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Visit Echmiadzin: the holy city of Armenia

Etchmiadzin is, together with Jerusalem, the holiest city for the Armenians. Here you will find some of the oldest churches in the world and the area has a very high concentration of monuments listed as World Heritage sites. This is also the community where the supreme authorities of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catolicós, live. For the Armenians, the Catolicós are equivalent to the Pope.

Aside from all of that, there is also an interesting museum here dedicated to the local painter Mher Abeghyan. (2 Atabekyan Poghots Street, from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.) You can visit the History and Ethnography Museum as well. It is in the square central and is open on Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visting these museums are not compulsory, but if you are interested in getting to know the culture of the country a little better, you may want to check them out along the way.

Etchmiadzin is 19 kilometres (11 miles) from Yerevan. It has around 57,000 inhabitants and there are good connections with the capital by marshrutka. It is a typical half-day trip from the capital.

A Little Bit of History

Etchmiadzin has been inhabited for thousands of years and was the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia between the 2nd and 4th centuries. With the adoption of Christianity, it became the spiritual heart of the nation.

It has always been quite important for Armenians and it this spot has also witnessed some of the milestones which marked the history of the nation. It has changed its name several times and was once called Artimed, as well as Vardgesavan.

Under the reign of Vagharsh I (117-144), during the Arsacid dynasty, the city was renamed Vagharshapa. This is actually the official name of the area, but everyone here refers to it with the name of its cathedral: Etchmiadzin.

During the Soviet period, the city suffered the construction fever of the communist authorities who left behind squared street plans, wide avenues and apartment blocks mixed with detached family houses.

What to See?

The city of Etchmiadzin in itself does not have a lot of charm. Straight streets, blocks of Soviet buildings, and all that. However, Etchmiadzin has a high concentration of World Heritage sites and that makes it really worth a visit. If you arrive by road on public transport, we recommend you visit important landmarks in the following order:

Saint Hripsime Church (World Heritage).

This is located at the entrance to Etchmiadzin and you can tell the marshrutka’s driver to let you disembark directly at the temple.

Saint Hripsime Church dates from the 618 and was built with volcanic tufa in the place where a small chapel stood before. This spot was also where the tortured body of Hripsime was found.

Legend has it that Hripsime was a beautiful nun. She had to flee from Rome, along with 36 other religious sisters, when she refused to marry the emperor who had fallen madly in love with her. They arrived in the lands of Armenia and when King Tirdates saw her, he also fell madly in love.

The young woman had to flee again, but the monarch found her and he ordered for her to be stoned to death together with her companions. Not the best way to look after who you love.

The relics of the Virgin are in a small crypt in the back of the sanctuary.

Beside the tomb, there is a small display cabinet where you can see the rocks with which Hripsime was stoned to death. Apparently, only one of her companions, Saint Nino, survived the persecution. She fled to Georgia where she became the woman who introduced the faith of Christ in the neighbouring country. But that is another story.

Shoghakat Church (World Heritage)

This tourist spot is not far from the temple of Saint Hripsime. It was built in 1694 on an old vineyard from which some vines still survive in the garden of the basilica.

Saint Marine is buried in one of the side chapels. She was another nun murdered at the hands of the spiteful monarch.

Compared to the other temples of the city, Shoghakat pales in terms of antiquity, but it is still worth a visit in order to see the effect of the sun’s rays sneaking into the sanctuary through the openings in the dome. Its name literally means “the drops of lightning “.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral (World Heritage Site)

This is the oldest cathedral in the world and the most sacred place in Armenia. It was completed in 303 by King Tirdates III following the recommendations of Gregory the Illuminator. It is believed that Jesus appeared to him in a dream and He indicated where the temple had to be raised by pointing to the specific place with lightning bolts that He created with a hammer.

Everything indicates that the exact place where these rays fell is just below the dome and that there was a pagan sanctuary of Urartian civilization there once. The building has undergone many modifications over time and it has gradually expanded.

There is another legend that says that Tirdates III himself brought the rocks for its construction loaded on his back from Mount Masis while the saint walked behind him, praying. Suddenly, the king began to get fed up with the chants and he told his companion: “I am not tired of carrying the stones, but of listening to your prayers.”

At that very time, Gregory stopped saying his prayers and all of a sudden, the king’s legs could no longer move, as if they were attached to the earth. Then Tirdates exclaimed: “Pray, please, keep on praying!”

There is a small museum inside where the spear that pierced the side of Christ and a piece of wood from the Ark of the Covenant are kept. If you are a curious person and you want to see what an Armenian rite mass is like, Sunday morning is the best day because the Catolicós himself is in charge of officiating it.

The mass starts at 11:00 a.m. but you should take it easy as the ceremony can last up to two and a half hours. It is true that the atmosphere that envelops the rite is completely different and, even if you are not a believer, it is a unique experience.

The cathedral is inside a religious site where the residence of the Catolicós is also situated, as well as a seminar, bookstores, museum, dining hall, cemetery, and a souvenir shop. It is like a small city inside a city.

Most of the buildings were built between the 17th and 19th centuries. The place also exhibits a beautiful collection of Khachkars (richly carved cross-stones). Some of them were rescued from the neighbouring enclave of Nakhichevan, which today belongs to Azerbaijan.

Saint Gayane Church (World Heritage Site)

This is located about three hundred metres south of the cathedral. You have to walk past the cemetery of the compound and leave the religious complex. This small church gives the feeling of being even older than the cathedral itself. However, it dates from the seventh century (some three centuries later).

It is a lugubrious and quiet temple with an austere interior where you can breathe an atmosphere of special devotion. It has three naves and a central dome. It was built in the place where it is believed that Saint Gayane, the mother superior who led the group of nuns who fled Rome, was buried after her torture.

Transportation

The city of Etchmiadzin is 12 miles from the capital and it is well connected through marshrutka. Most of them leave from Kilikia bus station every fifteen minutes, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (200 AMD)