WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT ARMENIA
Christianity, ancient churches and monasteries
And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen. (Genesis 8:4-5)
And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth. (Genesis 8: 15-17)
This is how the Old Testament describes the end of the Flood. The beginning of a new life for humanity is associated with the “mountains of Ararat” or rather with the region surrounding Mount Ararat, that is to say, Armenia. No wonder one of the most ancient Armenian cities, Nakhijevan (present day Nakhichevan), located not far away from the sacred mountain, according to an interpretation of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of 1st century AD, means "the place of the first landing" of Noah's ark.
It is noteworthy that the fact that Armenia is the first country that has adopted Christianity as a state religion has become known to the wider public after the massive celebrations of the 1700th anniversary of the event in 2001.
Noah and Ararat mountain
But Christianity came to Armenia much earlier than 301 AD. According to the church tradition, the first preachers of Christ’s teachings in Armenia were apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew who are considered the founders of the church in Armenia. They came to Armenia at different times and preached independently of one another. But legend has it that they met once in an Armenian settlement, which in memory of that meeting was named Otyats Khach (the Refuge of the Cross). It is precisely for this reason, the preaching of Christianity in Armenia by the two of the twelve direct pupils of Jesus Christ, that the Armenian Church is called Armenian Apostolic Church.
A paramount role in the adoption of Christianity in Armenia was played by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Church (302-326), and the king of Armenia Trdat (Tiridates) III the Great (287-330).
Khor Virap monastery
In 287 when Trdat arrives in Armenia in the company of Roman legions he performs the rite of sacrifice at the shrine of the pagan goddess Anahit in the land of Eriza of Yekeghiats region (known in the recent times as Yerznka). Professing Christian faith Gregory refuses to offer the sacrifice to the idol. It also becomes known at that time that Gregory is the son of the murderer who killed Trdat’s father. Gregory is immediately imprisoned in a deep pit in Artashat where prisoners sentenced to death were usually confined. There Gregory the Illuminator spent 13 years of his life. Today the monastery of Khor Virap (translated as a deep pit) stands at that place. During the years of Saint Gregory’s confinement, the Christians were widely persecuted in Armenia, by the orders of the king they were to be arrested and those who hid them had to be executed.
During Trdat’s reign, a group of Christian girls from Rome found refuge in Armenia fleeing from persecutions of the emperor Diocletian. One of the girls, virgin Rhipsime, enchanted the Armenian king as soon as he saw her. He desired to marry her but encountered desperate resistance. For such disobedience the kings ordered to torture and kill all the girls.
The execution which took place either in 300 or 301 AD made the king experience extreme emotional stress which resulted in a serious illness. Then the king’s sister, Khosrovidukht, saw a recurrent dream revealing that Trdat could be cured only by the imprisoned Gregory. Freed from his confinement, Gregory collected and interred the relics of martyr virgins and then after a 66 day sermon healed the king. After that Trdat III together with his court was baptized and declared Christianity as the state religion of Armenia.
Since then the Armenian Church has been an inalienable part of the Armenian identity becoming one of the fundamental pillars that guided Armenians through the most unfavourable geopolitical situations and helped to prevent assimilation with neighbouring nations despite the loss of independence.
Because Armenian communities are spread in many countries of the world, an Armenian church can be found on all the continents. Thanks to an ascetic architecture of Armenian churches with conical domes it is easy to differentiate them from other Christian churches. Naturally, the oldest churches are found in the territory of historical Armenia and particularly in the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. First of all one has to mention the Etchmiadzin cathedral which is located in the town of Vagharshapat and serves as the Mother See for the Catholicos of All Armenians. The mother cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church dates back to the 4th century and is included in the UNESCO list of the World Heritage sites. It is considered one of the most ancient Christian temples in the world.
Vagharshapat also hosts other famous churches such as the church of St Rhipsime and the church of St Gayane. Both churches as well as the ruins of Zvartnots temple located nearby date back to the 7th century. In the north of contemporary Armenia one could find such remarkable monasteries as Haghpat (10-13th centuries), Sanahin (10-12th centuries), Odzun (6th century) as well as Noravank monastery (12-14th centuries) in the province of Vayots Dzor and Tatev monastery (9-17th centuries) in the province of Syunik. The Amaras monastery, located in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was founded in the 4th century AD and it is here where St Mesrop Mashtots, the author of the Armenian alphabet, established the first Armenian school. Other famous temples of Karabakh include Dadivank (9-13th centuries) and Gandzasar (10-13th centuries).
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One of the peculiarities of the Armenian Church is the celebration of Christmas (and the Baptism) on January 6 while Western Christians celebrate it on December 25 and several other Orthodox Churches on January 7.
The thing is that until the 4th century Christian churches celebrated Christmas and Baptism on January 6. For the first time, the birth of Jesus was separated from baptism by the Roman Church in the first half of the 4th century. The pope Julius I decided to approve December 25th as the date of Christmas in 337. This was done so that people could forget the pagan holiday celebrated on that day. Then the change was spread throughout the Christian world with exception of Armenia. Today only a number of Orthodox Churches (including Russian Orthodox Church) commemorate Christmas on December 25 (Julian calendar) which falls on January 7 (Gregorian calendar).