Digging History: Second pagan temple (slowly) unveiled in Artashat

Armenian archeologists have discovered the second pagan temple in Armenia after Garni.

The temple found 5.5 meters under ground not far from the modern town of Artashat about 30 kilometers to the south-east of Yerevan was devoted to Mihr – the God of the Sun in Armenian mythology. The temple – the symbol of sun-worship was built near Artashat which maintained its status the longest among the capitals of Armenia - from the 2nd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.

“By discovering the remains of the temple we found out that the temple was even more gorgeous and beautiful than Garni. That means we have found a big historical wealth that needs being kept by all means,” says Zhores Khachatryan, 72 year old coordinator of the archeological expedition team.

The expedition comprised of 15 workers of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia had begun the excavations of the territory of capital Artashat in the 1970s. Before that large-scale excavations in the territories bordering Turkey were prohibited by Soviet authorities.

The findings reveal that Artshat occupied about 400 hectares of territory and had a population in 150,000 in its heyday. The fortification walls of the city stretched for more than 10,000 meters; 4,500 of them were unearthed by the scientists in 1970-80s.

The town founded on 12 hills in the neighborhood of Khor Virap built on the place of the temple devoted to the goddess of maternity and fertility Anahit used to be a big center of commerce, which is witnessed by more than 1,000 types of the found seals.

“All the studies show Artashat was built in accord with a regular and a planned design project. However, unfortunately, we cannot research all the hills: the heart of Artashat was built on the marble ore that has been blown up for many times and has equaled that part [of the city] to ground,” says archeologist Khachatryan with regret, who has been in the science for more than 60 years spending the greater part of the year on archeological sites. Khachatryan has also taken part in the excavations in Saint Petersburg (then, Leningrad), Crimea and Anapa. As he says he has passed the best Russian school.

The archeological team has also managed to find the public bath-house of Artshat with its 7 rooms 75 square meters each.

“There is a mosaic floor and a tiny brook, bases and pools with beautiful ornaments have been found. Also a toilet with sewage system with more than 2,000 years of history, something you can’t find even in modern-day villages, was found,” laughs the archeologist.

The archeological works and others like it, were interrupted by the Karabakh movement in 1988 and the crisis in the later years. The archeological life in the newly independent Armenia gained new momentum in the early 2000s.

An expedition team was formed again in 2003. However, it had only 5 members instead of the former 15 because of insufficient [financial] means to have a larger group.

“We knew from the very beginning there was a temple that was destroyed during the reign of King Tiridates in the 4th century, in times Christianity was spread. But we didn’t know where exactly it was and what was its size,” says Khachatryan.

It’s already five years the archeological team with small financial means excavates the old Artashat. The latest studies concluded: the temple devoted to god Mihr was built on a hill on the left bank of Arax River. The hill was surrounded by walls where the limestone holy place was erected. The excavations disclosed also the 23 staircases leading to the temple.

1,625,000 drams (about $4,800) were allotted by the state budget for this year studies. Khachatryan says the money will hardly suffice to excavate a mausoleum, when they must excavate a whole city.

The archeologist is proud of the work of his team, but picks on the work of community heads as a result of which lands of Artashat that bear one of the most important pages of Armenia’s history are sold today.

“They say exactly 6 hectares are sold, but what we see is a different size – about 60 hectares. Sooner or later they will build castles wrecking our past to the ground,” Khachatryan says with indignation hoping to save at least the remaining territories.

The archeologists think they may find at the end of the excavations that the temple may be reconstructed; however, they are unable to find whether it is possible to find financing for it.