Arts of Armenia-Architecture


Of all the arts, architecture is supreme. For the general public used to visiting museums filled with paintings of compact size easily hung by the hundreds, the priority given to architecture in the art world may seem strange. But buildings are not susceptible to display in museums, when reduced to photos or models, they seem pale next to the immediate beauty of original art works. Thus, architectural monuments are only accessible to the public by distant travel or through specialized books. Art historians have always put architecture in a different category; they have measured the value of monuments by standards other than those appropriate to smaller decorative creations in whatever medium.

So, too, in the realm of Armenian art, architecture takes pride of place. It was the first of the arts of Armenia to be seriously studied, and to this day Armenian architecture receives more scholarly attention than all of the other arts combined. The separateness of architecture from the other arts is not due just to size, though certainly the immense mass of any building compared to other works of art is so disproportionate that no real comparison is possible, nor to the labor, in the case of architecture perforce collective, required for its creation. Because buildings are natural vehicles for decoration, they differ from other art objects by often incorporating in themselves the two most important of the other arts: painting and sculpture.


In the study of architecture, however, primary attention is not given to the decoration, but to the structural forms of buildings and their evolution. Thus, monuments are analyzed by their architectural aspects -- the general design or look of the interior and exterior of buildings -- and architectonic considerations -- the methods used to construct them. Classes of buildings are studied by their plans. 

Everyone is familiar with certain common types of structures; their names immediately evoke specific images: skyscraper, lighthouse, pyramid, windmill, stadium, Greek temple. Other types of buildings are less precisely visualized, because their forms are diverse: houses and churches, for instance, vary greatly in different parts of the world. They are differentiated architectonically by materials and methods of construction, architecturally by their shape.

The form of a building is expressed by its ground plan. Simply stated, a ground plan, or just plan, is the contour of the walls of any structure with all of its entrances and other openings indicated in an overhead view of the building magically sliced away at ground level. The thickness of the dark black lines, the size of the empty spaces for doors, reflect accurately and to scale the actual size of walls and openings.



The history of Armenian architecture is in reality the history of the development of a single type of building: the church. Two observations should come to mind, each raising certain questions. First, since the church is a Christian building for worship, and since Armenia was converted as a national entity in the early fourth century, does that mean that there is no architecture in Armenia before Christianity? No. 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.


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 [1] 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 [1], 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 [2,124, 164], 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 [2,124, 164], 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 [2, 164] is the bath, probably of the fourth century, excavated and restored like Erebuni [1], Karmir Blur, and the temple of Garni [2, 164] 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.


Beside these limited ancient examples and the urban architecture of the twentieth century in the Armenia Republic, Armenian architecture is essentially that of church buildings, thus a Christian architecture. Its productive history spans the period from the fourth to the seventeenth century. Though it should be noted that in modern times, especially in the diaspora, churches continued to be built and are now being erected in large numbers, scholars have not yet studied this phenomenon, leaving modern Armenian church architecture rootless and for the moment outside the art historical tradition.

A second observation arising from the idea of Armenian architecture being confined to Christian buildings is the lack of any secular construction. Were there not palaces and fortresses for the kings and catholicoi? Or bridges and caravansaries to accommodate the extensive trade that passed through the country? Did not people live in houses and were not these grouped together in cities? The answer is yes, but few examples have survived. Common dwellings were made of perishable materials, wood, mud brick, or simply dug into the ground or a hillside. The excavations of the medieval capital city of Ani [32, 33, 34, 35, 36] made in the beginning of this century, confirm the lack of substantial dwellings that could be considered architectural monuments. Several bridges -- among them Sanahin [38], twelfth century, Ashtarak, seventeenth century -- and a few caravansaries have survived; they have been brought together in a book by V. M. Harutiunian. The stone foundations of important residences of the catholicos have been excavated at Zvart'nots' [17, 128] and Dvin. They date from the sixth and seventh centuries. An extremely large number of fortresses with their inner complex of dwellings, churches, and other buildings was constructed in Greater Armenia, the most famous being Amberd of the tenth century, and, from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, in Cilician Armenia, among which the best known are Sis, Lampron [37], Korykos, Silifke, Anavarza, and Yilankale. A large volume devoted to a general survey of Armenian fortresses was published by the Mekhitarist father M. Hovannisian; recently, Robert Edwards has devoted a detailed study to 75 Cilician Armenian fortresses (see the bibliography for full references to all works cited in this text).

Thousands of Armenian churches were built during the long history of Christianity. They varied in size from very small to large, though there were no giant structures like St. Peters in Rome or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or the large cathedrals of Europe. Some churches were intended to stand alone, while others were parts of monasteries. A large number of types were developed, providing a great variety of exterior shapes and interior volumes. Some types are found in adjoining Christian areas, but in Armenia their plans were usually modified to conform to local conditions. A number of unique church forms were invented by Armenian architects in their pursuit of ever more efficiently built and aesthetically conceived houses of worship.


The data of architecture, as in any scientific discipline, are studied by arranging what is diverse and heterogeneous into categories based on similarities of features and according to periods. The convenience of this methodology for a coherent discussion of architectural features should never obscure the reality that such labels as medieval, renaissance, modern are made up by scholars, whereas the architects and builders were totally oblivious to such considerations. They erected buildings as they were needed with the material available and in a style either asked for by a patron or within own their competence and preference.


Despite the large diversity in the types of early churches, Armenian architecture achieved a distinctive style through the combination of a number of common characteristics and materials. The compositional employment of these traits was unique to Armenia, though its northern neighboring Georgia was also to benefit by a flourishing of building activity. By the late sixth or early seventh century a unique national style of church architecture came into being. Some scholars have called this phenomenon the first national style in Christian architecture. It had been achieved long before the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic or the less known Ethiopian, Scandinavian, and Slavic styles were concretely formed.

What are the features that make an Armenian church instantly recognizable? First, all churches are built entirely in stone. The scarcity of wood prevented its architectural use in medieval Armenia. With rare exceptions, the stone used is a volcanic tufa abundant in Armenia in many colors and shades: pink, red, orange, black. Dark basalt was also used for more sturdy foundation work. Only in outlying regions of Armenia, where tufa is not readily available, was another stone substituted. In many respects tufa is an ideal material for construction because it is light of weight, easy to sculpt, and has the property of becoming harder and more durable with exposure to air and the passage of time. Second, ceilings were always vaulted. Since wood was not available for making simple flat roofs, stones were employed, but their weight demanded they be arranged in arcs so that the thrust of their mass could be directed to robust stone walls and thence to the ground. This at first produced buildings with thick walls and few and small openings to comfortably accommodate the pressure from above.

Third, the Armenian preference or weakness for the dome manifested itself very early. By the end of the sixth century, a church without a dome was unthinkable. Other than a few early exceptions, the dome or cupola was elevated above the other vaulted ceilings by a cylindrical drum (usually polygonal on the outside). The prevalence of the dome forced architects to think in terms of centrally planned buildings.

Fourth, roofs were composite in their appearance because they had to cover the vaults and domes of a complex, though symmetric, group of inner spaces. Like the inner and outer walls and the drum, they too were made of tufa thinly cut into uniform shingles.
These are not all the features common to Armenian architecture, rather they are the ones that provide the stylistic likeness so quickly perceived by the eye when looking at Armenian churches. Each church is, however, an individual creation, distinguished by its inner and outer form, its size, and its decoration. Most belong to a certain class of building, though some are unique. Almost all monuments of whatever period have a ground plan elaborated during the first three hundred years of Christianity in Armenia (fourth to seventh centuries) when the creative energies of Armenian architects seemed to overcome all obstacles engendered by construction in stone that sought ever more inner space and less massive structures.



The historical vicissitudes of the Armenian nation are accurately reflected in the moments of flourishing and decline of its architecture. Four distinct periods of building activity, interspersed by nearly equally long moments of stagnation, mirror the political strength or weakness of Armenia's rulers.

1. The Formative Period (Fourth to the Seventh Centuries)

The first or formative period of Armenian architecture is the most brilliant, a golden age paralleling the golden age of Armenian letters. It is also the longest period starting with the conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, even though few surviving monuments can be dated so early, and ending with the Arab invasion and occupation of Armenia, which, in the mid-seventh century, suddenly destroyed a robust architectural tradition at its zenith. Then two full centuries pass without churches or other monuments being erected in Armenia.

2. The Bagratid Revival (Ninth to the Eleventh Centuries)

The second period begins almost simultaneously with the re-establishment of the Bagratid kingdom in the 880s, very slowly at first, beginning by unashamedly imitating existing structures from the formative period until the techniques forgotten during the lapse of seven or eight generations were again mastered. The tenth and eleventh centuries, under the patronage of the Bagratid kings of Ani and Kars, the Artsrunis of Aght'amar [26, 161] and the area around Lake Van and the rulers of Siunik, not only bear witness to a new architectural vigor perfectly at ease with the skills that produced the older forms, but one that began to innovate and experiment in the search for more height and space, for new forms. Like the previous period, this one was also doomed by the sudden loss of political autonomy resulting from the weakening of the Armenian kingdoms by the Byzantine Empire and their final destruction by the invasion of the Seljuk Turks after the mid-eleventh century.

3. The Flourishing of Monasteries (Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries)

The beginning of the next period coincided with the independence of Georgia at the end of the twelfth century under queen T'amar and her Armenian generals Ivané and Zakaré. The Armenian Zakarid dynasty provided the necessary security essential for the flourishing of architecture and the construction and expansion of large monastic complexes. From the twelfth century to the fourteenth a new renaissance, encouraged and patronized by large noble families, gave Armenian architecture its last creative moment before the renewed suffering and stagnation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

4. The Seventeenth Century

The successive invasions of Greater Armenia by Timur Lang at the end of the fourteenth century, coinciding with the destruction of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia by the Mamluks in 1375, ended architectural activity for nearly 250 years. No new buildings were erected until the seventeenth century and existing structures were barely maintained. In the seventeenth century a final national revival under the rule of the Safavid Shahs of Iran produced a limited series of new constructions [56, 57, 58, 59, 60], the churches at Mughni [58] and Shoghakat' [59] at Etchmiadzin are two important examples in Greater Armenia and the churches of New Julfa [57], the Armenian suburb of Isfahan, are the most famous of diasporan monuments. During this period many older monuments were restored and expanded: Aght'amar [26], the cathedral of Etchmiadzin [3, 4], Hrip'simé [13, 14] are among the best known.

5. Modern Armenian Architecture

Innovative architecture after the seventeenth century came to a stop in Armenian proper, but Armenian architecture continued in diasporan cities like Constantinople, Tiflis, and more remote areas such as Singapore. In the second half of the nineteenth century a new architecture development in all Armenian communities was inspired by the national revival. In the years 1915 and after Armenian culture stopped totally in the ancient homeland. The Armenian population in eastern Anatolia was disseminated and the surviving remnants deported. Large numbers of ancient medieval monuments were destroyed. During the same years the Bolshevik revolution and the effects of its anti-religious propaganda after Armenian was made a Soviet Republic in 1920 also resulted in the abandoning of buildings of the cult and occasionally in their destruction.

Only after the Second World War did a demographically expanding and constantly immigrating nation display a need for new church buildings. Everywhere in the diaspora, but especially in the Americas and western Europe, new churches were and are being built. In Armenia the same tendency has been gaining momentum, especially in the 1980s, under the leadership of both the Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazgen I, and the Committee for the Preservation of Monuments, which have undertaken the restoration and even rebuilding of the hundreds of medieval monuments that fall under its jurisdiction. Large numbers of churches and monasteries sequestered by the Soviet regime have been returned to the Catholicos by the new Armenian Republic.



Armenian architects and masons during the first two centuries after the conversion to Christianity developed the characteristic building expertise associated with nearly all Armenian edifices erected after the sixth century. Before tracing the formal steps followed in achieving these results, the building technique itself should be understood. The architectonic problem was singular: How to build churches with complex interior volumes in stone that would both resist the immense weight of the masonry vaulting and roofing and not crumble under the jarring effects of earthquakes. Armenia is a highly volcanic and active seismic land. The lateral movement caused by earth tremors could easily cause the upsetting of the often delicate balance of forces developed to support stone domes.
The major solution was the skillful use of concrete, not in the form we know of it today, but similar to that developed in Roman architecture in the Near East, perhaps the original sources from which Armenian artisans borrowed the formula. Buildings were virtually poured into being from the ground up, but instead of the modern usage of wooden forms into which a thick liquid mixture of cement, gravel, and sand -- modern concrete -- is poured, a more integrated method was used.

Onto modern concrete buildings a decorative facing material, often marble, is added later. This external siding is not organically related to the constructional process. In the Armenian case the parallel forms employed to contain the inner core of mortar were finely cut slabs of tufa. Elevated a few rows at a time, these tufa forms adhered permanently to the wet mixture (composed of broken tufa, often of large size, and other stones, lime mortar, and usually eggs) poured in between them. As the binding material dried, it formed a nearly solid, concrete-like mass, which, because of the property of tufa discussed earlier, hardened as time passed.

For architectonic forces, this inner core is the major support, the transmitter of the weight, of vaulted roofs and domes, rather than the carefully carved exterior masonry that we admire. Furthermore, this manner of slowly raising a building was extended above the level of the walls directly into the vaults, the drum, and the dome, giving the whole structure the solidity associated with reinforced concrete of today. The architects employed various innovations to ameliorate constantly the quality of their work, for instance tufa of lesser density or large terra-cotta jars were often used in the core of the domes to reduce their weight. 

The facing of inside and outside walls, even though it played a secondary role in support, was executed with great care. There was an aesthetic consideration that played with the natural beauty of tufa in two principal ways. Often the entire building would be made with tufa of exactly the same color and hue. The perfectly cut stone was usually laid one upon the other without the use of mortar. To give some buildings a perfectly unified and singular look, tufa of the same color was ground into powder that was then applied along the joints, concealing them and giving an effect of walls without seams. The other major use of tufa was to highlight rather than hide the differences in color. Blocks of contrasting colors were juxtaposed to give checkerboard or other decorative effects.

A more important reason for the care devoted to the tufa walls was protection against earthquakes. Shocks to a building, usually in a rocking motion, could precipitate the detaching and falling away of blocks of stone from the inner core. By beveling the tufa slabs, varying their size and height, and breaking up the straight vertical and horizontal lines of successive rows, a very resistant surface cohesion was produced. Nevertheless, after more than a thousand years some medieval Armenian churches abandoned for centuries to the elements and vandalism stand today as though naked with only their inner concrete core intact. The outer stones have either fallen away or willfully pried loose by present day villagers in search of ready-made building materials for their homes.

Once perfected, this method of construction became the standard into modern times. Its evolution was cautiously nurtured by several generations of builders in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries who were confronted by the challenge of patronage from all parts of the newly converted Armenia. The land became an experimental workshop for architecture just as that experienced by the Roman Empire after its acceptance of Christianity in the same fourth century. Armenian architects, by rejecting the use of wood for roofing as in neighboring Syria and the more easily manipulated brick so popular in the Roman and Byzantine Empires to the west, confronted the ungrateful task of all stone construction with persistence and genius. The earlier churches of whatever design were characterized by the use of heavy and thick stone for walls, often with mortar placed between joints. The inner core was so narrow that the real work of supporting the superstructure was performed by the walls themselves. Gradually in the fifth and sixth centuries, as the masons saw that the domes and vaults of earlier buildings were steadfast and resistant to shock, the blocks of stone became thinner and the inner core of mortar wider. Eventually large stone blocks were reserved for the lowest courses and for the corners where two walls met. By the end of the sixth century the confidence of architects was such that windows and other openings were added to edifices, while domes became bigger and interior management of space more audacious. Some domes did suffer design weaknesses, a few had to be rebuilt, but on the whole, as the numerous extent monuments erected more than a thousand years ago eloquently testify, the work of Armenian craftsmen was executed to last for eternity.



In the early period, so much innovation took place, so many architectural experiments were being carried out simultaneously, that it is impossible to conceive the historical progression of Armenian monuments in a strictly linear fashion. There was, however, in certain areas of development, as for instance the working out of the concrete core technique outlined above, a roughly describable forward movement. The rest of this essay, in introducing the various monuments illustrated in the photographic compliment which accompanies it, will be devoted to an explanation of the major types of church buildings used in Armenia.


1. The Basilica and the Single Nave Church

The earliest church structures in Armenia were the basilicas, of which at least seven have survived [6, 7, 8]. All have three aisles. There was also a more simple variant, the hall church with a single aisle (Lernakerd [5]). Great numbers of these single nave churches were constructed from the fourth to the sixth centuries. They are of varying size and are found throughout the country. Some varieties have a room for liturgical purposes adjoining the apse (Karnut, Diraklar), and sometimes a covered porch on one side (Tanahat and at Garni and Dvin). Variations of the pure basilican plan include a nave ending in a salient or protruding apse and side aisles with apses such as Kasagh [8], Eghvard, and Dvin; with the addition of two chambers flanking the apse, which of course is no longer salient, as Ashtarak, Tziranavor, and Tsiternavank' [7]; with covered porches on the north and south and chambers at the east as Tekor, or chambers at both ends as Ereruk [6].

Since the dating of most Armenian basilicas is approximate, no certain chronological progression according to type can be determined. Armenian basilicas are similar to the Syrian variety, and like so many early Christian doctrines and practices the basilican form must have entered Armenia from that southern neighbor. There are, however, characteristic differences. Armenian basilicas are built in stone and almost without exception have stone vaults over aisles and naves, whereas in Syria, though walls and apses are of stone, roofs are generally unvaulted and wooden like Byzantine and Roman counterparts. A single roof covers both central and side aisles in most Armenian basilicas, while in Syria and the West the central nave usually has a separate and higher roof.

2. Domed Basilica and Domed Single Nave Church

The Armenian fondness for vaulting and the dome soon resulted in the transformation of both the single hall church and three-aisled basilica (a form considered alien to Armenia) to a domed building in which the cupola served as the focal point. By the late fifth or early sixth century the basilica of Tekor was modified by the addition of a dome over the central bay of the nave; in the first quarter of the next century the basilican cathedral of Dvin was also changed in this manner. Coterminously, perhaps starting as early as the fifth century at Zovuni, single aisle churches with a central dome resting on massive piers jutting out from the north and south walls were constructed (Ptghni [9], sixth century; Talish or Aruch', seventh century; and after the ninth century, Marmashen [28], Amberd, 126 [30], St. Mariam at Bjni [31] and the church of Tigran Honents' [36, 163] at Ani. In the seventh century, basilicas were built similar to Tekor with domes resting on four central, free-standing pillars: Odzun [20, 126], Bagavan, Mren, Gayané [15, 16], Talin [19, 125], and the famous cathedral of Ani (989-1001) [33, 34]. At this stage, however, the term basilica no longer entirely fits the last group, for if we remove the eastern end with apse and side chambers of the churches of Mren and Gayané [15, 16], we are left with a nearly square interior of nine bays, the central one bearing the dome.

3. Central Plan

Truly centrally planned domed churches of varying models were built during the sixth and seventh centuries and perhaps even as early as the late fifth century during the reconstruction of Etchmiadzin [3, 4] itself. At Agarak there is a tetraconch or quatrefoil church composed of four salient apses, joined without intervening walls, supporting a dome. Another series of well-known cruciform chapels and churches of small dimensions has an exterior plan in the shape of a Greek cross with arms of equal length forming an outside tetraconch (Mankanots', St. Sarkis at Bjni [23], and Tarkmanch'ats'), or with the same exterior and only one apse at the east end (Karmravor [21] and Lmbatavank'), or with an extended western arm and three interior apses forming a trefoil (St. Anania at Alaman and St. Mariam at Talin [22]).

4. Niche-buttressed Square

Another variant of the quatrefoil, what Josef Strzygowski called the niche-buttressed square, has four apses protruding from the middle of each of the four walls of a square; the weight of the centrally placed dome is absorbed by these four protruding niches that buttress the walls. All such churches have a pair of chambers added to the sanctuary; one type has a dome resting on four free-standing pillars with pendentives (masonry corners in the shape of spherical triangles) which form a circular base as a transitional element for a cylindrical drum. The most famous examples are Etchmiadzin [3, 4] and Bagaran. Another type features a dome that covers the entire interior and rests on an octagonal base and drum formed by the walls and four corner squinches (arches): Mastara [10], Artik [18], Voskepar, and the church of the Holy Apostles at Kars [25].

5. Hrip'simé Type

The most developed central plan and the one considered most uniquely Armenian (or Caucasian, since early examples are also found in Georgia) is the radiating or Hrip'simé type [11, 12, 13, 14, 26], which takes its name from the most famous example, the church of St. Hrip'simé [13, 14] built in 618 at Etchmiadzin. The oldest dated monument with this form, however, is the church at Avan (591-609) [11] near Erevan, though some Italian scholars suggest that the church at Soradir [12] east of Lake Van may be an even earlier sixth century prototype. The basic plan of the Hrip'simé type is an interior tetraconch, that is interior apses joined to form a four leaf clover shape. At the intersection of these apses in each of the corners are deep circular niches (three-quarter cylinders), which, with the four apses themselves, create an octagonal base as a support for a high cylindrical drum. This in turn is crowned by the usual dome.

Leading off the corner niches are four chambers, either circular in shape (Avan [11]) or more usually square (Hrip'simé [12, 13, 14] and Sisian). This very symmetrical plan allows a proportionally large interior space to be created, unhindered by columns or piers. Since, however, this complex inner space is enclosed in massive stone walls, the exterior of the building in Armenian architecture, often does not reflect the contour of the interior. The high drum supporting the dome is pierced by windows to admit light into the large central space; windows on other walls are relatively small.

Each of the façades of Hrip'simé [13, 14] and Sisian are indented by pairs of deep triangular slits, which place in relief the otherwise hidden inner tetraconch. Only the exterior of Soradir [12] (and the tenth century church of Aght'amar [26], which copies the Soradir [12] plan minus the corner chambers) to some degree has an exterior that reflects the interior articulation.

6. Circular Plan

The ultimate design in the centralized plan is of course the perfectly circular church. In the seventh century, the aisled tetraconch of Zvart'nots' [17, 128] perfected the circular plan. The church is really thirty-two sided. Its domed quatrefoil interior reached some forty meters in height. The inner ground space, according to the most recent reconstruction of S. Mnats'akanian, was surrounded by a single tiered ambulatory with open passages leading into the center through an arcade formed of six columns on each of the north, west and south lobes of the tetraconch. This impressive building erected by Catholicos Nersés III between 641 and 653 had an overall diameter equal to its height. Other circular churches of the seventh century include the octafoils of Zoravar and Irind. The plan of Zvart'nots' [17, 128] itself was later imitated in both Georgia and Armenia, the best known example being a near replica of it in the eleventh century church Gagikashen at Ani, which like Zvart'nots' [17, 128] itself is now destroyed. Among later circular plans is the church of St. Sargis at Khtzkonk' [35] and the hexafoils of the Shepherd's church and St. Gregory Abughamrents' at Ani.

7. The Gavit' or Jamatun

By the mid-seventh century Armenian architecture developed most of its basic forms. During the various architectural renaissances of the medieval period, these forms were imitated and elaborated. One exception was the newly developed narthex, called a gavit' or jamatun in Armenian [43]. These special square halls were usually attached to the western entrance of churches. They were very popular in monastic complexes where they served as meeting rooms and vestibules. The twelfth to the fourteenth centuries was a period of great expansion of monasteries (in Armenian vank'), which in times of danger also housed neighboring villagers. Pairs of large intersecting arches [41], held up by four sturdy and squat columns, supported the roofs of jamatuns. Their intersection in the upper region of the hall created an open lantern for light and air. The walls were massive and contained few and small windows. Excellently preserved examples are found at Haghbat [41], Sanahin [43], Geghart [45, 135], Goshavank' [49], Magaravank' and Hovhannavank' [46].


F. Contemporary Church Architecture

Modern Armenian architecture, especially in church design, is extremely dependent on the ancient tradition. Most new buildings either consciously imitate the most famous monuments of the fourth to the seventh centuries, substituting contemporary constructional advances like reinforced and poured concrete for the traditional Armenian methods, or they combine features -- either tectonic or decorative -- from several old churches with results that are often a hybrid amalgam. Unfortunately, despite the large number of Armenian architects in Armenia and the diaspora and the many opportunities for new church design, innovation and inspiration seem lacking. The willingness of Armenian architects and masons of the past to constantly experiment with new forms has given way to conservative contemporary church boards and architects who seem afraid to deviate from the ancient and glorious tradition.