Frescoes &
Art of Book
Armenian Architecture

By Dr. Dickran Kouymjian 

Architecture, First of the arts

f all the arts, architecture is supreme. For the general public used to visiting museums filled with paintings of compact size easily hung by the hundreds, the priority given to architecture in the art world may seem strange. But buildings are not susceptible to display in museums, when reduced to photos or models, they seem pale next to the immediate beauty of original art works. Thus, architectural monuments are only accessible to the public by distant travel or through specialized books.  Art historians have always put architecture in a different category; they have measured the value of monuments by standards other than those appropriate to smaller decorative creations in whatever medium. 

So, too, in the realm of Armenian art, architecture takes pride of place. It was the first of the arts of Armenia to be seriously studied, and to this day Armenian architecture receives more scholarly attention than all of the other arts combined. The separateness of architecture from the other arts is not due just to size, though certainly the immense mass of any building compared to other works of art is so disproportionate that no real comparison is possible, nor to the labor, in the case of architecture perforce collective, required for its creation. Because buildings are natural vehicles for decoration, they differ from other art objects by often incorporating in themselves the two most important of the other arts: painting and sculpture. 

Shapes of buildings

n the study of architecture, however, primary attention is not given to the decoration, but to the structural forms of buildings and their evolution. Thus, monuments are analyzed by their architectural aspects -- the general design or look of the interior and exterior of buildings -- and architectonic considerations -- the methods used to construct them.  Classes of buildings are studied by their plans. Everyone is familiar with certain common types of structures; their names immediately evoke specific images: skyscraper, lighthouse, pyramid, windmill, stadium, Greek temple. Other types of buildings are less precisely visualized, because their forms are diverse: houses and churches, for instance, vary greatly in different parts of the world. They are differentiated architectonically by materials and methods of construction, architecturally by their shape. 

The form of a building is expressed by its ground plan. Simply stated, a ground plan, or just plan, is the contour of the walls of any structure with all of its entrances and other openings indicated in an overhead view of the building magically sliced away at ground level. The thickness of the dark black lines, the size of the empty spaces for doors, reflect accurately and to scale the actual size of walls and openings. 

Prechristian architecture in Armenia and the place of the Church

he history of Armenian architecture is in reality the history of the development of a single type of building: the church. Two observations should come to mind, each raising certain questions. First, since the church is a Christian building for worship, and since Armenia was converted as a national entity in the early fourth century, does that mean that there is no architecture in Armenia before Christianity? No. We know very sophisticated building techniques were in use in Armenia and a strong architectural tradition in stone was exercised for more than a thousand years before the first church was built. 


Unfortunately, only a handful of pre-Christian examples has survived and they are from three distinct epochs: Urartian, Hellenistic, and late Roman. They will be discussed briefly in chronological order. A considerable number of temples and fortified garrison cities are known belonging to the kingdom of Urartu (ninth to the sixth centuries B.C.), the most famous examples being the garrisons of Erebuni  and Karmir Blur in Armenia, Toprakkale, the royal capital near Van, and the temple of Mousasir (known from an Assyrian carving).  None of these survived above ground; they were all discovered in the past century by archaeological excavations. The kingdom or Urartu itself was forgotten for 2500 years after its destruction in the early sixth century B.C. until it was literally dug up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Urartian architecture used carefully cut stone often of very large size for the foundations of walls and the supports of wooden columns for temples and assembly rooms. The compact efficiency of such towns as Erebuni, the innovative design of the temple of Mousasir, and the remnants of simple houses with primitive domes points to a flourishing architectural activity. Unfortunately, from the four centuries immediately following the end of the Urartian kingdom, no architectural monuments have been uncovered in Armenia. It is only in the centuries just before the Christian era that our next link in the building tradition of the land is found. 


At the site of Garni, some fifty kilometers northeast of modern Erevan, a number of important constructions survive from three different periods. The oldest is made up of a number of important fragments of a defensive wall around the locality.  Dating to the first century before Christ, the wall is made up in parts of enormous monolithic stones carefully carved and placed upon each other without the use of mortar. This technique was known throughout the Middle East in the Roman period. The second period is represented by the splendid, though small, temple of Garni, following the general design of a Greco-Roman temple so characteristic of the Mediterranean world. There is still some debate concerning the use of the building (temple or summer residence) and its date of construction (first or third century A.D.), but no argument about the elegance of its proportions or the skill of its decorative friezes. The temple remained standing until 1679 when it was destroyed during an earthquake.  It was restored in the 1970s and has the distinction of being the only Greco-Roman temple standing above ground in the entire former Soviet Union. 

The most recent architectural vestige at Garni  is the bath, probably of the fourth century, excavated and restored like Erebuni, Karmir Blur, and the temple of Garni  with the encouragement and support of the Armenian government. The baths, built of brick and volcanic stone, are small and follow the general layout of Roman baths with a tepidarium, caldarium, and frigidarium (a  warm washing room, a steam room, and a cooling room). 

Since Armenia was pagan for centuries before Christianity, did not other temples exist? Yes, we know of them from the Armenian histories of the fifth century, but as the historians tell us, the first Christians led by St. Gregory and his followers, in their zeal,  willfully destroyed all the sanctuaries of the pagan religion, leaving us with an architectural void. 

Armenian Architecture as Church architecture

eside these limited ancient examples and the urban architecture of the twentieth century in the Armenia Republic, Armenian architecture is essentially that of church buildings, thus a Christian architecture. Its productive history spans the period from the fourth to the seventeenth century. Though it should be noted that in modern times, especially in the diaspora, churches continued to be built and are now being erected in large numbers, scholars have not yet studied this phenomenon, leaving modern Armenian church architecture rootless and for the moment outside the art historical tradition. 

A second observation arising from the idea of Armenian architecture being confined to Christian buildings is the lack of any secular construction. Were there not palaces and fortresses for the kings and catholicoi?  Or bridges and caravansaries to accommodate the extensive trade that passed through the country? Did not people live in houses and were not these grouped together in cities? The answer is yes, but few examples have survived.  Common dwellings were made of perishable materials, wood, mud brick, or simply dug into the ground or a hillside. The excavations of the medieval capital city of Ani made in the beginning of this century, confirm the lack of substantial dwellings that could be considered architectural monuments. Several bridges -- among them Sanahin, twelfth century, Ashtarak, seventeenth century -- and a few caravansaries have survived; they have been brought together in a book by V. M. Harutiunian. The stone foundations of important residences of the catholicos have been excavated at Zvart'nots'  and Dvin.  They date from the sixth and seventh centuries. An extremely large number of fortresses with their inner complex of dwellings, churches, and other buildings was constructed in Greater Armenia, the most famous being Amberd of the tenth century, and, from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, in Cilician Armenia, among which the best known are Sis, Lampron, Korykos, Silifke, Anavarza, and Yilankale. A large volume devoted to a general survey of Armenian fortresses was published by the Mekhitarist father M. Hovannisian; recently, Robert Edwards has devoted a detailed study to 75 Cilician Armenian fortresses (see the bibliography for full references to all works cited in this text). 

. Thousands of Armenian churches were built during the long history of Christianity. They varied in size from very small to large, though there were no giant structures like St. Peters in Rome or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or the large cathedrals of Europe. Some churches were intended to stand alone, while others were parts of monasteries.  A large number of types were developed, providing a great variety of exterior shapes and interior volumes. Some types are found in adjoining Christian areas, but in Armenia their plans were usually modified to conform to local conditions. A number of unique church forms were invented by Armenian architects in their pursuit of ever more efficiently built and aesthetically conceived houses of worship. 


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