About Armenia

Come Home Again, to Armenia

1/1480/balcony.jpg

Architecture

The number of sacred monuments (churches, monasteries, chapels, shrines and Khachkars, or stone crosses) is truly mind-boggling. There are more than 5,000 churches, monasteries and chapels in Armenia, and over 20,000 Khachkars in the small territory of the Republic alone!

After a while, seeing all those churches and stone crosses can make the visitor kind of bleary-eyed, especially those who don’t understand their special meaning, and the traditions from whence they came. Basically all the same in central design, none are the same in their details, and it possible to detect earlier Urartian, Hellenistic, Roman, Persian and Arab influences on the design over successive centuries, which make them living museums of the past, and a lot more interesting to see. There are even holdovers’ from Armenia’s most ancient past, in stone carvings representing the zodiac, sun dials, and iconography from her animist and sun worship pagan traditions making their way into the church ornamentation.

But a little architecture primer is required to better appreciate the distinct character of the churches. And believe me, with this primer you will know more than the average local Armenian, and very likely more than even visiting Armenians from the outside world, about the sacred architecture in Armenia. Nothing like being able to knock off a few facts to impress the rest of the group, eh?

Sacred Geometry

Almost literally, geometry meant contact with the gods. It was considered a way of imitating the structure where the sun (probably the first god) and the moon (probably the second god) governed the natural order-- early man believed if he could "map" the universe, he would be able to predict the whims of gods, who sent punishing droughts, floods and pestilence on the land around him.

Geometry was also a fundamental tool for making things by hand. Without it, you simply can’t. You may not be aware of it, but when you shape any object, you are following the laws of geometry, which is based on an even older skill--that of measures, or counting. In the ancient world, this knowledge was considered magic, and as magic, it was kept in the realm of religion, in the realm of priests, a carefully guarded secret which was passed on only the elect. As the image of the structure of the universe, geometry was a symbolic system for understanding how it worked, including astronomy.


Ancestral Armenians had a refined knowledge of astronomy and were able to predict astral events to an accurate degree. The oldest known observatories in the world are in Armenia. One is called Karahundj. "Kara" means "of stone" or "stones", and "henge" has no specific meaning in English, it either is a forerunner of "hung" or is borrowed from an old Indo-European root. Like Stonehenge, ‘Karahundj’ is easily defined in the first part, but the second is up to theory. ‘Hundj’ may be an early version of ‘pundj’, meaning ‘bouquet’, or it might be related to ‘hunchuin’, which means ‘voice’.


Other henges--there are many throughout Europe -- have the ending "-nish" or "-nich", which in Armenian means "sign". Consistent among all of them is the first sound "Kar" or "Kal", which means stone.

Possibly erected as early as 4200 BCE, Karahundj and the ca. 2800 BCE observatory at Metsamor allowed Ancestral Armenians to develop geometry to such a level they could measure distances, latitudes and longitudes, envision the world as round, and were predicting solar and lunar eclipses about 1000 years before the Egyptians began doing the same. The fortress cities and temples that have been excavated in Armenia (some going back as far as 7000 years) show a remarkable awareness of using sacred numbers and geometry in constructing sacred buildings, using a complex system of squares, rectangles, circles, polygons with intersecting patterns.

Sacred Numbers

Sacred numbers are numbers with have special symbolic meanings. Their importance is rooted in mystical belief--if you used these numbers in measuring, or follow them on certain dates and in combinations, you were appeasing the gods, and affirming yourself as a member of their metaphysical family.

Sacred Numbers, a Short List

This is by no means complete, but it will give you an idea of what to look for when you see the monuments in Armenia. By counting out the steps, sizes, and shapes with these numbers in mind, you will be unlocking the secrets of Sacred Architecture in Armenia, from its earliest time through the Middle Ages. Sacred numbers should not be thought of as mere proportional ratios in creating beautiful buildings. They were rooted in a profound belief in the will of a god to bring order into the universe. They were not thought of as human invention, but part of the laws of the universe which humans were blessed in using.

ONE (1) - This number represents unity. Since it is part of all numbers it represents the ideal symbol of deity. It is the origin, the elementary.

TWO (2) - Polarity and rupture. It is the coming apart of unity--yin yang, good and evil, man and woman, the realm of opposites.

THREE (3) - The holiest of all numbers, it is still a part of our unconscious thinking. The triangle, the habitual use of threes in listing things, even the classic comic technique of repeating something 3 times, with the 3rd repetition altered slightly to make the punch line. In religion, the highest deities are in threes: Babylon had Anu, Bel and Ena; India had Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Greco-Roman Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, and the Christian Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


FOUR (4) - The number four was associated with basic divisions of matter and space: the four cardinal points, the four humors of the body, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the four rivers of paradise, the four cardinal virtues, the four winds, the four seasons, the four main prophets and the four evangelists.

FVE (5) - The number five consists of two unequal parts, 2 and 3. The diversity brings evil and misfortune. The five symbolizes the individual (one who defies the natural order and is punished), the five fingers on the hand, the pentagram.

SIX (6) - God created the world in six days. Six is the sum of 3+3 or 1+2+3. Therefore it is perfect. Christ was crucified on the sixth day of the week, and he died in the sixth hour of the day.

SEVEN (7) - From earliest times this number was associated with celestial beings and spiritual forces seven days in a week, the seven known planets (including the sun and the moon) the 7 evil spirits, the seven levels of a ziggurat (astral tower built by the Babylonians--the most famous being the Tower of Babel). According to St. Augustine, seven symbolized the perfection of God--he created the world and rested in the seventh day. Christian life is ordered by seven; seven capital sins, seven virtues, seven sacraments.

EIGHT (8) - the first number after seven, the symbol of life, the new life after baptism (both in pagan and Christian times). In Christian belief, the resurrection of Christ happens on the eighth day. The octagon is the favored form for the baptismal font.

NINE (9) - the result of 3x3, nine represents an even greater holiness found in three.

TEN (10) - According to St. Augustine, this number signifies perfection, because it is the sum of 3+7. It is found in the ten commandments, consisting of 3 laws pertaining to the love of God, and seven to the love of one’s neighbor. In Hebraic liturgy it can be found in the ten shores of Egypt, the ten ropes of the tent of the tabernacle, the height of the cherubs in the temple and the ten horns of the apocalyptic beast. Ten is the round and perfect number that forms the basis of the decimal system and is the universal number for the Pythagoreans.

TWELVE (12) - This number formed the basis of the Sumerian and Babylonian numerical system. It holds the twelve signs of the zodiac, the twelve months of the year, the twelve hours of the day. It was significant in Jewish religion: the twelve gates of paradise, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve bronze calves. In Christianity: the twelve apostles, the twelve stars around the head the apocalyptic woman, etc.


Sacred Shapes

In sacred geometry, numbers are combined with shapes to create a harmonious whole. The idea was to reunite humanity with the cosmic whole. Similar geometric patterns can be found in Sun Worship Temples throughout Mesopotamia and the Armenian Plateau, the shrines of Isis in Egypt, tabernacles of Jehovah, sanctuaries of Marduk, Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Throughout history, there are few basic geometrical forms which all the universe is composed, and can be generated by the means of two tools used by mathematicians ever since: the straight edge and the compass their construction does not require measurement.
Circle possibly the earliest figure drawn by human begins. Occurs frequently in nature (the sun, the moon).

Equilateral Triangle is derived from the intersection of two circles drawn through each other's center. Polygons can be made by adding equilateral triangles.

Square, a unique geometrical figure, allows a precise division by two and multiples of two, only by drawing. With an inscribed cross it is possible to divide it into eight triangles, thus defining eight cardinal points (four cardinal directions and the four corners of the world)

Pentagram (derived from the pentagon) was in ancient times a symbol for health and salvation, and in the Middle Ages used as a symbol to repulse evil spirits. As a geometric form it has a multitude of different meanings Its special relationship to the golden section represented the possibility of infinite divisions in both directions, making it more mystical.

Hexagon is made by dividing the circumference of a circle by its radius. The simple construction method of this form gave it special meaning, and it could be observed in nature (beehives, the forms of basalt rocks), and had one symbolic form in ‘Solomon’s Seal’.

Golden Section is a ratio that has been used extensively throughout history to erect buildings, create artwork, etc. This ratio can be reproduced with root rectangles and their derivatives.

Finally, all of this is combined to create complete harmony throughout a building. Every part is fixed in shape and size. Nothing can be added or removed without disturbing the harmony of the whole composition.

Sacred Geometry Examples in Armenia

Finally, all of this is combined to create complete harmony throughout a building. Every part is fixed in shape and size. Nothing can be added or removed without disturbing the harmony of the whole composition.

Garni

The 1st c. CE temple of Garni was built along Hellenistic classical lines, but embodies much of the sacred numerology and geometry devised by Ancestral Armenians 4200 years earlier. With a column to inter column ratio of 1/3 (1 being the primary number of the universe 3 being the holiest of all numbers, representing the Greco-Roman triad Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). The angles and measures used in designing the temple can be seen as both aesthetically beautiful, and as a reaffirmation of the universal laws that governed man’s destiny. Angles, number of columns, dimensions--these were all created with a careful eye to appeasing the gods and protecting the human from their wrath.
In fact, the structure itself is a representation of the cosmos, with a raised platform and 9 Steps leading to the main entrance (nine is three times the holy triad), 24 columns representing the clouds or vapors, and the ceiling a dome of the heavens, and sophisticated use of the equilateral triangles, squares, pentagons and hexagons in its design. The columns are arranged with 6 in front and back (considered a perfect number) and 8 on the sides (the first number after seven, the symbol of life).


Echmiadzin

When Christianity came to Armenia, as it did in Rome and Europe, it often usurped pagan traditions, converting them to a Christ-given tradition that facilitated conversions. This is not a slight against Christianity--it would be almost impossible to find any religion that rose completely on its own without borrowing some traditions from the past.

The first churches were built according to the vision of St. Gregory. In the vision, St. Gregory described the composition of the church and the interpretation of its elements. "The main site was marked with a circular base of gold on which rested a column of fire and a capital of cloud, surmounted by a cross of light. The sites for the martyr’s chapels were marked with red bases, columns of clouds, capitals of fire, and crosses of light these columns were lower than the column of light. Above everything stood four crosses, vaults fitted into each other. The whole construction was surmounted by a wonderful canopied construction of cloud in the form of a dome".

Sacred numbers and geometric forms can be found throughout the narration of St. Gregory’s vision. The foundation of the church began with the orientation of the building. The centerline was laid out according to direct observation of the position of the sunrise on the patronage day.

Continuing the tradition of sacred buildings from earlier pagan temples, Armenian builders developed their own type of architecture. For basilica plans, the ratio was 1/2 (1+2 = 3 or 1 and 2 as sacred numbers in themselves), and for rectangular plans the ratio was 1 square root of 2. The unit of measurement in Armenia was the foot (29.5¸ 29.7 cm), long used by the Greeks and Romans.


Interesting things nearby

Download our app

General sponsors

Armenia

USAID

Implementation of the BSSRC project in Armenia and development of the BSSRC web portal and mobile applications were co-funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Enterprise Development and Market Competitiveness (EDMC) project. The contents of the web portal and mobile applications are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

The Honorary Consul for Italy in Gyumri

ARMINCO

Armenian Travel Bureau

Georgia

Greece

Turkey

Login using social accounts