Ancient Garni Fortress – Armenia

Near the ancient Temple of Mithras in Garni, Armenia, the ruins of an ancient fortress and royal palace from the 1st century AD have been preserved, as well as a bathhouse building constructed in the 3rd century.

Garni Fortress is mentioned by Tacitus in the first half of the 1st century BC. According to one version, the fortress was built by the Armenian king Trdat I (66-88 AD) in 76 AD, as evidenced by his inscription in Greek found there:

“Helios! Trdat the Great, ruler of Great Armenia (Μεγαλη Αρμενια), when the sovereign built the agarak for the queen (and) this impregnable fortress in the eleventh year of his reign…”

This inscription is mentioned by Movses Khorenatsi, who attributed it, as well as the reconstruction of the fortress, to Trdat III the Great (286-330 AD). Garni Fortress is one of the vivid testimonies of the centuries-old culture of the pre-Christian period in Armenia.

Construction of the Garni Fortress began in the 2nd century BC and continued throughout the ancient era and partially into the Middle Ages. As a result of reconstructions, the fortress became impregnable. The citadel protected the inhabitants from foreign invasions for more than 1000 years.

Armenian kings loved this place very much – not only because of its impregnability but also due to its amazing climate – and turned it into their summer residence.

Strategically, the location of Garni was chosen extremely wisely. According to a cuneiform inscription found in Garni from the period of the Kingdom of Van, the fortress was conquered by King Argishti in the first half of the 8th century BC. He then gathered the population of Garni as labor and headed towards modern Yerevan, where he built the Erebuni Fortress, which later became Yerevan.

The Garni Fortress occupies a commanding triangular promontory overlooking the surrounding area, with the Azat River encircling it on two sides, a deep gorge, and steep slopes serving as an impregnable natural boundary.

The gorge is remarkable for its astonishing, seemingly artificial slopes made up of regular hexagonal prisms. These stretch from the base to the top of the gorge and are called the “Symphony of Stones.” In the rest of the fortress, a powerful defensive system has been created—a mighty fortress wall with fourteen towers.

In areas where the approach to the fortress was complicated by natural conditions, there are fewer towers, placed at distances of 25-32 meters from each other. Where the enemy could relatively easily approach the walls, the towers were built more frequently, at distances of 10-13.5 meters apart. The towers had a rectangular shape. Rectangular towers existed in the Armenian Highlands since the times of the Kingdom of Van.

Both the fortress walls and the towers are built from large blocks of local bluish basalt, without mortar and connected by iron brackets, with the connecting corners filled with lead.

The fortress walls have a thickness of 2.07-2.12 meters and a length along the entire perimeter (including the towers) of 314.28 meters. In some places, 12-14 rows have been preserved, up to 6-7 meters in height. The entrance to the fortress was only possible through a single gate, wide enough for one chariot. At the same time, the number of troops in the fortress was enormous.

The palace complex was located in the southern, remote from the entrance, part of the fortress. In the northern part of the fortress territory, the royal army and service personnel were stationed. To the west of the temple, at the edge of the cliff, was a ceremonial hall.

To the north of the ceremonial hall, a two-story residential building adjoined. The preserved traces of pink and red paint on the plaster remind us of the rich decoration of the living and ceremonial rooms of the palace. The bathhouse building included at least five rooms of various purposes, four of which had apses at the ends. The floors were decorated with mosaics in the Hellenistic style.

On the palace grounds stands a stele of King Argishti and a stand with a deciphered cuneiform inscription: “With the help of Khaldi, I conquered Giarniani, the country of King Siluni. Returning from the enemy mountains, I drove out men and women.”

In the 19th century, the ruins of the temple and fortress attracted the attention of numerous scholars and travelers, such as Chardin, Morier, Ker-Porter, Telfer, Chantre, Schnaaze, Marr, Smirnov, Romanov, Buniatyan, Trever, Manandyan. French scholar Dubois de Montpere tried to make a project for the reconstruction of the temple with approximate accuracy in 1834.

At the end of the 19th century, there was an idea to transport all the temple details to Tbilisi—the center of the Caucasian Viceroyalty—and assemble them in front of the viceroy’s palace. Fortunately, this venture failed due to the lack of appropriate means of transportation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeological work was carried out to discover details and measure the temple by a small expedition led by N.Ya. Marr. In the early 1930s, the chief architect of Yerevan, N.G. Buniatyan, examined the Garni Temple and, in 1933, provided a project for the reconstruction of its original appearance.

The issue of restoring the pagan temple in Garni also interested academician I.A. Orbeli. In the mid-1960s, the restoration work was entrusted to architect A.A. Sainyan. After several years of painstaking work, the Garni Temple was fully restored by 1976.

On April 28, 2011, it was announced that the historical and cultural complex “Garni” was awarded the UNESCO-Greece 2011 Melina Mercouri Prize.

by Alexander Bakulin

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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