This excursion takes you to one of the oldest cities on the— Echmiadzin, the former capital of the Kingdom of Armenia (in the 2nd-4th centuries). In ancient times Echmiadzin was known as Vagarshapat. Echmiadzin is a mere 20 kilometres from Yerevan. To the left the snowy peak of Mt. Ararat crowns a chain of mountains with lush vineyards in their foothills. We are in the Ararat Valley — the granary of Armenia, an arid plain made fertile by a dense network of irrigation canals.
Even at first glance Echmiadzin is a pretty and cozy town, with homes made of tuff. The cathedral is its main attraction. Legend has it that it was here that Jesus Christ descended from heaven to show where he wanted a church built. It was subsequently named Echmiadzin, which means The Coming of the Only Begotten
. The Echmiadzin Cathedral
was the first Christian church on the territory of the Soviet Union.
What we see of the cathedral today (the main part) was built in the 480s on the very spot of the ancient church which, legend says, was built at the time Armenia was converted to Christianity in the early 4th century. The structure has been renovated several times and bears distinct marks of the artistic trends of different epochs. Only the bases of the four pylons that support the latest structure remain of the original cathedral built in the 5th century. A belfry was added, then three rotundas, and a sacristy. In the 17th-18th centuries the cathedral walls were decorated with paintings by members of the famous Ovnatanyan family of artists. There is a museum attached to the cathedral where all kinds of relics, manuscripts, church plate and gifts are kept.
Echmiadzin is the centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church and all the Armenian eparchies owe it spiritual allegiance. The rite of myrrh-making is held here every seven years and thousands of believers assemble for the occasion from all parts of the world. Near the cathedral is the residence of the incumbent patriarch, the Catholicos of all Armenians, Vazgen I. He was born in 1908 in Romania and was elected Catholicos in 1955.
For his efforts to reinforce peace among nations, Vazgen I has been decorated with the USSR's orders of the Red Banner of Labour, of the Friendship of Nations and the Badge of Honour. There is a kind of arch of triumph on the territory of the cathedral known as the "Gates of Tiridates" and processions from the residence of the Catholicos pass through it during church celebrations. Echmiadzin has a theological seminary and issues a church magazine named Echmiadzin
. One of the most honoured saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church gives her name to a superb church, a masterpiece of Armenian medieval architecture, at the entrance to the town of Echmiadzin. It is the Church of the Holy Virgin of Hripsime
. The legend of Hripsime takes us back to the early days of Christianity. Hripsime fled to Armenia with her friends in order to escape the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletianus. On hearing of the beauty of the Roman lady, the Armenian King Tiridates III ordered her to become his wife. But the Christian Hripsime could not bring herself to marry a pagan king and preferred the death of a martyr. A small chapel was erected where she was put to death. In the 7th century, Catholicos Komitas ordered the chapel pulled down and a majestic church was built in its place.
< The date the church was built (618) is recorded inside the church and outside, over its western entrance. Its clear-cut austerely majestic lines are very impressive and resemble a powerful fortress. Another noteworthy historical structure in Echmiadzin is the Church of St. Gayane
(630), built to honour Hripsime's wetnurse Gayane, who also died a martyr's death. It is located in a suburb in the south. Its tapering silhouette is etched on the snow white peak of Mt. Ararat in the distance. Unfortunately, the church has not retained its initial form. Only the interior has retained the austere purity of its original lines.