Armenian architecture: the Cathedral in the deserted city of Ani, Kars, Turkey.

Structure: Marr-Orbeli site 73.
Other designations: Church of the Holy Mother of God; Surp Asdvadzadzin; Azize Meryem Katedrali; Fethiye Camii.


"In the year 450 (AD 1001) of the Armenians ... at the time of Sarkis, honoured by God and Katholikos, spiritual lord of the Armenians, and during the glorious reign of Gagik, shahanshah of the Armenians and of the Georgians, I Katranideh, Queen of the Armenians, daughter of Vasak, King of Siunik, entrusted myself to the mercy of God and, by order of my husband Gagik shahanshah, built this holy cathedral, which the great Smbat had founded..."
- Part of a 21 line inscription on the
southern facade of the Cathedral

Near the southern edge of the city stands the imposing Cathedral. This is the largest and most important building in Ani, and a structure of world architectural importance.

According to various historical sources and inscriptions, it is known that building work started in the year 989 under King Smbat II (977-89) and was completed, after a halt in construction, by the year 1001 (or 1010 depending on the reading of the inscription) by order of Queen Katranideh (Catherine), the wife of King Gagik Bagratuni, Smbat's successor. The cathedral was the work of Trdat, one of the most celebrated architects of medieval Armenia.

During the siege of 1064 the Cathedral held a symbolic importance. As the victorious Turks looted the city, one of them climbed the roof of the cathedral and tore down the large cross that rose from the top of the dome's conical roof. (It is said that this cross was later sealed under the threshold of a mosque so that it could be continuously tramped upon.) The Cathedral was then converted to a mosque and renamed the Fethiye Camisi, the Victory Mosque.

It was returned to Christian usage in 1124, and inscriptions tell of restoration work carried out in the early 13th century. The devastating earthquake of 1319 brought down the dome and may have marked the end of the building's formal religious use.

1.   The cathedral seen from the top of the minaret of the Minuchir mosque - click for a larger photo

2.   A sectional drawing (by Toros T'oramanian)

3.   A model showing what the dome looked like

4.   The view from the east - the apse facade

5.   Overlooking the Arpa/Akhurian river

6.   The Cathedral seen from the south-west

7.   The north-west corner - 1988 earthquake damage

The Architecture

Like most Armenian buildings, the cathedral is built entirely from stone - a facing of extremely well cut and finished polychrome masonry hides a rubble concrete core. The plan is in the form of a domed basilica. This is a pattern found in Armenia since the seventh century. However, Trdat's design takes this old form to new heights of sophistication and originality.

The Exterior

The loss of the central dome has given the building a cube-like form it originally did not have. The cupola collapsed in an earthquake in 1319 and the rest of the drum is said to have collapsed during another in 1832. The gaping hole in the north-west corner was caused by the 1988 earthquake, which also caused a serious rent in the south-west corner; by 1998 parts of the roof here had started to fall. Blasting explosions from the quarry opposite the cathedral during 2000/2001 caused further damage: the crack in the south-west corner deepened and widened considerably, and the west facade started to bulge out from its original position. There is now a risk of the complete collapse of the west facade.

A decorative blind arcade on slim columns runs around the whole of the exterior, into which are inserted tall slender windows with frames of finely carved fretwork. There are also small porthole windows below the gables of each transept.

There are entrance doorways in the north, south and west walls - these traditionally were for the patriarch, the king and the people respectively. Standing out in front of each doorway was originally a vaulted porch now mostly destroyed, probably a canopy resting on free-standing pillars.

The distinctive triangular niches cut into the north, south and east facades, together with the positioning of the windows, indicate the location of the transepts and apse within. These niches also break up the plain surface of the facades, and give an increased sense of height and solidity to the walls (which are actually very thin). Structurally, the niches also act like a sort of splayed buttress. There are no niches on the western facade because a greater thickness of wall is needed here to counteract the thrust of the large arched vault inside.

...on to a second page about the Cathedral.

8.   Crack in the south-west corner

9.   Window and triangular niche in the apse facade

10.   Fan-like moulding at the top of the niche

11.   A window, south facade

12.   A window, east facade

13.   Circular window, west facade

All text, images, designs, and intellectual materials are © VirtualANI.
This page was first published in 1999. It was last modified on the 24th May 2005.