Advantages Wealth of on-site information. Evocative ruins. Close to Yerevan.
Disadvantages Much is left to the imagination. Patchy transport.
|Is it worth visiting?|
It is something of a minor miracle that so many of Armenia’s ancient buildings have survived to the present day - or at least survived enough to benefit from judicious and sympathetic reconstruction. Armenia’s golden era of church building and cultural development spanned almost 300 years, from the 10th to the 13th century, but the intervening period has seen countless foreign invasions and natural disasters (Armenia is in an earthquake zone) which, by rights, should have accounted for most of these architectural treasures. Instead, the landscape is littered with monuments to Armenia’s cultural heritage, many of which are still used today, providing both spiritual sustenance and a physical reminder of history, tradition and past accomplishments. Sadly, perhaps the most unique and impressive structure – the 7th century temple of Zvartnots – did not survive the ravages of time and nature. It lies in ruins on the outskirts of the city of Echmiadzin (the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and home to its Catholicos) offering the visitor only fleeting glimpses of how it must have looked in its prime.
The seventh century ruins of Zvartnots lie at the end of a gated drive, impressively framed against the sky, which was bright blue and cloudless when I visited. There is a negligible admission fee of 1000 Dram per person (about £1.75 or $2) which is payable at a port-a-cabin type kiosk near the entrance, set well away from the main site. The grounds have benefitted from significant investment, with good lighting, paved walkways and several boards that provide information on every aspect of the site in three languages (Armenian, Russian and English). If you take the time to read them, this context and background is invaluable, mainly because so little of the church is left that it would be difficult to understand why it was significant and what it must have looked like. Ironically, its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site precludes any meaningful restoration, as the organisation’s rules prohibit full reconstruction unless a specified percentage of the original materials can be located.
Apparently, thirty-two master craftsmen were employed, each of which worked on one section of the ground level. As a tribute to them, each facet was embossed with a bas-relief representation of the master at his trade. Only nine of these carvings have survived. The ground floor of the building was heavily decorated with carvings, friezes and bas-relief sculptures, but each successive tier was more austere, giving the impression that the structure was reaching up toward heaven. It is said that the church was built to last a thousand years, which was thought to be the date of the second coming of Christ, but in the event, it only lasted for three hundred. By the tenth century, it had collapsed into a ruin, but how and why it was destroyed is a matter of conjecture. The most popular theory is that it was either levelled by an earthquake, or sacked during one of the many Arab invasions that were typical of that period in Armenia’s history. Over time, the ruins and foundations were reclaimed by nature and partially buried. The site was eventually excavated between 1901 and 1907.
To the left of the main podium is a field in which some of the surviving arches and decorative features have been laid out on the ground, making it easy to examine the carvings and artistry close-up. Vine leaves, grapes, pomegranates, eagles and baskets feature heavily, and although many are badly eroded, it gives you a good sense of the beauty and power of the original structures when they had been in-situ. The back of the complex features the remains of the Catholicos’ palace, which sounds grander than it looks, as not much more than the foundations and some portions of the walls survive - barely enough to get a sense of the place). Further back, you will find some ancient service buildings and a ancient winery. Each has strategically placed, well illustrated and researched information boards giving excellent background, not only on the structures, but, in the case of the winery, on the history of Armenian wine-making as well.
Highly recommended.© Hishyeness 2010
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