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Index of Armenian Art: Armenian Architecture


Type: Central planned domed tetraconch
Location: In the city of Kars, Turkey.
Date: X Century (943-967)
Evidence for date: Linked to the invasion of the Abasgians.
Important details: The church has no building inscriptions (unusual considering being built in the Bagratid period).
Condition: Used as a museum
Reconstruction: 1234 renovation, 1579 converted into a mosque, 1877 converted into a Russian Orthodox Church,1918 again converted into a mosque, 1919 converted back into an Armenian church, 1920 converted again to a mosque.

History & commentary:
St. Arak'eloc cathedral of Kars is situated at the base of the ancient citadel of the city of Kars.

According to the reliable testimony of the tenth century Armenian historian Step'anos Asolik, the Armenian Bagratid king Abas I (929-953) "built the holy cathedral of the city of Kars with blocks of stone, with sandstone blocks that were polished with steel: (the church) was surmounted by a circular dome whose ornamentation resembled the vault of heaven." Scholars assume that Abas transferred the capital to Kars as soon as he became king and the construction of the cathedral began soon thereafter. This is quite reasonable, since the early Bagratid kings did not have a permanent capital. They converted the center of their own realm or the town where they resided before their coronation into the capital of the country.

From the ninth century, the Fortress City of Kars served as the seat of the bother of the ruling king. If this tradition still prevailed at the beginning of the tenth century, Abas was probably the master of Kars, even before his coronation in 929, when his brother Asot II (914-929) was king, therefore he could have built the church at an earlier date. However, Step'anos Asolik and the later chroniclers are quite specific in associating the construction of the cathedral with Abas's coronation.

The exact date of the completion of the church is not given in the sources, but there are two specific events connected with the consecration of the edifice. The first is the invasion of the Abasgians, whose king Ber hoped to consecrate the newly constructed church according to the Chalcedonian rite. Unfortunately the date of this event is not known and the identity of Ber remains a mystery. The second event is the pontificate of Anania of Mokk as Catholics of Armenia. Step'anos Asolik mentions the construction of the church and the invasion of the Abasgians, and then adds that "at about this time Lord Anania was on the patriarchal throne…". The dates of Anania are 943-967. The first year of Anania may serve as a logical terminus as quem for the completion of the church. The dates 932 and 931 given in the twelfth and thirteenth century chronologies of Samuel of Ani and Mxit'ar of Ayrivank probably refer to the beginning of the construction of the church. The discrepancy of two or three years is due to different methods of calculation used by the above authors.

St. Arak'eloc's church has no building inscriptions, which is very unusual for a structure built during the Bagratid period. Modern scholars suspect that inscriptions did exist at one time but were removed by the Muslim occupants of the building.

The Armenian sources are absolutely silent about the subsequent history of this church. It isusually assumed that after the Seljuks conquered the city of Kars in 1065, the church was abandoned and that during the Middle Ages it was partially covered with earth. During the short Georgian occupation of the city, while the walls of the fortress were being renovated in 1234, the church was probably still abandoned. After the Ottoman occupation of western Armenia, Mustafa Pasha converted the church into a mosque in 1579. It is assumed that the Suleyman Efendi mosque mentioned by the seventeenth century traveler Evliya Celebi is none other than St. Arak'eloc church. After the Russian occupation of the city in 1877, St. Arak'eloc was converted into a Russian Orthodox Church. Porticos were built in front of the west, north and south portals, whose original structure was destroyed. A sacristy was erected on the east side which covered the entire façade, and inside an iconostasis was built. In 1918, the Turks reoccupied Kars and again converted the church into a mosque. In 1919, during the brief Armenian occupation of Kars, it was converted into an Armenian church. After the fall of the city to the Turks in 1920, the church was again converted into a mosque, but soon thereafter the Kemalist government put it up for sale. The municipality of Kars bought it and planned to demolish it to build a school on its site, but the plan was never carried out. In the 1950's the municipality used it for a depot for petroleum. At present it is a museum.

Step'anos Asolik, Samuel of Ani, and Mxit'ar of Ayrivank all knew this church as a kat'u'ike ("cathedral"). The name, St. Arak'eloc appears in the 19th century topographical works of Armenian scholars.
The cathedral of Kars is a centrally planned domed tetraconch, similar in plan to the 7th century church of Mastara. Its interior plan is reflected in the exterior volumes. Four apses radiate from a central square bay, over which rises a circular dome. Externally, the right angles of the square between the conchs protrude about three meters beyond the sides of the apses; inside they are represented by four dihedral angles each surmounted with a squinch. The conchs are externally pentagonal, but their sides have irregular and oblique dimensions. The outer sides are slightly convergent and are wider than those in the middle. Inside the church the conchs are semicircular and they open on the central square with a semicircular arch that is supported by engaged pillars and rests on imposts. The west conch is deeper than the one other three, its sides slightly extended. Two vaulted apsidal chapels that open into the central square by means of long narrow doors flank the east apse. Their backsides have been torn sown in order to make the Russian sacristy accessible to the church. As a result it is not known whether the east walls of the chapels were flat or concave. The east elevations of the apsidal chapels were the continuation of the wall of the east conch, which appears pentagonal only above the apsidal chapels.

The drum of the dome rests on eight semicircular arches, four of which belong to the conchs and four of which are the squinches over the dihedral angles. The drum is externally and internally circular. The hemispherical dome has a span of almost 11 meters. It is covered with a conical roof that is surbased. The monument is 20 meters high. The church has three portals, one on each on the north, south and west elevations. The interior of the church receives its light from twelve windows in the drum of the dome, four apsidal windows, single windows on either side of the north and south conchs, and four oculi, one each on either side of the east and west conchs. All the windows have the same long, narrow form. They end with a semicircular arch at the top, and have no interior splay. Externally decorative reliefs surround them.

The roof of the conchs and those of the angles of the central square area gently slanted. Vegetation now covers the roof. The conical roof of the dome is covered with Roman tiles and is still in good condition. This suggests that the monument was recently restored or that its upkeep was carefully maintained.

On the spandrels between the twelve arches on the drum there are twelve figural reliefs in standing position. These are executed in a very primitive style. According to J.M. Thierry, these figures represent the twelve apostles, whose cult was brought from Byzantium in the 10th-11th centuries. The windows in the drum of the dome are surrounded by blind arcades with arched bands carved with a palmette motif resting on imposts that in turn stand on robust half columns with ornamental reliefs. The cornice under the cover of the cupola consists of an interlace band with four triple strands. The lower cornice, encircling the central square and the exedrae is decorated with diamond shaped motifs connected like the loops of a chain. Inside each loop there are two rosettes with four petals. Its dripstone consists of a simple band hanging over the beveled edge. The arched bands over some of the church windows are also carved in relief. Above the northwest oculus there is the relief of a masculine figure with two serpents on either side of his face. According to J.M. Thierry, the figure is that of St.Gregory the illuminator. Set in the south elevation is a rectangular slab with the relief of a lion facing to the left with its head and right paw raised high. There are several khach'cars set into the walls of the church, of various form and shape.

At each angle of the central square bay, at the topmost extremity of the dihedral angle directly under the squinch, there is a half-conical stone set in the wall with two faces at right angles. These stones are carved with primitive releifs. The stones on the northeast and southeast corners represent human heads, while the one at the northwest resembles the head of a cow and that at the southwest an eagle. These are believed to be the symbols for the four evangelists.

The spandrel wall separating the eight arches of the octagon from the circular base of the drum is stepped in relief. The spandrels to the upper step are decorated with scallops of five grooves each. Underneath the scallops of the four western spandrels are the reliefs of two human heads, the head of a ram, and that of a cow.
The engaged pillars on which the interior arches rest have two-faced imposts which are also carved in relief.

Bross 1849 vol.3
Alish 1890 79-80
Lynch 1901-1 407
Eprik 1903 336-352
Strzy 1918 80
Barth 1927 820-821
Toran 1948 55,133
Kirzi 1953 vol.1
Thier 1965 165
Thier 1966 73-74
Xalpa 1966 233
Costa 1968-2 115
Cuneo 1977 54
Thier 1978 930-943
Heyw 1978 696-699
Hasrat 1979-5 344
Cuneo 1988 686-687



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