St. Hripsime (Echmiadzin, Arménie/Armenia)

Echmiadzin, also Echmiatsin, Etchmiadzin, Ejmiatsin is the spiritual centre of Armenia and the seat of the Catholicos of All Armenians, the head of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. It is the most populous city in Armavir province, about 20 km west of Yerevan. The 1989 census counted the population of Echmiadzin as 61,000; it has declined considerably since: 56,388 in the 2001 census, and an estimated 52,757 in 2008.

The town originated as Vardkesavan or Vardgesavan in the 4th or 3rd century BC. King Vagharsh (117-140) had the name changed to Vagharshapat which still persists as the official appellation of the town. Several decades later the town became the capital of Armenia and remained the country's most important city until the 4th century AD. Over the centuries the city has borne several other names, including: Avan Vardgesi, Artemed, Iejmiatsin, Kaynepolis, Kayrak'aghak', Norak'aghak', Uch'k'ilisa, Üçkilise, and Valeroktista.

Historically, the focal point of the town is the Echmiadzin Cathedral, the oldest in the world. It was originally built by Saint Gregory the Illuminator as a vaulted basilica in 301-303, when Armenia was the only country in the world the state religion of which was Christianity. According to the 5th-century Armenian annals, St. Gregory had a vision of Christ descending from heaven and striking the earth with a golden hammer to show where the cathedral should be built. Hence, the patriarch gave the church and the town the new name of Echmiadzin, which may be translated as "the place where the Only Begotten descended".

In 480, Vahan Mamikonian, the Roman governor of Armenia, ordered the dilapidated basilica to be replaced with a new cruciform church. In 618, the wooden dome was replaced with a stone one, resting on four massive pillars linked to exterior walls by arcades. This was the church much as it is today. Murals in the interior and extravagant rotundas surmounting the apses appeared in the early 18th century. A three-tier belfry was constructed half a century earlier. The cathedral formerly boasted the largest collection of Armenian medieval manuscripts, but these were lately handed over to the Matenadaran.

Immediately west of the cathedral is the Gate of St. Tiridates, leading to the imposing patriarchal palace. To the northeast, with buildings both within and outside the enclosure, is the Spiritual Academy. Several Khachkars are north of the cathedral.

Apart from the cathedral, the town contains two highly important and very ancient churches. The church of St Gayane, distinguished by its harmonious proportions, was constructed in 630 and underwent enlargement in the 17th century, when the dome was rebuilt and a porch was added. The church of St. Hripsime was built in 618 and survives basically unchanged. Those two churches, the cathedral and the nearby archaeological site of Zvartnots, are listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (wikipedia)


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