Echmiadzin is the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the place where Surp Grigor Lusavorich saw a beam of light fall to the earth in a divine vision, and where he built the first Mayr Tachar (Mother Church of Armenia). Though its rich history and symbolic importance make it a revered destination for Armenian Christians, we find the compound's churches and museums underwhelming and suggest that those who only have time for one day trip from Yerevan visit Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple instead.
The cathedral compound and its surrounding settlement functioned as the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340, when Christianity was first adopted by the Armenian nation. The seat of the Catholicos then wandered across western Armenia for centuries before returning here in 1441, with substantial rebuilding occurring in the 15th century.
The main cathedral, Mayr Tachar, stands in a quadrangle of hedges and lawn surrounded by 19th-century buildings. The original church was consecrated in 303 CE but later fell in ruin and was rebuilt in 480–483. More work and expansion occurred in the 600s, 1600s and 1700s, and a major restoration of the exterior was being undertaken at the time of writing. The three-tiered bell tower at the entrance of the church is richly carved and dates from 1654. Inside, the church is modest in scale, about 20m by 20m, but the roof gleams with frescoes. At the centre is an altar at the place where St Gregory saw the divine light strike the ground. Divine Liturgy is celebrated every Sunday starting at 11am (10.30am on feast days). Morning services are conducted at 7.30am from Monday to Saturday and 8am on Sunday. Evening services are conducted at 5.30pm daily.
At the rear of the church, through a door on the right of the altar, is the Cathedral Museum; buy your ticket from the office on the ground floor of the Palace of the Catholicos in front of the cathedral (look for the 'Museums' sign). The Cathedral Museum houses precious objects and relics collected by the church, including the Holy Lance (Surp Geghard), the weapon used by a Roman soldier to pierce the side of Christ while he was still nailed to the cross. The spearhead is set into an ornate 17th-century gold-and-silver casing and was brought to Echmiadzin from Geghard Monastery. There are also clerical vestments and crowns, illuminated manuscripts, processional crosses, a hand-shaped reliquary of St John the Baptist, and a beautiful beaten-gold reliquary dating from 1300 that is said to contain a relic of the True Cross.
The Palace of the Catholicos (aka the Veharan) is the home of the present Catholicos, Karekin II, who was enthroned in November 1999. He is the supreme prelate of the 1700-year-old Armenian Apostolic faith. On its 2nd floor is the Pontifical Residence Museum, a series of galleries showcasing the art collections, treasured possessions and personal effects of the Catholicoses and kings of Armenia. This is visited on a guided tour (Armenian-language only).
Also in the grounds is the Rouben Sevak Museum, where paintings collected by Mr Sevak are displayed. It's not particularly noteworthy.
The gardens of Mayr Tachar have a 1915–23 Genocide Monument and many fine khachkars assembled from around the country. There are also a number of contemporary churches, seminaries and libraries in the compound, the most notable of which is the Holy Archangels Church next to the main gate. This was designed by Jim Torosyan and consecrated in 2011.
There are three other churches of note in Vagharshapat, the most notable of which is Surp Hripsime, built in 618 as a replacement for an earlier chapel on the site where St Hripsime was slain after she refused to marry the pagan King Trdat III, choosing instead to stay true to her faith (she was a Roman nun who had earlier fled here to escape marriage to the Roman emperor Diocletian). The small chamber at the back of this church has a niche that contains a few of the rocks purportedly used to stone Hripsime to death. The church is located on the main highway near the entrance to town (near the bypass).
Other churches include Surp Gayane, a short walk from Komitas Sq past the main gate of the Holy See. St Gayane was the prioress of the 32 virtuous maidens who accompanied St Hripsime to Armenia. The original 5th-century chapel over her grave was rebuilt as a church in 1630. It's a fine orange-toned building with a plain interior and some fine khachkars in its grounds.
Less interesting but still worth a visit is Surp Shogahat, a sturdy stone structure with simple, elegant lines. It was rebuilt on the foundations of a chapel to one of the companions of Hripsime and Gayane. You'll find it on Nalbandyan St, behind Surp Hripsime.
To get here, take bus 111 (AMD200, 30 minutes) from Yerevan's Kilikiya Avtokayan to Vagharshapat and alight at Komitas Sq, a big roundabout linking Mesrop Mashtots Ave and Movses Khorenatsi St (there's a statue in the middle of the roundabout, so it's hard to miss).