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Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Coordinates: 40°9′42.7″N 44°17′27.6″E / 40.161861°N 44.291000°E / 40.161861; 44.291000
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Etchmiadzin Cathedral
Էջմիածնի Մայր Տաճար
AffiliationArmenian Apostolic Church
LeadershipCatholicos of All Armenians
StatusActive, under renovation
LocationVagharshapat, Armavir Province, Armenia
Etchmiadzin Cathedral is located in Armenia
Etchmiadzin Cathedral
Shown within Armenia
Geographic coordinates40°9′42.7″N 44°17′27.6″E / 40.161861°N 44.291000°E / 40.161861; 44.291000
FounderGregory the Illuminator (original)
Groundbreaking301 (original building; traditional date)[1]
Completed303 (original building; traditional date)[1]
483/4–1868 (current building)
  • 483/4 (core)[2][3]
  • 17th century (dome)[4][5]
  • 1654–58 (belfry)[2]
  • 1682 (smaller belfries with turrets)[2]
  • 1868 (sacristy)[2]
Length33 m (108 ft)[2]
Width30 m (98 ft)[2]
Dome height (outer)34 m (112 ft)[6]
Official name: Cathedral and Churches of Echmiatsin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots
Criteria(ii) (iii)
Designated2000 (24th session)
Reference no.1011-001
RegionWestern Asia

Etchmiadzin Cathedral[a] (Armenian: Էջմիածնի մայր տաճար, romanizedĒǰmiaçni mayr tač̣ar) is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in the city dually known as Etchmiadzin (Ejmiatsin) and Vagharshapat, Armenia.[b] It is usually considered the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia, and often regarded as the oldest cathedral in the world.

The original church was built in the early fourth century[12]—between 301 and 303 according to tradition—by Armenia's patron saint Gregory the Illuminator, following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III. It was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the conversion from paganism to Christianity. The core of the current building was built in 483/4 by Vahan Mamikonian after the cathedral was severely damaged in a Persian invasion. From its foundation until the second half of the fifth century, Etchmiadzin was the seat of the Catholicos, the supreme head of the Armenian Church.

Although never losing its significance, the cathedral subsequently suffered centuries of virtual neglect. In 1441 it was restored as catholicosate and remains as such to this day.[13] Since then the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin has been the administrative headquarters of the Armenian Church. Etchmiadzin was plundered by Shah Abbas I of Persia in 1604, when relics and stones were taken out of the cathedral to New Julfa in an effort to undermine Armenians' attachment to their land. Since then the cathedral has undergone a number of renovations. Belfries were added in the latter half of the seventeenth century and in 1868 a sacristy (museum and room of relics) was constructed at the cathedral's east end.[2] Today, it incorporates styles of different periods of Armenian architecture. Diminished during the early Soviet period, Etchmiadzin revived again in the second half of the twentieth century, and under independent Armenia.[2]

As the center of Armenian Christianity, Etchmiadzin has been an important location in Armenia not only religiously, but also politically and culturally.[14] A major pilgrimage site, it is one of the most visited places in the country.[15] Along with several important early medieval churches located nearby, the cathedral was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.


A map of Vagharshapat and the Etchmiadzin monastery in the late 19th century (by Ghevont Alishan).

The cathedral is located at the center of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the town dually known as Vagharshapat or Etchmiadzin (Ejmiatsin). For much of its history, the complex around the cathedral, which includes the residence of the Catholicos (patriarch), was known as the Monastery of Etchmiadzin.[16][17][18] It was formerly surrounded by 30 ft (9.1 m) high[16][19] walls, made of brick[19][16] or cob,[20] and had eight circular towers (turrets).[17][21][22] Its external appearance led to 19th century visitors to widely compare it to a fortress.[21][17][16][23] The walled monastery, a vast quadrangular enclosure,[24] could have been accessed through four gates.[16]

The cathedral stood—and continues to stand—at the center of a courtyard (a quadrangle), which by Lynch's measurements in the 1890s, was 349 feet 6 inches (106.53 m) by 335 feet 2 inches (102.16 m), making it larger than the Trinity Great Court in Cambridge, England.[25] He suggested that it may have been at the time the largest quadrangle in the world.[25][26]


A relief of Gregory the Illuminator on the cathedral's western belfry (1650s) and a 1901 painting of Gregory's vision by Yeghishe Tadevosyan.

Foundation and etymology


In the early fourth century the Kingdom of Armenia, under Tiridates III, become the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion.[c] Armenian church tradition places the cathedral's foundation between 301 and 303.[4] It was built near the royal palace in what was then the Armenian capital of Vagharshapat,[1] on the site of a pagan temple, which was dated by Alexander Sahinian to the Urartian period.[12] Although no historical sources point to a pre-Christian place of worship in its place, a granite Urartian stele dated to the 8th-6th centuries BC was excavated under the main altar in the 1950s.[33][34][d] Also excavated under the altar was an amphora, which has been interpreted to have been a part of a fire temple.[36][e]

In his History of the Armenians, Agathangelos narrates the legend of the cathedral's foundation. Armenia's patron saint Gregory the Illuminator had a divine vision descending from heaven and striking the earth with a golden hammer to show where the cathedral should be built. Later tradition associated the figure with Jesus Christ,[42] hence the name of Etchmiadzin (էջ ēĵ "descent" + մի mi "only" + -ա- -a- (linking element) + ծին tsin "begotten"),[43] which translates to "the Descent of the Only-Begotten [Son of God]"[2][44] or "Descended the Only Begotten".[45] However, the name Etchmiadzin did not come into use until the 15th century,[4] while earlier sources call it "Cathedral of Vagharshapat."[f] The Feast of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin (Տոն Կաթողիկե Սբ. Էջմիածնի) is celebrated by the Armenian Church 64 days after Easter, during which a hymn, written by the 8th century Catholicos Sahak III, retelling St. Gregory's vision, is sung.[48]

The form of the original fourth century church
as proposed by Alexander Sahinian (1966)[49]
ground plan side cross section view
façade cross section view

Malachia Ormanian suggested that the cathedral was built in 303 within seven months because the building was not huge and probably, partially made of wood. He also argued that the foundation of the preexisting temple could have been preserved.[50] Vahagn Grigoryan dismisses these dates as implausible and states that at least several years were needed for its construction. He cites Agathangelos, who does not mention the cathedral in an episode that took place in 306 and suggests the usage of the span of 302 to 325—the reign of Gregory the Illuminator as Catholicos as the dates of the cathedral's construction.[50]

Archaeological excavations in 1955–56 and 1959, led by Alexander Sahinian, uncovered the remains of the original fourth-century building, including two levels of pillar bases below the current ones and a narrower altar apse under the present one.[1][34] Based on these findings, Sahinian asserted that the original church had been a three-naved[51] vaulted basilica,[1] similar to the basilicas of Tekor, Ashtarak and Aparan (Kasagh).[52] However, other scholars, have rejected Sahinian's view.[53] Among them, Suren Yeremian and Armen Khatchatrian held that the original church had been in the form of a rectangle with a dome supported by four pillars.[51] Stepan Mnatsakanian suggested that the original building had been a "canopy erected on a cross [plan]," while Vahagn Grigoryan proposes what Mnatsakanian describes as an "extreme view,"[54] that the cathedral has been essentially in the same form as it is today.[51]

Reconstruction and decline

The ground plan of the cathedral after the 5th century reconstruction

According to Faustus of Byzantium, the cathedral and the city of Vagharshapat were almost completely destroyed during the invasion of Sasanian King Shapur II in the 360s[55] (circa 363).[2][56] Due to Armenia's unfavorable economic conditions, the cathedral was renovated only partially by Catholicoi Nerses the Great (r. 353–373) and Sahak Parthev (r. 387–439).[12]

In 387, Armenia was partitioned between the Roman and Sasanian Empires. Etchmiadzin became part of the Persian-controlled east, under the rule of Armenian vassal kings until 428, when the Armenian Kingdom was dissolved.[57] In 450, in an attempt to impose Zoroastrianism on Armenians, Sasanian King Yazdegerd II built a fire temple inside the cathedral.[5] The pyre of the fire temple was unearthed under the altar of the east apse during the excavations in the 1950s.[34][g]

By the last quarter of the fifth century the cathedral was dilapidated.[58] According to Ghazar Parpetsi, it was rebuilt from the foundations by marzban (governor) of Persian Armenia Vahan Mamikonian in 483/4,[59] when the country was relatively stable,[60] following the struggle for religious freedom against Persia.[59] Most[58] researchers have concluded that, thus, the church was converted into cruciform church and mostly took its current form.[h] The new church was very different from the original one and "consisted of quadric-apsidal hall built of dull, grey stone containing four free-standing cross-shaped pillars disdained to support a stone cupola." The new cathedral was "in the form of a square enclosing a Greek cross and contains two chapels, one on either side of the east apse."[2]

Although the seat of the Catholicos was transferred to Dvin sometime in the 460s–470s[62] or 484,[63][64] the cathedral never lost its significance and remained "one of the greatest shrines of the Armenian Church."[65] The last known renovations until the 15th century were made by Catholicos Komitas in 618 (according to Sebeos) and Catholicos Nerses III (r. 640–661).[2][34] In 982 the cross of the cathedral was reportedly removed by an Arab emir.[61]

Over the course of these centuries of neglect, the cathedral deteriorated to such an extent that it inspired the renowned archbishop Stepanos Orbelian to compose one of his better known poems, "Lament on Behalf of the Cathedral", in 1300.[66][i] In the poem, which tells about the consequences of the Mongol and Mamluk invasions of Armenia and Cilicia, Orbelian portrays Etchmiadzin Cathedral "as a woman in mourning, contemplating her former splendor and exhorting her children to return to their homeland [...] and restore its glory."[69]

From revival to plunder


Following the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375, the See of Sis experienced decline and disarray. The Catholicosate of Aghtamar and the locally influential Syunik bishops enhanced the importance of the region around Etchmiadzin. In 1441 a general council of several hundred religious figures met in Etchmiadzin and voted to reestablish a catholicosate there.[70] The cathedral was restored by Catholicos Kirakos (Cyriacus) between 1441 and 1443.[2] At that time Etchmiadzin was under the control of the Turkic Kara Koyunlu, but in 1502, Safavid Iran gained control of parts of Armenia, including Etchmiadzin, and granted the Armenian Church some privileges.[71]

A detail from a 1691 map of Armenia by Eremya Çelebi, an Ottoman Armenian traveler.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Armenia suffered from its location between Persia and Ottoman Turkey, and the conflicts between those two empires. Concurrently with the deportation of up to 350,000 Armenians into Persia by Shah Abbas I as part of the scorched earth policy during the war with the Ottoman Empire,[72][73] Etchmiadzin was plundered in 1604.[71]

The Shah wanted to "dispel Armenian hopes of returning to their homeland"[74] by moving the religious center of the Armenians to Iran[75] in order to provide Persia with a strong Armenian presence.[76] He wanted to destroy the cathedral and have it physically transferred to the newly founded Armenian community of New Julfa near the royal capital of Isfahan.[75][77] Shah Abbas offered the prospective new cathedral in New Julfa to the Pope.[77] Etchmiadzin was not moved, possibly because of the high costs.[78] In the event, only some important stones—the altar, the stone where Jesus Christ descended according to tradition, and Armenian Church's holiest relic,[79] the Right Arm of Gregory the Illuminator—were moved to New Julfa.[60] They were incorporated in the local Armenian St. Georg Church when it was built in 1611.[74][80] Fifteen stones from Etchmiadzin still remain at St. Georg.[78]

An engraving of Etchmiadzin in the late 17th century by Jean Chardin (from 1811 edition)․[81]

17th–18th centuries


Since 1627, the cathedral underwent a major renovation under Catholicos Movses (Moses), when the dome, ceiling, roof, foundations and paving were repaired.[60] At this time, cells for monks, a guesthouse and other structures were built around the cathedral.[34] Additionally, a wall was built around the cathedral, making it a fort-like complex.[60]

The renovation works were interrupted by the Ottoman-Safavid War of 1635–36, during which the cathedral remained intact.[34] The renovations resumed under Catholicos Pilippos (1632–55), who built new cells for monks and renovated the roof.[34] During this century, belfries were added to many Armenian churches.[61] In 1653–54, he started the construction of the belfry in the western wing of Etchmiadzin Cathedral. It was completed in 1658 by Catholicos Hakob IV Jugayetsi.[60] Decades later, in 1682, Catholicos Yeghiazar constructed smaller bell towers with red tuff turrets on the southern, eastern, and northern wings.[2][34]

The renovations of Etchmiadzin continued during the 18th century. In 1720, Catholicos Astvatsatur and then, in 1777–83 Simeon I of Yerevan took actions in preserving the cathedral.[34] In 1770, Simeon I established a publishing house near Etchmiadzin, the first in Armenia.[82][2] During Simeon's reign, the monastery was completely walled and separated from the city of Vagharshapat.[4] Catholicos Ghukas (Lucas) continued the renovations in 1784–86.[34]

A 1783 watercolor of the churches of Etchmiadzin by Mikhail Matveevich Ivanov.[83][j]
From left to right: Hripsime, Gayane, Etchmiadzin Cathedral, and Shoghakat.[85]
Painting of the cathedral by an unknown European artist (1870s)

Russian takeover


The Russian Empire gradually penetrated Transcaucasia by the early 19th century. Persia's Erivan Khanate, in which Etchmiadzin was located, became an important target for the Russians. In June 1804, during the Russo-Persian War (1804–13), the Russian troops led by General Pavel Tsitsianov tried to take Etchmiadzin, but failed.[86][87] A few days after the attempt, the Russians returned to Etchmiadzin, where they caught a different Persian force by surprise and routed them.[87][86] Tsitsianov's forces entered Etchmiadzin, which, according to Auguste Bontems-Lefort, a contemporary French military envoy to Persia, they looted, seriously damaging the Armenian religious buildings.[87] Shortly after, the Russians were forced to withdraw from the area as a result of the successful Persian defense of Erivan.[87][88][89] According to Bontems-Lefort, the Russian behaviour at Etchmiadzin contrasted with that of the Persian king, who treated the local Christian population with respect.[87]

On 13 April 1827, during the Russo-Persian War (1826–28), Etchmiadzin was captured by the Russian General Ivan Paskevich's troops without fight and was formally annexed by Russia, with the Persian-controlled parts of Armenia, roughly corresponding to the territory of the modern Republic of Armenia (also known as Eastern Armenia), according to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay.[90]

The cathedral prospered under Russian rule, despite the suspicions that the Imperial Russian government had about Etchmiadzin becoming a "possible center of the Armenian nationalist sentiment."[2] Formally, Etchmiadzin became the religious center of the Armenians living within the Russian Empire by the 1836 statute or constitution (polozhenie).[91]

In 1868, Catholicos Gevorg (George) IV made the last major alteration to the cathedral by adding a sacristy (museum and room of relics) to its east end.[2] In 1874, he established the Gevorgian Seminary, a theological school-college located on the cathedral's premises.[92][2] Catholicos Markar I undertook the restoration of the interior of the cathedral in 1888.[61]

20th century and on

The monastery of Etchmiadzin in the early 20th century with Mount Ararat in the background
Etchmiadzin, c. 1910

In 1903, the Russian government issued an edict to confiscate the properties of the Armenian Church, including the treasures of Etchmiadzin.[2] Russian policemen and soldiers entered and occupied the cathedral.[93][94] Due to popular resistance and the personal defiance of Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian, the edict was canceled in 1905.[91]

During the Armenian genocide, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin and its surrounding became a major center for Turkish Armenian refugees. At the end of 1918, there were about 70,000 refugees in the Etchmiadzin district.[95] A hospital and an orphanage within the cathedral's grounds were established and maintained by the U.S.-based Armenian Near East Relief by 1919.[2]

In the spring of 1918 the cathedral was in danger of an attack by the Turks.[96] Prior to the May 1918 Battle of Sardarabad, which took place just miles away from the cathedral, the civilian and military leadership of Armenia suggested Catholicos Gevorg (George) V to leave for Byurakan for security purposes, but he refused.[97][98] The Armenian forces eventually repelled the Turkish offensive and set the foundations of the First Republic of Armenia.

Soviet period




After two years of independence, Armenia was Sovietized in December 1920. During the 1921 February Uprising Etchmiadzin was briefly (until April) taken over by the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which had dominated the pre-Soviet Armenian government between 1918 and 1920.[99]

In December 1923, the southern apse of the cathedral collapsed. It was restored under Toros Toramanian's supervision in what was the first case of restoration of an architectural monument in Soviet Armenia.[100]

The Soviet government issued a postage stamp depicting the cathedral in 1978.

During the Great Purge and the radical state atheist policies in the late 1930s, the cathedral was a "besieged institution as the campaign was underway to eradicate religion."[101] The repressions climaxed when Catholicos Khoren I was murdered in April 1938 by the NKVD.[102] In August of that year, the Armenian Communist Party decided to close down the monastery, but the central Soviet government seemingly did not approve of such a measure.[103] Isolated from the outside world, the cathedral barely continued to function and its administrators were reduced to some twenty people.[2] It was reportedly the only church in Soviet Armenia not to have been seized by the Communist government.[104] The dissident anti-Soviet Armenian diocese in the US wrote that "the great cathedral became a hollow monument."[105]



Etchmiadzin slowly recovered its religious importance during World War II. The Holy See's official magazine resumed publication in 1944, while the seminary was reopened in September 1945.[106] In 1945 Catholicos Gevorg VI was elected after the seven-year vacancy of the position. The number of baptisms conducted at Etchmiadzin rose greatly: from 200 in 1949 to around 1,700 in 1951.[107] Nevertheless, the cathedral's role was downplayed by the Communist official circles. "For them the ecclesiastical Echmiadzin belongs irrevocably to the past, and even if the monastery and the cathedral are occasionally the scene of impressive ceremonies including the election of a new catholicos, this has little importance from the communist point of view," wrote Walter Kolarz in 1961.[108]

Etchmiadzin revived under Catholicos Vazgen I since the Khrushchev Thaw in the mid-1950s, following Stalin's death. Archaeological excavations were held in 1955–56 and in 1959; the cathedral underwent a major renovation during this period.[61][34] Wealthy diaspora benefactors, such as Calouste Gulbenkian and Alex Manoogian, financially assisted the renovation of the cathedral.[61] Gulbenkian alone provided $400,000.[109]

Independent Armenia

An aerial view of the cathedral undergoing restoration in 2021

In 2000[110] Etchmiadzin underwent a renovation prior to the celebrations of the 1700th anniversary of the Christianization of Armenia in 2001.[61] Its metal roof was replaced by stone slabs.[111] In 2003 the 1700th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral was celebrated by the Armenian Church.[112] Catholicos Karekin II declared 2003 the Year of Holy Etchmiadzin.[113] In September of that year an academic conference on the cathedral was held at the Pontifical Residence.[114]

The latest renovation of the cathedral began in 2012,[110] with a focus on strengthening and restoring the dome and the roof.[115]


The present-day ground plan of Etchmiadzin



Etchmiadzin has a cruciform plan, four free-standing piers, and four projecting apses, which are semicircular on the interior and polygonal on the exterior.[34] Its roof is mostly flat, except the conspicuous central cupola with the typically Armenian conical roof on a polygonal drum and the four small belfries on top of the apses.[116][117]

Although the cathedral was renovated many times through the centuries and significant additions were made in the 17th and 19th centuries, it largely retains the form of the building constructed in 483/4,[119] especially the floor plan.[120] The fifth-century building is the core of the cathedral, while the stone cupola, turrets, belfry, and rear extension are later additions.[2] According to Varazdat Harutyunyan, its dome was originally wooden and was replaced with a stone one in a subsequent renovation.[121] Portions of the northern and eastern walls of the original building have survived.[55] Alexander Sahinian argued that Etchmiadzin holds a unique position in Armenian (and non-Armenian) architecture history because it reproduces features of different periods of Armenian architecture.[122] It makes the building of "immense architectural interest."[123]

In the West, its style has traditionally[k] been described as Byzantine or linked to Byzantine architecture.[l] Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli disagreed, asserting that fourth century Armenian churches, including Etchmiadzin,[m] considerably differ from Justinian-era Byzantine architecture of Constantinople.[132] He argued that they are local creations that borrow technical elements from the East (Hatra, Sarvestan), but are "fundamentally Hellenistic" in their "formal structure and proportional relationships."[132] Similarly, Hewsen suggested that the design of the core of the church is a mixture of a Zoroastrian fire temple and a mausoleum of classical antiquity.[2]

Dimensions and appearance


The cathedral measures 33 by 30 metres (108 by 98 ft),[2] with its dome rising 34 metres (112 ft).[6] James Bryce deemed it small relative to its importance,[133] while H. F. B. Lynch suggested that it is small by Western standards but larger than other ancient Armenian churches.[134] Harold Buxton went so far as to call it a "tiny chapel".[135] Grigoryan argued that it is one of the largest churches of its time and, overall, one of the largest churches in Armenia.[136] Two Soviet authors described it as a "massive cube surmounted by a faceted cone on a simple cylinder."[137]

Jean Chardin called it a "substantial but dark structure, all built of large freestone."[138] James Morier noted that it is "built of excellent materials, and in a most solid manner."[139] Bryce found little distinctive about its exterior and Lynch did not admire its architecture.[140] Robert Ker Porter said its architecture is "of a rude character, when compared with even the roughest styles of Gothic churches that may be seen in England."[141] A National Geographic writer described it as an "austere and commanding work".[142] Luigi Villari opined that it is "unusual and interesting rather than beautiful, and altogether inferior to many other Armenian churches."[116] Robert H. Hewsen agreed; he noted that it is "neither the largest nor the most beautiful of Armenian churches", nevertheless, "the overall impression presented by the ensemble is inspiring, and Armenians hold the building in great reverence."[2]

The cathedral's core is built in grey stone, while the 17th century additions in bright red.[143] The rear extension, added by Catholicos Gevorg IV in 1868, was criticized by 19th century visitors for being out of harmony with the rest of the church. Telfer described it as being "in exquisitely bad taste",[144] while Lynch opined that it "perverts the original edifice."[145]



The exterior contains extensive decorative geometric and floral patterns as well as blind arcades and medallions depicting saints.[34]

Greek inscriptions

The most significant reliefs are on the northern wall, which Vahagn Grigoryan has described as the most discussed sculptures of early medieval Armenia.[146] One depicts a standing Saint Thecla and Paul the Apostle seated on cross-legged stool.[147] The other contains an equal-armed cross (Greek cross) with a series of Greek inscriptions that contain several names, including Arxia, Elpid, Daniel, Tirer, and Garikinis, none of whom have been identified.[148] The last two are interpreted to be the Armenian names Tirayr and Garegin.[149] The stones measure 52 by 69 cm (20 by 27 in) and 47 by 66 cm (19 by 26 in).[150]

These reliefs have been tentatively dated between the first and sixth centuries.[151] Some like Shahkhatunian and Ghevont Alishan suggested that these reliefs were created before the invention of the Armenian alphabet c. 405, while Sirarpie Der Nersessian believed that they are from the fifth or sixth century.[152] Grigoryan insisted that the reliefs were created in the early fourth century and were part of the original building of Gregory the Illuminator.[153] According to Hasratyan, they are the earliest reliefs on the cathedral's walls and among the earliest examples of Christian Armenian sculpture art.[154]

Tibetan bell


The 17th century bell tower previously housed a bell with a Tibetan Buddhist inscription,[155] which was reported by foreign travelers and scholars throughout the 19th century.[156][n] The bell was removed in the late 1930s by the Soviets and has disappeared without a trace.[159] The inscription survives as a copy in an 1890 book by Ghevont Alishan:[160][161]

Dan Martin, a scholar of Tibet, wrote that the three-syllable mantra oṃ aḥ hūṃ, repeated thrice on the bell, is ubiquitous in Secret Mantra Buddhism and is used for blessing offerings. He argued that the inscription suggests that the bell was a consecrated Buddhist object.[162] An evidence of Armenian contacts with Buddhism,[20] the bell, Hewsen suggested, was "probably the long-forgotten gift of some Mongol or Ilkhanid khan."[2] Martin proposed an alternative theory; suggesting that the bell may have originally been housed at a Buddhist temple in the area and was later salvaged and transferred to Etchmiadzin or may have been brought from Lhasa to Armenia by New Julfa merchants in the 17th century, around the time the bell tower was built.[160]



Bryce and Villari found the interior impressive, while Lynch called it "sufficiently remarkable".[163] Porter found the interior "dark and gloomy" with the "ill-drawn, and worse-coloured" paintings and "dingy fresco" adding to the "gloom, without increasing the solemnity."[141] Telfer described it as "gloomy, ineffective, and entirely deficient in any fascinating touches of architectural force and decoration".[164] Bryce said it had a "certain sombre dignity, and an air of hoar antiquity about everything."[165]

Etchmiadzin's interior is extensively decorated with Persian-influenced frescoes.[19][166] They depict flowers, birds, scrollwork,[19] arabesque ornamentations.[167]

Stepanos Lehatsi (Stephen of Poland) painted the belfry in 1664.[2] The early frescoes inside the cathedral were restored in the 18th century.[2] In the 18th and 19th centuries, Armenian painters created frescoes of scenes from the old testament and Armenian saints.[2] Naghash Hovnatan painted parts of the interior between 1712 and 1721. His paintings on the dome and the painting of the Mother of God under the altar have survived to this day. Other members of the prominent Hovnatanian family (Hakob, Harutyun and Hovnatan) created paintings throughout the 18th century. Their work was continued by the succeeding generations of the same family (Mkrtum and Hakob) in the 19th century.[168]

The wooden doors of the cathedral were carved in Tiflis in 1889.[2] The paintings were moved out of the cathedral by the order of Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian in 1891 and are now kept in various museums in Armenia, including the National Gallery of Armenia.[34] The frescoes inside the cathedral were restored by Lydia Durnovo in 1956,[169] and in 1981–82 by Vardges Baghdasaryan.[170] In the 1950s, the stone floor was replaced with one of marble.[2]


The plan of the Bagaran cathedral
The plan of Germigny-des-Prés

On Armenian architecture


The design of the cathedral—classified as a "four-apsed square with ciborium,"[171] and called "Etchmiadzin-type" in Armenian architectural historiography[60]—was not common in Armenia in the early medieval period. The now-destroyed St. Theodore Church of Bagaran, dating from 624 to 631,[172] was the only known church with a significantly similar plan and structure from that period.[173][174] Hovhannes Khalpakhchian [ru; hy] suggested that the type is also seen in the Mastara Church (c. 600).[175]

In the 19th century, during an architectural revival that looked back to Armenia's past, Etchmiadzin's plan was directly copied in new Armenian churches.[176] Some notable examples from this period include the narthex of the St. Thaddeus Monastery in northern Iran, dating from 1811 or 1819 through 1830,[176][177] and the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, dating from 1868.[178][179]

Its plan was also replicated in the Armenian diaspora, such as in the plans and designs of the Armenian Church of Singapore (1835)[180] and the Armenian Church of Bucharest in Romania (1911–12).[181][182]

On European architecture


Josef Strzygowski, who was the first European to thoroughly study Armenian architecture[183] and place Armenia in the center of European architecture,[184] suggested that several churches and chapels in Western Europe have been influenced by the cathedrals of Etchmiadzin and Bagaran due to similarities found within their plans.[34][185] According to Strzygowski, some examples of churches influenced by Etchmiadzin and Bagaran are the 9th-century church of Germigny-des-Prés in France (built by Odo of Metz, an Armenian architect) and San Satiro of Milan, Italy.[o] This view was later supported by Alexander Sahinian and Varazdat Harutyunyan.[34] Sahinian suggested that Armenian church architecture was spread in Western Europe in the 8th–9th centuries by the Paulicians, who migrated from Armenia en mase after being suppressed by the Byzantines during the Iconoclasm period. Sahinian added many other medieval churches in Europe, such as the Palatine Chapel of Aachen in Germany, to the list of churches to have been influenced by the cathedrals of Etchmiadzin and Bagaran and by Byzantine decorative arts.[60] According to Murad Hasratyan, Etchmiadzin's design was spread to Europe via the Eastern Roman Empire and served as a model—besides Germigny-des-Prés and San Satiro—for the Nea Ekklesia church in Constantinople and the churches of Mount Athos in Greece.[187]

Protection and heritage designation


The cathedral and the surrounding complex covers an area of 16.4 hectares (41 acres) and is property of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin).[111] Recognized as a national monument in 1983 by the Soviet Armenian government, this designation was reaffirmed by the government of Armenia in 2002.[188] Joint councils consisting of the Ministry of Culture and the Armenian Apostolic Church are responsible for regulating its conservation, rehabilitation, and usage.[111] In 2000 the UNESCO added Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the churches of St. Hripsime, St. Gayane, Shoghakat and the ruined Zvartnots Cathedral to the list of World Heritage Sites. The UNESCO highlights that the cathedral and churches "graphically illustrate the evolution and development of the Armenian central-domed cross-hall type of church, which exerted a profound influence on architectural and artistic development in the region."[111]

The Holy Lance in at Etchmiadzin


The cross under which is a fragment of Noah's Ark

The museum of the cathedral has numerous items on display, including manuscripts and religious objects. Among its notable exhibits are the Holy Lance (Spear), relics belonging to Apostles of Jesus and John the Baptist, and a fragment of Noah's Ark.[189][190]


Etchmiadzin on a 2009 stamp of Armenia

The locus of Etchmiadzin is "a sanctified soil" similar to Temple Mount and the Golden Temple, for Jews and Sikhs, respectively.[191] In his first encyclical (1893) as Catholicos, Mkrtich Khrimian called the cathedral the "Zion of Ararat."[192][193] In 1991 Catholicos Vazgen I described the cathedral as "our Solomon's Temple."[194] The cathedral complex has been called "Armenian Vatican" as it is a major pilgrimage site for Armenians worldwide.[195][196] Since the cathedral has been so important to the development of Armenians' sense of identity, a pilgrimage to Etchmiadzin is "as much as ethnic as a religious experience."[197] Theodore Edward Dowling wrote in 1910 that Etchmiadzin and Mount Ararat are the "two great objects of Armenian veneration."[198]

For many centuries, Etchmiadzin was the national and political center of the stateless Armenian people, with one journalist describing it as "the focal point of Armenians everywhere."[199] Before the foundation of the First Republic of Armenia and the official designation of Yerevan as its capital in 1918, Western sources emphasized Etchmiadzin's political significance. A 1920 book prepared by the Historical Section of the British Foreign Office acknowledged that Etchmiadzin "was regarded as the national capital of the Armenians."[200]

Oldest cathedral

An aerial view of the cathedral and the Mother See complex surrounding it

Etchmiadzin is considered by a number of scholars as Armenia's first cathedral.[205] It has sometimes been described as Armenia's first church building,[206][44] but this claim has found little support among scholars. Robert W. Thomson,[207] Stepan Mnatsakanian,[208] Vrej Nersessian,[209] and Grigoryan[210] have all rejected it and posit that Armenia's first church was in Ashtishat, in the Taron region. A 2020 book on the cathedral, authorized by the Armenian Church, insisted that Etchmiadzin is the first church of Christian Armenia, although earlier Christian places of worship such as chapels or shrines existed prior.[211]

Robert W. Thomson argues that although Etchmiadzin was not the original center of the Armenian Church (which was and remained in Ashtishat until after the division of the country in 387), it had "clearly been a holy shrine" from the "earliest Christian time in Armenia."[212]

A number of sources also hold that Etchmiadzin is the oldest cathedral in the world.[219] According to Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East, it is "generally regarded" as the oldest cathedral in the world,[220] while historian Steven Gertz wrote in Christianity Today that Etchmiadzin is regarded as such "according to some scholars."[221]

A 1982 Soviet guidebook called it the "first Christian church to be built on the territory of the Soviet Union",[222] while Soviet travel writer Georgi Kublitsky wrote in 1984 that the cathedral is "believed by some to be the oldest extant building on Soviet territory."[223]

Notable visitors

"A view of Mount Ararat from the Three Churches", from the Joseph Pitton de Tournefort's A voyage into the Levant (1718). The cathedral is depicted on the middle right side.

Early European visitors to Etchmiadzin who gave descriptions of the cathedral included Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (before 1668),[224] Jean Chardin (1673),[225] Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (c. 1700),[226] James Morier (1810–16),[139] Robert Ker Porter (1817–20),[141] Friedrich Parrot (1829),[227] Eli Smith and H. G. O. Dwight (1829),[21] August von Haxthausen (1843),[228] Moritz Wagner (1843),[229] Douglas Freshfield (1869),[23] John Buchan Telfer (1870s),[230] James Bryce (1876),[231] H. F. B. Lynch (1893).[232]

Many prominent individuals have visited Etchmiadzin, including Russian diplomat and playwright Alexander Griboedov (1828),[233] Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky (1849),[234] Russian poets Valery Bryusov[235] and Andrei Bely (1929),[236] Fridtjof Nansen (1925),[237] Glenn T. Seaborg (1971),[238] Armenian American writer William Saroyan (1976),[239] English composer Benjamin Britten,[240] Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky,[241] Russian-American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky,[242] Andrei Sakharov,[243] Cher,[244] Alain Delon,[245] Kim Kardashian[246] and many others.

Religious leaders like Patriarch Cyril of Bulgaria (1967),[247] Archbishops of Canterbury Donald Coggan (1977)[248] and George Carey (1993),[249] Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia (1997, 2003),[250][251] Pope John Paul II (2001),[252] Bartholomew I of Constantinople (2001),[253] Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (2002),[254][255] Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (2010),[256] Pope Francis (2016) have visited Etchmiadzin. Francis gave a prayer at the cathedral on 24 June 2016, where he called the cathedral "a witness to the history of your people and the centre from which its spirituality radiates."[257]

Leaders of several countries, such as Russia (Vladimir Putin in 2005),[258] France (Jacques Chirac in 2006[259] and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011),[260][261] Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004,[262] Giorgi Margvelashvili in 2014),[263] Romania (Emil Constantinescu in 1998),[264] Lebanon (Michel Aoun, 2018),[265] Germany (Angela Merkel, 2018),[266][267] and royalty, such as Nicholas I of Russia (1837),[268] King Mahendra of Nepal (1958),[269] Prince Charles (2013)[270] have visited the cathedral as part of their state or private visits to Armenia.

Cultural depictions

Etchmiadzin on a 50,000 Armenian dram banknote
A fresco inside St. George's Church, Tbilisi, Georgia

The coat of arms of Russian-administered Erivan (Yerevan), approved in 1843, featured the cathedral.[271][272]

The Etchmiadzin monthly, the official periodical of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin founded in 1944, features the cathedral on its cover page as the logo.[273]

The Soviet Union and Armenia issued postage stamps depicting the cathedral in 1978 and 2009, respectively. The cathedral is depicted on the obverse side of the 50,000 dram banknote (2001) of Armenia.[274]

The cathedral has been depicted in painting by Grigory Gagarin (1847),[275] Panos Terlemezian (1903), and in books by John Mason Neale (1850),[130] August von Haxthausen (1854), John Ussher (1865), and others.

The floor mosaic, created by the 20th-century Israeli artist Hava Yofe, inside the Chapel of Saint Helena at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre depicts the cathedral along with other major Armenian sites.[276] A relief of the cathedral was erected on the headquarters of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America next to the St. Vartan Cathedral in New York and silver plate depicting the cathedral is displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.[277]

In the 1991 film Mayrig, directed by French-Armenian director Henri Verneuil, footage of the cathedral is shown when Azad Zakarian, the main character and a son of Armenian genocide survivors, is being questioned about his faith in a Catholic school.[278]


  1. ^ Less commonly referred to as the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin,[7][8] Holy Etchmiadzin (Armenian: Սուրբ Էջմիածին, romanizedSurb Ejmiatsin) or simply Etchmiadzin. Alternatively spelled as Echmiadzin, Ejmiatsin,[9] and Edjmiadsin.[10]
  2. ^ The city has been called Vagharshapat for the most of its history. It was officially called Etchmiadzin or Ejmiatsin between 1945 and 1995. Nowadays, both names are used interchangeably.[11]
  3. ^ 301 AD is the traditional date,[27] first calculated by historian Mikayel Chamchian.[28] A growing number of authors argue that the correct date is 314 by citing the Edict of Milan.[29][30] Elizabeth Redgate writes that "the scholarly consensus is to prefer c. 314."[31][32]
  4. ^ It was likely dedicated to Ḫaldi or Teišeba.[35]
  5. ^ The temple is believed to have been dedicated to either goddess Anahit,[37][38][39] or archangel Sandaramet,[4][40][41] major figures in Zoroastrian-influenced Armenian mythology.
  6. ^ Վաղարշապատի Կաթողիկե եկեղեցի Vağaršapati Kat'oğike yekeghetsi)[46][47] or simply Kat'oghike (Կաթողիկե, literally "Cathedral").[34] Malachia Ormanian defined "katoghike" as "cathedral" and wrote that the word was used particularly for Etchmiadzin Cathedral. In modern Armenian, "katoghike" is also used to refer to the Catholic Church. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word καθολικός katholikos, which means "universal". The cathedral has been so called as a description of the "universality" of the Church.[48]
  7. ^ The remains of the 4th century apse, the fire temple and other architectural details are now kept at a special structure built relatively recently under the east apse.[5]
  8. ^ "In 483/484 ... the basic core of the current structure was created..."[2] "483–484 Reconstructed by Vahan Mamikonyan. Etchmiadzin develops the design we see today."[61]
  9. ^ «Ողբ ի դիմաց Կաթողիկէին», Voğb i dimats Katoğikein. The complete title is "Allegorical prosopopoeia on the Holy Cathedral at Vagharshapat"[67] («Բան բարառնական ոդեալ դիմառնաբար ի դիմաց Վաղարշապատու ս. Կաթուղիկէին», Ban barařnakan vodeal dimařnabar i dimats Vagharshapatu s. Katoğikein). It was first printed in Nor Nakhichevan in 1790.[68]
  10. ^ Ivan Aivazovsky subsequently offered his version based on Ivanov's original.[84]
  11. ^ In the 19th century, Armenian architecture was usually seen as a "provincial extension of Byzantine architecture"[124] and Byzantine influence was "somewhat exaggerated by 19th century archeologists."[125]
  12. ^ Its architectural style has been described as Byzantine by Murray's Handbook for Travellers,[126] Sven Hedin,[127] Günter Bandmann,[128] and "Armeno-Byzantine" by Alfred Dwight Foster Hamlin.[129] John Mason Neale suggested that its original ground plan is "that of an ordinary Byzantine church".[130] August von Haxthausen quoted Nerses V as describing the cupola as Byzantine, "probably [built] by architects from Constantinople a thousand years ago."[131]
  13. ^ Bandinelli lists the "cathedrals of Dvin and Echmiadzin, the churches of Kasakh and, possibly, Diraklar."
  14. ^ Starting as early as 1837 by Marie-Félicité Brosset.[157][158]
  15. ^ "...at Germigny-des-Prés (on the Loire, near Orleans) is an exact reproduction of the Armenian apse-buttressed square with free central pillars, dating from the ninth century. The latter type occurs also at Milan (San Satiro). In both cases the plan closely resembles that of Bagaran in Armenia."[186]
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Academic articles


Published books

  • Ashjian, Mesrob, ed. (2003). The Etchmiadzin chronicles (in English, Italian, Russian, German, French, and Armenian). Yerevan: Moughni Publishers. ISBN 99941-33-04-7.
  • Balakian, Grigoris (1911). Ս. Էջմիածնի բարեկարգութեան պէտքը [Holy Ejmiatsin in Need of Renovation] (in Armenian). Constantinople: Shant.
  • Bastamiants, Vahan (1877). Նկարագրութիւն Մայր եկեղեցիոյն հայոց Ս. Էջմիածնի [Description of Mother Church of Holy Ejmiatsin] (in Armenian and Russian). Vagharshapat.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Harutyunyan, Varazdat (1978). Էջմիածին [Ējmiatsin] (in Armenian). Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh. OCLC 19983186.
  • Harutyunyan, Varazdat; Société pour la protection des monuments historiques et culturels de la RSS d'Arménie (1985). Etchmiadsin (in French). Yerevan: Hayastan. OCLC 78980119.
  • Harutyunyan, Varazdat (1988). Եկայք շինեսցուք: Պատմութիւն Ս. Էջմիածնի Մայր Աթոռի շինարարական գործունէութեան Ամենայն Հայոց Կաթողիկոս Վազգէն Առաջինի գահակալութեան շրջանում (1955–1988) [History of construction activities at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin during the reign of Vazgen I (1955–1988)] (in Armenian). Los Angeles: Erebuni.
  • Kazarian, Armen (2007). Кафедральный собор Сурб Эчмиадзин и восточнохристианское зодчество IV-VII веков [Cathedral of Holy Ejmiacin and the Eastern Christian architecture of the 4th-7th centuries] (in Russian). Moscow: Locus Standi. ISBN 978-5-94428-041-1.
  • Miller, Julie A. (1996). "Echmiadzin (Armenia)". In Ring, Trudy; Salkin, Robert M.; La Boda, Sharon (eds.). International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa. Vol. 4. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. pp. 250–253. ISBN 978-1-884964-03-9. Archived from the original on 22 March 2021. Retrieved 10 December 2020.
  • Parsamian, Vardan (1931). Էջմիածինն անցյալում: Պատմական ուսումնասիրության փորձ [Etchmiadzin in the past: An attempt of historical research] (in Armenian). Pethrat: Yerevan.
  • Sahinian, Alexander (1978). Ս. Էջմիածին / Св. Эчмиадзин / St. Etchmiadzine (in Armenian, Russian, and French). Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. OCLC 47168540.
  • Shahkhatunian, Hovhannes [in Armenian] (1842). Ստորագրութիւն Կաթուղիկէ Էջմիածնի եւ հինգ գաւառացն Արարատայ [Description of the Cathedral of Ejmiacin and of the Five Districts of Ararat], 2 vols (in Armenian). Holy Ejmiacin.
  • Toramanian, Toros (1910). Էջմիածնի տաճարը: Ճարտարապետական եւ հնագիտական հետազօտութիւններ [Etchmiadzin Cathedral: Architectural and Archaeological Studies] (in Armenian). Tiflis: Aganiants Publishing.
  • Նկարագրութիւն Սուրբ Էջմիածնի Մայր տաճարի [Description of the Holy Etchmiadzin Cathedral] (in Armenian). Vagharshapat: Holy Etchmiadzin Cathedral Publishing. 1890. OCLC 861620582.
  • Ս. Էջմիածին 303–1903: Պատկերազարդ նկարագրութիւն [Holy Etchmiadzin 303–1903: Illustrated description] (in Armenian). San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice: Mechitarist Order. 1903. OCLC 35048877.
  • Սուրբ Էջմիածին: 1600-րդ տարեդարձ (303–1903) [Holy Etchmiadzin: 1600th anniversary (303–1903)] (in Armenian). Saint Petersburg: Pushkinean Aragatip. 1903. OCLC 46338801.
  • Khachatryan, Tovma (2020). Սուրբ Էջմիածին. քրիստոնեական առաջին գմբեթավոր տաճարը [Holy Etchmiadzin: The First Christian Domed Church] (in Armenian). Ejmiatsin: Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Press. ISBN 9789939592497.