Dvin is an ancient city in Armenia, located about 35 km south of modern Yerevan. It served as the capital of early medieval Armenia for four centuries and as the administrative head of the Armenian church. Founded in the 4th century AD by king Khosrov III Kotak northeast of the former ancient capital of Armenia, Artaxata, the city prospered as a major trade and cultural centre of Transcaucasia until the 13th century, when the Mongol hordes completely destroyed the city. Very little remains of the settlement today, but archaeologists have revealed a wealth of information about the town which has shed light into the Armenian culture from the 5th to the 13th centuries.
When the Arax River shifted west in the 3rd century AD, Artashat’s natural water defences were replaced by fetid mosquito-infested swamps, and the decision was made to move the capital to Dvin. The new capital was built on the site of an Early Bronze Age settlement (around 3000 BC), in the middle of a fertile plain in the valley of the Aras River. In the reign of Khosrov III (r. AD 330 – 339), a Prince who served as a Roman Client King of Arsacid Armenia, Dvin became the capital of the Armenian Kingdom and was used as the primary residence of the Armenian Kings of the Arsacid dynasty. At its height, the city was said to have had 100,000 residents and extended over all the surrounding villages.
From about 480 to 893, Dvin was the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Church. The first cathedral was built on the site of a third-century pagan temple but was destroyed during the Arab invasion of 642. A new larger three-aisled and four-pillared cathedral was later erected and dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s first bishop in 314. The cathedral was richly decorated, ornate decorations, including coloured mosaic floors which adorned the interior and the exterior of the building.
The 400-hectare settlement area also included a fortified citadel hill with political administration separate from the religious area around the cathedral. The rulers had their palace inside the vast citadel which dominated the town. The rectangular-base building was a two-storey one, with richly decorated residence chambers on the first floor, and service premises, including a bath-house on the ground floor.
The city survived the Arab conquest of Armenia in 640/642 but was destroyed in the earthquake of 893. The official residence of the Catholicos was then moved to Zvartnots in the neighbourhood of Echmiadzin. Dvin would ultimately be replaced, first by Partav in 789 and then Ani in 961 as Armenia’s first city. However, the city later recovered and remained a significant economic centre on the Silk Road until its destruction during the Mongol invasion of 1236 and its definitive abandonment.
Founded by King Artaxias I (the founder of the Artaxiad dynasty) in 176 BC, Artaxata served as the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia until AD 120. The city’s strategic position in the Ararat valley on the Silk Road soon made Artaxata a centre of bustling economic and trade, and a focal point of Hellenistic culture. The city was adorned with fine bronze statues of Greek gods while the inhabitants enjoyed Greek tragedies in Armenia’s first theatre. Through its 300 years history, Artaxata was attacked multiple times by Roman armies until the royal court eventually moved to Dvin. Today, the remains of Artaxata consist of two mounds located just south of Armenia’s modern capital Yerevan.
According to the accounts given by Strabo and Plutarch, Artaxata is said to have been chosen on the advice of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. However, the Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi of the 5th century attributes the city’s founding exclusively to the desire of the new king. Artaxata was built on twelve hills at the confluence of the Araxes and Metsamor rivers, overlooking the fertile Ararat plain. On the largest of the twelve hills, excavation uncovered a large Urartian fortress that had been abandoned for over four hundred years, indicating that Artaxias I built his city upon the remains of an old Urartian settlement. Artaxata occupied about 400 hectares of territory in its heyday and had a population of around 150,000, making it one of the largest cities in the Hellenistic world. Strabo and Plutarch describe Artaxata as a large and beautiful city and call it the “Armenian Carthage“.
The Acropolis of Artaxata had a palace and administrative buildings as well as a military garrison and arsenal. The citadel was double-walled and well protected (it was later named Khor Virap and gained prominence as the location where Gregory the Illuminator was to be imprisoned by Tiridates the Great). The remains of the palace, located at the crest of the hill, occupied an area of 2,750 sq. metres. As described by Strabo and Tacitus, Artaxata’s fortress walls ran over 10,000 metres, of which 5,000 metres have been excavated. The walls, with round towers of 13 to 15 meters in diameter, surrounded the whole city, including the hills, the Acropolis, and the lower city. Five of the city’s gates were discovered, each with a pair of towers. The city had running water, a sewage system, and public baths.
A temple dedicated to Tir-Apollo as well as a 10-room bathhouse were discovered on the left bank of the Arax River in 2012. A previous complex of temples (189/188 BC) was destroyed at the beginning of the 1st century during the campaign led by the Roman general Corbulo. A new temple was built on the ruins of the former one during the reign of Tiridates I of Armenia in the 1st century AD. Six large steps (4.85 m) led to the eastern entrance to the temple. The walls were decorated with low relief sculptures. After Christianity was adopted as the state religion, the new temple was destroyed. The public baths (see image here) were located to the northeast of the temple and were built between the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd. Some of the rooms were covered with mosaic floors.
Artaxata was captured by Corbulo in AD 58 and was razed to the ground the following year. However, Emperor Nero recognized Tiridates I as king of Armenia in AD 66 and granted him 50 million sesterces to help in the reconstruction of the ruined city. According to Roman writers, the city was temporarily renamed Neronia, in honour of its sponsor, Nero.
Artaxata was again taken in AD 114 by Roman emperor Trajan who deposed the Armenian king Partamasiri and ordered the annexation of Armenia to the Roman empire as a new province. Trajan stationed two army divisions in Armenia and built a fort at Artaxata to ensure Armenia stayed a Roman province and did not become absorbed into the Persian empire. A stone inscription of the Fourth Scythian Roman Legion survives from this period and lists the various honorary titles of Trajan. The 8 m long inscription was found north of the city, outside the walls and is now displayed in the History Museum of Armenia at Yerevan.
Artashat was sacked again in AD 166 by Romans troops who established a garrison at nearby Vagharshapa which shortly afterwards replaced Artaxata as the Armenian capital, at least for a time. Artaxata was destroyed in the 5th century and thereafter rapidly declined as the Armenian capital became fixed at nearby Dvin with its stones taken to build the new capital. It is also believed that the changing course of the Araxes river led to the permanent abandonment of the site.
Although the entire site has been elaborately mapped, only two of the twelve hills have been excavated completely: hill 1, which seems to have been a military barrack and outpost; and hill 8, which consists of domestic quarters with private baths. Four hills were destroyed by intensive blasting for marble quarrying in the Soviet period, and the remaining hills have been investigated only partially or not at all.