The Armenian Faith

See photo: Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, Yerevan

Armenia is a biblical land in every sense of the word. Everyone knows that Noah‘s Ark landed on Mount Ararat which, although located in Turkish territory, is the main national symbol of the Armenians.

Christianity began to gather followers in Armenia in the 1st century. As legend would have it, the first Christian missionaries in Armenia were the apostles Judas Thaddeus and Bartholomew. They nominated the first Armenian priest, Zacharias, which is why the Armenian Church is considered to be Apostolic. At the beginning of the 4th century Christianity became the official state religion of Armenia. In 301 Gregory I the Illuminator baptized the Armenian King Tiridates III. It was approximately in this period that Armenian writing appeared along with the first translation of the Bible into Armenian.

It is no surprise that over the centuries Armenia has acquired a unique Christian culture. It can be seen, for example, in the architecture of the Armenian churches: their shapes remind one of the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, the most important sanctuary for all Christians. Normally, they have a square or rectangular base and a pointed dome. In Armenian temples the altarpieces are separated from the main space by a screen and not by an iconostasis. In the interior there are many icons, but the altarpiece must have an image of the Virgen. The main symbol of the Armenian Christians is the stone cross decorated with a khachkar, a complex carving. The most famous khachkar adorns the altarpiece of the Chapel of Saint Vartan the Warrior (or of the Armenian Warrior-Martyrs). This chapel is reached by through the underground Church of Saint Helena of the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre that belongs to the Armenian Church. The khachkar of the altarpiece of the Chapel of Saint Vartan the Warrior commemorates 1,036 Armenian martyrs.  In 451 Prince Vardan Mamikonian and his many followers, who had expelled the “magi” (the Zoroastrian clerics) from Armenia, perished in a battle against a large Persian army on the banks of the Tkhut River. The Armenians lost that battle, however all of the Persian attempts to impose Zoroastrianism on Armenia failed and Vartan the Warrior became one of the national heroes of the Caucasian country.

With respect to their faith and religious ceremonies, the Armenians are different from the other churches. For example, the Armenian Apostolic Church uses undiluted wine for the sacrament of Communion. At first glance this is not a big difference, yet it symbolizes a distinctive feature of the Armenian version of Christianity. In the complicated theological dispute over the origin of Christ the Armenians' position is that the human and the divine are united in the Son of God. It is for just this reason that the Armenian churches use undiluted wine during Communion. Many other churches believe the human nature and the divine nature present in Christ to be indivisible, although they do not unite, and so their ceremony includes the addition of water to the wine. It is worth pointing out a national curiosity of Armenian Christianity, the pointed hoods of the priests' vestments. According to common belief, they symbolize the peaks of Mount Ararat which is sacred to Armenians.

The Armenian Church is one of the six branches of Christianity that share custody over the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The rights of the Christian churches to use specific premises of the temple were specified in a Decree by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire only in 1852. Nevertheless, the Armenians were present in the Holy Land much earlier. In the 5th century, in Jerusalem, John the Baptist’s Armenian chapels were already built and schooling in the Armenian language had started. Armenian pilgrims had begun to visit and they left graffiti on the walls. By the middle of the 7th century Jerusalem already had around 70 churches and monasteries. Little by little, an Armenian neighborhood formed in the Old City where many Armenian families that had fled from the Turkish genocide were housed. Currently there are between 500 and 5,500 Armenians living in Jerusalem.

Today, the Armenian Apostolic Church is led by Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians. Apart from religious activity, it is actively dedicated to social activities and intent on achieving worldwide recognition of the Armenian genocide of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Karekin II has received many awards for his contributions to the consolidation of the uniqueness of the Orthodox villages and for the promotion of Christian values in social life.