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Zvartnots 2: History



The cathedral before you, referred to as both Zvartnots and St. Grogor Lusavorich by medieval historians, was built on the spot where it is said Grigor Lusavorich met T’rdat, initiating the king’s conversion and leading to Armenia adopting Christianity as the state religion. 


The site has been the focus of worship from pre-Christian times. Excavations also uncovered Urartian temple foundations , a sacrificial alter and a large cuneiform stone celebrating the construction of a large canal system during the reign of King Russa II. The canal system, connecting to the Hrazdan River, is still in use. 


A Hellenistic temple to Tir (Apollo) replaced the Urartian structure and stood at the site when King T’rdat met Grigir Lusavorich in 301 AD. Thereafter the temple was replaced by a 5th -6th century single-nave basilica which also survives; its foundations are south of the cathedral. 


The cathedral is believed to have been built ca. 643-652, during a time of turmoil. Arabs had invaded Armenia, taking the capital at Dvin in 640, and were threatening to take the rest of the country. The Catholicos Yez’r died at the same time, precipitating a crisis. Prince Theodoros Rshtuni, striving to unite the country against competing claims by Arabs and Byzantines, supported the election of Nerses, a bishop from Taik region. Educated in Byzantium and having served in the Byzantine army, Nerses favored union with the Orthodox Church. 


Elected in 641, Nerses (r. 641-661) was known as “the Builder” for the large number of churches and monasteries he founded. In 641 he moved the Seat of the Church to Zvartnots, and commissioned the structure around 643. 


The construction was a great achievement; at the time it Zvartnots type was completely unique, a central dome type where the corners and apses became a part of the whole, suggesting a circle. 


Its massive size and unique construction was an engineering marvel, and a number of legends and reports are connected to the monument. One story relates how, in 652, the Byzantine Roman Emperor Costas II, attending the consecration of the temple, and, so impressed by its design and scale, hired the master architect to build a similar church in Constantinople. 


Armenia and Arab historians alike marveled at the beauty of Zvartnots, calling it one of the most beautiful buildings ever built. There are a number of copies in the Near East, including a precursor built for Nerses in the village of Ishkhan (Western Armenia). 

The cathedral later became known as St. Grigor for the relics of the saint that were housed here. 


In 2000, Zvartnots, along with the churches of St. Hripsimeh, St. Guyaneh and the Mother See at Echmiadzin, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The text was edited by ICOMOS/Armenia NGO.