Heritage and Culture

History or Imitation of History: the Reconstruction of the Bridge of Garni

Yeva Ess

In 2006 the Ministry of Culture undertook the reconstruction work of the bridge of Garni. The purpose was to reinforce the bridge and return its original feature by means of certain reconstruction. But defining what its original feature was and how the bridge should be reconstructed has turned into a matter of debate.

The bridge of Garni, which flows in the gorge of Garni over the river Goght, is a single arched bridge which before the reconstruction has been built up with basalt stones of irregular shape and cladding (cleaved stones). The vault of the bridge and the double-arch are cladded with smoothly-hewn tuff stone. There are no certain historical references about the exact date of the construction of the bridge, however specialists, including mainly V. Harutyunyan, date it back to the 10th-14th centuries. The only document stating the former feature of the bridge is Balasanyan’s measurement drawing of the bridge (Fig. 1) made in 1945 where he depicts it with regular cladding (whether this cladding was with roughly or smoothly-hewn stone surface will be discussed further). There are two other drawings of the bridge, one dating from the 1950s made by H. Khalpakhchyan (Fig. 2) where the bridge is already depicted with irregular cladding which had survived up its recent reconstruction, and another drawing made by V. Harutyunyan where the cladding of the bridge is drawn symbolically without any certain depiction of the stones and its surfaces (Fig.3).

The bridge survived until now with such image i.e. with an irregular cladding of irregularly shaped stones from the surrounding which is believed to be the naïve attempt of the peasants from the village nearby to restore the bridge. The bridge had entered into the memory of present generations not with its supposedly initial look of smoothly-faced cladding but exactly with that rough and rude cladding of irregular stones which was making the bridge to look as a natural rocky continuation of the landscape. It became beloved by everybody not as a piece of professional architecture but as a handicraft work presenting the simple and not-ambitious contemporary folk craft. Considering the picturesque image it obtained across decades of destruction and decaying, while being overgrown by vegetation, one could understand why it had became so much beloved exactly with that image (Fig. 4).

In his initial proposal, the architect of the project proposed to substitute the existing irregular cladding with a regular cladding of smoothly-hewn tuff stones and to add parapet on both sides of the bridge (Fig.5). The argument for the validity of these changes was that the drawing of Balasanyan proves the former existence of smoothly-hewn cladding. Also the common knowledge is that in Middle Ages (at least during the 10th-14th centuries when the bridge was supposedly built) bridges were always cladded with smoothly-hewn facing and had parapets. These seem to be the main and only references proving the validity of such a method deployed on the bridge.

The work started in 2006 aimed at cleaning up the bridge from the existing irregular cladding, re-cladding it with smoothly-hewn stones and adding parapets, and following an interruption of few years was eventually finished in 2012. However when on the second phase of the reconstruction work the “Service for the Protection of Historical Environment and Cultural Museum Reservations” (SPHE) was engaged the issue of the arguable choice of smoothly-hewn facing as well as the addition of the parapets was raised. They proposed to clad the bridge with roughly-hewn stones and instead of adding massive stone parapets make them as a light structural framework which would not interfere into the architecture of the bridge. To discuss this proposal a new session of the Ministry’s Scientific-Methodological Committee was called.

Overall the main points of criticism presented to this reconstruction project by the SPHE, the general public and professionals, which were also discussed and commented by the Committee, were the following:

  1. The proposed method of reconstruction does not help the bridge to obtain its original aspect but rather modifies it, since image it has obtained after the reconstruction bears no link with its original historical construction; moreover the intervention lost the picturesque character it had come to possess.
  2. The technical method with which it was realized in the initial phase of the restoration work and the final result obtained are not historically sound to the technique which was deployed for such claddings during the Middle Ages, i.e. at the time when the bridge was built.
  3. The way that the parapets are made has no link with the historical character of the bridge. Generally speaking there is no grounded evidence that the bridge had any parapet.

These are the main points presented by the general and professional society to this reconstruction project which were also discussed in the Committee by a group of specialists.

Let us now examine each point and the solutions that were found by the Committee:

1. Did the bridge lose or obtain its historical character? Leaving aside for a while the question whether there was enough historical material to reconstruct the original aspect  of the bridge, one may concentrate on the fact that the bridge survived to our days with the irregular cladding it had before the reconstruction which should have a history of  few decades (approximately 60-70 years).  In this case to which historical layer the preference should be given – to the one which stayed in peoples' memories or the one which belongs to the past?  After all the character that the bridge had before the reconstruction can also be considered as another historical layer which became the familiar and recognizable image of the bridge and above all was not an imitation but a true historical image. In that case why not give preference to this layer which has survived to our days and made the monument become a part for our current cultural heritage? 

After this issue was raised by some members of the committee a suggestion to leave part of the existing irregular cladding open was made. This means that at the base of the arch few rows of the irregular cladding were left untouched as a statement of the image it had at one point of its history (Fig.6). Surely from professional perspective this is a correct attitude; while reconstructing a certain historical layer on the account of another one, the layer which is being lost should partially be referred to in the fabric of the remaining layer. However this method of combining several historical layers in one building/monument has become not only a professional attitude in the practice of restoration but also an interesting architectural topic which enables some interpretation of the building in the frames of the scientific limitations imposed from the side of restoration. This was the case of the Garni bridge. The few rows of the former rough cladding have been left open in such a way that it does not merge in any way conceptually or compositionally with the new cladding, whilst this method had lots of potential and possibilities to become an interesting architectural topic itself.    

2. Does the smoothly-hewn cladding which was finally realized correspond to its authentic and historical way of making it? First let us examine the initial smoothly-hewn cladding of the bridge realized at the first phase of the reconstruction works. Nowadays such cladding stones are cut and polished by electric saws which give them a perfect smoothness, whereas historically they were cut and polished manually giving a less than ideal smoothness. As a result the smoothly-hewn cladding of the bridge, both from a technological perspective and as a final visual result, differs greatly from the authentic claddings which were practiced in historical times. Besides the junctures between the stones are filled with mortar which is historically not a frequent method practiced in claddings and certainly there are no evidences that it was the case in this monument. Even considering the fact that the reconstructed parts of a monument should clearly show its recent restorations and so as not to be perceived as being authentic, nevertheless such a rude disregard for the authenticity of the deployed technology and visual image of the cladding is not professionally acceptable (fig.6).

This issue was raised at the meeting of the Committee when a section of the bridge was already cladded that way. During the discussions concerning the image that the surface of the stones should have, most of the Committee members agreed that the already cladded rows of stones should be worked out to make their surface look closer to the authentic texture. The final decision was that the rest of the stones should be cladded according to the same logic – they should be worked out in such a way as to look like the ancient manually cut and curved stones. Such imitation of a historical feature, without basic maintenance of the authenticity of the technology employed, results in a monument which can hardly be qualified as recreation and which can surely never be called a "reconstruction" as it is now understood in professional circles.

3. Are the parapets historically and architecturally accurate? There is no historical evidence as to the initial existence of a parapet. The only argument which would allow the reconstruction of a parapet is the same order as that concerning the deployment of smoothly-hewn surface i.e., the one, based on the common knowledge that historically such elements were in most cases deployed. However, there are no facts that this very monument had such parapet, nor a smoothly-hewn surface, because there has been no onsite archeological study which could reveal some indications proving or refuting any for or against arguments. Nevertheless it is obvious that parapets are needed nowadays but its stair-stepped structure is not proved in any case. Rather it should have been constructed with some very light structure which would not claim to be a part of the architecture of the bridge and would clearly show that it is a contemporary addition.

These are the facts on the “reconstruction” of the bridge of Garni. The general conclusion is that the problem of such reconstruction lays deep in the mind of people, people who perceive history as something as only belonging to a very distant past, while in fact anything belonging to the memory of current generations is already part of "history". The bridge of Garni was also a historical monument with its crude cladding and rough appearance since it had already been established as such in the memory of several generations. The way it has been treated does not reconstruct or even recreate the original monument. It is rather a creation of a new monument dedicated to the lost image of the ancient one.