Dvin Ruins

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IV Century AD - Ararat Marz

Dvin cross

Turning R on a paved road before the modern village of Dvin, pass S through the village, and enter the site of the Ruins of Ancient Dvin on the left through the gate in a metal fence. Very little remains of the settlement today, but archaeologists have revealed a wealth of information about the town in its heyday. Excavations revealed the layout of Dvin which followed the pattern of Armenia's ancient fortified settlements. Double town walls were fortified with large round towers, and the citadel had a moat around it. First monument inside the compound is the massive foundation of a major 5th c. basilica, dedicated to S. Gregory the Illuminator, with a smaller, later, centrally planned church built inside it. S. Grigori Cathedral was monumental and Armenia’s biggest one (30.41 by 58.17 m) at the time. Built in the third century as a three-nave heathen temple with seven pairs of inner supports, it was rebuilt in the fourth century into a Christian church, with a pentahedral altar apse protruding sharply on its eastern side. In the middle of the fifth century an outside arched gallery was added to it. In the middle of the seventh century the cathedral was rebuilt into a cross-winged domed temple with apses protruding on the lateral facades. Beyond are remains of a palace (excellent column capitals). The rulers palace was situated on the top of a high hill which dominated the town, inside a vast citadel. The rectangular-base building was a two-storey one, with richly decorated presence and residence chambers in the first floor, and service premises, including a bath-house with men’s and women’s sections equipped like that in Garni, in the ground floor. Following a path right, one crosses a small green gully with cows to reach the old excavation quarters, now the storage area for worked stone blocks and the site of a small museum with excellent Persian-style glazed ceramic bowls from Dvin's medieval period. Left above the museum, a path leads up to the citadel, a hill of decomposing mudbrick with rough stone foundations giving only a tiny hint of what was once a thriving ancient and medieval city. S of the site about one km are remains of a large 5th c. market building.

In 572, when the Armenians rose up with Byzantine help under Vardan Mamikonian (a later one, not the saint of Avarayr in 451), they captured Dvin and killed the Persian marzpan Suren. The great cathedral of S. Gregory, used by the Persians as a storehouse, burned in the process. This uprising was quickly quashed. Conquered by the Arabs in 640, Dvin (then known as Dabil) served for centuries as the seat of the Muslim governor. At its height, the city was said to have had 100,000 residents, and extended over all the surrounding villages. The finds of glass and other luxury goods suggest ties to the whole Islamic world.

Dvin is linked to the martyrdom of Smbat I Bagratuni, client king of Syunik, in 909. Attempting to assert his complete control, the evil Arab ostikan (governor) Yusuf poisoned Smbat's son and nephew, who had surrendered themselves to him as Smbat's allies and relatives deserted a fading cause. Capturing Smbat himself, Yusuf had him tortured to death in an attempt to persuade his wife and relatives to surrender the invincible fortress of Ernjak (now in Iran) where they had taken refuge. The mutilated body of Smbat was exposed on a cross outside Dvin, where it allegedly worked a number of miracles. According to early Armenian historians, the great Kurdish general, the "Saracen" Salahaddin, nemesis of the Crusaders, was born near Dvin.

East are Nerkin Dvin (2815 p, till 1950 Dyugun Hay) and Verin Dvin (1866 p), the latter notable for its population of Assyrian Christians. Norashen (3071 p, once known as Kurdish Dvin) is S of Hnaberd.

Above text from Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook.

Dvin is situated on a hill where a settlement, turned into a fortress in the antique epoch, had existed since the third millennium B.C. In the reign of Khosrov II (330—338) Dvin became the capital, and since the middle of the fifth century till the middle of the 13th century, it was a major trade, handicraft and cultural center of Armenia known in the countries of Asia Minor and Europe.

Excavations revealed the layout of Dvin which followed the pattern of Armenia's ancient fortified settlements. Double town walls were fortified with large round towers, and the citadel had a moat around it.

The rulers palace was situated on the top of a high hill which dominated the town, inside a vast citadel. The rectangular-base building was a two-storey one, with richly decorated presence and residence chambers in the first floor, and service premises, including a bath-house with men’s and women’s sections equipped like that in Garni Temple, in the ground floor. This palace, just as the palaces of feudal lords (nakharars) and the suburban palace of King Khosrov II in the valley of the Azat river, are the pride of Armenian historians who say they are no doubt among the best civil buildings of fifth-century Armenia.

The palace of Catholicos — the head of the Armenian church — was in the central neighborhood to the west of the citadel, among the monumental stone structures of the city which formed one of the prominent architectural ensembles of Armenia of those times.

The ruins of Catholicos’ palace — an imposing edifice built in the 7th century — are very impressive. The front part, built under the influence of the architecture of the Armenian peasant home, had as its nucleus the central hall (11.4 by 26.7 m) with two rows of columns, with rectangular rooms adjacent to its lateral sides. Our reconstruction shows that the hall was roofed with three octahedral wooden marquees with openings in their tops to let in light. Stone columns with the base shape of the antique type were crowned with eye-catching volute-like capitals. Their face side is adorned with coiled palm leaves, with two others rising from between them, as if from the column shaft. The abacus is decorated with a carved ornament.

The architecture of Catholicos’ palace in Dvin played a great role in the development of civil architecture in Armenia in early feudal times. Its influence showed, for instance in the composition and decoration of Grigory Mamikonyan's palace in Arucha, built in the 680s, and partially in the palace of Nerses III in Zvartnots (the middle of the 7th century).

A small vaulted church of 553—554 was situated east of the Katholikos’ palace in Dvin. The annex and a five-arc gallery on the northern side make it possible to date it back to the fourth-seventh centuries when the temples of this type were built in Armenia.

St.Grigory Cathedral was more monumental and Armenia’s biggest one (30.41 by 58.17 m). Built in the third century as a three-nave heathen temple with seven pairs of inner supports, it was rebuilt in the fourth century into a Christian church, with a pentahedral altar apse protruding sharply on its eastern side. In the middle of the fifth century an outside arched gallery was added to it. In the middle of the seventh century the cathedral was rebuilt into a cross-winged domed temple with apses protruding on the lateral facades.

Map of Dvin. © Armenica.org

The history of the construction and reconstruction of the cathedral in Dvin is a vivid example of the evolution of artistic views over the period since the fourth century to its destruction in 893. The layout of the fifth-century building was reproduced in Odzun temple of the 6th century in Odzun (Uzunlar) and in Talin cathedral in the middle of the 7th century.

The cathedral was richly decorated. The mosaic floor composed of vari-colored soft-toned stone slabs had a geometrical pattern, and pylon capitals were of an intricate shape made up of horizontal and vertical lines, and the cornices were shaped as a contexture of three interlaced strands. The altar apse was decorated with a mosaic of vari-colored cubes of smalt and tufa representing the Holy Virgin (the 7th century). That was the most ancient mosaic depiction of the Holy Virgin on the territory of Armenia.

Excavations revealed that the town of Dvin had a very dense layout. Unfortunately, only some odd fragments of its numerous buildings have survived, but these fragments can give us an idea of the artistic standards of architecture of various periods.

A fragment of the capital of a single column — a part of a memorial found in the central neighborhood and dating back to an early period of Dvin's history — is now on display In the State History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan. Such memorials were quite common in Armenia in the fifth-seventh centuries. The front part of the capital is adorned with a cross the upper arm of which is replaced by a symbolic representation of Christ; to the right, there is a figure of a saint, presumably John the Baptist. In the side, there is also a figure of a saint, probably St. George, on a horse trampling with its hoof on a serpent with open jaws. Only the front part of the horse and the rider’s right hand, holding the rein, have survived.

The composition of the front side of the capital is a unique phenomenon in Armenian decorative art. Iconographic analogies of the columns’ bas-relief are to be found in the early Christian art of Armenia and the Near East, specifically in Palestine. In Palestine such compositions were made on lead and silver ampules of the early seventh century, now In the collections of Monza and Bobbio, Northern Italy.

Of interest is a bas-relief on a large stone showing a grape harvesting scene. The stone served as a lintel of a broad doorway of a monumental secular building of the fifth-sixth centuries. There survived the left half of the stone with a part of the cross the lower arm of which seems to grow out of sprouting shoots. On this part of the bas-relief we can see the figures of two women picking grapes and bearing a basketful of grape bunches on their shoulders. The dynamic figures of the women, the grape bunches and the stylized leaves are conveyed realistically and in perspective. A peacock, vividly depicted on white limestone, is dated to the 6th century by analogy with a similar relief on Ptgni temple.

Gypsum decorations, which cost much less than stone ones, became widely spread in the ornamentation of Dvin’s buildings since the 9th century. Various geometrical and pictorial elements of decoration — such as the figures of running animals against the background of a floral ornament — were cast and cut out of gypsum. These decorations appear on wall niches, interior doorways and window fillings. Carved on gypsum were figures of fantastic animals, such as sirins — winged lions with human heads crowned with three-tooth coronets. These pictures are characteristic of many architectural monuments and miniatures of Armenia of the 13th century. A distinguishing feature of a gypsum platband of a niche in one of the rooms of the citadel’s residential block is that it is templet cast, as indicated by the flaws recurring in other castings. Similar cast gypsum plates in Ani show that templets were widely used in Armenia in the 12th—13th centuries.

Standard elements were also used in decorating utensils, such as clay jugs for various purposes and crockery. Faience earthenware ornamented with women’s and lions’ heads and patterns in relief and glazed dark or light blue are most unusual. On the jar girdles there appear stamped ornaments showing human figures, plants and animals. Multi-colored glazed cups were also adorned with such as well as “architectural” ornaments.

On the territory of Dvin archaeologists found several sculptures of men’s heads of reddish tufa, probably knocked off life-size statues. Judging by the rough hewing of the backs of the heads, the statues had been placed in niches or at walls and intended for frontal viewing. Analyzing the headgear and adornments and comparing them with the portraits of Artashesid kings on coins, K. Kafadarian arrived at the conclusion that the statues represented secular rulers of Armenia.

The archaic manner in which the heads are cut makes it possible to date them back to the 3rd—2nd cc. B.C. These works of art of local origin mark an important stage in the history of ancient Armenia’s sculpture of the antique period.


  1. citadel
  2. cathedral
  3. Catholicos' palace
  4. St. Sarkis Church

Text and floorplan from "Architectural Ensembles of Armenia" O. Khalpakhchian, published in Moscow by Iskusstvo Publishers in 1980. Copyright (c) 2000, Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved.

From translated Soviet brochure:

The ruins of Dvin, the capital of Armenia, one of the largest social-economical and cultural centers of middle-ages, is situated in Artashat region, 30 kilometers South of Yerevan. It was founded by Khosrov II Arshakid, who transferred the court to the hills of Dvin, situated towards the North of Artashat. In 428, after the abolition of Arshakid’s reign, Dvin became the administrative-political center of regional Armenia. In the country that managed to keep its liberty, the rapid development of the town began. Many outstanding dignitaries, rich representatives of trade and artisans moved to Dvin and built a number of palaces and other constructions. Step by step the town became the most important in economical, political and spiritual life of the country. The influence of Dvin on Armenia’s social life particularly grew in 70’s of the V c. at which time the spiritual center -Katholikos’ throne was transferred from Vagharshapat to Dvin.

Since the beginning of VIIc. Dvin became the capital of “Armenia” - the North administrative unit of Arabic Caliphate. During IX-XII c.c. the town at first was ruled by Bagratids, then later on half-dependent emirs took over it. In the beginning of the VIII c it became the Zakharid’s property. In 30’s of XIII c Mongols captured Dvin and destroyed it mercilessly. The town came down the historical arena and in its place rural settlements formed

Dvin has a territory of about 350-400 ha. In the middle of the town a hill rises, on which stood a citadel with strong defensive walls and more than 40 half-rounded towers. The citadel defended itself with a ditch 30-50m deep. The urban areas connected with it by means of bridges over the ditch. The urban blocks were also protected by strong pise-walls (made of clay). The archeological examinations of the town began in the end of XIX in the beginning of XX cc. Since 1937 till the present days a stationary archeological expedition has been working in Dvin. Excavations cleared up a huge square in the citadel and in its urban block (the town square) situated towards the West. On top of citadel the remainders of palace constructions of Arshakids time are preserved. The big basilica hall (IV c) should definitely be mentioned with it's 4 pairs of pillars. The remainders of big palace construction with cement (wattle and daub) walls and rooms for various purposes are preserved too (VIII). The whole hill is thickly built-up: predominately by constructions of civil character - dwelling house, productive and communicative complexes. The incline makes it possible to build house like terraces. As the principal building material in Dvin was baked-clay bricks, the foundations were built from huge cobblestones. The inside decorations of the building are richly and variously trimmed (gyps cornices, frescos, architectural details). All the monumental buildings are build of light limestone (IV- V cc) and from multi-colored tuff. In the central block the principal cult constructions of Dvin and two patriarchic palaces are found. One of the largest churches of Armenia was the three-nave basilica of Dvin (end of IV beginning of V cc) which later on became a cathedral. In the 70’s of V c an outside gallery was added to the church from three sides. In 572 during the revolt the Persians burned the church. In 608-618 it was rebuilt again, a number of constructive changes were made, after which if got the look of vaulted hall with a crosslike scheme. The cathedral had very rich decorations. The floor and the walls were mosaic (stone, glass), there were inscriptions on the walls, and chandeliers with many-colored lamps hang from above. The roof was covered with tiles of ornamental butt-ends. The church was destroyed during the earthquake in 893, which historians say seriously damaged the town and cost many sacrifices. A one-nave basilica of the VI c was situated North-East of the cathedral, and was destroyed during the earthquake too.

In the town square remainders of two beautiful palaces were found, which belonged to classic examples of secular architecture of the early middle age of Armenia. One of them to the SouthWest of cathedral was built in 70’s of V c. The palace has a central pillar hall with three pairs of pillars. All kinds of dwelling, productive and cult complexes joined the hall from all sides. The palace is supposed to be patriarchic. In the 60’s of the VI c it served as the residence for important Persian officials. At the same time in the western wing of the palace an altar for fire-worshippers was built. During the revolt of 572 the palace was burned and destroyed.

In the beginning of the VII c the second palace was built to the north of the cathedral, which also had a central hall with 4 pairs of pillars, joining with beautifully ornamented capitals. A rather interesting construction was found in one of the western blocks of the town. The remainders of a huge building with 36 bases are found here. It may be one of caravansaries of Dvin.

Dvin was known by its various handicrafts, which were taken to many countries. In the town’s territory a great number of Sasanid, Byzantine, Arabic, Seljuk, Georgian golden, silver, copper coins evidence about the wide trading relations of Dvin. In Arabic times in Dvin copper and silver coins were minted, which were widely spread in Transcaucasia, in the Middle East and were found in money hoards of Baltic and Scandinavian Peninsulas. Armenian and Arabic historians brag about the silk products, carpets, pillows, laces and other handicraft subjects of Dvin. The ceramic products were of very high quality. The ceramic-masters made tablewares of any description and for any purpose: from little saltcellars to large pitchers for wine. The watering ceramics and plates of highly glazed pottery of Dvin are unique examples of decorative and applied art. The various glass collection of Dvin with its high quality is one of the best in Middle East. During the excavations many wonderful decorations of gold and silver, cold? weapons and other things were found.

Dvin had trade relations with different countries. Part of the things found in Dvin came from industrial centers of Byzantine, Egypt, Syria, and Iran. Special attention should be paid to the (fayence - russian word) from Rei (Iran) and Kashan (Iran), glass from Rakki (Syria), mosaic glass from Byzantine among other things.

Dvin is a monument of numerous layers. Since the III c settlements formed here. In the beginning of I BC. - on Dvin’s hills and surroundings - large settlements with their cult complexes, ceramic and other high-qualified art products existed. During II - I BC. On the same territory a Hellenistic settlements were formed, which played a great role on northern defensive system of capital Artashat.

During the whole middle age throughout its millennial existence Dvin has been destroyed and reconstructed many times, twice by natural calamities (earthquakes in 863 and 893). In these conditions a powerful and massive cultural layer of 7-8 m wide was formed, which hides the remainders of architectural constructions, objects of material culture that apply to the way of lives of the local inhabitants of different centuries.

The excavations of this once blooming, and at the same time long-suffering town contributed greatly to the study of history, culture and socio-economic life of Armenia in the middle-ages.


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