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Zvartnots 3: Cathedral Exterior. Construction. The masters. Well.

Cathedral Exterior

The building
Circular on the outside, the church is actually a central-dome cruciform (cross-shaped) on the inside, the cross spans equal in length. The wings are shaped by the altar and three semicircular rows of six columns with ornamented capitals. These in turn connect with four massive columns. The church was built in three tiers, or inner circles, where the congregation stood during services. The church stood at 45-49 meters in height.

The lower hall was circled by a corridor ringing the entire hall. The corridor was lit through the circular windows, one for each facet in the circular outer walls. The walls had 32 facets on the ground floor, 16 on the second and 8 on the third. Heavily ornamented on the ground floor, the walls of the second and third levels were more restrained in design, giving the building a sense of upward thrust.

The roof was circular, ending with a tent roof on the top, covered in red clay tiles.

A marvel of engineering, the church was meant to last 1,000 years (the predicted time for the “second coming” of Christ). On the north was a multi-step foundation, which - with the church's massive size - gave the entire complex a tremendous sense of grandeur.

There is a view that the church was actually one meter taller when it was first built, due to the use of lime cement that was deliberately laid to compress over time. As years went by the weight of the stones slowly settled to a much tighter bond that lowered the top.

One of the materials used in the lime mortar was crushed obsidian, which when fired becomes lighter in weight. The fired obsidian was added to the mortar to create a tight bond that was also lighter than normal lime mortar, allowing for a taller structure.

The masters
There were 32 master craftsmen used in the construction; their achievement commemorated with portraits of their faces carved on each of 32 facets to the lower level of the building. Nine portraits survive.

Each master had his own special mark, which also figured into the work and helped excavators to understand which master was responsible for which part, though their names are still unknown save one - “Iohan” or “Yovan” ( i.e. John).

Immediately adjacent to the church on its western side is a well. Measuring 49 meters deep, the well supplied water to the church community and may have been an inspiration for the pagan precursor to Zvartnots; worship at the sources of water were common in Bronze and Iron Age Armenia.

The text was edited by ICOMOS/Armenia NGO.