Surp Echmiadzin & other Vanks in
A Khachkar from the 13th century


Owing to its landlocked location, a small country Armenia situated in Transcaucasia (Zakavkaze in Russ.) was invaded incessantly, ruined, ruled by heathen, even subjected to genocide, and scattered as diasporas. Due to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Armenia became independent as a republic although it had once been a land of about ten times the extent they have today referred to the Greater Armenia. For the restoration of its land after independence and following a war with Azerbaijan, successful Armenians living in Diaspora gave helping hands conversely.
Differed from the Jews to whom Armenians have been compared by their similar historical circumstances, it is the field of architecture that Armenians have achieved highest artistically. If neighboring Georgians are the pictorial nation, Armenians are the architectural nation. Church architecture in Armenia developed greatly as early as 7th century in a different style from Byzantine and acquired almost the same aesthetics and characters as Romanesque architecture by a few centuries earlier than in Europe.
In recent Japan increasing people have found the beauty and charm of Romanesque architecture in the 11th-12th centuries in various parts of Europe. Figuratively speaking as classical music, differed from powerful Beethoven as Gothic architecture (13th-14th centuries) and sprightly Mozart as Renaissance and Baroque architecture (15th-17th centuries), far more internal Bach's work is Romanesque architecture. By its firm external appearance like sort of mass of stone and twilight interior space like sort of cave, Romanesque architecture is rather plain and lacks gaiety at first sight, but gives us a deep spiritual contentment conversely. Armenian architecture as one of its origins has the same characteristics. It will surely take hold of the hearts of the Japanese. _____(14/10/2008)

A Khachkar from the 20th century


Since its birth in Syria-Palestine, Christianity, despite being violently oppressed by the Roman Empire that ruled the entire Middle East, spread rapidly to neighboring areas. It was by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. that Christianity was officially approved by the Empire, and it was established as the state religion in 350 by Theodosius I. However, it was the Kingdom of Armenia in the north of the Middle East that was the first place in the world to embrace it as the state religion in 301 A.D., half a century previous to Rome.

The Armenian Orthodox Church was established by St. Gregory (of Armenia), so it is also called the Gregorian sect of the Eastern Church. According to tradition, Gregory, who preached in Armenia after returning from long term study in Cappadocia, was confined to a dungeon in the fortress at Artashat (now Khor Virap) by king Tiridates (Trdat) III.
About that time, a beautiful nun Hripsime was being amorously pursued by a Roman Emperor. She refused him and fled with her nurse Gayane (also said to have been an abbess) to Armenia, where this time she was pursued by the Armenian king. As she refused him too, she and Gayane were murdered by subordinates of the king in the Armenian capital, Vagharshapat.
Due to this sin the king contracted an odd incurable disease. So he accepted the advice of his sister, who had already converted to Christianity, to release Gregory who had by then been in prison for fifteen years. When the king was cured miraculously by Gregoryfs powers, he repented of his past and adopted Christianity as the state religion.

St. Gregory assumed office as Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church, and was called eLusavoritchf (the Illuminator). He constructed a church at a place that was indicated by an oracle. It became the foremost church in Vagharshapat and was later reconstructed many times as the abode of Catholicos, the Cathedral of St. Echmiadzin.
Wooden Martyriums (martyries) at the murder sites of Hripsime and Gayane in Vagharshapat were reconstructed into memorial churches of stone in the 7th century.

MAP of Vagharshapat (From Google Mapsj
(On this page, all maps are pointing up the north,
and all plans the east (direction of the altar).


Due to being landlocked, Armenia, a small Trans-Caucasian country, has incessantly suffered from foreign invasions, national ruin, pagan rule, genocide by Ottomans, and the diaspora of numerous people. After the collapse of the USSR, it finally gained independence; although its territory is about a tenth of what it was at its maximum extant in ancient times (Great Armenia).

The items by which people who were dispersed to various areas in the world could retain their identity were; their faith, their pride as the first Christian nation, the Armenian language with their own script invented by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century, Mt Ararat being believed to be the place where Noahfs Ark landed, and the sacred city of Vagharshapat, which corresponds to the Vatican for Catholics. The latter two are symbols of their homeland, constant reminders in their heart.

The precincts of the Cathedral of Surp Echmiadzin

It seems in the 10th century that the cathedral was named St. Echmiadzin, which also became the cityfs name, replacing Vagharshapat, in 1945 in the time of the Soviet Union. Though after independence, the city returned again to the name of Vagharshapat in 1995, people often still call it Echmiadzin.
It is a religious city spread around the cathedral, embracing a population of about 60,000. Pilgrims usually visit the churches of St. Hripsime and St. Gayane too, along with the cathedral. Architecturally, while the cathedral has been reconstructed and improved many times, attired almost in the feature of the 17th century, the other two churches keep more faithfully their original figures of the 7th century as early Armenian architecture.
As a tragic nation, Armenia, which is also an architectural nation, sends out through the churches in Vagharshapat rays of characteristic light in the history of global Christian architecture.


The earliest church form in the Middle East was the Basilica, modelled on assembly halls of ancient Roman architecture. It had a three-nave rectangular plan with a semicircular apse at the far end. In Armenia, the central bay of the main nave came to be raised and capped with a dome. The church of St. Gayane is a good example, forming a complete rectangular plan apart from its front gallery added in the 17th century.

PLAN of the church of Surp Gayane
(All plans on this page are in the same scale, showing the dome in pale yellow.)

In spite of its quite simple plan, its external appearance is attractively three-dimensional. This is achieved through making a cross shape stand out from the rectangular basilical plan and placing a gable roof on each arm and a dome on its crossing, the outer form of which consists of an octagonal drum and an octagonal pyramidal roof.


The church of Surp Gayane, Vagharshapat

Except for the conical or polygonal pyramidal roofs, such a geometrical formation is highly akin to that of Romanesque architecture in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Thatfs why Armenian architecture is considered to be one of the origins of Romanesque. Made entirely of local reddish tuff from its lower walls to the roof top, it is plain but expressive, bringing about a bracing impression, not unlikely to be called the prototype of architecture.


As for the cathedral of St. Echmiadzin, though the original form is considered to have been similarly basilical, it acquired its current plan when reconstructed in the 5th century after having been destroyed by the Persians, becoming the principal form for later church buildings in Armenia.

PLAN of the Cathedral church of Surp Echmiadzin
(Currently enlarged by sacristies on the east side. )

The cathedral has a square plan containing a cross with a domical ceiling and an octagonal pyramidal roof over its crossing, and with an apse at the end of each arm, forming a unique eFour-Apse Typef, different from the simple Greek-Cross plan. Although, in actual fact, the altar is placed only at the eastern apse while the western one functions only as an entrance, this form would develop church architecture that is characteristic of Armenia.

Surp Echimiadzin__Surp Echimiadzin

Surp Echimiadzin__Surp Echimiadzin__Surp Echimiadzin
The Cathedral church of Surp Echmiadzin, Vagharshapt

Incidentally, despite its large scale, its internal space does not seem so great because of its four central pillars that divide the square plan into nine equal bays. These thick pillars sharply disturb onefs field of vision.

SITE PLAN of the precincts of Surp Echmiadzin, vagharshapat
(From "Documenti di Architettura Armena 23.
Vagharshapat" Adriano Alpago-Novello, 1998 )

*Note: The chapel of Germigny-des-prés, built in the early 9th century in northern France, has a quite similar plan to the Surp Echmiadzin, though much smaller. It is said to have been designed by an Armenian architect, Odon Matsaetsy.


PLAN of the church of Surp Hripsime
(Now it has a belfry over the entrance porch.)

On the other hand, the church of Surp Hripsime, constructed in 618, removed inner pillars and became a Four-apse type church surmounted with a spacious dome. As its sixteen-agonal drum is relatively short and the slope of its pyramidal roof is gentle, its external appearance gives a slightly thickset impression as a whole, but the sense of unity of its inner space is superior to the cathedral by far.


The church of Surp Hripsime, vagharshapat

Although its plan looks complicated at first glance, it actually also has simple quadrangular contours. Surp Hripsime was the first example of creating a sculptural exterior view by cutting deep grooves (niches) on both sides of each apse.
There are squinches (corner arches) on four corners of the central hall in order to make transition from square hall to circular dome. It is curious that the each of the four corners under the squinches shapes a semicircular alcove, which functions as an antechamber of a small square corner room used as a sacristy or spare room.


Plan of the Cathedral church of Surp Grigor, Zvartnots
(From Adriano Alpago Novello, The Armenians, 1986)

The Armenians, who continued their architectural pursuit without let up, created a unique form of Christian church that is hardly seen in Europe; this boldly planned form is best exemplified by the magnificent cathedral in Zvartnots, 5km from Vagharshapat, constsructed by Catholicos Nerses III from 643 to 652.
The architect arranged a four-apse plan into a complete quatrefoil shape and enclosed it within an ambulatory, making up an entirely circular planned church. At each joining point of the four apses he erected a great pillar, accompanied with a separate column, over which he placed four grand arches, many peripheral small arches, and a dome far up in the center on a three-story high soaring space. A great number of windows on the walls filled the interior with light.


The Cathedral church of Surp Grigor, Zvartnots

It is heartily regrettable that, due to the fact that Armenia is a state suffering frequent earthquakes like Japan, this enterprising church collapsed during a strong seism in the 10th century, leaving only ruins now.

Although we can be acquainted with the outline and miniaturized composition of this singular cathedral, which uses semicircular arches on the whole and has intense verticality but is completely different from European Gothic architecture, through a large restored model close to 3m high in the National History Museum in Yerevan, I wish I could have actually experienced its spectacular interior space. If it still existed, it would be praised as one of the greatest pieces of church architecture in the world.

The reason that Armenia could develop its own architectural tradition without being incorporated into the Byzantine style, in spite of existing in the Middle East, might have been the independence of its orthodox church, avoiding the rule of Constantinople.

(January 2005, on "Chugai-Nippou")

As for the other churches in Vagharshapat,
see the page of 'Armavir Province'
in chapter 3 "Architecture in Western Armenia".


Relief at Bjni

E-mail to: