Mardin city – Gothic in Armenian architecture

Adrian Gilbert, an English historian, and Egyptologist, once said, “The abundance of pointed arches among the ruins of ancient buildings at Edes suggests that the early ‘Gothic’ style was known in the region even before 1145 since no churches were built there later.”

Historically, by 1150, European architecture was predominantly of the Romanesque style, exemplified by structures like the Durham Cathedral in England. However, post the second crusade, there was a shift towards a new architectural method known as the ‘Gothic’ style.

Characterized by ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, massive stained-glass windows, and above all, pointed arches, the Gothic style, despite reaching its zenith in France, actually originated in the East.

Mardin, a city that remained untouched by the Franks and was under Turkish control during Edessa’s Crusader period, offers further evidence of this Eastern influence on Gothic architecture. This city, once a haven for a vast community of Jacobites, captivated the curiosity of myself and Dee.

While strolling down the main street of Mardin, we stumbled upon a building. Although it now serves as a workshop, it was clear that it was once a church. What caught our attention was not only the pointed arch of the entrance but also the surrounding zigzag stone openwork, reminiscent of Norman architecture in Britain.

This finding, a church not built by the Normans or Franks, serves as irrefutable evidence that the Gothic style had its origins not in France but likely in Armenia or Northern Mesopotamia.

This cultural shift dramatically transformed Europe’s landscape within a century, marked by the erection of grand cathedrals, equivalent to today’s skyscrapers. The failure of the second crusade came as a profound shock to both Europeans and Eastern Christians. It signaled the vulnerability of the kingdom of Jerusalem, suggesting its inevitable fall under Turkish pressure.

Some shrugged off this concern as the Holy Land had been under Muslim rule for several centuries and Europeans were not universally welcome. Yet, for the Armenians and others, the impending crisis was profoundly unsettling.

Many of them, including architects well-versed in rib vaulting and pointed arch construction, maintained a close relationship with the Europeans. Baldwin I promoted intermarriage between his followers and local Edessa elites, and Joselin II, their final count, was of Armenian descent.

Some Armenians and possibly other communities chose to join Philip in France, where their architectural prowess could be put to better use. The Notre Dame Cathedrals in Northern France were designed following a specific blueprint. Each cathedral – be it in Rouen, Chartres, Laon, Reims, etc., represents a celestial body. Collectively, these bodies constitute the constellation Virgo.

Vigen Avetisyan

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