There is only one monument of pre-Christian architecture in Armenia, the temple of Garni. It reveals powerful fortified walls, fourteen rectangular towers, a large vaulted hall, some smaller rooms, and part of a bath. Of course, there were many pagan structures in Armenia, but when Gregory the Illuminator began his work of spreading Christianity throughout the country he saw to it that most of these were destroyed. We have spoken before of the dual influence which the Persians and Greeks had on Armenia from the earliest times, and we know that Gregory found two types of structures in the country, those with gabled roofs in the style of the Greeks, and those with domed roofs, like the ones found in Persia.
Our earliest examples of Christian architecture in the country come from the late fifth century. These were often large, rectangular basilicas, but by the seventh century most churches were being built with a central dome, a feature which is now thought of as typical of Armenian architecture. The church of Z'vartnotz, supposedly built on the site where Gregory met the Armenian king whom he was to convert, had a circular ambulatory and so was basically circular in shape. More characteristic is the church of St. Hripsime, with an octagonal center and square outward shape. Many different types of churches were built during the period, however.
The Arab invasions of the seventh century put a stop to the extensive building of churches and the church of Aghtamar, built during the tenth-century renaissance, shows evidences of Muslim influence through the themes of contemporary Muslim art contained in its friezes.
It was during this period of renaissance that many of the churches around Ani were build. Sometimes the architects would use the churches of earlier centuries as models, but there was also innovation:
"Large monastic complexes were erected during this period… These complexes comprised, besides the monk'cells, a library, a bell tower, several churches with large ante-chapels and its primarily in the latter that the new methods of construction appear. The earliest known example of this new type is however, not an ante-chapel but the Sheperd's church built in the eleventh century, outside the walls of Ani. The ground plan of this three- storied building takes the form of a six-point star embedded in heavy masonry. On the exterior, 12 triangular recesses are cut in the walls, between the points of the star. Six arches, rising from the clustered piers at the angles of the star, meet at a central keystone and they bear the whole weight of the second story This story is circular in the interior and hexagonal on the exterior, and above it rises the circular drum on which rests the conical dome."
Perhaps Ani's masterpiece is the cathedral built there by the architect Trdat, who was also called in to repair the dome of the cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople after it was damaged by an earthquake. The shape of the Ani Cathedral is of a cross in a rectangle, and has a series of freestanding, clustered piers.
The Armenians were very accomplished. They knew the secret of mixing egg with the mortar for extra strength, and the churches they built have not only lasted through many centuries, but are pleasing to the eye because of the regularity of their proportions. For the most part the churches are small and are devoid or ornamental flourishes which serve no purpose; The total effect is simple and striking.
With few exceptions, the churches are built of the stone that is found all through the rocky country of Armenia. The Armenians' skill in working with this stone indicates the high quality of architectural excellence. Certainly the Armenians perfected, it they did not invent, many architectural elements such as the conical dome, the type of rib-vault which is characteristic of their churches, and the triangular niches used to hollow out the masonry, but their salient achievement is to have done with stone all the things that older civilizations had done with brick, either baking it for drying it in the sun.
There has been some controversy claimed for the Armenian architecture on that of other countries. The Austiran scholar Strzygowski claimed for the Armenians the role of "mother of all Christian architecture" and said that the Greek genius which built St. Sophia and the Italian genious shown in the construction of St. Peter's only realized more fully what had been originated by the Armenians. This opinion is undoubtedly extreme, but it cannot be denied that the Armenian builders did not merely copy the architecture of other countries, but came up with many features that were their own. As to the effect of the Armenians' achievements on the Romanesque churches later built in Europe, we may quote the words of Francois Benoit:
"The Armenian style spread in different directions and influenced faraway countries. This expansion was caused by the prestige of its monasteries and by the emigration of part of the inhabitants of Ani to the North of the Caspian Sea, Crimea, Galicia, Moldavia, and Poland after the capture of their town by the Seljuks (1064).It certainly gave its construction formulae to Seljuk Anatolia, to Russia its schemes and doubtless its masters, to Serbia and Moldo-Wallachia its decoration. It is probable that it had an influence on the Byzantine School from the 11th century. Lastly, without drawing any definite conclusions, it is a fact that in general appearance and diverse details there is a striking similarity between Armenian Churches and the more recent works of Carolingian and Romanesque Europe."
It is probably most sensible to say, concluding this question of who was influenced by whom, that Armenia was geographically situated in such a way as to be a natural crossroads between East and West, and that therefore she was central both in passing Eastern forms of architecture to the West, and in the receiving and incorporating of Western forms into her own architecture. There is no doubt that among the Eastern countries themselves influences were similarly shared. Her architects were wise and skillful in their use of such influences. And in the inventive use of their own minds, to create churches of lasting beauty and inspiration.