Just a short bus ride from Yerevan, the small city of Etchmiadzin is home to many of the nation’s most important churches. In fact, it’s acted as the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church for over 1700 years! Its Treasury Museum, which contains a piece of Noah’s Ark and the lance used to spear Jesus, shouldn’t be missed. And just east of town is Zvartnots Cathedral, arguably one of the most impressive churches to have ever been built in Armenia.
Even if you’re a foreign tourist with no ties to the Armenian Apostolic Church like me, Etchmiadzin makes for a worthwhile visit. With that being said, it’s not as essential as some of the other day trips you can take from Yerevan. But being close to the capital and relatively easy to get to, it makes for a nice half-day excursion that you can easily do on your own.
Interestingly, the main landmarks around town have intertwined backstories that shed light on the major cultural transformations that transpired in 4th century Armenia.
The main Etchmiadzin Cathedral and the other churches listed below are all within walking distance from one another. While I managed to walk to Zvartnots Cathedral, the walk is not for everyone, and a marshrutka from town is ideal. Learn more at the very end of the article.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
Alighting the minibus from Yerevan, my first stop was the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Located in the center of the city, the church headquarters is where you’ll find Etchmiadzin Cathedral and the fascinating Treasury Museum. This complex is essentially the Vatican of Armenia.
I first walked through the elaborate entrance gate which features King Tridates III and Saint Gregory the Illuminator, two of the main figures responsible for Armenia’s official conversion to Christianity in 301 AD.
Etchmiadzin was the Armenian capital at this time, and so it was chosen as the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the first national Christian church in the world.
Entering the complex, I walked past some well-manicured gardens and a number of beautiful kachkars. Prevalent all over Armenia, these cross-stones are sometimes used to mark graves and in general are believed to provide spiritual protection.
In Armenia, kachkar design has become its own distinct art form. Looking closely during your travels, you’ll see that no two kachkars are exactly the same.
The center of the complex, Etchmiadzin Cathedral, sadly, was inaccessible due to renovations. I was already aware of this before my visit so it didn’t come as a surprise.
It was still interesting to look at from the outside, as this could possibly be the oldest cathedral in the world, dating back to the time of Saint Gregory. The original version is said to have been constructed between 301-303.
According to legend, Gregory the Illuminator saw a vision of Jesus striking this spot with a golden hammer, implying he wanted a church built there. But it’s not as if the site was a patch of barren land. It was already home to one of Armenia’s most prominent pagan temples.
The Treasury Museum
Even with the cathedral inaccessible, just nearby is the Etchmiadzin Treasury Museum, something every visitor should see. A ticket costs 1500 dram (closed Mon.) and includes a guided tour.
Fascinatingly, the museum contains some relics which, if authentic, are among the most sacred artifacts in the Christian world.
First, our tour guide showed us around the room, and then we were free to explore on our own to take pictures. I was pleasantly surprised, as museums in Armenia are rather strict with photography. This is actually one of the last places I would’ve expected photos to be allowed!
Only opened to the public in 1982, the museum houses a plethora of religious art, relics and artifacts from the Armenian Apostolic Church. You’ll find clothes and ritual objects used by the Catholicos, among many other things.
Within one case was a couple of crosiers, or staffs held by bishops. Interestingly, many crosiers in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches utilize dual serpent symbolism at the top of their staffs. Officially, it’s said to represent the staff of Moses that was transformed into a serpent.
But it seems to have been inspired by even older symbolism. Dual snakes coiled around a staff can be seen on the Caduceus, an ancient Greek symbol of Hermes. The Eastern esoteric traditions, meanwhile, have long used dual serpents to represent kundalini energy traveling up the spine.
One of the most significant pieces in the collection is a tiny wood fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. I never would’ve noticed it had our guide not pointed it out. The tiny fragment is encased in the center of an ornate golden cross, and one needs to look closely to make it out.
And speaking of wood fragments, there’s also a supposed tiny piece of Noah’s Ark. According to the Old Testament, the ark landed atop Mt. Ararat, which has long been considered sacred by the Armenians and even a symbol of the country itself. The mountain now lies just over the border in Turkey, however.
Also on display is the Holy Lance – the spear that a Roman soldier used to pierce Jesus as he hung on the cross! According to the Bible, the soldier did this to confirm that Jesus was indeed dead.
This spear was originally kept at Geghard Monastery. Considering how Georgia has the robe that Jesus wore when he died, the Caucasus region seems to have just about the entire collection of crucifixion relics.
I took some time to explore the beautiful relics before heading back outside. The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin acts as a city within a city, and is home to a plethora of other structures like seminaries, residences and numerous churches. Local residents also seem to enjoy gathering here and relaxing in the gardens.
St. Gayane Church
Just outside the center of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is St. Gayane Church. And it’s here that you’ll first learn the story of the martyred nuns who are honored at numerous churches around town.
The story begins with Hripsime, a Christian born in Rome in the 3rd century AD. Known for her extraordinary beauty, she caught the attention of Emperor Diocletian, who insisted she marry him. Hripsime refused, however, and decided to escape. With the assistance of a nun named Gayane, she first fled to Alexandria and then Jerusalem before ending up in Armenia.
But upon arrival in Etchmiadzin, the scenario repeated itself with the Armenian king Tridates III. She refused his advances and was tortured as a result. Gayane comforted and supported Hripsime in these times, but Tridates III ultimately murdered her. And after killing Hripsime, he targeted Gayane and a group of other Christian nuns as well (notably, St. Nino managed to escape to Georgia).
It was also during this time that St. Gregory the Illuminator was being held captive in a pit in Khor Virap. And it was only after his release that the plagues and madness that afflicted Tridates III began to subside.
After Tridates III’s eventual conversion to Christianity, Gregory the Illuminator erected this church and others at the spots where the nuns were supposedly killed.
The church as we see it today was constructed between 630-641, replacing the original mausoleum erected here by Gregory the Illuminator. Some restorations were made in the 17th century, with additional halls and chapels being added. And nearby residential halls for monks and even a printing press were built.
St. Gayane church was one of the first times in Armenian architecture where the three-nave basilica was combined with a central domed church. It would go on to influence many later churches, such as those built at Ani (near present day Kars, Turkey).
During your visit to the peaceful church, don’t miss the lower level area where St. Gayane is supposedly entombed.
St. Shoghakat Church
The next destination is around 15-20 minutes east on foot. The walk will take you through the center of town, and this would be a good opportunity to stop somewhere for lunch. Just as with Yerevan, central Etchmiadzin’s layout was devised by architect and urban planner Alexander Tamanian in the 1920s.
You’ll find Shoghakat Church, another landmark linked with the martyrdom story. a block west of the main road.
It was at this spot, according to legend, that as many as 38 nuns were martyred by King Tridates III. Unlike Gayane and Hripsime, however, most of their names are unknown.
Supposedly, one of them, named Mariane, is entombed here. But the signage here and elsewhere around town doesn’t provide any specific details about her.
Built in 1684, the church is a single-nave domed basilica. An earlier 6th-century church once stood at the spot, and before that, a memorial chapel erected by St. Gregory. ‘Shogahakat’ means ‘ray of light,’ referring to the vision Gregory saw of Jesus telling him where to build.
For a reason I can’t quite explain, this was my favorite of the churches I visited in Etchmiadzin. Its appearance is rather ordinary, but the place had a certain power to it.
Also just outside is the ruins of another church named after St. Mariane. The informational plaque, however, only repeats the same martyrdom story and doesn’t tell us who Mariane really was.
The pile of rubble is contrasted greatly by a nearby fountain equipped with a colorful ‘I Love Etchmiadzin’ sign.
St. Hripsime Church
After another 5-10 minutes of walking east, you’ll get to St. Hripsime Church. Obviously, it’s named after the same Hripsime from our story. Built in 618, it’s one of the oldest churches in Armenia to have survived intact.
While it looks mostly rectangular from the outside, the interior reveals more of a cruciform shape. This style would go on to influence many other churches in Armenia along with Jvari Monastery in Mtskheta, Georgia.
The church was renovated in 1653. The brick wall surrounding it was added in 1776 and then the bell-tower in 1880. Notably, this was one of the only churches to remain active throughout the Soviet period.
And during further renovations in 1958, workers discovered the remains of a pre-Christian temple here. Hellenic in style, it likely resembled Armenia’s only surviving ‘pagan’ temple, Garni.
This begs the question: Were the 4th-century martyrs really killed at these exact spots? Or were such details only embellished after the destruction of temples that early Christians were going to demolish anyways?
Whatever the case may be, this is where St. Hripsime is now entombed. Next to her sarcophagus, you can see artwork depicting Tridates’ soldiers (who appear to be miniature in size) attacking her as she kneels in prayer.
Around 5 km east of central Etchmiadzin, Zvartnots Cathedral can be tricky to reach, but definitely shouldn’t be missed. While walking is possible, taking a vehicle is ideal (more below).
Unlike the churches in Etchmiadzin, Zvartnots Cathedral requires an entry fee of 700 AMD for foreigners.
Zvartnots Cathedral was built by Catholicos Nerses III the Builder between 641 and 653 – around the same time period as some of the churches mentioned above. The structure’s design, however, was entirely unique.
On top of a stepped platform, Zvartnots Cathedral was a circular building that consisted of three stories. Today, the original platform, many of the pillars and even some of the original arches remain in good condition.
But the cathedral has clearly seen better days! It’s believed that the building collapsed during an earthquake in the year 930. Amazingly, it was forgotten about for nearly a thousand years, having not been discovered until the early 20th century.
According to legend, following the murder of dozens of nuns and the release of Gregory the Illuminator from prison, Gregory and King Tridates III met at this very spot. And it was here that Tridates accepted Christianity and made Armenia the world’s first ever Christian nation.
While Zvartnots is a common stop for tour groups, I was lucky to arrive just as a big group was leaving. On the circular platform was a group of musicians performing traditional Armenian folk music, creating a nice ambiance for exploring the ruins.
Behind Zvartnots Cathedral are an innumerable amount of bricks. In addition to the main structure, the complex was home to clergy rooms and the residence of the Catholicos.
In addition to its innovative architectural design, Zvartnots Cathedral was hailed by both ancient historians and those who excavated it for its distinctive artwork. In addition to ornate geometrical patterns, numerous eagles were carved into the capitals of the columns. This feature may have been influenced by Mesopotamian architecture.
Even in its current ruined state, it’s clear at first glance that Zvartnots Cathedral was completely unlike anything else from its era.
Walking past more rubble, I encountered a museum dedicated to the cathedral. In addition to artifacts and artwork discovered around the site, the museum displays architectural plans depicting what Zvartnots Cathedral once really looked like, complete with a detailed 3D model.
Numerous later churches would go on to copy Zvartnots’ multistoried circular design. Sadly, many of them are in the lost capital of Ani (near Kars, Turkey) and are in a state of near ruin themselves.
While it would be nice to see the long lost original, there’s still something special about Zvartnots Cathedral in its current state. Even with much of it destroyed, its stone columns continue to stand defiantly upright toward the open sky.
To get to Etchmiadzin from Yerevan, first head to the Central Bus Station (also known as Kilikia). The station, unfortunately, is not near any metro station. You’ll need to take a local marshrutka or use a ridesharing app just to get there.
Outside the station, you should find minivans to Etchmiadzin with the number 203 on them. The ride to central Etchmiadzin takes just around 20 minutes and costs 250 dram.
You will pass Zvartnots Cathedral on the way, but it’s on the opposite side of the highway. Therefore, it makes more sense to visit it last.
As mentioned above, all the Etchmiadzin churches are accessible from one another on foot. But as Zvartnots is around 5 km away from the center of town, taking a marshrutka is best.
From Etchmiadzin, you can take the 203 back in the direction of Yerevan, though there are also numerous other marshrutkas that will pass by Zvartnots. Therefore, it’s best to find a bus stop in town and ask the driver before you get on.
In my case, I decided to walk to Zvartnots Cathedral from St. Hiripsime Church. While it’s just a straight walk down the highway, there are parts of the walk where the sidewalk entirely disappears. I was forced to take a detour through a sleepy residential area until I ended up back at the highway. Thankfully, the sidewalk had reappeared and the journey was straightforward until I reached Zvartnots. All in all, the walk took me around 40 minutes.
If I had to do it over again, however, I would’ve just hopped in a marshrutka. Then again, I might’ve not had much luck. After finishing up with Zvartnots Cathedral, I wanted to hail a marhsrutka back to Yerevan. I found the bus stop and waited for the marshrutka to come. And one did, but it didn’t stop! I made sure I was visible from afar for the next one, but it didn’t stop for me either. Ten minutes later, another one drove by. I waved to the driver. We made eye contact, but he kept on driving past me!
I had no idea what was going on. Normally in Armenia, they’ll keep letting passengers on even when the vehicle is already filled to capacity. I was clearly in front of the bus stop, but the buses just weren’t stopping.
Ultimately, after 5 or so marshrutkas passed me by, I just hired a car from Yandex. I still have no idea why the minibuses wouldn’t stop, and I don’t know what I should’ve done differently. It was a strange experience that only happened to me in this one instance.
For whatever reason, accommodation prices in Yerevan are considerably higher than those of nearby Tbilisi. This is in spite of most other things, like food and transport, costing the same amount. If budget isn’t an issue for you, then you should base yourself in the city center (within the circle or just outside of it).
Yerevan makes a great base from which to explore many other parts of Armenia. If you’re doing an extended stay in the city and want to save some money, staying outside the center will be fine. Just make sure that you’re within close distance of a metro station.
I stayed at Glide Hostel which I’d highly recommend for budget travelers. I opted for the private room with a private bathroom, but they also have some shared bathroom and dorm options available.
The guesthouse is located about 5 minutes on foot from Baregamutyun Station, the northernmost metro station. But you can still walk to the city center in about 30 minutes if the weather is nice. The staff were friendly and helpful, and a tasty breakfast was provided each morning.
When getting to places within and around the central circle, Yerevan is largely walkable.
The city has one simple metro line. While it’s certainly better than nothing, there are numerous sites around the city that can’t be accessed by train.
Luckily, there are a number of ridesharing apps you can use to get around, such as Yandex Taxi or GG Taxi. (Without a local credit card, you’ll most likely only be able to pay in cash.) While the drivers usually don’t speak any English, I had no problems using these apps or with any of the drivers.
To get out of town, you’ll often need to use a ridesharing service just to get to one of the city’s multiple bus stations, as they’re nowhere near a metro. The ride to the bus will typically cost more than the bus itself. The main railway station, on the other hand, does have a metro station attached to it, but most places around Armenia can only be reached by vehicle.
Additionally, Yerevan has marshrutka (public minibus) system but I never tried taking it. While the cheapest option for getting around, marshrutkas have no English signage and are terribly cramped. If you want to give it a shot, be sure to ask for advice at your hotel regarding which number bus to take.