Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia: History and Description of Etchmiadzin Church
Every confession (branch) of Christianity has its own especially revered shrines. In Armenia such a place is Echmiadzin Cathedral that should be visited by every believer. In order to understand how sacred is this place for Armenians one can draw parallels with the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Vatican City. That is why the ancient city of Vagharshapat, where the cathedral is located, deservedly belongs to the category of world’s main sacred places and heritage of humanity.
Christianity was recognized here as a state religion among the first in the world back in the IV century AD. This period in history will always be crucial and fundamental for the believing population. It was the time when the foundations of the Armenian Apostolic Church were being laid, when the culture and traditions of the country were being formed. The cathedral appeared at the dawn of religion, and has a direct bearing on the most momentous events in the history of the state.
Echmiadzin church in Armenia is considered the first Christian cathedral. It was built on the ruins of a pagan temple, which symbolized the conversion of the whole country to a new religion. With such a venerable age, the place has become covered with legends and tales inherent in all ancient structures.
The great king and the first Catholicos of all Armenians
The erection of the cathedral marked a key event in the religious life of Armenians. From that moment on, Christianity once and for all became an official creed.
The two key figures in these events were King Trdat (or Tiridat) III the Great and the first Catholicos of All Armenians, Gregory the Illuminator.
The history of the formation of Christianity dates back to the time of Khoros II and is filled with mythologized events.
In the 3rd century, when Khosrov II (father of Trdat III) was king of Armenia, the foreign policy was confrontation with neighboring Persia. In 252 the king became a victim of this conflict. By order of the Persian Shah Shapur I the ruler was assassinated by the mercenary Anak of Parthia. In the heat of the moment the murderer was captured by the king’s military chiefs and put to death together with his family. As fate would have it, the children of the murdered ruler, Trdat the only heir to the throne and the younger son of Anak the future Catholicos Gregory survived.
Trdat was hastily taken to Rome, where he grew up and was educated. He highly honored Roman law, became an eminent expert in military affairs, and was well versed in languages. In 287, the Roman emperor Diocletian (known as a fierce persecutor of Christians) recognized Trdat as king of Armenia and helped him return to his homeland to ascend the throne.
At the same time, another surviving child, along with his nurse, resides in Caesarea of Cappadocia, where he is brought up in strict Christianity and receives the name Gregory Lusavorich when anointed. The unsuccessful marriage prompted Gregory to decide to go to Rome to serve Trdat, as he wished to make amends with his father before the royal family.
The writings of Armenian historians tell us that when Trdat III returned to Armenia accompanied by Roman legions, Gregory was already among his associates. During the ritual of sacrifice at the temple of the pagan goddess of fertility and love Anahit, Gregory refuses to participate in the ceremony and preaches the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Because of this act and, as it turned out later, his relationship with the murderer of Khosrov II, he was put in the Khor Virap death cell, where he was imprisoned for 13 years. The first legend is associated with Lusavorich’s release.
Saint Hripsime and the King’s divine cure
According to legend, in those days thirty-three fugitive Roman nuns who were hiding from the persecution of Emperor Diocletian found refuge near Vagharshapat. Tiridates III fell in love with one of them, a girl named Hripsimia. After she refused to marry him and convert to paganism, the rebellious refugee and all her friends were martyred by order of the king. There are sources in the historical chronicle that state that one of the nuns did manage to escape. She turned out to be Saint Nina – the Christian educator of Georgia, revered there in the name of the Equal Apostles.
After the execution of the nuns the king experienced a severe shock, which led to severe nervous illness. He lost his mind, and no healer could cure him. At the same time, his sister Khosrowadukht repeatedly has the same dream, in which she sees a man who can help the king get rid of his illness. And that man turns out to be the prisoner Grigory. Out of despair and a desire to return to full life Trdat agrees to free the prisoner.
Grigorius first mourned for the martyred virgins killed by the king and conducted a Christian funeral (a temple was later erected on the site). The latter, in his turn, repented of his pagan atrocities, acknowledged one God, was baptized, and declared Christianity to be an official religion. The pagans were now persecuted.
In honor of the new religion in the country King Trdat III and Gregory the Illuminator organized the construction of Echmiadzin cathedral, which in Armenian means “the Only begotten descended”. And why Armenia’s first Christian temple got such a name, the following legend will tell you.
The fire hammer and the willow branch
When choosing a place for the temple Gregory the Illuminator for a long time could not decide, there were always reasons for a new search. Subsequently, however, he had a vision: Jesus Christ himself descended from heaven with a flaming hammer in his hand and pointed to a pagan temple near the royal palace. The temple was destroyed and new construction started on its ruins.
The area turned out to be waterlogged, and the building process was slow and problematic. Then the Only Begotten One (God’s Son Jesus Christ) appeared to the Catholicos for the second time already with a golden willow branch and told him that the place was cursed with evil spirits which he must dispel. Gregory performed the rite of exorcism with a plucked branch of willow, and nothing prevented the further construction of the city’s main cathedral. Thanks to his visions, the choice of name happened of its own accord.
And the cathedral was in fact built on water. This is evidenced by the miraculous hoard inside the temple, which is 7 meters deep.
The faithful come here to drink the healing miraculous water. Moreover, the underground waters of the temple were used by the ancient builders to protect the walls of the structure from frequent earthquakes. The stones in the foundation are installed in such a way that even with strong underground shocks do not let the sanctuary collapse.
An interesting fact is that the water level in the well never changes, regardless of weather conditions and the amount of water consumed.
History of reconstruction and fate
The construction of the first Christian temple in Armenia took place at the beginning of the IV century. But it was not always like this. During its long history the walls of the temple have undergone considerable changes.
5th century relocation of the residence of the Catholicosate
The cathedral took its modern appearance not at once. Originally it was a rectangular wooden basilica. There was not even a dome, which is typical for the first Christian constructions. After decades, during the reign of Prince Vardan Mamikonian, the temple acquired a cruciform shape with a dome in the center. Under the same prince the Armenian Patriarchal throne from Echmiadzin (or Vagharshapat, as it was called at that time) was transferred to the city of Dvin. After the wars of national liberation with the Persians in 484 the new capital became a major economic and cultural center of the state. But nevertheless, the cathedral of Echmiadzin in Armenia turned into a rich monastic complex.
Further the spiritual center passed from hand to hand until in 1441 it returned to its historical place. That period of the 14th-15th centuries is marked as an era of crisis of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
7th century stone facades
In the 7th century, under Catholicos Komitas, the temple was completely reconstructed. New ceilings, arches and a new dome were added – all made of stone. Thus, the outlines of the building, close to those that we see today, were established. Archaeological analysis and the study of the cathedral’s vaults and walls have helped reveal the differences in construction techniques on the facades containing masonry from the fifth to the seventeenth centuries. Scholars have identified a significant portion, namely the entire lower zone of exterior masonry up to the 2/3 height level, which is attributed to the reconstruction of the cathedral dating back to the 7th century.
Saint Etchmiadzin is not only the Cathedral.
It is a huge monastic complex, as it houses, among other things, three other churches:
- St. Ripsime;
- Saint Gayane;
The construction of these temples also dates back to the VII century, except for the last one, its construction dates back to the XVII century.
XVII-XVIII centuries new large-scale construction
Many current forms of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral are unanimously attributed by scientists to the period of the XVII-XVIII centuries. At that time the complex was in the center of attention, becoming an object of constant care. It was restored and equipped.
The main works consisted in the following:
- The three-tiered bell tower at the west entrance was rebuilt;
- Six-column rotundas were erected on three sides;
- frescoes on the interior walls were created (artists Nagash Hovnatan and Hovnatan Hovnatanian);
- The main dome was restored;
- The complex includes a printing house, a refectory, a monastery hotel, and the house of the Catholicos.
19th century and modern times: The Caucasian War and its aftermath
During the Caucasian War (during the Russian-Persian War of 1804-1813) the neighborhoods of Echmiadzin suffered greatly. By the end of the 17th century Armenian communities of the Northern Black Sea Region were already part of the Russian Empire. The dioceses that were in Persian territory, sought to get rid of the power of Persia and get the support of Christian Orthodox Russia.
The established Armenian volunteer detachments played a significant role in the victories of the Russian troops in Transcaucasia. In 1828 Eastern Armenia was incorporated into the Russian Empire and, as a result, the Armenian Apostolic Church, due to its confessional features, had a special position in the state, supported by Emperor Nicholas I.
At the beginning of the 20th century a significant event happened in the life of the Armenian Apostolic Church. On June 12, 1903 a decree was issued on the confiscation of the church property in favor of the state. However, the Catholicos Mkrtich I led a massive protest campaign of the Armenian people and in 1905 managed to cancel the plundering decree.
As for the construction works, the appearance of a school, sacristy (storage of church utensils and sacred relics) and a stone pond on the territory of the complex are attributed here.
In the middle of the XX century the cathedral was also massively restored:
- columns and arches were reinforced;
- the dome is lined with lead;
- a new marble altar was built;
- the interior frescoes were renewed;
- a marble floor was laid.
Funds for the restoration were donated by Alec Manoogian, president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union. This man rose to fame as the most influential and wealthy businessman of his time.
Since 2000 the complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
At present Echmiadzin Cathedral remains the spiritual and administrative center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. At present the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians is Garegin II.
The territory of the complex is vast. Church services, sightseeing tours, training of future Armenian priests take place here. The place is the main shrine of the country, and is very popular not only among Armenians, but foreign tourists from all over the world.
A visit to the complex will allow you to see:
- The Cathedral;
- The residence of Catholicos;
- The Theological Academy;
- Patriarchal chambers and monastic cells;
- “Kazarapat” (hotel);
- a printing-house;
- King Trdat’s Gate;
- the monument to the victims of the 1915-1922 Armenian Genocide; the
- numerous cross-stones (stone steles with a carved image of a cross) from different eras.
A unique place is the Spiritual Academy (Theological Seminary of Gevorgian). This is an institution of higher learning for those who wish to devote themselves to the service of the Armenian Church. During the following five years the students study languages, world history, psychology and philosophy. Free accommodation, food, health care and writing materials are provided for the students. Details are available at armenianchurch.ru.
Architecture and interior
We would like to begin the description with the design of the central entrance to the religious complex. The entrance is a massive gate with four arches, and a symbolic altar in the open air (established in 2001, by the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia). On the street side here are depicted the founders of the Etchmiadzin temple – Trdat and Gregory.
Externally the cathedral represents five-domed temple of the cruciform form with the main dome, chapel and three rotundas on six columns on perimeter. The basic part of the building looks monolithic with small and not numerous window apertures. The buildings of the second level (rotundas) and the central dome decorated with stone carving add airiness to the exterior. The bell tower is also notable for its opulent decoration.
A distinctive feature of the cathedral’s architecture is the presence of three altars – the central, northern and southern. The central altar (Altar of the Descent) is presented here more as a sacred place – it was here that the fiery hammer of Christ in the vision of Gregory the Illuminator struck. The other two are used for church services and rites.
The interior decoration dates back to the eighteenth century, but in Soviet times the wall paintings have already been restored. In addition to numerous ornaments, there are frescoes with scenes from Holy Writ, portraits of saints and apostles (there are 120 of them in total).
The Treasury of Holy Etchmiadzin
A rich museum, both literally and figuratively, with unique exhibits deserves special attention. Besides articles of clothing, interiors and gold and silver ritual objects, generously adorned with precious stones, here one can see Longinus’ spear and Noah’s Ark relics, ancient coins and sacred manuscripts and many more interesting and sacred for a believer exhibits.
Each exhibit has a specific meaning. For example, the spear of Longinus (which pierced Christ) and the right hand of Gregory the Illuminator are used for the rite of sanctification of myrrh, which is held here every seven years. Myrrh is a specially prepared aromatic oil that is used to anoint the human body during the sacred sacraments. The priests prepare for the ritual forty days in advance. A cauldron of olive oil is placed on the altar where the rites and prayers are conducted. Decoctions of 44 herbs and balsam are prepared separately. On the solemn day, all the components are mixed together and stirred with three shrines – the life-giving cross, the right hand of Saint Gregory and the spear. It is believed that through this ritual, a bit of the blood of Jesus Christ is added to the ointment. 180 liters of oil are divided among all the parishes of the Republic and used for seven years until the next solemn rite.
Practical advice for visitors
The modern name of the city where the monastic complex is located is Vagharshapat (since 1992), but the previous name Echmiadzin may be used in common usage and on road signs. It is the fourth largest city in the country. You can get here by bus №203 from Yerevan from the bus station “Kilikia”. The travel time without traffic jams is about 25 minutes. Buses go from early morning to late afternoon. If you get there by car, take M5 interurban highway in the direction of Araratyan Street. GPS coordinates: 40.161821; 44.291035.
- The cathedral – daily 7:00-20:00;
- Museum – daily 10:30-17:00.
Since it is a functioning temple, the entrance to the grounds is free. But to visit the museum you need to buy a ticket.
There are many historical, cultural and natural attractions on the territory of Armenia. Here every guest, regardless of preferences, will find something interesting for himself. Religious sites, including Echmiadzin Cathedral, are the most impressive sights in Armenia. Thanks to this cathedral and other historical structures, the country has become a center of religious tourism.
The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is one of the most important landmarks of the country. Thousands of faithful pilgrims come here from all over the world to attend mysterious religious rites. The relics of Saint George and Saint Luke are kept here and on special dates and holidays believers have an opportunity to lay their hands on these relics.
Echmiadzin Monastery is the historical center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, where the residence of the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians is located. The construction of the Christian cathedral began back in 303, immediately after the official adoption of a new religion. The building was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the transition from paganism to Christianity. The temple is located 20 km from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Not far from the temple is no less famous monastery Khor Virap. The natives of Armenia sometimes call the monastery simply: “Vagharshapat”, “Universal Church” or “First Church”.
There are myths about the site on which the landmark is located:
- According to the first legend, St. Gregory the Illuminator had a vision. In it, Christ in a bright image descends from heaven and shows the Illuminator with a golden hammer the place where the first Armenian church should be built. This is where the name “Echmiadzin” comes from, which means “the only begotten descended” in Ancient Armenian.
- The second biblical myth says that on the twenty-seventh day of the seventh month Noah’s ark stopped on Mount Ararat. When Noah emerged from the ark, he prepared a sacrifice in the Ararat Valley and built an altar on what is now Holy Etchmiadzin.
The Christian cathedral was the center of ancient culture and education from the very beginning. It was here in the early 5th century, namely in 406, that St. Mesrop invented the first Armenian alphabet. Also, in cooperation with Catholicos Sahak, the Bible was translated here from Greek into Armenian. For centuries, even before the foundation of the first Republic of Armenia and the official declaration of Yerevan as its capital, Echmiadzin was tacitly recognized as the main national capital of all Armenians.
Interesting fact: “The functioning monastery is visited not only by artists, scholars and priests but by celebrities as well. American reality TV star Kim Kardashian and her sister Kourtney had their children baptized in this cathedral.”
What it looks like
Although the cathedral has undergone destruction over the centuries, followed by repairs, the current form of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral corresponds to the original illuminated drawing of the vision of Gregory the Illuminator. The church was restored over the centuries, especially in 484 during the reign of Prince Vahan Mamikonian and in 1658 during the reign of Catholicos Philip. Then the large bell tower of the western facade was built, and in 1869, during the reign of Catholicos George IV the museum part of the temple was built. In the past centuries the walls of Etchmiadzin Cathedral were covered with frescoes with scenes from Holy Scripture and images of especially revered saints, but part of the paintings were eventually lost. The frescoes inside the temple were done in the 18th century, during Persian rule. These magnificent painted walls are the work of the Hovnatanian family of artists.
In the 20th century, the most extensive major restoration of the temple was carried out:
- The columns and arches supporting the dome were reinforced;
- The dome itself was lined with lead;
- The new altar was built of marble;
- marble was also laid in the floor of the church;
- the paintings inside the church were renewed and enlarged.
The cruciform plan of the main monastery, with its four apses and central dome supported by four columns, is an outstanding contribution of Armenian church architecture to Christian culture. The central cross-shaped pillars divide the inner space into nine equally sized square bays. The Cathedral is 33 meters long, 30 meters wide and over 20 meters high. Echmiadzin Cathedral was rebuilt from local stone, which turned out to be very reliable – it practically does not react with erosion, regardless of weather conditions.
In the 19th century, during the architectural revival that turned to the past of Armenia, the plan of Etchmiadzin Cathedral began to be directly copied in the construction of new not only Armenian, but also European temples.
During such a long existence of the Echmiadzin monastery, other buildings were erected next to the main cathedral, viz:
- A printing house, founded in 1772;
- King Trdat’s Gate, erected in the 17th century;
- the clock tower;
- the Kazarapat Hotel, built in the mid-18th century;
- Monastery winter and summer refectories, where you can taste kufta – the national dish of the locals;
- The Treasure Museum of Alec and Marie Manoukian.
The cathedral has three entrances: the main entrance leads to the bell tower, the two other entrances are located in the southwest and northwest corners of the cathedral. The historic fourth entrance was traditionally located at the east corner where there is now a blank wall. The only evidence that there was a door here in ancient times is the existing upper arch. According to legend, King Trdat and his family entered the cathedral through this door. The ancient cathedral with its unique architectural style is already about one thousand seven hundred years one of the oldest Christian monuments in the world, as well as a sanctuary and a place of pilgrimage for Armenians living in Armenia and abroad.
An interesting fact: “Under the Echmiadzin temple there is a spring and a well, the water of which, according to legend, has miraculous properties. The depth of the well is about 7 meters. The water in the well is always at the same level, regardless of the season, humidity of the environment or weather changes”.
The monastery now
The Holy Etchmiadzin Monastery and other monastic centers for centuries contributed to the development of faith, culture, literature, science and art in Armenia. As mentioned earlier, in 1955 a historical museum was opened on the territory of the monastery. Three rooms, which now house the monastery museum, were added to the east side of the cathedral in 1869. Admission to the territory of the cathedral is free – if you enter the museum, you must buy a ticket.
The museum houses about 15,000 exhibits, which include:
- A collection of ancient artifacts and household items. Visitors can see in great detail how they used to cook, sit around the fire and discuss important matters.
- Works of art by famous Armenian artists and writers. The exhibits on display cover the period of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
- There is an unusually large collection of items of applied and decorative art related to the church: reliquaries, khonfalons of X-XVIII centuries.
- There is a wonderful collection of cross-stones from different periods of the formation of Armenia. There is also a modern cross-stone erected in memory of the Armenian genocide in 1915.
- Fragment from Noah’s Ark. According to ancient legend, it was carried by bishop Jacob after climbing Mount Ararat in the 4th century.
- The treasury, which contains the original tip of the spear that pierced the crucified Christ. The spear was brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus. Previously, the relic was kept in the picturesque religious monastery of Geghardavank.
A trip to Echmiadzin Cathedral is recommended to take a few hours, as this church of Armenia is a whole temple complex occupying a large territory. In addition to the monastery, the complex includes a patriarchal residence, the ruins of an ancient palace, a seminary and a concert hall. Complementing the whole cathedral composition is the beautiful nature of the region: the whole territory is planted with beautiful lush trees, a neat lawn and bright flower beds.
Interesting fact: “In 2000 Echmiadzin monastery and all the buildings around it were included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites”.