Ejmiatsin - A view from our expert author

Ejmiatsin became the spiritual centre for Armenia’s Christians shortly after the country’s conversion in the early 4th century.

On the basis of archaeological evidence the first church at Ejmiatsin was of the basilica form but it was rebuilt in the 480s on a cruciform plan with four free-standing piers, four projecting apses which are circular on the interior and polygonal on the outside, and with a cupola. It was this second church, with cupola, which corresponds to Agathangelos’s report of Gregory’s vision, a report which fixed in Armenian culture the idea that churches should be cruciform in shape and should have cupolas. Further rebuilding was carried out in the 7th century and Ejmiatsin remained the seat of the Katholikos until 1065 when the then Katholikos Gregory II was forced to flee by the Turkish Seljuk invaders who were ransacking monasteries.

Ejmiatsin Cathedral Armenia by Deirdre HoldingEjmiatsin Cathedral, the spiritual centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church © Deirdre Holding

He moved to the Armenian principality of Cilicia (roughly the region of present-day Turkey around Adana and Tarsus at the extreme northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea) and the seat of the Katholikos remained there even after Cilicia fell to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1375. Ultimately in 1441 a council decided that the seat of the Katholikos should return to Ejmiatsin.

There are no records of any immediate reconstruction but the monastery was certainly in a very dilapidated state, with the roof in ruins and some facing stones having fallen, when in 1627 renovation eventually started. A wall was built around the precinct at this time and numerous service buildings were added. However, these were mostly destroyed in 1635–36 during the wars between Persia and Turkey for domination over Armenia and further rebuilding was required. The large three-storey bell tower was built in 1654 over the western doorway. Three smaller sixcolumn rotundas were added at the beginning of the 18th century; that at the southern apse collapsed in 1921 to be replaced by a new structure.

Accordingly the cathedral (open: 07.00–19.00) which visitors see now is the site of a pagan temple used as the site for a new Christian church in the 4th century, rebuilt in a quite different style in the 5th century and then very extensively renovated in the 17th. The tambour with its decorative medallions and cupola, the elaborately carved bell tower and much of the exterior carving are pure 17th century, as are the surrounding wall and service buildings. The oldest wall of the cathedral is the northern, which is 5th-century original. The exterior retains two 5th-century figured reliefs with Greek inscriptions, one showing St Thecia and St Paul, the other a cross flanked by two doves. In 1720, frescoes were added inside the cathedral but they were removed in 1891 only to be reinstated in 1956.

The interior is still, as in AD480, dominated by the four massive free-standing pillars supporting the tambour. In the very centre is a stepped holy table (the steps representing the hierarchy of angels) bearing many candlesticks and crosses. Surrounded by a framework from which hang lamps and incense burners, it is said to mark the spot where the ‘Only Begotten’ appeared to St Gregory, telling him to build a church. The frescoes, the use of marble for floor and balustrade, the embroidered curtains, and the candles and crosses on the holy table give a much more decorative feel to the building than exists in any other church in Armenia.

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