The Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is the most recognized landmark of the Armenian Church. Built and consecrated by St. Gregory the Illuminator and St. Trdat the Great in 303 AD, the Cathedral is located in the city of Vagharshapat.
Located on the grounds of the Mother See are the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Church, and the residence of His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians.
St. Gregory chose the location of the Cathedral in accordance with a vision that he had. In his dream he saw "Miatsin", the Only Begotten Son of God, with glittering light on his face descending from the Heavens and with a golden hammer striking the ground where the Cathedral was to be located. Hence comes the name "Etchmiadzin", which translates literally to "the place" where the Only-Begotten Son of God descended.
On the twenty-seventh day of the seventh month, Noah's Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. When Noah emerged from the Ark, he prepared a sacrifice in the Araratian Valley and built an altar for the sacrifice in the place where Holy Etchmiadzin is now located.
The Mother Cathedral was created and built by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron Saint of the Armenian Church. In the solitude of the night, given to spiritual thoughts, St. Gregory had a magnificent vision: The Son of God descending from heaven with a golden hammer in his hand strikes the vastness of the ground, and reveals the place where the Holy Cathedral of Etchmiadzin will be erected.
"I saw an awe-filled human appearance, great and wonderful, who was leading all and from the highest to the lowest, He was before them. He had a great golden hammer in his hand, and all were following Him. He was coming with great speed, flying up like a swift eagle and descending down to the firmament of the earth, in the center of the city, struck the vastness of the land, and an awful wailing resounded up from the chasms of hell."
St. Gregory and the family of the St. Trdat the king, led the people to the place of the Descent of the Only Begotten, and built the Mother Cathedral.
Holy Etchmiadzin is also called "illustrated by light", because it was not designed by earthly architects, but rather the Heavenly Architect, who through a luminous illustration, showed how the new church was to appear.
Construction on the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin concluded in August 303. The consecration of the cathedral occurred on the Saturday preceding the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God, and was named St. Mary Asdvatsatsin. As a result, the commemoration day of the Mother Cathedral occurs on the Saturday preceding the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God.
As a symbol of the Armenian Church and the faith of the Armenians, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, was proclaimed as such shortly after it was built, and instead of being called by her true name, was often simply referred to as "Vagharshapat’s universal", "Universal church", or merely "First Church".
Changes throughout the years
Holy Etchmiadzin received her first blow nearly 60 years following her construction, when the Persian King Shapuh, who invaded Armenia with a great army, tried to convert the Mother Cathedral into a Zoroastrian temple. Immediately after the departure of Shapuh’s forces, Catholicos Nerses the Great embarked on rebuilding the cathedral.
Following the divinely-inspired discovery of the Armenian Alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots, the first "Mesrobian" Armenian language school was established adjacent to the Catholicosate in Vagharshapat at the beginning of the fifth century.
The Pontifical See of the Armenians moved to Dvin in 484, which at the time had become the political center of the country. In spite of the relocation, Holy Etchmiadzin continued to remain the spiritual center of the Armenian people. Near the end of the fifth century and the Golden Age of Armenian literature, the historian Ghazar Parpetsi wrote that during this same period, Vahan Mamikonian was appointed by the Persian kingdom as leader of the Armenian provinces. He conducts important renovations to the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, following which, Ghazar Parpetsi is appointed as abbot of the Monastery of Etchmiadzin.
Conditioned upon the political situation which was prevailing in Armenia, the Catholicosate of All Armenians was relocated in 931, from Dvin to Akhtamar, then Ani, and once again to Cilicia, where in 1198, an Armenian kingdom was established. In 1375, after the fall of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom, conditioned upon the present political situation, the See of the Catholicosate is moved yet again.
In Vagharshapat, in 1441, they Church convened a National Ecclesiastical Assembly, and confirmed the decision to return the Catholicosate of All Armenians to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. The Catholicosate of All Armenians has remained at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin uninterrupted since that time.
The renovation and restoration to this Holy Shrine, which has suffered serious and damaging blows throughout many centuries, has been one of the primary concerns for Armenian Pontiffs in recent times.
In1945, Catholicos Gevork VI appealed to all Armenians to help in the repair of the Mother Cathedral. National Benefactor Calouste Gulbenkian answered his call, and the renovation work on the church was begun. Those efforts continued with new vigor during the reign of Catholicos Vasken I of blessed memory through the resources donated by National benefactor Alex Manoogian, and his children, Richard and Louise Manoogian. In 2001, in the newly renovated and beautified Mother Cathedral, during the reign and under the presidency of the Catholicos of All Armenians His Holiness Karekin II, with the participation of international and inter-church representatives, and an embrace of all Armenians, the 1,700th anniversary of the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of Armenia was celebrated.
Anew page was written in the continuing history of Holy Etchmiadzin.
On the columns and arches of the Mother Cathedral, on her walls and domes, as a fusion of stone, succeeding centuries have been sealed one to another. They have inter-weaved with each other and with the living faith of the Armenian people.
Although she has suffered destructions, followed by renovations throughout the centuries, the current form of the Mother Cathedral corresponds with the original illuminated drawing of the Illuminator’s vision: "On the crosses of four columns, bound to each other were extraordinary arches, and on this I saw an amazing structure created by God, in the shape of a dome".
Excavations during the 1950’s confirmed that no later than from the fifth century, the Mother Cathedral had a rectangular cruciform plan with a dome, wherein the west, south and north sides had salient apses, semi-circular on the inside, and pentagonal from the outside.
The key element of any religious building is the altar of sacrifice; in Christian churches it is the Main Altar of the Main Sacristy from where Divine Liturgy is celebrated.
According to the testimony of Armenian historians from the fifth century, the first Christian churches were founded in the places of pagan temples. Likewise, the Mother Cathedral was established in the location of the temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Artemis which, and according to the vision of the Illuminator, was struck and destroyed by the golden hammer of the Descended Only Begotten.
It would likely be difficult to find anywhere else in the world, whose foundation-stone, or "Vem Kar", of the sacristy is as multi-layered as this, and as deeply embedded throughout so many eras and so many different faiths.
During the archaeological excavations of 1958, the Main Sacristy built in the fifth century by Vahan Mamikonian, with its columned bases, bema and the foundation stone of the Altar, was exposed after being discovered untouched at a depth of one and one half meters under the present Main Altar of the Mother Cathedral.
This ancient altar is also double-layered. Inside its structure, the walls of an even older altar have been preserved, which pre-date the fifth century. In all probability, this is the altar constructed by Gregory the Illuminator himself.
During the excavations, a furnace-like fireplace, made of fired clay, still containing remnant ashes, was also discovered inside the perimeter of the fifth-century sacristy. It is significant that the oldest main altar’s foundation stone was found placed directly upon the fireplace, which symbolizes the victory of Christianity over paganism.
Just as the old sacristy consists of two layers, so is the old religion left under the foundation-stone, a stone obelisk from the Urartian period, made of burnished basalt was discovered under the fireplace of the pagan temple, in the lower bema, in a horizontal position. It is the largest of similar monuments from the Urartian period.
This obelisk that was removed from the Great Altar is now located north of the Mother Cathedral as a memorial, confirming that this place had been an ancient spiritual center more than one thousand years prior to the construction of the Cathedral.
Throughout the course of time the level of the Main Sacristy was raised as a result of the various renovations, but it preserved its former multi-layer composition.
The Mother Cathedral itself is also fundamentally dual-layered.
During the archaeological excavations of the 1950s, architect Alexander Sahinian exposed the older column bases preserved in the pedestals of the bases of the four columns that support the dome. It became apparent, that just as the Illuminator’s altar had been included inside the altar built by Vahan Mamikonian, so had the four main column bases been placed upon older pedestals, that is to say, the column bases of the older sanctuary built by the Illuminator.
This was done purposefully, so that the rebuilt sanctuary in the fifth century, would rise upon the foundation and columns placed by Saint Gregory and Trdat the Great, so that the new structure would not interrupt the golden chain of the spiritual inheritance of this holy temple where the Only Begotten Descended.
And for exactly the same reason, following the excavations of 1958, the reinforcement of the cathedral did not take place at the expense of burying its oldest layer under the new building. A most complex solution was found. The ancient altar situated under the present Main Altar was preserved, and a staircase was constructed behind the new altar leading to the old one. One can see the old bases, pedestals and the preserved oldest layer of stone through a glass panel from within the cathedral.
In the Christian world, the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is the oldest example of a cruciform, tetra-altared and tetra-columned dome-centered church in Christian architecture. This specific style and design was spread to Byzantium and throughout Europe.
During the seventeenth century Armenian architecture was enhanced with the addition of belfries attached to existing churches. In 1654, Catholicos PhilipII Aghbaketsi initiated the construction of the belfry of the Mother Cathedral, through the patronage of an Armenian from Constantinople, Anton Chelebi.
In 1658, the next Catholicos, Hakob IV Jughayetsi, finished construction and consecrated the bell-tower.
The entire height of the three-story bell-tower is 27 meters. The top of the first floor is trimmed with a broad sculpted band of stone. The second floor contains a Holy Altar, dedicated to the Arch Angels, and the third floor is the belfry itself, erected on a circle of eight columns. The lower floors are based on four columns each.
The Domes of the Cathedral
In 1682, Catholicos Yeghiazar built small, belfry-like domes above the northern and southern apses, as well as above the Main Sacristy, thus the domes of the Mother cathedral, together with the belfry became five, one over each of the Holy Altars. As a dome-centered church, there is the main dome in the center, and the other four frame a cross around the Main Dome.
The main dome is multi-layered, similar to the foundation and the Main Altar of the Cathedral. Tenth century historian John Draskhanakerdtsi writes, that in 618 Catholicos Komitas "destroying the wooden dome of the Cathedral of the city of Vagharshapat, and built a beautiful and stunning dome with polished stones".
However, as the experts note, referring to the results of excavations, the wooden dome of the period before the time of Catholicos Komitas, must have been built to replace an earlier stone dome which had been destroyed.
During the distractions of the following years the dome built by Catholicos Komitas was destroyed as well during the devastations of the following years. Davrizhetsi writes that in 1629, Catholicos Movses, ascending to the throne, began the reconstruction of Etchmiadzin, during when "the roof of the dome was repaired, since the stones were in ruins, and had fallen away".
The main dome is decorated on its exterior with columns and has twelve facets and twelve windows. Pictured on the twelve facets are medallion-shaped bas-reliefs of the twelve apostles. The faces of the apostles are impressive and expressive, bearing the features of their individuality.
The Cathedral has three entrances. The main one is the entrance of the Bell-tower, the other two entrances are located in the Cathedral’s southwest and northwest corners. A historical fourth entrance was traditionally located near the eastern corner, where there is a wall at present. The only evidence remaining of a door in this location in ancient times is an existing upper arch. According to tradition Trdat and the family of the king entered the cathedral from this door.
While not a part of the permanent structure, the Catholicosal thrones are a dominant feature in the interior of the Cathedral.
There are two Catholicosal thrones in the Mother Cathedral.
The first stands in front of the bema, in the chancel, near the northeast column. Crowned with a larger dome, and covered with mother of pearl and gold, this throne was prepared in 1721, and presented to Holy Etchmiadzin by the Armenian community of Smyrna.
The second throne is located near the northwest column. It was presented in 1696 to Catholicos NahapetI Yedesatsi as a gift by His Holiness Pope Innocent XIII Patriarch of the West and Bishop of Rome, Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although the traditional cemetery for the brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin is located on the southeastern portion of the monastery, starting in the 19th century, a new tradition began and the Catholicoi of All Armenians are now buried in this location.