Monument to Lviv’s Ancient Armenian Heritage
Monument to Lviv’s Ancient Armenian Heritage
On August 17 Lviv’s Armenian community will be celebrating the 645th anniversary of the city’s Armenian Cathedral. Relatively small in stature, this symbol of Lviv’s ancient Armenian heritage was modelled on the 10th century cathedral at Ani, the historic capital of the Armenian nation. It is the oldest cathedral in Lviv and is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral is a monument to the city’s rich multi-ethnic cultural mosaic which dates back to arrival of the very earliest Armenian Diaspora in Western Ukraine. The earliest recorded evidence of Armenian communities in what is now modern-day Ukraine is actually in 1040, when an Armenian colony was established in the Crimean city of Feodosia (then known as Kaffa). A second colony was soon founded in Kyiv, which at the time was the capital city of the mighty Kyivan Rus empire, forerunner of the modern Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian states.
The arrival of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor at the tail end of the 12th century sparked a huge wave of Armenian migration from their historic homelands in modern-day Turkey and the southern Caucasus region, with many choosing to move to Ukraine. By the turn of the 13th century Armenian communities were well-established in Kamyanets-Podilsky, Halych, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk. Armenian merchants then received what was to prove a fateful invitation to move to Lviv from Prince Danylo Halytsky, the man credited with founding the city.
While Christianity was still a relatively new faith in the Ukraine of the early Middle Ages, the Armenians brought with them what was already by then an ancient tradition of Christian worship, having been the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as their official religion in the fourth century of the modern era. As well as their ancient Christian faith, the Armenian community brought their craftsmanship and artistic talents to Medieval Lviv, where they were famed for artistic brilliance of the jewelry and skill as tailors.
The Lviv which they encountered was a fast-emerging crossroads between East and West which played the role of an important point along the old trade routes which dominated the commerce of the era. Armenian merchants quickly established themselves as indispensable to the prosperity of the city thanks to their savvy ways, linguistic skills and extensive connections throughout the Near East.
Medieval Lviv was divided up into community districts, with the Armenian community gravitating towards the north of the old town, close to Rynok Square. As well as their cathedral, Lviv’s Armenians had their own school, hospitals, theatre and library. In 1616 they even founded their own publishing house. The Armenian quarter lives on today in the form of Virmenska Street, which exemplifies the cultural dialogue of the early Armenian community with its Ukrainian neighbours and incorporates aspects of Near Eastern and European architectural styles. and European architecture traditions – living houses were built in Renascence, Rococo, Empire, Classical styles. Even in the architectural treasure trove of Lviv’s historical centre, Virmenska Street is considered to be particularly colourful. One of the most interesting buildings on Virmenska Street is No. 13, which for a period in the nineteenth century served as the financial offices of the Habsburg Empire’s Public Prosecutor. This house was erected in 1788 by a French architect and is one of the best surviving examples of the mix of baroque and classical architectural style that was popular at the time. One of the most famous people to have used this address was Ovanes Karmatenants, Lviv’s first Armenian publisher.
Other attractions along Virmenska Street include
the house at No. 19, which since 1979 has been one of the most popular coffee shops in the city. For the past three decades it has been one of the lesser-known hubs in the cultural life of Lviv and remains true to its modest Soviet-era origins. Traces of the streets ancient Armenian past are also in evidence at No. 30, where an authentic Armenian heraldic crest adorns the façade above the doorway. Further along the street is the Ararat restaurant, named after the mountain which is regarded by Armenians as the symbol of their nation and their global community. However, the centre-piece of the Armenian architectural ensemble in Lviv remains the splendid cathedral which stands on Virmenska Street.
As the Armenian community in West Ukraine grew and developed, it was decided that the Armenian church in the region should be build up around a central cathedral in Lviv, which was by then the leading city in Halychyna. The first Armenian church in Lviv was actually on a far smaller scale than the later cathedral, and was built in 1363-1370 by Armenian merchants Jacob and Phanos. This initial chapel was to form the basis upon which later generations would build up the current cathedral, and it is this gradual expansion of the church which explains its somewhat eclectic look to this development over a number years. In 1437 the cathedral was enclosed by an arcade gallery, of which only the southern wing remains standing today. Following a devastating first which destroyed much of Lviv in 1527 and did extensive damage to the cathedral, rebuilding work was carried out that included the addition of a new stone belfry. In 1630 the main nave was extended, to be further rebuilt in 1723. The Cathedral owes most of its present day look to a remodeling carried out in the years 1908-1927.
The interior design is a rich testament to the Near Eastern architectural tastes of the early Armenian church and abounds in traditional Armenian elements. In particular the cathedral features stylised Armenian stone crosses known as Khachkars which date back to the 14th century. The structure of the dome is really one of a kind : its foundation is made of hollow ribs, which were assembled from clay pots. A number of unique frescoes were found in the course of restoration work carried out at the start of the twentieth century and are also thought to date back to the very earliest days of Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral. The cupola itself is embellished with a magnificent mosaic. The other adornment of the interior is a mural created in 1927-1929 by Jan Henryk Rosen, whose paintings may also be found in cathedrals in Vienna and Rome. In the southern courtyards there are tombstones which have survived from the old Armenian cemetery that once stood in the church yard, dating from the thirteenth to eighteen centuries. The cathedral also boasts two icons which have been attributed with miracle-working powers. These icons, of St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Mother of God, were brought to Lviv in the 17th century from Yazlovets.
The eastern courtyard of the Cathedral, which is also a popular walkway for Lviv day trippers, contains a column adorned with a statue of St. Christopher which dates back to 1726. Close by is the building of the former Lviv Armenian Bank and the palace of Lviv’s Armenian Archbishops.
Like the vast majority of Ukraine’s places of worship, Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral was closed down during the Soviet era and was instead used as a storehouse for plundered religious artifacts and relics. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Lviv Armenian community moved to restore the cathedral as a place of worship and it has been on the receiving end of on-going extensive renovation efforts ever since. The renaissance of the cathedral reached a new spiritual peak on June 25, 2001, when during his visit to Ukraine Pope John Paul II prayed in the Armenian Cathedral. This was followed in May 2003 by a visit from the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church Garegin II, who held a ceremony of consecration.
The Cathedral is open to tourists daily from 08.30 till 20.30 and is one of the most impressive sights in today’s Lviv, offering a window onto an exotic and spiritually powerful past that remains a poignant reminder of the city’s multi-ethnic make-up and role as a crossroads between East and West.