In Matthew 2:1–12, we read that Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem during the days of Herod, when Jesus Christ was born. Magi told Herod that they had seen the Star. They had followed it in hopes of finding the one who was to be born to become the new King. Jewish scribes confirmed that the Prophet Micah foreknew the birth of the new King in Bethlehem. Magi thereby had set out from Jerusalem, following the Star’s direction.
Eventually, the Star brought them to the place where the newborn Child was. The Magi came inside and found the Child with His mother, Mary, and bowed down in adoration. They then opened their gifts, presenting myrrh, gold, and frankincense. Thereafter, the Magi were warned in their dreams not to travel back through Jerusalem.
While the Gospel contains many remarkable facts, it doesn’t provide certain key information. As an example, we do not know how many Magi there were. Supposedly, each Magus presented one of the three gifts to the Child, and one could conclude that there were three Magi. The exact location of the Magi’s ancestral home in “the East” is unknown as well. Many propose that the Magi originated in either Babylon or Persia, renowned centers of astronomy and astrology.
The thing is that the word “magus” may be interpreted as “astronomer” or “astrologer” because the root “M-G” means “star”. Finally, the Gospel doesn’t tell us the names of the Magi, though later traditions assigned the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (Kaspar, Melkon, and Baghdasar in Western Armenian) to them. Further traditions would claim that Gaspar was the eldest, while Balthasar was the youngest.
A fascinating document named “Gontag”, an official encyclical from a church functionary, could shed some light on the story. This document was included into a book about the history of the Armenian Monastery of Saint John the Baptist (also known as Sourp Garabed Vank) near the ancient city of Moush. Gontag was issued to request for donations of the repairs of a dilapidated sanctuary on the outskirts of one of the villages of Moush. Although Gontag doesn’t contain any date or name of the official who issued it, its Classical Armenian text provides valuable and crucial information for Christianity and Armenians.
As we mentioned, Matthew 2:1–12 confirms that Magi decided to return to their homeland via a different route. Gontag recounts that the Magi headed north of Bethlehem and eventually arrived on a plain outside the city of Moush, where they would set up a camp to rest. In the middle of the night, Gaspar, the eldest of the Magi, peacefully passed away. The passing of their old friend unsettled Melchior and Balthasar who decided to arrange a proper burial for Gaspar.
Commissioning the local people, the Magi buried Gaspar on the top of the hill that overlooked the plain where they had spent the night. The locals also erected a sepulcher over the grave of Gaspar. After respectfully mourning Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar proceeded with their journey back home.
For the next 300 years, the local people have maintained the sepulcher, passing the oral tradition that a wise man had seen a great star, followed it to travel to Bethlehem, witnessed the birth of a great king, and passed away on his journey home.
King Abgar of Edessa (Urfa) in Armenia may have been aware of the tradition of the Magi. According to the church tradition (see Eusebius, History of the Church), Abgar wanted to know more about Christianity and thereby wrote a letter to Jesus Christ. He invited Jesus to Edessa to heal him and remain in the city. After the Resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Thaddeus arrived in Edessa, preached Christianity, and cured and baptized Abgar, making him the first Christian king of Armenia.
After being consecrated a bishop in Caesarea in Cappadocia, Gregory the Illuminator was entrusted by Bishop Leontius with several sacred relics. On his way back to Armenia, Gregory overstayed outside of Moush. There, he ordered the construction of a monastery to hold the great relic of Saint John the Baptist. Until May 1915, the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist has stood as a guardian of Armenian Christianity.
During Gregory’s stay in the area, he was told by the locals about the tomb of a wise man. At the time, the majority of people living near Moush were pagan. However, they understood the importance of the relics contained in the sepulcher, though they were unaware of the connection of Gaspar and the Magi to the theology of Christianity. Learning about the burial place, Gregory headed to the sepulcher and recognized its sanctity.
He ordered the building of a monastery around the sepulcher to protect the relics of Gaspar, with its altar directly over the sepulcher. The monastery would become known as Sourp Kaspari Vank or Kasparavank. Every year, when the Christmas Star appeared in the nightly sky on Theophany, priests, monks, and pilgrims would gather at Kasparavank to carry out the first Holy Eucharist of the feast day.
In the West, many people believe that the relics of the Magi were discovered in the 4th century in Milan, Italy. They were supposedly later transferred to Cologne, Germany. Today, the visitors of the city can see the beauteous golden shrine inside the cathedral that preserves the relics of the Magi, as said by the Western tradition. Pilgrims from all over the world have for centuries arrived in Cologne on Christmas and Epiphany to revere the relics.
But what about the Armenian Gontag? If it is accurate, it would denote that the body of Gaspar – the more important relic – was preserved and also venerated in Armenia at least since the times of Gregory the Illuminator. It is necessary to research how a fragment of this relic made it into Europe. Besides, it is unclear why Armenia isn’t considered a superior location in the Christmas narrative.
Apart from functioning as a monastery, Kasparavank seems to have been a place of pilgrimage for Christians since the 3rd century until the early 19th century. Though the building of monastery had been plundered and ruined in the early 1800s by Kurdish tribes, Kasparavank has been still visited up until 1915. Regardless, the traditional burial place of Gaspar has been venerated by Armenians from around Moush for centuries.