The Birth of Christian Architecture in Armenia

Sarkis Shahinian


The study of Armenian architecture, and especially that of its origins, is particularly difficult due to problems of dating. Archaeology, howewer, following important findings based on excavations undertaken toward the end of the last century (Marr, Strzygowski, Thoramanian) and during the 1950s (Sahinian, Hovhannissian, et al), makes a probably decisive contribution to the definition of the correlations among outstanding exam-ples of Armenian architecture of the 4th century.

As early as the beginning of the 7th century Armenian architecture had achieved such a high level of compositional and structural complete-ness that the same 'language', with very few modifications, can be obser-ved throughout the tradition which developed in the centuries to follow.

Central plan layout, and the systematic use of stone cupolas for the middle spans of churches apsidal halls and basilicas had become, by the 7th century,, integral features of design, as had been true from the outset of free cruciform plans and of all structures with a central plan [1].

To our knowledge, no scholar in the field of Armenian Christian architec-ture has been able to precisely determine the origin of typological ele-ments. Were they a consequence of liturgical development, or did they, themselves, contribute to the definition of the liturgy? Do they represent selected architectural features, derived from Mazdaist and Hellenistic religious structures? Or are they the result of cunning mediation between pagan symbolism, still deeply rooted in the populace, and the new litur-gical forms dictated by Christianity? It is quite probable that in Armenia, at the beginning of the 4th century, once the forms most appropriate to local Church liturgy and to the characteristics of the population had been defined, the evolution of typology developed based on the geometric outlines of the selected forms and on the need for stability in case of earthquakes. But this does not imply that developments in the area of liturgy did not influence architectural choices.

What was the historical context in which the new expressions of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture took form?

A brief overview of the political and religious situation in Armenia and other, adjacent regions (Cappadocia, Syria, Persia) from the end of the 3rd century to the end of the 5th century can help in putting the birth of Christian architecture in Armenia into context.

Historical references

During the second half of the 3rd century, the Armenian plateau was repeatedly invaded by the Romans (Alexander Severus, Valerian, followed by Diocletian and Galerius) and by the Sassanide Persians (Ardashir I, Shapur I and Narses), leading, in 387, to an initial division of Armenia between the two empires.

Fig. 1: Fortress of Tushpa (9th c. BC). Underground chambers [Harut] (Piotrowskij).

Fig. 2: Temple of Garni (1st c. AD). Plan [Brentjes].

[1] This article does not discuss the process of complication of the central layout. For this subject, see the second topic by Arà Zarian.

The truce with the Persians in Nisibi, in 298, enabled Diocletian, Augustus of the Orient, to create five Roman provinces beyond the Tigris, and facilitated a period of relatively pacific relations between the two empires. This made possible not only the completion of the financial and military reforms launched at the beginning of Diocletian's reign (285), but also the systematic repression of the Christians the latter by now considered a source of social instability carried out by Galerius [2]. The succession of the latter, following the abdication of Diocletian (305), led to particularly severe repressive measures against the Christians, inspired by the new emperor's fanatical attachment to the Roman pagan tradition. After a serious illness (later the cause of his death) during the winter of 310-311, Galerius having repented, the tradition narrates, his crimes issued a decree at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 urging clemency for the Christians under his jurisdiction, two years before the more famous Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine.

On the basis of these facts, it is possible that the recognition of Christianity on the part of the Armenian king Drtàt III, of Parthian origin [3], but raised and protected by the Romans, took place in the year 311 [4].

Saint Gregory (the Illuminator), missionizer of Armenia, first Katholikos and builder

The story of Krikòr (Gregory) Parthev, of Parthian origin like King Drtàt III but raised in Caesarea [5], where he encountered the Christian faith, is connected in legend to the destiny of the king, as the father of Krikòr, Anak, was responsible for the killing Drtàt's -father. Traditional accounts say that Krikòr devoted himself to the monastic life and to the preaching of the Christian faith in Armenia to atone for his father's crime.

After the truce of Nisibi, Drtàt III, a fervent pagan under Roman protection, had Krikòr captured, tortured and imprisoned for twelve years in a cell on the banks of the Arax River. After a grave illness and resigned to his fate the king, on the advice of his sister, had the monk released; Krikòr then cured him. To show his gratitude, Drtàt agreed to be converted to the Christian faith, together with his family. Krikòr, who returned in 310 to Caesarea to take his vows and, at the same time, to be ordained bishop by the Greek archbishop Leontius, baptised the royal family and its entourage on the banks of the River Euphrates.

Thus the kingdom of Armenia became the first to officially embrace Christianity as its state religion. The Roman empire did not do so until 380, under the Emperor Theodosius.

Drtàt's decision to convert together with his entire family clearly expres-ses an agreement between the Parthian monarchy and the ecclesiastic hierarchy. At first, it also facilitated solidarity among the feudal nobles of the nation. Later, however, a lack of unity between the new Christian ruling class (king, katholikos and clergy, architects and builders) and the populace became evident.

Probably as a result of these differences, the clergy adopted measures of a wide-ranging social character, which are reflected in the typological solutions employed for the first Armenian churches.

The Christianization of the country, imposed from above, did not always take place in a peaceful manner. Some districts readily converted to the new religion, while there were others in which the pagan element was more deeply rooted and involved economic and social interests. Pagan priests who, thanks to their position, had previously been able to accumu-late veritable fortunes, controlled large numbers of peasants who cultiva-ted their lands, and could arm the populace in order to react to threats to their hegemony [6].

Fig. 3: Milas. Syria. Mausoleum (2nd half of 2nd c. AD) [Baustile 1886].

[2] Diocletian's most trusted general, like the emperor of humble origin was appointed gover-nor of the eastern regions of the empire, inclu-ding Armenia.

[3] In the composition of the population of Ar-menia, nobles of Parthian origin belonged to the uppermost social classes; among these nobles there were personalities such as the future king, Drtàd III, and Krikor Parthév, the missio-nizer of Armenia and the first Katholikos of all the Armenians. The title of Katholikos, in seve-ral of the Christian churches of the East (in Ar-menia, Georgia, Chaldea), indicated the patri-arch of the church, or the highest religious authority.

[4] Armenian tradition dates the official reco-gnition of the Christian faith, and the construc-tion of the first churches, including the cathedral of Vagharshapat (known as Edjmiadzìn since 1945, site of the martyrdom of the virgins Gaya-né, Hripsimé and thirty companions of the lat-ter) to the year 301. In the light of the above facts, it would appear highly improbable that during the height of the repression of the Christians Armenia could have officially embraced the new religion without suffering political and military repercussions.

[5] Headquarters of the metropolite of Cappado-cia, inferior in importance (together with Jerusa-lem and Nisibi-Edessa, today's Urfà, in Turkey) only to the two major centres of liturgical development of the time: Antioch and Alexandria.

[6] Such a situation is described, for the district of Taron (Musch region), by Zenobi of Glak, a contemporary of Agathangelos, in the History of the District of Taron, which narrates the furious battle fought around the castle of Kisané between the armies of the pagan priests and the army of Krikòr. From [Morgan], p. 102-103.

[7] Ordained Katholikos by the archbishop Eusebius, at Caesarea, Nerses was the sixth su-preme patriarch of the Armenian Church, in direct descent from St. Gregory the Illuminator (see note 16).

The Katholikos Nerses I the Great [7] (353-358) undertook a capillary operation of missionizing, reaching the most remote zones of the kingdom, in which the worship of pagan idols was still very widespread. In order to remain flexible, the Armenian Church was forced to tolerate many pre-Christian customs, even incorporating some of them into the liturgy [Bauer] [8].

The coexistence between ancient civilisation and new faith led the Katho-likos Nerses to enact a series of measures aimed at suppressing pagan traditions. To this end, a synod was held in 355 at his residence in Ardashàt at which other important social measures [9] for general discipline and for the consolidation of the organisation of the church were also approved.

To the east of the kingdom a situation of crisis due to the pressure of the Sassanide Persians had developed, which led King Arshàg II (345-367) to form an alliance (which was never respected) with the Emperor Julian. Neither Julian nor his successor, Valens, complied with this pact, using the failure of the Armenian Church to recognise the Roman Oriental Church as a pretext. The Armenians were thus forced to come to terms with the Persians who, in turn, refused to recognise them in negotiation.

Among the many decisions aimed at limiting the influence of the Armenian Church [10] made by the successor of Arshàg II, Pap (368-374), one in particular put an end to the tradition of the ordination of the Armenian Katholikos in Caesarea, partially distancing the Armenian Church from Greek influence.

The Armenian Arsacidian kingdom was subdivided in 387 by an agree-ment between the emperors Theodosius and Schapour III, to the clear advantage of the Sassanide, who were assigned four-fifths of the territory. Nevertheless the two segments of the former Armenian kingdom always remained in contact, thanks to their common faith. This strong cultural tie was reinforced by the introduction of Armenian script, promoted by the Katholikos Sahag Parthev (387-428), developed by the hieromonk Mesrop Mashtotz, and already utilised by 406, also thanks to the political support provided by the Arsacidian monarch Vramchapouh. An alphabet guaranteed the influence of the Church over the entire people, avoiding the need to filter passages from the Sacred Scripture (written in Syrian or in Greek) during the mass by means of oral repetition by figures known as 'translators' [Bauer].

During the course of the 5th century the Armenians sought, at all costs, to establish their own cultural identity and to distance themselves defini-tively from the political-religious influence of the Greeks and the Persians.

Not having participated in the work of the council in Constantinople due to the impending danger of war between the Romans and the Persians [Bauer], the Armenians were not among those who signed the final acts in which the supremacy of the patriarchate of Constantinople over all the Christian churches of the Orient was recognised, and in which the Arianist heresy was definitively condemned, putting an end to a dispute which had plagued the Christian church since the council of Nicaea (325).

The desire for distancing from Constantinople was reinforced when the Armenians were left on their own in 451 to battle, on the plains of Awaraïr, the Persians, who were attempting to impose the Zoroastrian faith [11]. Feeling that they had been betrayed by the Byzantines, who had recently signed a pact of non-aggression with the Persians, the Armenians took the opportunity to reject the decisions of the council of Chalcedon, and thus to definitively remove themselves from the Byzantine sphere of theological influence [12].

In 482 Armenia emerged from a war of resistance against the Persians which had lasted three decades; the Sassanide were forced to concede religious autonomy to the Armenians.

Fig. 4: Mausoleum of Dana, Central-Syria (4th c. AD) [Baustile 1886].

[8] One of the most important examples is the position of the sanctuary (or main apse), which in the Armenian churches is always oriented toward the east, coinciding with the position of the altar in the pagan temples.

[9] Among the rules established by the synod: celibacy for high ranking clergy (the vartabéd or doctors of theology, the bishops, archbishops, patriarchs and katholikos); the creation of mo-nastic centres for the gathering of anchorites; the creation of schools for the systematic tea-ching of Christian doctrine, in order to combat the remaining traces of idolatry; the construc-tion of hospitals, leper colonies, orphanages, hostels for the invalid and the blind; the prohibi-tion of polygamy, of matrimony between mi-nors and close relatives [Berberian].

[10] Pap ordered the confiscation and redistri-bution of five sevenths of the lands belonging to the monasteries, in favour of the minor nobles, who constituted the core of the royal army. He also set limits on the number of monks, clo-sed most of the convents, and sent most of the nuns back to their families, so that they could be married.

[11] The same year in which the Council of Chalcedon was held, in which the Armenians did not participate.

[12] The Armenian Church first rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon during the first synod of Dvìn (505), the headquarters of the Katholikosate since 461 (and capital of the kingdom since 338), followed by an even more vehement stance at the second synod of Dvìn (552-554), after the emperor Justinian had declared his approval of the Chalcedonian doc-trine of Duophysism, openly condemning that of Monophysism. This second synod confirmed the breaking of doctrinal and, above all, political links with Constantinople, and the autocephaly of the Armenian Church, thus known because it was the representative of a people/religion (like the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia,


The vision of Saint Gregory

Information on the work of missionizing in Armenia can be found in the works of historiographers and chroniclers after the middle of the 5th century. The fact that the first written accounts were made at least 150 years after the events they describe, and in particular after the great reli-gious scism between the Armenians and the Catholic Church (Council of Chalcedon, 451) due more to political reasons (detachment from the area of Byzantine influence) than to theological factors (rejection of Ne-storianism), means that correct understanding of these texts can only result from systematic comparison, which the author was not able to undertake during the preparation of this article.

This must be mentioned because of the importance of various text passa-ges, especially in the History of the Armenians of Agathangelos (second half of the 5th century), where the vision of Saint Gregory is described.

In the paragraphs 731-755 [13] reference is made, for example, to the moment in which the saint received annunciation of the site where four churches were to be built; three Martyria (two of which where to be de-dicated to the Virgins Hripsimé and Gayané), and the future cathedral of Vagharshapat, for which the form was also dictated: a cupola (or 'tent') supported by four columns. On this subject, readers may refer to Thomson [14]. Another passage would appear to link the figure of Krikòr to the consecration of the Martyria of the saints, said to have been carried out by striking the chosen site with the steelyard (lar) of the architect [15] .

The cathedral of Edjmiadzìn is according to Thomson neither the first cathedral nor the first church built by Krikòr. It was preceded by the church the latter had built at Ashtishàt, in Western Armenia, on the site of the temple of Vahàgn (the god of war in the Armenian 'pagan' panthe-on), where the relics of Saint John the Baptist and of the martyr Athenoge-nes, entrusted to Krikòr after his ordination in Caesarea, were buried. The edifice became the mother church of the first Armenian diocese, where the Armenian primates resided for almost the entire 4th century [16].


The influence of local and external traditions in the pre-Christian era

Compared to developments in the following centuries (to the formative period 4th-7th centuries of Armenian architecture, ed.), and above all as compared to the mature period, from the 9th to the 14th centuries, the Armenian architecture of this period, although it expresses values and languages which are recognisably its own, conserves evident traces of continuity with some features of the late architecture of the ancient Eastern Roman world (similar, for example, to the more direct Roman origin of the Paleo-Christian layouts of the Occident, with respect to those of medieval Europe). This continuity can be seen in the technique of erecting pure volumes of large longitudinal edifices atop stylobates with large steps, similar to that of the albeit very different pagan temples. This technique can be observed not only in the rigorous design of the large central cupolated churches, which take on the solemnity of the ma-usolea of the classical era, but also in the use of the compact masonry of large, well-cut and precisely-laid blocks, in the masterful orchestration and proportioning of spaces delimited by arcades and rounded vaults, and in the use of stylistic systems and elements closely related to those of Romano-Hellenistic architecture [17].

Fig. 5: Aghdz Arsacidian mausoleum (363 AD) section and plan [Cuneo].

[12] (continued) ...the Western Syrian -or Antio-chene church-, and the Eastern Syrian -Nesto-rian and Indian churches-). The Armenian Church also claimed to be an apostolic institu-tion, in keeping with the traditional view that St. Thaddaeus and St. Bartholomew had prea-ched the Christian faith in Armenia in and around the year 100. The definitive institutional founding of the Armenian Apostolic Church took place at the third synod of Dvìn, in 649.

[13] [Agathangelos] History of Armenia (in Old Armenian) in the Tiflis edition, 1909.

[14] [Thomson], p. 102-114. In particular:

... The Teaching of Saint Gregory (the Illumi-nator) as found in the History of Agathangelos opens with a brief description of heaven, earth and the void (* note in the quotation). Heaven is domed (khoranard), with a firm roof (hasta-yark), suspended in the void. The adjective kho-ranard is used in Job xxxviii.38 to render kuboV, while the noun khoran renders the skhnh of Isa.xl.22 and the derriV of Ps.ciii.3. It is the theme of the tent that is the more important. Khoran occurs several hundred times in the Ar-menian bible, rendering skhnh, and is one of the key terms used in Armenian architectural symbolism. ...

* § 259. These paragraph numbers are those of the Tiflis 1909 edition of Agathangelos. For the Teaching see: [Thomson 70], p 15-16, and for the History see: [Thomson 76].

[15] [Agathangelos] § 758.

[16] [Thomson] p. 106.

Here it should be noted that during the entire 4th century the succession of the Katholikos was ensured by the direct line of male descen-dents of Krikòr, legitimized in the succession to the role of spiritual father of the Armenian Church to the same degree that the male descen-dents of the Arsacidian dynasty were legiti-mized as successors to the throne of Armenia.

[17][Cuneo] p. 23.

[18] Moussasir (9th century BC); Toprakh-Khalé (9th-8th c. BC); temple of Susi at Erebunì (8th c. BC).

[19] Shared veneration, in Mazdaism and Hel-lenism, of the sun and of fire.

The historical presence, in Armenia, of religious buildings with a longitudinal plan dates back at least as far as to the 9th century BC [18]. In spite of the fact that there is no evidence that the Urartaean architectural tradition was followed by an uninterrupted artistic development through to the Hellenist epoch, important similarities noted by specialists can be observed. The Hellenist temple of Garni (fig. 2), dedicated to the sun goddess, Mihr, and therefore oriented with the cella in the direction of the sunrise, was built on the site of an Urartaean sanctuary. Alexandr Sahinian notes that the cella at Garni and the hall of worship of the temple of Sussi are not only similar in the proportions of their plans (5:8), but are also nearly identical in planimetric terms (5.05 x 7.98 m). Moreover, archaeological excavations effected in the late 1950s beneath the cathedral of Edjmiadzìn show that the original edifice was built on the site of an Urartaean temple.

Piotrowskij, depicting the underground chambers of the Urartaean fortress of Tushpa (today the city of Van, in Turkey), informs us that some of these contained niches (fig. 1), even though quadrangular, distant relatives of the cubicula of the Roman catacombs which, on the other hand, we again encounter at Aghdz (Ashtaràk region) in the lateral horse-shoe-form arcosolia of the Arsacidian mausoleum (363 AD) (fig. 5). Moreover, Piotrowskij demonstrates that as early as the Urartaean epoch hypogeal or even rupestral solutions were employed (solutions which reappear in the subterranean urbanistic conception of Anì, capital of the Bagradite kingdom from the 9th to the 11th century, and later at the monastery of Gheghard, 12-13th century). Similar examples can be found in Syria dating back to the 2nd century AD, as in the mausoleum of Milas. (fig. 2).

The mastery demonstrated by the Armenians in the masonry construction of barrel vaults and cupolated spaces on square foundations is clearly derived from the Sassanide tradition, just as their dry masonry work, in layers filled with rough cement, involved techniques which had already been employed by the Urartaeans, as for example in the construction of the walls of the citadel of Tushpa.

The Persian influence, studied in depth by Strzygowski, is nearly irrefu-table, due to the geographical vicinity of the two cultures, and to the si-milarities of their profane architectures (the palaces of Taq-Eiwan and Sarwistan figs. 7 and 8 ) and religious architectures [19], given the fact that the worship of the sun and of fire was widespread in Armenia.

The Armenian written tradition attributes 150 years after the death of the saint a 'vision' to Saint Gregory, containing explicit symbolic, formal and constructive references for the edifices which were to host the rites of the new religion.

Archaeological excavations made beneath the cathedral of Edjmiadzìn, under the supervision of A. Sahinian, have revealed an apsidal space be-neath the present main sanctuary (where a Mazdaist pyre has also been found, see the second topic by Arà Zarian), and the foundations, with four columns [Gandolfo 82], from an ancient edifice. The existence of the central cupolated layout of the original Edjmiadzìn has yet to be fully proven. But it would appear plausible, in spite of the lack of scientific evidence, that the cathedral built at Vagharshapàt by Vahan Mamikoniàn in 482, in the place of the original, was forecast in its form by the work of his contemporary the historiographer and chronicler Agathangelos.

Fig. 6: Moudjouleja. Central -Syria (4th c. AD). Plan and Prospect [Baustile 1886].

Fig. 7: Taq-Eiwan.Iran. Reconstruction sketch by Phené Spiers and plan by Dieulafoy [Strzy].

Fig. 8: Parthian palace of Sarwistan. Iran (detail) [Strzy].

We can divide the first edifices of the Christian religion (4th-5th centuries) into two principal categories:

- mausolea and martyria;

- longitudinal churches, with the distinction between the basilica and the apsidal hall.

Mausolea and martyria

The lengthy influence of the Romans is reflected, in all probability, in parallels in the processes of the spread and practice of Christianity in Armenian territory. It is worthwhile recalling that among the Romans veneration of the dead demanded tolerance of the practice of burial, which extended to both Christian and Jewish burial rites. Roman custom and law dictated that the relatives of executed criminals had the right to bury the victim: death was thought to somehow redeem the offender (whose crime, in many cases, was simply that of being a Christian or a Jew). The phenomenon of the catacombs, borrowed by the first Christians from the ancient tradition of the Roman Jews, was not only tolerated by the authorities; the areas where the catacombs were located were even considered inviolable (at least until the 3d century, when special laws removed this protection). The construction of chapels in the 'cubicula' offered the Christians an opportunity to assemble and pray.

In Syria, on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, the Christians adopted the ancient Semitic tradition of Mesopotamia regarding the individual construction of tombs, cut into rock, or partially or completely excavated below ground level. These were usually chambers with a square base, of different sizes, with niches on three sides (for one or more corpses), and a staircase for access from ground level. The entrance usually featured a facade preceding an antechamber (fig. 6).

In Armenia similar structures can be found, although of greater simplicity. We have already mentioned the mausoleum of Aghdz [20], which is closer in terms of design to Syrian taste; we can also cite the crypt of Grigoris (the grandson of St. Gregory) at Amaras (Latchìn region) [21], a solution more closely related to local tradition; or those of St. Vardàn of Zovunì [22], of Gayané and Hripsimé at Etchmiadzìn, over which the apses of the churches built in later epochs are positioned [23]. The martyrion of Hripsimé was reconstructed, according to S. Mnadza-khanian [24], in two phases, in the place of a two-storey structure, repre-sented on the eastern side of the southern stele of the memorial monument of the 5th century, beside the cathedral of Odzùn (fig. 10) [25].

The monument at Odzùn also has a two-storey structure, quite similar to that of the stele of Aghudì (Sisian region ) . This typology of memorial monuments, after its re-introduction onto the Armenian architectural scene, was with certain important works of the 11th century (the church of the Shepherd in Ani, the funeral chapel of St. Stepanos in Dzaghadzkar, Yeghegnadzòr region , and the steeple of St. Asdvadzadzìn, at the en-trance of the convent of Tatev, Goris region ) to become particularly widespread, especially during the 14th century, in works such as the 'library' of the convent of Goshavank (Dilidjian region ), and the funeral chapels of Yeghvart (Ashtaràk region ) (fig. 11) and of Amaghu Noravank (Yeghegnadzòr region ).

Fig. 9: St. Rémy.Monument to Julier (3rd quarter of 1st c. BC) [Baustile 1886].

Fig. 10: Odzun Stele (5th-6th c.) Detail

[Brentjes] (K. G. Beyer, Weimar).

[20] A simple apsidal hall with two lateral ex-tensions, each with an arcosolium, creating a de facto cruciform plan; the mausoleum is topped by a stepped podium, originally flanked by two steles.

[21] An underground hall with access from a pair of staircases leading, first, to lateral entry-ways topped by horseshoe arches, and then to an oriented quadrangular apse, in axis, which was almost certainly the burial chamber.

These latter works bear certain important similarities to some surface tombs in Syria built during the Christian era, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries. Once again these are structures based on very ancient traditions already utilised by the Romans, in particular in the Hellenistic Heroons (fig. 9). These are edifices with a central plan, or with layouts based on those of ancient temples; many are situated along the border walls of cemetaries; they are built, for the most part, of cubical or stepped blocks, inside which the corpse was placed; over the block stood a one-storey structure with a differentiated design, usually crowned by a pyramid roof, again with a square base [Palmira, 1st century AD, Dana, 4th century, fig. 4 ], or by a cupola-vault (as in the case of a tomb at Hafs, 4th century, illustrated by De Vogüe [Baustyle 1886]. The remains also exist of several rare examples of martyria with a square foundation and stone cupola, as in the case of Oghdjabérd (figs. 16 and 17), in the Abovian region . These represent the possible origins of the process of complication of the centralized typology, which initially progressed toward simple cruciform schemes, with one or more apsidal wings, and then moved on to more elaborate compositions, some of which are unique to Armenian architecture (see the second topic of Arà Zarian for the ty-pologies and the topic of Moreno Piccolotto for the symbolism) [26].

Finally, according to tradition, the official work of missionizing of St. Gregory led to the systematic demolition of many temples [27]; at first crosses were placed where they had stood, but later steles, altars and Christian churches were built to replace them.

Longitudinal churches

The construction of churches with apsidal interiors can probably be traced back to pre-Christian sources (such as the cellae of Urartaean and Hellenist sanctuaries), and re-created community life of the early Christians in large residential structures of the same type. Here exists the under-standable temptation, in spite of a lack of concrete examples as evidence, to draw a comparison with the Syrian courtyard buildings utilised as Domus Ecclesiae (common places of worship), as in the case of Doura Europos [28] (230 AD ca.).

These are edifices of very simple composition, with the area of the altar rigorously oriented and raised with respect to the level of the hall, which usually ends in a semicylindrical apse, with a horseshoe arch in the older examples, rarely a quadrangular. For these cases we can hypothesise the utilisation of models from pre-existing pagan sanctuaries or, as mentioned above, of the martyria of saints.

The severe initial structures, with flat wooden roofs (of Syrian origin), had a sober, parallelepiped volumetric design. The use of barrel vaults in stone implied greater thickness for the walls, or the introduction of internal pilasters and transverse arches, leading to the division of the space in spans. It has been suggested that the subsequent appearance of deep niches cut into the thick longitudinal walls (as in certain examples in Vaspurakàn, in what was southern Armenia) may represent a prelude to the basilica with three naves [Cuneo] [29].

Among the eldest examples we can cite the apsidal halls of Djrvéj (Abovyan) and Oskevàdz (Ashtaràk), both with horseshoe arch apses visible from the exterior in their polyhedric volumes. Among the exam-ples dating back to the 5th century, Karnut (Akhurian region) and Tanahat (Sisian region) are of note due to the fact that they enclose, in a single wall structure, both the apse and an auxiliary space to the south of the sanctuary [30], which concludes, in turn, in an external por-tico, parallel to the southern wall of the hall. It is probable that this evolu-tion was a result of liturgical exigencies dictated by the decisions of the council of Nicaea, involving postulants, penitents and catechumens [Piva], [Thierry]. Examples of this type have been found, for the most part, in northern and central Armenia.

Fig. 11: Yeghvart. Mausoleum S. Asdvadzadzìn (1321) [Thierry] (Nicole Thierry).

[22] Characterised by a small quadrangular un-derground chamber, combined, at ground level, with an apsidal hall erected on a square plinth which covers the surface of both the plans.

[23] For more information regarding the crypts see [Gandolfo 82] .

[24] [Mnadz] p. 179-194.

[25] An edifice in stone, composed of a stepped base beneath a solid block, without openings, of combined masonry. The second floor had an arch, and terminated in a large front with a cross sculpted in the middle.

[26] The importance of the cross in the develop-ment of Eastern Christian architecture and espe-cially that of Armenia is illustrated by a number of facts. Eastern Christianity inherited, both from the Old Testament and from the earlier pagan cultures, the tradition of the cosmic sym-bolism of the cross and the number four (see the topic by Moreno Piccolotto). The worship of the dead was practiced, as we have seen, using central-plan edifices (cruciform or square), whose axes of symmetry form a cross (oriented, a feature which originated in pagan cults and was maintained by the new religion), defining, at ground level, or even under ground, the four cardinal points of the compass, above which vertical structures (steles, ciboria, further levels with halls for worship, conical or pyramidal roofings) were placed, all arranged in a symbolic connection of the centre of the earth (the Underworld, symbolized by the intersection of the axes of symmetry at the point of the tomb) with the heavens. (continued)


The migration of basilica typology to Armenia has yet to be definiti-vely traced. It is not yet clear whether the triple-nave basilica in Armenia was the result of the complete adoption of classical basilica typology, which was wide-spread both within the confines of the Roman empire and, as we have observed, in Armenia, or was derived from the tripartite palatine structures typical of Persia (as in the examples of Ghala Dokhtar, Firouzabad, the royal palace of Bishapur, Ctesifonte) where the lateral naves are separated from the centre by actual walls, which in Armenia became pilasters of a markedly mural character, punctuated by narrow passages, as in the case of Dzidzernavànk (Latchìn region); or whether it was the result of a process of the lateral expansion of a central nucleus, namely the hall-type church.

The Christian basilica has a rectangular plan, divided across its width by three naves. The main entrance is on the shorter side, usually adjoining a narthex leading to the three naves. The layout is oriented in keeping with the apse, where the altar is located (or the cathedra, around which the bishop and the elders gathered), the internal conclusion of the central nave. This structure was designed, like the more spacious apsidal halls, for the larger communities of the faithful. The difference lies in the creation of a space divided into three parts, which in the case of large congregations made it possible to divide the worshippers in keeping with liturgical exigencies [Baustyle 1886], [Piva].

In general, during the Paleo-Christian period, we can identify two types of basilica:

- the Hellenistic basilica, in which the central nave is higher than the two lateral naves, permitting the placement of openings for the illumination of the central area. The central nave is separated from the minor naves by two rows of columns, and is usually roofed with wooden trusses or, more rarely, with barrel vaults in stone;

- the Oriental basilica, like most of those in Armenia, in which the central nave is only slightly taller than the lateral naves, from which it is separated by two courses of pilasters, and without openings for lighting (with the exceptions of Dzidzernavank due to a subsequent renovation and, perhaps, Ererùk plan [Strzy]). The roofing of the edifice consists of a single pitched roof.

The spatial articulation of the basilica layout ([Thoram], [Khatch]) began, as early as the 4th century, with the use of rectangular apses, as hypo-thesised for the basilicas of Kasakh and Tekor, to which quadrangular lateral spaces were added (only one, in the case of Kasakh, and two in those of Edjmiadzìn [31], Tekor, Ererùk me Dvìn). The minor naves, on the other hand, were part of the original design in the cases of Dzidzerna-vank and Dziranavòr.

Regarding the dating and the compositional derivation of the basilica of Ererùk (figs. 12 and 13), Khatchatrian opts for a native origin, onto which elements of Syrian origin were subsequently added [Khatch] [32]. In particular, the Armenian scholar asserts that the proportioning of the entire basilica with respect to the module based on the section of the pilasters (the main elements of support of the stone vault) demonstrates the advanced level of compositional and construction expertise of Paleo-Christian Armenia.

Compared to the number of apsidal hall churches erected in the period of early Christianity in Armenia, the larger triple-nave basilicas are very few (only about ten). The progressive abandonment of the basilica structural type can be attributed to the need for earthquake-proof edifices [33], rather than to any change in the liturgy or variation in architectural taste.

In the 6th and the 7th centuries, longitudinal churches gradually began to be replaced by churches with cupolas.

Fig. 12: Ererouk (5th - 6th c.). Plan [DAA 9].

Fig. 13: Ererouk, reconstruction according to Tokarskij [DAA 9].... In the vision of St. Gregory four crosses represent four places of martyrdom, those of the virgins Gayané, Hripsimé and their companions, connected by a large cupola or tent (see note 14).

The cross, in Armenia, became a true object of worship, taking on dual divine significance [Thierry] p. 28-29: a symbolic meaning, as the 'sign' of Christ, symbol of his victory over death, memory of the site of his sacrifice; and a physi-cal meaning, in the sense of a relic, the adoration of which was connected to faith in thaumaturgic effects.

The rejection of the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon prompted the Armenians to place greater emphasis on the divine, rather than the human, nature of Christ. This led to an avoid-ance of representations of the Passion, and to a preference for the sublimation inherent in the symbol of the cross, as opposed to explicit iconography.

[27] Including the eight famous sanctuaries of pagan Armenia: T'ordan, Bagayarìdj, Ani Kamach, T'il, Erez (eastern Euphrates valley); Ashtishàt and Bagavàn (eastern Euphrates); Artashàt (Arax valley) [Cuneo].

[28] Today's Es Salehije, located on the western banks of the Euphrates, at Palmyra (near Damascus) [Real] .

[29] In the opinion of the experts, it is not clear whether the tripartite basilica in Armenia was the result of a total mimesis of the classical basi-lica, widespread within the confines of the Roman Empire, especially in Syria, or whether it can also be traced back to Iranian Palatine struc-tures (where, in tripartite layouts, the wall-like character of the pilasters dividing the central nave from the lateral aisles already existed, as in the case of Dzidzernavànk, region of Latchìn), or whether it represented a natural ex-pansion of the nucleus of the hall-form church.

[30] Functioning as a sacresty. Some scholars attribute the existence of this space to the cus-tom of the continuous presence of priests at the church, ordered by the Katholikos Sahàg


Cupolated spaces

The origin of the use of the cupola in Armenia has not yet been definitively analyzed. The work of Strzygowski [34], however, makes a fundamental contribution to an understanding of its possible origin. In Armenia there are no cupolas (or at least none have yet been found) constructed directly over a cylindrical, hexagonal or octagonal volume, of walls or columns. In all the cases examined, the cupola is placed atop a square or star-shaped structure, to which connections are attached to create the polygonal or circular base of the cupola itself, or of its tambour . When columns or pilasters are included in the plan, they are semi-columns or pilaster strips: in other words, they are part of the walled niches which constitute the nucleus. The only cupolated spaces in which the square is formed by four free-standing columns are cupolated basilicas and central-plan edifices with a square nucleus, again with cupola.

The connections employed for the passage from the square plan or nucleus to the circular base of the cupola were designed, at first, in the case of single, independent cupolas, with 'bonnet' pendentives [35], the use of which was probably a result of Iranian influence (as in the palace of Sarwistan, early 4th c. AD), and which were ultimately derived from, or influenced by, constructions in Chinese Turkestan or Seistan [36].

Fig. 14: Process of development of the 'bonnet' pendentive according to Dieulafoy [Strzy].

The spherical spandrel came into use in Armenia at a later date. Assuming that this type of connecting masonry device is derived from the domical vault, already employed in Hellenist times (as in the cupola of the hot springs of Dschrasch, in central Syria fig. 15 ), Strzygowski asserts that the origin of the spherical spandrels in Armenia can be traced to the pursuit of principles for the resolution of the intersection of two barrel vaults. The solutions employed in Persia and Syria are three in number: the domical vault, the cross-vault and the spherical pendentive. The earliest example of the use of this latter element in Armenia is found in the cupolated cathedral of Arudj (7th century) (see p. 62), discussed below.

The author is led to surmise that the spherical spandrel was applied for the first time in Armenian architecture in edifices with a central, tetraconchate or generally cruciform plan. On the other hand, this pendentive was never utilised in tetraconchate buildings with a central plan and square nucleus.

Strzygowski concludes that on the basis of the examples available for study at the time it cannot be demonstrated that the free cupola atop a square nucleus, resting on 'bonnet' pendentives, was the precursor of the edifices with a central tetraconchate plan [37]. Nevertheless, his reasoning continues as follows: in its typological development, the cupola over a square plan must, first of all, resolve problems of resistance and static equilibrium.

Fig. 15: Hot springs of Dschrasch [Strzy].

Fig. 16: Oghdjaberd (4th - 5th c.). Reconstruc-tion of section and east elevation [Symp 88].

Fig. 17: Oghdjaberd (4th - 5th c.). Remains

[Gandolfo 73].

[30] (continued) ...(387-428). But it is more probable that this space served as a Martyrion, as in the case of certain Syrian basilicas [Thierry].

[31] Sahinian maintains that Edjmiadzìn was originally based on a basilical scheme.

[32] Meaning the porticoes and the western towers, elements widely used in Syria toward the end of the 5th century, as in the case of the basilicas of Der Turmanin (fig. 19), Qualb-Lôze (figs. 20 and 21), and El Baras of El-Housn (Paboudjian, Pascal, 'The Ererouk Basilica' [DAA 9], and Der Kevorkian, Shahé, 'Architec-tural correlations between syrian and armenian early christian churches (IV-VII centuries)' [Symp 81] ).

[33] The successful grafting of the cupola onto the median span did not always guarantee stability, because of the considerable height of the free pilasters.

[34] [Strzy] p. 159-202, 335-341, 349-352, 358-372, 475-482, 484-485, 508-511.

[35] The eldest example of this typology was discovered in 1960 and therefore was not known to the author near the village of Oghdjaberd (Abovyan region) figs. 16 and 17.

[36] The discussion on the origin of the cupola supported by 'bonnet' pendentives in Strzy-gowskij is actually much more complex. The author cites for example the hypotheses of Leonhardt and Dieulafoy, who reach different conclusions.

Therefore it is difficult to understand how the passage from square-plan typology to the tetraconchate, took place without the resolution of the fundamental problem of the connection between the square internal nucleus and the circular base of the cupola [38].

A clear symptom of preference for the cupola can be seen in the process of transformation of the ancient three-nave basilicas into cupolated edifices, the most important example of which is the 4th century basilica of St. Sarkis in Tekor (fig. 22), where the cupola was added at the end of the following century [Thoram] [39].

Fig. 21: Basilica of Qualb-Lôze. Axonometry and west elevation [DAA 9] from Beyer.

This tall parabolic cupola was composed, on the exterior, of a cubical tambour (which can be compared, in certain aspects, to that of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna), upon which a cuspidate pyramid with an octagonal base was inserted, inscribed in the square of the structure below.

The councils of Dvìn (525 and 552) accelerated religious unification, confirming doctrinal and cultural separation from the Byzantine Church. During a period of slightly more than one century building activity was intense, promoted on the one hand by noble families, and on the other by the pastoral activities of the Armenian Church.

The areas of greatest activity were the central and northern regions, more affluent and more densely populated than those to the south of Arax. The architects concentrated on the dominant role of the cupola in its dual function: first as a representation of the vault of the heavens, and thus endowed with a perfect form, corresponding to the central position of the hall, in which the upward projection of the square is emphasised, determined by the wide archways and the cavity of the tambour; second, as a monumental element of emphasis, in which the external volume is crowned with a prism or a cuspidate cylinder, enclosing the intrados of the cupola, which was usually hemispherical. The stability of the cupola was reinforced thanks to its weight. Its image stood out with respect to the surrounding edification, making it visible from a distance.

The cupola was born as a natural top for central-plan edifices, and one whose potential for typological development was greater than that of other solutions. It was also utilised in longitudinal edifices, with the pur-pose of combining, in a single structure, the physical and symbolic charac-teristics of the two elements.

Fig.18: Edjmiadzin. Axonometry. Original church reconstructed from Toros Thoramanian [Strzy].

Fig.19: Basilica of Der Turmanin, Syria (5th c.). Perspective [Baustil].

Fig. 20: Basilica of Qualb-Lôze, Syria (end of the 5th c.). Plan [DAA 9].

[37] Among the first edifices of this type is the cathedral of Edjmiadzìn (fig. 18). Originally this church almost certainly had a tripartite basilical plan (as revealed by archaeological excavations effected during the 1950s), and was later transformed by Vahan Mamikonian, in 486, into a tetraconchate square-plan church with corner niches, topped by a cupola which was probably of wood, later rebuilt in stone, in 618, by the Katholikos Gomidas.

The order of the various typologies, during the period of development, has yet to be definitely established. On the basis of the evidence availa-ble to date, it is possible only to maintain with certainty the primordial character of the single-nave, single-apse basilicas with wooden roofs. This is the thesis of the architect Toros Thora-manian, a contemporary of Strzygowski, as well as his valued collaborator and guide in the voy-age made by the Austrian scholar in Armenia in 1913, at the head of a delegation of the Art History Institute of the University of Vienna. Strzygowski, from p. 341 on, defends a comple-tely different thesis. He confutes the (continued)

At first the cupola was grafted onto existing, non-cupolated buildings. In the case of buildings with a single interior hall, like the cathedral of Zovuni, this addition implied the insertion of four pilasters set against the walls of the central part of the edifice; in the case of basilicas with three naves (or a nave and two aisles), like that of Tekor, the four central pilasters were reinforced. Later longitudinal cupolated churches were conceived as unitary designs [40], giving birth to a typology which was to develop in many variations: the cupolated hall.

The typological reference for this form can probably be traced back, once again, to Iran, in particular to the edifice of Taq Eiwan (also known as the hall of Eiwan-i-Kercha) fig. 7 [41], where, originally, two vast rectangular spaces were joined, lengthwise, by a central cupolated space.

Thus, as stated above, the tendency toward vertical construction already existed, in Armenia, in the 5th century, but was not decisive for the immediate development of a typology. This trend was strongly influenced by the experiences of Paleo-Christian architecture in Syria, especially in Cappadocia [42].

The cupolated hall appeared as an alternative to the initial development of tetraconchate central-plan edifices, where the widening of the central room had led to the insertion of four independent pillars to support the cupola, interrupting the continuity of the interior. The oblong space of the nave was connected to a central vertical space, the cupola, without the need for structural elements encumbering the interior. The passage from the square formed by the springer arches to the circular or octagonal base of the tambour was initially resolved by squinches, as in the case of Arudch [43].

Thus the tambour was no longer supported by internal corner buttresses, typical of central-plan edifices, but rather by quadrangular niches posi-tioned in correspondence to each span, and created by widening the space of the central nave while keeping the internal edge intact. The resulting system of arches (two overlapping orders, aligned with the square) and supports guaranteed the stability of the overall structure and of the cupola. The four central pilasters contribute to the reduction of the thickness of the perimeter walls, permitting more windows and openings. The layout is delimited, to the east, by the articulated volume of the presbytery and the corner chapels, and to the west by the reinforcement of the corners of the masonry. The pillars also have the function of dividing the interior space into sectors, which are much more distinctly marked than those implied by the spans of churches with simple, unified interiors. The masonry technique utilised for the walls is the same as that of the vaults and the cupola. Three layers are welded together. The external facades (usually in well-squared blocks of tufa or basalt, sharp-edged, and laid with blades of lead between the courses) were attached to the central core by means of a poured layer of rough cement. When the mix set it adhered to the two layers of stone, creating a monolithic block in every part of the edifice, from the foundation to the cupola. In the cement of the extrados of the vaults and the cupola, amphorae were implanted to reduce weight [44]. Finally, the coverings were made of large squared sheets of tufa, with 'hooked' joints, arranged in parallel rows [45].

It is worth noting, for the purposes of this brief synthesis, that as early as the middle of the 7th century, a series of characteristics had been clearly defined which together demonstrate the unique character of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture [46]:

- the utilisation of triple-layered masonry, with squared stones for the two external courses, laid dry;

- the lack of correspondence, in the great majority of cases, between the internal spatial structure and the external volume (for example, in the case of small cruciform churches, it is not possible from the exterior to see whether the plan features one apse, three niches or four niches);

- the widespread use of the cupola for the spatial definition of the central part of the edifice;

- the limited volume of the monuments, as compared, for example, to those of the Occident during the first millenium AD;

- given the large number of examples available for study, it is possible to observe particular lines of development, which can be identified as regional architectural schools (see topic by Paolo Cuneo).


The 5th century, for the Armenians, was a sort of social, political and, above all, religious laboratory; historically reasons it was much more intense than the preceding century.

In the same way, but on a different scale, the 4th century represented for the Western Roman Empire a period troubled by political and religious upheaval. The entire century was one of intense theological debate, culminating in the Council of Constantinople. The acceptance of Christia-nity across the entire territory of the empire in the early 4th century led to an intense period of architectural production, first in Rome, then in Syria and Palestine, and later in Milan and Constantinople, during which the typologies of the basilica and the cupolated central-plan edifice were defined and developed. Toward the end of the century the doctrinal and missionary activities of St. Ambrose brought about further architectural breakthroughs, as in the Ambrosian basilicas of Milan and the first baptistries of Lombardy and Tuscany.

Speculation as regards the truth of traditional legends regarding the vision of St. Gregory, as reported by Agathangelos, lies beyond of our study. Nevertheless, we can sense the extraordinary importance of the fact that during the second half of the 5th century explicit written references were made regarding at least the intention to utilise means, materials and forms for the construction of places of worship for the new religion.

Of equal significance is the fact that all three of the most ancient written versions of works concerning the history of the Armenians available to us today [47] date back to the second half, or the end, of the 5th century, the period during which the Armenians decided to assert their political, religious and cultural independence from both Constantinople and Sassanide Persia. Thus it is possible to hypothesise that the ruling class of this period wanted to entrust ecclesiastical architecture, together with literature and religion, with the task of expressing this will to establish a unique identity, in simple but monumental terms, by means of an art which was capable of translating, in spatial form, those symbols which link a Christian people to the Sacred Scripture, thanks to the precision imposed on the symbols by geometry.

It would appear legitimate to attribute the clarity of the stereometric volumes utilised in the compositions of Armenian churches, from the 4th to the 19th century, to this mentality, especially during the period from the 5th to the 7th century, when the process of architectural evolution found its primary expression in the progressive development of central plans and the methodical use of cupolas for the roofing of central spaces.

Fig. 22. Top: plan of the basilica of Tekor (4th-5th c.) [Thierry].

Center: axonometric reconstruction, by Thora-manian, of the transformation of the basilica of Tekor [Strzy].

Bottom: the cupola of the basilica before it collapsed in 1912 [Strzy].

[37] (continued) ... Romano-Hellenistic derivation of the cupola in Armenia, citing Ira-nian and Mesopotamian examples as evidence. Secondly, he raises doubts concerning the possi-bility that the basilica was the first typology utilised in Christian ecclesiastical architecture in Armenia.

[38] The discovery in 1960 of the remains of the church of Oghdjaberd, including one of the 'bonnet' pendentives which originally suppor-ted the stone cupola, supports Strzygowski's thesis.

[39] This is the thesis maintained by Thorama-nian in his text, 'The Temple of Tekor', in: Materials on Armenian Architecture, Vol. I, Tiflis, 1911, [Strzy] p. 336.

Strzygowskij asserts that the cupola of the basi-lica of Tekor was built before the basilical plan of the edifice: "Die Kuppel von Tekor macht also einem sehr altertümlichen, der iranischen Art noch sehr nahestehenden Eindruck. Wäre nicht die von Thoramanian in seinem Werke aufgestellte Annahme der Entwicklung von der Basilika zur Kuppel oder hätte ich die Gelegenheit, die Sachlage am Bauwerke selbst neu zu überlegen, ich würde ernstlich untersuchen, ob der Weg nicht umgekehrt gegangen sein könnte, d.h. eine alte Kuppel im 5. Jahrhundert umgebaut wurde in eine längsgerichtete Kirche im griechisch-syrischen Sinne. Solange die Untersuchungen von Thorama-nian zu recht bestehen, wird das Übereckgewölbe von Tekor als späte Vertreter der ersten, aus dem Osten in Armenien eingewanderten Art gelten können, die wohl bald die richtige Kuppel wich, jener seite 76 f. immer wieder vorgeführten Kuppel, die auf der Mitte der Tragbogen ruht und die Ecken durch zwei Reihen Nischen zuerst aus dem Quadrat ins Achteck und dann aus dem Achteck in das Rund der Kugelschale übersetzt. Das Übereckgewölbe verschwindet also." [Strzy] p. 370.

[40] The first example is the cathedral of Ptghni (first quarter of the 7th century).

[41] [Strzy] p. 509.

[42] A. Zarian,' Formazione e sviluppo della sala a cupola' , in [DAA16] p. 9.

[43] The same applies to the connections between the tambour and the cupola.

[44] For a more detailed explanation of this masonry structure, called "a sacco" in Italian and Midìs in Armenian, [Strzy] p. 354-358, furnishing an ample account of Gussmauerwerk in Armenia.

[45] The four conchae, of ten considered structural elements, called "niche-buttresses", actually play only an indirect role in the support of the cupola, the horizontal stress on which is absorbed, for the most part, by the compactness of the wall masonry and discharged in the resistant section of the base of the walls, thanks to the important vertical component supplied by the weight of the upper part of the cuspidate tambour [Cuneo] p. 29. For more thorough information on this problem, see Breccia-Fratadocchi, T., 'La Cattedrale di S. Giovanni a Mastara', in Corsi di Cultura sulla Arte Raven-nate e Bizantina (Bologna-Ravenna), XX (1973), p. 179-193.

[46] [Thierry] p. 35-37.

[47] Apart from that of Agathangelos, those of Movsés Khorenatsì (precedent) and of Faustos Pyusantatzì (subsequent).

Note: the original version of this article was written in Italian and translated by Stephen Piccolo, Milan.


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