Cave with a Sacred Spring
The remote Monastery of Geghard rests at the entrance of the Azat Valley in Kotayk province, central Armenia. Surrounded by towering cliffs, the monastery complex contains a number of churches and tombs that are partially carved directly into the rock. The monastery was originally founded in the 4th century CE by Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave, but the main cathedral was not built until 1215 CE, when national culture and architecture began to flourish under medieval Armenian royalty.
The monastery became famous because of the relics it housed. Its full name, Geghardavank, meaning the Monastery of the Spear, originates from the spear that wounded Jesus during his Crucifixion, allegedly brought to Armenia by Apostle Jude, also known as Thaddeus. Apostles Andrew and John also donated relics in the 12th century. The significance of these stories make the monastery a popular pilgrimage destination for Armenian Christians, and over the centuries, pious visitors have gifted land, money, manuscripts, and other valuables to the monastery.
Khachkars: Armenian Cross-Stones
Khachkars are carved steles that serve as memorial stones, a focal point of worship, and as relics facilitating communication between the secular and the divine. Reaching 1.5 meters (5 feet) in height, Khachkars are carved by hand from local stone with a decorative cross in the center resting on a symbol of a sun or wheel of eternity. Khachkars often also display carvings of saints, animals, and plants. After a Khachkar is completed and blessed, the stone is believed to yield power towards the salvation of the soul. These remarkably intricate steles have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List since 2010.
In Armenia today, there are more than 50,000 Khachkars documented, with no two alike. The cultural art form of carving Khachkars is still passed down in families and from master to apprentice, encouraging Armenian regional distinctiveness as well as individualization. There are numerous engraved and free-standing Khachkars at the Monastery of Geghard, making the site one of the most popular tourist destinations in Armenia.
With nearly half of the complex carved into the Gerghard-djor mountain side, the Geghard monastery emphasizes the height of Armenian Medieval architecture. The oldest existing building, the main church or Katoghike, dates to 1215 and was commissioned by the prince brothers Zakharia and Ivane. Characteristic of the medieval period, the layout of the church is in a cruciform plan. Its interior is intricately carved with animals, flora, and geometrical patterns in high relief. Among the carvings includes a particular scene of a lion attacking an ox, symbolic of the prince’s power.
In total, more than 20 buildings were carved directly into the mountain side ranging in size and complexity from churches, tombs, vestries and chapels. One of the largest expansions was from the Proshian family and includes a family tomb and church. Each new expansion included domed ceilings, columns, archways with detailed carvings, in the case of the Proshian family, a large relief of their family crest. Throughout the complex on exterior and interior and more specifically in the upper Zhamatoun, or burial chapel, Khachkars are hewn into the walls in memory of a deceased or in commemoration of a donation to the monastery. Similar to the carvings throughout the Geghard complex, each Khachkar is richly carved with floral and geometrical motifs.
Creative Technologies for a New Generation
In January of 2015, CyArk joined TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, Armenia to facilitate a two-week training session in digital preservation for high school students. This workshop guided students through the process of site documentation at Geghard through 3D laser scanning and close-range hand scanning. In addition, the students learned how to develop conservation materials, such as drawings, 3D perspective images, animations, and virtual tours.
Since its opening as a non-profit in 2011, TUMO has conducted free programs for thousands of Armenian teenagers, providing students with the technological resources to discover their talents and learn 21st century skills. Through CyArk’s partnership with TUMO, 3D laser scanning technologies are brought to the classroom, training the next generation of digital heritage preservationists. After the successful preservation of the Monastery of Geghard, TUMO students will continue to document their Armenian heritage over the coming years, refining technological skills and enhancing site visibility along the way.
In an effort to safeguard Armenian cultural heritage, CyArk has partnered with the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies to digitally preserve sites in and around the Armenian Plateau. Beginning with the Monastery of Geghard, this new initiative, Armenian Heritage: A Virtual Pilgrimage, was launched to document and share Armenian heritage sites with the world. Combining TUMO’s innovative approach to youth education and community engagement with CyArk’s expertise in 3D technologies and data archiving, this collaborative project strives to digitally capture and make available these at-risk heritage sites for both the Armenian diaspora and the international community.