The Ganjasar monastery (Agdara District)

Karabakh’s cult Architecture

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The architectural heritage of Azerbaijan, including karabakh, has become one of the memory forms of its autochthons. Thanks to this the country’s architecture permanently expands the values society possesses as a social organism. Monuments of Azerbaijan’s material culture are an illustration of the fact that great architectural masterpieces are not so much the result of individual work as they are a product of the entire society, the result of creative efforts of a whole people.

The  Karabakh  architecture  deserves special mention. While reviewing the development of architecture in this historical region of Azerbaijan,  we should  point  to the fact that it covered a large area. Karabakh’s  ancient  land  was  a center of civilization not only for Azerbaijan, but also for the entire Caucasus and beyond. The architecture  of  a  significant  artistic and historical value evolved here for millennia.

The exceptionally favorable natural and geographic conditions of Karabakh preconditioned  the development  of farming and cattle breeding. Numerous settlements were established here which eventually transformed  into  large  and well-fortified cities linked to many countries of the  East and West by caravan roads.  The  natural wealth of the Karabakh land and the abundance of construction materials facilitated   extensive   landscaping work in ancient cities. Various natural rocks and clay led to the development and spread of a number of construction methods and architectural forms, which played a major role in the subsequent  development of construction art.

Karabakh’s architectural monuments,  partially preserved or lying in ruins, represent invaluable factual evidence  of people’s  rock chronicles. These monuments provide the opportunity   for   ascertaining  the peculiarities and specificity of construction methods  and techniques, compositional solutions, architectural forms, thus establishing the identity of Karabakh’s  architecture and its place in the history of Azerbaijani architecture.
Back at the dawn of the of the 20th  century Academician N. Vavilov characterized the spread of ancient centers of cultivated plants and established  their  role in the  history of mankind. In essence, N. Vavilov wrote, only a narrow strip of land played an enormous  part in the development of mankind. The territory of historical Azerbaijan is one of such centers [ref]V. Vavilov, Origin centers of cultivated plants. Works on applied botany and selection, L.,  1926, Vol. 16, part 2[/ref]. Subsequent  researches fully confirmed both the general conclusions of the scholar and his separation of specific early agricultural centers [ref]G. Mellart, Ancient civilizations of the  Middle East, M., 1982[/ref].

The appearance of long-term resident settlements may be viewed as a beginning of human architectural and construction activities based  on  consistent  organization of the habitat, reasonable and task- specific use of construction materials and structures.

Ancient settlements emerged in Karabakh in the  Neolithic era. The discovery and interpretation of ancient settlements shed light on the earlier stages in the development of architecture and the cultural identity of the settled agricultural society which evolved in the 5th-3rd  centuries BC.
Karabakh’s Neolithic monuments have a lot in common and perhaps even the same roots with Northern Mesopotamia.

The  architectural and  archaeological researches of Ilanlitepe, Chalagantepe and Kamiltepe (Agdam District) settlements   of  Karabakh have   revealed   stratified  occupation layers, which has significantly enriched the database for studying the Neolithic culture of Azerbaijan. These settlements  are evidence of the  great  skill  with which ancient architects and construction workers erected their buildings.Karabakh’s first settlements  did not have defense fortifications. Such settlements  were inhabited not by farmers but by hunters. However, in the  period of transition from Neo- lithic to  the  Bronze  ages  fortified settlements started emerging in Karabakh: Garakepektepe (Fizuli District) and  Uzerliktepe (Agdam  District) [ref]M. Useynov, L. Bretaninskiy, A. Salamzade, History of Azerbaijani Architecture, M., 1963;  O. Abibullayev, Studying the Kultepe Hill, Works  of the Institute of History and Philosophy of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, Vol. 9; V. Kerimov, Early Agricultural Architecture on the  territory of Azerbaijan, Baku, 1989[/ref].

A cluster of houses was surrounded  by a fortress wall. This  is evidence of strong cultural and economic relations of local tribes with countries of the Middle East in the Bronze and early Iron ages.

The  start of the  Bronze Age in Azerbaijan  was  marked  by  major socioeconomic transformation that dramatically changed people’s lifestyle. The materials used in Bronze Age architecture point to the expanding  relations  between   tribes and  frequent military standoffs. Wars, as well as cattle-breeding and farming, became key activities and occupations  for ancient tribes inhabiting  Karabakh. This is confirmed by the remains of defensive structures around the settlements which quite often represent- ed formidable forts, e.g. settlements near the village of Khojali attributed to the 2nd  millennium BC.

Monuments of Karabakh’s defensive architecture suggest that such structures were strategically located in places of troop concentrations to prevent enemy incursions.

Uzerliktepe (Agdam  District), a structure dating back to the 2nd cen- tury BC, is one of Karabakh’s earliest Bronze Age monuments. It fact, it can serve as a reference standard for the  period under  examination. The presence of raw blocks on the ground  floors of buildings is evidence  of the socioeconomic situation and the high level of culture in the Bronze epoch [ref] V. Kerimov, Azerbaijan’s defence structures, Baku, 1998[/ref].

Of    the   fortresses   discovered in Karabakh, particularly remarkable have been  Aladag, Galali and Galatepe. They are attributed to the
1st  millennium BC (Gubatli  District). These are neck-shaped fortresses that became more diverse in subsequent  periods. An overview of the development  of design techniques shows that  the  evolution of such techniques    was    preconditioned not so much by the diversity of social conditions but by the changes brought  about  by the  overall development of the military and engineering art.

In the late 1st   millennium BC, Azerbaijan experienced  a transition from archaic architectural forms that used to express the ideas of despotic Eastern states to new ideological concepts of “Hellenistic powers”. New town- planning techniques were observed now. The Hellenistic period includes  the  Shergala  settlement (1st century BC – 1st century AD) and the Partav fortress (3rd  century AD) in Barda District. Town-planning traditions of Karabakh’s defensive architecture of the Hellenistic period carried on living in the feudal era as well. Also developed in Azerbaijan were the main principles of fortification architecture that formed the basis of architecture in subsequent centuries.

The Amaras monastery (Khojavand District)
The Amaras monastery (Khojavand District)

Written sources and archaeological materials point to the development of cities as centers of craft and trade in this period. Particularly active in Karabakh in this respect were Barda (Partav), Amaras, Khanakert (Khunarakent), Paytarakan and Beylagan. The development of these cities was marred by a fierce struggle against foreign  invaders,  first of all the Byzantine Empire, Iran and Khaz- aria. After the  fall of Kabala following a Khazar invasion, Barda (Partav) became the center of the Caucasian  Albania (G. Ahmedov, The medieval city of Beylakan, Baku,
1979; K. Mamedzade,  Azerbaijan’s construction art, Baku, 1983).
First a residency of Sassanid governors  and  then  of the  Alban Catholicos and  prince, the  city of Partav  became   the   residency  of Arab governors in the  8th   century. Another large city of Karabakh is the fort city of Beylagan which emerged on the site of a more ancient settlement  Paytakaran. The elaborate layout of the city’s walls connected with a system of ditches filled with water is evidence of a high level of defensive construction art.

The data on Karabakh’s architecture, as well as observations and conclusions made, provide a much broader picture of Azerbaijan’s medieval architecture. This  is also important from the standpoint of studying the history of the country’s town-planning traditions.

The Agoglan Alban monastery (Lachin District)
The Agoglan Alban monastery (Lachin District)

A  peculiar combination  of traditional and newly-created architectural forms  is manifested in the 12th century Gulistan (Goranboy District) and 11-12th century Giz Galasi fortresses (Jabrayil District). This is where ancient traditions of local architecture are combined  with new types of structures in response  to new requirements of society.

Twenty independent  khanates emerged  in Azerbaijan in the middle  of the  18th century,  including the khanates of Baku, Shirvan, Guba, Karabakh,  Ganja, Sheki  and Talysh. Such division did not contribute to the country’s overall development (Mirza  Javanshir Karabakhskiy, The History of Karabakh, Baku, 1959).

Feudalists  were  largely preoccupied with strengthening  the old and building new fort cities in which they established their own residencies. Thus, a new fort city of Shusha became the capital of the Karabakh khanate [ref]V. Potto, Monuments of the time when Russian rule was established in the Caucasus, First  Edition, Tiflis,  1906; E.  Avalov, The  Architecture  of Shusha, Baku, 1977; The History of Azerbaijan, vol. 1, Baku,  1958[/ref]. The  appearance  of Shusha  is closely associated  with the military and political situation in Azerbaijan in the mid-18th century. It was built by the founder of the Kara- bakh  khanate, Panah  Khan, as an unassailable fortress on a mountain. The almost vertical rocks served as boundaries of the fortress on three sides.

The fortress planning was carried out in two stages. The foundation of the fortress was designed at the first stage, while during the second, the construction  was moved  from the relatively quiet eastern section to the west which had a much rougher terrain. Most of the construction activities commenced  under the rule of the son of Panah Khan, Ibrahim-Khalil Khan (1760-1806), who fortified the walls of the Shusha fortress. It is worth indicating that  the  Askeran fortress was erected  by Ibra- him  Khan’s  brother,  Mehrali Khan [ref]Ahmed-bek Javanshir, The History of the Karabakh khanate, Baku, 1961; P.  Zubov,  The  Historical Caucasus novel. A Karabakh astrologist or the establishment of the Shusha fortress, St. Petersburg,  1834; V.  Dorn, The Caspian, St. Petersburg, 1975; The Caucasian Calendar for 1855[/ref].

Major researches have been dedicated to studying Azerbaijani architecture in modern times. These researches have identified the main features of the formation and development  of the  country’s architecture and its unique national forms.

The evolution of Azerbaijan’s architecture represents a complete cycle which fits quite well into the development of the Near East and subsequently of Central Asia and Western Europe.

The architecture of Caucasian Albania is a link in this single process. Alban architectural monuments emerged   as  a  visible expression of the  people’s  powerful  creative potential. Every monument  contains features characteristic of the epoch in which it was created. The monumental cult architecture of Caucasian Albania was noted for its uniqueness  and  identity, as is the case in other countries of the Christian world. It wasn’t like any other architecture. But at the same time, it was subordinated to the tendencies (development laws) we have been observing  in other  countries  and regions.

Holding a special place in the Caucasian Albania architecture are the  cult structures of  Karabakh. Their appearance  in this historical region meant  that  people’s religious beliefs had significantly strengthened. Therefore, cult structures acquired a certain social, political, cultural and ethnic function [ref]R. Geyushev, Christianity of Caucasian Albania, Baku,  1984; D.  Akhundov, The Architecture of ancient and early medieval Azerbaijan, Baku, 1986; G. Mamedova, Cult architecture of Caucasian Albania, 1997[/ref].

Rectangular temples triggered the development  of hall-vault churches. The performance of cult rituals necessitated   the  construction of domes, which led to the creation of central dome temples and basilicas.

Information about the construction of Christian cult structures in Karabakh is mainly preserved in Alban narrative sources, most notably “The History of the  Country of Albania” by Moses of Kalankatuyk, the main reference on the history and architecture of Caucasian Albania. The author dwells upon the first church built in Karabakh after Christianity was declared state  religion. This is how the Amaras temple  emerged. Archaeological excavations have re- vealed that this is a three-aisled basilica. A chapel was built in the same monastery in the  early 6th   century during the times of Vachagan III [ref]R. Geyushev, Christianity of Caucasian Albania, Baku, 1984[/ref].Another chapel of St. Panteleimon was built in Dutakan, the native village of King Vachagan  III. Moses of Kalankatuyk suggests that Alban Catholicos Gregory built  a church “in the great city of the Agvan rule, Tsri”. The historian also provides  detailed  information  about the monasteries built by the great Alban prince Javanshir.

Describing the history of his country and the deeds of Alban kings and  princes,  Moses  of  Kalankatuyk pays special attention  to their construction activities. Vachagan III alone built as many churches as there are days in a year. Also engaged  in the  construction  of cult structures and landscaping were Alban princes. The  wife of Prince Spram built a monastery and decorated it in a splendid manner.

One of the  most important  directions of Christian architecture in Karabakh was the rapid development  of monastery  complexes  [ref]V. Kerimov, G. Mamedova, Complex of St. Elisha and its architectural parallels in adjoining countries. Reports of the Second International Symposium, Baku, 1997[/ref].

The construction  of cult buildings inside large monasteries, which also served as family shrines,  was considered  particularly prestigious. Monasteries were viewed as cen- ters of spiritual and public life of the  country. In fact, major monastic ensembles emerged,  such as  Agoglan  (Lachin District),  Khudavank  (Kalbajar District), Amaras (Shamkir  District), Gutavan (Gadrut District). They reflected the most advanced architectural and construction achievements of the time. The examination and research of the cult structures that  were part of these ensembles provide a glimpse of the monumental architecture of that epoch. In Karabakh, monasteries appeared  in the early middle ages. This represents irrefutable evidence that as early as in the 5th  century there was a large number of monasteries in Albania that played a certain role in the economic and cultural life of the state.

Due to  the  overall cultural development in Azerbaijan in the 12-13th   centuries, the  construction  of monasteries reached its heyday and remarkable architectural ensembles started  emerging. The monumental buildings reflected new ideas of artistic expression and courageous design solutions. This was a period when monasteries became centers of spiritual and secular culture.

The Khudavank monastery (Kalbajar District)
The Khudavank monastery (Kalbajar District)

One of Karabakh’s biggest monasteries is Khudavank or Dadivank. A legend links its name with Dadi, one of the students of apostle Faddei. Faddei, the  brother  of apostle Thomas, was one of 72 junior apostles sent to pagan countries for sermon [ref]F. Mamedova, Political history and historical geography of Caucasian Albania, Baku, 1986[/ref].

Moses of Kalankatuyk writes, “We, residents of the East, have received apostle Faddei who died the death of a martyr at the hands of Sanatruk”. The legend  goes  that  one  of his students Dadi, who also died as a martyr, was buried in Small Sunik. A monastery was subsequently built on his grave and named after him.

The monastery was refurbished and  new  buildings constructed  in it in the 13th  century at the expense of Alban Prince Vakhtang (Vakhram). The main church of the Alban Catholicos was built here by Princess Arzu, the  wife of Prince Vakhtang, in 1214. Further south  of the  cult ensemble  there  is another  church of the  Khudavank complex – the church of Great Hasan.

The Ganjasar (Ganzasar) monastery, established on a tall and picturesque highland on the Khachinchay river near the Vanklu village, represents an interest- ing combination. This is the best-known Alban  monastery   that was a residency of the last Alban Catholicos until 1863 (R. Geyushev, On the confessional and ethnic background  of the Ganzasar monastery. Azerbaijan’s material culture, Vol. 6, 1965).

The Ganjasar monastery (Agdara District)
The Ganjasar monastery (Agdara District)

The Gutavan monastery complex is mentioned in “The History of the Country of Albania” in connection with the Partav cathedral. The same-named  fortress adjoining the monastery was the residency of Alban princes from the 9th century.

Karabakh’s cult architecture is represented by numerous monuments. It embodies strong construction  traditions going  back to  the depth  of centuries. The monastery ensembles  harmoniously interlocking with mountain  views are clear evidence of the high level of skill of Alban architects. At the same time, these monuments  form an integral part of the centuries-long Karabakh architecture.

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