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Where God Descended

A Glimpse at Armenia’s Spiritual Core

by Paul Rimple

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Etchmiadzin is the spirit and soul of Armenians,” said Father Mkrtich Proshian, dean of the Vaskenian Theological Seminary, which overlooks the shore of Armenia’s Lake Sevan.

“It keeps the diaspora spiritually alive and is the heart of the nation.”

At once referring to the world’s oldest cathedral and a complex of structures — ancient, medieval and modern — Etchmiadzin echoes sanctity and stability. The complex houses the administrative offices of the Armenian Apostolic Church and functions as the repository of its cultural and spiritual heritage. Located west of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, Etchmiadzin enjoys renewed celebrity in post-Soviet Armenia. Yet, it faces daunting challenges as the church struggles to redefine itself in this resource poor and geopolitically fragile country.

“The fact that it was built with stone from Mount Ararat is very symbolic,” continued the priest. Armenians have revered the region’s highest peak for more than three millennia, once believing Ararat to be the home of their pantheon of gods. Here, Noah’s ark rested after the great flood and here God offered his covenant to Noah. Though Ararat remains a national symbol, the mountain lies across the country’s border, in what is now Turkey — a fact that inspires great sorrow among Armenians.

“It is at once a symbol of our covenant with God, a symbol of hope of our promised land and the most poignant reminder of our loss,” said Armenian journalist Levon Sevunts, who immigrated to Canada in 1992.

Translated from Armenian as “the place where the only begotten (miatsin) descended (echnel),” Etchmiadzin honors a vision.

Shortly after baptizing Armenia’s king in 301, Gregory “the Illuminator” dreamed Christ descended from heaven with a host of angels and struck the ground with a golden hammer. Christ commanded Gregory to commemorate the “place of the descent” and to enshrine there the remains of two Roman Christian martyrs, Gayane and Hripsime.

The deaths of these sainted women, which the king had ordered a few years earlier, had plunged Armenia into turmoil; the king, fraught with guilt, despaired and lost all reason. Seeking solace, he turned to Gregory, who healed and baptized him.

Moved by the Illuminator’s vision, the penitent monarch constructed a church — which became the episcopal seat for the catholicos-patriarch, or chief prelate of the Armenian Church — on a site long considered holy. Archaeological excavations carried out in the cathedral in the late 1950’s revealed the remains of a Roman-era temple dedicated to Artemis and an even older obelisk from the Urartian civilization (about 860 to 585 B.C).

Etchmiadzin fast became the intellectual and cultural hub of Armenia, as well as its ecclesiastical center. Though nestled high in the Caucasus Mountains, Armenia was poised between the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean and the Syriac-Persian culture of the Near East. Armenia’s Christian leaders took the best of both, synthesizing a unique Armenian Christian society.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Monastery Armenian Apostolic Church Etchmiadzin