Noratus cemetery is situated in the province of Gexarkunik, near the village of Noratus. The site has been occupied since the Bronze Age, as attested by the megalithic fort near the village and other artefacts dating to the Bronze and Iron Age. The present-day village was founded in 1829.
Noratus is mentioned in the historical sources as a “fortified village” (գիւղաքաղաք). In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the region belonged to the Zakarian family. It was the seat of their major-domo, called in the inscriptions demotar or meporel. In the sixteenth century, one of the four princes of the Gexarkunik, Barik Melik from the Azarian family, transferred his capital from Gandzak to Noratus.
There are two churches in this area: the first, dedicated to the Mother of God, is situated in the centre of the village and was founded in the ninth century by the prince Sahak. A great number of khatchkars and gravestones remain in the courtyard of the church, among which is the oldest known dated khatchkar, from 996, now on show in the Historical Museum in Yerevan.
The second church is situated on the southeast border of the cemetery and is dedicated to Saint Gregory. It is thought to date to the thirteenth century, although the inscriptions and architectural shape of the building suggest that it might date to the tenth century. On the western wall is an inscription of the prince Heracle Havnuni. According to the catholicos Simeon Yerevantsi, in the seventeenth century, the church was a female convent named Doputs-vank or Dopunts-vank, probably related to the name of Dopean family or to the female name Dopi.
The cemetery of Noratus is the largest in the territory of Armenia. After the cemetery of Julfa in the Nakhichevan Province (now on the territory of Azerbaijan) was destroyed by Azeri nationalists between 1998 and 2006, Noratus became the largest Armenian cemetery in the world – it spreads over a seven-hectare field.
Noratus is one of the few historical settlements in Armenia that has been continuously inhabited up to the present day. Consequently, the cemetery has been used from as early as the Early Christian period up to the modern day, as is indicated by the remains the funerary stelae dating back to the sixth or seventh century, and tomb-stones of a more recent date.
The cemetery bears valuable epigraphic and prosopographic data on both the khatchkars and the tombstones. Besides the epitaphs containing the names and sometimes the titles of the deceased, several tombstones in the cemetery depict carved scenes of banqueting and hunting. These could indicate the royal or noble affiliation of the owner or owners.
The cemetery of Noratus is a unique, extraordinary collection of khatchkars, containing more than 900 pieces from the ninth or tenth to the eighteenth centuries; the majority of the khatchkars were erected between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. This type of cemetery is also called a “khatchkar-forest”. Most of the khatchkars are grouped, indicating the burial place of different families. There are also tiny graves or rectangular mausoleums carrying cross stones – as also occur in Haghbat, Goshavank, and Makaravank. Some of the khatchkars stand on pedestals, with some among them reaching a height of 1.5m.
Many khatchkars were carved during the revival of the khatchkar tradition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bearing witness to oriental influences widespread in Armenian art during the rule of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia.
Khatchkars are considered to be the most characteristic Armenian artwork, occurring throughout the country.
The history of these sculptures go back to Early Christian times and they arguably relate to a specific monument: that of the monumental decorated cross on the rock of Golgotha. This cross marked not only the site of the Crucifixion, but also and especially it commemorated the Vision of the Cross in the sky of Jerusalem, in 351. The vision was interpreted as the Sign of the Second Coming which would announce the general resurrection of mankind, the Last Judgment, and eternal life. They were icons of the cross, commemorating both the relic of the holy wood and the sign. That is why the first and main purpose of the cross-stones was funerary. The appearance of the early katchkars, dating back to the ninth to eleventh centuries, with a cross standing on the hill of Golgotha and framed by an arch, refers to the real architectural structure in Jerusalem. Figures of leaves, bunches of grapes, pomegranates, and apricots are also typical elements included in the composition.
Then, from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on, the khatchkar developed a more or less defined iconography and arrangement. The composition of khatchkars changed too, with ornament covering the whole surface of the stone while the image of the cross itself is transformed into a decorative tree of life, dissolved in soft, sophisticated ornamental embroidery. Several motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, and stylised vegetal details were added.
Inspired certainly by the minor arts, the khatchkar is perhaps the most sensitive and flexible Armenian religious monument, reflecting the interchanges of different artistic patterns, stylistic currents and influences, thereby connecting art histories.