Architecture of Vaspurakan – Armenian Renaissance

Architecture of Vaspurakan

The beginning of the epoch which we call the Armenian Renaissance dates back to the 10th-11th centuries – the period of the “centenary peace” and well-being of Armenia, when the country experienced a spiritual revival, giving free rein to the accumulated thirst for creativity. Freeing itself from the grip of the church and social dogma, the national culture gave birth to masterpieces which would be included in the golden book of the Christian East.

“I dare say that there were centuries, for example, the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th, in which Armenia could teach lessons to most of the nations on earth, and it is clear that in all those times, there were people in the country who distinguished themselves in all kinds fields – theology, priesthood, poetry, philosophy, liturgy, history, astronomy. They were very skillful translators and figures knowledgeable in languages – Greek, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, Latin,” wrote brilliant European scholar of the 18th century Abbot Guillaume de Villeroy.

The glorious capital of Vaspurakan lied on the largest of the four islands in Lake Van, Akhtamar, where the ancient princely family of Artsruni reigned. Artsrunids considered their direct ancestor Sanasar, the hero of the first branch of the Armenian epic. Historian Movses Khorenatsi writes that “Artsrunis would have to be called Artsviuni (from Armenian, “Artsiv” and “uni” – “having an eagle”) because they carried eagles – signs of royal power – before the king.”

In the era of Arshakids, the head of the princely house of Artsruni was in charge of the internal affairs of the royal court – he supervised the royal lands and the fortresses where the state treasury was kept. During hostilities, he led the select Sepukh regiment, the royal guard which was responsible for protecting the queen.

As an independent administrative-territorial unit within Armenia, Vaspurakan was formed during the second division of the country between Rome and Persia in 591. At that time, the possessions of the Vaspurakan rulers included the Great Aghbak district with its center in Adamakert (Başkale).

The small Vaspurakan kingdom with its capital of Van was formed as part of the Armenian Kingdom due to the long-standing rivalry and strife between the influential families of Artsruni and Bagratuni. The borders of the kingdom, which existed a little more than a century (908-1021), reached Lake Urmia in the south and the Araks River in the north. The first ruler of Vaspurakan was Gagik I Artsruni who owned dozens of major cities (Van, Vostan, Archesh, Khlat), 72 fortresses, 4 thousand villages, and 115 monasteries.

The southern branch of the international caravan route which passed through the territory of Vaspurakan connected the West with the East, hugely supporting the regional economy. But already during the reign of Senekerim (968-1021), the kingdom ceased to exist, unable to resist the invasion of the Seljuks. The situation was taken advantage of by the Byzantines who imposed on Senekerim the project of annexing his kingdom to the possessions of the empire in exchange for military patronage.

The founder of the Vaspurakan kingdom Gagik I Artsruni decided to impart to his island capital true splendor and appointed monk Manuel, the most prominent representative of the Vaspurakan architectural school, an architect with an extraordinary mind, and a strong engineer, as court architect. Manuel became the author of the most important projects in the capital, which played a significant role in Armenian culture.

Court historian Tovma Artsruni describes the well-developed capital which grew up on a deserted island in just five years after its foundation. Tovma tells how King Gagik himself took part in the design of the city. Holding a cord in his hands, he together with the artisans planned the areas along which this or that street was to pass.

“The top of the fortress faces the sea and is very attractive – when the sea is agitated from the winds, the waves, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow, are fascinatingly beautiful. And, if the weather is favorable, everyone is attracted to observe their (waves’) scope and movement. Therefore, the sovereign built there palaces and chambers and streets with all sorts of decorations and crafts, so wonderful that I cannot describe them.

He surrounded the sea with powerful walls, laying a foundation of unimaginable depth, and at the top of the wall, against the sea, he built a palace adorned with gold and painted with various colors like radiant paintings of the sun – for the eye pleasure and for the hearty joy of himself and those worthy.

And he arranged the doors in the form of arches that let in the cool air, as well as luminous windows that flood the heart of the palace with light which was glittering and glinting on the sea at sunrise and at sunset,” Tovma describes the fortress and the royal palace in Vostan poetically.

Formerly, lands or cities belonging to the royal dynasty of Arshakuni were called vostans, and high-сaste residents of the capital were called vostaniks. Even the noble guard regiment was called “Vostan Gund”. After the departure of Arshakids from the political arena, the word “vostan” denoted the capital city or the residence of one or another prince, and the Vaspurakan “vostan” eventually became a toponym.

An anonymous historian who completed the book of Tovma Artsruni speaks of Manuel as “a wise architect and a man of genius” who was offered to build a harbor – a skillful engineering structure that provided ships with shelter during stormy weather.”

The historian writes that Manuel “ordered many masters and innumerable people who have cut out heavy and hard-to-carry blocks of rocks to overthrow them and cast them to the bottom of the sea to incredible depths.

And over time, after… the stone-lined ridge grew and stood above the level of the sea waves at a height of five cubits… he stretched a cord on it and laid out a wall with the diameter of five tiltyards. This wall is wonderfully built, having eight terrifyingly tall and widely seated buttresses and decorated with tall towers.

Bringing the walls to an inaccessible, rocky cliff, he brought their ends together… Near the shore, on top of the deepest foundation, he nailed an eye-frightening, thick gate. Having adjoined some part of the sea to the island, he created something wonderful and arranged a quiet and peaceful haven for many ships.”

Nothing survived from the Akhtamar harbor, and by the assumption of academician Joseph Orbeli, the remains of the dam were absorbed by the rising waters of the restless Van.

The Surb Khach (the Holy Cross) Church which has survived to our days was the culmination of the work of monk Manuel. Stone for cladding the outer and inner walls of the church was taken from the border zone between Armenia and Syria and delivered to the island by ships and rafts.

Manuel worked on the temple from 915 to 921. This elegant piece of architecture is a perfect synthesis of medieval Armenian art and is one of the oldest examples of structures of Christian art.

Having decided to create as many reliefs as possible, the architect-monk used the versatility of the protrusions of the temple, which allowed him to impart exceptional expressiveness to it. None of the Armenian churches have such a rich decor. The bas-reliefs are arranged so that they are differently illuminated by sunlight during the day. And the bizarre game of shadows is fascinating – the sculptures are as if in constant motion from dawn to dusk.

The reliefs feature Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew who had brought good news to Armenia. Near them are the ancestors of the Artrsuni house, who had been Christian martyrs and religious figures. A significant place is occupied by images of biblical scenes and popular heroes of the Old Testament which form an entire belt around the temple.

Among the belts, the so-called “grape” is particularly notable, where the scenes of national life are symbolizing peace and prosperity, things of which Armenia had been deprived of for centuries. This was the first sculptural series in Armenian medieval art where social life is represented in addition to Orthodox Christian scenes and images.

Akhtamar reliefs received a continuation in the sculpture of subsequent centuries, influencing such remarkable architectural monuments as the monasteries of Sanahin, Bheno Noravank, and the Vaspurakan school of miniature. Although the Akhtamar reliefs are in a deplorable state due to them serving as shooting targets for Turkish soldiers, the magnificence of the temple ornament does not fade even in this form.

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