a source on Armenian Art

Vanishing History or the Life and Death of a House


The city of Artashat is not on any tourist map while visiting Armenia. Unless they confuse with it with the ruins of the ancient Hellenistic capital of the same name, which is located about 5 km south near the Khor-Virap village.

The new Artashat became a large settlement only in the early 19th century, when a large wave of Armenian migrants from northern Iran moved into the Ararat valley. As it stands today, the city is the administrative center of the Ararat region and has retained all the hallmarks of a typical, soulless Soviet town. Its current look is mainly predetermined by box-like apartment blocks, with their ungainly facades and some disastrously bad examples of 80s Armenian architecture (the shopping mall, the hotel and other administrative buildings).

Looking at the city now, you'd be forgiven if you'd think it was founded less than 30 years ago. Nothing on view here indicates otherwise. In fact, practically nothing is know of its history prior to the Soviet revolution. Apparently a small ethnographic museum existed during the 60s, but it is no longer active and we have no information about its holdings. To the best of my knowledge no archaeological surveys have been conducted on the city's territory.
But up until 1950s, this small town had an entirely different look... one that seems utterly idyllic compared with the picture we have today.

Located in the most agriculturally fertile lands of the country, Artashat was a magnet for the Iranian-Armenians who moved to the region after 1828. It presented excellent conditions for wine growing and has remained one of country's most active wine-producers up to this day.

The growth of the industry also predicated the formation of an upper-middle class society in the city, which actively begun to display their wealth by building large houses in the city center. This crust of society was known as 'kulaks' - a term attached to landowners who employed villagers to work on their fields. According to the locals who witnessed the pre-1950s Artashat, many of their houses were still standing amongst the lush gardens that spread for many hectares.

The earliest housing complexes were built using the traditional red-brick method (made out of the excellent local clay), that was the most popular construction material in Persian-dominated Armenia of 19th century. The Armenian masons creatively appropriated a whole set of traditions in building these houses, using finely polished blocks of tufa for gates and doorways, as well as implementing neo-classical elements imported into the country during the Russian rule. The result was s successful synthesis of many varied styles and traditions - a new architectural approach that was unique to Armenia.

With the arrival of Soviet government and the demonisation of all capitalist heritage, these grand houses were often taken away from their original owners and turned into administrative buildings or broken into many small apartments. But the worse was to come. In order to eradicate the memory of 'kulaks' from the pages of history, most of the houses were destroyed during the 50s.

A solitary example survived by some miracle up until 2007. Hidden away behind recently built houses and a large hospital building, this magnificent example of 19th century secular architecture was finally demolished two years ago - its demise, like its existence went completely unnoticed.

I had been fascinated by the house since childhood. We'd often creep inside with my friends in search of 'treasure' (the locals half-heartedly believed that the kulak owner had buried his money in the house's walls after the Soviets invaded). The building, by early 90s was already half-ruined and abandoned. It was apparently some kind of a government office, which was active until the left side of the house collapsed.
The house exerted a kind of a spell on its surroundings. It looked truly exotic amidst the grey buildings that encroached it from every corner. Even in its half-ruined state, its magnificence was distinctly palpable. One can only imagine the impression it made on the lower-class inhabitants of the town, who lived in tiny, one storey houses built from wet clay.

In 2006, I was fortunate enough to take photographs of the house. By then it had lost the wondrously detailed wooden balcony and some of the ruined walls.

The house is a long, rectangular, two-storey structure. The first floor and the foundations are built from roughly cut tufa stone, while the second storey is laid in brick. The facade is entirely covered by patterned arrangement of red bricks - a typical look of Persian-style architecture of the period. The main entrance of the house is under an archway, with a pointed end (betraying the Iranian origin of the builders). The entrance door is enclosed in a rectangle of finely grated dark tufa stone, giving it an imposing quality. Right above the door is an inscription in Armenian that states the name of the owner and the date of the house's completion - "Babakhanian 1882*29".
A finely carved wooden balcony was above the doorway. A particularly stunning feature of the woodwork were the four curved pillars, which were painted in white. A similar balcony existed in the left wing of the building, which fell down (or was demolished) in the 80s.

The main entrance led into a small inner courtyard and staircases led to the first floor. The kitchen and other utilitarian rooms, including a large storage space or a workshop with a vaulted ceiling were on the ground floor, with a separate entrance that led to the backyard.

All the living quarters were on the first floor, arranged in a gallery-like plan, one room leading into the other. Large double-bay windows let plenty of light from both sides of the building.
Unfortunately due to a lack of floor plan and any other details it is not clear what purpose each room served and we can not talk about the interior of the house as it was not possible to investigate it properly.


What was remarkable about the building, first and foremost, was its facade. The red bricks were laid with utmost care in a complex grid work of geometric patterns. This style was characteristic to upper-middle class houses built in early to mid 19th century Yerevan and other major cities in the Persian empire.

One could see numerous houses of this type in Yerevan, up until recently, although very few had the delicacy and elegance of the one in Artashat. Another special feature is the top cornice that frames the edge of the rood. Arranged in triangular shapes, the red tiles produce a crown like banner that ran along the entire front of the house. One should also note that the bricks were painted in different colours, which highlighted the patterned brickwork, giving it even a more festive look.

It is unknown whether the house had auxiliary buildings that stood in a separate plot of land, or whether it formed a part of a row of buildings.

According to eyewitnesses, Artashat had a number of other buildings in the same style. Even a larger two-storey house stood right next to this one, but was of later construction, built out of black tufa and in more neo-classical mode.

Not far from the Babakhanian residence stood another brick house. Also of two storeys, but more European in planning and design, this residence was constructed from white brick, had very high ceilings, lavishly designed interiors (including an enormous and elaborate iron heater) and a generous backyard with a well. Like the Babakhanian house, the side walls were constructed from mud-bricks, but were nearly a meter in width. It was a less original structure, but of immense importance to the town's history and unfortunately was demolished in 2001 to make way for a bank building.

No other 19th century houses are known in Artashat, although a further exploration might reveal more buildings from this period. The only historic buildings still standing in the town are the humble structures of the wine factory, built from black tufa at the turn of 20th century and an apartment complex, which might have been built in the 1920s.

The once small, pretty garden-town with elegant brick houses has become an ungainly, gray dust-magnet of today, completely devoid not only of character but any sense of the past. The sad fate of historic buildings and sites in Artashat is not a unique case by far. In Ejmiatsin, the entire strata of 19th century architecture has been reduced to a couple of buildings that stand on the outskirts of the city. In Armavir (Hoktemberyan) there are a few interesting examples that are on the verge of destruction. In Goris, hardly anything remains of its unique urban architecture. The same can be said about the wonderful examples of secular buildings in Dilijan, Kirovakan, Gavar and many other settlements.

We still have Gyumri, Meghri and remnants of Shushi to look forward to. Serious plans exist to restore and give these cities back their specifically 19th century character, but even if they come to fruition, these two architectural ensembles will never be able to represent the full spectrum and diversity of Armenia's delightfully eclectic urban architecture.

By Vigen Galstyan - June 2009 Vigen Galstian