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Oct 29, 2018 10:36 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

An Architectural History Journey To Armenia

Ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral (literally 'celestial angels cathedral') 7th century. ANNE SURCHIN
Oct 29, 2018 10:55 AM

To go to Armenia on a tour exploring the country’s rich culture, history and architectural heritage, particularly the cathedrals and monasteries, was simply something I could not pass up. Having studied medieval architecture in college, I was champing at the bit to see these structures, which would ultimately take my breath away. Sponsored by the nonprofit Adirondack Architectural Heritage, this trip would prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.Armenia—bordered by Georgia to the north, Iran to the south, Azerbaijan to the northeast and southwest, Artsahk (formerly Nagorno Karabagh) to the east, and Turkey to the west—is located in the South Caucasus. Geographically, Armenia is quite diverse, with dramatic volcanic highlands, mountain gorges, the clear waters of the 46-mile-long freshwater Lake Sevan set against a mountainous backdrop, forests and running streams. The landscape is rugged, and 90 percent of the country is 1,000 meters above sea level if not higher. The country of 3 million inhabitants is equivalent in size to Belgium.

The Pink City

Our first stop, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, dates back to 782 BC, when the Erebuni fortress was built by King Argishti I of Urartu. This strategically sited city existed as an intersection for the caravan trades crossing between Europe and India.

Consequently, the Persians and Ottomans fought over it for centuries. By 1828, Russia had annexed Yerevan from the Persians, and in 1920, it became the capital of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Yerevan then became the capital of the independent Republic of Armenia.

After the 1915 genocide, Yerevan served as a cultural center for the Armenian Diaspora. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Russian-born Armenian architect/planner Alexander Tamanian transformed this small provincial city into a bustling European model of parks and squares with tree-lined boulevards and ringed roadways around its periphery.

Mount Ararat, the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark, looms in the distance. Surrounding this once volcanic mountain is lava rock made of compacted ash known as tuff (pronounced tuffa). The Soviet era buildings were clad in this stone, whose color can vary between pink and pale orange depending on the time of day. Tuff is used throughout the country and also comes in a warm gray, but the pink/orange is the predominant color found in Yerevan.

Republic Square, modeled by Tamanian after St. Peter’s in Rome, is elliptical in shape and features singing fountains in front of the History Museum. The square, shaped by five Neo-Classical buildings with Armenian motifs and curved facades clad in tuff, is simply dazzling—especially at night, when people from all over the city come to watch the fountain displays choreographed to music.

Tamanian also designed the 1937 Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet, which won the grand prize at an international exhibition in Paris. While not ornate in detail, the entire circulation of the building is all about procession. Built in an era when formal attire was required, one can only imagine how the huge lobby and spacious aisles allowed attendees to take in the splendor and glamour of the moment.

Other points of interest included the 1957 Matenadaran Museum, which contains a renowned collection of 23,000 illuminated ancient manuscripts, documents and maps. At the base of this cathedral-like book depository is a statue of Mesrop Mashtots, a linguist who invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, commemorating the massacre of a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, as well as the previous deportations and massacres leading up to it, features a powerful exhibition of text and photographs documenting one of the world’s most horrific atrocities. Forty-eight states and municipalities throughout the United States recognize the genocide, but it has yet to be recognized on a national basis. Clearly, this has to do with America’s strategic alliance with Turkey, which refuses to recognize the very genocide it created.

A short excursion to the Ararat Brandy factory proved quite interesting. The company has been making brandy (essentially, cognac) since 1887. The tour covered the brandy-making process and the history of the company. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin consumed Ararat “Dvin” brandy at Yalta. While that particular brandy is no longer made, we were informed that it was Churchill’s favorite—he routinely ordered 400 bottles a year.

Yerevan, with a population of 1 million people, is currently experiencing a building boom, and it’s hard to take a photo without a crane in the background. Much of the funding for these projects is from diaspora money coming into the country from American Armenians such as James Tufenkian, Houvanian Enterprises, and the late businessman and philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, among others.

This construction, while good for the economy, has proven disastrous for much of the city center’s 19th century apartment houses and commercial structures, as well as adjacent neighborhoods with wood-frame houses. Preservation laws have been ignored, and critics have warned that if this goes on much longer Yerevan will be “a city without memory.”

The 19th century neighborhood of Kond, situated on a steep hill, is still relatively intact. Three of us hiked up endless treads and riser steps of uneven widths and heights to discover a grouping of vernacular, stone and wood structures that simply evolved over time. No one ever designed these buildings, but the sum of the parts forms a remarkable whole.

While we were taking photos, an elderly Yerevanian stopped his car and asked us in perfect English, “How do you like Old Yerevan?”

Needless to say, we gave him a thumbs-up.

Devotional Architecture

Armenia, in 301 AD, was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Today, most ethnic Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s called Apostolic because it is believed that Christianity was brought to Armenia by Jesus’s disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus.

The Khor Virap (“deep dungeon”) monastery, with its sensational views of Mt. Ararat, is one of the most significant historic sites in the country. The buildings on this site have been repeatedly reconstructed since the 6th century.

This is where King Trdat lll, a pagan, jailed his assistant, Gregory the Illuminator, for 13 years in the monastery’s dungeon pit. After Gregory Lusavorich, the first leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and later a patron saint, was able to cure the king of his infirmities, he was freed, and the king converted to Christianity.

The main 17th century church itself has a 12-sided drum with a dome and is dedicated to St. Astvatsatsin. There is a carving of the saint curing the king on the eastern side of the church.

Noravank (“Nora” meaning “new,” and “vank” meaning “monastery”) is one of the most stunning sites in Armenia. In the late afternoon, the red hues of the adjacent cliffs become heightened, and the red/gold stone of its two churches, St. Karapet, circa 1300, and St. Astvatsatsin, 1339, takes on a luminous glow in the setting sun. Historians have noted this church reminds them of the burial towers found in the beginning of Christianity.

The 9th century Tatev monastery compound, near the Iranian border, sits on a basalt plateau overlooking the Voroton River gorge, with the Karabakh peaks in the distance. The thrilling approach to the compound is via the Wings of Tatev aerial tramway, purported to be the longest in the world. The ride over the gorge, hundreds of feet below, is not for the faint of heart.

The main 9th century church, Sts. Poghos-Petros (St. Paul and St. Peter), sits next to the 11th century Grigor chapel. In its heyday, more than 600 monks lived and worked here, and the compound was home to the medieval University of Tatev. The complex is about to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We also visited the Gandzasar monastery, built in 1240. According to legend, it was built on the remains of John the Baptist. The Haghpat monastery, founded in 976, also is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The compound consists of interconnected structures that form a harmonious enclave. Its khachkars (stone with cross headstones) are quite unusual ornamentally. The small, intimate Dadivank monastery, under renovation when we visited, has newly restored frescoes in its chapel.

Along the way, we stopped at the 6,100-year-old Areni-1 winery, discovered in a cave complex by Armenian and Irish archaeologists, who found grape seeds, pressed grapes and a wine vat in 2007.

Artsahk (the former Nagorno Karabagh) is the disputed area of Azerbaijan, now an independent country that is not recognized by anyone. Its occupants are mostly Armenian. We stayed in its capital, Stepanakert, which has a museum, open-air market, and a host of government buildings and hotels along handsome streets.

Also on the itinerary were the cave dwellings of Khndzoresk village in the Syunik region. These caves were occupied by locals until the 1950s, when they were condemned for health reasons. Today, they provide hay storage for local farmers.

Near the end of our trip, we visited the Temple of Garni, built in the 1st century, which is the only pagan Hellenistic temple in Armenia. The ruins of the Zvartnots Cathedral, built in the 7th century, consist of an aisled tetraconch (from the Greek for “four shells”) cathedral. It contained four apses one going in each direction, which essentially turns the plan into a Greek cross.

The Geghard monastery, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is called the “Monastery of the Spear,” since the spear that wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion was brought to Armenia by the Apostle Jude. The spear is on display in the Echmiadzin treasury, part of the religious complex that is Armenia’s Vatican.

The scope of this trip was enormous, and it became much more than a simple pleasure excursion. Our group consisted of architects, historic preservationists, people with eclectic interests and several individuals of Armenian descent.

Armenia is a country at a crossroads. This year, citizens democratically elected a new president, Nikol Pashinian, a former newspaper editor. He recently resigned on October 16, forcing an election for a new parliament to “guarantee the free expression of the people’s will.”

Armenians are a resilient people who are embracing democracy enthusiastically, while we seem to sit by and take it for granted as our freedoms could easily erode.

For those of us on this venture, the contrast was striking.

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