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Architecture - first of the arts

We know very sophisticated building techniques were in use in Armenia and a strong architectural tradition in stone was exercised for more than a thousand years before the first church was built.

1. Urartu
Unfortunately, only a handful of pre-Christian examples has survived and they are from three distinct epochs: Urartian, Hellenistic, and late Roman. They will be discussed briefly in chronological order.

A considerable number of temples and fortified garrison cities are known belonging to the kingdom of Urartu (ninth to the sixth centuries B.C.), the most famous examples being the garrisons of Erebuni and Karmir Blur in Soviet Armenia, Toprakkale, the royal capital near Van, and the temple of Mousasir (known from an Assyrian carving).

None of these survived above ground; they were all discovered in the past century by archaeological excavations. The kingdom or Urartu itself was forgotten for 2500 years after its destruction in the early sixth century B.C. until it was literally dug up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Urartian architecture used carefully cut stone often of very large size for the foundations of walls and the supports of wooden columns for temples and assembly rooms.

The compact efficiency of such towns as Erebuni, the innovative design of the temple of Mousasir, and the remnants of simple houses with primitive domes points to a flourishing architectural activity.

Unfortunately, from the four centuries immediately following the end of the Urartian kingdom, no architectural monuments have been uncovered in Armenia. It is only in the centuries just before the Christian era that our next link in the building tradition of the land is found.

2. Garni
At the site of Garni, some fifty kilometers northeast of modern Erevan, a number of important constructions survive from three different periods. The oldest is made up of a number of important fragments of a defensive wall around the locality.

Dating to the first century before Christ, the wall is made up in parts of enormous monolithic stones carefully carved and placed upon each other without the use of mortar. This technique was known throughout the Middle East in the Roman period.

The second period is represented by the splendid, though small, temple of Garni, following the general design of a Greco-Roman temple so characteristic of the Mediterranean world.

There is still some debate concerning the use of the building (temple or summer residence) and its date of construction (first or third century A.D.), but no argument about the elegance of its proportions or the skill of its decorative friezes.

The temple remained standing until 1679 when it was destroyed during an earthquake. It was restored in the 1970s and has the distinction of being the only Greco-Roman temple standing above ground in the entire Soviet Union.

The most recent architectural vestige at Garni is the bath, probably of the fourth century, excavated and restored like Erebuni, Karmir Blur, and the temple of Garni with the encouragement and support of the Armenian government.

The baths, built of brick and volcanic stone, are small and follow the general layout of Roman baths with a tepidarium, caldarium, and frigidarium (a warm washing room, a steam room, and a cooling room).

Since Armenia was pagan for centuries before Christianity, did not other temples exist? Yes, we know of them from the Armenian histories of the fifth century, but as the historians tell us, the first Christians led by St. Gregory and his followers, in their zeal, willfully destroyed all the sanctuaries of the pagan religion, leaving us with an architectural void.

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Writer: Dickran Kouymjian
Editor: Eugenia Melkonyan
 Date Added: Tuesday September 05, 2006 10:46:23 

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