Armenian Church Architecture

The history of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture begins with Armenia's conversion to Christianity, and almost simultaneously the construction of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin at the beginning of the fourth century. Although the church has since undergone at least two major reconstructions, its foundations indicate the centralized plan, crowned with a conical dome, that later became the classic design of Armenian church architecture.

The triumph of Armenian architecture, nonetheless, is at Ani, an ancient city which, during the tenth century, became a royal capital, and, consequently, the largest and richest city in Armenia. The Cathedral of Ani, completed in 1001, was the masterpiece of the architect Trdat, the same architect who repaired the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople after a devastating earthquake.

Armenian architecture, and particularly the Cathedral of Ani, holds an important place in medieval architecture, suggesting in many ways what was to come later in Romanesque and Gothic styles of western Europe. Other jewels of Armenian architecture are the Holy Cross Church on the island of Aghtamar, St. Hripsime Church in Vagharshapat, the Cathedral of Marmashen near Gyumri (pictured above), as well as the monasteries at Keghart, Sanahin, and Haghbat.  

There are two distinctive features of Armenian church architecture. The first is the use of double-intersecting arches to span the interior space, eliminating the need for the supporting columns familiar in other types of churches. In early Armenian churches, these arches were stone; though in more contemporary construction, including that of St. Vartan Cathedral in New York, steel has been used. The second feature is the pyramidal dome, supported by a drum, which is supported in turn by intersecting arches.

—Adapted from The Consecration of a Cathedral by Arthur X. Tuohy