Khor Virap & Etchmiadzin: Yet Another Adventure in Armenia

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As usual, the morning was unbearably cold and quiet. From our hostel, we walked our usual way down the bus stop in Abovian Street, this time to catch 38 or 76, towards a certain train station. It took us a long time waiting and we’re hoping to catch the 9AM bus to Khor Virap, so we took a cab instead. We were brought to a back street and the driver told us to stay in the car. He went out and spoke with the other guys, as if he doesn’t know where we exactly were. He motioned us to get out and get in the next bus – packed with curious eyes scanning us from head to toe. It was a long and bumpy ride, passing through towns that look abandoned and industrial. Then suddenly, we’re in the middle of nowhere.

“Khor Virap”

We collected ourselves and went out of the mini bus, together with a group of must-be tourists who seem not to speak English, too. The driver just dropped us on the corner of an unpaved road. We can only see fields of grass and trees whose foliage started to fall. Then there it was, the monastery of Khor Virap, standing on its glory atop a hill, the famed Mount Ararat (or rather, the tip) on the background. Its magnificence was just breathtaking.

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From where we were standing, we couldn’t estimate the time it’ll take for us to get there. It looked soooo far and we were left with no choice but to walk, passing by fields and graveyards. In the middle of our trek, one car stopped near us. The local guy rolled his windows down and asked us if we want a lift. With Armenia’s good reputation in hitchhiking, we took the good samaritan’s offer. In less than 10 minutes, we were on the foot of the hill.

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the winding road towards the monastery

Unlike the quiet and deserted road down, the hill was brimming with people and cars. We climbed a flight of steps and the steep-sloped driveway that led to a small gate. The church that looks massive from a distance wasn’t too towering up close. Even the ground wasn’t too spacious at all.

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In one of the chambers of the monastery was the cell where St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first head of Armenian Church, was detained for years. The pit was deep and the only way to get in was through a small staircase, definitely not for the claustrophobic.

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We were fortunate to hear the choir during the morning service. Their voice was so angelic – gave us the goosebumps. We spent some time in there, people watching and contemplating on our next game plan because the minibus that returns to Yerevan will arrive in 4 more hours. And whilst in the middle of discussion, we noticed one old guy who (just) killed a chicken, took it with him while taking a couple of rounds around the church. Could it be a ritual or something – we don’t know.

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Mount Ararat – on full zoom

We decided to leave the area hoping that somehow we’ll find a way to get back to Yerevan. We walked the long way down the corner of the road (where the bus took us) and waited for some miracle to arrive. Fortunately, after (almost) an hour, a car passed by offering us a ride back to the city. He dropped us off the train station and it was only during that time when we saw the grandeur of its architecture. We’re very surprised cause it’s rear side didn’t look as impressive as its façade.

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From there we asked a few locals about the way to our next destination. They were very helpful we managed to arrive just in time. Armenia, being the first Christian country in the world follows the world’s first national church – the Armenian Apostolic Church. Etchmiadzin is the seat of the Armenian church (kinda like The Vatican for us Catholics).

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The Mother See of Etchmiadzin is a massive complex, composed of significant buildings like the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, considered to be the oldest in the world. From where we got off, we passed through what somewhat looks like a park that opens up to its huge grounds. Of course, khachkars are everywhere.


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At the far end is the cathedral.

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inside the cathedral of Etchmiadzin

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treasury’s ceiling

Its museum can be accessed for a fee. The treasury houses what I believe to be the most important relic in the country – a piece of wood that belongs to the ark of Noah. There were some studies confirming that the ark was found in Mount Ararat (used to be a part of Ancient Armenian land before it became Turkey’s)

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a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark

I was surprised to see the Holy Lance there, too. There were some doubts about the authenticity of this relic because Rome and Vienna claim to have the real Spear of Longinus. Next to these, is another reliquary that houses a piece of the True Cross (it might come on a separate blog entry because this relic holds a special part in my heart)

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From the complex, we walked to a beautifully preserved medieval church named St. Gayane’s Church. There was a wedding at that time so we couldn’t linger a little longer.

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We also visited the nearby St. Shoghakat Church. Then, St. Hripsime’s Church, which is located quite far from Etchmiadzin.

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The Mother See complex, together with its neighbouring medieval churches, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Seeing quite a number of churches in one day (and the days before), was so overwhelming; they started to look all the same to us. But what makes one unique and interesting is the church’s surroundings – atop a hill, overlooking a lake, back dropped by a stunning snowcapped mountain or in the middle of a city.

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