Armenia adopted Christianity as state religion back in 301 AD. The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. It differs substantially from the Byzantine Orthodoxy as well as from the Roman Catholicism. In Armenia, Christmas is celebrated on January 6.
Living history of Christianity
Modern Armenia is a small country with a population of about 3 million people. It is quite difficult to overestimate the role of Armenia in the religious history of the world due to the fact that Armenia is the first state to officially adopt Christianity.
The founders of the Armenian church were the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who had preached Christianity in Armenia before falling to martyrdom. Approximately 95% of Armenians are Christians, and the religious history of the country lives on in its ancient monuments.
The religious leader
The first patriarch (Catholicos) of the Armenian Apostolic Church was Saint Gregory the Illuminator. He converted the Armenian King Trdat III to Christianity, who would later adopt Christianity as the official religion of Armenia.
The father of Gregory the Illuminator, a Parthian named Anak, was executed for the assassination of an Armenian King Khosrov. The whole family of the to-be Catholicos has been murdered, but young Gregory the Illuminator managed to escape. In Caesarea, Saint Gregory was baptized and received Christian education.
Due to certain circumstances, Saint Gregory several years later arrived in Rome and began his service to Trdat (the future king of Armenia Trdat III) in hopes of atoning for the mistakes of his father.
With the help of Roman legions, Trdat retrieved the paternal throne in Armenia in 287. He then ordered to imprison Saint Gregory for his Christian beliefs. Saint Gregory spent 13 years in prison, refusing to abandon his religious views.
This carried on until the day Trdat fell sick but was cured by Saint Gregory. A legend says that this was the reason behind the adoption of Christianity by Trdat III.
Traces of the distant past
The pagan Garni Temple is lying near the Garni village in the valley of Azat River 28 km from Yerevan. This temple dedicated to the god of sun has been built in the 1st century AD under King Trdat I.
After the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, many pagan temples were destroyed, but the Garni Temple survived and stands to this day, partly because it was renovated by Trdat III. Today, this temple is one of the most popular tourist attractions: more than 130 thousand tourists visit this majestic temple annually.
The temple of saint abbess
West of Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, resides the religious center of Armenia Vagharshapat (also known as Etchimiadzin), one of the most important cultural and religious sites of the country. Here is located the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the headquarters of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, which is the governing body of Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Saint Gayane Church was erected in 630, and now, it is included into the UNESCO World Heritage List. The church was built on the site of the abbess Gayane’s martyrdom. She was killed by Trdat III prior to his conversion to Christianity. The grave of Saint Gayane is now located in the foundation of the church. The necropolis of the Armenian clergy is also housed by the Saint Gayane Church.
Former underground dungeon
The Khor Virap Monastery is located at the foot of Mount Ararat near the state borders of Armenia with Turkey. It was here where Gregory the Illuminator was kept a prisoner in the years of Trdat III’s reign.
The Khor Virap Chapel was erected in 642 right above the belowground prison. In 1662, the Saint Gregory Chapel along with a monastery was built in honor of the first Catholicos of Armenia.
Today, Khor Virap is a popular site among those who wish to be baptized or get married.
The spear monastery
Northeast of Garni in the canyon of Goght River lies the Geghard (Armenian: Գեղարդ, spear) Monastery, another religious structure included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The monastery was founded in the 4th century at the site of a sacred spring originating from a cave. That’s why the monastery has been initially named Ayrivank, meaning “the Monastery of the Cave.”
A legend says that Gregory the Illuminator was the one behind the establishment of the monastery. Almost none of the original buildings are preserved because the monastery was ruined by the Arabs in the 9th century and reconstructed in the 13th century.
The name of the monastery “Geghard” originates from the Holy Lance, the spear which wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion. The spear was then allegedly brought to Armenia by Apostle Thaddeus. A fragment of the Holy Lance has been conserved in Geghard for about 500 years before being moved to Etchmiadzin.
The warrior temple
The Saint Zorats Church (Saint Warriors) lying in the town of Yeghegis, Vayots Dzor Province, was built in the early 14th century. Back in the days, Armenia was controlled by the Mongols and was in war with Syrian Mamelukes.
The most remarkable characteristic of this church is that it doesn’t have a prayer hall, instead featuring a large outdoor platform. It is considered that the layout of the church was designed to accommodate Armenian troops during church service.
The altar of the church was built at the level of a horseman to allow the warriors to immediately leave for their duties after the church service.
Symbols of soul salvation
Khachkars (cross-stones) are considered the symbols of soul salvation for both deceased and alive. The territory of Armenia houses several thousand khachkars, and each of them features unique patterns.
It is considered that khachkars have been erected on the site of former pagan temples as symbols of the new religion. Today, the craftsmanship and symbolism of khachkars is included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The largest concentration of khachkars in Armenia is located in the Noratus Cemetery, Noratus village, Gegharkunik Province. Over 800 khachkars stand there today.
The brother of Stonehenge
The ancient megalithic complex Karahunj located on a plateau at an altitude of 1,770 meters in Syunik Province can be perfectly compared to Stonehenge in regards to both age and appearance.
This historical-cultural site is spread over a 7-hectare area consisting of a central ring with 24 meters of diameter, rows of megaliths, and large erect stones, the third of which features round holes on the top.
Consisting of 223 1.5 – 2.8-meter tall basalt stones, the 7,500 years old Karahunj is the oldest known observatory in the world.
Amanda Provence Santos BBC Travel