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Zvarnots Cathedral

Leaving Yerevan along a road lined with furniture shops whose wares are hauled outside each morning and then hauled back at the close of business, the first point of less commercial interest is the ruin of the huge Church of St George at Zvartnots ('Celestial Angels'). It lies to the south of the road and the entrance driveway is marked by elaborate gates and an eagle with a ring in its beak gazing back over its shoulder, the work of the famous artist and sculptor Ervand Kochar. The church, built between 643 and 652 by Katholikos Nerses III, is believed to have been a three-storey structure but modern artists' impressions of its appearance are inevitably conjectural.

The ruins of the church (working hours 10am-5pm) of Surp Grigor Lusavorich (St Gregory the Illuminator) at Zvartnots are different to every other set of ruins in Armenia. Catholicos Nerses II the Builder (building might have been his profession before joining the clergy) sponsored construction of the cathedral. Reputedly one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it housed relics of St Gregory, the first Catholicos of the Armenian Church.

Intended to surpass even Ejmiatsin Cathedral by its grandeur, it is usually thought of as having been circular but in reality had 32 equal sides. Decorated with frescoes, it was destroyed, probably by an earthquake in 930, to be lost under layers of dirt and debris and even the location was forgotten until its rediscovery in the early 20th century. Some limited reconstruction has been carried out, but protests have caused plans for a more thorough one to be held in abeyance. Inside the church the apse is now at a lower level than the main floor and there is what appears to be a baptistry in the floor reached by going down some steps, although it is now labelled as the reliquary of St Gregory Lusovorich, ie: the Illuminator.

A model of the partially reconstructed church in the Museum of Armenian History in Yerevan shows it to have been a round creation with a hood-shaped dome 45m high. An earthquake in 930 caused the building to collapse. An arc of finely carved pillars and a massive stone floor are what remains, along with a profusion of decorated stone fragments. Architecture historians argue over whether the reconstruction in the Armenian History Museum is really true to the church's original design. Either way, the pillars evoke a feeling for a Greek- and Roman-influenced Levantine Christianity similar to many early-Syrian church ruins. A pool in the centre of the building was used to baptise adults.

At present the area on the east side is being used for laying out various stones according to which storey of the building they are thought to belong. There is some interesting sculptured decoration amongst the ruins, including one capital on the southeast pillar carved with a fine representation of an eagle; beyond the ruins can be seen the remains of other buildings including Nerses's Palace and a winery with vats sunk into the ground. To the west, walls stand to a height of 1.5m. At the southwest corner of the site is the museum.

Around the cathedral are the ruins of the palace of the Catholicos and the wine press and stone tanks of a massive medieval winery. Zvartnots lies in rich farmlands and orchard just south of the Echmiadzin-Yerevan highway, next to the delightfully named village of Ptghunk, 17km from Yerevan and 4km from the centre of Echmiadzin. It's easy to catch public transport either way along the highway.

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