Since 1990, the temple has been the central shrine of the small number of followers of Armenian neopaganism (close to Zoroastrianism) who hold annual ceremonies at the temple, especially on March 21—the pagan New Year. On that day, which coincides with Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Armenian neopagans celebrate the birthday of the god of fire, Vahagn. Celebrations by neopagans are also held during the summer festival of Vardavar, which has pre-Christian (pagan) origins.
The Temple of Garni (Armenian: Գառնիի տաճար, Gaṙnii tačar, [ˈgɑrnii ˈtɑtʃɑʁ])[a] is the only standing Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia and the former Soviet Union. Built in the Ionic order in the village of Garni, Armenia, it is the best-known structure and symbol of pre-Christian Armenia.
The structure was probably built by king Tiridates I in the first century AD as a temple to the sun god Mihr. After Armenia's conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, it was converted into a royal summer house of Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. According to some scholars it was not a temple but a tomb and thus survived the destruction of pagan structures. It collapsed in a 1679 earthquake. Renewed interest in the 19th century led to excavations at the site in early and mid-20th century, and its eventual reconstruction between 1969 and 1975, using the anastylosis method. It is one of the main tourist attractions in Armenia and the central shrine of Hetanism (Armenian neopaganism).
The temple is at the edge of a triangular cliff which overlooks the ravine of the Azat River and the Gegham mountains. It is a part of the fortress of Garni,[b] one of the oldest fortresses in Armenia, that was strategically significant for the defense of the major cities in the Ararat plain. It is mentioned as Gorneas in the first-century Annals of Tacitus. The site is in the village of Garni, in Armenia's Kotayk Province and includes the temple, a Roman bath with a partly preserved mosaic floor with a Greek inscription, a royal summer palace, the seventh century church of St. Sion and other minor items (e.g., medieval khachkars).
The precise construction date of the temple is unknown and is subject to debate. The dominant view is that it was built in 77 AD, during the reign of king Tiridates I of Armenia. The date is calculated based on a Greek inscription,[c] discovered by Martiros Saryan, a prominent artist, in July 1945 at the Garni cemetery, recently brought from a nearby water mill. It names Tiridates the Sun (Helios Tiridates) as the founder of the temple. The following includes an image of the inscription as it stands near the temple today, its textual reconstruction by Ashot G. Abrahamian, an English translation by James R. Russell, an alternative reading and translation by Poghos Ananian, as cited by Vrej Nersessian.
Most scholars now attribute the inscription to Tiridates I. Considering that the inscription says the temple was built in the eleventh year of reign of Tiridates I, the temple is believed to have been completed in 77 AD.[d] The date is primarily linked to Tiridates I's visit to Rome in 66 AD, where he was crowned by Roman emperor Nero.[e] To rebuild the city of Artaxata, destroyed by the Roman general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, Nero gave Tiridates 50 million drachmas and provided him with Roman craftsmen. Upon his return to Armenia Tiridates began a major project of reconstruction, which included rebuilding the fortified city of Garni. It is during this period that the temple is thought to have been built.
The temple is commonly attributed to Mihr, the sun god in the Zoroastrian-influenced Armenian mythology and the equivalent of Mithra. Tiridates, like other Armenian monarchs, considered Mihr their patron. Some scholars have argued that, given the historical context during which the temple was built, i.e. after returning from Rome as king, it would seem natural that Tiridates dedicated the temple to his patron god. Furthermore, white marble sculptures of bull hooves have been discovered some 20 metres (66ft) from the temple which could possibly be the remains of a sculpture of the god Mihr, who was often portrayed in a fight with a bull.
Arshak Fetvadjian described the temple as an 'edifice of Roman style for the pantheistic idol cult fashionable in the days of the Arshakists.' In 1950 Kamilla Trever reported that according to a different interpretation of the extant literature and the evidence provided by coinage, the erection of the temple started in 115 AD. The pretext for its construction would have been the declaration of Armenia as a Roman province and the temple would have housed the imperial effigy of Trajan.
An alternative theory proposed by Richard D. Wilkinson in 1982 suggests that the building is a tomb, probably constructed circa 175 AD. This theory is based on a comparison to Graeco-Roman buildings of western Asia Minor (e.g. Nereid Monument, Belevi Mausoleum, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus), the discovery of nearby graves that date to about that time, and the discovery of a few marble pieces of the Asiatic sarcophagus style. Wilkinson furthermore states that there is no direct evidence linking the structure to Mithras or Mihr, and that the Greek inscription attributed to Tiridates I probably refers to a former fortress at the Garni site and not to the colonnaded structure now called the Temple of Garni. He also notes that it is unlikely that a pagan temple would survive destruction during Armenia's 4th-century conversion to Christianity when all other such temples were destroyed. Wilkinson offers the suggestion that the structure may be a tomb erected in honor of one of the Romanized kings of Armenia of the late 2nd century.
James R. Russell finds the view of the structure being a temple of Mihr baseless. He is also skeptical that the Greek inscription refers to the temple.
Christina Maranci calls it an Ionic structure with an 'unclear function.' She writes that 'while often identified as temple, it may have been a funerary monument, perhaps serving as a royal tomb.' She also notes that its entablature is similar to that of the temple of Antonius Pius at Sagalassos in western Asia Minor and to the columns of Attalia. She concludes that imperial Roman workmen may have been involved in its construction.
In the early fourth century,[f] when Armenian King Tiridates III adopted Christianity as a state religion, virtually all known pagan places of worship were destroyed. The Temple of Garni is the only pagan,[g] Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman structure to have survived the widespread destruction. It remains unknown why the temple was exempted from destruction, but philosopher Grigor Tananyan argues that its status as a 'masterpiece of art' possibly saved it from destruction. He suggests that the temple was perceived to be a 'quintessence of an entire culture.' Robert H. Hewsen suggested that the reason why it was not destroyed is because it was not a temple, but a tomb of a Roman-appointed king of Armenia. He also noted that in the seventh century a church was built immediately next to it and not in its place.
According to Movses Khorenatsi a 'cooling-off house' (summer house) was built within the fortress of Garni for Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. As its purpose changed the temple underwent some changes. The sacrificial altars in the outside of the temple and the cult statue in the cella were removed. The opening in the roof for skylight was closed. The stone structures for removal of water from the roof were also removed, while the entrance of the temple was transformed and adjusted for residence.
There is a series of Arabic graffiti on the walls of the temple, dated 9th-10th centuries. There is also an Armenian inscription on the entrance wall of the temple. Dated 1291, it was left by princess Khoshak of Garni, the granddaughter of Ivane Zakarian (commander of Georgian-Armenian forces earlier in the 13th century) and Khoshak's son, Amir Zakare. It tells about the release of the population of Garni from taxes in forms of wine, goats, and sheep. Simeon of Aparan, a poet and educator, made the last written record about the temple before its collapse in his 1593 poem titled 'Lamentation on the throne of Trdat' («Ողբանք ի վերայ թախթին Տրդատայ թագաւորին»).