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Zvartnots 6: Collapse. Excavation. Reconstruction


Zvartnots stood for 320 years before its collapse in the 10th century; by the time the historian Stepanos Taronatsi wrote of the church it was already in ruins, without giving a reason. How it collapsed is still debated, though most argues for one of two theories; earthquake, or as a result of Arab raids.

The most common explanation is earthquake, though the building was well engineered and designed to last 1,000 years (a projected date for the second coming of Christ). Excavations have uncovered traces of large fires at the site, perhaps of an earlier attempt to destroy the church, though the construction also included firing of obsidian and lime mortar to form the mortar joints (firing it into brick) and the 1893 excavation used fire and explosives to clear debris.

Another view is that Arabs pulled strategic stones from the wall, weakening the structure so that it eventually collapsed of its own weight. Even so, it would have taken decades of exposure to finally weaken the second tier, which fell following an earthquake.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Zvartnots was still underground. An excavation was initiated by Khachik Vardapet Dadian in 1901-1907. In 1904 the architect Toros Toramanian began directing excavations and in 1905 he displayed the first results. In 1908 the excavation team joined with the eminent archeologist Nicolas Marr. Marr noted that in 1000 AD in the ancient of Ani, the Armenian king Gagik Bagratuni ordered the construction of St.Grigor church in the same design as Zvartnots.
Zvartnots oldest layer revealed the Urartian cuneiform stone of Rusa II (0.63 x 2.7 m in size), which noted the construction of gardens, canals, and sacrifices to the gods. Excavations uncovered the church, Catholicos’ palace in the southwest of the complex, adjoining service rooms, a roman-style bath, and different artifacts (ceramicware, vessels, jars, tools, jewelry), graves and a winery.


The exact church design is not completely agreed on. In 1905 Toros Toramanian created an architectural reconstruction of Zvartnots, which was confirmed as the accurate design in 1906, after the discovery of the 1000 AD “millennium church” of St. Grigor (“Gagkashen”) in Ani. Other copies of the same type have also been found, bolstering Toramanian’s plan. The medieval historian Stepanos Asoghiketsi wrote
“It was at that time, at the end of the 1000th year of Our Lord’s incarnation, at the time of Emperor Basil, that Gagik, King of Armenia, was taken with the idea of building in the city of Ani a church similar in size and plan to the great church at Vagharshapat, dedicated to St. Gregory, which was then in ruins”.

The church design is also confirmed by its depiction in a relief panel at Paris’ St. Chapelle (1243-48), which shows a design of the church above Noahs’Ark on Mt. Ararat, believed to be a model of St. Grigor in Ani, a copy of Zvartnots.
Toramanian’s model of the church is on display at the State History Museum in Yerevan

The text was edited by ICOMOS/Armenia NGO.