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Armenian Khachkar - From Cross to Culture

In the realm of Armenian art, the khachkar stands as an enduring symbol of spirituality, craftsmanship, and cultural identity. Carved with precision and adorned with intricate motifs, these memorial steles have weathered centuries, each telling a story etched in stone. From their humble beginnings in the 9th century to their recognition as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, the journey of khachkars is as captivating as the artistry itself.

A khachkar (also spelled as khatchkar) or Armenian cross-stone is a carved, memorial stele bearing a cross, and often with additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, and botanical motifs.

The most common khachkar feature is a cross surmounting a rosette or a solar disc. The remainder of the stone face is typically filled with elaborate patterns of leaves, grapes, pomegranates, and bands of interlace. Some are crowned with biblical or saintly figures, showcasing a fusion of religious and artistic expression.




Khachkars in Geghard Monastic Complex


Originally erected for spiritual salvation or to commemorate events like military victories and church constructions, khachkars found their most common home in graveyards. The 9th-century revival marked the birth of true khachkars, with the oldest known example dedicated to Queen Katranide I. The peak of khachkar artistry flourished between the 12th and 14th centuries, waning during the Mongol invasion but resurging in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Among 40 000 survived khachkars the following three are believed to be the finest examples of the art form:

•          One in Geghard, carved in 1213, probably by master Timot and master Mkhitar

•          The Holy Redeemer khachkar in Haghpat carved in 1273 by master Vahram

•          A khachkar in Goshavank, carved in 1291 by master Poghos.

The largest number was formerly located at the Armenian cemetery in Julfa in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, which contained approximately 10,000 khachkars in 1648 The number of khachkars dwindled over time through destruction of various causes until the only 2,700 khachkars remained in 1998, when the Azerbaijani government embarked on a systematic campaign destroying and leveling the entire medieval cemetery between 1998 and 2005.




Copies of khachkars that were once in the Armenian cemetery in Old Jugha are now on display at the Geghard Monastic Complex


In Armenia the largest collection, around 900 khachkars, resides at Noraduz cemetery which is a popular touristic destination!

Despite challenges, the art of carving khachkars experienced a rebirth in the 20th century, becoming a symbol of Armenian culture. Memorializing the victims of the Armenian Genocide, khachkars are scattered worldwide, from Vatican Museums to Canterbury Cathedral's memorial garden, embodying the resilience and global significance of Armenian heritage.


 



I am posing for a photo with khachkars at Tsaghats Kar Monastic Complex


The story of Armenian khachkars is one of endurance, artistry, and cultural resilience. From their medieval origins to their contemporary global presence, khachkars remain a testament to the enduring spirit of Armenian identity. Since 2010, khachkars, along with their symbolism and craftsmanship, have been inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. As these cross-stones continue to be revered, preserved, and celebrated, they carry forward a profound cultural legacy, inviting us to appreciate the profound beauty etched in stone.

 Gallery

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