Zvartnots – The Mysterious Temple of Watchful Spirits

Zvartnots – The Mysterious Temple of Watchful SpiritsPrior to the 20th century, this site lying in 15 km from Yerevan had been bestrewn with small desert hills with shapeless ruins of buildings. Only the accounts of historians could hint us that a 7th-century temple is buried here.

During archaeological excavations in 1900 – 1907, the ruins of the Zvartnots Temple and its adjacent structures were discovered. Archaeologists would then attempt to portray the appearance of this magnificent human creation. A skilled architect Toros Toromanyan managed to create a model of Zvartnots thanks to numerous measurements, comparisons, and sketches.

The artifacts discovered at the site are now stored in a small museum in the vicinity of Zvartnots. According to the sketches of Toromanyan, Zvartnots was a three-level, stepped composition with a central dome, which was built on a seven-level stylobate.

The temple was built in the 7th century when the Catholicos of Armenia Nerses the Builder decided to move the residence of Armenian Catholicoi from Dvin to Vagharshapat. The construction of the grand Zvartnots commenced in ca. 643. Chronicler Sebeos wrote in the 7th century: “At the time, Catholicos of Armenia Nerses had the intention to build a residence near the saint churches of the city of Vagharshapat, on the road where, as some say, King Trdat once greeted Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

There, he built one church in the name of the heavenly angels. A tall structure… He then brought water from the river and turned these rocky environs into fertile lands, planted gardens and trees, and surrounded the residence with a tall wall.”

Sebeos admiringly describes the beautifulness of Zvartnots, considering it a worthy temple of God. In fact, only Sebeos refers to the temple as “Zvartnots”: other chroniclers refer to it as “the temple of Saint Gregory.” Scholars think that this was due to the reburial of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Zvartnots.

It is unknown when Temple of Zvartnots was built precisely. Chronicler Movses Kalankatvatsi writes that the temple was completed in 652, in the year when the Caesar of the Byzantine Empire Constantine III partook in the temple’s consecration ceremony.

Constantine wished to have an identical beautiful structure in Constantinople and thus ordered the architect of Zvartnots to depart to the Byzantine Empire to undertake its construction. The wish of the Emperor wouldn’t be fulfilled as the architect passed away before reaching the destination. According to a tradition, he threw himself into the sea to avoid building a temple in a foreign land.

Zvartnots would exist for only 320 years before being ruined in the 10th century. It would be left under a thick layer of ground and dust for the coming centuries before being discovered in the early 20th century.

Scholars’ opinions on the cause of the temple’s destruction differ. Some think that an earthquake destroyed it, while others consider that Zvartnots was ruined during the Arab invasions.

During the first excavations, various items made in the Middle Ages were discovered at the site, including pottery, metal tools, adornment, well-preserved vessels, small jars for incense, etc. A remarkable find is a large cuneiform plate made by Urartian King Rusa II in the 7th century BC.

The larger 500-liter vessels were discovered to have been mostly used to ferment and store wine. The smaller vessels stored incense, perfume, and mercury, which was diluted in henna and used in dying hair. In terms of pottery, both glazed and non-glazed items were found. Among the metal tools, of most interest are the agricultural tools, wide and narrow plowshares, as well as nails and daggers. Glass items such as elegant bracelets are also noteworthy.

The layout of Zvartnots has the form of an equilateral cross, the three sides of which are framed in semicircle propylaea. Each semicircle consists of 6 columns, which are connected through arches. The eastern end of the temple is closed off with a solid wall. Next to each column stands a capital ornamented by an image of an eagle with outspread wings.

The interior of the temple stands out with its decorative furnishing. The jewel of the furnishing of Zvartnots is the capitals with the images of eagles, which are traditional for the Armenian culture. Each of the four interior capitals is rather well-preserved, and all of them are unique in their style.

The main material of the temple is the black or brown tuff stone. Inflated obsidian was also used in the upper sections of the arched constructions in order to make the top lighter. Shortly after the construction, the interior walls of the temple were covered with a thin layer of limestone. Reddish tiles were used for the roofs of the temple.

The lithographic symbols visible on the multilateral stones provide us with quite interesting information. When distributing the workload between the stonemasons, the architect gave every one of them a specific task – for example, one master hewn the outer masonry of the temple, while the other was engaged in the placing of concave bricks. Each of the craftsmen measured the section of the temple to be later paid accordingly. Now, these markings could allow us to estimate how many people worked on the temple.

A patriarchal palace was located in the southwestern end of the temple, which had been founded along with Zvartnots. Only the lower sections of the palace now remain. It consisted of two parallel apertures connected with a passage.

The eastern end of the palace housed residential and household premises, as well as a bathhouse consisting of two parallel, completely independent sections. Only the heater and the water reservoir were shared between the sections. The western part of the bathhouse consisted of two changing rooms, as well as large and small baths. Unfortunately, no fragments of the floor are preserved.

The southeastern section of the architectural complex housed a winepress facility, which most likely was a three-nave structure with wooden roofs. Along the naves were platforms for pressing wine, as well as wells. The platforms slightly inclined towards the wells were paved with cobblestones and covered with a limestone solution.

Each platform was separated from the adjacent well by a rectangular stone plate measuring 0,7 – 0,8 cm in height. Beneath each plate was located a channel, through which the grape juice flowed down into the well. The wells were square-shaped or round and featured varying depths and diameters, allowing us to conclude that they were used for different kinds of grapes.

Today, the picturesque ruins of Zvartnots attract many tourists. Many theatrical plays are held here as well.

Grigor Grigoryan.

Armenia Travel Guide – Etchmiadzin, Garni, Geghard, Hripsime, Zvartnots

Զվարթնոց տաճարի առեղծվածը

Звартноц – Храм Небесных Ангелов


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