Etchmiadzin & Around

Another cool day over in Armenia.  I’m definitely getting a better sense for the country, and for Yerevan in particular.

The big highlight of today was visiting Etchmiadzin, a town very nearby Yerevan. Etchmiadzin used to be the capital of Armenia, and is home to four incredible churches, most notably the Etchmiadzin Cathedral.

Our driver today was awesome, and as we drove out to the town we chatted about all sorts of things.  He didn’t have any problem answering our questions about politics and stated quite confidently, “We have no economy.”  He explained that many young people have already left Armenia to get jobs elsewhere, and those who haven’t are likely planning their exist to whever they can find work.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, factories across Armenia closed and many remain empty, so there is a major job shortage.  “The Soviet period was not so bad,” he explained, having served two years in the Soviet army in Moscow.  “Everyone had job, everyone was busy.  But now we have problem.  Big problem.”

This problem is also related to an extremely unpopular president who is set to be in power for another three years.  “He think about only for him,” Our driver went on, “Money for him, money for his friends.  Putin is older brother for him, let’s say.”  The parliament also sounds like it is somewhat corrupt; the President puts who he wants in parliament so that he can pass any decision, and there is a great amount of wealth available to those friends of the President who work in government departments or in parliament.

 We went from our conversation about current-day politics and socio-economics and wandered into a church from the 6th Century – quite the contrast.  This church, the first of four on today’s schedule, has been led and maintained by monks since it was built.  What was really special about this church was not just the fact that the building dates back to the 500s, but that the monks who take care of it have been buried there ever since, so all around the church are these ancient cemeteries.  The oldest graves may once have had writing on them, but they looked more like big rocks now.  The more recent ones had names and dates engraved, and some of them had the most beautiful designs engraved as well.

Next we went on the main event: Etchmiadzin Cathedral.  Etchmiadzin is, for all intents and purposes, the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, containing the original and most important church, along with the residence of the Armenian Catholicos, who, for all intents and purposes, is the Pope of the church here.  The Cathedral itself was constructed between 301 and 303, and is considered by many to be the oldest cathedral in the world.  That seems to be up for a bit of debate, but what is not is the fact that it’s the first State-built church; Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

The Cathedral itself has undergone some major construction and upkeep, but parts of it still date back to 301, which is pretty incredible.  Considering the importance of this place in Armenian Apostolic religion, I was surprised to find that there were very few tourists and other visitors.  Other than several Armenian families and one particularly obnoxious American one, we had the place to ourselves.

This was another one of those situations where it’s almost impossible to wrap your head where you are.  I understand academically what it means for something to be buid in 301, but it’s completely different to have to think about what that means and make sense of it in relative terms.

Our driver bought us each a candle, so we lit them among the hundreds of candles already burning.  In Armenian churches their candles seem to sit in water, which amplifies the light and looks incredibly beautiful.  I spend a long time taking photos of all the different candles around the Cathedral.

We also visited a little three-room museum at the back of the church.  It had all sorts of crosses and books and symbols claiming to contain relics from Saints that visited the region.

Next we visited a church dating back to the 9th Century, which is also incredibly cool and old, even after visiting something built in 301.  I actually enjoyed our visit to this church more because it had had less upkeep and renovation, so you got a better sense for what it looked like when it was built.  Amazingly, we had the place entirely to ourselves, so it was really special to wander through and take it all in.

 Finally, we visited the ruins of a church built in the 7th Century.  A lot of churches of this time were built on top of pagan temples, and I think that must have been the case for this one because it did not at all look like a church.  It reminded me of temples you’d see in Rome or Greece, and there were even ancient pagan fertility stones and sun dials among the ruins.  They’re unsure whether the church collapsed during an earthquake or whether it was destroyed by invading Muslims, but apparently it was quite spectacular in its day.  Historians have paired with architects to draw up pictures of what it might have looked like – again, the proposed drawings looked way more like temples than churches to me, but what do I know.

That was the last stop on our mini tour before heading back to Yerevan.  Our driver suggested a few restaurants that we should try near our hotel, so after he dropped us off we wandered over to Yerevan Tavern for some traditional Armenian food.  We got the most delicious potato dish, kachapuri, and Armenian bbq, along with some Armenian wine that was all really delicious.

Tonight we went out on the town again, this time a little bit later.  We’ve been hearing all about Yerevan’s cafe-culture, and until tonight I wasn’t buying it.  Like Tbilisi, Yerevan totally comes alive at night.  People gather in the main streets and either wander through town as a family or get drinks on one of the many cafes that open up.  We decided to find the Cascade, a famous set of stairs leading up over an arts center to an incredible view of the city.  There’s something like 250 stairs, and all the way up there are different installments of modern art.  It’s a really fun climb, and from the top there’s an incredible view of Yerevan.  On a clearer day you can even see Mount Aratat, the mountain where it is commonly believed Noah docked his arc after the flood.  We could see the outline of the mountain, but I’d love to go back on a day with fewer clouds.

After grabbing a drink at a local wine bar, we’re back at the hotel and ready for bed.  Tomorrow we’re planning to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum, so it will obviously be a heavy morning.


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