Zvartnots has been copied more than once. Temples like it have been built in many other parts of Armenia. In addition, a Byzantine Emperor has also expressed a desire to build a similar creation for himself, though it’s unclear whether he has done so.
There are three Armenian fruits that occupy a central position in the Armenian culture – apricot, grapes, and pomegranate. Grapes and pomegranates are one of the main components of the Armenian architectural style – they are abundantly depicted on columns, walls, doors, and other parts of architectural structures.
The grapes are sacred not only in the Armenian culture but also in the Christian: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15: 1-8). Grapes are used to make wine, the blood of Christ.
Pomegranate is also given the ample attention of theologians. Its seeds are treated as ecclesia, a collection of martyrs, flocks, and the like.
At the same time, pomegranate is absolutely not represented in the early Christian architecture of Armenia. Zvartnots was the first structure in the Christian tradition to have this fruit depicted on it. This was followed by a “pomegranate boom” when it again became the object of attention of architects and theologians.
Why were pomegranates forgotten? After all, they occupied a fundamental place in Urartian art and likewise in pre-Christian Armenia, albeit at a smaller scale.
The pomegranate has indeed been a fruit. It has been brought to the altar of the goddess Anahit beloved by the Armenians (we are talking about the Iranianized Mets Mayr. Anahit and Astghik were originally one goddess, the Great Mother.) The fruits were compared with the breasts of the goddess. The significance of the pomegranate was so great that the altars were cleaned with its nectar.
The Christian church, however, banned the fruit to suspend its highly developed cult. At the same time, the Armenians transferred their love for the Great Mother to the Virgin Mary. For some time, the tradition of offerings would be preserved, but instead of pomegranate, people would bring two sheaves of wheat woven into a cross as a gift of the Virgin.
It is worth noting that the mentioned church ban on pomegranate is part of the reason why the fruit is now less popular than grapes. In some regions of Armenia, pomegranate cultivation has been completely suspended.
Zvartnots broke the “silence” and revived the high status of the pomegranate. But why precisely Zvartnots?
Catholicos Nerses III Shinogh (Nerses the Builder) was a man of deep wisdom. His mission was simply reconciliation. The fact that he agreed to the adoption of a union with the Chalcedonian churches came not from his acceptance of the correctness of their dogma but from the desire to establish peace and unite the churches.
He also aimed to ally with the Greeks in the struggle against the Nakharars and Arabs. The church wouldn’t allow him to do so. But the people quickly forgot this – respect and love for him prevailed.
Zvartnots is the creation of his period. If you look carefully, you can see that the temple is atypically round. If you removed the dome, then you would see a temple that resembles Zoroastrian and Syrian pagan temples. The Armenians of the Kingdom of Van have also had similar temples.
The drum form was inherent in antique buildings and formed the basis of the domed architecture. The gradually tapering top of the temple symbolized the cult of the sun and human contact with the sky. Among the Armenians, this cult was preserved in the form of the hazarashen (Armenian roof type, usually made with logs) in dugouts (glkhatuns).
That is, before us is an alloy of ancient and Christian tradition. Nerses has united everything – grapes with pomegranate and antiquity with Christianity.
Dedicated to Gregory the Illuminator, this temple is connected with the Armenian religion. Nerses sought to destroy the contradictions and unite the entire Armenian tradition in one temple.
Maybe Nerses wasn’t the only one to feel this way. After all, he dedicated the temple not so much to the Church as to Gregory. In addition, the church on top of Khor Virap where Gregory had been imprisoned was again built at his initiative. Apparently, even in the times of Nerses, Gregory the Illuminator – or rather, his methods – have been criticized.
Khor Virap was called to honor the memory of the Baptist, while Zvartnots was to reconcile him with what he had categorically rejected. Its purpose was not to cause conflict but to allow people to create together.
People were ready for Zvartnots, and it caused such a stir that the Emperor of Byzantium visited its grand opening.
Zvartnots amazed the minds of contemporaries and not only them. Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi (12th century) called Zvartnots a creation of “a universal scale.” History does not preserve everyday details, but it is obvious that the purpose of Zvartnots was known not only to Nerses but to everyone else, for such attention cannot be explained merely by the aesthetics of the temple.
Alas, Zvartnots did not stand for long and was destroyed in an earthquake. Armenian temples are usually more earthquake-resistant. But Zvartnots was an innovation called to connect the archaic round temple with the more modern church, and the supports were less strong against nature.
But its essence was not so material as spiritual.
Armenians were able to make a “spiritual Zvartnots” back in the 7th century. Instead of demanding it now, you just need to remind about it. Unfortunately, the memory of this is lost in centuries.
Armenians have kept the tradition in the new. The fundamental symbol of antiquity, the Arevakhach, is still preserved in church architecture like other symbols. The Armenian thought was able to give rise to this phenomenon. At the same time, many of this world are still not ready for Zvartnots.
Arthur Hakobyan, Antitopor