Artsakh School of Architecture

Artsakh School of Architecture

For thousands of years, architecture has played a very important role in Armenian culture. Apart from its artistic value, it is also a reliable source of history: samples of different kinds of architectural designs date back to ancient times, and represent most layers of the nation’s long history.

What may be called “architectural construction” began in Armenia already in the late Stone Age. Excavations near Yerevan, Armenia’s capital unearthed circular and rectangular dwellings from the 4th and 3rd millennia BC surrounded by wide fortifying walls, as well as places of worship incorporated in town plans. Advanced architectural legacy describes the 9th century BC, the reign of the Araratian dynasty, otherwise known as Urartu or the Kingdom of Van. Erebuni, one of the Urartian cities, was founded in 782 BC by King Argishti and is today’s Yerevan. 

As all other provinces of historical Armenia, Artsakh is rich in monuments of history and culture of different eras. The number of such monuments, spanning the period from the early Middle Ages to the 19th century amounts to several thousands. In the 5th century alone several hundred churches and temples were built, however few samples have survived until today.

It was mainly in the last quarter of the twentieth century that Armenian, as well as foreign researchers started to study Artsakh architecture thoroughly. Their works clearly showed that along with other schools, those of Ani, Syunik, Lori and Vaspurakan, there was a distinct Artsakh School in medieval Armenian architecture. It was approximately in this period, and probably because of the interest shown by Armenian and foreign scholars that Azerbaijanis started to pay attention to the architectural monuments in Artsakh. Their intent, however, was to meet a target set well in advance: to present all the monuments as Albanian. The distortion and the ulterior motive have been so obvious that even foreign scholars protested. When Azeris tried to present Gandzasar, among others, as Albanian, A. Yakobson wrote with indignation that Azeris were not bothered either with the multitude of numerous inscriptions on the walls of the cathedral church, which were the same age as the cathedral, or with the time it was built, during first half of the 13th century, when Albania as a state had long ceased existing, or with the designs of the cathedral and the narthex, which are purely Armenian. 

All inscriptions on monuments in Artsakh referring to their construction, are in Armenian. Some were removed by Azeris later, during the Soviet period; luckily a few of them had been earlier documented. 

Amaras Monastery                                  Photo by and courtesy of Davit Hakobyan

Since early medieval times, the Artsakh architecture has followed the trends of development typical of Armenian architecture in general. Unfortunately, very few monuments have survived from the period of 4th-7th centuries. Among these few, and a very important one, is the Amaras monastery founded by Grigor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator) in the beginning of the 4th century. Amaras was a famous religious and cultural centre for several centuries. When Gregory the Illuminator’s grandson, Grigoris, who had become the first Catholicos of Artsakh, was killed preaching Christianity in neighbouring lands in 338, he was buried in Amaras. However, during the times of King Vachagan the Pious the church was already either in a bad state or ruined, and the King built a tomb-chapel over Grigoris’ grave in 489. Originally half above the ground surface, this chapel still exists beneath the current church in the Amaras monastery. 

The reliefs of palm trees on the tomb walls and other elements are typical of the 4-7th century Armenian architecture, and the tomb itself in general bears notable resemblance to another 5th century tomb, that of St. Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, who is buried at Oshakan, in the Aragatsotn marz (province) of the Republic of Armenia. Grigoris’ tomb is of high importance in terms of revealing the character and evolution of various forms of 4-7th century Armenian architecture. 

Another important sample of early Christian architecture of Artsakh is the Okhte Drny Vank (“Monastery of Seven Doors”) built in the 6th century in a location hard to access near the Mokherens village, Hadrut region of the NKR. It is built in a stone-laying style (‘midis’) that has been common in Armenian buildings since the first centuries of our era. Unfortunately, this monument is largely in ruins but its certain elements clearly remind of the Yeghvard basilica (4-7th centuries) not far from Yerevan.  Some other features though, such as the omega-shaped niches, are unique. This monument is also important  because it bears no traces of reconstruction, therefore its forms are original.

Fate unknown after the 2020 occupation by Azeris.
Vankasar Church

Another monument of the early medieval period is the 7th century church on Vankasar (Vachagan’s Church) in the Martakert region of the NKR. It belongs to the three-nave sub-type of small cruciform domed churches. The inscriptions on its walls resembled the marks made on the St. Hovhannes church in the Sisian region of the Republic of Armenia. 

There are no other structures known of from the early medieval period in Artsakh, although some elements have been preserved as part of other monuments, such as in the Bri Yeghtsi complex in the Martuni region of the NKR.

Because Armenia was divided in the 9-11th centuries, separate architectural schools evolved in different parts of the country. They were mainly based on the building art of the 7th century, but differences emerged in different periods. A separate school of architecture was created in the 12-13th centuries in the Artsakh province of historical Armenia as well. Works of art that later became part of Armenia’s most valuable cultural heritage, were created particularly in the period when the princedom of Khachen, successfully withstood Tatar-Mongol invasions, and gained strength. They were mainly monastic complexes, such as Gandzasar, Dadivank, Khatravank, Gtich Monastery, Bri  Yeghtsi and others that became the masterpieces of the Artsakh School of architecture.

Gandzasar Monastery

The Gandzasar monastery consists of a church, a narthex, cells for the monks, auxiliary buildings and a two-storey school added in the 19th century. The Hovhannes Mkrtich church is rectangular outside and cruciform inside, with a two storey depository on four sides, a design typical of Armenian architecture of the 10-14th centuries. The interior is built of finely-hewed stones, not intended for frescoes. Certain elements resemble the main church (13th century) of Harichavank, not far from the town of Artik, the narthex has features common with Haghpat monastery in Lori region, while the refectory (17-18th centuries) bears resemblance to those at Gndevank, Tatev and Khor Virap, all examples in the Republic of Armenia. 

Dadivank, built in memory of Dadi, one of the seventy disciples of the Apostle Thaddeus, was originally founded in the second half of the 1st century. Its buildings, standing now, date back to the 12th-13th centuries. The complex consists of two parts: a northern part comprising four churches of the monastery, a narthex and the bell-tower; and the southern, comprising secular buildings. The main church (1214) is similar in design to many others in Armenia, including the main church of Gandzasar in Artsakh. As Gandzasar construction (1216-1238) began two years after building the main church of Dadivank, it is highly likely that the same architect or the same group of masters-builders have worked on it. Dadivank Kathoghiké, however, differs from others in proportions and in several elements of design.

Under siege by Azeris and cut off Artsakh after the 2020 aggression.
Aerial view of Dadivank Monastery

One of the Dadivank churches, built again in the 13th century has an interesting dome, its drum being made partly of stone and partly of brick. Brick buildings, though not uncommon, were not widespread. Other churches in the construction of which brick was used, can be found in Syunik (the former Syunik province of historical Armenia), now Republic of Armenia’s region adjacent to Karabakh, and in Nakhijevan, historically always Armenian, currently under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Of the secular buildings of the complex, the 1211 palace is an important sample of architecture, one of the few to have survived. The scriptorium next to it has the same design as those at Haghpat, Sanahin, Goshavank, Saghmosavank and Horomos monasteries. A part of the manuscripts from that scriptorium, dating back to  the 13th-16th centuries has fortunately survived to today. There is also a guest-house typical of monasteries in Armenia and some other buildings for secular purposes.

Gtchavank or Gtich monastery was founded in early medieval times but the buildings that stand now are from the 12th-13th centuries. The monastery functioned till its partial destruction in an earthquake in 1868. It is currently under reconstruction. The dome of the church is a reflection of the style dominant in the 10-11th centuries and is typical of the churches of Bagratuni (Bagratid) Armenia. The church in general is built according to traditions of the Ani School of architecture developed under the Bagratunis.

The Bri Yeghtsi complex at the Hatsi village in Martuni is of unique importance in studying the Artsakh School of architecture. The two churches of the complex, built in the 13th century, shared a common narthex. A third church stands alone, on top of a hill near an old cemetery, while a fourth church was built at the foot of the hill, away from the others. Also part of the complex are the 13th century standalone arched niches incorporating khachkars. Such structures can be found in the Syunik region of Armenia.

The Monastery of the Apostle Elisha              Photo by and courtesy of Samvel Karapetyan

Yeghishe Arakyali Vank (the Monastery of the Apostle Elisha) also called Jrvshtik, is in today’s Martakert region of the NKR. Consisting of several buildings that stand to this date, this important monastery was built most probably on an ancient pagan shrine. It is not only where the Apostle is buried but also the resting place of probably the most famous of Artsakh kings, Vachagan the Pious, and the famous Melik Adam as well. The buildings however are from the times of the Artsakh School of architecture. 

Many other monasteries and churches, princes’ palaces and meliks’ manors can be listed as important samples of Artsakh’s architecture. The most common features of monastic complexes and churches in Artsakh have been the one-nave basilica, domed halls and “enclosed cross” type structure of churches, the dominant types of worship buildings in medieval Armenia. This does not imply that other types, such as “free-cross”, one altar type or others were not present. The local characteristics of Artsakh architecture are mainly observed till the 17th-18th centuries when four-pillar structures and three-nave basilicas  prevalent in all of Armenia also came to Artsakh and fortified monasteries were built. There are several other characteristic features, which are however beyond the scope or purpose of this site. The purpose is to show their beauty and hopefully convey the majestic and solemn atmosphere about them. 

One particular reason, though certainly not the only one, for the destruction of many Armenian monuments was the plunder and “collateral” destruction of the ancient temples, tombs, palaces and fortress in search of various treasures. Artsakh had a highly concentrated number of temples from pagan times, and cathedrals, churches, palaces and manors that belonged to kings, princes, meliks, Catholicoi and bishops. Just as the Armenian monuments, churches, graveyards and dwellings in Turkey have bee dug throughout the years following the Genocide and deportations of Armenians in search of hidden gold by the local population, so were the monuments in Artsakh desecrated by those who were not the bearers of that culture. Forcing out the Armenian population and dooming the monuments and places of worship to neglect and dereliction, coupled with a policy of intentional destruction by the Azerbaijani authorities, also by allowing the thieves a free hand, has resulted in the sad fact that hundreds of monuments have survived today in ruins or remnants. Some are only referred to in historical sources and are lost as a cultural heritage of the indigenous population. Yet, even the ruins testify to great achievements in architecture and have maintained an inexplicable air of spirituality about them.

The role and impact of the Armenian Church in Artsakh has also been great because the neighbouring Aghvank (Caucasian Albania) has been under the ecclesiastical dominance of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the extent that its bishops were ordained by the Catholicos of Armenia and the Albanian church is reported to have used the Armenian language for its liturgy. That role became even greater when Artsakh and Caucasian Albania were at times joined into one territorial unit under Persian suzerainty and the Bishops/ Catholicoi sitting in Amaras or Gandzasar covered all of Aghvank (Aghuank or Aghvank is the Armenian name for Caucasian Albania, north of the Kur river, while “Bun” or “proper” Aghvank was the part of Armenia between the rivers Kur and Araks, the name deriving from the forefathers of the Armenian nation). Grigor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator), who converted Armenia to Christianity, founded the first monastery at Amaras, and his grandson Grigoris became the first Bishop of Artsakh-Aghvank.

Although the number of famous churches and monasteries in Artsakh is not small, and each has its own unique reason to be seen, no talk of the land can do without the mention of the Amaras Monastery, founded by Grigor Lousavorich; the 13th century Dadivank Monastery, built in honour of Dadi, a disciple of the Apostle Thaddeus who brought Christianity to Armenia (hence the name, Armenian Apostolic Church); the 13th century “encyclopaedia of Armenian church architecture” Gandzasar Monastery; the Episcopal See of the Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Ghazanchetsots Amenaprkich (Saviour of All) Church in Shushi, the 4-6th cc. basilica of Tsitsernavank and the 13th century marvel Gtchavank. It might have made sense to cover many more churches and monasteries in this section, however, on the other hand, depicting them in their regional setting could be more useful for the purposes of this website. Therefore, some of the many other churches will be covered in their respective regions, towns and environment. It will be seen that the remaining are no less important or beautiful.

This text is based on Murad Hasratyan's books.