echmiadzin
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"Echmiadzin Cathedral"
© 2001 Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved
Location in ArmeniaEchmiadzin is the center of the Armenian Church. It is where the Katholikos Of All Armenians lives, and the location of Echmiadzin Church. The church, built in 480, is located in a walled compound with gardens and various structures. Echmiadzin means The coming of the only begotten because it was built were people said Jesus Himself descended from heaven to show where He wanted a church built. It is a scenic place to visit. The main church structure is pretty large, however the majority of the interior is dedicated to uses other than worship and the area you enter is much smaller than the size of the entire building. It is a traditional Armenian design with a belfry and a number of rotundas. Most of the exterior is plain until you make it around to the entrance which is intricately carved and very beautiful. You must not leave until you get into the Manougian Museum. (Entrance through the large arch across from the cathedral entrance) This structure contains numerous cool paintings, souvenirs, religious artifacts, and illuminated manuscripts so insist on seeing it. Another secret is a fire pit beneath the altar. This is where pagans worshipped fire before Christianity. It is in the small museum in the main cathedral, with the entrance to the right of the altar. There are some religious artifacts in display cases, but you usually need to ask to be shown the fire worshipping pit, at which time a small donation is hinted at. Above the door which descends into the fire pit area is the lance ("Gaghard") which is said to have peirced Christs side. The original structure was added to so much over the years that not much remains now. There was an even earlier church on the same site which was supposed to have been built when Armenia was converted to Christianity. Echmiadzin was however the oldest church in the USSR. Make sure to wander around the gardens to get a look at the carvings and khatchkars.  There is a nice gift shop by the entrance to the compound.  Outside of the complex there are many places to get an ice cream or snack.  When facing the entrance gate to the Echmiadzin compound, you can instead of going in, head to the right to the traffic square.  That square is surrounded by very nice models of some Armenian churches throughout the country.  There is a picture of me in front of the model of G'ndevank below.

-Raffi Kojian


Echmiadzin (known as Vagarshapat before 1945) was founded by King Vagarshak (117—140) in the place of Vardkesavan. an ancient settlement of the third-second centuries B.C. In view of the might of the town’s fortifications—fortress walls, ramparts and moats — the Romans, upon the second destruction of Artashat in 163, transferred the capital of Armenia to Vagarshapat which, after Christianity was proclaimed the state religion in 301, became the country’s religious centre as well.

Vagarshapat was repeatedly destroyed by enemies. In particular. it was left in ruins by Persian troops in 364—369. However, the improvement of economic welfare in the long periods between wars made it possible to do extensive construction work and to erect in the town large structures which played an extraordinary role in the development of national architecture.

On the territory of Vagarshapat there have survived monuments of various periods of Armenia’s history. Urartu arrows have been found in the temples of Zvartnots and Echmiadzin. and remnants of an ancient hearth of a heathen tabernacle — in the altar part of the latter. Greek and Latin epigraphic inscriptions, cut on tombstones, datc back to the epoch of the Armenian Hellenistic culture. Architectural fragments, found by chance, such as an ornamented cornice in the masonry of the foundation of Hripsime church, are evidence of a high artistic standard of the structures of that time.

"Echmiadzin - Altar"
© 2000 Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved
Echmiadzin cathedral was the main Christian temple of Vagarshapat. Gayane. Hripsimch, Shogakat and other churches, built at various times in place of small and not too expressive fourth-century chapels, complement it from the point of view of architecture and layout. Situated relatively close to Echmiadzin cathedral, they are perceived as important components of a single architectural ensemble which changed after each new temple was built. The low residential structures all around set off to the best advantage the grandeur of these edifices and their domination in various parts of the city.

Echmiadzin cathedral (“the place where the homogeneous come together”) is the most ancient Christian temple of Armenia. It was built in 301—303 by Grigor Lusagorich (Gregory the Enlightener), the founder of the Armenian Gregorian church. next to the kings palace, in place of a destroyed heathen basilica. The monastery which took shape around the cathedral is the residence of Katholikos. the head of the Armenian clergy.

Scientists’ opinions as to the original appearance of Echmiadzin cathedral vary. According to T. Toramanian’s hypothesis, the cathedral had the shape of a basilica at the beginning of the fourth century and, after reconstruction at the end of the fifth century, its plan became rectangular, with a four-apse cross and rectangular corner annexes fitted into it. The building had five domes. In the seventh century the apses were moved outside the limits of the rectangle, which gave the building the cross-cupola outside shape.

Proceeding from the material of excavations, however, A. Sainyan established that the basilical composition of the original temple was changed to cross-shaped one with the central dome in 483. What remained of the basilica were only small vari-coloured cubes in the altar apse (remnants of the stone and small mosaics, often gilded, which decorated it) and the bases of four pylons which were used as the inner abutments of the central-dome building. That was one of the most ancient Christian temples of that type, which played a tremendous role in shaping the concentric buildings of the early Christian period in Armenia and which makes it possible to ascertain the origin and classification of types.

At the beginning of the seventh century the building’s wooden dome, probably octohedral and shaped like the roof of the Armenian peasant home (as the domes of Khaikavanke and Horashene churches in Van) was replaced by a stone one. This composition of the cathedral has come down to our day almost unchanged.

The cupola’s abutments, cross-shaped in plan, are connected with each other and with the walls by arches underlying the vaults — cross-shaped in the coiner sections and semi-circular in the middle sections; the apses arc crowned with conchs. The arrangement of the ceilings at various levels causes the interior to taper off to the central dome. Harmonious proportions and sharpness of individual elements impart great artistic expressiveness to the interior whose shapes are simple and clear-cut. The building’s outward appearance. which underwent certain changes in the a7th and subsequent centuries, was no less clear-cut.

In the 17th century (1653—1658), for instance, a new cupola and a three-tier belfry were built, the latter in front of the western entrance to the cathedral. The decoration of the cupola and, especially, of the belfry is in sharp contrast with the ascetic shapes of the ancient parts of the cathedral.
  In accordance with the artistic tasks of that epoch, they were decorated with abundant decorative carvings. The ornaments are not only geometrical. but floral as well, the latter taking up large spaces. The columns of the arcature of the cupola drum and of the lower tiers of the belfry are twisted. The representations of ox and snake heads are of symbolic significance. In the corners of the gables of the belfry's facades there are busts of clergymen; on the vaulted ceilings — sixwinged seraphs; and oil the medallions of the tympans of the dome’s arcature — saints.

"Echmiadzin - View under belltower"
© 2000 Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved
The six-column rotundas on four-pillar bases, built at the beginning of the 18th century over the northern, eastern and southern apses, have given the cathedral a five-dome crowning. The interior murals, created by the Armenian painter Nagash Ovnatan in 1720, was restored and elaborated upon by his grandson. Ovnatan Ovnatanian. in 1782-1786. In 1955—1956, the interior murals of the cathedral and of the belfry were renewed by a group of Soviet artists under the leadership of L. Durnovo. This rich and variegated floral ornament — orange-red on the altar wall and lilac-blue in other places — is an outstanding work of 18-century Armenian art. Ovnatan Ovnatanian also painted oil canvas pictures on religious themes for Echmiadzin Cathedral (some of them are on display in Yerevan picture gallery). These early works of Armenian painting already show features of realism.

Rich gifts of church-plate and valuable works of applied art kept pouring into Echmiadzin as the residence of the Katholikos. Three premises, now housing the monastery’s museum, were annexed to the eastern side of the cathedral in 1869 to keep these gifts in. The architectural elements of the annex — twin windows with transom bars, protruding lock plates and frontons show the influence of Russian architecture of the second half of the 19th century.

"Echmiadzin - Manougian Museum"
© 2000 Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved
Meriting special attention among the museum exhibits are gorgeous church attires embroidered with gold and pearls, printed curtains, embroidered coverlets. crosses, croziers, all kinds of ritual vessels of silver gold, ivory, adorned with filigree work and jewels. Most of these articles date back to the l7th—19th centuries. There are older works of art, too. A tenth-century crucifix of Avutstar monastery is one of the oldest wooden bas-reliefs in Armenia to have come down to this day. The plasticity of the naked body, the expressiveness of the faces and the tension of poses are conveyed most convincingly. In G. Ovsepian’s opinion, the presence of heads in the ornament implies that there existed in Armenia metal crucifixes which have not survived. Of interest are the chairs of the 17th century Katholikoses decorated, besides mother-of-pearl and ivory incrustation, with a complicated geometrical and floral carving and wrought iron heads and paws of lions. There are also rare ancient coins, various relics and ancient manuscripts with headpieces and miniatures.

The most valuable of Echmiadzin's manuscripts is the world famous "Echmiadzin Gospel’’ of 989. now in Matenadaran (Ancient Manuscript Research Institute of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, No. 2374), a copy of the ancient original made by scribe Ovanes in Bkheno-Noravank monastery, the summer residence of Syunik bishops. This is a monument of three stylistically different epochs. The
end miniatures of the 6th—7th centuries, reflecting the influence of Hellenism. are close in their colour scheme and pastel technique to the encaustic icons of the 5th—6th centuries and, in the expressiveness of the typically Armenian faces, to the interior murals of Stepanos church in Lmbat (the early 7th century). In the ‘‘Adoration of the Magi’’ gold, in combination with dense and vibrant tones, makes for utter expressiveness. The national types of faces, with large features and intense look in their eyes, are also most expressive.

The opening miniatures of the late 10th century stand out for vivid colour, gracefulness and smoothness of ornament and realistic representation of birds and plants. In the galleries there are marble columns with magnificent capitals. The representation of Christ as a young man and the Apostles is quite unusual. They are shown in light-toned dresses. The monumentality and laconicisrn of style make these miniatures akin to the murals and bas-reliefs of the Church of the Cross (915-921) on Haghtamar Island.

The ivory binding is a superb work of art by Byzantine carvers of the 6th—7th centuries, It is composed of relief plates showing scenes from the Gospel. At the top there are flying angels carrying a cross enframed in a wreath — a theme well known from Byzantine works of Constantinople, Ravenne and Alexandria and from earlier stone reliefs of Armenia such as those of Ptgni temp]e of the 6th century and from later khachkars, such as Amenaprkich in Haghpat (1273). The centre of the front part is taken up by a representation of the Holy Virgin with the infant; all around it there are various scenes from the Gospel.

"Echmiadzin - Khachkar in compound"
© 2000 Raffi Kojian, All Rights Reserved
Some of the exhibits of Echmiadzin monastery are put on display on the territory of the monastery’s yard. Meriting attention are the khachkars -. one of the Amenaprkich type of 1279, and the other from the old Dzhuga cemetery (the 17th century) covered with intricate floral and geometrical ornaments, pictures of birds and animals and various scenes featuring figures of men and saints.

On the monastery yard there are the buildings of the Katholikosat, a school, a winter and summer refectories, a hostel, Trdat’s gate and other structures. They were built in the 17th—19th centuries in place of earlier buildings.

The 19th-century dwelling houses of Echmiadzin are of artistic value. They are distinguished by unusual layout and appearance. The open-work carving of wooden street balconies and yard galleries is a superb piece of folk craftsmanship. The carving motifs are stylistically connected with the ornamentation of the religious buildings of Echmiadzin of the 17th—18th centuries.

Text and floorplan from "Architectural Ensembles of Armenia"
O. Khalpakhchian, published in Moscow by Iskusstvo Publishers in 1980.

Etchmiadzin, Etchmiadtsin, Echmiatsin, Etchmiadzeen

    Copyright © 1999 Raffi Kojian n_w$$h