THE VARZAHAN CHURCHES

Background

Objects, sometimes natural and sometimes man-made, often mark the borders of countries and, either intentionally or by chance, symbolically announce to travellers that they are entering a new region. For example, England has its White Cliffs of Dover, America has its Statue of Liberty, and so on. On historical Armenia's northern border there was a group of ruined Armenian churches at a place called Varzahan that, during the nineteenth century, began to take on such a role. The road from Trabzon (then called Trebizond) to Erzurum was by far the most common route taken by travellers wanting to reach eastern Turkey. Many of their memoirs mention the churches at Varzahan and, depending on the direction of travel, they saw the buildings serving as either a welcome to or a farewell from Armenia.

Some Eyewitness Descriptions

The celebrated archaeologist and explorer Austin Henry Layard, the excavator of Nineveh, passed through Varzahan in September 1849 while travelling from Trebizond to Mosul. He left the following description of the churches, and produced a sketch of one of them.

Our journey to Erzeroom was performed without incident. A heavy and uninterrupted rain for two days tried the patience and temper of those who for the first time encountered the difficulties and incidents of Eastern travel. The only place of any interest, passed during our ride, was a small Armenian village, the remains of a larger, with the ruins of three early Christian churches, or Baptisteries. These remarkable buildings, of which many examples exist, belong to an order of architecture peculiar to the most eastern districts of Asia Minor and to the ruins of ancient Armenian cities, on the borders of Turkey and Persia. The one, of which I have given a sketch, is an octagon, and may have been a baptistery.



The interior walls are still covered with the remains of elaborate frescoes representing scripture events and national saints. The colors are vivid, and the forms, though rude, not inelegant or incorrect, resembling those of the frescoes of the Lower Empire still seen in the celebrated Byzantine church at Trebizond, and, in the chapels of the convents of Mount Athos. The knotted capitals of the thin tapering columns grouped together, the peculiar arrangement of the stones over the doorway, supporting each other by a zigzag, and the decorations in general, call to mind the European Gothic of the middle ages.
These churches date probably before the twelfth century: but there are no inscriptions, or other clue, to fix their precise epoch, and the various styles and modifications of the architecture have not been hitherto sufficiently studied to enable us to determine with accuracy the time to which any peculiar ornaments or forms may belong. Yet there are many interesting questions connected with this Armenian architecture which well deserve elucidation. From it was probably derived much that passed into the Gothic, whilst the Tatar conquerors of Asia Minor adopted it, as will be hereafter seen, for their mausoleums and places of worship. It is peculiarly elegant both in its decorations, its proportions, and the general arrangement of the masses, and might with advantage be studied by the modern architect. Indeed, Asia Minor contains a mine of similar materials unexplored and almost unknown.
The churches of Varzahan, according to the information I received from an aged inhabitant of the village, had been destroyed some fifty years before by the Lazes. The oldest people of the place remembered the time when divine worship was still performed within their walls.
A. H. Layard
Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon
London, 1853, pages 7-8

In 1887 Edward Browne stopped briefly at Varzahan during his journey to Persia via Trabzon, Bayburt, Erzurum, and Tabriz.

Our fifth day's march led us through the interesting old Armenian village of Varzahan. Just before reaching this we passed several horsemen, who were engaged in wild and apparently purposeless evolutions, accompanied with much firing of guns. It appeared that these had come out to welcome the Ka'im-makam of Diyadin, who had been dismissed from office, and was returning to his native town of Gyumish-Khane; and we had scarcely passed them when he appeared in sight, met, and passed us.
I wished to examine the curious old churches which still bear witness that Varzahan, notwithstanding its present decayed condition, must formerly have been a place of some importance. Our Armenian fellow-traveller offered to conduct me, and I was glad to avail myself of his guidance. After I had examined the strange construction of the churches, the Armenian inscriptions cut here and there on their walls, and the tombstones which surrounded them (amongst which were several carved in the form of a sheep), my companion suggested that we should try to obtain some refreshment. Although I was anxious to overtake our caravan, I yielded to his importunity, and followed him into a large and dimly-lighted room, to which we only obtained admission after prolonged knocking.
The door was at length opened by an old man, with whom my companion conversed for a while in Armenian, after he had bidden me to be seated. Presently several other men, all armed to the teeth, entered the room, and seated themselves by the door. A considerable time elapsed, and still no signs of food appeared. The annoyance which I felt at this useless delay gradually gave way to a vague feeling of alarm. This was heightened by the fact that I was unable to comprehend the drift of the conversation, which was still carried on in Armenian. I began to wonder whether I had been enticed into a trap where I could be robbed at leisure, and to speculate on the chances of escape or resistance, in case such an attempt should be made. I could not but feel that these were slender, for I had no weapon except a small pocket revolver; five or six armed men sat by the heavy wooden door, which had been closed, and, for anything that I knew, bolted; and even should I succeed in effecting an exit, I knew that our caravan must have proceeded a considerable distance. My apprehensions were, however, relieved by the appearance of a bowl of yoghurt (curds) and a quantity of the insipid waferlike bread called lawash. Having eaten, we rose to go; and when my companion, whom I had suspected of harbouring such sinister designs against my property and perhaps my life, refused to let me pay for our refreshment, I was filled with shame at my unwarranted suspicions. On emerging once more into the road I found the faithful 'Ali patiently awaiting me. Perhaps he too had been doubtful of the honesty of the Armenian villagers. At any rate he had refused to proceed without me. About 2 p.m. we arrived at the town of Baiburt.
E. G. Browne
A Year Amongst the Persians
London, 1893, pages 31-33

The traveller and Armenologist Henry Lynch passed through Varzahan in February 1894, on his way to Trabzon.

Leaving the town [Bayburt], we made our way across this upland in a direction of west to west-north-west; and, in a little over an hour, overlooked one of the flat depressions which have already been so often described. Upon its snow-clad surface was placed an Armenian village with three fine buildings, now in ruins, a relic of the old times. What an eloquent memorial those shapely forms and that finished masonry still preserved to a cultured and beneficent race! Varzahan was the name of the village; but we had again been placed under surveillance, and it was impossible to perpetuate the image of these decaying remains. But one of them has already been drawn by Layard (Nineveh and Babylon, p. 7); and I here reproduce a photograph taken during our second journey, which shows some interesting examples of old Armenian tombstones with rams' heads in the cemetery of Varzahan.
The ova or plain of Varzahan, to which we descended, is, in some sense, a westerly extension of that portion of the valley of the Chorokh which lies below the town of Baiburt. Yet it was separated by a range of hills from the trough in the surrounding outlines through which we knew that the river must flow. These hills circle southwards from the latitudinal chain of distant heights which confine this ova and the Chorokh valley alike. A passage is no doubt found by the streams which collect in the plain and find their way to the Chorokh. We were reminded by its appearance of the plain of Erzerum, of which many of the features were reproduced on a smaller scale. It seemed to strike the last note of the distinctive theme to which we had been listening for so many long months. The plain has an elevation of about 5300 feet, and it is possible to scale the heights on its northern border and, in summer, to pursue the journey to Trebizond. But in winter you are taken up an opening at its westerly extremity which we may call, after a considerable village which lies within it, the valley of Balakhor. This valley conducts you in a westerly direction, to the ridge or ridges which form the water-parting on the south of the Lycus, and on the west and east of the Kharshut and Chorokh.
H. F. B. Lynch
Armenia, Travels and Studies
London, 1901, volume 2, pages 233-234

Lynch passed by Varzahan again in June 1898, during his second visit to Armenia. This time the geologist Felix Oswald accompanied him on his travels. Oswald later published a description of the Varzahan plain, and mentioned the churches.

The river, which we were following, flows gently and placidly through its alluvial flats; the limestone downs, with the underlying granite, gradually retreats away to the N.E., but sends down an occasional spur towards the road, with strata dipping 10 degrees S.S.E. The alluvial plain increases in width to over a mile, owing to the river joining the main stream at Balakhor. Below this village a considerable ridge of the barren limestone comes down from the rugged, snowy heights of the Kitowa Dagh, and the folds of the strata are clearly marked on the bare, rounded hillside. The Osluk river cuts through this barrier by a narrow gorge, by which we entered the extensive Eocene plain of Varzahan (5400 feet). At Osluk Khan (8 miles from Khadrak), where we made our midday halt, the walls are mostly built of a white, crystalline limestone derived from the above-mentioned barrier, but I noticed a couple of blocks of a dark brown conglomerate, containing pebbles of serpentine (up to 2 cm.), and abundant small Nummulites (6 - 10 cm. in diameter). It was unfortunately impossible to take a specimen, and I could not see this rock anywhere in situ. My subsequent discovery (see Chapter XIV) of Nummulitic Limestone at Kerzi (6 miles N.E. of Osluk Khan), on the northern border of the plain, renders it probable that these blocks of Nummulitic conglomerate had not been brought from any great distance. The road soon leaves the river, and passes eastward over low hillocks, composed of greenish and grey shales, dipping at a low angle to S.E.
At Varzahan (5620 feet; 6 miles from Osluk Khan) we stopped to examine the three ruined Armenian churches, surrounded by tombstones, many of which show the ram type. Although these buildings date back to the twelfth century, if not earlier, yet owing to the extremely dry climate, the calcareous sandstone; of which they are built is still fresh and yellow, without the slightest covering of moss or lichen to emphasize their antiquity. The keystones over the doorway of Surp Khach consist of a pale green sand stone, which derives its colour from serpentinous elements.
After leaving Varzahan, the low, undulating downs of the great plain form slightly higher ground, and consist of yellow, calcareous sandstones. Shortly before arriving at Baiburt (5075 feet; 6 miles from Varzahan) the road-cuttings reveal a small anticline, with a dip of .20° both to N.W. and S.E. The narrow escarpments also clearly show the N.E. - S.W. strike. The last stage (Baiburt to Maden Khan) of our day's journey of 45 miles was traversed in total darkness, and it was only on our return to the coast (Chapter XIV) that I was able to take observations of this part of the route.

Later in the same book, and recounting his return journey, he noted:

At Varzahan (5620 feet) we left our previous route (p. 36), and rode northwards over the gently sloping plain, passing across a broad syncline of pale green sandstone - the same rock which has been used for the keystones over the doorway of Surp Khatch at Varzahan.
F. Oswald
A Treatise on the Geology of Armenia
London, 1906, pages 35-36 and 239

The Architecture of the Churches

The Varzahan churches were demolished sometime between the 1920s and the mid-1950s ¹. The destruction was total: nothing now remains on the site, not even a single stone. Fortunately, the German archaeologist Walter Bachmann had taken a series of photographs of the churches in 1911 and had also surveyed the octagonal church ². He observed at Varzahan the remains of three churches in total, but mentioned that according to local Armenian tradition the place used to have over 200 churches. Although dismissing that tradition as an obvious exaggeration, Bachmann did notice traces of ruined buildings spread out over a wide area, indicating that a much larger settlement had once existed at Varzahan.

There were two churches standing close together: a domed church with a cross-shaped plan, and a church with an octagonal plan (the "Surp Khatch" mentioned by Oswald). The very ruinous remains of a third church stood a short distance away.

Bachmann's photographs of the cross-shaped church show that its walls were decorated by blind arcades. The drum of the dome was eight-sided externally, and pierced by a window on each side. There was a narthex or zhamatun built against the west facade, and the remains of a porch in front of the north entrance.

Bachmann did not published photographs of the very ruinous church. However, a photograph in Strzygowski's "Die Baukunst der Armenier und Europa" shows part of it. It is difficult to know exactly what part of the church is being depicted, but the articulation of the stonework seems similar to that found on brick-built Byzantine churches.

Close to the churches was an old graveyard that contained gravestones shaped like rams. Others were shaped like horses, complete with saddles and bridles. This graveyard is also now destroyed. In the garden of the Erzurum archaeological museum are a selection of ram-shaped gravestones, described as being Turkish in origin, that are similar to those shown in old photographs of the Varzahan graveyard and that may have come from Varzahan.

The Varzahan Octagon

The design of this building was unique in Armenian architecture.

The church was eight-sided externally. Each side was approximately 4.7 metres wide, and the walls were about 0.95 metres thick. Each side was cut into by two v-shaped niches. In the inner angle of each v-shaped niche was a colonnette with a ropework pattern. Flanking each v-shaped niche was a strip of twin, reed-like mouldings. Each twin moulding ran up the façade to about the height of the top of the niche, and then linked together. An identical single moulding in the form of a blind arch descended to meet and intertwine with the linked mouldings, forming a sort of knot-work capital. It then arched upward again to intertwine with the next twin moulding, eventually encircling the whole church.

There were three entrances to the church - in the north, south, and west walls. These were 1.15 metres wide and had flat lintels constructed from a series of seven interlocking, zigzag-shaped voussoirs. In Bachmann's time there was debris of about a metre thick that buried the doors up to about two thirds of their height. The church was built of limestone that had a beautiful golden-yellow colour and was extremely well cut. The limestone faced a core of rubble concrete.

Internally, the church had a radiating plan, with eight apses. Such plans have been used in Armenia from the seventh century onward, but what made the design of the Varzahan octagon unique was that the normally solid walls between the apses were replaced by octagonal, free-standing, pillars. There were originally six such pillars, and only the walls of the eastern apse were solid. This had the effect of creating an ambulatory that ran around a central circular space that was 5.7 metres in diameter. At the top of each pillar was a pilaster capital. The pillars would have supported a domed roof, probably with a drum pierced by windows.

Each of the eight apses had a vault comprising a 3/4-dome. Each dome rested on two small squinches. In turn, these squinches rested partly on the outer wall and partly on the arches that linked the free-standing pillars to the outer wall.

The altar apse was lit by three rectangular windows placed side by side, with a porthole window above. A single block of stone acted as the lintel for all three windows. Externally, it had rope-work decoration and above it was a sunburst rosette made from stones that were coloured alternately yellow and green. There was a similar marquetry decoration over the south entrance.

In each of the other apses there was a pair of rectangular windows, above which was a single, slightly smaller, rectangular window. The number of windows in this church far exceeded the number normally found in Armenian churches.

There were traces of frescoes within the church: on the south-east wall Bachmann noted a series of gracefully painted heads of saints. These frescoes were more extensive when Layard visited the church. He found the interior "covered with the remains of elaborate frescoes representing scripture events and national saints" and saw in their vivid colours and elegant forms a similarity to late-Byzantine frescoes in Trebizond. However, it is unlikely that these frescoes were contemporary with the church's construction.

The Date of the Varzahan Churches

There were no inscriptions on any the churches to give a clue as to their date of construction. Dating the buildings on stylistic grounds is also difficult. If an early eleventh century date is chosen, then many of their features seem to be from an earlier period, and other features seem too advanced for that period. There is also the problem that Varzahan is a border area and the design of the churches could have been influenced by Georgian and Byzantine architecture as well as by native Armenian architecture.

Bachmann dated the octagonal church to sometime after the end of the eleventh century. Given the chaos that reigned throughout eastern Anatolia in the aftermath of the Seljuk invasions, a late eleventh or early twelfth century date is unlikely. However, it is known that Bayburt had an Armenian mayor at the end of the twelfth century. He composed a book of sermons and was later killed by the Muslim emir of the town, who governed the place on behalf of the Salkutids of Erzurum. This suggests that the majority Christian Armenian population still held a degree of autonomy and political power, circumstances that would have been necessary for the construction of the Varzahan churches. The lintel of interlocking voussoirs over the entrance to the octagonal church is a feature also found on many Seljuk buildings.

Before its capture by the Salkutid dynasty of Seljuk Turks at the end of the eleventh century, Bayburt had been under the control of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries (perhaps since the year 387). So it is also possible that the churches date from towards the end of the period of Byzantine rule. Having three windows in an apse is a feature that is seen only in very early Armenian churches - but is common in Byzantine Greek churches. The octagonal drum of the cross-shaped church was an archaic form by the eleventh century - by then most drums were circular. Thierry has noted similarities to the Varzahan octagon in the basilica of Erkan, in Tunceli district, probably built in the 970s.

Some elements of their design may indicate a Georgian influence. For example, the use of differently coloured stone slabs to make decorative panels is common in Georgian churches from the tenth and eleventh centuries within the Tao-Klardjeti region, which was only a short distance to the east of Varzahan.

The truth is that throughout the vast Erzurum, Erzincan, and Bayburt regions almost nothing is known about the architecture of the medieval Armenian churches that once existed there. Almost everything that had survived the centuries of wars and earthquakes was destroyed as part of Turkey's post-genocide policy of eliminating the evidence of Armenian presence in these regions. The little that remains are either nineteenth-century village churches or are simple and crudely constructed monastic structures in remote locations. There is nothing that approaches the architectural sophistication of the Varzahan churches.

Varzahan Village

The village of Varzahan is recorded as having about 700 Armenian inhabitants in 1909. There was also an Armenian church, probably of recent construction, within the village. Varzahan is now inhabited by Kurds, and the apse of the village church survives as part of a house.



1.   Bachmann's 1911 photograph of the church with the cross-shaped plan - click for a larger photo


2.   An old postcard showing the same chuch


3.   One of the entrances to the above church


4.   A pilaster capital inside the cross-shaped church


5.   A photograph from Strzygowski's book showing the octagonal church and ruins of the third church


6.   An old postcard showing the octagonal church


7.   A closer view of the octagonal church, looking towards the south entrance - click for a larger photo


8.   A view inside the octagonal church showing one of the freestanding pillars - click for a larger photo


9.   The altar apse of the octagonal church


10.   One of the free-standing pillars, and a squinch that is still supporting part of the apse's ¾-dome


11.   The same construction, but beside the altar apse


12.   External view of the lintel over the apse windows and the marquetry using green and yellow stone


13.   Lynch's 1898 photograph of the graveyard


14.   Some of the ram-shaped stones in the graveyard


15.   A gravestone that was shaped like a horse


16.   Another gravestone also shaped like a horse


17.   The village of Varzahan, taken by an unknown photographer in 1913

NOTES:
1. "Since 1957 there is no trace of them", Anthony Bryer and David Winfield, The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos, 1985, page 355 and note 24. Jean-Michel Thierry in Revue des Études Arméniennes, volume 2 (1965), page 184, states that the Varzahan churches had been destroyed and says that this information was gained during one of the his visits to eastern Turkey in the years 1955, 1956, and 1959. Thierry is not specific about which year.
2. All the photographs on this page are from Bachmann, unless stated otherwise.

SOURCES:
Walter Bachmann, Kirchen und Moscheen in Armenien und Kurdistan, Leipzig, 1913.
Edward G. Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians, London, 1893.
Austin H. Layard, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, London, 1853.
Henry F. B. Lynch, Armenia, Travels and Studies, London, 1901.
Felix Oswald, A Treatise on the Geology of Armenia, London, 1906.
Josef Strzygowski, Die Baukunst der Armenier und Europa, Vienna, 1918.