Christian Armenian Architecture and the Influence of the Pre-Christian Culture: A Common Reader’s Perspective

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Ashot Haykazun Grigoryan, author of the recently-published Christian Armenian Architecture and the Influence of the Pre-Christian Culture (Zangak, 2023), defines architecture as the art of building as only symbols can do. More than construction materials, the purpose of the structure, the consideration of surroundings, or any other consideration, avers Grigoryan, symbols characterize our architecture. The epigraph by fifth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Confucius — “The world is governed by signs and symbols, not by laws nor words” — roots the book in the deeper significance of things that only symbols can reveal.

With his meticulously-researched 438-page study full of charts, illustrations and photographs of structures and monuments built from pre-Christian times through the late Middle Ages, both in the Armenian Highlands and urban centers, Grigoryan provides evidence for the symbolic foundation of Armenian architecture.

Symbolic images of two interlacing triangles

Symbols have played a key role in the creation of our pre-Christian culture and have left an indelible footprint on Christian Armenian architecture, posits Grigoryan. Interpreting Christian architecture from a symbolic perspective will reveal the continuity of the paradigm, he affirms.

There is much evidence of symbolic thinking in the first art of our ancestors, the rock carvings found in the Armenian Highlands, where whole histories are drawn as symbols. Symbolic images — such as the Armenian eternity symbol, the two interlaced triangles used in the art of cross stones, the tree of life that is widely used in structures of worship, the sun-lion, and many more — have been used repeatedly in our dwellings, places of worship and monuments. Even as they have evolved, adjusting to the needs of a particular place or time, the symbols have preserved their initial form and meaning, notes Grigoryan.

At least for the layman, Armenian architecture has been equated, almost exclusively, with the beauty and the magnificence of our churches, starting with Echmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church built in the fourth and fifth centuries following the adoption of Christianity by Armenia as a state religion in A.D. 301, the seventh-century St. Hripsime, one of the oldest surviving churches in the country, and the many others built in the Middle Ages and later. The unmatched visual appeal of the architectural designs of these churches is undeniable.

Grigoryan’s is simply an invitation to a new way of thinking that takes Armenian architecture beyond the Christian-pagan divide and expands it, giving it a wider, richer significance.

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Besides reclaiming the infinite wealth of over two millennia of pre-Christian Armenian cultural heritage, and a mythology (Vahagn, Anahit, Astghik) that has been the inspiration of our poets (Daniel Varoujan, Vahe-Vahian, Levon Shant), Grigoryan’s innovative approach makes the Armenian spirit and identity that reach back into our prehistory part of Christian Armenian architecture.

Rock carvings

Nature has always provided the sub-text for our religious structures and aesthetic creations, argues Grigoryan. The symbolic representations in our temples and churches originate in the natural forces of the physical world. Grigoryan cites the Holy Cross Church of Akhtamar, built in A.D. 915-921, as an example of “a symbolic totality” showing the implementation of the Heaven, Man, Earth model, that divides the world into four parts/sides along vertical and horizontal axes, and the principle of four, manifest in cultures worldwide. The four walls which comprise the structure, for example, symbolize the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. The main altar faces east towards the rising sun. The external walls are covered with motifs of plants and animals from the natural world, and so on.

Reverting to nature as the source makes the creation of symbols part of man’s aspiration to find his place in the universe. To illustrate, Grigoryan describes the gradual transitioning from establishing residences in natural caverns to using these as models for the construction of dwellings. The hillside village where the roof of one residence is the yard of another is one example. Other factors that create environments suitable for habitation include the presence of potable water, arable land and geographies that offer protection from hazards, etc. Grigoryan describes a village where residences were built all along the river that runs through it. This collaboration between art and nature has ensured the survival of mankind which, for Grigoryan, is the raison d’etre of architecture.

When the man-made and the natural cohere and when the pre-Christian and the Christian unite in harmony, divisions and the ensuing hatred and wars become irrelevant. Grigoryan’s strategy of connecting universally through symbols, which provide insight into the essence of things, reminds us of the commonality of all human endeavors and opens the doors to the possibility of forging connections that could alter the self-destructive path of genocides and wars. It is an ethos that strives to combine, versus one that creates a divide, helps preserve and advance history, not destroy it. This unifying vision is, to me, the book’s greatest appeal.

On a more self-serving note, promoting continuity and unity makes it more difficult for Armenia’s enemies to rewrite history. Evidence of a continuous Armenian presence could in fact be an antidote to the deliberate destruction by Azerbaijan of our religious and cultural artifacts in its efforts to annihilate a millennia-old culture from existence and erase all trace of the Armenian presence on our historic lands.

The tree of life

Grigoryan’s energy and his attention to his subject matter should invite into the conversation anyone interested in Armenian culture and architecture. There are numerous mentions in history books of the existence of symbols, but there is no coherent or sustained research of the application and the interpretation of symbolic thinking in Armenian architecture, writes Grigoryan. This landmark study fills that huge gap. Notwithstanding, Grigoryan describes his astonishing accomplishment as “only an experiment.” The advent of new technologies and new evidence coming to light continually make future editions of the book inevitable, he avers.

Christian Armenian Architecture and the Influence of the Pre-Christian Culture has been published by the AGBU Vahram Abdalian Cultural Fund established by Vahe-Vahian in 1980 in memory of his late son, to help preserve the Armenian cultural heritage by publishing manuscripts that contribute to that effort. The book is written in Eastern Armenian using classical (Western) Armenian orthography. The handsome volume is a valuable addition to the ten works already published by the fund.

The study is supported by the Alexander Tamanyan National Museum-Institute of Architecture, in Yerevan, Armenia, of which Dr. Grigoryan, an architect himself, is Chairman of the Board.  The book is available for purchase at Abril Bookstore in Glendale, California.

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