Echmiadzin: A Cradle of Civilization and Religion

By Juan Angel,
February 2001

The Armenian identity is heavily influenced by both mystery and religion, and this is reinforced by the fact that it has been a Christian country for 1700 years. Armenia’s history and the nation’s pride lie in the Armavir region, particularly in the town of Echmiadzin. It is considered to be the “Vatican City” of Armenia. The Church of Echmiadzin is the center for Armenian Christianity and it was built in 301 AD. Echmiadzin also has a monastery where Katholikos, the heads of the Armenian Church, reside. The monastery also serves as Armenia’s religious center since the 4th century. In addition to being the cradle of Christianity, Echmiadzin attracts tourists from all over the world for both the beauty and history of this city and its church.

Settlements in modern Echmiadzin began in the 5th century in the Ararat Valley. This area is the resting place for the remains of the first urban civilization in Armenia, so the valley is known as the “Cradle of Armenian Civilization”. In addition, it was the first place that forged copper and bronze and successfully smelted iron. The inhabitants formed their lives and culture around the metal industry and believed themselves to be blessed by the gods for this. These same inhabitants were among the first astronomers in the world. We can see the traces of the metallurgical industry in the town’s architecture. Some of the buildings show characteristics that are clearly identifiable as remnants of ancient craftsmen societies.

Echmiadzin became the country’s Cradle of Christianity after Armenia converted to this faith. The Ararat valley, one of the most fertile valleys in Western Asia, surrounds the modern Echmiadzin. It is vibrant with natural springs and lakes that contain two-thirds of all the bird species in Europe. In addition, the first cultivations of wheat, grapes, and apricot rest in the Ararat valley.

The Echmiadzin Cathedral is the cornerstone of faith for nine million Armenians worldwide. It is supposedly the oldest monastic foundation in the Christian world, and Armenians and Christians alike make a pilgrimage to Echmiadzin every year. In addition, Echmiadzin Cathedral and the nearby museum have some of the oldest Christian relics in the world attracting historians and tourists. Echmiadzin was built in a place where it is said that Gregory the Illuminator had a vision of Jesus Christ instructing him to build a church there. Therefore, Echmiadzin means “The coming of the only-begotten” due to his vision and the subsequent construction of the church.

A brick wall that is over thirty feet high surrounds Echmiadzin, and the city consists of a complex of buildings that include a modern college and a seminary. Echmiadzin is of a traditional Armenian design but its center-domed design is the first ever built in Armenian architecture. Echmiadzin’s original appearance is unknown, but some have said the cathedral originally had the shape of a basilica. After its restoration, it adopted a rectangular layout with a four-apse cross and five domes. The Persian Invasion of 380 A.D and the destruction that followed largely explain the lack of information about the original design of the Echmiadzin Cathedral. Vahan Mamikonyan began the restoration of the building in 483 A.D.

Scholars believe that one of the characteristics that distinguish Echmiadzin from other churches in the area is the high content of wooden structures. The roof was originally built out of solid wood, resembling that of a peasant home. This roof was later replaced by one made out of stone in order to prevent deterioration.

In addition, the Cathedral has beautiful relics and ancient pieces of art. The dwelling houses are one of the primary pieces of art at Echmiadzin. The balconies are all beautifully carved in wood and have the design of the 17th and 18th century religious buildings. More recently, the monastery’s museum was built on the eastern side of the cathedral to hold the invaluable Christian relics and works of art. The hand of Saint Gregory the Illuminator can be found in the cathedral’s vault. There is also evidence of Armenia’s pagan roots in the pagan crypt beneath the main altar.

The magnificence of Echmiadzin not only amazes Armenians but the thousands of tourists that visit each year and marvel at its beauty. Members of the Apostolic Armenian Church are not the only Christians that pay homage to Jesus Christ in Echmiadzin. People of other religions revere Echmiadzin and the history behind it. The history of Armenia’s Cradle of Civilization and Christianity unites the people and creates strong patriotic feelings that are often rare in other countries. The early inhabitants of Echmiadzin are the creators of many fundamentals of today’s world. They discovered the process of smelting bronze and other metals and they were the first astronomers in the world. These achievements are glorious and revolutionary in their own rights. However, their greatest achievement came hundreds of years later with the country’s conversion to Christianity. Saint Gregory the Illuminator founded the oldest church in the Soviet Union in 301 AD and it is still the preeminent place for worshippers in Armenia. The feats of the inhabitants of the Armavir Region are long-standing accomplishments that have withstood the test of time.


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