“ The remaining ruins of the 7th Century circular church of Zvartnots „
It is something of a minor miracle that so many of Armenia's ancient buildings have survived to the present day - or at least survived enough to benefit from judicious and sympathetic reconstruction. Armenia's golden era of church building and cultural development spanned almost 300 years, from the 10th to the 13th century, but the intervening period has seen countless foreign invasions and natural disasters (Armenia is in an earthquake zone) which, by rights, should have accounted for most of these architectural treasures.
Instead, the landscape is littered with these monuments to Armenia's cultural heritage, many of which are still used today, providing both spiritual sustenance and a physical reminder of history, tradition and past accomplishments. Sadly, perhaps the most unique and impressive structure - the 7th century temple of Zvartnots - did not survive the ravages of time and nature. It lies in ruins on the outskirts of the city of Echmiadzin (the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and home to its Catholicos) offering the visitor only fleeting glimpses of how it must have looked in its prime.
The Temple of Zvartnots is an easy drive from the capital (it's only a 30 minute journey from the centre of Yerevan) and, along with the churches of St Hripsime and St Gayaneh, is a natural stop for tourists wishing to visit the Holy See at Echmiadzin. If you want to travel independently, you could probably negotiate a taxi to drop you off, and either wait while you explore, or come back and pick you up at a specified time.
However, there are a couple of issues with this. Firstly, the language barrier may prove insurmountable unless you are lucky enough to find an English-speaking cabbie, and secondly, Armenian drivers are not exactly well-known for the punctuality or reliability. A final point is to ensure that your driver knows you want the ruins rather than the airport, as they are both called "Zvartnots".
A bus service operates between Echmiadzin and Yerevan, and there is a bus stop close to the main entrance, however, information on timetables and routes is virtually non-existent. This means that the best option for the foreign tourist is a guided tour, which will last half a day and take in around three or four other sites local to Yerevan. These are easily booked through the main city centre hotels and travel agencies (such as www.hyurservice.com) and will cost around 5000 Armenian Dram (around £9 GBP or $14 USD) per person.
The seventh century ruins of Zvartnots lie at the end of a gated drive, impressively framed against the sky, which was bright blue and cloudless when I visited. There is a negligible admission fee of 1000 Dram per person (about £1.75 or $2) which is payable at a port-a-cabin type kiosk near the entrance, set well away from the main site. The grounds have benefitted from significant investment, with good lighting, paved walkways and several information boards that provide information on every aspect of the site in three languages (Armenian, Russian and English).
If you take the time to read them, this context and background is invaluable, mainly because so little of the church is left that it would be difficult to understand why it was significant and what it must have looked like. Ironically, its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site precluded any meaningful restoration, as the organisation's rules prohibit full reconstruction unless a specified percentage of the original materials can be located.
A BIT OF HISTORY
It's difficult to appreciate the importance and splendour of Zvartnots (Armenian for "Celestial Angels") without some historical and background context. The church was built in the 7th century to a ground-breaking circular design. It was commissioned by the Catholicos Nerses III to serve as Armenia's main cathedral and marks a site associated with a key meeting between King Tiridates III and St Gregory the Illuminator that ultimately led to the conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the fourth century. Legend has it that St Gregory, whose bones were kept in a reliquary directly under the central dome, had a vision in which Christ appeared to him with a host of angels, hence the name of the church.
The temple was comprised of three round tiers, consisting of 32 facets on the ground level, 16 on the second level and 8 on the third tier, each of which had an arch window. It reached a remarkable 45 to 49 metres (around 150 feet in imperial terms) in height, utilising innovative construction techniques to keep it stable and evenly distribute its considerable weight. Apparently, 32 master craftsmen were employed, each of which worked on one section of the ground level. As a tribute to them, each facet was embossed with a bas-relief representation of the master at his trade. Only nine of these carvings have survived.
The ground floor of the building was heavily decorated with carvings, friezes and bas-relief sculptures, but each successive tier was more austere, giving the impression that the structure was reaching up toward heaven. It is said that the church was built to last a thousand years, which was thought to be the date of the second coming of Christ, but in the event, it only lasted for three hundred. By the tenth century, it had collapsed into a ruin, but how and why it was destroyed is a matter of conjecture. The most popular theory is that either an earthquake, or one of the many Arab invasions that were typical of that period in Armenia's history. Over time, the ruins and foundations were reclaimed by nature and partially buried. The site was eventually excavated between 1901 and 1907.
A WALK AROUND
The main church ruins sit on a circular, stepped platform. Some of the arches making up the ground level have been reconstructed, giving a good feel for the scale of the structure. A rank of Doric columns with impressive carved detail are lined up like soldiers against the open sky, standing free of the weight of the ceiling that they once supported. However, because these columns are the only structures standing, it's easy to focus on them and forget that they are interior features, and that the circumference of the first tier was actually much bigger.
The centre of the floor has a wire mesh, in the shape of a cross, which covers the steps leading down into what was St Gregory's reliquary. This is a good point to pause and look up, at open sky, and imagine the central dome, which was 150 above, that used to cover it. Unfortunately, none of the internal decoration has survived on site, although, at the time of excavation, some evidence of floor mosaics, murals and frescoes was uncovered, fragments of which are held off-site in Yerevan's museums.
To the left of the main podium is a field in which some of the surviving arches and decorative features have been laid out on the ground, making it easy to examine the carvings and artistry close-up. Vine leaves, grapes, pomegranates, eagles and baskets feature heavily, and although many are badly eroded, it gives you a good sense of the beauty and power of the original structures when they had been in-situ.
The back of the complex features the remains of the Catholicos' palace, some ancient service buildings, and a winery, each has strategically placed, well illustrated and researched information boards giving excellent background, not only on the structures, but, in the case of the winery, on the history of Armenian wine-making as well.
AN INSPIRATIONAL RUIN
On the one hand, it's a shame that so little of the Zvartnots complex has survived, but with so many of Armenia's other treasures still remaining intact, it seems churlish to complain. On the other hand, I am pleased that a reconstruction has not been attempted, as my imagination has painted a vivid picture of this unique, splendid and imposing cathedral that I doubt reality could ever match.
Other than a tenth century church built in Ani (Armenia's ruined ancient capital which now lies in eastern Turkey) as a tribute to Zvartnots, no other medieval Armenian church was ever built to this design. In fact, its construction was considered unique enough to feature on a couple of bas-relief panels in La Sainte Chapelle church on the Île de la Cité in Paris, which depicts a circular church above Noah's Ark. It's appearance there is a mystery, and there is some debate as to whether it is, in fact, Zvartnots, or its later imitation (St Chapelle was built in the thirteenth century, 300 years after the destruction of Zvartnots). However, the ability of this once great church to awe and inspire has barely diminished over the centuries, even if much has to be left to the imagination.
© Hishyeness 2010