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Styles of church

All the earliest-known churches were either of basilica  construction (ie: rectangular with an apse at the east end and with three aisles) or else a simpler version of this with a single aisle. Variations included having a  covered porch, one or more rooms adjoining the apse, or corner rooms at both ends. A single roof covered all three aisles. Cupolas started to make their appearance in the 5th or 6th century and both single and three-aisle churches were then built incorporating them. In single-aisle churches the cupola rested on massive piers which jutted out from the north and south walls but in three-aisle basilica churches lour free-standing pillars were usual.

The incorporation of a cupola as a central feature caused changes to church layout and the basilica style gave way to a more centrally planned church built around the cupola, sometimes with four apses or else with four arms of equal length, or sometimes with three apses and one extended arm. This resulted in what was essentially a cross-shaped church but the addition of corner rooms between the arms of the cross resulted in many church buildings being more or less rectangular in plan when seen from the outside but with the church itself cross-shaped in plan when on the inside. Churches with a cupola and four arms are often referred to as cross-dome churches although cross-cupola would perhaps be less misleading as most English speakers think of domes as being hemispherical. The ultimate exemplar of this centrally planned style, the Church of St Hripsime at Ejmiatsin, is still further developed. Four semicircular apses are separated from each other by four circular niches each of which leads to a square corner room, all this being incorporated within the basic rectangular shape. Another variant of the centrally planned church was to make the entire building circular although relatively few of this type were constructed and the best known, the ruined 7th-century church at Xvartnots, isn't strictly circular but has 32 sides.

The basic style of Armenian church architecture has remained to this day the centrally planned church, built around its cupola and with two or more corner rooms. However, two later developments were the additions of a narthex or gavit as it is usually referred to in Armenia, and the building of a bell tower. Both gavit and bell tower came into being during the great upsurge in monastery building from the 10th century onwards. A gavit is a square room usually attached to the west end of the church and serving as a vestibule, a room for meetings, and a burial place for notables. Apart from the relatively few free-standing ones gavits could also house the overflow when the congregation was too large for the main church. They were sometimes very large with massive walls and, like the other parts of the church, were frequently elaborately carved. Bell towers appeared at monastery complexes from the 13th century onwards and were often detached from the church building itself. The walls oflater churches, both the exterior and the interior ones, sometimes incorporate khachkars (cross stones, see box text opposite). There are also occasionally carvings of the donors, often holding a model of the church.

Inside Armenian churches there may or may not be carving but the most conspicuous feature is the altar dais or bema at the eastern end with steps leading up to it. The entire dais forms the altar and in an active church it can be shut off by a curtain though the curtain is never closed except during parts of services. Unlike the Orthodox Church there is never an iconostasis. A few churches have a decorated wooden or stone altar screen, as at Sevanavank or Mughni, but this never obscures the holy table as does the iconostasis in the Orthodox Church.

A word which visitors might hear when any small church is being referred to is zham, as opposed to vank for a monastery. Zham is the Armenian word for hour or time. Using it to mean a church dates from when the church was the (only) means of telling the time, either by bell or sundial. Zham is also often used to refer to simple hall-like village churches without a dome and often with wooden rather than stone pillars supporting the roof. They are rarely thought worthy of being pointed out to tourists but they are quite widespread and often have interesting older khachkars incorporated into their walls.

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