Ancient faith the churches of nagorno karabakh


A School Made of Tombstones

The princely village of Tzar, situated on a plateau more than 6,700 feet above sea level, was once home to a fortress, a vaulted cathedral, churches, cemeteries, and a medieval bridge.[1] Over decades, the monuments were targeted by vandals, who dismantled and scraped the structures of their sacred icons. During the Soviet period, when Christian worship was suppressed, some churches were dismantled, their stones cut up and used as raw material for contemporary structures. Religious imagery and texts were either rubbed away or left intact, leaving a testament to the deeper history within the stones.

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Above: Listen to cultural conservationist Aleksandr Kananyan talk about the beauty and historical memory of Tzar.

Left: Tzar, school, general view

Right: Tzar, school, detail of fragments of Armenian tombstones and inscriptions

The most notable example is the dilapidated structure of what used to be a school, built in the 1950s using stones from nearby churches. A published plan of this building indicates that at least 133 fragments of Christian churches and cemeteries were inserted into the school’s walls, among them 37 pieces of stone with religious inscriptions in Armenian text.[2] The effect is bizarre: amidst rough-cut stone and mortar is a single arm of a cross, a passage of interlace decoration, a wide-eyed angel, or a few inscribed words.[3]

The Tzar school surely offered a macabre environment for learning, with fragments of inscriptions and reliefs fastened into the school masonry. Classrooms were constructed using the sacred icons of a lost local population—materials that themselves had suffered violence. In the window casing in the western wall of the school is part of an inscription in Armenian that once read:

“Surb Sarkis. Christ, Son of David, Help the Undeserving Servant of Hasan Wherever He Is. Amen. Year 1274.”[4]

Scholars of social memory might someday study this monument for what it says about modern attitudes toward a deep past, about conquerors and conquered, colonized and colonizers. Or perhaps even the remaining school will be destroyed, compounding the effects of memory, loss, and fragmentation. Will such destruction also be the fate of other monuments in the region? For scholars, the question will mean the difference between opening or closing a chapter of the history of Armenian art.[5]

See footnotes and credits.

Left: Tzar, school, detail of fragments of Armenian sculpture

Right: Tzar, school, detail of carved angel reused in wall

Left: Tzar, school, Armenian inscriptions and sculpture 

Right: Tzar, school

Tzar, school, fragments of broken Armenian tombstones

Matthew the Evangelist, Bible, 15th century. Originally produced in Tzar. Painter: Tuma Syunetsi (Matenadaran Manuscript 8124, page 1b).