Back to home

Akhtala 4: St. Astvatsatsin church

St. Astvatsatsin 

The main building of the monastic compound is St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Virgin) church. The exact date of the church's construction is unknown but it is generally regarded as an 11th-13th century complex, though the current church was built on an earlier foundation. The medieval Armenian historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi mentioned that Ivaneh Zakarian was buried in the church in 1227 while another medieval historian, Stepanos Orbelian, referred to the building in his History of Sisakan (Sissian) Province (1216) as Pghndzahank, or Akhtala Monastery's main and oldest church. Modern researchers date the murals within the church to 1205–1276.

Princess Mariam, the daughter of Gurgen II (Kiurikeh II) had a record made in 1118 on the back of a khachkar found at Aiyor (next to Akhtala) which refers to the construction of the church at Akhtala. The inscription on the khackar states: "I, the daughter of Kiurikeh, Mariam, erected St. Astvatsatsin at Pghndzahank, those who honor us remember us in their prayers." Mariam was responsible for construction of the gavit (narthex) of the main church at Haghpat (1185).

According to local lore, the church was built in the 7th century by a Byzantine emperor of Armenian extraction, Heraclius. Another legend assumes that the church was built in the 5th century by the Georgian King Vakhtang I Gorgasali. There is no applicable evidence to support either story.

Stepanos Orbelian wrote that the church held the cross used by John the Baptist to baptize Christ, a relic known as a 'cross of miracles'. It ehen moved to Vayots Dzor region, where Bishop Stepanos of Noravank had possession of the relic and pawned it along with two other precious items to raise funds. Vasak, father of Prince Prosh, is said to have given this relic to Ivaneh Zakarian who returned it to Noravank in 1216 in exchange for a large sum of money.

St. Astvatsatsin has a rectangular domed cruciform composition, the eastern end of which has a low-stage semi-circular altar with 2-story annexes on both sides of the apse. The elongated hall is triple-naved, divided by to sets of arches.

The building was crowned by a massive dome which has not survived. It was damaged during Tamerlane's invasion and completely demolished in 1784 when the Avar Omar Khan invaded the Transcaucasus from Dagestan. In the 19th century the viceroy of the Caucasus, Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, built a semi-spherical wooden dome covered with iron sheets in place of the original dome. The dome was renovated in Soviet times.

Original text edited by International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)-Armenian National Committee and the Holy See of Echmiadzin.