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A famous Armenian monastery, since 1441 the ecclesiastical capital of the schismatic Armenians, and seat of their patriarch or catholicos, whom the greater part of the Non-Uniat Armenian Church acknowledge as their head. It is situated in Russian territory, in the extreme south of the Caucasus, on the River Aras near the city of Erivan. As early as the fifth or sixth century, if not earlier, a monastery existed there attached to the royal residence of Valarshapat, itself the immemorial national centre of Armenia. According to national tradition, more or less reliable, the primatial see of Armenia was founded here by Saint Gregory Illuminator, the Apostle of Armenia, early in the fourth century. On the site of his famous vision of "the descent of the only Begotten One" (Descendit Unigenitus = in Armenian, Etschmiadzin), the anniversary of which is still kept as a national feast, he built a chapel, and in time a splendid church and a monastery arose there, around which centred the national and religious life of Armenia until the middle of the fifth century, when, owing first to the invasions of Caucasian hordes and then to Persian ambition and persecution, there began the long series of wanderings that recall the story of the monks of Durham with St. Cuthbert's body. During these centuries both clergy and people valued most highly the right arm of St. Gregory; its possessor was practically considered the legitimate patriarch. After many removals, first to Dowin (Duin, Tvin) and then to other places, the patriarchal see was eventually located in the city of Sis, in Cilicia (Lesser Armenia), where it remained from 1293 to 1441; at the former date the relic was said to have been miraculously brought to Sis from Egypt, whither it had been taken by the Mamelukes. When the small Christian principality of Lesser Armenia, long upheld by the Crusades (1097-1375), was at last destroyed, the national and religious life of its people naturally turned again towards the earlier venerable centre, in Northern or Greater Armenia. After the death, at Sis (1440), of Patriarch Joseph II, irregularities occurred in the election of the new patriarch, Gregory Musapekian, which northern bishops were willing to overlook if he would transfer his see to Greater Armenia. On his refusal a new election was held at Etschmiadzin where, it is said, about seven hundred bishops and archpriests (vartapeds) assembled and elected Kirakos Virabetzi, with whom begins the series of patriarchs of Etschmiadzin. By some stratagem the monastery is said to have secured from Sis the possession of the famous relic of St. Gregory. A patriarchal succession, however, was, and is still, maintained at Sis, where what purport to be the selfsame relics are shown and venerated. There are, moreover, Armenian (schismatic) patriarchs at Aghtamar, Jerusalem (1311) and Constantinople (1461), the latter for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, also an independent Archbishop of Lemberg. Several patriarchs of Etschmiadzin, Stephen V (1541), Michael of Sebaste (1564), David IV (1587), Melchisedek (1593), Moses (1629), Philibos (1633), Agbob IV (1655), and others, took steps towards reunion with Rome, and some made profession of the Catholic Faith before death. Catholic Armenians finally abandoned Etschmiadzin as their religious centre, and obtained a Uniat patriarchate, first at Aleppo (1742), later at Constantinople (1830-667). The Armenians subject to Etschmiadzin underwent bitter persecution when Greater Armenia passed into the power of Persia; even the right hand of St. Gregory and other prized relics and images of the national apostle, and of King Tiridates and St. Rhipsime, were carried away (1604) to the Persian capital; these were finally restored to Etschmiadzin in 1638. Since 1828 the monastery and its district have passed into Russian hands, whereby the independence of the patriarch has been naturally diminished. He is not, however, subject to the Holy Synod of Russia, but presides over his own holy synod of seven members. In 1836 the Russian Government issued an official constitution for the administration of the Gregorian (i.e. Armenian) Church in Russia. It comprises 141 articles regulating the election of patriarchs and the ruling of Gregorian dioceses. In 1882 non-Russian Armenians refused to recognize the Russian nomination of the Armenian Archbishop of Smyrna to Etschmiadzin, but in 1884 they yielded. Thus a Russian ecclesiastical functionary residing at Etschmiadzin is, in theory, the "Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all the Armenians". Even in fact, the great majority of the schismatic Armenians acknowledge his authority; only a small minority adhere to Sis, Aghtamar, Constantinople, and Lemberg. In the United States, the Armenian Bishop of Worcester is subject to Etschmiadzin, and has as quasi-suffragans the Vartapeds of Boston, New York, Providence, and Chicago. In England, the Vartaped of Manchester is subject to the Armenian Bishop of Paris. Since Kirakos Virapetzi (1441) some thirty-eight successors have ruled at Etschmiadzin, not however without numerous schisms. The patriarchs are often assisted by a coadjutor, or rather co-titular bishop, whose name sometimes erroneously gets inserted in the list of patriarchs proper. The Patriarch of Etschmiadzin alone consecrates the myron (chrism) and also the bishops for the schismatic Armenians. His curia is formed by (a) a patriarchal synod (two archbishops, five archpriests); (b) a board of administration (one bishop, two archpriests); (c) an editorial committee (two archpriests and a deacon). The monastery consists of about twenty monks; since 1874 a seminary has been maintained for the training of the higher Armenian clergy. Though prominent in a hierarchical sense, as a centre of Armenian literary and theological activity Etschmiadzin ranks far behind Venice, Vienna, Moscow, and Constantinople (see MECHITARISTS, though of late some life and energy are evident. Etschmiadzin is richly endowed. Externally it resembles a great fortress; within its walls are the monastery proper, the magnificent church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and six chapels, one of them said to stand on the site of the apparition of Jesus Christ to St. Gregory. Outside the walls are several churches, among them three dedicated to the earliest Armenian martyrs, St. Rhipsime and her companions and St. Gaiane, hence the Turkish name Ütsch Kilisse (Three Churches). The numerous buildings either restored or rebuilt, date mostly from the last three centuries, and make an imposing appearance. (See ARMENIA ; GREGORY ILLUMINATOR; SIS.)


     For the earliest history of the site of Etschmiadzin, see WEBER, Die katholische Kirche in Armenien (Freiburg, 1903); GELLER, Die Anfänge der armenischen Kirche (1895). The monastery is described at length by BROSSET, Description d'Etschmiadzin in Rev. Archéol. (1859), XV, 427-37; Etschmiadzin, ou la Rome des Arméniens in Rev. Générale (1892), LV, 701-24. See also MACDONALD, The Land of Ararat (London, 1893); ISSAVERDENTZ, Hist. de l'Arménie (Venice, 1888); IDEM, Armenia and the Armenians (Venice, 1875); TER GREGOR, History of Armenia (London, 1897); INDSHIDSHIAN, Antiquités Arméniennes (Venice, 1885); SKRINE, The Expansion of Russia, 1815-1900 (London, 1903). For the annals of the monastery see NÈVE, Etude sur Thomas de Medzoph (d. 1488) in Journal Asiatique (Paris, 1855), VI, 22-81; PATKANIAN, Littérature Arménienne (Paris, 1860), 130; LANGLOIS, Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l'Arménie (Paris, 1905-07); VON HIMPEL in Kirchenlex., IV, 942-43. For the manuscript treasures of the monastery library see KARENIAN, Catal. des manuscrits de la bibliothèque patriarchale d'Etschmiadzin (Tiflis, 1863); and for a specimen of Armenian medieval illumination, STRZYGOWSKI, Das Etschmiadzin Evangeliarium (Vienna, 1891).

About this page

APA citation. Arendzen, J. (1909). Etschmiadzin. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Arendzen, John. "Etschmiadzin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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