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Old and New Churches of Gyumri

Old and New Churches of Gyumri

Gyumri is one of the centres of the ancient region of Shirak. Its churches take a special place in the Armenian architecture. They have been built in Gyumri in parallel with its history, struggles and urban planning. The medieval construction of   Gyumri is just the chronicle of its churches. They say that the churches in Gyumri have taken the most important place in the development of  worship  buildings in the region since Urartu period to the ancient times, adoption of Christianity and up to now.

Gyumri is 126 kilometers (78 miles) north of the capital Yerevan at the central part of the Shirak plateau,  on the left bank of the Akhuryan River. The first state formation within the territory of Gyumri is mentioned in the 8th century record (called “Irdaniu) found near the Marmashen monastery. According to the latest research, Irdaniu is the modern city of Gyumri, while before it was identified with Marmashen. The researchers identify Kumayri with the Kumayri ancient site on the left bank of Cherkez canyon. Here was located also the most ancient church of Kumayri which is the first Christian worship place preserved within the territory of the city. It’s not ruled out that it had been built in the place of an ancient pagan temple, as this place was a residential area during the Urartian state and probably it had a temple.

After the fall of the kingdom of Van, Kumayri was included in the state of the united kingdom of Yervanduni. Since 189 BC it has been part of the Armenian Artashesian kingdom. After the fall of the Artashesians dynasty (1 BC), the Roman armies were raiding Armenia. They were passing through Kumayri, which, as a military base, was seized by the enemy. There were no churches built in Kumayri in those days as the church building in Armenia started since the adoption of Christianity in 301. Gregory the Illuminator destroyed all the pagan temples and built Christian churches instead. There are no buildings in Kumayri preserved from that period of time. Instead, there are a lot in Shirak’s other villages and towns. During the 1st century AD, Shirak was granted to the Kamsarakan family, who ruled over Kumayri during the Arsacid Kingdom of Armenia. They built two churches in Artik and Lmbatavank, churches in Pemzashen, Lernakert, Nor Kyank, Bardzrashen and Kumayri basilica.

The first church built in Kumayri is the 7th century Dprevank. It is believed that it was a cultural center where Barsegh Jhon worked, and Anania Shirakatsi received education. The church was rebuilt in 935 with the efforts of the King of Bagratuni, with the participation of persecuted Armenian clergymen from Byzantium.

A fundament of Kumayri basilica

The new stage of church building in Gyumri started at the beginning of the 19th century, when the city fell under the Russian domination. From the 30s of the century, the construction of the new fortress began. In parallel with it, the military authorities made the city's first planning. According to the project, the area was to be containing a regular network of streets that would extend from north to south, from east to west.  Depending on the nationality of the population and the characteristic features of the city, the neighborhoods in the city had different names: the Russian district of Slobotka (free from slopes), the Dzor rival, the Catholic (Franks) neighborhood, the Turkic district or the Frankie neighborhood. Gyumretsis called the neighborhoods “mahla”. The word has changed somehow but is still preserved in the city’s spoken dialect.

In 1837, after the visit of the Russian Tsar Nikolas First, Gyumri turned into a fortress-castle and was named Alexandropol. The name was chosen in honor of Tsar Nicholas I's wife, Alexandra. In the same year, the construction of a new castle was completed. There was also a Russian church built within the castle.

St. Alexandra church nowadays

The construction of the castle was followed by the reconstruction of Alexandrapol. The city center then became a market-square (now Vardanants Square) - a commercial, administrative, spiritual and cultural center. In parallel with the urban development, the golden age of church building began. Most of the churches in Alexandrapol were built up by the ravages. They took part in all the vital and spiritual - cultural events of the city. The esnafs were working for free because participation in those activities was viewed as a spiritual contribution, sacred work. The churches were built from polished black stone. S. Matevosyan reports that there were quarries in the western part of Gyumri in the Çerkes canyon, which contained black tufa stocks. From here the stone was supplied for construction of the city. It can be concluded that the black tufa served as a raw material for the churches of the city, as it is evident from the fact that the worship facilities were basically made of that kind of stone.

Alexandropol in the middle of the 19th century

Most of the churches in Alexandrapol were built on different sides of the market, each district had its chapel. The approximate location of the churches in the city is presented in the following layout of Kumayri. There are not mentioned only St. Hakob and St. Hripsime churches, as they were built in newly built districts after the earthquake, but the plan had been drawn up before 1988.

1. Holy Saviour's church, 2. Seven Wounds of the Holy Mother of God church, 3.  Holy Sign church, 4.  Saint Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox church, 5.  Kumayri basilica, 6. Saint George Greek Orthodox church, 7. Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs of the Catholic Armenians, 8. Saint Alexandria, 9. Saint Khach, 11. Saint Gregory the Illuminator's church, 12. Saint Arsenije Russian Orthodox church, 13. Saint Sargis chapel.

St. George church is in front of the market and St. Saviour’s Church is behind it. Holy mother of God  church is on its back , while Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs of the Catholic Armenians is on the left. In the back of Holy Mother of God is located Holy Sign church, close to Saint Gregory the Illuminator's Church. The location of churches is well illustrated in the modeling of Alexandropol which is in Gyumri’s museum of National Architecture and Social life.

Miniature Alexandropol: House-Museum of Social Life and National Architecture in Gyumri

We can also get a sense by the postcards and invitations, as in the middle of XIX century Alexandropol was so beautiful, that there were postcards made with its scenes. In the photos, preserved from those times, either Alexandropol’s dwellings and other buildings are surrounded by churches, or churches unite around other buildings of the city. Gh. Alishan also mentions about the location of Alexandropol’s churches. He notes about four Armenian churches in Alexandropol – “two of them are new, and other two – old”. It is about Holy Saviour's church, Holy Sign church, Saint Gregory the Illuminator's Church and Seven Wounds of the Holy Mother of God. The first two churches were built in the 60s, while the others – in the 70-80s. The construction of churches in Alexandropol in the 19th century may be conditionally divided into two main phases – 1830-1860s and 1870-1880s. All the churches in the city were built in this period of time. It turns out that before having Armenian apostolic churches Gyumri had already had its Russian, Greek and Catholic churches. In 1852, for instance, the construction of a Catholic church started.

 Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs of the Catholic Armenians today

The church was anointed in 1855. Almost in parallel with its construction begins the construction of  Saint George Greek Orthodox Church. The latter was in the Greek neighborhood, close to Stepan Shahumyan’s present monument.

In 1859-1864s Holy Sign church or Sev Jham (Black church) was built. 

Holy Sign church

The construction of latter was still going on when in 1859, directed by Fair Manouk, mason masters of Gyumri began to build Holy Saviour's Church (1859-1873). 

Holy Saviour’s church nowadays

In 1870-1880, in the district of Dzori mahla (district) Saint Gregory the Illuminator's Church was  built  thanks to donations of local residents. It was in a destroyed state for a long time after the 1988 earthquake, until it was fully restored by 2015.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator’s church nowadays

Near the “Hill of Honor cemetery”, in the southern part of the city, Saint Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church was built, which was called “Plplan jham” (“Sparkly church”) because of its glittering tin dome.

Saint Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church nowadays 

The construction of Holy Mother of God church became a great event for the residents of Gyumri. The contemporaries have described the construction as a celebration. The church, mostly known as “Seven Wounds” was built in 1882-1887s.

Seven Wounds of the Holy Mother of God church 

In 1924 the city was renamed Leninakan, was rebuilt in accordance with the principles of socialist urbanization. Economic buildings, factories, workshops, public institutions were created. In the Soviet era, Armenia experienced economic and social growth, but the Church left behind. Churches, which had been built in several cities long ago, were fully destroyed. Some of them were used for different purposes. The churches in Leninakan also were subjected to that policy. St. Saviour’s church was used as a Philharmonic, St. Sign - as an observatory, St. Gregory - as a warehouse: Saint George Greek Orthodox church was completely destroyed. The Armenian Catholic Church turned into a dwelling house. In 1932-1937s members of an Atheist movement tried to damage Holy Mother of God church’s dome, but failed.  In 1937 the bell tower of the church was blown up in front of Gyumri residents. 

The disastrous earthquake on December 7, 1988 shook the city if Leninakan. It lost many buildings that had been acquired during the centuries. After the earthquake the chief architect David Chisliev was invited to Leninakan to construct the city’s new plan. The city’s churches which were damaged as a result of the earthquake, are being rebuilt so far, but the new phase of church construction started several years after the earthquake. In 1991 Gyumri already had a new church – St. Hripsime chapel in the Austrian district, which marked the beginning of a new phase of church construction in a city of ruins.

St. Hripsime chapel

In 1992 the city was renamed Gyumri. A complex and long-term process of reconstruction, which started after the earthquake, continues so far. In the 21st century Gyumri is entering a new architectural phase. Subtle black tufa is replaced by yellow tufa. New, “mixed” elements of architecture also refer to church construction.

In 2002, in the northern part of the city – Ani district – a new church was constructed. It was called St. Hakob and its architect was Baghdasar Arzumanyan.

St. Hakob church

In 2008, in the territory of the former children’s railroad (Sargsyan street) was constructed St. Sargis chapel. It is situated not far from Sev Ghul (Black Fortress). It was anointed in 2011.

St. Sargis chapel

If in the 19th century the churches were generally built near the city center, now they are located in different parts of Gyumri, even in suburban districts. In the city centre – Vardanants square – you can see St. Holy Mother of God church, St. Holy Sign and Holy Saviour’s churches.

Saint Arsenije Russian Orthodox church

The golden age of church construction in Gyumri can definitely be considered the period of Alexandrapol when 13 churches were built in the city over the last 50 years (1837-1887). This period of spiritual awakening begins in 1837, with the construction of Russian church St. Alexandria in 1837 and ends  with the anointment of St. Holy Mother of God in 1887. It has already been mentioned that except for Armenian churches, there have been built Russian, Greek and Catholic churches. Seven Russian churches have been built in Gyumri so far, and most of them are situated in military bases.

Severski Avanpost church

The small town with five monasteries described by Jivani as a “church lover” town, Gyumri has not changed even in about a century and a half. Many years have passed since the earthquake, but the town is still full of homeless and unemployed people who still live by “Seven Wounds is my witness” sacrament. The masters of Gyumri, directed by talented architects, still continue putting a stone on the stone  and a cross – on the dome.

Translated from Armenian by Manan Ajamyan.

Source: Դե եսիմ...


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