Culture of Nagorno-Karabakh - Monasteries, Churches and Chapels in And Around Nagorno-Karabakh

Monasteries, Churches and Chapels in And Around Nagorno-Karabakh

In the early Middle Ages, Artsakh and neighboring provinces of Utik and Paytakaran, known together as The Eastern Prefectures of Armenia (Armenian: Կողմանք Արևելից Հայոց) became a target of missionary activities of prominent religious leaders from Armenian mainland. The most distinguished of them were St. Gregory the Illuminator (Armenian: Սբ. Գրիգոր Լուսավորիչ, died circa 337 AD), who baptized Armenia into the first Christian state in 301 AD, and St. Mesrob Mashtots (Armenian: Սբ. Մեսրոբ Մաշտոց, 361-440 AD), the scholar who created the Armenian alphabet.

A number of Christian monuments that are identified with that vital period of the Armenian history belong to the world’s oldest places of Christian worship. Among them is the Amaras Monastery (Armenian: Ամարասի Վանք), which, according to ancient authors, such as the forefather of Armenian history Movses Khorenatsi (approx.410-490), was founded in the 4th century AD by St. Gregory himself. The oldest part of the monastery is the martyrium of St. Grigoris (Armenian: Սբ. Գրիգորիս), St. Gregory’s grandson and Bishop of Aghvank, who was killed by the pagans, around 338 AD, when teaching Gospel in the land of the Mazkuts (present-day Republic of Dagestan, in Russia). The mausoleum of St. Grigoris is a vaulted burial chamber equipped with two lateral vestibules that serves as the crypt for a church dating from a later period. Amaras is an active monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

While traveling in Artsakh and the neighboring provinces of Syunik and Utik, in circa 410 AD, St. Mesrob Mashtots established a school at Amaras where the Armenian script, invented by him in 405 AD, was first introduced for teaching purposes.

For 35 years until his death in 440, Mashtots recruited teams of monks to translate the religious, scientific and literary masterpieces of the ancient world into this new alphabet. Much of their work was conducted in the monastery at Amaras …”

The description of St. Mesrob Mashtots’ journey to Artsakh and the neighboring province of Utik is a focal point of several chapters of the “History of Aghvank” (Armenian: Պատմություն Աղվանից) written in the 7th century by one of Artsakh's most prominent natives—Armenian historian Movses Kaghankatvatsi (Armenian: Մովսես Կաղանկատվացի).

Another temple whose history relates to the mission of St. Mesrob Mashtots is the Targmanchats Monastery (Armenian: Սբ. Թարգմանչաց Վանք) near Karhat (Armenian: Քարհատ, present-day Dashkesan in Azerbaijan, to the north of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic). The word Targmanchats (Armenian: Թարգմանչաց) meaning “Saint Translators,” designates both St. Mesrob Mashtots and St. Sahak Partev (Armenian: Սբ. Սահակ Պարթև), head of the Armenian Church (387-436 AD) who sponsored Mashtots’ scholarly and religious expeditions. Using Mashtots’ alphabet, St. Sahak Partev translated the Bible from Syriac into Armenian in 411 AD (as testified by Mashtots’ pupil Koryun in his biographic work about his teacher). The main church of the monastery, reconstructed in 989, consists of one vaulted room (single nave) with an apse on the east flanked by two small rooms.

The basilica of St. Gevorg (Սբ. Գևորգ, St. George) at the Tzitzernavank Monastery (Armenian: Ծիծեռնավանք) in Kashatagh, is not only an important religious site, but is the best-preserved example of an Armenian basilica with three naves. It is a large and well-preserved structure dating probably from the fifth or sixth centuries. It stands not far from the so-called Lachin Corridor, a territory that connects Armenia with the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.The word Tzitzernavank originates from the root “tzitzern” (Armenian: ծիծեռն) meaning “little finger” in Old Armenian. This points to a period in the history of the monastery when it was believed to contain relics of St. George the Dragon-Slayer. In the past, the monastery belonged to the Tatev eparchy and is mentioned as a notable religious center by the 13th century historian Stephanos Orbelian (Armenian: Սթեփանոս Օրբելյան) and Bishop Tovma Vanandetsi (Armenian: Թովմա Վանանդեցի) in 1655. Beginning from 1992, the Tzitzernavank Monastery underwent renovation and became a venue of autumn festivals organized annually on St. George’s Day. Tzitzernavank is an active monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Churches with a cupola built on a radiating or cruciform floor plan were numerous in Armenia during the seventh century, and are well represented in Artsakh. One example is the chapel at Vankasar (Armenian: Վանքասար) where the cupola and its drum rest on the central square of a cruciform floor plan. The chapel is located on the eastern frontier of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and was reputedly founded by Artsakh’s celebrated monarch Vachagan II the Pious (Armenian: Վաչագան Բ Բարեպաշտ) of the early medieval Arranshahik dynasty (Armenian: Առանշահիկ). Another example is the Okhta Trne church at Mokhrenes (Armenian: Օխտը Տռնէ, “The Eight-Door Church”), probably dating from the fifth to seventh centuries. Its walls, roughly cut and bonded, enclose a quatrefoil interior with four small diagonal niches. Less common is the free cross plan with a cupola, found in the Chapel of St. Savior (Armenian: Սբ. Փրկիչ) in the Mardakert District.

Artsakh’s designs at times differed from the course of the architectural evolution of mainland Armenia. Observations suggest that certain floor plans frequently employed in other regions of Armenia during the seventh century are not found in Artsakh. These include the chamber with a cupola supported by wall braces (e.g. the cathedral in Aruj, in the Aragatsotn Province of Armenia); the cruciform plan with a cupola on four free-standing pillars (e.g. St. Gayaneh Church in the Holy City of Echmiadzin, Armenia), and the radiating type with four rooms in a rectangle (e.g. St. Hripsimeh Church in the Holy City of Echmiadzin, Armenia).

Another peculiarity of the region is that few of Artsakh’s monuments date from the post-Arab period or the rise of Armenian kingdoms (ninth to the eleventh centuries), which was a very productive artistic era in other Armenian provinces. The structures that could be attributed to that period are chapels on the cruciform plan with a cupola, such as the church at Varazgom (Armenian: Վարազգոմ) near Kashatagh, the Khunisavank Monastery (Armenian: Խունիսավանք) in Getabaks (now–Gedabey district of Azerbaijan, north to the Nagorno Karabakh Republic), and churches with a single nave, such as the church in Parissos (Armenian: Փարիսոս).

It was during the post-Seljuk period and the beginning of the Mongol period (late twelfth and thirteenth centuries) when Artsakh’s architecture blossomed. Monasteries in this era served as active centers of art and scholarship. Most of them contained scriptoria where manuscripts were copied and illuminated. They also were fortified and often served as places of refuge for the population in times of trouble.

Several monastic churches from this period adopted the model used most widely throughout Armenia: a cathedral with a cupola in the inscribed cross plan with two or four angular chambers. Examples include the largest and most complex monasteries of Artsakh: Dadivank (Armenian: Դադիվանք, 1214–1237), Gandzasar (Armenian: Գանձասար, 1216–1238) and Gtichavank (Armenian: Գտիչավանք, 1241–1246). In the case of the Gandzasar and Gtichavank monasteries, the cone over the cupola is umbrella-shaped, a picturesque design that was originally developed by the architects of Armenia’s former capital city of Ani, in the tenth century, and subsequently spread to other provinces of the country, including Artsakh.

Like all Armenian monasteries, those in Artsakh reveal great geometric rigor in the layout of buildings. In this regard, the thirteenth century’s Dadivank, the largest monastic complex in Artsakh and all of Eastern Armenia, located in the northwestern corner of the Mardakert District, is a remarkable case. Dadivank was sufficiently well preserved to leave no doubt that it was one of the most complete monasteries in the entire Caucasus. With its Memorial Cathedral of the Holy Virgin in the center, Dadivank has approximately twenty different structures, which are divided into four groups: ecclesiastical, residential, defensive and ancillary. Dadivank is an active monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

A conspicuous characteristic of Armenian monastic architecture of the thirteenth century is the gavit (գավիթ, also called zhamatoun; Armenian: ժամանտուն). The gavits are special square halls usually attached to the western entrance of churches. They were very popular in large monastic complexes where they served as narthexes, assembly rooms and lecture halls, as well as vestibules for receiving pilgrims. Some appear as simple vaulted galleries open to the south (e.g. in the Metz Arrank Monastery; Armenian: Մեծառանից Վանք); others have an asymmetrical vaulted room with pillars (Gtichavank Monastery); or feature a quadrangular room with four central pillars supporting a pyramidal dome (the Dadivank Monastery). In another type of gavit, the vault is supported by a pair of crossed arches – in Horrekavank (Armenian: Հոռեկավանք) and Bri Yeghtze (Armenian: Բռի Եղցէ) monasteries.

The most famous gavit in Nagorno-Karabakh, though, is part of the Gandzasar Monastery. It was built in 1261 and is distinctive for its size and superior quality of workmanship. Its layout corresponds exactly to that of Haghbat (Armenian: Հաղբատ) and Mshakavank (Armenian: Մշակավանք)—two monasteries located in the northern part of today’s Republic of Armenia. At the center of the ceiling, the cupola is illuminated by a central window which is adorned with the same stalactite ornaments as in Geghard (Armenian: Գեղարդ) and Harichavank (Armenian: Հառիճավանք)—monasteries in the Republic of Armenia dating from the early thirteenth century.

The Gandzasar Monastery was the spiritual center of Khachen (Armenian: Խաչեն), the largest and most powerful principality in medieval Artsakh, by virtue of being home to the Katholicosate of Aghvank. Аlso known as the Holy See of Gandzasar, Katholicosate of Aghvank (Armenian: Աղվանից Կաթողիկոսություն) was one of the territorial subdivisions of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Gandzasar’s Cathedral of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (Armenian: Սբ. Հովհաննես Մկրտիչ, designating St. John the Baptist) is one of the most well-known Armenian architectural monuments of all times. No surprise, Gandzasar is number one tourist attraction in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. In its decor there are elements which relate it to three other monuments, in Armenia, from the early thirteenth century: the colonnade on the drum resembles that of Harichavank (Armenian: Հառիճավանք; built around 1201), and the great cross with a sculpture of Crucifixion at the top of the facade is also found at Kecharis (Armenian: Կեչառիսի Վանք, built around 1214) and Hovhannavank (Armenian: Հովհաննավանք, 1216–1250). Gandzasar an active monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Gandzasar and Dadivank are also well known for their bas-reliefs that embellish their domes and walls. After the Cathedral of St. Cross on the Lake Van (also known as Akhtamar-Ախթամար, in Turkey), Gandzasar contains the largest amount of sculpted decor compared to other architectural ensembles of Armenia. The most famous of Gandzasar’s sculptures are Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ, the Lion (a symbol of the Vakhtangian princes (Armenian: Վախթանգյան իշխաններ) who built both Gandzasar and Dadivank), and the Churchwardens—each holding on his hands a miniature copy of the cathedral. In Dadivank, the most important bas-relief depicts the patrons of the monastery, whose stone images closely resemble those carved on the walls of the Haghbat, Kecharis and Harichavank monasteries, in the Republic of Armenia.

Although in this period the focus in Artsakh shifted to more complex structures, churches with a single nave continued to be built in large numbers. One example is the monastery of St. Yeghishe Arakyal (Armenian: Սբ. Եղիշե Առաքյալ, also known as the Jrvshtik Monastery (Ջրվշտիկ), which in Armenian means "Longing-for-Water"), in the historical county of Jraberd, that has eight single-naved chapels aligned from north to south. One of these chapels is a site of high importance for the Armenians, as it serves as a burial ground for Artsakh’s fifth century monarch King Vachagan II the Pious Arranshahik. Also known as Vachagan the Pious for his devotion to the Christian faith and support in building a large number of churches throughout the region, King Vachagan is an epic figure whose deeds are immortalized in many of Artsakh’s legends and fairytales. The most famous of those tells how Vachagan fell in love with the beautiful and clever Anahit, who then helped the young king defeat pagan invaders.

After an interruption that lasted from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, architecture flourished again, in the seventeenth century. Many parish churches were built, and the monasteries, serving as bastions of spiritual, cultural and scholarly life, were restored and enlarged. The most notable of those is the Yerits Mankants Monastery (“Monastery of Three Infants,” Armenian: Երից Մանկանց Վանք) that was built around 1691 in the county of Jraberd. The monastery was established by the feudal family of Melik-Israelians (Armenian: Մելիք-Իսրաելյան), Lords of Jraberd, with an apparent purpose to rival the Holy See of Gandzasar and its hereditary patrons—the Hasan-Jalalians, Lords of Khachen.

Artsakh’s architecture of the nineteenth century is distinguished by a merger of innovation and the tradition of grand national monuments of the past. One example is the Cathedral of the Holy Savior also known as “Ghazanchetsots” (Armenian: Ղազանչեցոց Սբ. Ամենափրկիչ, 1868–1888) because it was erected in the historical Ghazanchetsots (Ղազանչեցոց) borough of Shusha. It stands in Shusha, former capital of Karabakh Khanate and is among the largest Armenian churches ever erected. The cathedral’s architectural forms were influenced by the designs of the ancient cathedral of St. Echmiadzin (4th-9th centuries), center of the Armenian Apostolic Church located to the west of Armenia’s capital of Yerevan. After the Karabakh War, the Cathedral underwent restoration, and currently serves as an active house of worship of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In addition to the Cathedral of the Holy Savior, Shusha hosted the Hermitage of Holy Virgins (Armenian: Կուսանաց Անապատ, 1816) and three other Armenian churches: Holy Savior “Meghretsots” (Armenian: Մեղրեցոց Սբ. Ամենափրկիչ, 1838), St. Hovhannes “Kanach Zham” (Armenian: Սբ. Հովհաննես, 1847) and Holy Savior “Aguletsots” (Armenian: Ագուլեցոց Սբ. Ամենափրկիչ, 1882).

In the nineteenth century, several Muslim monuments appear as well. They are linked to the emergence of the Karabakh Khanate, a short-lived, Muslim-ruled principality in Karabakh (1750s-1805). In the city of Shusha, three nineteenth century mosques were built, which, together with two Russian Orthodox chapels, are the only non-Armenian architectural monuments found on the territories comprising the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and today’s Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

Read more about this topic:  Culture Of Nagorno-Karabakh

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