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Classification of monuments

he data of architecture, as in any scientific discipline, are studied by arranging what is diverse and heterogeneous into categories based on similarities of features and according to periods. The convenience of this methodology for a coherent discussion of architectural features should never obscure the reality that such labels as medieval, renaissance, modern are made up by scholars, whereas the architects and builders were totally oblivious to such considerations. They erected buildings as they were needed with the material available and in a style either asked for by a patron or within own their competence and preference. 

Formation of a national style

espite the large diversity in the types of early churches, Armenian architecture achieved a distinctive style through the combination of a number of common characteristics and materials. The compositional employment of these traits was unique to Armenia, though its northern neighboring Georgia was also to benefit by a flourishing of building activity. By the late sixth or early seventh century a unique national style of church architecture came into being. Some scholars have called this phenomenon the first national style in Christian architecture. It had been achieved long before the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic or the less known Ethiopian, Scandinavian, and Slavic styles were concretely formed. 

What are the features that make an Armenian church instantl recognizable? First, all churches are built entirely in stone. The scarcity of wood prevented its architectural use in  medieval Armenia. With rare exceptions, the stone used is a volcanic tufa abundant in Armenia in many colors and shades: pink, red, orange, black. Dark basalt was also used for more sturdy foundation work. Only in outlying regions of Armenia, where tufa is not readily available, was another stone substituted. In many respects tufa is an ideal material for construction because it is light of weight, easy to sculpt, and has the property of becoming harder and more durable with exposure to air and the passage of time. Second, ceilings were always vaulted. Since wood was not available for making simple flat roofs, stones were employed, but their weight demanded they be arranged in arcs so that the thrust of their mass could be directed to robust stone walls and thence to the ground. This at first produced buildings with thick walls and few and small openings to comfortably accommodate the pressure from above. 

Third, the Armenian preference or weakness for the dome manifested itself very early. By the end of the sixth century, a church without a dome was unthinkable. Other than a few early exceptions, the dome or cupola was elevated above the other vaulted ceilings by a cylindrical drum (usually polygonal on the outside). The prevalence of the dome forced architects to think in terms of centrally planned buildings. 

Fourth, roofs were composite in their appearance because they had to cover the vaults and domes of a complex, though symmetric, group of inner spaces. Like the inner and outer walls and the drum, they too were made of tufa thinly cut into uniform shingles. 

These are not all the features common to Armenian architecture, rather they are the ones that provide the stylistic likeness so quickly perceived by the eye when looking at Armenian churches. Each church is, however, an individual creation, distinguished by its inner and outer form, its size, and its decoration. Most belong to a certain class of building, though some are unique. Almost all monuments of whatever period have a ground plan elaborated during the first three hundred years of Christianity in Armenia (fourth to seventh centuries) when the creative energies of Armenian architects seemed to overcome all obstacles engendered by construction in stone that sought ever more inner space and less massive structures. 

The periodization of Armenian architecture

he historical vicissitudes of the Armenian nation are accurately reflected in the moments of flourishing and decline of its architecture.  Four distinct periods of building activity, interspersed by nearly equally long moments of stagnation, mirror the political strength or weakness of Armenia's rulers. 

The Formative Period (Fourth to the Seventh Centuries) 

The first or formative period of Armenian architecture is the most brilliant, a golden age paralleling the golden age of Armenian letters. It is also the longest period starting with the conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, even though few surviving monuments can be dated so early, and ending with the Arab invasion and occupation of Armenia, which, in the mid-seventh century, suddenly destroyed a robust architectural tradition at its zenith. Then two full centuries pass without churches or other monuments being erected in Armenia. 

The Bagratid Revival (Ninth to the Eleventh Centuries)

The second period begins almost simultaneously with the re-establishment of the Bagratid kingdom in the 880s, very slowly at first, beginning by unashamedly imitating existing structures from the formative period until the techniques forgotten during the lapse of seven or eight generations were again mastered. The tenth and eleventh centuries, under the patronage of the Bagratid kings of Ani and Kars, the Artsrunis of Aght'amar and the area around Lake Van and the rulers of Siunik, not only bear witness to a new architectural vigor perfectly at ease with the skills that produced the older forms, but one that began to innovate and experiment in the search for more height and space, for new forms. Like the previous period, this one was also doomed by the sudden loss of political autonomy resulting from the weakening of the Armenian kingdoms by the Byzantine Empire and their final destruction by the invasion of the Seljuk Turks after the mid-eleventh century. 

The Flourishing of Monasteries (Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries)

The beginning of the next period coincided with the independence of Georgia at the end of the twelfth century under queen T'amar and her Armenian generals Ivané and Zakaré. The Armenian Zakarid dynasty provided the necessary security essential for the flourishing of architecture and the construction and expansion of large monastic complexes. From the twelfth century to the fourteenth a new renaissance, encouraged and patronized by large noble families, gave Armenian architecture its last creative moment before the renewed suffering and stagnation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 

The Seventeenth Century

The successive invasions of Greater Armenia by Timur Lang at the end of the fourteenth century, coinciding with the destruction of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia by the Mamluks in 1375, ended architectural activity for nearly 250 years. No new buildings were erected until the seventeenth century and existing structures were barely maintained. In the seventeenth century a final national revival under the rule of the Safavid Shahs of Iran produced a limited series of new constructions , the churches at Mughni and Shoghakat' at Etchmiadzin are two important examples in Greater Armenia and the churches of New Julfa, the Armenian suburb of Isfahan, are the most famous of diasporan monuments.  During this period many older monuments were restored and expanded: Aght'amar, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin , Hrip'simé  are among the best known. 

Modern Armenian Architecture

Innovative architecture after the seventeenth century came to a stop in Armenian proper, but Armenian architecture continued in diasporan cities like Constantinople, Tiflis, and more remote areas such as Singapore. In the second half of the nineteenth century a new architecture development in all Armenian communities was inspired by the national revival. In the years 1915 and after Armenian culture stopped totally in the ancient homeland.  The Armenian population in eastern Anatolia was disseminated and the surviving remnants deported. Large numbers of ancient medieval monuments were destroyed. During the same years the Bolshevik revolution and the effects of its anti-religious propaganda after Armenian was made a Soviet Republic in 1920 also resulted in the abandoning of buildings of the cult and occasionally in their destruction. 

. Only after the Second World War did a demographically expanding and constantly immigrating nation display a need for new church buildings.  Everywhere in the diaspora, but especially in the Americas and western Europe, new churches were and are being built.  In Armenia the same tendency has been gaining momentum, especially in the 1980s,  under the leadership of both the Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazgen I, and the Committee for the Preservation of Monuments, which have undertaken the restoration and even rebuilding of the hundreds of medieval monuments that fall under its jurisdiction.  Large numbers of churches and monasteries sequestered by the Soviet regime have been returned to the Catholicos by the new Armenian Republic.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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