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The main cathedral: Mayr Tachar

The main cathedral, Mayr Tachar, stands in a quadrangle of hedges and lawn surrounded by 19th-century buildings. By the main entrance at the southern end the large grey 2001 Papal Visit Monument, built for Pope John Paul II's visit and mass in 2001, stands next to the Gevorgian Seminary. The 19th-century seminary was closed in 1921 when Echmiadzin was swamped by refugees from the genocide, and it was forbidden to reopen under Soviet rule.

The main gate leads past the bookshop between buildings holding monastic cells to the central compound. Bearded clergymen in hooded black robes glide along the garden paths around the Mayr Tachar. The three-tiered bell tower at the entrance of the church is richly carved, and dates from 1648. Inside, the church is modest in scale, about 20m by 20m, but the roof gleams with frescoes. At the centre is an altar at the place where St Gregory saw the divine light strike the ground. At the rear of the church, through a door on the right of the altar, is the treasury (working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Sat, 1.30-5pm Sun). It houses 1700 years of treasure collected by the church, including the Holy Lance (Surp Geghard), the weapon used by a Roman soldier to pierce the side of Christ on his way to Calvary. It's a suitably brutish spearhead set into an ornate gold and silver casing. It was brought to Echmiadzin from Geghard Monastery. There is also an image of the Crucifixion, which, according to tradition, was carved by St John. The treasury has relics of the apostles Thaddeus, Peter and Andrew, some in hand or arm-shaped reliquaries, and fragments of the Holy Cross and Noah's Ark.

A door from the treasury leads under the main body of the church to a pagan shrine with a fire altar, seemingly left in situ in case this whole Christianity thing turned out to be a fad and the old faiths reasserted themselves. The shrine can be visited with a prior appointment through a travel agency, or with a bit of luck by asking one of the clerics in the treasury. The gardens of Mayr Tachar have a 1915-23 Genocide Monument and many fine khatchkars assembled from around the country. The archway leading to the Palace of the Catholicos was built by King Trdat III in the 4th century.

The Cathedral Museum (10.00-17.00, closed Mon, Sun it opens only after the end of the service - usually around 13.30 but later if there is something special such as an ordination; guided tours only) is reached through a door to the right of the altar dais. The museum isn't well labelled but English-speaking deacons are available who will also take visitors down to the old altar of the original pagan temple before requesting a donation. The treasury contains some curious items including what is claimed to be the lance which pierced the side of Christ, brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus and long kept at Geghard, the hand of St Gregory the Illuminator, wood from Noah's Ark (carbon-dated to 6,000 years old), a drop of St Hripsime's blood and similar relics as well as more ordinary ecclesiastical pieces. Interested visitors can also arrange in advance (through a tour operator in Yerevan) for admission to the separate Treasury Museum in the Old Residence where a similar collection of historic ecclesiastical items is displayed.

The cathedral shop (09.00-18.00 daily), on the left as one enters the precinct, has a wide range of books and a selection of tasteful souvenirs. At the time of writing several buildings were under construction in and around the cathedral grounds: a tower-like chapel to the northwest (to be dedicated to the archangels Gabriel and Michael) for the use of seminary students, a guesthouse and charity hospital on land between the cathedral and St Gayane and, to the southwest, an educational building which will also house a display of manuscripts from the Matenadaran.

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