Vagharshapat, generally called Echmiadzin, after the religious compound in the center, is the spiritual capital of all Armenians. The Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and where the Catholicos resides, houses a number of churches, museums, gardens, seminaries and the oldest cathedral in the world. Dating back over 1,700 years, the original cathedral was built over an even older, pagan fire-worshipping pit that is still preserved in a room underneath the altar. The precise location for the church, is said to be the spot where Jesus struck the ground with a gold hammer, and is where Echmiadzin gets its name – the descent (ech) of the only (mi) begotten (dzin) son of God.
It has undergone significant reconstruction throughout its existence, as can be admired by the varying stones and styles of its distinct portions, and is still busy with weddings, baptisms and church services. If you’re lucky, look out for a bride and groom saying their vows, to enjoy a true Armenian wedding experience! Other impressive rituals are Armenian Christmas on Jesus’ birth day, January 6th, Easter, and when the Catholicos blesses the grape harvest on the second Sunday of August.
Surb Gayane and Surb Hripsime are other important churches in Echmiadzin, named after two of forty Christian virgins that fled to Armenia, and were killed by King Trdat for refusing to marry him. Once he adopted Christianity as his and his country’s religion, he had their remains found and they are currently preserved under the altars of the churches.
Walking between the Echmiadzin compound and the churches, especially in Armavir’s dry heat, can tire anyone out – so when you get hungry, just ask around for what is colloquially known as Kufte Street, and try out Echmiadzin’s delicious kufte! Made from pounded and ground beef, mixed with spices and onion, this kufte goes down great with some vodka or cognac, and is the perfect meal to keep you going.