Methods of construction
architects and masons during the first two centuries after the conversion
to Christianity developed the characteristic building expertise associated
with nearly all Armenian edifices erected after the sixth century. Before
tracing the formal steps followed in achieving these results, the building
technique itself should be understood. The architectonic problem was singular:
How to build churches with complex interior volumes in stone that would
both resist the immense weight of the masonry vaulting and roofing and
not crumble under the jarring effects of earthquakes. Armenia is a highly
volcanic and active seismic land. The lateral movement caused by earth
tremors could easily cause the upsetting of the often delicate balance
of forces developed to support stone domes.
The major solution was the skillful
use of concrete, not in the form we know of it today, but similar to that
developed in Roman architecture in the Near East, perhaps the original
sources from which Armenian artisans borrowed the formula. Buildings
were virtually poured into being from the ground up, but instead of the
modern usage of wooden forms into which a thick liquid mixture of cement,
gravel, and sand -- modern concrete -- is poured, a more integrated method
modern concrete buildings a decorative facing material, often marble, is
added later. This external siding is not organically related to the constructional
process. In the Armenian case the parallel forms employed to contain
the inner core of mortar were finely cut slabs of tufa. Elevated a few
rows at a time, these tufa forms adhered permanently to the wet mixture
(composed of broken tufa, often of large size, and other stones, lime mortar,
and usually eggs) poured in between them. As the binding material dried,
it formed a nearly solid, concrete-like mass, which, because of the property
of tufa discussed earlier, hardened as time passed.
For architectonic forces, this inner
core is the major support, the transmitter of the weight, of vaulted roofs
and domes, rather than the carefully carved exterior masonry that we admire.
Furthermore, this manner of slowly raising a building was extended above
the level of the walls directly into the vaults, the drum, and the dome,
giving the whole structure the solidity associated with reinforced concrete
of today. The architects employed various innovations to ameliorate constantly
the quality of their work, for instance tufa of lesser density or large
terra-cotta jars were often used in the core of the domes to reduce their
The facing of inside and outside
walls, even though it played a secondary role in support, was executed
with great care. There was an aesthetic consideration that played with
the natural beauty of tufa in two principal ways. Often the entire building
would be made with tufa of exactly the same color and hue. The perfectly
cut stone was usually laid one upon the other without the use of mortar.
To give some buildings a perfectly unified and singular look, tufa of the
same color was ground into powder that was then applied along the joints,
concealing them and giving an effect of walls without seams. The other
major use of tufa was to highlight rather than hide the differences in
color. Blocks of contrasting colors were juxtaposed to give checkerboard
or other decorative effects.
A more important reason for the care
devoted to the tufa walls was protection against earthquakes. Shocks to
a building, usually in a rocking motion, could precipitate the detaching
and falling away of blocks of stone from the inner core. By beveling the
tufa slabs, varying their size and height, and breaking up the straight
vertical and horizontal lines of successive rows, a very resistant surface
cohesion was produced. Nevertheless, after more than a thousand years some
medieval Armenian churches abandoned for centuries to the elements and
vandalism stand today as though naked with only their inner concrete core
intact. The outer stones have either fallen away or willfully pried loose
by present day villagers in search of ready-made building materials for
perfected, this method of construction became the standard into modern
times. Its evolution was cautiously nurtured by several generations of
builders in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries who were confronted
by the challenge of patronage from all parts of the newly converted Armenia.
The land became an experimental workshop for architecture just as that
experienced by the Roman Empire after its acceptance of Christianity in
the same fourth century. Armenian architects, by rejecting the use of wood
for roofing as in neighboring Syria and the more easily manipulated brick
so popular in the Roman and Byzantine Empires to the west, confronted the
ungrateful task of all stone construction with persistence and genius.
The earlier churches of whatever design were characterized by the use of
heavy and thick stone for walls, often with mortar placed between joints.
The inner core was so narrow that the real work of supporting the superstructure
was performed by the walls themselves. Gradually in the fifth and sixth
centuries, as the masons saw that the domes and vaults of earlier buildings
were steadfast and resistant to shock, the blocks of stone became thinner
and the inner core of mortar wider. Eventually large stone blocks were
reserved for the lowest courses and for the corners where two walls met.
By the end of the sixth century the confidence of architects was such that
windows and other openings were added to edifices, while domes became bigger
and interior management of space more audacious. Some domes did suffer
design weaknesses, a few had to be rebuilt, but on the whole, as the numerous
extent monuments erected more than a thousand years ago eloquently testify,
the work of Armenian craftsmen was executed to last for eternity.
The forms of Armenian
the early period, so much innovation took place, so many architectural
experiments were being carried out simultaneously, that it is impossible
to conceive the historical progression of Armenian monuments in a strictly
linear fashion. There was, however, in certain areas of development, as
for instance the working out of the concrete core technique outlined above,
a roughly describable forward movement. The rest of this essay, in introducing
the various monuments illustrated in the photographic compliment which
accompanies it, will be devoted to an explanation of the major types of
church buildings used in Armenia.
and the Single Nave Church (Floor
earliest church structures in Armenia were the basilicas, of which at least
seven have survived. All have three aisles. There was also a more simple
variant, the hall church with a single aisle (Lernakerd). Great numbers
of these single nave churches were constructed from the fourth to the sixth
centuries. They are of varying size and are found throughout the country.
Some varieties have a room for liturgical purposes adjoining the apse (Karnut,
Diraklar), and sometimes a covered porch on one side (Tanahat and at Garni
and Dvin). Variations of the pure basilican plan include a nave ending
in a salient or protruding apse and side aisles with apses such as Kasagh,
Eghvard, and Dvin; with the addition of two chambers flanking the apse,
which of course is no longer salient, as Ashtarak, Tziranavor, and Tsiternavank';
with covered porches on the north and south and chambers at the east as
Tekor, or chambers at both ends as Ereruk.