SURP AMENAPRKICH (Church of the Holy Saviour of All)
 in Gyumri / Leninakan / Alexandropol


"Gyumri is also exceptional because it, consciously or subconsciously, imitates a town living in a myth - Ani, the famous capital of medieval Armenia. Gyumri tried to look like Ani, but now it looks like its ruins."
- From the introduction to the accompanying book for
the first International Arts Biennial, Gyumri, 1998.

The inhabitants of 19th-century Gyumri, then known as Alexandropol, saw their city as the historical successor to Ani. The building in Gyumri that most clearly reveals that aspiration is the church known as Surp Amenaprkich.

Begun in the year 1858, and finished in 1873, this church's design was a deliberate recreation of the cathedral of Ani. Its architect was the master mason Tadevos Andikyan. Contemporary accounts tell that Andikyan would often take a coach in the evening and go to Ani where, at dawn the following morning, he would measure and record on paper some part of the cathedral. He would then return to Alexandropol and recreate that part with his fellow masons, adding his own innovations to the designs. Ani at that time was within Turkish territory, so it is unlikely a detailed study of the cathedral would have been possible - and even just visiting the ruins would have been risky. It is possible that the recently published engravings of Ani by Brosset and Texier were also used for inspiration.

The above engraving of Gyumri dates from the 1870s. When completed, Surp Amenaprkich was the tallest Armenian church in the world. Although it was the biggest church in Alexandropol it was not officially the city's cathedral. That honour was held by the Surp Astvatsatsin ("Holy Virgin") church, also known as Surp Yotverk, located a short distance to the north of Surp Amenaprkich. The name "Yotverk" (Seven Wounds) referred to the subject of a picture within a medieval manuscript that was kept in this church and said to work miracles. Because it had this religious artefact, Surp Astvatsatsin was considered to be the most important church in Gyumri.

Surp Amenaprkich was originally located within a walled enclosure that had an entrance on its western side. The large square that now extends from the north side of the church all the way to Surp Astvatsatsin dates from Soviet period - during the 19th century this area was filled with buildings, mostly small shops and workshops.

During the 1930s Surp Amenaprkich (along with all the city's churches except Surp Astvatsatsin) was confiscated by the State and closed for worship, and there was an attempt to pull down its dome using chains. Later, in 1937, the bell tower belfry was blown up using explosives. In 1964 Gyumri's chief architect, Rafik Eghoyan, had the bell tower reconstructed in its original form. In the 1970s and 1980s the church was used as a concert hall for philharmonic orchestras. At the end of 1988 renovation work was being carried out on Surp Amenaprkich.

At 11.41 local time, on the morning of December 7th 1988, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook north-western Armenia. It was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. The earthquakes, with their epicentres close to the town of Spitak, affected an area 80 kilometres in diameter and, according to official figures, killed 25,000 people, injured 140,000, and caused 500,000 to loose their homes. The whole of Gyumri was shaken and an estimated 80 per cent of its buildings collapsed or were seriously damaged. Only the eastern third of Surp Amenaprkich remained upright, along with a small part of the bell tower's fašade.

In 1997 a project was initiated with the goal of rebuilding the ruined church to its former appearance. R. Yeghoyan was chosen as the project architect, and H. Meyroyan as the head of construction. The rebuilding work began on the 8th May 1998 ¹.

Design Analysis

The plan of Surp Amenaprkich matches very closely that of the cathedral of Ani, the only important difference being the large bell tower attached to its west fašade. The similarity is continued in the layout of the facades. For example, the south facade has, from left to right, a blind arcade of three arches; a v-shaped niche; an entrance fašade with an arched doorway flanked by windows; a v-shaped niche; and finally a blind arcade of four arches - this is identical to the south fašade of Ani's cathedral. The appearance of the apse is an almost exact copy of the Ani cathedral, right down to the decoration on the conches above each individual niche. Also, like Ani's cathedral, chapels on two levels flank the apse. In the Gyumri church a staircase runs from the upper level chapels up to the apex of the roof.

However, the church is not a slavish copy of the Ani cathedral, and there are many obvious differences. The Gyumri church is larger in size, and has more, and bigger, windows. These windows do not have hooded mouldings like the cathedral, but have rounded frames. The many porthole windows are certainly inspired by those on the Ani cathedral, but they are used in different locations. The dome of the Ani cathedral would not have had an umbrella-shaped roof - the roof at nearby Marmashen monastery may have inspired its use in Gyumri.

The exterior of Surp Amenaprkich is richly ornamented with stone carvings, including a large quantity of figurative sculpture of doubtful taste to modern eyes ². Some of the ornamentation, such as the carvings inside the top of the niches on the west facade, is directly inspired by details found on the Ani cathedral. However, most of it is entirely alien to the architecture of Ani, and is a result of an amalgam of late medieval motifs and contemporary 19th-century Armenian religious tastes ³.

The Reconstruction

The rebuilding process has been slow and painstaking. Lack of funds has had the fortunate side-effect that the reconstruction has concentrated on work that takes time rather than money to complete. Locally quarried stone has been used, and architectural fragments salvaged from the original structure have been reused wherever possible. To date, about 40% of the destroyed parts of the church have been rebuilt.

The approach taken for the exterior seems to be to retain and repair the surviving parts and recreate the missing parts as they originally appeared. The workmanship is of a high quality and from a distance it is difficult to tell apart the original and newly built sections of the fašade.

For the interior, however, the inner faces of the walls are being reconstructed using reinforced concrete. The original facing stone is being retained in the apse, but new construction in stone is limited to the piers.

Cracks caused by the earthquake have meant that the surviving western half of the church has lost much of its structural integrity. To strengthen it, the facing stonework inside the chapels that flank the apse have been encased behind a grid of steel rods that are then tied to rods fixed into the core of the wall. This web of rods will be hidden behind a layer of concrete applied on top of the original stone surface.

1. Much of the historical data used in the above section is from:
2. And to some 19th-century eyes as well. On the architecture of Alexandropol, Lynch wrote "Size, and a certain effect, rather than elegance of proportion and a loving care for detail, are the characteristics of the new style". On Surp Amenaprkich, he wrote that it "is a spacious building, which is held up to your admiration as blending the features of the old models. It is difficult to understand how such an assertion and such a comparison can be forthcoming from people who have at their doors in the neighbouring cloister of Marmashen an example of the art of their ancestors". H. F. B. Lynch, Armenia, Travels and Studies, London, 1901, volume 1, page 128.
3. It is probable that some of the non-figurative motifs used on Surp Amenaprkich would have been disapproved of only a few years after the church had been finished because they would have been seen as originating from foreign influences. For example, a large number of the early Russian-period buildings in Gyumri, including Surp Amenaprkich, have muquarnas mouldings. In Kars, whose buildings date from a generation later, that type of ornament is almost never encountered.
4. I would like to record my gratitude to the anonymous caretaker/guard who graciously allowed me full access to the site on a quiet Sunday afternoon in September 2005.

1.   Alexandropol at the end of the 19th century

2.   Alexandropol at the end of the 19th century

3.   Surp Amenaprkich before the 1988 earthquake

4.   Surp Amenaprkich after the 1988 earthquake

5.   The church undergoing reconstuction, a view from the south-east - click here for a larger photo

6.   The east facade of the church mostly survived the earthquake - click here for a larger photo

7.   The west facade of the newly rebuilt bell tower

8.   The roof of the belltower that
was toppled during the earthquake

9.   Inside the church and looking towards the apse

10.   Looking west from the top of the apse roof

11.   Details on the east facade

12.   Details on the east facade

13.   Details on the east facade

14.   The niches that line the inside of the apse

16.   A porthole window on the south facade

18.   Carving on the arch over the south entrance

20.   Part of the gable of the roof on the east facade

22.   Some figurative sculpture on the east facade

15.   The decoration inside one of the niches

17.   A porthole window on the south facade

19.   There is a sundial high up on the south facade

21.   A close-up of the motif carved on the gable

23.   Some figurative sculpture on the east facade

24.   A rebuilt porthole window with reused architectural fragments

27.   The wall's original core will be faced with reinforced concrete

25.   Earthquake-shattered masonry on the jamb of the south entrance

28.   The destroyed north-west pier is in the process of being rebuilt

26.   The destroyed belfry on the bell tower is slowly being recreated

29.   Looking from the north-east corner towards the south-west

30.   The base of the still-to-be-built south-east pier

31.   Grid of iron rods reinforcing original masonry