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The Holy City and the Church of St. Etchmiadzin

By Gevork Nazaryan

eginning from the X th century and onward, Armenia and all of Anatolia, Caucasus and Near East were flooded by hordes of nomadic barbarians such as, Seljuk Turks and later on Mongols and Tatars. Many ancient civilizations of Anatolia and Near East, that had managed to survive the assimilation of large empires such as Byzantium and Sasanid Persia, were destroyed and assimilated by the Seljuk Turk tribes. The Seljuk were utmost ruthless and barbaric. In Armenia’s Syunik province, in the monastery of Tatev, they alone destroyed more than 10,000 priceless, illuminated manuscripts, centuries of knowledge and research were destroyed in one large blaze, by the barbaric Seljuks. St. Etchmiadzin, as other parts of Armenia were being abandoned, by large number of Armenian families, who were forced to leave their homes because of the treats from the nomads. The migration took a larger aspect in the XI th and XII th centuries. Many families fled to neighboring Armenia Minor (Lesser Armenia) and Cilician Armenia, were they found a new kingdom of Cilician Armenia. The Bagratouni dynasty which ruled most of Armenia from the IX th to XI th century also moved and exchanged its possessions with lands in Anatolia and Cilician Armenia. The Catholicos seat, was also moved from St. Etchmiadzin to the newly formed principality of Cilicia, which in the XII th century became a sovereign and independent kingdom, headed by powerful dynasties of Rubinian, Hetumian and Lusingnan dynasties.

The abandonment of the seat of the Mother Church of St. Etchmiadzin, lasted untill the year 1441 A.D. when a council was held in St. Etchmiadzin headed by Hovannes Hermonetsi and Tovma Metsopetsi. The council decided that the Holy Seat that was established many centuries ago by St. Gregory the Illuminator, must be reestablished in St. Etchmiadzin’s Mother Church. Many monasteries in St. Etchmiadzin and other parts of Armenia were repaired and renewed. The revival which began in the XV th century continued well into the XVII th century. The revivification was disrupted by the invasion of Shah Abbas of Persia into Eastern Armenia, which at that time was becoming a battle ground for the Persians and Ottoman Turks, each of who wanted to establish a control of Armenia. The Perso-Turk wars that lasted until late XVIII th century devastated and effected large areas of Armenia. Shah Abbas during his invasion had forcefully resettled hundred of thousands of Armenians, from Armenia to Iran.

The instability and constant invasions and killings of Armenia population, finally ended in the early part of the XIX th century. In the year 1828 A.D. the Russian regular army along with many Armenia volunteer fighters liberated Eastern Armenia, along with St. Etchmiadzin from the Persian rule. The conquests were solidified by the treaty of Turkmenchay, in which the Persian side recognized the fact that it had no claims on Eastern Armenia, and promised to help resettle and help return those Armenians living in Iran back to their homeland in Eastern Armenia. St. Etchmiadzin became part of the newly created Yerevan Province, of the vast Russian Empire. From the second part of the XIX th century St. Etchmiadzin began to once again grow in its population size and the city area grew, with many new suburbs being added to the city. Many new schools were opened, and St. Etchmiadzin became one of the most important cultural centers of Armenia. The revivification of St. Etchmiadzin continued well into the early part of the XX th century. 

The chaos that spread throughout Western Armenia, during the Great Genocide of 1915, when nearly 2,000,000 Armenians were killed in a systematic attempt to wipe out the Armenian Nation as a whole by the Turkish government, hadn’t yet affected Eastern Armenia, particularly St. Etchmiadzin. But large number of fleeing refugees those who managed to escape, due to the help of the Armenian fighters and Russian regular army during the evacuation of Van, told the horrible stories of the Genocide. The Turks having bloodied and obliterated all of Western Armenia and Cilician Armenia of its Armenian population, wanted to do the same in Eastern Armenia, and "finish the job" and once and for all "solve" the Armenian Question and their plan of mass extermination of the Armenian people. The Turks were masters at finding the right moment for such an act, they did the same during World War I, in the year 1915 when the world was in turmoil and war, they quickly put into effect their horrific and barbarous deed of Genocide. The same turmoil was now in Eastern Armenia, the Russian Front had collapsed, because of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Armenia was overflowed with hundred of thousands of survivors of the Genocide. The chaos of the fall of the Russian Empire and order had terrible affect on Armenia. The Turks having seen the right moment for their barbarous plan, in early 1918 moved on Eastern Armenia, their advance was seen as unstoppable. But the Armenian nation having seen and felt the terrible deeds of the Turk, united under one call: "In Arms", everyone joined into the effort to stop the bloody Turks and check their advance. Armenian volunteers from Europe and Americas, as well as other parts of the world joined along side their kinsmen to fight for the preservation of the Armenian nation, which was on the brink of extinction. The Turks had almost reached the Holy City of St. Etchmiadzin. Armenian regiments from Yerevan rushed to save the Holiest of Hollis, St. Etchmiadzin. The decisive battle took place near the town of Sardarapat. Every Armenian knew that if the battle was lost, the fate of extinction through systematic Genocide awaited the nation. The battle began at dawn with the Turks charging up into the Armenian positions. The Armenians, stood their ground and the Turks having seen the tenacity and will, first stopped and slowly began to retreat, the Armenians threw a wide counter offensive in which the Turks began to flee in unorganized fashion, the Armenians with vengeance in their hearts cut down many Turks with bayonets and rifle fire. The Turks were so surprised by the Armenian blow, they were chased hundreds of miles by the Armenian troops. On their retreat they were constantly attacked and harassed by Armenian partisans and guerrilla warfare. 

The Battle of Sardarapat became the turning point in Armenia history. The point of rebirth and national will for survival. The horrific plan of the Turks to exterminate the Armenian people and "get them off their way" had failed. In fact Armenia was reborn and the Republic of Armenia was proclaimed on May 28, 1918. Born out of ashes of Genocide and the heroic Battle of Sardarapat, Republic of Armenia, comprised only the lands of Eastern Armenia, Western Armenia and Cilician Armenia still being under the occupation of the Turks. The treaty of Sevres on August 10, 1920, in which the Turkish government recognized and signed the passing of Western Armenia to the Republic of Armenia. The Allies assured the Armenians, that the return of the occupied lands, will take place which would have been a very small remission for the Great Genocide and nearly 2,000,000 innocent victims who were martyred in their historic Homeland during the Genocide, but the empty promises by the Allies and their unwillingness to follow up and resolve the injustice, by political pressure on Turks to do what they had signed in the Treaty of Sevres, and to apply force if needed be, which the Armenians were originally promised to receive, a British or American mandate with British or American troops safeguarding the actual Turkish hand over of Western Armenia was never actually done, except for the great efforts by President Woodrow Wilson, who himself mapped the lands of Western Armenia to be passed to the Republic of Armenia and his stand against the unwilling Congress and icelationism policy, to pass the mandate into effect. The promises only remained a vague pledge and a great disappointment and a deceiving exploit of the Armenian people by the Allies for their own purposes and interests only in the game of realpolitik. To this day Holy Mt. Ararat, which can been seen from St. Etchmiadzin and is the symbol of the Armenian people is still falsly called Aghri Dagh by the Turks, it is still in Turkish hands. Each glance upon the Biblical and graceful Mt. Ararat gives an agonizing and tormenting feeling and arouses painful memories to an Armenian living on the other side of river Arax. 

The Soviet rule which was forcefully proclaimed in Armenia by the XI th Red Army, was established on November 29, 1920. Republic of Armenia, which was promised by the Allies help to fight Bolshevism received none what so ever. Armenian government seeing betrayal by the European powers, accepted and signed the document of passing of rule to the Soviets. Soviet Socialist Armenian Republic was setup. St. Etchmiadzin and Christianity as a whole was viewed by the atheistic ideology of Communists as a rival "organization" or force which could control the people and possible oppose the spread of Communism in Armenia. Many Monasteries and Churches were being shut down and in some cases even demolished. St. Etchmiadzin’s Mother Church and the Seat of Catholicos in a great wave of protests by the people of Armenia and the Armenian population living abroad was speared. The Catholicois of St. Etchmiadzin which presided during the years of Soviet rule managed to keep the faith and spirit of Christianity to some extent in the Armenian people.

One of the biggest disappointments that came out of the Soviet rule and Cold War, was the separation of the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia from the Mother Church and the Holy See of St. Etchmiadzin in 1956. The separation, was a blow to the unity of the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia. In 1988, the wave and movement of democracy and an outcry of freedom for the Armenians of Artsakh was sweeping Armenia. Religious freedom and Christian faith, was gradually being restored in the face of collapsing Soviet Union.

In August 21, 1991 independent Armenia was proclaimed and was reborn out of the ashes of the collapsing Soviet Empire. President of the Republic of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian, elected by a popular vote in the democratic elections was blessed by one of the longest reigning and most favored Catholicos of all time, Catholicos Vazgen I. Religious freedom and the right of worship, were once again restored. The people could freely worship God, without being harassed or questioned for it. The Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia, also made grate moves toward the reunification of the two wings of Apostolic Christendom, with the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. Also under Vazgen I the preparations began for the momentous celebration of the 1700 th Anniversary of the official establishment of Christendom, first in the world to be established as a state religion, in Armenia, by St. Gregory the Illuminator.

In the fall of 1994 after a nearly 40 year reign ( from 1955), Catholicos Vazgen I passed away, forever being remembered by the people of Armenia as the outspoken protector of Christianity in Armenia against the Communist regime. Catholicos Vazgen I who also did much in reestablishment of St. Etchmiadzin as the Holy Center of All of Armenians, he was also credited with his effort to save the treasures of St. Etchmiadzin, such as the Holy relics, icons and treasures of the church that the Church accumulated throughout its 1700 year history, by establishing the museum of the Mother Church of St. Etchmiadzin were the treasures were kept and displayed to the public. Vazgen I ‘s successor became Karekin I, who was previously Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia in April of 1995, elected by the Church Council held in St. Etchmiadzin. The move brought closer together and united the Church of the Great House of Cilicia to the Mother Church. Karekin I, highly educated and an author of many religious books, was greatly respected by the people of Armenia and the Armenians living in Diaspora. He began his reign with visits to the heroic people of Artsakh and different Armenian communities in the Diaspora. On June 29, 1999 His Holiness Karekin I, passed away in Yerevan after fighting a long battle against a fatal disease. 

Catholicos Karekin I, headed the Committee for the preparations of the celebration of the 1700 th Anniversary, in the year 2001. The year 2001 will mark a great memorial year of the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia, which throughout its long 1700 year history, longest in any State Church history, remained faithful and devoted in its faith to God. It fought wars like Vardanats and Vahanants for the preservation of its religion. The Armenian people created a rich and unequaled culture of Khachkar (Cross Stones) and Illuminated Manuscripts. The beautiful churches and architectural marvels such as the Mother Church of St. Etchmiadzin, Zvartnots Church, St. Hripsime and St. Gayane Churches in the city of St. Etchmiadzin, the Church of the Holy Cross in Aghtamar, the Gandzasar Church in Artsakh, and many, many other churches, monasteries and monuments which were erected by the Armenian people were the sign of their belief in God even in the face of massacres, bloodbaths and genocides. After all these barbaric acts conducted upon the Armenian people at different times by different tyrannical and bloodthirsty tribes and peoples, made the Armenian people even stronger and even more enduring and withstanding the test of time, throughout thousands of years.

On october 27, 1999 in the Holy See of Echmiadzin, delegates of the National Synod elected Primate of the Ararat (Patriarchal) Diocese of the Armenia Apostolic Church, Archbishop Karekin Nersissian to become the 132nd Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness Karekin II Nersissian with his positive outlook has pledged to continue the work of his predecessors and serve the Armenian Church to the best of his abilities with the help of God All Mighty.

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Treasures of St. Etchmiadzin - Continue  >
Courtesy of 
Armenian Highland - Armenian Enlightenment Chronicle 
Web site: www.armenianhighland.com
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Updated 1 February 2000 ..
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