After the Day 3 marathon, I think everyone was happy with our shorter Day 4 plans. At the very least, everyone was happy about the later departure time – 10AM instead of 8. The schedule for the day was Sardarabad and Etchmidazin/the Vagharshapat churches. I was looking forward to Sardarabad because I hadn’t been there yet, and I was looking forward to the rest of the day because I actually know something about the churches we were visiting and could be a better tour guide than some of the other days.

The approach…

Sardarabad, an Armenian town west of Yerevan, is often considered to be the site of the most important battle in Armenian history. In January of 1918, the new Bolshevik Russian government ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus. Ottoman Turkey saw this as an opportunity to not only complete their seizure of Western Armenia but to take over Eastern Armenia as well. This would have meant the complete the destruction of the Armenian nation.

Not a great pictures, but this is the only one we have of all of us from this day.

The Armenian army rushed to deploy forces to hold the positions formerly defended by the Russians. Only a fraction of the historical Armenian homeland remained unconquered by the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Western Armenian refugees had fled to safety there. In May, Ottoman forces marched into Armenia and attacked modern-day Gyumri. After Gyumri (then called Alexandropol) fell, the army turned towards Yerevan. They launched three simultaneous attacks in Sardarabad, Karaklisa (now Vanadzor), and Bash Abaran.

Fall. Is. The. Best.

The Armenian forces were vastly outnumbered, and a massive civilian recruiting effort was organized. There’s a story about the Catholicos at the time refusing to leave Etchmiadzin when people wanted to relocate him to safety. He said that he would fight if it came to that, and he ordered all of the church bells in the valley to ring for six days to recruit more people. People, regardless of age or occupation, volunteered to fight and were organized into civilian units. Women and children helped in various capacities as well, and I have no doubt that many even ended up in combat.

The belfry

Against all odds, the three battles resulted in Armenian victories, halting the advance of the Ottoman army and preserving the last bit of Armenia. They (once again, the mysterious “they” who have an opinion about everything) say that what the Armenian volunteers lacked in training, they made up for in determination and passion. For them, it was personal. They were fighting to protect their families and for the survival of Armenia.

The thing about war is that even when you win, you still lose. Thousands of lives were lost during the battles, and I’m sure that the families of those people didn’t much feel like celebrating. However, due to the courage and sacrifice of the army and those volunteers, Armenia exists today.

The memorial complex was built for the 50th anniversary of the battle, in 1968, and it’s kind of amazing. You drive straight at it on your way there and have an epic view of the bulls and the belfry. The bulls represent the united strength and persistence of the Armenian people. The bells are a shrine to those who were killed in battle and now represent victory bells. The eagles lining the path to the memorial wall are standing guard over the future of the Armenian people. The memorial wall depicts the battle (very symbolically I think because we totally didn’t get it) and the rebirth of the Armenian people. Finally, the museum is designed like an Armenian medieval fortress. All of the windows face interior courtyards except for two – one facing Aragats and the other facing Ararat. Everything is made from red tuff and is gigantic. On days when the sky is blue, the contrast between the red stone and the blue sky is pretty awesome.

One of the bulls
The eagle walk
The memorial wall
The fortress-like museum

The museum was built later and has two parts: the majority of the museum is filled with various historical and cultural objects (ethnography museum), similar to the Armenian History Museum in Yerevan, and the other part is dedicated to the battle. We went on a tour of the Ethnography Museum, and it was exhaustingly long but also very well done. It’s one of those places that’s almost not even worth visiting without doing the tour because you can walk around and completely miss the important things without realizing it.

I can never get enough of the painted ceilings at Etchmiadzin.

By the time we left the museum, I think everyone was ready for a nap, but we had more things to do! We drove to Etchmiadzin, and I walked everyone around my favorite parts of the complex. We also went to the museum inside Etchmiadzin which I was excited about because they have (supposedly) a piece of the cross, a piece of Noah’s Ark, and the spear that pierced Jesus’s side when he was on the cross. Each of these relics is one of many in the world with similar claims attached. The cross and Noah’s Ark could at least physically have multiple pieces in different places, but the spear is another matter. There can be only one. Obviously, all of the others are fakes and the Armenia one is real. It’s said to have been brought by the Apostle Thaddeus to Armenia and was housed in Geghard Monastery for a long time before ending up in Etchmiadzin.

The rest of the museum was less exciting. Lots of fancy Catholicos clothing and other reliquaries that didn’t have much information about what was inside them. Honestly, the museum could use a good labeling. I thought it was cool anyway and the rooms were beautiful, but I also wouldn’t have minded actually knowing what we were looking at.

Like seriously… is this not awesome??
Piece of Noah’s Ark. We were a little confused about this but think that maybe the brown stuff you can see behind the cross is the piece? Maybe?
The spear. The only real spear.
Here’s another confusing one. I guess the piece of the cross is inside, but you can’t see anything. For all we know, it could be empty. Or filled with cotton balls. Or Hello Kitty erasers. Or M&Ms. My point is, it could be anything. Or nothing.
Not a fantastic picture, but this is inside one of my favorite chapels at Etchmiadzin. When the sun is in the right positions, the light coming through the windows makes crosses on the ground or the walls. It’s cool!

From there, we walked to Saint Gayane Church and later drove to Saint Hripsime. There were weddings happening at both churches, so we pretended we were invisible and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. It was only semi-successful because at Saint Hripsime, if you want to see the tomb and the stones that supposedly stoned her, you need to get all the way to the front of the church. Not easy to do without being noticed. Anyway, I’ve written in great detail about the stories of Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime and the origins of Etchmiadzin, so if you want a refresher, you can check out those old posts HERE.

We were planning on stopping by the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral on the way back to Yerevan and decided to skip it because everyone was about ready to pass out. I think we made the right choice in the moment, but it’s still on my list. Maybe I’ll manage to get there one of these days!

Too many people on bikes

There was another cool Birthright excursion a couple weeks ago, so I made another exception to my usual “avoid large groups” rule and signed up. That rule exists for a reason, and I knew that I would be subjecting myself to inevitable irritation by going… but bikes were involved, and I love bikes more than I hate large groups.

Talene and me during an unnecessary break at the airport

Side note: If you’re wondering about why I have that rule, it’s for a lot of reasons. When it comes to traveling, large groups are always late and can never make decisions and there’s always someone who’s unhappy for some reason or who is out of sync with the rest of the group. It’s better, in my opinion, to limit your group sizes and save yourself the stress. Plus, in general, I’m not really the type of person who thrives in large groups. I’m much better one-on-one or in settings where I can talk to each person and actually get to know them. Too many new people or things going on at the same time completely stresses me out.

Funky flower at one of the churches

Anyway, the excursion was biking to Etchmiadzin. I was almost convinced at “biking” until I thought about the fact that it would be 50 people on bikes, and so many people are terrible at biking. I wasn’t exactly interested in having someone who hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years swerving into me and knocking me over. Somehow, I was convinced to go anyway, and my game plan was to stick to the front of the pack.

For the most part, it worked. There was one dicey second when a girl next to me swerved into a (parked) car and then swerved back out into the street, towards me. Thankfully, there was no collision, but I got away from her as quickly as possible and sped my way to the front.

I forget that a lot of other people don’t really bike that often or that far. The ride was 20 km (about 12.5 miles) on almost completely flat ground, and for me, that was nothing. I used to bike 8.5 miles one way to get to work every day. Especially considering the speed we were going for most of the ride, I probably could have gone for 100 miles. At least. We were moving at about 6.5 miles per hour which is less than half the speed that I’d ride to work. Anyway, afterward, people were talking about how far and difficult the ride was, and I was baffled. I wanted so badly to ride back so that I could do the ride at a normal speed, but I wasn’t allowed, even though two of the BR staff members said they would go with me. Bummer.

Squash at the lunch spot

Once we made it to Vagharshapat, the town where Etchmiadzin is, we went to 4 out of the 5 churches in town. This is the same place where Sarah and I went on our “day of a million churches”. There were weddings in progress at 3 of the 4 churches (that’s Armenia on a Saturday for you). It was cool going back to Etchmiadzin because I still love the ceiling there. Even though there are these weird 3D baby heads randomly on the ceiling that I think are supposed to be angel heads but are mostly just creepy.

They should have just hired me as the tour guide for this trip because telling that story about Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime is one of my most favorite things. Maybe I can have a career in Armenian folklore storytelling? I hear there’s a big demand for that. Anyway, I won’t tell it again because we’ve already been there and done that, but in case you missed it, you can check out my post about visiting Etchmiadzin with Sarah HERE.

Nice chair feet!
Supposedly the rocks that killed Saint Hripsime. True or not, it’s kind of eerie.

One thing that there’s no shortage of in Armenia is churches. We wanted to go to Etchmiadzin (basically the Vatican of Armenia), and we decided to turn it into a full-on church day.

Etchmiadzin. Probably would look cooler without the scaffolding, but what can you do?

Etchmiadzin is located in Vagharshapat, a town about half an hour west of Yerevan. Even though the town isn’t that big, there are five churches there (including Etchmiadzin which is like a little church city), so we decided to visit them all. Why not, right?

Church of Saint Gayane

We did the usual routine, taking a city bus to a marshrutka station and getting a marshrutka from there to Vagharshapat. The churches we were planning to see were kind of laid out in an L-shape, so we started at one end of the L and worked our way through. The first stop was the Church of Saint Gayane. It was built originally in 630AD and had some renovations done in 1652. Just pause for a second… That. Is. Ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but I think that St. Peter’s (the Vatican) is old, and construction on that didn’t start until the 1500s! Also, the fact that they went over 1000 years without needing renovations, and that after 1000 years they just did some work on the dome and ceilings, is crazy. Who knows, maybe it’s not as impressive as I think, but it sounds pretty good to me!

Lots of curved and perfectly fit together stones.

Anyway, do you want to hear the story of Saint Gayane? Because obviously she has a story because everything is part of a long, interconnected history here. Get ready for your head to hurt a little. Remember how I talked about St. Gregory? The guy who was imprisoned for 13 years in the pit in Khor Virap and was only freed when the king went mad? Well, the reason why the king went mad has something to do with both Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime, the namesake of church #5 in our Vagharshapat church tour. (Note: this is another one of those stories that definitely has a certain amount of fact in it but has also certainly been embellished over the years. You can decide what you want to take and leave.)

The word is that Gayane was the head of an abbey of nuns in Rome, with Hripsime included. Hripsime was very beautiful, and Diocletian, the Roman emperor, noticed her and wanted to force her to marry him. The entire abbey of 30-some nuns fled Rome and ended up in Vagharshapat. There, Hripsime attracted the attention of yet another unwanted suitor, King Tiridates III, the same king who St. Gregory helped. When she refused his advances, she and the rest of the nuns were tortured and martyred. Some stories say that the king also fell in love with Gayane, and she also refused him. The exact facts on this are a little unclear, as are the exact methods of the martyring. Both Saint Gayane and Saint Hripsime’s churches are supposedly built on the sites where each woman was killed, and the rest of the nuns were killed at the future site of Shoghakat (church #4 on the tour). I read somewhere that Saint Hripsime was stoned, and her church supposedly has some of the actual stones that were used. Who knows if that’s true, but I can attest that there’s a little glassed-in alcove in the wall near her tomb with some rocks in it. Anyway, these women are considered the first Christian martyrs in Armenia’s history.

Sarah’s beloved doors

After killing a bunch of nuns for doing nothing wrong, the king went crazy (with some stories saying that he literally turned into a wild boar or that he had a boar’s head), and that’s when St. Gregory came in and saved the day and Armenia became the first Christian nation. So really, these women deserve the credit for turning Armenia into the country that it is today, though it would have been nice if they didn’t have to be murdered for that to happen.

Saint Gayane’s church is beautiful. It’s the same style as so many other Armenian churches, but I still think they’re all super cool. The doors are wooden and covered with insanely intricate carvings (Sarah closely examined and marveled at a door for a solid 5 minutes: “This is WOOD??! And someone carved it like THIS? What if they messed up? How did they do this? THIS IS AMAZING. This is WOOD??”) The inside of the church is simple, but it’s still impressive when you think about the fact that it’s stone, and all of those stones had to be shaped and fit together perfectly to make all the curves and arches.

Etchmiadzin (church #2) was up next. Guess who is involved with the story of Etchmiadzin? If you said “St. Gregory”, you win! St. Gregory had a vision of Jesus Christ descending from heaven and striking the site with a golden hammer, so that’s where the cathedral was built. Etchimiadzin means “where the Only Begotten descended”. It was originally built in 301AD and is considered the oldest cathedral in the world, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since the original. It is the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church and is where the Catolicos (like the Armenian pope) resides.

The inside of this church was anything BUT simple. Everything was beautifully painted, and Sarah and I sat on a bench inside and just stared at the walls and ceilings until we felt ready to leave. It was beautiful. Check out the pictures because words aren’t sufficient.

Talk about epic doorways…
Simple, right?
My new most favorite ceiling in the universe.

Church #3 was Holy Mother of God Church. No crazy story with this one. There was an actual service going on when we visited, so that was fun to see. That also means I don’t have any pictures though, so you’ll just have to go for yourself if you want to know what it’s like.

This is a park in Vagharshapat. Some kids were playing in the far fountain, and Sarah and I were about 5 seconds away from joining them to escape the heat. This park is also funny because there are all of these little church replicas around it, so we did a mini-church tour in the middle of our human-sized church tour. You can see a couple in the cases on the left side of the picture.
I laughed at this. There are a bunch of churches where I’ve seen similar things, and maybe you won’t think its as funny as I do… but instead of using light bulbs that look nice and match the chandelier, they have these icky spiral compact fluorescent bulbs. I mean, good for them for trying to save energy, but it is possible to do that without sacrificing aesthetics. Okay, rant over.
Intense dragon drainpipes

Church #4 was Shoghakat, the site where the remaining nuns were martyred. That was probably the smallest of the five churches, but it was still interesting to see and compare it to the others.

Saint Hripsime

Finally, church #5 was St. Hripsime’s church. It’s definitely one of my favorites if you’re going off of exterior appearance, and the fact that it’s basically sitting on a pedestal probably helps. It makes the church seem so much more commanding because it’s raised up above the surroundings, and nothing is impeding your view of it. The inside was simple again, but very pretty. I think it was set up for a wedding or something because the aisle was lined with candles and flowers (Sarah and I approved… they looked nice). We popped our heads into the tomb to see the glass-encased stones and then high-tailed it out of there because it felt weird.

The candles are a nice touch, right?
This is from the back of the building, but you can get an idea of the mosaic work from the dome.

When we got back to Yerevan, we stopped by the Blue Mosque, the only active mosque in all of Armenia. It avoided the fate of other mosques because it was temporarily the History Museum of Yerevan. It seems like temporary repurposing is the only way that religious buildings make it through tumultuous times. We only snuck into the complex for a couple of seconds because it technically wasn’t visiting hours, but the mosaic work on the mosque is awesome.

Last stop was St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral (yes, as in our BFF St. Gregory) which is the biggest Armenian church in the world. It was finished in 2001 for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia. It is massive, obviously, and very simple inside except for a crazy big chandelier that I didn’t feel comfortable taking a picture of at the time. I could probably go into more detail, but I’m exhausted just writing this, and I’m sure you’re exhausted reading it. Gosh, Armenia. You have too much history!

I don’t know that this picture conveys the scale or epic-ness of this church, but just trust me, it’s huge.

Congratulations, you’ve now virtually visited EVERY mosque in Armenia and six of the 1 bagazillion churches in Armenia. How does it feel?