Echmiadzin (Etchmiadzin) is one of the oldest cities on the Ararat Plain. In the past, Armenians called the city Vagharshapat in honor of the Armenian King Vagharsh I Arshakuni (117-140). At the beginning of the fourth century, Vagharshapat became the center of Armenian Christianity. Here, the first church of Armenia, the Cathedral of Echmiadzin, as well as the chapels over the gravesites of martyred virgins, Hripsime anad Gayane, were constructed.
Holy Echmiadzin was built in 301-303 during the reign of King Trdat III. The first Catholicos of Echmiadzin was St. Gregory the Illuminator (Krikor Loosavorich) who had a vision. In it, he saw Christ descend from Heaven and strike the ground with a golden hammer, directing the place for the site of the church. The name of the church became Echmiadzin since it meant “the Only-Begotten One Descended”.
Within the cathedral is a separate altar known as “Ijman Seghan” (Altar of descent), marking the spot of Christ’s descent in the vision.
The design of the cathedral has evolved somewhat since the 4th century. Initially the cathedral was a basilica-type structure.
Its present-day domed, cross-type composition is a result of 5th century reconstruction during the reign of Prince Vaha Mamikonian as well as 7th century renovations during the era of Catholicoses Komitas and Nerses III.
The primitive forms of the Cathedral changed considerably with more recent additions. The structural changes are especially obvious around the small and large domes (1627), the west side belfry (1658), and the museum wing added to the east side (1869). Cathedral Dome interior decoration by Naghash and Hovnatan Hovnatanian XVII.
Today, the Cathedral is located in a walled compound with gardens and various other religious structures. The design is of Armenian tradition with a belfry and a number of rotundas.
In 1958, when the main altar was to be replaced with a heavier, marble altar excavations began to install a firmer foundation. During the excavations, a hearthlike firepit was discovered, most probably the remnant of a pre-Christian temple.