Gandzasar is considered the crown jewel of the churches and monasteries of the region, an example of the highest development of Armenian medieval architecture. It was also considered one of the greatest political and spiritual centers in Armenian history. Located in the Martakert province of Karabakh, it served as the seat of both the regional princes of Khachen and Catholicos of Caucasian Albania.
Above: Listen to Vardan Hovhannisyian share the story and sacred ritual of his baptism at Gandzasar Cathedral.
Gandzasar was mainly developed in the thirteenth century through the patronage of Prince Hasan Jalal Dawla, the celebrated ruler of Khachen. The primary church, the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, was built from 1216 to 1238, while the adjacent narthex was completed in 1266. Prince Hasan Jalal, the cathedral’s patron, was buried in the monastery in 1261. His descendants went on to serve as senior clergy; nearly six hundred years later the final member of his family dynasty was buried at Gandzasar. His epitaph reads:
This is the tombstone of Metropolitan Baghdassar, an Armenian Albanian, from the family of Jalal the great Prince of the land of Artsakh, dated 3 July 1854.
The zhamatun, or narthex of the cathedral, is large and rectangular, with intercrossed rib arches resting on freestanding piers at the west. On the west facade, the doorway and the window are framed by an elaborate carved molding, forming a rectangular zone rising almost to the roof level. Within this molding, two bas-relief birds face each other, flanking a rectangular window, their long tail feathers raised upward. They perch on an inner molding that frames the window and the door below, joining at the floor level with the outer molding to form profiled doorposts (jambs). The portal comprises a pointed arch of twisted and tendril moldings; the tympanum features interlocking circles of maroon, gray, and beige stone. The facade thus combines geometric boldness and abstraction with delicate carving. The designs of the framing moldings are particularly noteworthy: the medallions, teardrop forms, stars, and rectangles are not, like the birds above the doorway, raised reliefs, but are deeply undercut, perhaps with the use of a drill, appearing almost as perforations in the masonry.
In 1930, Gandzasar was one of hundreds of churches closed by Soviet authorities. Nearly 60 years later, in 1989, the church became the first in the region to reopen as the revival of Christian practice overcame the repression of the Communist period. In 1990, the Armenian Diocese of Karabakh was instrumental in the establishment of the Gandzasar Theological Centre, which produced Christian educational materials for a spiritually hungry people.