Faith and religion have always played an important role, both in the tribes’ life- ancestors inhabited in the Armenian highlands, and in the life of already established Armenian people. Both at the times of pre-Christianity, and after.
The faith existed in Armenia before the adoption of Christianity, over time, endured great changes and went through several phases of development, in parallel with the development of the Armenians in the Armenian Highlands.
And, since the Bronze Age, the tribes living on that territory, allotted places, which were built as to worship their gods and deities. Those were the first temple prototypes. The first religious buildings, probably, were menhirs, cromlechs, vishapakars, etc. For example, vishapakars were devoted to the cult of water.
The religious buildings of Urartian period were already separate structures in the forms of a temple. So, on the high relief of Sarduri II chamber, there is a temple of the supreme god of Urartian mythology - Ḫaldi. According to this, the temple stands on a pedestal-base, from the front depicts a column hall of six columns, which are crowned with a triangular gable.
On the territory of western Armenia, there are preserved majestic sculptures of ancient Armenian Gods. This place is called Nemrut.
Unfortunately, the only pre-Christian temple that reached us is the temple of Garni. This temple was dedicated to Mihr- the God of Sun, who belongs to the next generation of gods in Armenian mythology. Here, the supreme God is Aramazd.
The temple of Garni was built in the 2nd half of the first century BC. The temple belongs to the peripteros of the Greek-Roman type. In the center of the podium, there is a naos with a height of 2.8 m and sizes of 15.7 x 11.5 m. From the front side the naos is surrounded by six, and from the lateral side- with eight columns. Nine wide steps lead to the entrance.
Unfortunately, the adoption of Christianity led to the loss of a large heritage of pre-Christian religious buildings.
After the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 301, begins a new era of churches and monasteries construction in Armenia. Adopting Christianity, Armenians started to develop the Armenian architecture of churches. The first churches were built in the places of pagan temples, thus connecting the ancient sacred sites with a new religion. In some cases, the old temples were rebuilt, others were completely destroyed and new Christian churches were built on their sites. The first Christian temples had the same oblong shape as the pagan ones- stretching from east to west, except that in Christian churches the altar was moved from the west side to the east. At this time the constructive, structural and artistic principles had been formed, on the basis of which, the whole Armenian architecture was formed.
The first churches of IV-V centuries were basilicas without a dome- single-naved or
three-naved. Perhaps, some of them had a pagan origin, but the only preserved pagan temple Garni doesn’t lead to that conclusion. Single-naved churches are small and lowly decorated. Talin churches, Tanahat, and others belong to this type.
Three-naved basilicas have more complicated architecture and refer to the IV-VI centuries. In this case, a rather wide oratory is divided into three longitudinal naves with the help of pylons, the middle of which is wider. The church of Yererouk is an example of the three-naved basilica.
After the VI century, people stopped building basilica churches. The Armenian architects tried to create something new- Armenian domed churches. Different types of domed churches became dominant in the VI-VII centuries architecture. The various examples of churches, created at that time prove the power of thoughts and mastery of the Armenian architects. At this time, the whole system of dome’s structural forms was developed. The idea of making churches dome-shaped was taken from the construction of residential buildings.
It’s known that the first churches, as Ejmiatsin Cathedral were initially covered by wood. And only after reconstruction, a stone dome was built.
In the V-VI centuries, the foundations of new domed-churches was continued in two main directions. In the first case, basilicas were taken as the basis for creating dome basilicas, basilicas with three sacristies, dome halls, etc. In the second case, the cross-domed churches developed.
For example, the church in Odzun, St. Gayane church in Ejmiatsin belong to this type of church.
So, the Armenian church architecture, appeared in the V century was being developed in the following centuries. It included many techniques from civil architecture, as well as implemented many new ones to it. The external and internal cruciform churches (St. Tadeos in Bagaran), churches with many apses(Zoravar in Eghvarde), round-shaped
(multi-faceted )churches (Zvartnots) and many churches with different forms appeared.
In the IX-XI centuries, after a decline, during the Arabs invasion in Armenia, the constructionof churches began with new strength. At this time, more attention was paid to decorative art. To replace the magnificent simplicity of the VII century churches, here comes a unique trend of decorating churches. You can see these masterpieces by taking part in tours around Armenia, which are organised by our company.
Despite the fact that the dome continues to dominate, it takes on new views. Multi-faceted(Marmashen, Amberd) and cylindrical domes (Tatev, Haghpat, Sanahin) come to replace the octahedral domes.
The art of decorating churches, the processing of stone develops and rises to a new level. New decoration forms appear- ornaments of geometrical and floral forms that have reached their perfection in khachkars’ decoration. Fresco painting develops, too. The frescoes in Tatev, Haghpat, Akhtamar temples, with their content, harmony of color solutions and high craftsmanship are unique examples of that time’s monumental painting.
At the same time, separate architectural schools had been finally formed, which further developed this art.
Such schools were Syunik’s school, the masterpiece of which is Tatev monastery, Vaspurakan’s school (Akhtamar church, on the territory of West Armenia), Shirak’s school with Marmashen church, Gugark’s school presented by Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries.
In the XII-XIV centuries, more and more attention was paid to architectural solutions in the construction of monastery buildings, such as a porch, rooms of monks, libraries, and so on. The construction of Tatev, Sanahin, Haghartsin and Haghpat monasteries, which reached us in their original form, was basically finished. Belfries were innovations of this period’s church architecture. The belfries were built either separately in the monastery complex(as if in Tatev and Haghpat monasteries), or they were built next to already existing buildings.
In the following centuries, during the invasions of the Tatar-Mongols, and then of the Turks, the conditions for the development of churches weren’t the most favorable. As in many Christian countries, at that time, the church assumed the function of uniting people and protecting their interests. Despite this, not only the recovery of churches continued, but also new ones were built.
Unlike the early medieval monasteries, which were built gradually over a long time and were spontaneously designed according to natural conditions, the late medieval monasteries were built in a relatively short time and were raised on the basis of a previously existing plan. These include the monasteries in Mughni, Syunik, and Artsakh.
In the middle of the century, after the loss of statehood, not only the fortresses but also the monasteries served for protective purposes. The monasteries were engaged in providing their own safety. Both newly built and already existing monasteries were surrounded by defensive walls.
Over the whole history of Armenia, the monasteries played the most important role in people’s lives. They were religious, scientific and educational centres, where the great scientists of that time worked. A bright example is the monastery of Tatev, where was one of the most famous universities. The monasteries were also places for writing manuscripts and developing the art of miniatures.
In the most difficult times of Armenians history, the church served as the centre for uniting people.