Religious sites in Armenia

Armenia, as one of the most ancient countries, not only has an ancient culture and rich history, but also ancient religious history, dating back centuries -- Christianity from 301 AD, and prehistoric pagan religions.

Cultural Significance of Religion in Armenia

Throughout history Armenia has developed a unique look due to its devotion to Christianity. The country is a home to over a hundred monasteries. Religion has left its roots not only in the architecture, but also music, food and traditional clothing. Christianity has helped Armenians to preserve their oldest traditions by converting them to have religious significance.

2000 Years of Pagan Past

Armenia has not only a 1700-year Christian history, but also more than 2000 years of a pagan past. The Armenians had their own gods, most of which coincided with the Romans and Greeks. On the territory of Historical Armenia there are several monuments dedicated to the ancient Armenian gods. One of them is a Garni temple located on the territory of present-day Armenia. The temple was built in the 1st century AD by King Trdat I in dedication to the pagan god of the Sun - Mihra. After Trdat III adopted Christianity as the state religion all pagan temples were destroyed. The Garni temple was not destroyed, unlike other pagan temples, because it was the King’s sister’s favorite place of rest. Additionally, it was in the territory of the summer residence of the royal family. To this day, it is the only pagan temple that has survived in the whole region of the Caucasus. Currently, Garni is a symbol of Armenian neopaganism and one of the most popular tourist destinations of the country - annually more than 136,000 tourists visit this place.

The Descent of the Only-Begotten

The most important place of the Christian period in Armenia is the Etchmiadzin Cathedral. The original church was built in the early fourth century. According to tradition, the cathedral was built between 301 and 303 near the royal palace in the then Armenian capital city of Vagharshapat, on the location of a pagan temple. Armenia's patron saint Gregory the Illuminator had a vision of Jesus Christ descending from heaven and striking the earth with a golden hammer to show where the cathedral should be built. Hence, the patriarch gave the church the name of Etchmiadzin, which translates to “the Descent of the Only-Begotten”.

Religion has always been very important for Armenians. Throughout the territory of historical Armenia and Armenia today there are many churches built from the 4th century to the present day. Even one of the oldest capitals of Armenia, the city of Ani is called “the city of 1,001 churches”. It is now situated in Turkey's province of Kars, next to the closed border with Armenia.

Khor Virap

The walled monastery complex, which sits on a rocky outcrop above the river plan, offers magnificent views of Mount Ararat as well as a fine example of early Armenian ecclesiastic architecture, the ruins of nearby Ancient Artashat and the Khor Virap State Nature Reserve. 

Khor Virap plays an integral role in the history of Armenia due to the legend of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, who was imprisoned there for 13 years. During the reign of King Tiridates III the Great, Gregory the Illuminator was trying to spread Christianity in Armenia, which was not approved by the pagan ruler. Gregory refused to worship pagan Gods, thus, the king ordered his guards to tie the Christian’s hands and throw him into a deep well. King Tiridates left Gregory to die in the dark dungeon where he was imprisoned. He spent 13 years in that dark, damp and small place, but survived due to the kindness of a woman’s tender heart. 

The Monastery of the Spear

A significant place in the history of Armenian religion is The Geghard Monastery. While the main chapel was built in 1215, the monastery complex was founded in the 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave. The monastery had thus been originally named Ayrivank, meaning “the Monastery of the Cave.” The name commonly used for the monastery today, Geghard, or more fully Geghardavank, meaning ”the Monastery of the Spear”, originates from the spear which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion, allegedly brought to Armenia by Apostle Jude, called here Thaddeus, and stored among many other relics. It is now displayed in the Echmiadzin museum, along with other religious treasures. Geghard is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.