So as I mentioned in my prior blog that today we were going to visit Echmiadzin, a city outside Yerevan, but really what we would call back home, a suburb. Echmiadzin is the location of the Holy See of the Armenian church (sort of like Vatican City) as well as the important Etchmiadzin Cathedral. And at one time, Echmiadzin was the capital of Ancient Armenia.
Anyway, as we left the Yerevan, we passed by the Holocaust Museum I visited last week, as well as numerous furniture shops. Apparently the suburbs are where craftsmen make Armenian furniture and take it from me, there is a lot of furniture making going on. And just before we reached Echmiadzin, we stopped to see Saint Hripsime Church, which was built in 618. The church is named after St Hripsime who was stoned to death after she refused to marry the pagan King Trdat III.
The interior of the stone church looked like a lot of stone churches I had seen in Armenia. However, the notable exception was the alter, which was lined from one end to the other with colourful frescos of Armenian saints. The paintings were remarkable in the richness of the colours and had stayed vibrant because the paints used for the frescos were made from plants and bugs meaning the colours do not fade.
We wandered around the church and climbed down some stairs to the small chamber where St. Hripsime’s remains are buried. In addition, there was a small niche depicting her stoning as well as a few of the rocks purportedly used to stone St. Hripsime to death. Yikes.
We left the church and continued to Echmiadzin and the cathedral compound that includes the Echmiadzin Cathdral and the Holy See. The entrance to the compound is fairly new and depicts a king and a bishop reaching out their hands to one another. (The old entrance remains and continues to be used by the locals, but tourists are directed to the new entrance.)
We walked through the entrance and the compound really was massive. It includes the headquarters of the Armenian Church, a seminary school, a baptismal church, numerous administrative buildings and, of course, the Echmiadzin Cathedral. Now unfortunately, the Cathedral is undergoing extensive renovations to shore up its foundation and as a result, the Cathedral was covered in scaffolding both outside and inside. Nevertheless, the renovation work did not take away from the importance of the Cathedral, which was originally constructed in 303 AD, was rebuilt in 483 AD and was expanded and renovated in the 7th century, the 17th century and the 18th century. (Given that the Cathedral had not been extensively renovated since the 1700s, I guess it was due for some work.)
Anyway, as we walked to the Cathedral, Diane relayed the story of how the Cathedral managed to avoid destruction by Muslim invaders over the years. Apparently, the architect included a carving of the Persian ruler who was intent on destroying Christianity in Armenia. When the Persian armies arrived to destroy the Cathedral, the carving was pointed out to the leaders of the army and they immediately left the building alone. The carvings in the Cathedral remain to this day.
Now while I am sure the Cathedral is lovely without the scaffolding, the true star of the Cathedral for me was the bell tower at the entrance of the church that had been constructed in 1654. The carvings were absolutely gorgeous with vibrant green and blue paint around the entrance, red and gold over the rooftop and little flowers and angels painted into the rooftop. There was even a scorpion painted into the rooftop near one of the angels. (I guess the painter had a sense of humour.). The sides of the entryway were covered in two large frescos. It might have been the best entrance to a church I had seen in Armenia.
And like the St. Hripsime Church, this Cathedral had lovely frescos lining the alter. Unfortunately, with all the construction, it was hard to have a really close look at the paintings.
The only other site we were able to see inside the Cathedral was a small museum that houses a number of relics, icons and bishop’s clothing. The most interesting relic is a framed cross that is mounted on petrified wood that is said to come from Noah’s Ark (which is supposed to be on Mt. Ararat). Now THAT was interesting.
We left the Cathedral, took a quick look inside the very modern and very new baptismal church, stopped in a souvenir store and then made our way back to the car.
On the drive back to the city, we stopped at Zvartnots, a 7th century ruined cathedral that is on the UNESCO world heritage list. Now I love anything old and ruined so this was right up my alley. The cathedral was constructed at the direction of Nerses II and was destroyed in an earthquake in the 10th century. The ruins were discovered in the 20th century. The site was then excavated and the cathedral was partially reconstructed with columns supporting the massive carved arches surrounding the alter.
We wandered around the site taking in the reconstructed first floor of the cathedral (there had been three levels) and then visited the museum which houses a number of relics that had been excavated from the site, including pottery and a giant sundial.
When we walked back outside, Diane showed me the winery and the wine press as well as numerous remnants of carvings, including a massive eagle. As we walked back towards the reconstructed cathedral, we heard a man singing. And this was not ordinary singing. This was deep throated operatic singing. It turned out that the Zvartnots Quartet periodically sings at the site (as well as making appearances around the area).
Once another tour group arrived, the quartet sang four songs ending with what sounded to me like a beer drinking song. It was a hands clapping fun song and fortunately I took a video of part of the song.
After the musical interlude, we finished the drive back to the city and stopped for lunch. And the one thing I must say is that Nour (who plans the lunches) has given me an incredible variety of Armenian specialties. Today was no exception as we tried harissa (a local dish made of wheat and meat that was created by Armenians fleeing the holocaust). There was also the standard salads (the bulgar salad today was awesome) as well as breads, cheeses and fruit for desert.
After lunch, we stopped at the Vernisaage market, the largest arts and crafts market in the Caucus region. Now this place was massive spanning at least three blocks. Unfortunately, I found that a lot of the items for sale were not hand made, but rather appeared to be mass produced (probably in China). However, amongst the mass produced items there were home made items, and I managed to find some really cool, unique handmade jewelry, an obsidian statue (a local specialty) and a hand made bowl from the pits of fruit. Seriously. It was quite remarkable.
Anyway, after the purchases Nour and Diane drove me back to the hotel. Tomorrow is my last day in Armenia before I fly to Dubai for a couple days and then it is back to the Americas (South America and Brazil to be exact.)