Zvartnots Cathedral

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Zvartnots Cathedral
Zvartnots cathedral ruins.jpg
Common view of the Zvartnots ruins
AffiliationArmenian Apostolic Church
Statusin ruins
LocationVagharshapat (Etchmiadzin), Armavir Province, Armenia
Zvartnots Cathedral is located in Armenia
Zvartnots Cathedral
Shown within Armenia
Geographic coordinates40°09′35″N 44°20′12″E / 40.159714°N 44.336575°E / 40.159714; 44.336575Coordinates: 40°09′35″N 44°20′12″E / 40.159714°N 44.336575°E / 40.159714; 44.336575
TypeCentral-plan aisled tetra-conch (Circular)
Height (max)45 meters
Materialstufa, pumice and obsidian
Official name: Cathedral and Churches of Etchmiadzin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots
Criteria(ii) (iii)
Designated2000 (24th session)
Reference no.1011-006

Zvartnots Cathedral (Armenian: Զուարթնոց տաճար (classical); Զվարթնոց տաճար (reformed); literally 'celestial angels cathedral') is a 7th-century centrally planned aisled tetraconch type Armenian cathedral built by the order of Catholicos Nerses the Builder from 643-652. Now in ruins, it is located at the edge of the city of Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin) in Armavir Province of Armenia.


Aerial view of the entire complex

Zvartnots was built at a time when much of Armenia had just recently been conquered by the Muslim Arabs who were progressively occupying the Sasanian Persia/Iran of which Armenia was a part at the time. Construction of the cathedral began in 643 under the guidance of Catholicos Nerses III (nicknamed Shinogh or the Builder). Dedicated to St. Gregory, it was located at the place where a meeting between King Trdat III and Gregory the Illuminator was supposed to have taken place. According to the medieval Armenian historian Movses Kaghankatvatsi, the cathedral was consecrated in 652.[1] From 653 to 659, Nerses was in Tayk and the construction of the cathedral continued under Anastas Akoratsi. Following the Arab occupation of Dvin and the intensifying wars between the Byzantine and Arab armies on the former's eastern borders, Nerses transferred the patriarchal palace of the Catholicos from Dvin to Zvartnots.[2]

The exterior church design, featuring basket capitals with Ionic volute mounts, eagle capitals, and vine scroll friezes reveals the influence of Syrian and northern Mesopotamian architecture.[3]

Zvartnots stood for 320 years before its collapse in the 10th century; by the time the historian Stepanos Taronatsi wrote of the church it was already in ruins, without giving a reason. How it collapsed is still debated, though most argues for one of two theories; earthquake, or as a result of Arab raids.

The most common explanation is earthquake, though the building was well engineered and designed to last 1,000 years (a projected date for the second coming of Christ). Excavations have uncovered traces of large fires at the site, perhaps of an earlier attempt to destroy the church, though the construction also included firing of obsidian and lime mortar to form the mortar joints (firing it into brick) and the 1893 excavation used fire and explosives to clear debris. A close copy of the cathedral was erected at Ani out by Trdat the Architect under the reign of Gagik I Bagratuni during the final decade of the tenth century. The contemporary Armenian historian Stepanos Taronetsi referred to Zvartnots when describing the church that Gagik I had inaugurated as "a large structure at Vałaršapat [Vagharshapat], dedicated to the same saint that had fallen into ruins."[4]


The remaining ruins of Zvartnots were uncovered at the beginning of the twentieth century. The site was excavated between 1901 and 1907 under the direction of vardapet Khachik Dadian, who uncovered the foundations of the cathedral as well as the remains of the Catholicos palace and a winery. The excavations furthermore revealed that Zvartnots stood on the remnants of structures that dated back to the reign of Urartian king Rusa II.[1]


Most scholars accept the 1905 reconstruction by Toros Toramanian, who worked on the original excavations and proposed that the building had three floors.[1]

The plan of the cathedral, as drawn by Toros Toramanian.

Some scholars, like Stepan Mnatsakanian and most notably A. Kuznetsov, however, have rejected his reconstruction and offered alternative plans.[1] Kuznetsov, for example, contended that Toramanian's plan was "illogical from the standpoint of construction" and insisted that the technical expertise at the time did not correspond to the bold design conceived by Toramanian.[5]

The interior of the mosaic-decorated church had the shape of a Greek cross or tetraconch, with an aisle encircling this area, while the exterior was a 32-sided polygon which appeared circular from a distance.

Some sources claim that the Zvartnots cathedral is depicted upon Mount Ararat in a relief in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. However, this is not very likely as the fresco was painted more than 300 years after the destruction of the church.

Zvartnots was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000 together with churches in Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin).

A drawing of the cathedral was depicted on the first release of 100 AMD banknotes and its model can be seen in Yerevan History Museum.


The church of St. Gregory (better known as Gagkashen) in Ani (now in Turkey) was built in 1001-1005 and was intended to be a recreation of Zvartnots.

The Holy Trinity Church in the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan is modeled by architect Baghdasar Arzoumanian after Zvartnots and was completed in 2003.


See also[edit]



  • Brady Kiesling, Rediscovering Armenia, p. 34; original archived at Archive.org, and current version online on Armeniapedia.org.
  • Kiesling, Brady (2005), Rediscovering Armenia: Guide, Yerevan, Armenia: Matit Graphic Design Studio


  1. ^ a b c d (in Armenian) Stepanyan, A. and H. Sargsyan. Զվարթնոց [Zvart'nots]. Armenian Soviet Encyclopedia. Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1977, vol. 3, pp. 707-710.
  2. ^ Maranci, Christina. "Byzantium through Armenian Eyes: Cultural Appropriation and the Church of Zuart'noc'." Gesta 40 (2001): p. 109.
  3. ^ Richard Krautheimer. Early Christian and Byzantine Church Architecture, 4th ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 322-23.
  4. ^ Maranci. "Byzantium through Armenian Eyes", p. 118.
  5. ^ (in Russian) Kuznetsov, A. Тектoникa и Конструкция Центричecких Здaний. Moscow, 1951, pp. 110-114.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gombos, Károly (1974). Armenia: Landscape and Architecture. New York: International Publications Service. ISBN 963-13-4605-6.
  • Maranci, Christina (2001). Medieval Armenian Architecture: Constructions of Race and Nation. Louvain: Peeters Publishers. ISBN 90-429-0939-0.

External links[edit]