Yerevan’s Christian Heritage

10-year old Menua hid the broom behind his back when he saw me point my camera at him. He was running around the Avan Cathedral with a group of friends looking up to see where the drone buzz was coming from. While the drone was capturing the magnificent view of the Tsiranavor (meaning apricot-colored) Church in the warm embrace of the evening Yerevan sun, I was trying to capture the excitement of the kids.

“Were you sweeping the cathedral floor?” I asked in a friendly manner, pointing the lens of my camera down, not to intimidate the little boy. 

“No.” He shied away trying to make a macho face. 

“It’s a good thing you were doing, you know? It’s great that you take care of the church,” I encouraged him. His eyes lit up.

“Yes, but they don’t help me! I tell them to let’s clean the place together! But they keep playing!” He then runs after the other boys, laughing, through the medieval doorway.

It was perhaps one of the sweetest scenes I have ever encountered in Yerevan. These 7- to 10-year-old children played inside the 6th-century church and took care of it like it was their home –– a place they’ve known since they can remember.

Avan district is one of the oldest in Yerevan. It used to be a medieval village adjacent to the city, and is the site of one of the most prominent early Christian churches in the world, the Katoghike Tsiranavor Church. It is considered the first Church made in the cross-domed quatrefoil architectural type, and the first Holy Seat of the Chalcedonian Armenian Church. Only 200 years after being the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD, Armenia already had two different creeds of the religion –– Apostolic and Catholic, represented in the country divided between the Persian and Byzantine Empires. 

States, empires, and religions have replaced each other in this area throughout the millennia, from Urartu and Byzantium to the Mongolian, Turkish, Persian, and Arab invasions, each enriching Yerevan with various layers of cultural influences. Yet, for some reason, Yerevan’s Christian heritage is a topic that is not much spoken about, even as we celebrate treasures of Armenian Christian architecture, either preserved or vanished from other parts of the Armenian highlands –– Artsakh, Nakhijevan and Western Armenia. 

Legend has it that the etymology of the name Yerevan is derived from a foundational Christian story: Noah, seeing the water retreat and revealing the land he could descend to near the slopes of the mountain Ararat, exclaimed “Yerevats!” (Երևա՛ց / “It has been revealed!”; “Yerevan gal” literally translates from Armenian as “to come into sight”.)

A more scientific approach to the etymology of the name Yerevan derives from the name of the earliest urban settlement founded in the area, Erebuni –– a fortified city of the Kingdom of Urartu established in 782 BCE by King Argishti. It was a major center of pagan worship, as the fortress housed a temple dedicated to the supreme God of Urartu – Khaldi or Haldi. 

In the cuneiform inscription telling about the founding of the city of Erebuni, King Argishti mentions that he is the son of King Menua. I remember the shining eyes of the little boy named Menua at Tsiranavor Church.

I had asked him whether he knew about the history of the church and received a full lesson from the boy who knew the year of its construction –– 591 AD –– as well as the year of the devastating 1679 AD earthquake that leveled it and much of the cultural heritage of Yerevan.

While the actual monuments may have been destroyed, many inscriptions and accounts have been preserved, allowing us to see the importance that Yerevan held in the Christian Armenian world more broadly. 

It is possible that Yerevan’s Christian heritage has been overshadowed due to the fact that it’s located in such proximity to Ejmiatsin, now called Vagharshapat –– a city otherwise called the Armenian Vatican, where the first Armenian Christian cathedral was founded in the 4th century by the first Armenian Catholicos, St Gregory the Illuminator. 

Not many know that as a sign of blessing, he also transferred part of the relics of St. Ananias –– one of the 72 disciples of Christ –– from Damascus to Yerevan. The relics were buried in the Gardens of Yerevan, and a chapel was erected on the site. St. Ananias is mentioned in the Bible as a miracle worker with the ability to cure disease.

He restored St. Paul’s sight and converted him to Christianity. The event can be considered the foundation of Christianity in Yerevan. Today, the Tomb of Saint Ananias is one of the most visited sanctuaries in Yerevan and attracts people who want to improve their eyesight in particular as it is believed that the relics of the saint are endowed with the ability to heal.

Yerevan became a cradle of knowledge after the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century. We know that historian Mesrop Khorenatsi and his followers moved to Yerevan from Vagharshapat to continue teaching the alphabet and promoting the translation of the Bible and ancient writings into Armenian. Thus, already in the 5th century AD, Yerevan was a major center of learning.

In 591 AD, Armenia was divided between the Byzantine and Persian Empires. This contributed to a divide in the Armenian Church, as the Byzantine Empire demanded that Christians under its rule follow the Chalcedonian Church, while Armenia had chosen to adhere to the monophysite principle of Christianity (4th Ecumenical Council, 451 AD) –– of the Oriental Orthodox churches, shaping the unique identity of Armenian Apostolic Church. 

The first accounts about Christian churches in Yerevan are from records of the Third Church Council of Dvin in 607 AD. It is said that two clergymen from Yerevan participated, representing the two main churches of the time –– St. Poghos-Petros (St. Paul and Peter), located in what is now downtown Yerevan, and Avan Cathedral, located in what is now one of Yerevan’s 12 districts, then falling under Byzantine control. Both churches were built in the 5-6th centuries AD. Catholicos Hovhan Bagarantsi commissioned the building of the Tsiranavor Church in Avan with the support of the Byzantine Empire, and in opposition to the Apostolic Church which had its seat, currently just a 40 minute drive south of Yerevan, in Dvin. Meanwhile, the Sassanid Persian Empire did not oppress Christian practices among Armenians, but rather encouraged the building of Apostolic churches, hoping to gain further political leverage among Armenians against Chalcedonian Byzantium. 

Avan Cathedral is the oldest remaining Christian site of Yerevan that still remains, even though it is partially standing. A prominent Armenian architect and architectural historian of the time, Toros Toramanyan thought that being the Holy Seat of the Chalcedonian Armenian Church, the church also resembled the structure of the Holy See of Ejmiatsin –– with one central dome, surrounded with four smaller domes above four circle-shaped chambers in each corner. The new complex in Avan included the church and several other buildings. Adjacent to the church on the north side are foundations of the palatial residence of the Catholicos, thought to have been constructed before the church, around 581-582 AD. 

Renamed later as St. Hovhannes (St. John), the church is thought to have been a prototype of Saint Hripsime Church completed in 618 AD. Being the first of its kind –– the plan of Avan’s church was reproduced on the poster of the First International Symposium dedicated to Armenian architecture and art in Bergamo, Italy in 1975. 

Most of Yerevan’s structures were damaged in the 1679 AD earthquake, including the Yerevan Fortress, two bridges –– including the Red Bridge –– mosques and minarets and 12 churches. Accounts from the time, including that from Arakel Davrizhetsi and Zakarya Kanakertsi say that the rocks surrounding the Geghardavank Monastery in present-day Kotayk region fell, piling up so high that only the cross on top of the monastery could be seen. Another account describes heavy clouds of dust and smoke hanging over Yerevan for several days after the earthquake, blocking sunlight.

The other church mentioned in the accounts of the Dvin Church Council is the Church of St. Poghos-Petros (Saints Peter and Paul). According to Armenian historian Karo Ghafadaryan, this was the oldest and largest church in old Yerevan. It was a domeless, triple-nave basilica type of church. There was the chief altar with several sacristies in the eastern part of the large prayer-hall, which had entrances from the southern, western and northern sides. 

The fate of the church is emblematic of Yerevan’s struggle throughout the centuries. Being the oldest Christian church in the city, it played a major role in the culture of the medieval city with at least 20 medieval manuscripts housed there for centuries. Yet only parts of the eastern section of the church survived the 17th century earthquake. Ghafadaryan found the years 1691 and 1692 inscribed upon some of the khachkars built into the church’s eastern and northern walls. The first inscription, located on the arch of the southern facade, says that the church was restored in 1778. The second inscription, inscribed onto the northern wall, states that the church was restored in 1820 with the financial assistance of the city’s residents. 

In 1835, the large metallic doors of the Bayazet fortress in Western Armenia were brought here and placed on the Southern entrance of the church. The church stood until 1930 when the Soviet regime decided to tear it down to further develop the city. The Soviets’ new city plans were usually done so that official buildings, railways, and squares would be built in place of churches and other religious sites. In the case of St. Poghos-Petros, six layers of frescos were taken down carefully and are currently exhibited at Yerevan museums. A part of the altar belt with a decorative flower arrangement is on display at the Yerevan History Museum. According to Soviet art historian and art restorer Lydia Durnovo, this composition is one of the earliest examples of wall painting in Armenia. 

The Church was replaced by the central cinema building of Yerevan –– Moscow Cinema — along with its unique Summer Hall, a masterpiece of Soviet Modernist architecture. In 2009, the summer cinema hall was slated to be dismantled and the space given to the Armenian Apostolic Church to build a new church in Yerevan. Months of activism, petitions and protests forced the Church to back away and pick another location –– a block away on Abovyan Street, where the Linguistic Institute had been “hiding” the 13th century medieval church in its backyard. 

In 1936, the Soviets decided to demolish the 17th century St. Katoghike Church standing in this area, but were surprised to find a smaller, 13th century church of the Holy Mother of God encased inside of it.

It is believed that the earlier construction also included an adjacent chapel, which was probably destroyed by the devastating earthquake and then the surviving part was incorporated in the larger construction in the 17th century, remaining so for more than 300 years. The new church was built of Armenian tuff stone and did not have a dome. It was a three-nave basilica type of Armenian architecture. In the new space, the smaller church was included as the main altar. When the basilica was dismantled in 1936, numerous inscriptions containing valuable information about medieval Yerevan were discovered on the walls of the Church of the Holy Mother of God. 

One inscription says that Sahmadin, son of Avetets, bought Yerevan with its soil and water. The depiction of this event on the wall of the Holy Mother of God Church shows the significance of the Church in the middle ages in Yerevan. Such inscriptions served not only as an account on certain events, but also as official documentation. 

The inscription includes a curse: “Those who break this deal (of the sale of Yerevan) must receive the curse of the clerical council and face Judas’ fate.” Traces of bullets and cannon shells were also found on the walls and can still be seen today. 14th century cross-stones were found in its walls and have been preserved to this day.

Armenian architects were able to convince the Soviet authorities to preserve the smaller and older church, while taking down the new one built around it. Thus the Holy Mother of God Church is the only early-medieval church in Yerevan that survived the 1679 earthquake and that still stands today. 

In 2009, when it was decided to build a new religious complex in Yerevan, it also came to surround the small survivor church. The new complex includes a much bigger church, named after Saint Anna, as well as a building which serves as the Yerevan residence of the Catholicos.

Another major Christian complex was built around the tomb of St. Ananias in the heart of the Gardens of Yerevan. In the 16th-17th centuries, Movses Syunetsi patriarch stopped in Yerevan on his way from Ejmiatsin to Karin and decided to build a monastic complex. Together with the people of Yerevan and the support of the Persian khanate, he constructed a complex consisting of a church, a chapel and other adjacent halls. Unfortunately, all of them were built of wood, and the entire complex, except for the stone tomb-chapel of St. Ananias, burned down during the Ottoman–Safavid war between 1635-36. Shortly after that, Catholicos Pilipos undertook the reconstruction of the monastery, this time using stone. This time, again, the monastery survived only a couple of decades before it was hit by the 1679 earthquake. Nothing remains from those constructions, except for the underground section where the tomb was.  

What we know today as the Zoravor Church of the Holy Mother of God, was built around the tomb in 1693 by Nahapet Catholicos. It is a triple-nave basilica, next to which in 1889, a new chapel was built on the Tomb of St. Ananias. 

The monastery was a major center of education and as Arakel Davrizhetsi says, it was one of the most popular sites among salesmen visiting Yerevan. Many valuable manuscripts were created and preserved at the monastery, and one of them was said to have healing qualities. It is why it was called a “Zoravor” manuscript –– zoravor means “powerful”. The Church of the Holy Mother of God later took the name Zoravor. 

Above the entrance to the middle part of the church there is a faded wall painting with the image of the Mother of God and baby Jesus holding a cross in his hands. By depicting the baby Jesus with a cross in his hands, the artist foreshadows Christ’s martyrdom. Today, St. Zoravor is the oldest, most regularly attended church in Yerevan.

Zoravor, 1910-1915. 

Yerevan was the center of the Yerevan Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church (today called the Araratian Diocese). At the time, it included the churches of Shirak, Syunik, Nakhijevan and by the end of the 19th century it also encompassed Kars Province. The large territory of the Diocese included 643 churches and 47 monasteries. 

Each neighborhood of Yerevan had its own church. In order to oversee them from Yerevan, the Catholicos had two Vicarial Seats here –– St. Katoghike and the Dzoragyugh Anapat or Yerkeresni Monastery, located in the gorge of Hrazdan River, in Dzoraget, consisting of the St. Hakob (Jacob), St. Gevorg, and St. Sargis churches, an academic center and a residential area. Yerkeresni translates as “two-faced,” since the complex was divided into northern and southern parts. The general public had access to only one part for ceremonies, while the rest of the area was reserved specifically for clergymen and the Catholicos. The Monastery was located just across the Hrazdan or Zangu river from the former Yerevan fortress, built in the 16th century during Ottoman rule. Both the fortress and the Monastery were destroyed in the 17th century earthquake. 

St. Sargis Church was rebuilt in 1835-1842. St. Sarkis did not only survive the Soviet destruction of religious sites, but was reconstructed as a religious institution during the Soviet era. Catholicos Vazgen I oversaw the renovation and reconstruction of the Church in 1972, which was undertaken by prominent Armenian architect Raphayel Israyelyan. The structure of the outside walls was preserved, while the ceiling and dome were raised to allow the church to have a larger hall and a second floor balcony for the choir. 

This required a major reinforcement of the walls, achieved by adding an additional layer of walls from the outside. Raphael Israyelyan passed away in 1973 and his colleague, architect Artsrun Galikyan, continued the work. The reconstruction of St. Sargis became a participatory project where, despite the atheist ideology of the Soviet regime, groups of volunteers took part and helped the architects at the different phases of the reconstruction.

Prominent sculptors helped give the church new decorative elements. Sculptor Artashes Hovsepyan created the wooden carved doors for the Western entrance, as well as the relief figures resembling those of St. Khach Church of Aghtamar island in Lake Van, Western Armenia, and which guards the entrance. On the inside, Biblical images are depicted, inspired by the interior of the church of Areni, mastered by prominent medieval Armenian architect Momik. A new bell-tower was built in 2000. 

Today, St. Sargis is one of the most attended churches in Yerevan, remaining the Vicarial Church of the Araratian Diocese and a sanctuary for a large community of believers. As Catholicos Vazgen I said during the consecration of the church in 1976, “Yerevan received a new gem, a new monument of Armenian architecture, and a new sacred place for prayers to be heard.”

Another Yerevan church, completely destroyed by the 17th century earthquake and then rebuilt in the same place is St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) Church. It is located in one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city, Kond. It was a modest church of the three-naval basilic structure of other early medieval churches. It was rebuilt in 1710, with the support of local merchant Melik Aghamal, whose family name Aghamalyan is inscribed on the cross-stones found in the facade of the Church. In order to make it stand out in the rather chaotic buildings of Kond, architect Raphayel Israyelyan came up with a proposal –– to add a dome, a bell-tower, and to cover the walls with orange-colored tuff stone. The proposal was welcomed by the Catholicos, and, luckily, by the Soviet administration of the city as well, but it was only completed by Raphayel Israyelyan’s son, Areg Israyelyan, in the 1980s. 

Not far from Kond, was a late-medieval cemetery in an area called Kozern, named after a prominent figure of the time, Hovhannes Kozern, who was buried there. Kozern was located where Armenia’s Parliament building is today. A modest chapel was built in the cemetery, which was renovated by Melik Aghamalyan in 1810. A similar chapel was also located on the site of today’s Opera and Ballet Theater, called the Getsemani Chapel. Destroyed by the 1679 earthquake, it was rebuilt from the Eastern wall that was preserved. Both chapels were destroyed by the Soviet administration, together with one of the major cemeteries of the city in Kozern.

Only a fragment remains from the Getsemani Chapel, currently located next to St. Katoghike and St. Anna churches. Another church was built next to the Mleh cemetery, which was in the area of today’s State Pantheon of Armenia, but the church was taken down by the Soviet regime in the 1930s.

As the churches were rebuilt following the 17th century earthquake, Yerevan regained its important role in the social and religious life of Armenia. Churches kept population records and documented peoples’ lives –– births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. The records were kept in books called chapaberakan books. Of note is that marriage registrations were usually done in the church of the neighborhood where the bride was from. Thus, the city’s history and the history of each neighborhood is directly connected with its Christian history.

Nork, on the hill where the Public Television and TV tower of Yerevan are, was one of the greenest areas of Yerevan, full of fruit gardens and forests. Nork suffered from the Persian ruler Shah Abbas who deported hundreds of thousands of Armenians from the Ararat Valley and Nakhijevan. Soon after, Nork was repopulated by Armenians coming from the Nors town of Nakhijevan.

Yervand Shahaziz writes that there were more than five churches in Nork with cemeteries and khachkars. The churches he recalls were the Holy Mother of God, St. Sargis, and St. Hakob (Jacob). After the earthquake, only two survived –– the Holy Mother of God and Simeon Tseruni. 

The Holy Mother of God Church was in ruins for centuries but even then the Church attracted local residents and visitors for feasts and ceremonies. The Church was reconstructed more recently with the support of the Nork-Marash Benevolent Union. 

The Kanaker district of Yerevan, formerly a medieval village, is also located on top of a hill –– a relatively cool area for people from Yerevan to spend summer days. Before the earthquake, there were two main churches in Kanaker –– Mtsbna St. Hakob and the Holy Mother of God. Both were rebuilt in the same place. On the Western wall of St. Hakob an inscription shows the year 1695, considered the year of the new church’s establishment. 

The same year is inscribed on the wall of the Holy Mother of God Church which served as a congregational church, only accessible to clergymen. Both churches have a similar structure, with cross-stones in the walls, dating back to before the construction. This means the older cross-stones survived the earthquake. 

The St. Gevorg Church in Noragavit was destroyed in the earthquake and rebuilt in the 17th century. 

There are also Russian Orthodox Christian churches, for example Pokrov Cathedral built in 1839 inside the Yerevan Fortress after it was seized by the Russian army. The structure of the Cathedral was strictly symmetrical, resembling Ville Rottondo by Andrea Palladeo in Vicenza, Italy.   

The Nikolaev Church was built in 1901 in front of the former municipality of Yerevan, where the Shahumyan Square was planned under the Soviets. The cathedral was torn down only 30 years after it was constructed. The cathedral was decorated with five shiny domes, with the main one in the center and four surrounding it. The church was unique in that it had two altars –– one for Russian Orthodox and the other for Armenian Apostolic ceremonies. 

Another Russian Orthodox Church, the Holy Mother of God military church, was built in 1913 in Kanaker, from bright red tuff stone. Today, it functions as a regular Russian church. 

The St. Grigor Lusavorich or St Gregory the Illuminator Church in the center of Yerevan was also short-lived. It was founded in 1869 but because of difficulties, its construction was completed only in 1900. Two years later a tall bell-tower was built adjacent to the main church. The church was made from tuff and it was cross-domed. The church however only functioned for three decades, before it was shut down and turned into a cinema called Anastvats, translated as “godless” or atheist. By the end of the 1940s, a new urban plan required the church to be taken down. In its place, the Yeghishe Charents school was built and still operates today.

Seventy years later, one of the most ambitious construction projects of independent Armenia was the new St. Grigor Lusavorich Mother Church initiated in 1996 and completed in 2001 in time for the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia. The cathedral houses relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator and relics of St. Gregory were also brought from Naples, Italy. Shortly after the consecration of the cathedral, Pope John Paul II visited it. 

The cathedral is a complex consisting of three churches: the Cathedral (main church) with 1700 seats, and the chapels of St. Tiridates the King and of St. Ashkhen the Queen (both with 150 seats). These two royal figures were key in helping St. Gregory convert Armenia to Christianity. The belfry tower (which consists of more than 30 arches) is located at the entrance of the Cathedral. Halls for receptions and church-related activities are held on the lower floor of the main church.

The total area of the complex is around 3,822 square meters, while the height of the cathedral from the ground to the top of the cross is 54 meters. The construction of the main church was possible through a donation from Richard Alexander Manoogian and Louise Manoogian Simone, made in the memory of their deceased father, philanthropist, entrepreneur and former AGBU President Alex Manoogian and his wife Marie Manoogian. 

Another construction took place in the Malatia-Sebastia District of Yerevan –– that of the Holy Trinity Churchbuilt in 2003. It is modeled after the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral, which was also likely destroyed by the same earthquake of 1679.

There are also churches dedicated to Armenians, such as the Holy Mother of God in Malatya district of Yervan built in 1991-1998 in dedication to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. Soil from the historic Armenian city of Malatiya, currently in Turkey, was brought and used during the construction of the church. 

St. Vardanants Church is named after the martyrs of the Avarayr battle of 451 AD against the Persian army. It was built in 1994-1998 and was dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the Yerablur Pantheon. The church is built in the shape of a bullet, symbolizing the desire to protect the nation in future battles. 

Today, there are around 18 churches in Yerevan. Christian traditions and heritage are not limited to churches and khachkars, but are also seen and celebrated in the stylistic elements of the architecture of the city. 

From an ancient royal base of a pagan kingdom, to the capital city of the first Christian nation, Yerevan continues to rise from the banks of the Hrazdan River, looking up to Mount Ararat, with its residents guarding its living history. 

by Seda Grigoryan evnreport.com

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