Armenia 08 p3

Ejmiatsin / Etchmiadzin

The spiritual center of all Armenians is in the city of Vagharshapat, now better known as Ejmiatzin. An Urartu capital stood there in the 2nd century AD, but the place really took on importance when Christianity became state religion (in 301, as the visitor is tirelessly reminded). The city's status as religious center dates from then, though it was destroyed by the Sassanids in the 4th century and the capital was moved to Dvin for a long time. It became the seat of the Catholicos again in the 1600s.
The name of the cathedral, Ejmiatzin, means "the place where the First Born came down": it was built after Gregory the Illuminator (who converted Armenia to Christianity in the first place) had a dream of Christ coming down, fiery hammer in hand, to show him where to build it. As it turned out (legend goes), this was the site of king Trdat (Tiridate)'s palace, but he donated it after his conversion and only a gate of the palace remains standing.

The cathedral is gorgeous, and the outside carvings alone can provide hours' worth of careful perusal. The inside is similarly rich, in colors and media reminiscent of Byzantine art, and in a similar "lavish simplicity" that does not feel revoltingly excessive.

We visited the museum, which is rich with relics and art pieces of all sorts, and provided numerous interesting anecdotes. For instance, the baptism oil (chrism, in Armenian mayroun) is made in batches every 7 years, but the last of the previous batch is always used in the new one, so that the oil is always ancient as this has been done for centuries. The cathedral was endowed with a golden Tibetan bell for a while, courtesy of a pilfering Tsar. My favorite story: Ejmiatsin was under threat of destruction by the Persian shah Shahbaz. Operating under the belief that to destroy someone's image was to destroy their soul, the fathers of the church plastered the cathedral with the shah's portrait. He couldn't get himself to destroy it.

St Hripsimé

Hripsimé was a Christian who had fled Rome to avoid a forced marriage. Along with her companions, she was martyred in the most painful way by the yet-unconverted Trdat. Their bodies left in the field smelled of roses, which gave their persecutors something to think about: clearly their god was powerful! When Gregory had his dream, he also saw that a memorial should be built to them, and that was done when Trdat was converted.
The present church was built in the 7th century over the memorial. Its exterior may be sober (most Armenian churches' are) but its plan is remarkable, being a domed tetraconch (to make sense of this see my Notes on Armenian church architecture).
In any case, the church is beautiful and very touching. Apparently it also stands at an equal distance from both Ararat and Aragatz, Armenia's two sacred mountains.

Hripsime's body supposedly lies in a coffin in the tiny crypt.

The "valley of flowers" is the site of Armenia's one ski resort, and in summer it affords a shortcut to the forest which must be a lovely hiking spot.

Hiking was not on our rather touch-and-go schedule, but we had enough time to embarrass our guide by playing a few games of hide-and-seek.


Our real destination for that day was Lake Sevan. We started with the monastery, of which 2 churches still stand – the others were destroyed by the Soviets in the 30s. It was originally on an island, a highly strategic place,  but the level of the lake has decreased, so it is now a peninsula. The site is rich in obsidian stone, and bending down one can freely pick bucketloads of small chips of it.

Almost all churches have crosses etched randomly in the walls almost like graffiti.
This amusing character improvised insulting songs for our benefit.

The shore close to the monastery is quite developed, with resorts and restaurants (this is the beach for all Armenians in summer), but we drove around to a much wilder part of it, where the road gave way to a dirt track, then to no track at all. There it was a pleasure to walk, and run wild, and pick up feathers off the sand.

Some brave ones even went for a swim.

Khor Virap

Our visit to Khor Vrap was another express one, unfortunately. This historically significant monastery stands today right on the Turkish border, barbed wire fencing it off from the no-man's-lad, but on a clear day it makes a spectacular sight with Ararat in the background. The ancient capital of Artashat stood there, which was known as "the Armenian Carthage" because its king, Artaxias, had asked for Hannibal's advice in fortifying the city.

It was there, in the fields near Khor Virap, that Hripsimé was left to die, but most importantly it was there that Gregory the Illuminator was thrown into a "deep pit" (the meaning of Khor Virap) to be forgotten. However, food was thrown to him through a small hole so that he survived for 13 years (says the legend, but it was more likely 13 months), until the queen dreamed he was still alive and came to get him out, following which she and the kind converted to Christianity, etc.

Gregory's pit can be accessed via  very steep descent behind the altar.

The "new monastery" is located in a rather awesome-looking gorge by the river Amaghu, in appearance isolated from the whole world. Its three structures each have a unique interesting feature.

Sourp Asdvatsastin, the church of the Holy Mother of God, is unique in being two-storied, the first floor accessible by very narrow stairs on the facade. Its open tambour is also a first, and one noticed a square-to-cylinder progression in the volumes (earth to kingdom of heaven)

I can't imagine crowds doing this!

First floor ornamentation

The upper tympanum on Sourp Karapet shows a unique relief representation of God himself, holding Adam's head:

I noted beautiful arabesque and oriental symbols inside this one, including geometric motifs also used in Islam.

The chapel of St Gregory had the strangest and most interesting symbolism of all, starting with the tomb of prince Elikun Orbelian, represented by a lion. Decorative motifs on the inside included 4 snakes around the apse, 2 birds flanking the apse, and a pair of eyes over the tomb...

These unexplained eyes intrigued us a great deal...
... especially given the almost pagan-looking tomb in their line of vision.
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