Historic Ashtarak

Ashtarak boasts thousands of years of rich history.

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Historic Ashtarak

Historic Ashtarak

Ashtarak boasts thousands of years of rich history. The natural and artificial caves (Darabavor), Bronze Age fortresses and settlements, grave fields (Khojabagher, Verin Naver, etc.), vantage-towers (Ulatitik), the irrigation system dating to the Kingdom of Van (Veri Aru, 8th-7th cc. BCE) and other monuments prove how old the area is. 

Ashtarak was a prosperous settlement in the early Middle Ages with two famous churches (Tsiranavor - 5th c, Karmravor - 7th c.). Following the liberation from Seljuk Turks (mid 11th-late 12th cc.), Ashtarak witnessed economic and cultural blossoming during the reign of the Zakarians (until the mid 14th c.) and the Artsrunis (especially during the reign of Sadun Artsruni, 3rd quarter of the 13th c.).

It was during this period that Spitakavor and St. Marineh churches were built (13th c.) and the art of khachkar (stone cross) rose to new heights (“Tsak Khach” khachkar, etc.).

In 1555 Ashtarak passed under Persian control experiencing the harsh consequences of the Turkish-Persian wars (16th-17th cc.). By a miracle it was guarded against the 1604 Shah Abbas exile of Armenians.

In 1664 Yerevan-based wealthy merchant Motsakents Grigor commissioned a new bridge built from tufa which crossed the Kasakh River and was located next to the earlier structure dated to at least the 10th c. and destroyed in the 17th c.    

In 1760-1770 Ashtarak was several times attacked by the Lezgians.

Ashtarak's population supported the Russian troops during the Russian-Persian wars of 1804-1813 and 1826-1828. One of the active masterminds behind the Persian-Armenians' immigration into Eastern Armenia was the future Catholics to All Armenian Nerses V Ashtaraketsi Shahazizian

In the 19th-20th cc. Ashtarak witnessed significant growth. The dwelling houses (1837, 1876, 1902, 1913, etc.), industrial and public buildings (mill dated to the late 19th c., bath going back to 1900 and other structures) are examples of the unique architecture of the town.

The area was the center of Ashtarak district during the Soviet period and the center of Aragatsotn marz following the establishment of the Third Armenian Republic.

Ashtarak was the birthplace of the famous Armenian religious figure, an accomplished representative of culture, politics and science Nerses V Ashtaraketsi, writers Pertch Proshian and Vardges Petrosian, poets Smbat Shahaziz, Gevorg Dodokhian, Gevorg Emin, philologist Yervand Shahaziz, linguist Gr. Ghapantsyan, biologist Norayr Sisakyan and others.

Karmravor St Astvatsatsin Church

The exact date of the construction of the church is unknown. Dated to the second half of the 7th c., it is believed to have been built at the site of a pagan temple.

The one line inscription encircling the southern, eastern and the northern facades attributes the construction of the church to David, the sons of priest Gregor and Manase.

It is Armenia's best intact example of small domed churches with a cruciform plan both on the outside and inside. Built from polished red tufa, it boasts inscriptions on the walls. The interior of the dome (“Christ in Majesty”) and the western cross-wing contain remnants of frescoes typical of medieval Eastern Christian art (7th c.).

The outer wall dating to 1326 bears a gate in the south end. Bishop Vardan from the Azizbek family had the church renovated in 1447. In the early 19th c. Mkrtich Vardapet commissioned a chapel in the cemetery located to the west of the church.

The chapel, however, was converted into a village church in 1860. In the same year a vestry with a wooden roof was attached to the western façade to meet the religious needs of the population. The structure, however, distorted the external design of the church. 

In the north-western end of the enclosed church yard is the final resting place for the poet Gevorg Emin, who was buried here in 1998. The nearby cemeteries include numerous inscribed khachkars (stone crosses) and gravestones. In the northern cemetery on a pedestal stands the famous Sourb Nshan (“Tsak Kar”) khachkar erected in 1268 by statesman Housam.

In 1950 the Committee for the Protection of Monuments of History undertook the renovation of the steps leading from the roadway to the church, the lower rows of the church walls and the main stairs. The vestry was demolished in 1954.

The area was put in good order in 1950-1960 and in 1978. The cemeteries and the spans between the walls were renovated in 1985. The tiles of the church dome were renovated in the early 2000s.  

Karmravor - Background

Karmravor church (DD 40.29960 x 44.36483, elev. 1157m), which name means “of red,” or “red color” is dated to the 7th c for its architectural details (carved cornices and window edges), and is considered the best structure of its type. The church is the first (and smallest) of three structures of its type built in Armenia during the 6th-7th cc, the others are the reconstructed S. Sion in Oshakan and S. Kristopor at Dashtadem.

An undated inscription beginning on the south wall and extending to the North does not give clues to the church’s date, but affirms that two priests, Grigori and Manas, were responsible for its construction.

One of the unique features of the church is the shape of the red-tile dome. The tiles are remarkable, for having survived mostly intact and for their intricate details. Most are original, laid with lime mortar. Repairs in the 1980s showed just how exact the measurements are; no two tiles are of the same size or exact shape, though together they appear to be uniform. With some of the only original tiles that once adorned the roofs of most of Armenia’s churches and monasteries, Karmravor’s are in remarkable condition.

Karmravor - The Church

Aside from the elegant red-tiled roof, the church is notable for its small size (5.969 meters by 7.467 meters ) and intricate decor. It is considered one of a number of “free crosses” that were erected throughout the country, as much shrines as churches; markers of faith as much as they are places of worship. It is possible that it was built on the top of a pagan shrine to a pre-Christian deity. 

The small building stands on a stepped base, suggesting it may have been placed over a pre-Christian platform (three-stepped platforms were common among pre-Christian temples/shrines in the area, Garni being an exception with 9 steps (or 3 x 3).

The church is cruciform, with the central dome supported by the corners of a square, the corners protruding up on the exterior. The six-faceted barrel rises from this, the cupola crowned with a faceted onion-head dome, much like the Byzantine churches it emulates. The 6th-7th cc was a time of extensive communication between the Armenian kingdom and the Byzantine (Greek) empire, when tastes followed the long caravan routes along with the trade. The small Karmravor is remarkable for combining distinctive Armenian free-cross design and barrel vaulting with a shallow faceted Byzantine dome.

Entrance to the church is from the west, facing the east altar. Inside, the arms of the cross form the small hall, the horseshoe shaped walls of the apse built within the rectangular east exterior wall. The other wings of the cross form are rectangular inside and out. Above the central hall are four squinches (corner protrusions) that support the drum of the cupola, which is eight-sided with eight small squinches transitioning the drum and cupola itself.

Karmravor has one more special feature: the columns on the interior corners stand in pairs facing each other, instead of diagonally. The church is decorated by combining geometric designs (intertwining lines, semicircles and variations of the cross) with intertwining vines and leaf motifs, especially on the eaves of the dome. Other 6th-7th cc churches like Karmravor are St. Marineh of Artik, Lmbatavank, St. Astvatsatsin of Talin, and Vosketar. There is something beguiling about this elegant little building, a true masterpiece of simplicity and taste.

Karmravor - Great Khachkar

Outside the church and a little downhill is a 12th c Khachkar, finely carved with a clear image of the sun disk and a tree of life, so important in Armenian Christian symbolism. You can easily detect the elaborately carved disc under the cross, and on either side of the lower part of the cross, stylized ‘branches’ of the tree of life. Both hail from pre-Christian days, when Armenians worshipped the sun god Aramazd (similar to the Parthian god Ahura Mazda) and the tree of life, a symbol of immortality from at least the days of the Sumerians (3500 BCE).

Both symbols figure prominently in Christian use of the light, salvation, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge and the Garden of Eden. Christians in Greece and Rome converted these symbols to their own use using scripture or as a backdrop to purely Christian designs, but the Armenians, surrounded by pagan religions and under pressure to convert to any one of them, took a more decisive, even combative stance, literally conquering the gods of old by placing the cross over and inside them, in effect baptizing them and claiming them as Christian all along.

Karmravor - Cemetery

The Old Cemetery lies East and North of Karmravor with several khachkars and numerous multi-colored medieval grave stones, many sadly missing their intricate carvings, but a few still boasting the images of the deceased and allegorical depictions representing their lives, heroic efforts, or simple please for mercy in the next life.

The khachkars include one by the last great Khachkar sculptor Kiram Kazmogh (1551-1610) with a 1602 sample of intricate mastery. Others to look for include a set of three khachkars of red tufa sitting side by side (the “Three Brothers” 13 c), the Great Ashtarak Khachkar with the cross surmounting a bottom panel of three discs (14th c) and the Kiram Khachkar, a red khachkar with extremely elaborate side panels and tree of life.

Ashtarak - Spitakavor St Astvatsatsin Church

This church is dated to the early 13th c. It is a small structure with rectangular plan and low-stage semi-circular altar in the east end.

Spitakavor is believed to have boasted a domed composition. It has two entrances: western (main entry) and southern. The church is built from polished tufa stone of yellowish-apricot color and lime cement.

The inscription on the western wall shows that Mkrtitch was responsible for the church renovation in the 14th c. (up until 1321). It is believed to have been destroyed during the 1679 earthquake and is still in ruins.

It was partially fortified in 1980s.

Spitakavor - Background

Spitakavor (“of white” or “white color”, 4th-13th/14th cc), lies near Tsiranavor and also perched over the canyon precipice. To get there, take the alley on the R (S) side of Tsiranavor (with a modern white stone house on its R) to the end and turn R again to the next alley, following it to its end, where on the L the small, ruined Spitakavor Church lies (DD 40.29925 x 44.36761, elev. 1152m).

Despite its name, Spitakavor is not at all white but rather made from red tufa, its white coating long since eroded by time and wear. The church is recorded as coming from both the 4th c, which would make it the oldest structure in Ashtarak, and the 14th c, making it the youngest.

The church is a single hall-type, used in both periods but debate over the dating calls attention to the foundations, which some say were actually pre-Christian in origin, converted to a church in the early Christian era by S. Lusavorich, abandoned, then rebuilt in the last period before Armenia’s lost its autonomy.

The current structure is from the 13th or 14th cc, but an earlier Christian structure is said to have been built on the site in the early 4th c, its pre-Christian foundations dating back to the 2nd c BCE.

Spitakavor - Legend

This early structure may be the white building alluded to in the legend of the three sisters, their deaths an allegory for the capitulation of the pagan gods (red, apricot and white; Vahagn/Anahit, Nuneh and Astghikh?) faith to the new Christian religion, with the Prince (“Sargis” in some versions) symbolizing the Armenian people, or Armenian leaders who converted and repented.

Spitakavor - Building

The current structure is single nave or hall type, popular in the early Christian period, when pagan temples were converted into Christian churches. Later experimentation introduced the central dome, cruciform and circular hall styles. A small building, Spitakavor was modified to the cruciform type, with a small dome that adorned its hall. The foundations appear Pagan, with a stepped stylobate built at the gorge rim hundreds of years earlier. The stone is finely hewn, but with little décor.

Ashtarak - Tsiranavor St Astvatsatsin Church

This church is located in Berdatagh which lies in the north-east end of Ashtarak town. It is a triple-aisle basilica.  Six pylons and spans of arches divide the prayer hall into three aisles.

The middle aisle ends in a horseshoe-shaped apse in the east flanked by two rectangular chambers topped by roofs. It had two entrances: from the south and from the west (the western entrance is presently locked).

Tsiranavor is built from polished tufa of apricot color and lime cement. The vaults of the roof, the arcades, the stage and the three pylons have been destroyed.

The church is believed to have been a pagan temple, a place of worship of water, heavenly element and dragons. It has been reconstructed many times. Following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion in Armenia (301) the temple was converted into a church and was extensively reconstructed into a triple- aisle basilica in the 5th c.

In the years of struggle against the Seljuk Turks (1190s) the Zakarians added the northern and the southern defensive double-walls.

The last significant reconstruction was undertaken during the period of Persian control (18th c.) when the church was converted into a fortress. The 1679 earthquake damaged the roof which finally collapsed in the 19th c. No further attempt was taken to restore Tsiranavor which remained neglected and in ruins.

In 1962-1964 the church was cleared of rubble and was partially restored. Old construction layers were uncovered during the 1988 excavations and the removal of the western double-wall. The outer walls were partially cleaned in 1990.

Tsiranavor St. Astvatsatsin church is an interesting example of conversion of a pagan structure into a Christian church. Its structural simplicity, decorative patterns and gradual changes in the reconstruction grant Tsiranavor its unique place among Armenian triple-nave basilicas dated to the early Middle Ages.

Tsiranavor - Background

Tsiranavor (“of apricot” or “apricot color”, 5th c, renovated in 6th-7th cc) lays a little west of Karmravor, overlooking the canyon, and is the oldest extant church in Ashtarak. To get there from the entry to Old Town, continue on the alley towards the Perj Proshian Home Museum and Statue, which lie at the end of an alley (ask if you get lost). From here you can walk to the site. Behind you as you face the museum is a quaint little alley that leads to a R alley which passes in front of the Tsiranavor  Church (DD 40.29885 x 44.36522, elev. 1149m).

Tsiranavor - History

The current walls are dated to the 5th c with traces of an earlier building. There are no inscriptions but it is thought the renovation dates to the period of Nerses of Ashtarak (540-557). The church is located near Spitakavor church. The building is a triple-aisle basilica, once of several in Armenia. The main aisle ends in a horseshoe-shaped apse flanked by two chambers slightly below the altar stage.

Later attempts to preserve the building included reinforcing the north and west walls in the 17th c and rebuilding the south wall. However, earthquakes and neglect damaged the building, so that it was mostly in ruins by 1815.

Around 1880 it was decided to transform the church into a fortress (Berd), its roofing stones used in part to create a fortress wall on the perimeter, doubling the North and West wall and rebuilding most of the southern wall, adding embrasures to its upper part and ruining much of the original composition. The surrounding district became known as "Berdatagh" (Fort district) as a result, a name that still stands.

Tsiranavor - Exterior

What remains are the exterior walls, halls, apse and the side chambers, but none of the decoration that once adorned the church. There is no doubt that the walls once had frescoes and were ornately covered with carvings, memorial stones and khachkars.

The pediment with a serrated cornice in the eastern façade and a double window with a colonette in the center of the western wall have been retained. Restoration began in the mid 20th c, when the walls, piers, arches, vault fragments and khachkars were uncovered. Near the west end, there are traces of the beginnings of the central vault.

Tsiranavor - Interior

The curved central apse and the symmetrical apsiodoles on either side are all included within the church’s rectangular exterior walls, which gave it an expressive nature and elevated the interior under a gable roof. The 5th c structure had a wooden roof that was replaced with a stone one resting on three piers of T-shaped piers which was characteristic of 5th c Armenian architecture.

The pilasters are missing from the present-day pylons. The spans between the pylons are as wide as the middle nave, which divide the nave by flying arches and pilasters into four square parts (as in the Kasakh basilica). The architecture is more developed here than in other basilicas of the period; two symmetrical apsiodoles flank the altar apse. The roof was pitched over the side aisles with a second pitch roof covering the main hall.

St Marineh Church at Ashtarak

S. Marineh (also “S. Marianeh”, 1281, DD 40.30098 x 44.36049)

The largest church in Ashtarak is the later S. Marineh, which is much grander than the others and located further inland from Karmravor in the NE end of town.

The church is often overlooked by visitors, but it is an architectural jewel well worth the visit; for its unique design (the tall structure is topped with a soaring, fragile polyhedral drum and tent roof) and the remarkable 19th c gavit.

The drum and especially the dome are intricately built with carvings and crenulated stone pieces. Armenian archways, popular during this time, can be seen in the sides of the tented dome, giving it a lightness and movement not found in other domes. The facades themselves are adorned with narrow windows framed with geometric borders and a cross-form, the outer wings carved in elaborate patterns.

The drum supports the tent roof with archways of its own and eight windows, one for each facet. The southern entrance is noted for not being centrally placed on its façade, but rather to the north end of that wall. It seems that another structure adjacent to the entry was once there, no longer present. Inside, the church hall is divided between the main cruciform with the apse on the east end (typical for Armenian churches) and a cool, crisp design. The southern roof is topped by an 1838 bell tower, built from basalt.

This is a neighborhood church, very much alive. It has a well kept garden and large trees to shade visitors from the harsh summer sun. The view of Ararat from the south side is stunning. A nearby parsonage (20th c) is built with tufa stone boasts intricately carved wooden porches.

S. Marineh - Background

S. Marineh (also “S. Marianeh”, 1281, DD 40.30098 x 44.36049)

The largest church in Ashtarak is the later S. Marineh, which is much grander than the others and located further inland from Karmravor in the NE end of town.

The church is often overlooked by visitors, but it is an architectural jewel well worth the visit; for its unique design (the tall structure is topped with a soaring, fragile polyhedral drum and tent roof) and the remarkable 19th c gavit.

The drum and especially the dome are intricately built with carvings and crenulated stone pieces. Armenian archways, popular during this time, can be seen in the sides of the tented dome, giving it a lightness and movement not found in other domes. The facades themselves are adorned with narrow windows framed with geometric borders and a cross-form, the outer wings carved in elaborate patterns.

The drum supports the tent roof with archways of its own and eight windows, one for each facet. The southern entrance is noted for not being centrally placed on its façade, but rather to the north end of that wall. It seems that another structure adjacent to the entry was once there, no longer present. Inside, the church hall is divided between the main cruciform with the apse on the east end (typical for Armenian churches) and a cool, crisp design. The southern roof is topped by an 1838 bell tower, built from basalt.

This is a neighborhood church, very much alive. It has a well kept garden and large trees to shade visitors from the harsh summer sun. The view of Ararat from the south side is stunning. A nearby parsonage (20th c) is built with tufa stone boasts intricately carved wooden porches.

Ashtarak - The three sisters

The Three Sisters are the nickname given to three churches in Ashtarak; Karmravor, Tsiranavor and Spitakavor, each representing a different period of Armenian history and together cover the greatest achievements of sacred architecture in the country.

As with most of Armenian sites there are legends tied to their creation. According to one there were three sisters, equally beautiful, and each in love with the same prince. In one version they each wore a different color dress; white, brown and red. In other versions they had different color hair; auburn, red and blonde. Spurned by the prince, the two eldest (auburn and red hair) threw themselves from the top of the canyon wall to their deaths, followed by the youngest (blonde) who found their bodies broken on the rocks below. In another version, the elder sisters (apricot and red dresses) decided to commit suicide so the youngest could have the prince. Again the youngest (white dress) threw herself after her sisters, spoiling the planned nuptials. The Prince, stricken by remorse in all versions, had the three churches erected in honor of each of the sisters, one apricot-brown (auburn, Tsiranavor), one red (Karmravor) and one white (blonde, Spitakavor) and went off into the sunset/oblivion to count his sins for encouraging such rude behavior.

Karmravor

The most famous of the “three sisters” is the 7th c. Karmravor, a tiny jewel sitting in the midst of an early Christian/Medieval Cemetery. To get there, backtrack to the signposted road to the church (in English) and follow that for about 100m to a parking lot below the small Karmravor church (DD 40.29960 x 44.36483, elev. 1157m).

Tsiranavor (“of apricot” or “apricot color”, 5th c, refurbished in 6th-7th cc) lays a little west of Karmravor, overlooking the canyon, and is the oldest extant church in Ashtarak, which lie at the end of an alley (ask if you get lost). From here you walk to the site. Behind you as you face the museum is a quaint little alley that leads to a R alley which passes in front of the Tsiranavor Church (DD 40.29885 x 44.36522, elev. 1149m).

Spitakavor (“of white” or “white color”, 4th-13th/14th cc), lies near Tsiranavor and also perched over the canyon precipice. To get there, take the alley on the R (S) side of Tsiranavor (with a modern white stone house on its R) to the end and turn R again to the next alley, following it to its end, where on the L the small, ruined Spitakavor Church lies (DD 40.29925 x 44.36761, elev. 1152m).

 

 


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