The architectural complexes of Sanahin and Haghpat are among the outstanding works of medieval Armenian architecture. In their artistic merits they transcend the limits of national culture.
Described as a «masterpiece of religious architecture and a major center of learning in the Middle Ages», Haghpat monastery, together with Sanahin monastery, was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996. The monasteries at Haghpat and Sanahin were chosen as UNESCO World Heritage Sites because: The two monastic complexes represent the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture, whose unique style developed from a blending of elements of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and the traditional vernacular architecture of the Caucasian region
The monasteries are situated in the north of Armenia, in the Tumanian district. Sanahin is now within the limits of Alaverdi city, and Haghpat is to the north-east of it, in the village of the same name. Standing on a high plateau, amidst low structures, they rise sharp against the background of steep forest-grown slopes of Bazum ridge. The ensembles are complemented by small churches built near them. The exact date of the foundation of Sanahin and Haghpat is unknown. Documentary evidence and monuments of material culture suggest that these structures date back to the middle of the 10th century. The formation of Tashir-Dzoraget kingdom of the Kyurikids in 979 and the great attention paid to Sanahin and Haghpat by various rulers of Armenia and their vassals favored the construction of many religious and civil structures there. In these monasteries, especially in Sanahin, humanitarian sciences and medicine were studied, scientific treatises written and paintings, most miniatures, created.
Built in the monasteries over three centuries were more than 20 various churches and chapels, four annexes, sepulchers, bell-towers, the building of the Academy, book depositories, refectories, galleries, bridges and other monumental structures, to say nothing of numerous dwelling and service premises.
The main monastery buildings are grouped around their chief temples, forming integral architectural organisms. They are asymmetrical relative to their main axes, which lends them picturesqueness. Compactness and harmonious balancing of the complexes are achieved owing to the fact that each subsequent architect proceeded from the state of the ensemble that already existed and coordinated the shape and layout of his own buildings with it.
What Sanahin and Haghpat complexes have in common is not only the compositional features of various structures. The architectural details and decoration of the monuments, which belong to the same epoch, have much in common and are even exactly alike in some cases, which gives us ground to presume that they were created by craftsmen of the same school.
Most of the religious structures are of the cross-winged dome type and have annexes in four corners, or of the cupola hall type. The structures of the fist type are: in Haghpat, St. Grigory church (1005), which lost its dome during the reconstruction in 1211; in Sanahin. St. Hakob church (the 9th century), St. Astvatsatsin church, built some time between 928 and 944. and Amenaprkich church, completed in 966.
The ensembles of Sanahin and Haghpat stand out not only for the original architecture of religious and especially civil buildings. They are also most instructive as samples of town building art which show high skill of Armenian architects. Marked by the unity and compactness of their asymmetrical layout, they had a tremendous influence on the development of medieval Armenian architecture.