“Armenian Architecture”

by Gostan Zarian (translated by Azat S. Oganesian)


Art stands against fate.  This great life force stands against the void, as a direct and sincere expression of Being.  By creation, art struggles against metaphysical uncertainty, at times against chaos.  It liberates individuals and nations, endowing them with fundamental values, of which they were previously deprived.  Through art, the human life that is condemned to death aims to unite with the rhythm of moving stars, to remove itself to a form that is in harmony and aims towards immortality.

Every current form of art is a universe onto itself.  A universe that exists in us, and has space for us.  A great work of art is a result of the collective unconscious – the source of inspiration for any creation.  If in the crucial period of its history, a nation reaches the highest level of spiritual development, and if in a precise and direct way that turns it into a finite style, it creates Culture.

The Armenian nation belongs to those few nations that were able to perfectly embody in stone the higher manifestations of their spirit and thought, placed their architecture into the realm of the shared treasures of humanity, and justified the need for its existence. 

I already said that art stands against fate.  This is particularly true for the Armenian nation.  Our art, particularly architecture, was a weapon throughout the breadth of our history, which allowed the Armenian nation to defend its national image.  Every time when the winds of destruction swept through our emptied country, one piece of stone, a half-ruined wall, an arch or column remained, reminding us of ourselves.  And our nation honored stone, ruined churches and ravaged cemeteries.  It did not worship dry and dead matter, but that spirit that lay concealed for centuries in those rundown manmade cliffs.

It is for this reason that Armenian architecture, besides its role in the world, is of importance primarily for us.  The assessment of foreigners flatters our vanity, but that we Armenians should try to do something so as to feel the simple beauty of our architecture, to understand the secret idea behind each line – of these things it is better to say nothing.  In order for a people to be reborn, and to have a meaningful life instead of being a burden upon others, they must continually be inspired by their past.  A past that is not confined to the testimony of past external events; but a past that is a living, spiritual and continuous stream.  To protect such a spiritual connection means to continue to evolve together with our ancestral collective unconscious of which I spoke.  Loyalty to such a collective unconscious does not mean loyalty to existing forms.  Change in the conditions of life and level of evolution in our spiritual existence, can push us to disown the old forms, but with the condition that we remain loyal to the spirit of the collective unconscious. 

For example, by building new churches from cement.  Firmly established in the poetry of Sayat Nova or folk ashoug styles, we may…etc.

Armenian architecture, in the form that we, Armenians, created – is a clear and lucid language, in which the Armenian nation carved its inner spiritual structure.  One may even say that it is the only exact language in which our spirit has been able to express itself.  Over the centuries, our songs have changed form, losing their purity and clarity.  The church transformed the Armenian idea, forced her to adapt to the requirements dictated by the outside world, and turned into a theological weapon.  Armenian visual art is still poorly understood.  Armenian poetry has been preserved only in part, because monastic scribes kept only what they liked and met the requirements of morality.  Folklore has not been fully researched; its most beautiful parts have been lost, as those same scribes did not copy everything that was connected to paganism.  Without exaggeration one may say that three-quarters of our art has been lost.

Only our architecture remains.  One may ask – is it not religious?  Yes, it is religious, but architecture, as bizarre as it may seem, is one of the more abstract arts like music and mathematics.  Armenian architecture does not try to explain anything.  It lives, it seeks, it carves its flight in stone, it builds its own spirituality.  It is quiet and therefore immediate.

The main characteristic of Armenian architecture is its geometricity.  It is a calculation.  What are numbers: the essence of things, what is obvious to the senses.  As the senses are subject to change, numbers and calculations are bound to change too.  There is no such thing as an absolute, perpetually applicable mathematics.  What exists are mathematical systems that change with epochs and civilizations, content and mode of expression that are subject to continuous upheaval. 

“Mathematics,” said Goethe, “is whole only when it feels inside itself true beauty.”  Mathematics and geometry express a great deal more of what is subject to our observation, our criticism.  In its higher manifestation, mathematics acquires a nonmaterial nature, becomes symbolic, expands the dimensionality and order of things.  Through it people are able to make conjectures as to the secret that lies behind phenomena.  Thereby the world of numbers becomes a panorama, as the world of sounds, colors and lines.  When mathematical representations change, the view on music changes, and without a doubt these changes have an affect on architecture.

Every culture has its own mathematics.  For example, Pythagorean mathematics that developed at around 540 BC in Greece reflects a representation of an Apollonian spirit.  It had no connection to Egyptian mathematics that was developing at that time, and in particular to Babylonian algebraic and astrological culture. 

We know little about the state of classical mathematics in Asia Minor after the collapse of the classical world.  In Alexandria several schools of a Persian-Babylonian character sprang up.  Most of the scholars, regardless of their Greek names, were Arameans.  The education provided by them, of course, was anticlassical, and it was there that the Aramaic-Islamic idea developed.  When Christianity first began to develop and spread, the classical mathematical idea was already on the wane, and the Semitic idea was on the verge of disappearing.  The philosophy of Plotinus and the Gnostics, combined with the uncertain symbolism of the new religion, also completely abandoned the Apollonian worldview; and the classical man, one may say, almost disappeared.  The old was lost, and the new had not yet taken shape.

It was during this time that Armenian genius appeared, created a new, a second classicism, which was destined to oppose the Arab-Byzantine, the foggy and indefinite spirit called magic.  The Armenian, one must understand this well, already in the first centuries of Christianity appeared as the only representative of a renewed, sophisticated classical ideal and classical worldview.  And it was during that time when people, blinded and led astray, were returning back to the cave.  Even Rome got lost in the melting pot labyrinth of Eastern religio-philosophical currents, lost its way with distorted thoughts and was therefore dying.

Аccepting Christianity that was forced upon him, the Armenian did not forget the Dionysian and Promythean essence of his spirit and instilled it in his new worldview.  One must add right away: a discernment that I call Arayakan or Armenakan, that was composed on the Dionysian and Promethean basis, was not a repetition or continuation of the Greek or Apollonian understanding of the world.  This spiritual building was built on absolutely new values.  Their origin is distant: the Phrygian blood that still flowed in the veins, centuries of warfare, the ability to separate oneself from others and create ones own outlook from the continually regenerating Dionysian power and the centuries old battle in the name of the sun.

It is then that it becomes clear: the question is not what elements Armenians put into architecture.  It is important to understand what principal symbols of a new culture Armenians added into  the world’s treasury.  Spenglerian division of cultures into Apollonian, Arab-Magian and Faustian, appears clearly inadequate if one does not add another culture – what we may call Arayakan or Armenakan.

What is the difference between the two classicisms – Armenian and Greek?  At the time when Greek classics were based on the Apollonian rejection of the infinite and invisible (το μη ον), Armenian classics accepted the heavenly as the earthly – what was exalted and what was taking place on the ground.  It synthesized these two principles in a clear and coherent structure.

So as to better understand the difference, let’s give an example.  Let’s imagine ourselves before a sculpture of a Greek nude.  Here everything is substantial, all the important elements, everything that creates balance; located on the surface of the sculpture, contained in its proportions and integrating folds.  Here values are realized, inspired by Pythagorean numbers.  Besides reality, which was limited by the quality of the stone, the Greek did not need to take anything else into consideration.  All phenomena outside of the dimensions of the sculpture, were not supposed to exist.  What today science calls outer space was for him unseen, nonexistent.  To exist, it was first of all essential to have a number, to have measure.  For a man of Greek antiquity, mathematics was nothing other than a measure of the relationship between small and large quantities.  Euclidean geometry, which took shape in the 3rd century BC, perceived the triangle as a measure of bodies and was unable to imagine that it can intersect lines and continue without end.

If we leave measurement to the side and focus on the Apollonian religio-philosophical system, we will see that even there the Greek accepted only the visible, the physically present.  The gods were only as great as Euclidean geometry allowed.  To foolishly attribute to classical man ideas that soar in the sky is unfounded and unjust.  When that same Plato wants to describe the heavens in “The Republic,” he gives as an intermediary a resurrected Armenian named Er – who is our Ara, and who as a witness described what he saw. 

Arayakan classics, taking the external form of the clearly visible world, reducing it to a building constructed with geometric symbols, guides it as a flight of thought to the cosmic whole, of which it has a premonition.  In the triangles that it builds, lines really do intersect and aim towards infinity.

This fundamental point in Armenian thinking certainly was not formed in one day, and not without specific influences.  After the fall of the classical world in Asia Minor, new trends began to form, and there appeared what is called a new number and a new perception.  The discoveries of the mathematician Diophantus were well known at that time and did not pass by Armenians unnoticed.  There is evidence that Diophantus was influenced by Hindu thought.  It wasn’t foreign to Armenians – as is well known, Armenia contained Hindu temples and probably there were Armenians who belonged to that faith.  Either way, it is important to understand that Diophantine science expanded the boundaries of numbers.  It was the first to try to place a number into the unknown, and that was quite an upheaval.  Diophantus lived circa 250 AD; at a time when in Armenia the Christian religion was gaining ground and probably the cathedral of Etchmiadzin began to be constructed.  In it, the Attic sculpture gave way to the first symbol of the new culture – the spacious dome, hanging in the air, floating, and ready to take flight at any moment.  Armenian culture has its foundation between the Doric temple and the Gothic cathedral.  It is a continuation of the former and creates the space for the latter.  It already imagines the new language with which humanity tries to communicate with the cosmos.  Armenian identity appears before the world in a form more versatile and substantive.  An inner eye is born within it – an inner eye that was lacking in the Apollonian man.

If you’d like – and I do not consider this an exaggeration – the Armenian of that time found a formula of conservation and expression of his historical fate.  Against the metaphysical distrust of the heavens and the dangers of the earth, he could now shine his inner light. 


What is architecture?

To enclose a part of the surrounding space within specific boundaries.  To give this space a body, form and life.  To give it our spiritual and corporal movements.  To surrender to it and to proportionally, certainly through a harmonious construction, to take part in the life of the Unity.  To be united and share a common, rich life together with the structure.  If the structure accepts us into itself, there is balance and proportionality, our consciousness is not scattered but returns to its center, spreads further, radiates.  A free-flowing body, unhindered breath and spiritual satisfaction – the three signs of true architecture. 

Greek architecture is an outward expression that satisfies the eye and mind, but is not connected with human individuality and breath.  Amid a magnificent exterior, it lacks inner being and inner space.  Armenian architecture develops both an inner and outer being.  A cathedral – is a unified singularity, in whose spiritual existence individuals need to take part.

Thus there are two basic processes.  Arayakan individuality subjugates a part of space, leads it to balance and proportionality, and then connects with the spirituality of the new man, and unifies him with the whole. 

“Dip form into infinite light,” said Leonardo da Vinci, to whom the religio-philosophical way of the Arayakan was so close.

In essence, Armenian architecture is geometry, number, like the musical creation of Bach.  To achieve its goal, it allows into the work a cube, an arch on two columns, a circle, and a sphere.  All these geometric forms are mobile; symbols of movement and vitality.

A cube, as is well known, stands for honesty, fairness; as all sides are equal, directly visible, and instill in the observer a sense of reliability and trust. 

A circle – that is balance, the ability to check and control all the phenomena of life. 

An arch on two columns – a great upheaval in architecture, that opens up a door to a new worldview, without it one cannot imagine the Romanesque period or the late Renaissance. Erected on two pillars, the arch expresses human craving for the unlimited, the infinite; his longing to be free from the bondage of the law of gravitation; his thirst to unite with the Universe.

It is interesting to observe how the round cupola inherited from the Altai and northern Persia changes, essentially transforms, and becomes Armenian.  An innocent explanation of real art by simple replication.  That same Armenian cupola acquires a different nature in different countries.  In Armenia it appears as Mount Ararat, a hood covers its head, as the hood symbolizes elevation.  In other countries it remains round, representing that place from which the holy spirit descends and covers the believer with its wings.  In Armenian spiritual thought, the church is not a place for gathering – but a place where the divine unites with the human; here the deity becomes humanized and the human becomes deified. 

The round cupola truly belongs to Magian culture, mosques, Byzantine basilicas, as they appear as the result of man’s focus on the cave.  The Armenian man at the highest level, is a man of the mountain, of heights, a man of light.  He rejects souls that are trapped beneath the mountain, where he has also imprisoned his own negative spirits.  That is why the tip of his cupola is pointed, octagonal: not facing down like in a mosque, but up.

All these elementary reflections have a purpose of showing the main lines upon which Armenian architecture was built.  To specify how complex and interesting questions arise when replacing the external, formal, superficial approach to identifying internal values that are still hidden in the folds of the Armenian soul.


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