Christianity has it's Vatican City. Islam has Mecca and Medina. And the Armenian Apostolic Church has Etchmiadzin. Holy Echmiadzin (52,000 people) is the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the place where Surp Grigor Lusavorich (St Gregory the Illuminator) saw a beam of light fall to the earth in a divine vision, and where he built the first Mayr Tachar (Mother Church of Armenia).
For Armenian Christians, Echmiadzin (Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God) has unparalleled importance. Echmiadzin (sometimes spelt Ejmiatsin or Etchmiadzin) was the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340, when Christianity was first adopted by the Armenian nation. The seat of the Catholicos (patriarch of all Armenians) wandered across western Armenia for centuries before returning to the Mayr Tachar in 1441, with substantial rebuilding in the 15th century. The cathedral has sprouted more bell towers over the last 400 years, but the core is much as St Gregory's vision guided him. The Palace of the Catholicos in front of the Mayr Tachar is the home of the present Catholicos, Garegin II, enthroned in November 1999. He is the supreme prelate of the 1700-year-old Armenian Apostolic faith.
With wide tree-lined streets, a few designer shops and reasonably well-manicured parks, it was not the typical secondary city you might see in the region. Quite likely due to it's importance to the people and their religion.
The sizable Etchmiadzin Complex has a number of buildings to check out. The first of which is the Etchmiadzin Cathedral itself. The building, while it's reasonably ornate, it makes up for its lack of dazzle by just being old. And UNESCO seems to agree by awarding it a heritage listing. Religiously devout, as well as camera wielding tourist flood the church with lights from a seemingly endless supply of prayer candles. Literally busloads of people come to visit. For wedding photos or a guest in town or just to get out of Yerevan. Oh yeah, there's the whole praying thing, too. While not exactly peaceful, it is still a lovely place to sit and reflect. The site houses many important religious artifacts as well. They've even got something called Surp Geghard (Holy Lance). Supposedly, it was used to pierce the side of Christ on the way to Calvary. There's an image of the Crucifixion rumoured to have been carved by St. John. All of these factors make the site important enough to warrant a visit from Pope John Paul himself in 2001 (although being the most travelled Pope in history, it was only a matter of time before he got to Etchmiazdin).
The central square of the town is Komitas Square and a statue of Komitas by the same Ervand Kochar responsible for the eagle at Zvartnots was erected here in 1969.
Holy See of Echmiadzin - Ejmiatsin became the spiritual centre for Armenia's Christians shortly after the country's conversion in the early 4th century. On the basis of archaeological evidence the first monastery at Ejmiatsin was of the basilica form but it was rebuilt in the 480s on a cruciform plan with four free-standing piers, four projecting apses which are circular on the interior and polygonal on the outside, and with a cupola. It was this second church, with cupola, which corresponds to Agathangelos's report of Gregory's vision, a report which fixed in Armenian culture the idea that churches should be cruciform in shape and should have cupolas. Further rebuilding was carried out in the 7th century and Ejmiatsin remained the seat of the Katholikos until 1065 when the then Katholikos Gregory II was forced to flee by the Turkish Seljuk invaders who were ransacking monasteries. He moved to the Armenian principality of Cilicia (roughly the region of present-day Turkey around Adana and Tarsus at the extreme northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea) and the seat of the Katholikos remained there even after Cilicia fell to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1375. Ultimately in 1441 a council decided that the seat of the Katholikos should return to Ejmiatsin.
There are no records of any immediate reconstruction but the monastery was certainly in a very dilapidated state, with the roof in ruins and some facing stones having fallen, when in 1627 renovation eventually started. A wall was built around the precinct at this time and numerous service buildings were added. However, these were mostly destroyed in 1635-36 during the wars between Persia and Turkey for domination over Armenia and further rebuilding was required. The large three-storey bell tower was built in 1654 over the western doorway. Three smaller six-column rotundas were added at the beginning of the 18th century; that at the southern apse collapsed in 1921 to be replaced by a new structure.
Accordingly what visitors see now is the site of a pagan temple used as the site for a new Christian monastery in the 4th century, rebuilt in a quite different style in the 5th century and then very extensively renovated in the 17th. The tambour with its decorative medallions and cupola, the elaborately carved bell tower, surrounding wall, service buildings and much of the exterior carving are pure 17th century. The cathedral is surrounded by gardens in which khachkars brought from different parts of greater Armenia have been erected. Entered from the north perimeter wall is an attractive new (2010) baptismal chapel with provision for both infant and adult baptism (by immersion). The Treasury Museum (as opposed to the museum in the cathedral) dates from 1869 and is one of the few Tsarist-era buildings here; the nearby seminary, closed during the Soviet period but reopened in 1997, is another. The carved wooden doors are also Tsarist-era and were made at Tbilisi in 1888. The oldest wall of the cathedral is the northern, which is 5th-century original. The exterior retains two 5th-century figured reliefs with Greek inscriptions, one showing St Thecia and St Paul, the other a cross flanked by two doves. The new gateway to the cathedral precinct commemorates the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2001.
In 1720, frescoes were added inside the cathedral but they were removed in 1891 only to be reinstated in 1956. The interior is still, as in ad480, dominated by the four massive free-standing pillars supporting the tambour. In the very centre is a stepped holy table bearing many candlesticks and crosses. Surrounded by a framework from which hang lamps and incense burners, it is said to mark the spot where the 'Only Begotten' appeared to St Gregory, telling him to build a church. The frescoes, the use of marble for floor and balustrade, the embroidered curtains, and the candles and crosses on the holy table give a much more decorative feel to the building than exists in any other church in Armenia.
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