Etchmiadzin is the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the place where Surp Grigor Lusavorich saw a beam of light 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, the compound's churches and museums are underwhelming. Those who only have time for one day trip from Yerevan should consider visiting Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple instead.
The main cathedral, Mayr Tachar, stands in a quadrangle of hedges and lawn surrounded by 19th-century buildings. The original church was consecrated between AD 301 and 303 when Christianity was first adopted by the Armenian nation, but later fell into ruin and was rebuilt in 480–83. More work and expansion occurred in the 600s, 1600s and 1700s, and a major restoration of the interior 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 generally conducted at 7.30am from Monday to Saturday and 8am on Sunday. Evening services are generally conducted at 5.30pm daily.
The grounds include the Palace of the Catholicos (aka the Veharan), the home of the present Catholicos, Karekin II, who was enthroned in 1999. He is the supreme prelate of the 1700-year-old Armenian Apostolic faith. There's also the Cathedral Museum containing precious items obtained by the Church, and the disappointing Rouben Sevak Museum.
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.