Zorats church (“Soldier Church”) is located in the Vayots Dzor district, in the Eastern part of Yeghegis village on a hill overlooking the river. It was built in 1303 by archbishop Stepanos – a grandson of Prince Tarsaiyich Orbelian. At the time, from 1242 to 1344, Armenia was a tributary of the Mongols, Armenian lords and troops requisitioned to fight against the Mamluks and renegade Turko tribes were vying for the kingdom's rich lands.
Zorats Church is completely unique among Armenian churches; no other similar structures have been conserved in the whole country. Zorats Church has no inner hall or a closed space with vaulted or domed ceiling – the only roofed spaces are the eastern altar apse and its flanking annexes, all of which are open to a large western yard. In addition, the altar is raised more than usual, at about the height for someone to dismount from a horse, which is indeed why it was built in such a way.
In fact, Zorats Church consists of only one altar chapel and two attached side-chapels. The church was created so in order to enable warriors sitting on their horses to receive the sacrament and the blessing of the church before leaving to battle. The blessing of troops and their horses before battle were commonplace, but no other church in Armenia was built exactly for that purpose, and with the idea of bringing both steed and soldier into the outdoor sanctuary.
The church and the cemetery were surrounded by walls. A number of rough tomb stones lie on the ground in front of the church, and they are quite revealing; each bears a carefully carved eye hole at one end. The purpose for these holes is unclear, though researchers believe the stones are ancient and that they suggest this is a very old worship site, converted to Christian use at an early age. Other stones are from later periods; including several nicely carved khachkars (“cross stones”).
The project included various preservation, cleaning and maintenance activities at Zorats Church and its direct surroundings.
The main focus lied on the consolidation and preservation of the fortification walls and the ruins of the former buildings in front of the church.
Beside that, the roof of the church which is covered by flagstones has been cleaned from vegetation, loosened flagstones fixed and damaged parts repaired.
Finally, under the supervision of local expert tomb stones and cross stones will be cleaned, re-erected and fixed.
Within the framework of the educational part the participants participated in workshops and presentations, discussed with locals, heritage administration and churchmen the importance of heritage preservation. They also gained knowledge about Armenian heritage, local history and regional traditions. During the project guided tours and excursions have been organised to nearby located heritage sites of the region as for instance to the “Birds’ Cave” where archaeologists found a 5.500 years old leather show, the oldest known leather shoe in the world.
The project has been organised by European Heritage Volunteers, in partnership with the Service of the Protection of Historical Environment and Cultural Museum Reserves of the Republic of Armenia.