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Church building

For some members of the diaspora, to experience Armenia's culture and language on its home territory will be their overriding memory of a visit to Armenia, but for the majority of visitors it is the historic buildings which will make the greatest impression, above all the monasteries but also to a lesser degree the secular medieval buildings such as fortresses and caravanserais. Only a very few buildings survive from the pre-Christian era: little more than the foundations can be observed of the cities of the Kingdom of Urartu such as Erebuni. By far the best-known pre-Christian building is the sole-surviving example of Graeco-Roman architecture in Armenia, built at Garni some time in the first two centuries ad at a time when the country was an ally of Rome. The Greek style was widely employed in contemporary Roman buildings throughout the empire and the survival of no other buildings in Armenia from this era is largely the consequence of Christians destroying pagan temples after the conversion of the country. Almost certainly others would have been constructed.

The early churches were often built on the site of pagan shrines employing the same foundations, and hence they had the same dimensions as the temple which they replaced; moreover the Christian altar was usually placed directly over the previous pagan one as can be seen at Ejmiatsin. From the earliest times the churches were built in stone, most commonly the volcanic tuff which is easily carved and tends gradually to harden when exposed to the atmosphere. The need to build in stone was dictated by the unavailability of suitable timber, even for roofing, and the weight of the heavy vaulted stone roof in turn dictated the need for thick walls to support it with few windows. Where tuff was unavailable, most commonly in border areas, other volcanic rocks such as basalt or andesite were used.

From fairly early days almost all churches were built with a cupola supported by a cylindrical structure called a tambour. Tambours are usually circular in cross-section when viewed from the interior of the church but are often polygonal on the outside.

The preference for churches to have a cupola supported by a tambour is one of Armenian architecture's most abiding features and makes its churches very distinctive. The style rapidly developed after the conversion to Christianity and continued until the Arab invasion and conquest in the mid 7th century. Thereafter no churches were built for over 200 years until the establishment of the Bagratid dynasty in the late 9th century. Under this re-established regime new churches began to be built, initially copying the old style but gradually starting to develop this style to provide greater height and space. Once again church building ceased after foreign invasion, this time by the Seljuk Turks after the middle of the 11th century.

The establishment of Georgian independence together with the Armenian Zakarid dynasty in the late 12th century led to a renewal of church building and, in particular, to the development of the large monastic complexes with their multiple churches and ancillary buildings which are probably nowadays the most visited tourist sights in the country. Again the traditional style was used but the quest for greater space was now satisfied by building several churches on the same site rather than by increasing the size of each structure. Inevitably, construction ceased at the end of the 13th century after the Mongol invasions and the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia also ceased to exist in 1375 following the Mamluk invasions. No more churches were built until the 17th century when construction, still in the traditional style, restarted at a time when Armenia was ruled by the Safavid Shahs of Iran. Church building increased in the 19th century as Armenian national consciousness grew, only to come to a complete stop with the genocide of 1915 in western Armenia and the Bolshevik Revolution in the east. Independence has led to a resurgence in church building, largely with funds provided by the diaspora, with the traditional style generally retained but with extensive use of modern materials. Some new churches are also being built in the hallmark tuff and, from a distance, it can be difficult for the visitor to know what is new and what is renovated old.

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