. Each master was a creator, not a copyist, varying ever by the force of true originality. The architects were particularly ingenious in adapting cupolas to all kinds of plans. They harmonized art with convenience and reality.

Armenian Influence on Byzantine Architecture

The fierce struggle for overlord­ship in Armenia between the Arabs and Byzantines had caused many princes, nobles and soldiers to remove permanently to the territory of the Byzantine Empire known as the Armenian "temon."​3 This emigration may very probably have influenced later Byzantine architecture. On the other hand, there is less likelihood of influence in the opposite direction. Armenia, as intolerant as Byzantium on these questions of faith, drove all dissenting Armenians from the country in 719. Under such  p430 circumstances, it is difficult to believe that Armenians had much admiration for the architecture of Byzantium.

In the eighth and ninth centuries Armenia had little leisure for advancing the traditions of art and culture. Nevertheless, the mountain fastnesses to which many princes had been forced to withdraw gave to their architects a new field for their skill in constructing churches and convents dedicated to the memory of their ancestors, where masses were celebrated for the souls of the departed.

A monument discovered at Ani during the excavations of 1910 was probably built during the century of desolation. A part of a beauti­ful church of Otzoun is dated 718, and a portion of that at Banak belongs to the same century. Later, the Arabs again returned to their earlier policy of practical alliance with the Armenians, and about the beginning of the tenth century, the famous Church of Aghtamar was built by the architect Manouel, the crowning achievement of the labors of this time. The same architect constructed the artificial port on Lake Van. During the ninth and tenth century centuries, the following were built:— The Church and Convent of Narek, the Church of the Saviour at Taron; Churches at Ashtarak, Mazra, Horomos, Noratouz, Dariounk, Oughouzli, Soth, Makenatzotz, Vanevan, Salnapat, Sevan, Keotran (near Erevan), Taron (St. John the Baptist), Ishkhan, the Convent at Shoghak. These are marvels of form and richness of decoration.

Dynasty of the Bagratides in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

The Arab Khalifate, at that time in difficulties, was ready to be conciliatory, and the dynasty was left free to devote its energy to internal culture. The Architects of the tenth and eleventh centuries have left us a large number of remarkable monuments. Among these are the metropolitan church of Ani, a veritable museum of fine and original buildings; the group of churches at Sanahin, with the convent buildings, the convents of Horomos, with a noble group of civil constructions around them; the splendid Church of Marmashen; the convent of Haghbad; the elegant group of five miniature churches at Khtzong; the remarkable church of the Holy Apostles at Kars; the ornate church of Arkina, the severe Karmir-Vank and distinguished church of Goushavan, the Church of Irind, with its central plan, and that of St. Elias, of the citadel of Ani (which is identical in form and contemporary). The aristocratic church of  p431 Bdjni and the sober Our Lady of Tzpni; St. Stephen at Vorodn; Our Lady of Khotakeratz; the humble church of Pravadzor; the cathedral of Karin; the architecture at Gntevank; and the church of Havoutz Thar.

Notwithstanding the prosperity, relatively speaking, of this era, an attempt was made to observe in building the modern proportions which would accord with the old traditions. In the interiors as well as on the exteriors of the churches, the walls are formed of wrought slabs in regular courses. As in more ancient construction, I have never remarked in the buildings of the Bagratid era any trace of painting. Sculpture in low relief frequently decorates the façades. The monuments of this epoch do not show motives borrowed from Arab art.

Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

When the Bagratides were succeeded by the Zakarean princes in 1012, the artistic life of Armenia seems to have been little interrupted, although there wereº with the Byzantine Empire, and the Turks made their first appearance in the country in 1060. Architecture continued in a series of buildings which, in graceful originality and ingenuity of conception, yielded nothing to the works of the preceding era. The Prince Ivané, brother of Zakaré and generalissimo of the Georgian army, evidently won the good will of tradition-bound Byzantium by his confession of the Creed of Chalcedon. This prince made some attempts to bring the Armenians back to Byzantine orthodoxy, but those faithful to their creed would not be drawn away from the traditions of their national art.

Among architectural works of this period are, the Church of the Shepherds, before the wall of Ani, of which I have a water-color drawing; the churches of Horomaiz; the Church of Our Lady in Haridj, etc. Noteworthy are also Khota-Vank at Ani; Haghardzin; Koussa-Vank; Khatra-Vank; the Holy Cross at Zarinji; the church of the Convent of Shkhmourat and St. Gregory of Tesekh; the churches of Cosha-Vank; Hartz-Hankist at Banantz; Keghart (Airi-Vank); Kepair; Bzavatzor; and Saghotzor (Sevortiaz); the church of the Mother of God at Sanahin; of Spitakavor at Zenjirli; of the Convent of Srvegh and of Vaghahas.

All these monuments are living documents for those who are willing to complete their study of Christian church art. Many other lesser works of the twelfth century also remain in Armenia.

 p432  In the thirteenth century, the fourth renaissance of architecture, hundreds of structures were sown over this land, and the style of these works shows great vitality and intelligence.

Those which I have been able to study in detail are usually well preserved. A characteristic of the works of this period is found in the narthexes of the churches. This novelty, begun at Horomos in the eleventh century, in the day of the Bagratid King Hovhannes Sembat, now became general. In the room were numerous monolithic columns with bold capitals; the ceilings were covered with fine carvings, the doors were magnificent and the windows fantastic. Sculptured memorial tablets to persons of distinction are there, especially if they were benefactors of the church. These halls, called Cavit or Jamadoon, are mausoleums provided to satisfy the pious desire of those who wished to be buried in the shadow of the sanctuary. The Armenian Church did not permit burial in the sanctuary itself, and the jamadoons are supposed by some students to have been devised for this purpose.

The thirteenth century ended in turmoil. Architecture, after a century of enthusiastic support by patrons and work by the artists, inclined towards decadence, in consequence of the failure of security. The fourteenth century was a time made dark by the apparitions of the Turko-Tatar hordes, when all culture and art became impossible.

Characteristics of Armenian Architecture

Carving: The Architecture of Armenia was essentially a stone art, and the decorations are in accordance with the nature of the building material. Sculpture held a prime importance, both on the inner and outer faces of the walls. Ornamental surfaces are usually carved in what may be called a champlevéº method, which is both ancient and characteristic of all the schools of the classical Near East. Such carved decoration was engraved, as it were, on the surface, which it covered like embroidery; and the method seems peculiarly appropriate to the quality of the stone used. Many fragments found in excavations show the use of some animal and vegetable forms, such as eagles, bulls, serpents, heads of angels, lions and rams, pomegranates and grapes. At times, large surfaces, say ten yards long by six yards high, are covered over with carpet-like patterns made up of polygonal and star-shaped slabs covered with intricate carving.

 p433  Walls: The faces of walls are as perfectly fitted as modern parquetry of oak; the filling is rubble, with excellent mortar. The courses of the facings vary in height. Roofs are covered with wrought stone slabs.

Ceilings and vaults: The ceilings in the great narthexes built during the period from the eleventh to the thirteenth century are constructed of slabs laid horizontally with consummate skill. The naves of the churches are usually covered with tunnel vaults; these are built in sections, inclined at an angle. Vaults with spherical surfaces were commonly used in the seventh century; and other forms appear in the period from the ninth to the eleventh century.

The simple semicircular arch is not found in Armenia, though common in Byzantine architecture.

The stilted arch is the most usual form, and is common in all the epochs of Armenian art.

The horseshoe form of arch is current in the oldest buildings of Christian Armenia, as remarked by Texier and others.

The pointed arch exists only as an illusion obtained by a slight modification of the round arch at the crown.

A segment arch is found in the west front of the Church of Our Lady at Bagnair, a chef-d'oeuvre of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The tunnel vault is both ancient and common.

Ribbed vaults are also common.

Flat ceilings were often highly decorated with carvings. No examples of painted decoration have been found except some fragments of plaster at Ani.

Stalactite work, suspended from ceilings and walls, sometimes covers the whole surface of a cupola. These elements are worked out in variations which become veritable symphonies in stone. Contrary to a prevailing idea that this medieval type of decoration is an Arabic invention, I believe that it is of Armenian origin. In Armenian only do I find the most daringly contrived specimens of this kind of sculptured architecture, covering sometimes entire surfaces of canopy-shaped ceilings of the church narthexes and inner surfaces of corona-like cupolas.

Other Kinds of Architecture

So far I have spoken only of the architecture of worship in Armenia. There remains still the architecture of defense; i.e., buildings  p434 for military and strategic purposes. There are hundreds of strongholds, among the most ancient works of the constructive art, perched upon well-nigh inaccessible, awe-inspiring heights of this mountainous country.

Besides these, there is the Funerary architecture — cemeteries full of memorials for the departed, richly, elaborately ornamented tombstones, elegiac mausoleums erected in eternal memoriam, of kings, princes and men of high rank.

There is also the architecture of buildings of public utility, which includes hostelries for the accommodations of caravans and travellers, and bridges, often of monumental grandeur, spanning streams 300, 400 or 600 feet in breadth.

Finally, the architecture of man's residence — royal palaces, dwellings of princes, citizens, etc., of which we can say little, lacking archaeological evidence. The architecture of the peasant's abode in Armenia, continues to be unchanged and of the same type as described by Xenophon in his Cyropaedia, fourth century B.C.4

The Author's Notes:

1 The renowned artist, Arshag Fetvadjian, was born in Trebizond, on the Black Sea, in 1866. From an early age he evinced a keen interest in painting and archaeology. He entered the Imperial Fine Arts School in Constantinople, won the Prix de Rome, went to that city to study in 1887, and later, to the Imperial Arts Academy in St. Petersburg. Returning to the Caucasus, he specialized in Armenology, and exhibited his paintings in Tiflis. For twenty years he traveled in Armenia, reproducing on his canvases churches, chapels, monasteries, palaces, gravestones — in all, more than 2,000 architectural and artistic subjects.

Mr. Fetvadjian came to America in 1922 and died in Boston in 1947. Under his will, all his paintings and drawings were bequeathed to the State Museum of Soviet Armenia. "Fetvadjian Month" was recently (1958) celebrated at Erevan, with an exhibition of his works. Many invaluable relics of Armenian art and architecture of the sixth to the thirteenth century, which had escaped the ravages of time were destroyed during the last incursions of 1917‑1921, and would have been eventually forgotten had it not been for Fetvadjian's meticulously exact paintings of them, made while they were still in existence.

The above article, sent by Mr. Fetvadjian at our request, was originally published in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architecture in 1922.

2 Strzygowski gives some details of this building. In the British Museum is a fragment, in a debased Hellenic style, which is said to be from the Palace of Trdat.

3 In Greek, meaning multitude of people.

4 During the winter months of 1892‑93, in Vienna, the late Archbishop Mesrop Magistros, then a newly-graduated philologist from the University of Yourievo, upon request of the Imperial Institute of Scientists, wrote a monograph upon the architecture of the peasant cottage in which he was born. This book was translated into Armenian.

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