Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

St. Sion “Mashtots Hairapet” Church

Posted by Fredsvenn on July 29, 2014

Few people are aware that the Zvartnots Zion Church by the Garni Temple in the 7th century was built by Catholicos Nerses III. The monument was completely destroyed by time and the only reason they survived.

Garni (Armenian: Գառնի) is a major village in the Kotayk Province of Armenia. The settlement has an ancient history, and is best known for the nearby Hellenistic Garni temple (Armenian: Գառնիի հեթանոսական տաճար Gařnii het’anosakan tačar), a first century Hellenic temple near Garni, Armenia.

It is the only pagan temple in Armenia that survived the Christianization of the country in the early 4th century. It is also the only “Greco-Roman colonnaded building” in Armenia and the entire former Soviet Union. The temple had collapsed in the 1679 earthquake and was reconstructed between 1969 and 1974, under the supervision of Alexander Sahinian.

The area was first occupied in the 3rd millennium BC along easily defensible terrain at one of the bends of the Azat River. In the 8th century BC the area was conquered by the Urartian King Argishti I.

The fortification at Garni was erected probably sometime in the 3rd century BC as a summer residence for the Armenian Orontid and Artaxiad royal dynasties. Later around the 1st century BC the fortress of Garni became the last refuge of King Mithridates of Armenia and where he and his family were assassinated by his son-in-law and nephew Rhadamistus.

Rhadamistus (Georgian: რადამისტი) (died 58) was one of the sons of King Pharasmanes I of Iberia. His mother was an unnamed Armenian princess of the Artaxiad dynasty, who was the daughter of the Artaxiad Armenian monarchs Tigranes IV and his sister-wife Erato.

Rhadamistus was a Georgian royal prince of the Pharnavazid dynasty of the Kingdom of Iberia who reigned over the Kingdom of Armenia from 51 to 53 and 54 to 55. He was considered an usurper and tyrant, who was overthrown in a rebellion supported by the Parthian Empire.

Nerses III the Builder (Armenian: Ներսես Գ Շինող) was the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church between 641 and 661. He was originally from the village of Ishkhan in Tayk. He ruled at a troubled time during which Armenia had to choose between their neighbors Byzantines and Persians along with their new conquerors the Arabs.

Catholicos Nerses III received the title of the Builder due to the grand construction works he undertook during his reign. The most important ones were the construction of a chapel over the pit of imprisonment of St. Gregory the Illuminator at Khor Virap (which was replaced a thousand years later by the current church) and the magnificent cathedral of Zvartnots. One tradition says he might have been buried on the northern side of the church.

Next to the Temple are the foundations of St. Sion church, built in 659 and commissioned by Catholicos Nerses III the Builder. Partially excavated in 1907-1911, excavations were completely uncovered in 1949. The church was a variation of the central dome church type with cross wings and is considered a copy of the church of Zvartnots. The interior of the cruciform walls form four semi circular apses, with annexes between the entrances into the wings of the cross.

The main altar and the annexes have horseshoe shaped apses, which, together with the cruciform plan make the space appear much larger than it is. The central square lay beneath the dome. The church itself was entered on the Northern and Western sides. The entire structure rested on a plain inscribed into a 24 faceted sphere with a diameter of 24 meters, on top of a two stepped stylobate. 2-3 rows of finely polished tufa block masonry set in lime are what remain of the church.

Adjoining the north end of St. Sion are the foundations of a small 12th century basilica, built to house the grave of Catholicos Mashtots Yeghivardetsi, who in 876 escaped Arab invaders attacking Echmiadzin and moved the Holy See (and its treasure) to Garni where he died and was buried. His gravestone is just north of the church ruins.

The fortress was eventually sacked in 1386 by Timur Lenk (1336–1405), a Turko-Mongol ruler of Barlas lineage who conquered West, South and Central Asia and founded the Timurid dynasty. In 1679 an earthquake devastated the area destroying the temple.

Before the end of 1399, Timur started a war with Bayezid I, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the Mamluk sultan of Egypt Nasir-ad-Din Faraj. Bayezid began annexing the territory of Turkmen and Muslim rulers in Anatolia. As Timur claimed sovereignty over the Turkmen rulers, they took refuge behind him.

In 1400 Timur invaded Christian Armenia and Georgia. Of the surviving population, more than 60,000 of the local people were captured as slaves, and many districts were depopulated.

Then Timur turned his attention to Syria, sacking Aleppo and Damascus. The city’s inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.

He invaded Baghdad in June 1401. After the capture of the city, 20,000 of its citizens were massacred. Timur ordered that every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him. (Many warriors were so scared they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Timur.)

During his lifetime, Timur emerged as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire and the declining Sultanate of Delhi. Timur also decisively defeated the Christian Knights Hospitaller at Smyrna, styling himself a Ghazi.

By the end of his reign, Timur had also gained complete control over all the remnants of the Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate, Golden Horde and even attempted to restore the Yuan dynasty.

Timur’s armies were feared throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, sizable parts of which were laid waste by his campaigns. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population, leading to a predominantly barbaric legacy.


Garni Temple



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