Praying alone: Easter in Echmiadzin, the spiritual capital of Armenia
This year, Easter services in Armenia will be held behind closed doors.
For the first time, on April 12, the Armenian Apostolic Church will celebrate the feast of the Resurrection of Christ in empty cathedrals, with no worshippers. However, the church ceremony will be broadcast live, as in previous years.
The church made this decision in light of the state of emergency in effect from March 16 to April 14. This, in turn, was declared to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.
On Easter Day, there will be no believers in any of the five churches in Echmiadzin, the spiritual capital of Armenia, where the Catholicos of all Armenians resides. At the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the main temple of the Armenian Church, the holiday service will also be held behind closed doors. The majority of people in both Echmiadzin and nationwide will still celebrate the holiday, only this time they will do it from home.
Health is more important
This is the third week that 55-year-old Anahit Sargsyan has not attended church. She lives in Etchmiadzin, not far from the cathedral. As a regular churchgoer, she upset that she will not be able to participate in the Easter ceremony, but considers the temporary bans justified.
“I follow many clergy members on Facebook and find out what time to turn on the broadcast on public television or the Shoghakat church channel in order to participate in the service and pray. In this situation, the most important thing is health, you can not expose people to danger. And we believers will patiently wait for better days,” says Sargsyan.
“The Echmiadzin Incident”
Echmiadzin, a small city 20 kilometers from Yerevan, was put in the spotlight on social media after the Ministry of Health declared it the epicenter of coronavirus in Armenia. Everyone was posting about the “Echmiadzin incident.”
Echmiadzin’s “patient zero” was a woman who returned to the city from Milan on March 1 after having contracted coronavirus. Instead of self-isolating, for the next ten days, she had close contact with many of her friends and went to a crowded engagement party for her son.
Those who had been in contact with the woman also became infected. Moreover, at that time, the majority of coronavirus cases in Armenia were connected to this woman.
As a result, on March 15, the city, which has a population of 50,000, was quarantined. For a whole week, out of 27 entrances to the city, only three remained open.
Residents were encouraged to stay home. Only those who urgently needed to were permitted to leave the city after having their temperature taken.
Now the streets of Echmiadzin are empty, as everywhere else in Armenia.
The position of the church
The Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II urged both ministers of the church and believers to exercise maximum caution and refrain from close contact with others.
By decision of the Episcopal Council, all churches will operate from 9:00 to 19:00 during the state of emergency. Believers are permitted to visit and pray alone.
“All services are being held behind closed doors, without parishioner participation, and whenever possible, we will broadcast them live. Wedding ceremonies will not be held. At funerals, we only perform the burial ceremony. At the same time, we urge believers to refrain from crowded funerals and memorial services,” says Priest Vahram Melikyan, director of the information service of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
What residents of Etchmiadzin think
“Easter is a family holiday. This year, let it be so – we will celebrate the holiday with only our close family members, it makes no difference. We can watch the broadcast of the service and pray at home. The state of emergency coincides with the post, but I think it was no coincidence. We have the opportunity to spend time in the household, spend more time with the children, and appreciate what we have,” says Anahit Sargsyan.
Another resident of Echmiadzin, Lilit Vardanyan, is still preparing for Easter, in spite of the current situation.
“It is unusual for a believer not to go to church, not to pray during the service, and not to receive the sacrament. But the Lord is everywhere, and He is with us. I like Easter more than the New Year, because there are no extra frills. Easter does not impose anything. We eat fish, rice, and herbs, which are available to everyone. Of course, it would be great to go to church and return with a blessing. This is an indescribable feeling. But this year, we will willfully give up this joy.”
On the day before Easter, people begin to buy food for the holiday feast. But many are now facing financial difficulties. The epidemic is leaving people jobless, as everything is closed except for essential and strategic businesses.
“In Echmiadzin, most people work for hourly-wage jobs. They are waiters, hairdressers, bakers and taxi drivers. Now people are unable to go to work, are left without earnings, and avoid shopping. I have been waiting for hours for someone to come in to the store. People don’t have enough money,” says Tamara Stepanyan, a vendor at a greengrocery.
Taxi drivers also complain that few people are leaving the house now.
“We sit idle for hours. But if I get an order, I immediately disinfect the door handles – from the outside, from the inside. I make sure it is safe. One good thing these days is that fuel prices have fallen a bit. I hope that after Easter the quarantine will end and things will start looking up again,” says taxi driver Armen Mkrtchyan.
How people’s lives have changed
This year, the town square will not be adorned by the work of artist Nerses Melikyan, as it has been all the last years.
During the state of emergency, he has taken up a new project, and he puts everything into his work, barely noticing the passage of time. Melikyan lays the first brushstroke on his a ten meter canvas as he is serenaded by the sounds of sharakans (prayers in song form).
“A couple of years ago I ordered this canvas from Italy. I really wanted to start this business, put this idea into practice, but there was not enough time, and besides, I was not ready. And coronavirus made it possible to isolate and take up this project. I film myself, document the whole process of work, meditate on things for a while. Loneliness was what I needed. And I got it,” says the artist.
Pianist Tamara Hakobyan says she does not remember her city ever being so empty during the Holy Week before Easter:
“This house arrest drove me into a depression at first. Then I got used to it and planned out the schedule and regime that works best for me during this period. Now I’m using self-isolation to study German, I visit museums and galleries in the world online, and I enjoy international works of art.
And for socialization, my friends and I started a group chat and we’ll talk over a cup of coffee, each person from their own house. I hold remote classes with children from a music school. And my students have began to practice with enthusiasm. I think that after Easter, good times will come for all.”
From the author:
“I have been living in Etchmiadzin for 26 years. I moved here after I got married. At first, I thought that this city would never be mine. But in the days of the state of emergency and self-isolation, I suddenly realized that I had become part of it. It is sad to see the empty streets, unusual silence and even the lack of traffic. It’s unsettling, but I adapt. It feels like I’m in a black and white movie.
Self-isolation in Echmiadzin, and especially during the period of Lent, is an opportunity to purify oneself and look at the world with new eyes. This city has an unusual spiritual energy. Isolation made it possible for me to feel it. Living in this city means waking up every day to the sound of church bells. And it gives you the strength to live.
I am a journalist and the author of this article. In the days of quarantine, when all members of a noisy Armenian family are sitting at home, it is almost impossible to break away and do some work.
And I found myself an “office” in the courtyard of the church of St. Gayane. It’s a great place to be alone with your own thoughts. I come here with my computer and a thermos of coffee. It’s a comfortable and convenient place where I don’t have to pay for the time I spend there. Thanks to self-isolation, I discovered the opportunity to work this way. I don’t know how long this will last, but I actually am really enjoying it.”