Arguably, the Jerusalem cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. But nowhere in the world is this sign as significant or culture-rooted as it is in Armenia. Throughout Armenia, thousands of khachkars (cross-stones) decorate the mountainous terrain of the first Christian nation. They are a unique example of the Armenian art of spiritual expression.
Since the 4th century, the conversion of Armenians and establishment of Christianity as a state religion in 301 gave a beginning to a new era of Armenian national consciousness with the cross in the center of the Armenian symbolism.
Many crusaders have seen the Armenian cross worship and its sophisticated design. Because the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was a strong ally of the European Crusaders, they borrowed skills and experience of Armenian castle-building, art, and church architecture.
The First Crusade took place during the rule of Constantine I. On the way to Jerusalem, an army of Western European Christians marched through Armenian Highlands as well as Cilicia. Cilician Armenians gained potent allies among the Frankish Crusaders. Their leader, Godfrey de Bouillon, adopted the “Jerusalem cross” design from the existing Armenian symbols.
Pope Gregory XIII portrayed the Armenian support to the Crusaders in his Ecclesia Romana:
“Among the good deeds which the Armenian people have done towards the church and the Christian world, it should especially be stressed that, in those times when the Christian princes and the warriors went to retake the Holy Land, no people or nation, with the same enthusiasm, joy and faith came to their aid as the Armenians did, who supplied the Crusaders with horses, provision and guidance. The Armenians assisted these warriors with their utter courage and loyalty during the Holy wars.”
The frequent intermarriages between the Armenians and Crusaders enforced the friendly relationships between them. Before becoming King of Jerusalem and founding the first Crusader state (which, by the way, adopted the Jerusalem cross), Godfrey’s brother Baldwin of Boulogne was Duke of Edessa (also known as Armenian Urha, Urfa) because he had been adopted as the son of Armenian Price Toros of Urha. Baldwin then married the daughter of Prince Toros, which made her the first Queen of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was founded c. 1080 by the Rubenid dynasty, an offshoot of the larger Bagratid family, which had held Armenian and Georgian the thrones at different times. Later, the Armenian Bagratuni (Georgian Bagrationi) dynasty established themselves as the rulers of Iberia (modern Georgia). They spread the Jerusalem cross in Georgia in the 14th century.
Medieval monk Thomas à Kempis once noted on the subject of the Cross:
“In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness….”
Armenian khachkars, symbolism, and craftsmanship have been inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2010.
Let us now take a look at early examples of Jerusalem cross in Armenia.