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The Holy City and the Mother Church of St. Etchmiadzin

By Gevork Nazaryan

he Holy City of Etchmiadzin, will be the gathering point of the Christian pilgrims in the year 2001 A.D. the year of the celebration of the 1700th Anniversary of Armenia becoming the first nation to officially adopt and embrace Christianity in the year 301 A.D. by the conversion of King Trdat (Tiridates) III Arshakouni and his royal court by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who established the Church of Armenia.

Christianity in Armenia has very deep roots. Two of Jesus Christís Apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, were the first to preach the Word of God in Armenia, in provinces of Syunik and Goghtan in the first century A.D. The Holy Apostles were martyred, by king Sanatrook Arshakouni, who saw the great following of the Apostles and conversions to Christianity as a great danger to his reign and stability, among the converts were many members of the royal court of king Sanatrook, including his sister, who was too along with other Christian converts was martyred. The roots of Church of Armenia lay at those times of preaching of the Holy Apostles, the official name of the Church of Armenia in the honor of the Apostles is "Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia".

The archaeological excavations and digs in sites such as, Shresh Bloor and Mokhra Bloor, in the vicinity of modern day City of St. Etchmiadzin revealed layers of early prehistoric settlements, the oldest which dates back to Stone Age. Layers of Bronze Age culture and under the later layers, an advanced culture of Iron Age was revealed. Artifacts dating to these periods, such as pottery, arrowheads, spears, swords, etc. The later part of the Bronze and Iron Age is followed by the period of the powerful kingdom of Ararat. During the reign of the Araratian king, Hrusha (Rusas) II (685B.C.-645B.C.), a cuneiform inscription was made, in the occasion of the great water canal that was made by the orders of king Hrusha II, from the river of Ildaruni (Hrazdan) to the city of Quarlini, which lay in the heart of the St. Etchmiadzin and which became the nucleus for the city of St. Etchmiadzin later on. The city of Quarlini, was connected to the cities and fortress of the eastern provinces of the kingdom of Ararat such as, Teishebaini, Argishtikhinili, Erebuni and Menuakhinili. The city became an important center of Araratian commerce and trade system. Soon after, the Yervandouni dynasty of Armenia, or the kingdom of Ararat became the ruling Royal House in Armenia.

During the reign of king Yervand Sakavakyats (570B.C.-560B.C.) of the Yervandouni royal house, the husband of the kings wife, Vardkes Manuk or the youngest greatly rebuild an reshaped the old Araratian city of Quarlini and renamed it in his name and honor Vardkesavan. During the reign of the one of the most powerful kings of Armenia, king Tigran (Tigranes) the Great (95B.C.-55B.C.), the city became as a trading and commercial city, near the large city of Artashat, of the vast Armenian Empire, grew due to the vast conquest of Tigran the Great in the Near East, Anatolia and the Caucasus. Tigran, envisioned Armenia as a powerful Hellenistic state, with large cities such as Vardkesavan - St. Etchmiadzin. His great capital Tigranakert, had a population which numbered into hundred of thousands of citizens. The city had a multiethnic and diverse population, which was common in Hellenistic type cities such as Vardkesavan.

King Vagharsh I, from the Royal House of Arshak (Arsacids) once again rebuilt and remodeled the city of Vardkesavan, the city walls were completely rebuilt and restructured. In his honor king Vagharsh I renamed the city Vagharshapat. The vast city of Vagharshapat was considered as a second capital, after the city of Artashat, by the Arshakouni kings. The city of Vagharshapat had the Royal Palace of the Arshakouni kings, the city also had a large military contingent of the kings and nobles army which was housed in barracks of the city. After 301 A.D. and after the establishment of Christianity as a State Religion by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the city of Vagharshapat became the Holy Center of Christian Armenia and for Christians of Armenia, and as well as a safe heaven for the Christians outside of Armenia, of the vast Roman and Persian Empires, where Christianity was still persecuted to a large extent by their pagan rulers.

According to the chronicler, Agathangelus, soon after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, St. Gregory the Illuminator (the first patriarch Catholicos of Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church) saw a beautiful vision.

The heavens opened, and a blazing flood of light poured upon the earth. Through that light a parade of angels started to come down to earth. At the head of this heavenly procession there was a tall and glorious figure. It was the Lord Himself, the Only Begotten Son of God. He had a golden hammer in His hand. Descending from heaven down to the spot where the present Church of Etchmiadzin is standing, He struck the ground three times with a hammer. Instantly a mighty golden column rose on the spot and then it was transformed into a magnificent church. Before the vision faded away, the form and the lines of this church were indelibly impressed in the mind of St. Gregory.

From that day on, in 303ad, a splendid church (St. Etchmiadzin which in Armenian means "the Holy Ground of Christ's descent") has always stood on the same place for nearly 1700 years. Around this Cathedral centred the national and religious life of the Armenians.

Throughout the centuries Armenia's Holy Apostolic Church took upon itself the task of preaching the word of God to its nearby neighbors. Peoples of Caucasian Albania and Iberia (Georgia) were converted to Christianity and other tribes of Caucasus and beyond were also converted. 

In 404 A.D. St. Mesrop Mashtots, a great Armenian scholar reinvented and revived the lost Armenian alphabet, which was for many centuries replaced by the Greek and Parthian( Pahlavi) alphabets, because of the great influence of the Parthian state and royalty, which had blood ties with the Armenian Arshakuni (Arsacid) Royal Court and the Christian ties with Byzantium. Many new schools and educational facilities were established in St. Etchmiadzin. A new age of enlightenment and awakening of culture began, which later on became known as the Golden Age of Armenian Literature and Culture as a whole. Many new books were written by Armenian scholars, such as the great works of Moses of Khoren and his book "Armenian History" which comprised the History of the Armenian people from the times of the flood to the V th century. The book of Yeghishe, the author and eyewitness to the Great Battle of Avarayr, Holy war between the Christian Armenians and Persian Zoroastrians, the war was the first to be fought by any Christian nation for the Holy Faith and Christendom and the book of Yeghishe described the bloody battle and the heroism of both armies on the vast battlefield. Many translation were also conducted, from the classical writers of ancient Greece, but the best translation and the most painstakingly worked upon and completed (the Armenian scholars believed that it would be a sin to make an inexact and inaccurate translation of the Bible and the word of God) was the translation of the Holy Bible into Armenian in the V th century, for its perfection it was regarded and named the "Queen of Translations" by many European linguists of the XIX th century. Many of those translations took place in St. Etchmiadzin and other large cities and their monasteries and churches.

In the early part of the VII th century, a number of renovations and constructions took place in St. Etchmiadzin. The Mother Church of the Holy See of St. Etchmiadzin and the Seat of The Catholicos of All Armenians, was rebuilt and remodeled by Catholicos Komitas of Aghts . In the year 618 A.D. the Monastery of St. Hripsime, one of the Christian virgins to be martyred, during the days of Christian persecution was built. The church to this day is a remarkable and spectacular in it's beauty. The church is complete in its architectural and as well as shapely design. The monastery of St. Gayane, the second of the two martyred virgins, was completed in the year 630 A.D., it too had a unique and impressive features. But one of the most superb and outstanding churches to be built throughout the world in the early, medieval Christian period was the church of Zvartnots or St. Gregory the Illuminator. The construction of the church began in the year 643 A.D. by the orders of Catholicos Nerses III Ishkhantsi and was completed in the year 652 A.D. It was an extraordinarily enormous in its size and towering in its height with its three sectioned parts on top of one another of massive size and its conned dome, with its traditional Armenian architectural design forming the end of the structure. The whole of structure was covert by frescos and obelisks of Christian Saints and ancient Armenian ornament of great beauty and fine craftsmanship. Inside the Church housed the Catholicosís quarters, monks quarters and the chapel, the main hall served for the everyday mass and Christian processions. The Church also housed a library of illuminated manuscripts. There were also a number of adjoining structures such as baths and sellers of food and vine. The frescos of the Church of Zvartnots were also found in the decorations of the Church of Sen-Chapel of Paris, Roman Catholic visitors and pilgrims must have seen the Church of Zvartnots and were amazed by its superb architecture. The Sen-Chapel fresco depicts Zvartnots on top of Noahís Ark, most probably, the Church of Zvartnots at that time along with Holy Mt. Ararat, must have stood as symbol of Armenian Christendom.

. The Zvartnots church was destroyed in the X th century, and unfortunately the historical sources donít specify the reason behind the destruction of the famous and exquisite church. As the time went on, the church was covered in deep layers of dirt and the debris of the church. Even the place, were the church once stood was forgotten. It was not until the early part of the XX th century that the remnants and pieces of the beautiful frescos and obelisks from the columns of interior and exterior frescos of the church were uncovered, after locating the spot of the Church of Zvartnots.
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