Etchmiadzin is the spiritual center of the Armenian people

The Catholicos of the Armenian Church invited PBS to document a mass in the cathedral of Etchmiadzin.

Vazgen I

Head of Armenian Church

Procession in an Armenian Church
Vazgen I, Etchmiadzin Cathedral 1956

The Armenian Church believes and declares that a person can be redeemed only through Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Armenian Church is based on the Old and New Testaments, the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 385 and Ephesus in 431, and the decisions of the Councils of the Armenian Church.


Etchmiadzin Cathedral

The main shrine of Armenian Christians worldwide

Procession in an Armenian Church
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, 1956

Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in the city of Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin), Armenia. According to most scholars it was the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia, and is often considered the oldest cathedral in the world. It is the religious centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Armenia was the first known country to adopt Christianity as it's state religion (301 AD).

etchmiadzin cathedral
Interior Dome of Etchmiadzin Cathedral, 1956

The original church was built in the early fourth century — between 301 and 303 according to tradition—by Armenia's patron saint Gregory the Illuminator, following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III. It was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the conversion from paganism to Christianity.


Sanctified soil

For many centuries, Etchmiadzin was the national and political center of the stateless Armenian people.

People in Armenian church light candles
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, 1956

The people who come to the Armenian church let candles burn. The thin white candles hold the visitors in a meditative mood. Lighting the candle is a symbol of self-sacrifice - when the candle burns, it spreads light and warmth. It is a tradition of piety to light the candle in front of the image of a saint and to hold a prayer. Lighting candles is a very common and important part of a church visit.

People in Armenian church light candles
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, 1956

Catholicos of All Armenians

The 4th longest reign in the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church

Procession in an Armenian Church
Vazgen I, Armenia 1956

Vazgen I led the Armenian Church during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and was the first Catholicos in newly independent Armenia.

He was born in Bucharest to a family belonging to the Armenian-Romanian community. His father was a shoemaker and his mother was a schoolteacher. The young Levon Baljian did not initially pursue the Church as a profession, instead graduating from the University of Bucharest's Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. After graduation, he became a philosopher and published a series of scholarly articles.

Catholicos Vazgen the first called Etchmiadzin "Solomon's Temple of Armenians. The cathedral complex has been called "Armenian Vatican" or "Armenian Mecca" as it is a major pilgrimage site for religious Armenians worldwide. American journalist and historian Francis Whiting Halsey described the cathedral as "the most treasured possession of the Armenian nation" and "the source of that strength which has held them together through centuries of persecution, warfare and massacre.

Praying in an Armenian Church
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, 1956

During the Armenian Genocide, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin and its surrounding became a major center for the Turkish Armenian refugees. At the end of 1918, there were about 70,000 refugees in the Etchmiadzin district. A hospital and an orphanage within the cathedral's grounds were established and maintained by the U.S.-based Armenian Near East Relief by 1919.

During the Great Purge and the radical state atheist policies in the late 1930s, the cathedral was a "besieged institution as the campaign was underway to eradicate religion."It was reportedly the only church in Soviet Armenia not to have been seized by the Communist government.

Etchmiadzin revived under Catholicos Vazgen I since the period known as the Khrushchev Thaw in the mid-1950s, following Stalin's death.


Theology and Divinity

The youngest Catholicoi in the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church

Procession in an Armenian Church
Vazgen I, Armenia 1956

His rise through the hierarchy of the Church culminated in 1955 when, on September 30th 1955, he was elected Catholicos of all Armenians, becoming one of the youngest Catholicoi in the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He reigned until his death in 1994. During his long time as Catholicos, he managed to assert some independence for his church in face of the totalitarian Soviet rule in the Armenian SSR, and lived to see religious freedom restored under Armenia's national government in 1991.

From then on, he was busy renewing ancient Armenian churches and reviving institutions of the church. He saved a number of church treasures by establishing the Alex Manoogian Museum of the Mother Church. Vazgen intensified contacts with the Armenian Catholic Church, with the aim of reuniting both wings of Armenian Christianity. He died at his residence in Yerevan on August 18, 1994


Peter Bock-Schroeder (1913-2001) the accomplished photojournalist.

Peter Bock-Schroeder
Peter Bock-Schroeder (1913-2001)

Bock-Schroeder was a humanistic photographer who used a combination of description and emotional impact to both inform and move the viewers of his photographs.

see more | read more

Vazgen I Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Edition Box Etchmiadzin Cathedral

8 Prints from the Armenia Series 1956


Luzhniki Stadium

Edition Box USSR 1956

12 Fine Art Prints from the series USSR 1956


SIGN UP TO THE PBS NEWSLETTER