Christianity has played an immensely important role in the shaping of the Armenian people for over 1,700 years. Today, about 94% of Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church. This branch of the Orthodox Church has derived its faith directly from the apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who preached in Armenia during the first century. The Christian faith has shaped the Armenian culture so intimately that it permeates the very landscape of the country, with khachkars (cross stone carvings) strewn across even the most remote valleys, and ancient monasteries nestled on the peaks of mountains surrounded by breathtaking nature.
Before the introduction of Christianity, Armenia was largely pagan. Many temples dotted the country, but little evidence is left of them as they were destroyed by the early Christians. Today, only one pagan temple remains in Armenia; the famous Hellenistic temple in the village of Garni. Other pre-Christian sites include Zorats Karer (Karahunge) – a 4,200 BC astral observatory near Sisian – and Bronze Age Vishaps (or Dragon Stones), enormous standing obelisks that dot the landscape.
The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew are said to have brought the word of Christ to Armenia shortly after his death. Here they converted Abgar V of Edessa, the Armenian king at the time, after curing him of leprosy, and through him began to proselytize throughout the nation. Relatives of the king fell into apostasy however, and were martyred alongside the Apostles. After this, Christianity fell into disregard, with many subsequent kings persecuting subscribers to this new faith.
The story of Christianity becoming the state religion revolves around two central figures of Armenian history, King Tiridates III and St. Gregory the Illuminator. King Tiridates III (Trdat, in Armenian), ascended to the throne after his father, Khosrov II, and mother were murdered by Anak the Parthian. This same Anak was the father of Gregory, the latter being the only survivor of the family after they were all executed for the murder of the king.
Tiridates ruled well, driving enemies back and reestablishing peace within his kingdom. Roman alliances were forged, Persians were pushed out of Armenia, and all seemed well as he established his capital in the city of Vagharshapat. Meanwhile, Gregory was growing up in Cappadocia, educated amongst Christians. He married a devout Christian called Miriam and had two sons, before leaving to lead a monastic life, hoping to evangelize Armenia and atone for the sins of his father.
Arriving in Armenia, he sought to help the new king, and began working as a secretary within the army. Polytheism still had a spiritual hold of the nation at this time, and at a pagan festival he was ordered by the king to make an offering to the goddess Anahit. When he refused, citing his Christian faith, he was outed by his peers who told the king of his relation to Anak. Infuriated, Tiridates had Gregory tortured and thrown into a pit of the dungeon keep of Khor Virap.
Around the same time, forty nuns arrived in Vagharshapat, seeking refuge after fleeing persecution in the Roman Empire. One of these, Hripsime, was extremely beautiful and had caught the eye of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who had ordered her to marry him. Under the leadership of Gayane, the community of nuns had fled to Armenia. However, Hripsime could not escape her own beauty, and in Armenia she suffered the same fate when she caught the eye of Tiridates. Not able to flee, she was captured and ordered to marry the king. She refused, stating she was already betrothed to Jesus Christ, infuriating Tiridates who submitted them all to death. He burned Hripsime alive, cut Gayane’s tongue out and chest open, and had his soldiers murder the rest of the group (except for Nune, or St. Nino, who curiously fled and went on to convert the Georgian king and state).
His actions are said to have cursed him and his soldiers, turning them into wild beasts, or at the very least insane. For years, his kingdom suffered, until his sister began to have a recurring dream about Gregory in the pit. Skeptical that he may still be alive after thirteen years of unattended captivity in Khor Virap, she sent for him. Incredibly malnourished though he was, he had managed to survive by the grace of a female stranger, who had lowered some bread to him through a skylight every day.
As Gregory was brought towards Vagharshapat, Tiridates left his keep. Meeting him along the route, St. Gregory illuminated him in the ways of Christ, and cured him of his illness. The spot where they met, close to the current entrance of Vagharshapat from Yerevan, was near where Hripsime had been martyred. Tiridates ordered her remains be found, along with the rest of her troupe’s, and have them reburied with honor. Her grave, over an ancient fire temple, is now the site of St. Hripsime Church in Etchmiadzin. Over the following years, his views changed, Tiridates took it upon himself to convert the rest of his nation to the word of Christ with the help of his now friend, St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Vagharshapat became home to the Armenian Apostolic Church shortly after, with Etchmiadzin being one of the oldest standing churches in Christendom. The name Etchmiadzin means “Descent of the Only-Begotten Son of God,” and the Cathedral, built in 303 AD, is said to be in the exact spot where, in a vision St. Gregory the Illuminator had, Christ came to Earth and struck the Armenian plains with a Golden Hammer. This sacred landmark is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Over 1,700 years after the construction of Etchmiadzin, Christianity still plays an important part and is a vital symbol in the Armenian cultural identity. In the Diaspora, the Church is the basis of every Armenian community; and the world over, wherever you find a group of Armenians, you will undoubtedly find an Armenian church.