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Echmiadzin is the center of the Armenian Church. It is where the Catholicos Of All Armenians lives, and the location of the Ejmiatsin Cathedral. The cathedral, built in 480, is located in a walled compound with gardens and various structures. The word "Ejmiatsin" means The coming of the only-begotten, and the cathedral was built on the very spot Grigor Luysavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) dreamt Jesus Himself descended to from heaven to show him where He wanted the church to be built. It is a scenic place to visit. The main church structure is pretty large, however the majority of the interior is dedicated to uses other than worship and the area you enter is much smaller than the size of the entire complex. It is a traditional Armenian design with a belfry and a number of rotundas. Most of the exterior is plain until you make it around to the entrance which is intricately carved and very beautiful. You must not leave until you get into the Manougian Museum. (Entrance through the large arch across from the cathedral entrance) This structure contains numerous cool paintings, souvenirs, religious artifacts, and illuminated manuscripts so insist on seeing it. Another secret is a fire pit beneath the altar. This is where pagans worshipped fire before Christianity. It is in the small museum in the main cathedral, with the entrance to the right of the altar. There are some religious artifacts in display cases, but you usually need to ask to be shown the fire worshipping pit, at which time a small donation is hinted at. Above the door which descends into the fire pit area is the lance ("Geghard") which is said to have pierced Christ's side. The original structure was added to so much over the years that not much remains now. There was an even earlier church on the same site which was supposed to have been built when Armenia was converted to Christianity. However, Ejmiatsin was yet the oldest church in the USSR. Make sure to wander around the gardens to get a look at the carvings and khatchkars. There is a nice gift shop by the entrance to the compound. The traffic square adjacent to the compound is ringed with very nice models of some Armenian churches throughout the country.
Ejmiatsin (known as Vagarshapat before 1945) was founded by King Vagarshak (117-140) in the place of Vardkesavan, an ancient settlement of the third-second centuries B.C. In view of the might of the town's fortifications — fortress walls, ramparts and moats — the Romans, upon the second destruction of Artashat in 163, transferred the capital of Armenia to Vagarshapat which, after Christianity was proclaimed the state religion in 301, became the country’s religious centre as well.
Vagarshapat was repeatedly destroyed by enemies. In particular. it was left in ruins by Persian troops in 364-369. However, the improvement of economic welfare in the long periods between wars made it possible to do extensive construction work and to erect in the town large structures which played an extraordinary role in the development of national architecture.
On the territory of Vagarshapat there have survived monuments of various periods of Armenia's history. Urartu arrows have been found in the temples of Zvartnots Cathedral and Ejmiatsin, and remnants of an ancient hearth of a heathen tabernacle — in the altar part of the latter. Greek and Latin epigraphic inscriptions, cut on tombstones, date back to the epoch of the Armenian Hellenistic culture. Architectural fragments, found by chance, such as an ornamented cornice in the masonry of the foundation of Hripsime church, are evidence of a high artistic standard of the structures of that time.
Ejmiatsin cathedral was the main Christian temple of Vagarshapat. Gayane. Hripsimeh, Shoghakat and other churches, built at various times in place of small and not too expressive fourth-century chapels, complement it from the point of view of architecture and layout. Situated relatively close to Ejmiatsin cathedral, they are perceived as important components of a single architectural ensemble which changed after each new temple was built. The low residential structures all around set off to the best advantage the grandeur of these edifices and their domination in various parts of the city.
Ejmiatsin cathedral ("the place where the homogeneous come together") is the most ancient Christian temple of Armenia. It was built in 301-303 by Grigor Luysavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator), the founder of the Armenian Gregorian church, next to the king's palace, in place of a destroyed heathen basilica. The monastery which took shape around the cathedral is the residence of Catholicos. the head of the Armenian clergy.
Scientists' opinions as to the original appearance of Ejmiatsin cathedral vary. According to T. Toramanian's hypothesis, the cathedral had the shape of a basilica at the beginning of the fourth century and, after reconstruction at the end of the fifth century, its plan became rectangular, with a four-apse cross and rectangular corner annexes fitted into it. The building had five domes. In the seventh century the apses were moved outside the limits of the rectangle, which gave the building the cross-cupola outside shape.