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Armenian sundials

Sundials can be seen on the walls of many Armenian monasteries and churches. The details of some are easily seen, such as that on the eastern facade of the small St Stephen's Church at Haghartsin Monastery. By contrast, the elaborately carved sundial at Harichavank is positioned so high up on the eastern wall of the Mother of God Church that binoculars are almost needed to appreciate the detail. Sundials were sometimes placed high up on a wall to avoid them being shaded from the sun by surrounding trees but, if this was originally the case at Harichavank, it is certainly not a problem now. The sundials themselves are not dated and it is not always possible to ascertain if they are contemporaneous with the building they adorn or if they were added later.

Armenian sundials are of the vertical type, with a horizontal gnomon at right angles to the wall. The dials are a semicircle which is usually divided into 12 (occasionally 11) equal petal-like divisions, each division representing an hour. Such dials show unequal hours, the hours of daylight being divided into 12 periods regardless of the length of daylight so an 'hour' in winter will occupy less time than an 'hour' in summer. The hours are counted from one at sunrise on the horizontal line at the left, to 12 at sunset on the horizontal line at the right. Visitors may be more familiar with sundials showing equal hours, with their divisions of variable width and gnomons at an angle to the vertical, the angle determined by the sundial's latitude.

The divisions of some Armenian sundials carry letters of the Armenian alphabet. Armenian letters were (and sometimes still are) used to represent numbers. The first nine letters of the Armenian alphabet represent the units one to nine, the next nine letters represent the tens (ten, 20 ... 90), the next nine letters the hundreds (100, 200 ... 900), etc. The first ten divisions on a sundial bear the first ten letters of the alphabet, 11 and 12 usually being represented by a repeat of the first two letters. Very occasionally, as seen on a more recently carved sundial at Zvartnots, 11 is shown, correctly, as a combination of the tenth letter (representing ten) and the first letter (representing one). Similarly 12 is shown as the tenth letter plus the second letter of the alphabet.

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