Every culture has its unique element which being found nowhere else unwittingly becomes a symbol of national culture. The symbol of Armenian culture is khachkars, also known as Armenian cross-stones. The word KHACHKAR stems from two Armenian roots: ‘xač’ meaning ‘cross’, and ‘kʿar’ meaning ‘stone’.
KHACHKARs are decorative and architectural sculptures inspired by ancient Armenian traditions that demonstrate a variety and richness of forms. The first KHACHKARs were carved in the early 4th century shortly after 301 AD, when Armenia became the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. It was then that KHACHKARs were being erected for a variety of reasons: they were intended to commemorate a military victory, the construction of a church or bridge, to express gratitude for a land lot granted, they served as landmarks and still more often as gravestones.
The core KHACHKAR symbol is a cross blossoming like a tree or flower thus symbolizing a new eternal life. A circle is carved under the cross, as a cross surmounting a circle (a rosette or a solar disc) symbolizes the triumph of the Christian faith. The cross is typically topped with the tetramorph, the union of the symbols of the Four Evangelists common for all the Christian denominations: an eagle, a lion, an ox, and an angel. With Armenians those four are also the elements of the Universe: fire, water, earth, and air.
Stonecutters that carve KHACHKARs are called VARPETs. Their art is alive and still popular. KHACHKARs reflect the spirit of the Armenian people and theological foundations of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church 1.
The art of creating KHACHKARs was inscribed in 2010 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as ‘Armenian cross-stones art. Symbolism and craftsmanship of Khachkars’ 2, 3.
KHACHKAR is a type of Armenian architectural landmarks in the form of outdoor steles carved from stone bearing a cross. There are tens of thousands KHACHKARs across Armenia, each decorated with unique ornaments, no two are alike, although all decorations generally fit one style 4.
In prehistoric times stone steles (VISHAPs) considered the precursors of cross-stones were erected in the mountains, at the sources of rivers, near settlement borders or roads. People believed them to be enchanted characters of their myths and legends. They served for layout purposes on habitable lands. They were covered with carved images of birds, hides and heads of rams, cuneiform characters. In the brilliant era of Uratu, its kings began to erect upright stone slabs narrating the world about their conquests and laws. These steles continued to be built in the Hellenistic period of the Artashesid dynasty, the first dynasty of Armenian kings. By then the technology of building KHACHKARs was already well-established: after a hole was gouged in a plinth, a solid stone block, a stone with precarved inscriptions and ornaments was stacked vertically into it. Uratrian and Hellenistic monuments served as a prototype for first Christian KHACHKARs which appeared right after adoption of Christianity, and were intended to honor the Christian faith.
Most ancient KHACHKARs preserved until today date back to the IX-X centuries. These memorial sites can be found all across Historical Armenia and outside where Armenian communities reside. The oldest KHACHKAR located on the territory of Armenia dates back to 879.
3. Armenian cross-stones art. Symbolism and craftsmanship of Khachkars