By Dr. Dickran Kouymjian
of the arts
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.
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
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.
in Armenia and the place of the Church
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.
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.
as Church architecture
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.
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).