The first traces of human occupation date back to the 3rd millennium BC and are concentrated in an easily defensible terrain at one of the bends of the Azat river. In the 8th century BC the area was conquered by the Urartian king Argishti I. The first literary testimony to the existence of a fortress on the spur crowning the site of Garni comes from the Roman historian Tacitus and dates from the middle of the 1st century AD. Excavation of the existing remains was conducted for a brief period in 1909-1910 and was later resumed (1949) by Soviet archaeologists. The results have shown that the actual fortification had been erected much earlier, probably sometime in the 3rd century BC as a summer residence for the Armenian Orontid and Artaxiad royal dynasties. The fortress of Garni (Gorneas in Latin) became the last refuge of king Mithridates of Armenia, where he and his family were assassinated by his son in law and nephew Rhadamistus. Several constructions and buildings have been identified within the enclosed area, including a two-storey royal summer palace, a bath complex, a church built in AD 897, a cemetery and the site's most famous and best preserved edifice, a peristyle Greco-roman temple built in the Ionic order. Of particular interest is the bathhouse located in the northern part of the site. It as a well preserved hypocaust and one of its floors is decorated with a mosaic reproducing a well known late Hellenistic iconographic type. It bore depictions of Greek mythological figures and personifications, such as Tethys, Oceanus, Thetis (Achilles's mother), Aigialos (literally sea-shore, spelled ΕΓΙΑΛΟΣ on the actual mosaic). The accompanying inscription, written in Koine Greek, ΜΗΔΕΝ ΛΑΒΟΝΤΕΣ ΗΡΓΑΣΑΜΕΘΑ (we worked without receiving anything) implies that the artists responsible for the construction of the mosaic received no fee for their labour.
The systematic excavation of the site has unearthed six successive occupation layers. The earliest traces of habitation date back to the eneolithic period. A Bronze Age and a Classical layer followed by three distinct medieval layers complete the occupation history of the site. The fortification circuit is built of large basalt blocks weighing up to 6 tones. The curtain wall has been cleared to a length of 314 meters revealing a series of rectangular towers, two of which border the ancient entrance gate.
The peristyle temple is situated at the edge of the existing cliff. It was excavated in 1909-1910 but the full publication of its architecture appeared only in 1933. It has been surmised that it was constructed in the 1st century AD by the King Tiridates I of Armenia, probably funded with money the king received from emperor Nero during his visit to Rome. The actual building is a peripteros temple resting on an elevated podium and was most likely dedicated to the god Mithras. The entablature is supported by 24 Ionic columns resting on Attic bases. Unlike other Greco-Roman temples, it is made of basalt. According to a different interpretation of the extant literary testimonia and the evidence provided by coinage, the erection of the temple started at AD 115. The pretext for its construction would be the declaration of Armenia as a Roman province and the temple would have housed the imperial effigy of Trajan. In recent years another theory has been put forward. It has been suggested that the building must actually be identified as the tomb of an Armeno-Roman ruler, probably Sohaemus. If that is the case, its construction would be dated in AD 175. The temple was eventually sacked in 1386 by Timur Lenk. In 1679 it was destroyed by an earthquake. Most of the original architectural members and building blocks remained at the site until the 20th century, allowing the building to be reconstructed between 1969 and 1975.
After the adoption of Christianity some churches and a katholikos' palace were also constructed at the fortification site, but these are now in ruins like most of the other buildings except the temple.
Other sites of Garni outside the fortification site include churches of Mother of God and St. Mashtots as well as ruins of the Havuts Tar monastery several kilometers south east from the village. Much of the population descends from people settled in the population exchange of 1829-1830, following the Treaty of Turkmenchay between Russia and Persia.
- Garni Temple at GEOnet Names Server
- World Gazeteer: Armenia – World-Gazetteer.com
- Kiesling, Rediscoving Armenia, p. 51, available online at the US embassy to Armenia's website
- Report of the results of the 2001 Armenian Census, National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia
- Kiesling, Brady (2005), Rediscovering Armenia: Guide, Yerevan, Armenia: Matit Graphic Design Studio