The Khachkar Stones of Noratus and a Peculiar Resistance of the Invasion of Tamerlane
The ancient village of Noratus, in the Gegharkunik region of Armenia, is a hidden gem with a number of historical monuments. The modern village was established in 1829, but it was first declared a settlement in the Middle Ages , and there are both Bronze and Iron Age monuments in the village.
Many people believe Noratus was first built by Gegham Nahapet, whose ancestor Hayk Nahapet is an important figure in Armenian history . The name Noratus translates simply to ‘new houses’.
At the southern edge of the village lies the St. Grigor Monastery. The monastery is generally attributed to the 13 th century, but the construction materials and building methods indicate a much earlier date of sometime before the 10th century.
The St. Astvatsatin Church at the heart of the village was built during the 9 th century for a prince of Gegharkunik. The exquisitely constructed vaulted hall is built from stone, but despite the beauty of the church itself, the real treasures lie in the churchyard which is home to the biggest number of khachkars in the Republic of Armenia .
Khachkars are a kind of elaborately carved stone cross, inspired by the art of obelisk carving, they have a fascinating history but some of the oldest and most interesting are in the graveyard at St. Astvatsatin.
Ancient khachkars in Noratus Cemetery, Armenia. homocosmicos / Adobe Stock.
The History and Designs of Khachkars
Khachkars are also known as Armenian Cross Stones. The most basic design is a simple cross carved into a plain stone background, but there are thousands of different designs and many of them are extremely intricate.
There are so many variations in design that there is no archetypal khachkar – the only thing they have in common is the central cross. However, one commonly occurring theme is nature and botanic motifs. Fennel seed pods, bunches of grapes, pomegranates, and a variety of vines or leaves are present – each of them symbolic of new life and resurrection.
A reoccurring theme of the ancient khachkar is nature and botanic motifs. ( Shchipkova Elena / Adobe Stock)
As with many ancient Christian traditions, the khachkar has its roots in paganism and a kind of carved idol called a vishap (dragon stone) which was erected at sources of water. They were also erected at sites of pagan worship and they were usually carved from wood.
The pagan origins of khachkars are evident in the motifs which appear in earlier khachkars. They would have been recognized as pagan symbols to people when they were made. This is a technique which was employed by Christians globally when introducing the new religion to a fresh group of people.
Just like in other pagan countries, the stones were Christianized and then placed prominently at sites which had been important to pagans as a sign that they were now Christian, and that Christianity served the same purpose as pagan rituals . It was proven to be an extremely effective way to encourage people to convert to Christianity wherever it was employed.
In the case of khachkars, the pagan symbols are still present in earlier carvings, but they are small designs surrounding the large central cross. This effectively sent two messages – that the cross is more important and plays a larger role and that it represents the same as all the things which are pictured.
Khachkars have a large central cross that is surrounded by small pagan designs. ( rparys / Adobe Stock)
Although the idea was adopted by Christians as long ago as the 5 th century, the first carved stone khachkars were erected during the 9 th century. As Christianity was accepted and paganism disappeared in the area, later designs relied less on the former pagan symbols and references.
When Armenia began to thrive under Arab rule, the carvings on khachkars became increasingly elaborate and they became a signifier of wealth. The last khachkars were usually covered in an enormous amount of extravagant flourishes and geometric patterns .
Close up of an ornamental sacred Armenian Cross Stone, known as a khachkar. ( Georgy Dzyura / Adobe Stock)
It was also during the later period that a new king of khachkar was developed. Known as the Amenarpkitch (All Savior Cross), the crosses now became crucifixes which featured Christ. Motifs on these All Savior Crosses could also include scenes and figures from the bible – examples include the Virgin Mary and angels. There are only a few known All Savior Cross khachkars, and all of them date to the 13 th century, evidence that not even memorial stones are immune to trends.
What Were The Khachkars For?
Khachkars were erected for a wide range or reasons. As a form of gravestone, many of them were raised to save the soul of a person – though they could be either living or deceased. Others were more commemorative, or a way of conveying important information or announcements.
There are surviving examples which memorialize the building of a church, changes to tax laws, or great military victories. Some of them served a more supernatural purpose and were meant to offer protection.
While the vast majority of khachkars are in graveyards or distributed around towns and villages, there is a notable exception to the rule. Khachkars which commemorate a patron who enabled the building of a church would be kept inside the church itself – usually in a nook in the wall of the church.
Ancient Sacred Cross Stone, khachkar, inside an Armenian church. ( Georgy Dzyura / Adobe Stock)
The oldest khachkar for which a date is known is in the village of Garni. Built in 879 the khachkar is a memorial to Queen Katranide I, wife of King Ashot I Bagratuni who oversaw a Golden Age in Armenia.
Today, the art of craving khachkars is rare but it is not lost. Producing khachkars became more popular in the 20 th century. As a distinctive part of Armenian culture it has taken on new meaning and is now a symbol of the nation and its traditions. Many modern khachkars are monuments chosen as a poignant way to honor the victims of the Armenian genocide.
The Global Significance of Khachkars
In 2010 UNESCO labeled khachkars to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage . This list is intended as a way of protecting important ‘intangible cultural heritage’ which encompasses the unique skills, practices, knowledge, and expressions of ethnic heritage.
It is also relevant to physical items such as musical instruments, artifacts, and cultural spaces. At the moment Japan is notoriously fighting for the kimono to be added to the list, in response to an attempt to trademark the word by an American company.
UNESCO consider khachkars a unique and significant part of Armenian culture for both their symbolism and the special skills required to produce them. This was an important decision for UNESCO, as many khachkars have been destroyed in recent years.
Shifting borders have led some of the khachkars to be located in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia, and Iran. The khachkars which ended up in Turkish territory fell victim to a systematic eradication of the monuments, leaving only a handful standing in Turkey today. It has also been claimed that some members of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces destroyed khachkars in Julfa, Nakhichevan with sledgehammers in 2005.
Although there are up to 40,000 khachkars still standing today, their methodical destruction in places like Turkey, and the neglect of many khachkars in Armenia itself, makes it crucial that they gain greater recognition as an important part of Armenian cultural heritage.
There may be a lot of surviving khachkars but protecting them is crucial so that no more of these spectacular ancient monuments are lost. To help preserve and protect them, several of the best examples of khachkars have been relocated to the Historical Museum in Yereven, Armenia’s capital.
The Khachkars at Noratus Cemetery
Noratus Cemetery is known for the vast number of khachkars standing in the graveyard. The cemetery has been home to the largest collection of khachkars since 2005, when the collection in Julfa in Azerbaijan was destroyed.
The earliest khachkars at Noratus are from the 10 th century, but many of the most impressive were built during a revival of the tradition during the 16 th and 17 th centuries. Three of the most notable carvers of khachkars (Kiram Kazmogh, Arakel, and Meliset) produced work which still stands at the Noratus Cemetery.
The Noratus Cemetery is not a sleepy little churchyard, it sprawls across a seven hectare field with plenty of space for more than a thousand khachkars. Despite the huge number of khachkars at Noratus, each one is totally unique.
Khachkars in Noratus Cemetery, Armenia. ( homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)
One of the khachkars was donated to the British Museum in the 1970s by Catholicos (Armenia’s chief Bishop) Vazgen I. As well as the more common botanical and religious designs, some of the khachkars at Noratus are adorned with scenes from weddings or every day agricultural life.
The Folklore of Khachkars
There are two legends associated with the khachkars at Noratus. One dates back to the 14 th century and the other is from the 19 th century.
The older legend concerns the conqueror Amir Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane the Conqueror. He was a Turko-Mongol Persianite (a fancy way of saying he practiced Islam in the Turkish tradition and retained Mongol political traditions but was influenced by Persian culture and identity). He founded the Timurid Empire and became the first ruler of the Timurid Dynasty.
As a fearsome Nomadic conqueror, Amir Timur led campaigns across Western, Southern, and Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the southern regions of Russia. He was considered the most powerful leader in the Islamic world after his defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian Mamluks and the early Ottoman Empire. He considered himself the heir of Genghis Khan and believed he could bring the Mongolian Empire back.
Amir Timur defeating the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. (Eugene a / Public Domain )
When his army approached Noratus, the villagers were not prepared to admit defeat, but they were vastly outnumbered and under equipped compared to the invading army. The legend states that the villagers realized they would be massacred in open combat, and in a stroke of genius decided to dress the khachkars in helmets, with swords leaned against them. From a distance the khachkars looked like a sea of armed men in defensive formation and the would-be invaders made a hasty retreat.
Though Tamerlane returned to sack Notarus, the legend remains of the mysterious army standing guard. This is the story that the villagers tell when discussing what the Noratus Cemetery stones represent: Standing up against an unbeatable foe who feared them for a day.
The 19 th century legend is a popular story about a monk named Ter Karapet Hovhanesi-Hovakimyan. He lived at the monastery near the village and conducted the burial ceremonies at the cemetery. As time went on, the monk grew tired of the two hour trip from the monastery to the graveyard, and he built a cell on the grounds so he could stay there instead.
Noratus Cemetery were the monk Ter Karapet Hovhanesi-Hovakimyan built his cell among the khachkars. ( Maroš Markovič / Adobe Stock)
When he was 90, he asked the other monks from his monastery to bury him alive in his cell. His final words were “I do not fear death. I would like you to not be afraid also. Never fear anything, but God alone. Let anyone who has fear come to me. Pour water at the burial stone, drink the water, wash your face, chest, arms, and legs. Then break the vessel that contained the water. Fear will then abandon you.”
When people heard about the monk and his unusual instructions they began to come to the cell to practice the ritual. To this day people make the trip to follow out his orders which is evidenced by the broken glass among the khachkars.
A Moment in Time
Many of the khachkars at Noratus are inscribed. They are a snapshot of the time they were engraved and offer a unique insight into the lives of the people they concerned.
There is a seven line inscription about tax relief. Sinayi, a tax collector ( shahna) and the head of the village ( demetar) declared that taxes paid to the gzir (who was an official under the demetar) and accountant be abolished, for the sake of the Zakarian Avak, a son of Prince Ivaneh Zakarian. In exchange for this tax reduction, the gzir and accountant were each granted a yoke of oxen for personal use as compensation.
Today Noratus Cemetery and its khachkars are a treasured part of Armenian culture. The stones hold a special place in the hearts of Armenians, who consider them sacred, and they are proud of the khachkars and the cemetery. With such a huge number of stones, it is preferable that visitors are accompanied by a guide who can lead them through the site to the most interesting khachkars Noratus has to offer.
A modern-day khachkar carver's workshop in downtown Yerevan. ( Սէրուժ / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Hopefully the renewed interest in khachkars and their status as a symbol of Armenian culture will mean more people become aware of the beautiful carvings and help preserve them for generations to come.
Top image: Khachkars of Noratus, old cemetery. The oldest khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) are of 9-10th centuries, but the most of them are from 13-17th centuries. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
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