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Garni 6: The Temple to Mythra

The Temple to Mythra

The temple sits at the southern tip of the site and is the only remaining intact model of Hellenistic architecture in Armenia. It is a reconstruction of the original, which was destroyed along with the defensive walls in the earthquake of 1679 and rebuilt beginning in 1949.

The temple was dedicated to Mythra, a deity popular in the Near East which became the patron goddess of the Roman Empire in the period before Christianity. The name “Mythra” is synonymous with the Greek word “Helios”, which means the sun or sun god, and is a variant of early Vedic (“Mitra”) and Persian (“Mihr/Mehr”) deities.

In some descriptions, the temple is called the Temple to Helios. The deity is believed to have originated in India, evolving in Persia and Armenia into its Zoroastrian form during the Bronze and Iron Ages, from where it was carried to Greece by remnants of Alexander the Great's armies in the 3rd-2nd cc BCE, where its Manichean form was incorporated into the Greek concept of the Helios god. During the 1st century, Roman legions, familiar with the concept of Helios, were exposed to its older version in Armenia and Persia, and brought its fire image back to the Roman Empire, where it evolved yet again.

Garni temple was built on top of an Urartian temple, with the same floor dimensions as the temple of Susi at Erebuni (5.05 X 7.98 meters) and the same orientation of placing the temple on a north-south axis. This is as opposed to indigenous temples that were placed on an east-west axis and which Christians incorporated when placing the altar to the east.

The temple is a Greco-Roman peripeteros (enclosed chamber) of the Ionic style on a podium originally 3 meters in height. On the Northern side of the temple a broad (8 meters) stairway with nine steps leads to the inner sanctum. At the entry to the sanctuary, among the inscriptions and bas relief figures, there are Arabic inscriptions commemorating the capture of the fortress and converting the temple into a mosque. The cellae (sanctuary) is surrounded by a colonnade of 24 columns (6 in front and back, 8 on the sides), with finely molded capitals. The frieze work features leaves twined around lion masks that appear to be molded, though they were carved from solid stone.

The entablature is unique from other Hellenistic temples in that the frieze and architrave overhang the capitals. Carvings combine acanthus fronds with flowers, rosettes, grapes, pomegranate and other flora unique to Armenia and the region. The hipped roof is intricately ornamented, atypical of the style predominant in the Western Roman Empire. The decorative work is often indecipherable from the architectural units, one of the reasons the temple is considered one of the best examples of the Greco-Roman style, akin to temples at Nima, the Minerva Medica in Rome, the temple of Apollo in Sagalas, Mythra in Cremna and the Asklepios in Pergamum.

The text was edited by ICOMOS/Armenia NGO.