Surp Echmiadzin & other Vanks in
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.
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.
St. Gregory assumed office as Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church, and was called eLusavoritchf (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.
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 Noahfs 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 cityfs 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.
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
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.
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. Thatfs 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
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 Typef, 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.
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 onefs field of vision.
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.
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.
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 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,