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Amberd 5: St. Astvatsatsin Church (9). Khachkars. Vishaps.

St. Astvatsatsin Church (9)

The church was built in 1026 for Prince Vahram Pahlavuni, one of Armenia's great sparapets (commanders), who in 1042 defeated Byzantine and Seljuk armies at the Bagratuni capital of Ani, temporarily preserving the security of the kingdom. The domed structure sits between the castle and the edge of the promontory, next to the Arkashen River wall.

The church is an example of a (then) new type of religious building in Armenia; cruciform halls with four small two–story chambers in the corners topped by a large drum and tent-roof dome that overwhelms the lower space.

The dome is supported on its square by corner columns and sweeping arches, with the exterior round drum divided into 12 facets by pairs of thin columns supporting peaked arches in multiple layers of cornice work and the gabled umbrella roof. Its exterior is simple, even severe, with minimal decor except edging around the portal and windows, and the patchwork of crosses carved into the facade.


A beautiful 8th-9th cc khachkar (stone cross) lies against the church walls, its simple thick cross and rudimentary edging suggesting its creation centuries before the medieval church. The tips of each cross wing end in circles rather than the three points typical for 11th-13th cc Armenian crosses. The cross rests over a distinct but sparse Tree of Life, suggested by four pairs of recessed loops, their total number (eight) having mystical meaning in pagan and Christian symbolism.


There are a number of vishaps (“dragon stones”) in the region, some between Amberd and Mt. Aragats.

Vishaps are a remnant from the Neolithic and Bronze Age when inhabitants worshiped the life-giving springs that permeate the country. The stones, carved into figures resembling winged fish, are placed at the sources of water, hence their fish-like appearance. Historians associate vishaps with pre-Christian steles and standing stones and as part of the development of the khachkar, which incorporates a number of pagan symbols, including the sun, the Tree of Life and sacred (Pythagorean) geometry, which consciously used numbers and shapes to communicate with the gods.

The stones evolved over time into grave monuments for holy or famous persons, which then in the early Christian period became the cross, and later, the khachkar (stone cross). Many pagan temples were built on the site of springs, and historians believe, at vishap sites, which were often placed in the wilderness far from settlements. The medieval practice of placing monasteries and churches also in the wilderness may spring from this pre-Christian tradition along with the need to hide from potential attackers.