Rick Ney, the author of this article, has been living and working in Armenia since 1992, in education, humanitarian aid and development.
Rick wrote the first guide book to Armenia in the post Soviet era and the first multi-media complete guide to any country, TourArmenia. Writings include the first articles out of the Soviet Union about astral and archeological monuments in Armenia dating back 9000 BC.
Rick and his team at TourArmenia continue to add information about the country to their 600 page web site at www.TaCentral.com.
Ancient Armenian Artifact
Spiritual Structures in Armenian Architecture part 3
Part 3 of this article explores some examples of the use of sacred geometry in early Christian buildings in Armenia. This land, located in the Caucasian Mountains on the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey, contains some of the most significant cultural examples of sacred geometry.Examples in Armenia: Echmiadzin and Early Churches
When Christianity came to Armenia, as it did in Rome and Europe, it often usurped pagan traditions, converting them to a Christ-given tradition that facilitated conversions. This is not a slight against Christianity--it would be almost impossible to find any religion that rose completely on its own without borrowing some traditions from the past.
In Armenia, Saint's days and ceremonies coincide with earlier pagan days (just as the Roman Catholic December 25 celebration of the birth of Christ coincides with the Roman holy new year). This conversion of paganism to Christianity included the use of sacred numbers and geometry--if Christ came to renew the world, then he came to renew all that was in it.
New Temples, Rising from the Ashes of the Old
The first Armenian churches were built on the orders of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and were often erected on top of pagan temples. Just as Garni was built on top of an Urartian temple, and shows strikingly similar dimensions to the temple of Sushi at Erebuni, the first churches imitated the pagan temples, altering certain details to differentiate them from their predecessors. But a closer look at them shows that even with the most unique developments in Armenian sacred architecture (drum, conical roof dome, the cruciform shape of the church), a rigorous and consistent compliance to sacred geometry prevailed.
The first churches were built according to the vision of St. Gregory. In the vision, St. Gregory described the composition of the church and the interpretation of its elements. "The main site was marked with a circular base of gold on which rested a column of fire and a capital of cloud, surmounted by a cross of light. The sites for the martyr's chapels were marked with red bases, columns of clouds, capitals of fire, and crosses of light; these columns were lower than the column of light. Above everything stood four crosses, vaults fitted into each other. The whole construction was surmounted by a wonderful canopied construction of cloud in the form of a dome".
The Celestial City
Metaphysically, some the symbols of his vision are that the canopy stands for the celestial city, the meeting place of the kingdom of heaven. The church is the meeting place of the faithful, where they can commune with the world above. Physically, the vision of St. Gregory is the description of the church itself, with the domed or canopied roof supported by vaults (crosses) that rest on pillars. These basic principles have governed the construction of all Armenian churches since then.
Sacred numbers and geometric forms can also be found throughout the narration of St. Gregory's vision. The foundation of the church began with the orientation of the building. The centerline was laid out according to direct observation of the position of the sunrise on the patronal day:
The structure of the church is oriented to the east (as were pagan temples before them)--from whence we await the Second Coming (the East window shows the entrance of spiritual light into the world). The number twelve reflects the twelve stones taken form the river Jordan and Christ's twelve disciples. The stones were washed with water and wine -- as Christ washed the apostles' feet and gave them wine to drink at the Last Supper:
"And then the bishop takes the mattock in his hand, and strikes the ground, which the artifices has traced out, three times toward the east and three times towards the west, three times towards the south and three times towards the north. And he gives (it) to the workmen, and they lay the twelve stones at the tabernacle's four corners, which the bishop has struck. And they enter for the office into the place, where the altar is being set up, and the canon is performed..."
(F. C. Conybeare, 1905)
The centre of the future church was established and the four corners of the ground marked by four stones, the four corners signifying the four corners of the world:
" And then they do lay surely a single rock for foundation of the church in the center of the bema, and other stones unwrought at the four corners of the site. As the clergy walk in front with lifted tapers and fragrance of incense, the bishop shall say the following prayer..." (F. C. Conybeare, 1905)
"And then he orders the architect to take the measuring tool, and he traces out the site according to the sides of the builder. Then he crosses the stones with holy oil and also their four corners..." (F. C. Conybeare, 1905)
Fig. 3: Haghbat Bell Tower
The twelve stones were then distributed to the four sides of the square, three stones to each side.
Barely describing the ritual for establishing an Armenian church, this does give a good idea of the use of sacred numbers and geometry in the ritual itself.
Continuing the tradition of sacred buildings from earlier pagan temples, Armenian builders developed their own type of architecture. For basilica plans, the ratio was 1/2 (1+2 = 3 or 1 and 2 as sacred numbers in themselves), and for rectangular plans the ratio was 1 square root of 2. The unit of measurement in Armenia was the foot (29.5 - 29.7 cm), long used by the Greeks and Romans.
One example of early Armenian architecture in sacred numbers and geometry is figure 3: Haghbat bell tower. Note how the angles of the triangles form sacred numbers (60° = 6+0 = 6; 45° = 4+5= 9).
As you visit both pagan and Christian sacred sites, begin to divide the shapes into their geometric patterns. To the simple person, they may simply look harmonious and somehow fitting--look at it with some knowledge of sacred geometry, and you begin to understand why it was built the way it was.
This is the end of the article.Return to the beginning of Sacred Geometry in Armenia