Garni Temple – Hellenistic Temple in Armenia

Perched along the arid cliffs overlooking the meandering river Azat, the town is famous for the impressive Temple of Garni.

In the time before their kingdom’s conversion to Christianity, the Armenians were pagans, worshipping deities of fire, water, and the sun. Indeed, the exact roots of the original Armenian religion are a bit difficult to identify. At its base, there appears to have been an inherited Mesopotamian root – the worship of Khaldi, Teisheba, and Shivini being documented in the Urartian kingdom. There is also evidence that early Armenians revered the phenomena of nature, in particular the sun.

Chief among their deities was Ara, the physical embodiment of the sun, and the Armenians called themselves the Children of the Sun. Over time, Armenian religion would be heavily influenced by the experience of the Iranians and later – the Greeks. Indeed, during the era of Persian dominance, Mihr, related to the Persian Mithra, began be worshiped as the god of fire. Also noteworthy was the goddess of fertility, love, as well as water sources and springs – Anahit, who is still celebrated by Armenians to this present day.

On the day of Vardavar, usually celebrated in June or July, Armenians playfully drench each other in water, to celebrate the summer. Later, during the Hellenistic period, Armenian deities began to be depicted with human images, contrary to Iranian tradition. Indeed, through the interpretatio graeca, Anahit would, for example, be associated with Aphrodite.

Concerning Garni Temple

In a land of endless churches, the ancient Garni temple stands out no less impressively than the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome. Tradition holds that the monument was first built during the 1st century of our era by the Armenian king Tiridates as a temple dedicated to Mihr.

During my travels to Armenia, I found myself in Garni, a small town located to the east of Yerevan. Perched along the arid cliffs overlooking the meandering river Azat, the town is famous for the impressive Temple of Garni. In a land of endless churches, the ancient temple stands out no less impressively than the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

Tradition holds that the monument was first built during the 1st century of our era by the Armenian king Tiridates as a temple dedicated to Mihr. The evidence for this lies in an unearthed Greek inscription naming a certain Tiridates Helios as the founder of the temple. Indeed, during early nineteenth century, the Scottish traveler, Robert Ker Porter, recorded that the locals referred to the Temple as the Tackt-i-Tiridate (throne of Tiridates) in the Persian language.

The area is part of an impressive natural fortress complex, towering 300 feet over the river Azat below, and beyond it – lush, green forests teeming with deer, antelope, and leopards. The area feels almost like a sacred place, the Khosrov Forest providing a geographical respite from the increasingly dry and arid lands of southern Armenia.

The area is part of an impressive natural fortress complex, towering 300 feet over the river Azat below, and beyond it – lush, green forests teeming with deer, antelope, and leopards. The area feels almost like a sacred place, the Khosrov Forest providing a geographical respite from the increasingly dry and arid lands of southern Armenia. Beyond, the forest ends with the rising slopes of the Gegham mountains in the background.

On the plateau, the fortress complex also houses the ruins of a Roman style bathhouse and the ruins of a Christian church. The colonnaded Temple of Garni was built in the Hellenistic style, indeed the only surviving example of such a temple in Armenia and the territory of the former Soviet Union. The temple is a peripteros, a temple surrounded by a portico with columns, built on an elevate podium.

From my own observations, I noted that the cella is surprisingly small, suggesting that worshippers stood outside the building, while a priest performed ceremonies and sacrifices in full view of the audience. It is possible that a statue of Mihr once stood inside the cella. There are surprisingly large steps outside of the temple of which I found more difficult than expected to climb.

garni hellenistic collumns - dariusroby.com

Destruction and Survival

The obvious pagan nature of the temple begs the question – how did it manage to survive Armenia’s conversion to Christianity during the 4th century and the systematic razing of pagan monuments that succeeded it? The simple argument is that the temple may have been converted to a Christian church at some point. However, if this is truly the case then why was there a church built nearby during the 7th century? There is a theory that the temple was in fact – the tomb of a Roman client king, and therefore – a symbol of Rome’s authority in Armenia, one that would not have been undermined by their subsequent conversions to the Christian faith. There is also a legend that the temple’s survival can be traced to the efforts of Princess Khosrovdoukht, the sister of Tiridates III, who pleaded with her brother to spare the pagan temple.

Be that as it may, the temple survived until 1679 until it was hit by a devastating earthquake, centered squarely in the Garni gorge. The earth tempest reduced the structure to rubble and so it remained over the next three centuries. The massive ruins became the stuff of fascination for European travelers, and it would not be until the 1970s that the Soviet Armenian government would approve the reconstruction of the site under the auspices of the archaeologist Alexander Sahinian.

inside garni temple - dariusroby.com

Remarkably, over 80% of the original stones were used during the reconstruction, with the additional stone being made clearly visible for historical purposes. Today, the temple is a popular stop among travelers to Armenia and is even the site for Vardavar and Trndez (another Armenian celebration of pagan origin, connected with sun/fire worship) celebrations. Standing proudly over the Azat valley, the Temple of Garni stands as a testament to Armenia’s classical history and hints towards its even older pagan past.

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Erebuni Fortress – the Founding of Yerevan

Entrance to the King's residence. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Just outside of Yerevan lies an arid hill overlooking the Ararat plain, that is known as Arin Berd. The name in Armenian means “Fortress of the Blood.” It is home to the ruins of an 8th century BC city of the Urartian Kingdom called Erebuni, which is the origin of the modern name Yerevan.

I made a note to visit this place during my travel in Armenia, not only due to its antiquity, but also due to the connection I would feel with the great civilizations of the Near East. Urartiu, the earliest identifiable predecessor of Armenians, thrived at a time when its chief rivals were the Assyrians, the Medes, and the mysterious Cimmerians.

Cuneiform inscription near Erebuni's granary and storehouses - Erebuni Fortress | Armenia

A cuneiform inscription found inside the fortress states that Erebuni was built by Argishti, the son of Menua, the king of Urartiu in 782 B.C. This means that Erebuni predates the founding of Rome by nearly 30 years. In the inscription, Argishti proudly proclaimed that “The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainilli (an early form of Van, seems to be local name of the kingdom), and ruler of Tushpa.” It is known that the city was built through the labor of captured prisoners of war. This could be the origin of the hill’s name.

Entrance into the Citadel - Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

The wind blew dust into my eyes as I climbed Arin Berd under the early summer sun. Armenia is not a desert country, being situated in the southern Caucasus mountains, but south of Yerevan – the terrain becomes increasingly dry and arid. The climb is relatively simple, aided by stairs, and a fountain at the foot of the hill. At the summit, the fortress is surrounded by the ruins of thick walls that once stood nearly 40 feet tall. The fortress is triangular, with the entrance being found at the southeastern section of the outer wall, beckoning the traveler to enter the world of the ancient Near East.

A quick breather on the ruins of the Granary. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Just beyond the entrance is a central yard, which was once used for ceremonies and parades. The ruins of palaces, residences, and fire worship temples can be seen, yet my eyes were taken by the ruins of the temple of Khaldi. Despite being covered in Russian and Armenian graffiti, it was still possible to see beautiful geometric and floral murals on the wall, with vivid frescos, including one of the god himself – standing upon a lion. While the other buildings inside the city appear to have had stone or adobe floors, the temple appears as if the floor might have been made of wood. To the east of the temple can be found economic structures including grain, oil, and wine storehouses. Another cuneiform inscription can be found there, stating that the storehouses were constructed by Sarduri, the successor of Argishti.

Touristic graffiti serves as a reminder of the fragility of modern tourism. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Argishti’s successors, Sarduri II and Rusa I, continued work on the fortress, enlarged it, and used it as a staging ground for wars of conquests to the north. However, once the nearby town of Teishebaini was constructed, Erebuni began to lose its importance. It survived the establishment of Persian dominance due to becoming a center of the satrapy of Armenia. Over the centuries, modern Yerevan would sprawl on the plains below the hill.

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