Vank’asar, in the Aghdam region of Azerbaijan, stands as a testament to the fortitude of Christian architecture. The church was originally built in the 6th or 7th century and still stands, despite centuries of Christian-Islamic conflict in the surrounding area. Vank’asar has a stark geometric profile, positioned audaciously high atop a mountain, right on the edge of a 300 meter cliff. The smooth white stone of the church contrasts with the gray rocky surface below, yet its pointed roof and overall triangular geometry mimic the pyramidal shape of the nearby mountains. The overall effect of the church in its dramatic setting is like a glistening pinnacle, drawing visitors closer to Heaven above. 

A New Kind of Church

Vank’asar is an example of early experimentation in church architecture. Early churches often took the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan derived from pre-Christian, Imperial Rome. Even far away from Rome, in the Caucasus, the earliest surviving churches such as Tsitsernavank have a basilican plan. In contrast, Vank’asar has three large lobes, or apses, around a central dome. Similar centrally-planned churches with radiating apses became popular in 7th-century Armenia and remain a hallmark of Armenian architecture throughout the medieval period and into the present. For instance, St. Vartan’s Cathedral in New York City, completed in 1968, has a layout and outward appearance remarkably close to that of Vank’asar, despite the 1300 years between the two churches. 

The new architectural plan employed at Vank’asar has several underlying meanings. First, it represents a break with the pre-Christian past towards a new, Christian-specific architecture. This new architectural identity can be seen in the ground plan of the church, which shows the church is actually shaped like a cross, a clear indication of the religious affiliation of the building. The three apses speak to its religious function. While a basilica has only one apse, and thus only one altar, the three apses in Vank’asar could each house their own altar. This allows multiple dedications to different saints within the same church, and more opportunities for prayer by the congregants. As a visitor today, the architectural plan of Vank’asar creates a surprisingly open and airy interior. The use of a tall central dome and smaller semi-domes over the apses eliminates the need for any interior walls or supporting structures, instead resulting in one unified, uninterrupted space. 

Written in Stone

As the pointed heights of the church draw your eye to Heaven, the inscriptions on and around the church invite you to say a prayer for the faithful who visited Vank’asar long ago. Over the centuries, those living around Vank’asar carved inscriptions into its walls. While many of these have been erased by time or intentionally through vandalism, several are still visible as you walk around the church. Two of these, both near the entrance, speak to the pious desires of the medieval inhabitants of Vank’asar. Both inscriptions ask those reading the words to remember their prayers, perhaps implicitly entreating the reader to say a prayer for them as well. On a nearby khachkar, or cross-stone, a certain “Shahanshah,” or “king of kings,” engraved a similar message in 1263, asking: “Whoever may read, remember my prayers.” 

Elsewhere on the church, there are more inscriptions to ponder. In various locations, there are individual Armenian letters, perhaps the initials of masons working on the church or locals who wanted their names recorded on this impressive monument. Inscriptions of whole or partial names are not unusual on medieval Armenian monuments, yet elsewhere at Vank’asar are more intriguing carvings. The walls feature engravings of a six-pointed star, a fish, and two arrow-shaped characters. While the arrows are particularly puzzling, the pictograms of the star and fish are more easily explained. The six-pointed star is often called the Star of David or the Sign of Solomon, and in both cases references a symbol associated with the pious kings of the Old Testament. Likewise, the fish is a symbol associated with Christ, whose miracle of loaves and fishes is one of the commonly retold stories from the New Testament. Even the more abstract carvings at Vank’asar speak to the intense piety of the medieval visitor and remind the modern admirer of its Christian purpose.

Restoration Gone Wrong

Over the centuries, Vank’asar did experience some damage, though archaeologists remarked on its surprisingly good condition before its restoration in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this “restoration” turned out to be a great disservice to the ancient church. The restoration was more of a complete reconstruction, in which stones were removed, repaired, and restacked. While the profile of the church remains faithful to its original design, many inscriptions were split up or otherwise lost. Moreover, the restorers erased key images that explicitly tied Vank’asar to Christianity. There was a large cross carved into the stone above the doorway, which has since been filed down to the point of erasure. The khachkars around the church were also affected, with one relocated to the village of Aghdam, and others disappearing altogether. Nonetheless, Vank’asar remains a testament to the deep Christian heritage of this region and the continued spiritual power of Armenian architecture. 

A New Kind of Church

Vank’asar is an example of early experimentation in church architecture. Early churches often took the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan derived from pre-Christian, Imperial Rome. Even far away from Rome, in the Caucasus, the earliest surviving churches such as Tsitsernavank have a basilican plan. In contrast, Vank’asar has three large lobes, or apses, around a central dome. Similar centrally-planned churches with radiating apses became popular in 7th-century Armenia and remain a hallmark of Armenian architecture throughout the medieval period and into the present. For instance, St. Vartan’s Cathedral in New York City, completed in 1968, has a layout and outward appearance remarkably close to that of Vank’asar, despite the 1300 years between the two churches. 

The new architectural plan employed at Vank’asar has several underlying meanings. First, it represents a break with the pre-Christian past towards a new, Christian-specific architecture. This new architectural identity can be seen in the ground plan of the church, which shows the church is actually shaped like a cross, a clear indication of the religious affiliation of the building. The three apses speak to its religious function. While a basilica has only one apse, and thus only one altar, the three apses in Vank’asar could each house their own altar. This allows multiple dedications to different saints within the same church, and more opportunities for prayer by the congregants. As a visitor today, the architectural plan of Vank’asar creates a surprisingly open and airy interior. The use of a tall central dome and smaller semi-domes over the apses eliminates the need for any interior walls or supporting structures, instead resulting in one unified, uninterrupted space. 

Written in Stone

As the pointed heights of the church draw your eye to Heaven, the inscriptions on and around the church invite you to say a prayer for the faithful who visited Vank’asar long ago. Over the centuries, those living around Vank’asar carved inscriptions into its walls. While many of these have been erased by time or intentionally through vandalism, several are still visible as you walk around the church. Two of these, both near the entrance, speak to the pious desires of the medieval inhabitants of Vank’asar. Both inscriptions ask those reading the words to remember their prayers, perhaps implicitly entreating the reader to say a prayer for them as well. On a nearby khachkar, or cross-stone, a certain “Shahanshah,” or “king of kings,” engraved a similar message in 1263, asking: “Whoever may read, remember my prayers.” 

Elsewhere on the church, there are more inscriptions to ponder. In various locations, there are individual Armenian letters, perhaps the initials of masons working on the church or locals who wanted their names recorded on this impressive monument. Inscriptions of whole or partial names are not unusual on medieval Armenian monuments, yet elsewhere at Vank’asar are more intriguing carvings. The walls feature engravings of a six-pointed star, a fish, and two arrow-shaped characters. While the arrows are particularly puzzling, the pictograms of the star and fish are more easily explained. The six-pointed star is often called the Star of David or the Sign of Solomon, and in both cases references a symbol associated with the pious kings of the Old Testament. Likewise, the fish is a symbol associated with Christ, whose miracle of loaves and fishes is one of the commonly retold stories from the New Testament. Even the more abstract carvings at Vank’asar speak to the intense piety of the medieval visitor and remind the modern admirer of its Christian purpose.

Restoration Gone Wrong

Over the centuries, Vank’asar did experience some damage, though archaeologists remarked on its surprisingly good condition before its restoration in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this “restoration” turned out to be a great disservice to the ancient church. The restoration was more of a complete reconstruction, in which stones were removed, repaired, and restacked. While the profile of the church remains faithful to its original design, many inscriptions were split up or otherwise lost. Moreover, the restorers erased key images that explicitly tied Vank’asar to Christianity. There was a large cross carved into the stone above the doorway, which has since been filed down to the point of erasure. The khachkars around the church were also affected, with one relocated to the village of Aghdam, and others disappearing altogether. Nonetheless, Vank’asar remains a testament to the deep Christian heritage of this region and the continued spiritual power of Armenian architecture. 

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