Echmiadzin is more or less the Armenian Orthodox version of the Vatican City. It’s where the most important churches are, and it’s where the head of the Armenian church is. Echmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world, and it dates from the 4th—yes, 4th—century. It’s one of several ancient churches in the city.
Getting there was a bit of a problem. I went to the intersection in Yerevan where there were supposed to be buses to Echmiadzin, but there weren’t any. I ended up getting a taxi out there for 2500 drams ($6 USD). First I went to Echmiadzin Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably the most important church in Armenia. Unfortunately, it was being repaired, so there was some ugly scaffolding around the outside. Still, it was a beautiful church. And again, it’s old. According to Wikipedia, the church’s “original vaulted basilica was built in 301–303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.” This church is a big deal. It was built in the 4th century, but most of what you see there today is from the early 7th century.
It’s always interesting to see how different churches feel. When I was in Germany a couple months ago, the churches I visited felt extremely… sterile. You could tell that they were now tourist attractions first and places of worship second. That contrasts sharply with the big church I visited a couple weeks ago in Mtskheta, Georgia. Yes, there were tourists there, but the church is still very much an active place of worship and place of extreme importance to the Georgian people, and you feel that peacefulness and reverence when you walk in there. Echmiadzin Cathedreal fell somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. You can tell that church is still very important, but it definitely had a more touristy air about it. Still, the inside was covered in beautiful painted patterns of a kind that I haven’t seen inside any other Eastern Orthodox church.
I spent the next couple hours wandering around the rest of the town and checking out some of the other churches and monuments. I’ve said before that the Soviet influence is strongly felt in Yerevan, but it is even more apparent in Echmiadzin. I got the feeling that the place hasn’t changed much in the last 20+ years since Armenian independence (apart from the area surrounding Echmiadzin Cathedral, which has been newly built up and restored), and that made Echmiadzin a really interesting place to wander around.
My favorite of the churches in Echmiadzin was St. Hripsime Church. It’s another one that is really old—it was built in 618 and hasn’t changed much since. It’s a beautiful and unique building, and there weren’t many other people there. The inside was very plain. There weren’t any frescos or anything like that inside, just some wooden benches, a few large icons, and candles. But this was another one of those places that felt more like an active place of worship instead of just a stale museum.
When I’d had my fill of churches, I grabbed another taxi and made it back to Yerevan in time for a late lunch.