Before coming to Armenia the most I knew about the place was something about churches and that the Armenian- run bakery down the street from my parents’ house in Worcester, MA has really amazing bagels. You can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find any bagels in Yerevan. Churches, however, were in abundance!
If you’ve ever seen any tourist ads for Armenia, they probably included a photo of the ridiculously good looking Khor Virap monastery silhouetted against Mt. Ararat (preferably on a less cloudy day than my visit).
A Day Trip from Yerevan to Khor Virap
Khor Virap is the site where Armenia became the world’s first Christian nation in 301 A.D. My taxi driver explained to me that after King Trdat III imprisoned Gregory the Illuminator for 12 years in the pit of a well, he was so impressed by Gregory’s survival and ability to heal the king when he felt he was going mad that he converted to Christianity and made it the state religion.
The monastery is certainly beautiful but as it was fairly abandoned when I visited, I found it a bit creepy as well. It had that sort of
haunted spiritual vibe that so many old religious sites seem to have.
When I saw a ladder leading down underneath one of the prayer rooms I of course couldn’t resist climbing down, though once I found myself deep underground (turns out there was another, longer ladder after the first one) I quickly regretted it. Basically I learned that I never want be imprisoned in a dungeon ever, ever.
A Day Trip from Yerevan to Etchmiadzin Cathedral
While Khor Virap lays claim to being the site of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, Etchmiadzin Cathedral is now the Armenian Apostolic Church’s most important site – like what the Vatican is to the Catholic Church.
The cathedral itself wasn’t having a particularly photogenic day on my trip, but the surrounding grounds and smaller churches were beautiful.
When this guy saw me wandering around alone he decided to become my tour guide, seriously testing my Russian comprehension skills in the process.
From what I could understand, Gregory the Illuminator called for the cathedral to be built in Etchmiadzin shortly after the Armenian king’s conversion. One of the side buildings now hosts a treasury of religious relics and art, as well as holy oil that was consecrated by Jesus Christ. Part of this oil has been distributed to Armenian churches around the world to be used in baptisms, thus linking all Armenian Christians.
He also talked a lot about Persian and Soviet rule and the Armenian genocide, but it would probably be better to rely on Wikipedia than my Russian skills for those stories.
How to Organize a Day Trip from Yerevan to Khor Virap and Etchmiadzin
When I was in Yerevan there were no buses or marshrutkas running to Khor Virap, which is about 30 minutes outside of Yerevan, so I had to take a taxi there instead.
The taxi cost 6,000 dram, or $15, roundtrip and the driver agreed to wait for me at Khor Virap for as long as I wanted. He also bought me several soft drinks and offered to buy me lunch, but I’m not sure if that was meant to be included in the price or if it was just a touch of Armenian hospitality.
To get to Etchmiadzin I caught a marshrutka from the corner of Mashtots Avenue and Saryan Street in the Yerevan city center. The ride took about 20 minutes and cost 250 dram, or about 60 cents.
Seeing Khor Virap and Etchmiadzin as part of a tour of Armenia
My friends recently did the Best of Georgia & Armenia 10-day G Adventures tour and it sounded amazing. I wish I had managed to see so much of both countries! They said that their group was really fun, and they certainly had a more relaxing time than I did having to organize everything myself.