Stone crosses are an original form of Armenian national art. In a land with a bounty of stones, it should not be surprising that artisans and craftsmen would have used this medium to express their talents.
This artistic expression found its voice, beginning early in the fourth century AD, in the Christian exaltation of the cross. Winged crosses, made from large stones, were erected to replace some of the earliest wooden crosses of the era. The earliest of these winged crosses have been discovered at the ancient Armenian capital of Dvin.
From these early prototypes, the Armenia’s developed the khatchkar–an art form of engraved stone crosses that is unique to their culture. The western face of the stone is engraved, and the reverse side is typically smooth. The height of the stone is about twice its width. These khatchkars first became a national art form in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the oldest of them is believed to be one that was erected in AD 879 by the wife of an Armenian king. Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the chosen site was in Garni, next to a pagan temple that had been built during Armenia’s pre-Christian era.
Today, experts acclaim these engravings from the medieval era as the finest the Armenia’s created. Some of these thirteenth century masterpieces are found at the monastery of Geghard, which is located about 30 kilometers outside Yerevan, and at Goshavank, which is in the Dilijan region.
Foreign invasions disrupted the artistic development of khatchkars in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but there was eventually a limited revival. From the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, khatchkars were mostly used as tombstones. Thousands were created during this time, and there are hundreds of examples at the cemetery of Noraduz, on Lake Sevan’s western shore.
The course of artistic development of khatchkars from the ninth through the eighteenth centuries had until recently been demonstrated by the thousands of stone crosses in a huge Armenian cemetery in Jugha. This old Armenian trading post town is located in Nakhijevan, a region that is today controlled by Azerbaijan.
There were about 5,000 of these stone crosses standing in Jugha in 1903. They didn’t fare well under Azeri custody. By 1973 the Azeri authorities had destroyed about half of them. In 2003 Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs complained to the UN that Azerbaijan was continuing its willful destruction of the stones. In 2005, while observers secretly videotaped their crime, the Azeri military bulldozed the several hundred ancient monumen’s that were still standing, crushed them with sledgehammers, and hauled the priceless broken pieces away as if they were worthless quarry.
The crime was protested by Armenia, by the US Dept. of State, and by the European Union. But by the end of 2005 the ancient cultural site had become an empty field. Today, the largest collection of ancient khatchkars can be found at Noraduz.
Adapted with permission from The Stone Garden Guide: Armenia and Karabakh, by Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian, ? 2008 Stone Garden Productions, www.StoneGardenProductions.com