The Armenian Orthodox Church (commonly called the Armenian Church) is a fascinating blend of Christianity and pagan rituals. Because it was founded so early in Christian history, in 301, many historians speculate that it was not really the will of the people, that the adoption of Christianity as the state religion was imposed by the leader at the time, King Tiridates III (r.c. 287–318 or 330).
The Armenian Church continued to allow many pagan rituals in its services, and even today it practices two rituals related to early pagan practices. At various special holy days, Armenians will sacrifice live animals to God as a way to show their adoration. The meat is then distributed to the poor people. Another religious custom involves tying a piece of one’s own clothing to a holy tree near a famous church as a sign of your faith and belief that prayers will be answered. Prior to the adoption of Christianity, most people in the area worshiped the sun god Mithra and Malek Tavous, his representative on Earth. Yezidism, still practiced today by about 60,000 Yezdi people, who reside mostly in the isolated Aragats and Hoktemberian highland areas, was influenced by this ancient religion and continues some of its practices today. Although this sun worship was supplanted by Christianity, most of the first Christian churches were actually built on old temples used to worship Mithra and Malek Tavous.
The mark of early Christianity is nearly everywhere in Armenia. While few of the country’s conquerors bothered with the common people, many tried to purge the devout Christians from the area by killing the priests and monks. As a result, the heavy, tall stone walls surrounding ancient churches and monasteries tell the story of a small Christian country that has been continually invaded by hostile neighbors of other denominations. In spite of this, the Armenian Church was able to conserve many of its ancient churches. Armenia is famed for its church architecture, in which domes are placed above large central spaces. This is considered a marvel of architecture because it was a problem even the Greeks had a difficult time solving 1,000 years ago. Because they are made of hard volcanic stone from the area, the churches are strong enough to survive time and even war. The stone also allowed the churches to be built very large. The oldest churches are more than 1,500 years old and are some of the largest in the world from that time period. The stone also is ideal for producing intricate carvings. As a result, the interiors of the churches have many large, precise geographic carvings accented with shades of brown dye. These include intricate maps of the larger geographic area, as well as drawings of individuals streets and small villages. Most of the churches do not have paintings, frescoes, or stained glass. The altar is raised like a stage, possibly as a compromise to the people’s pagan roots.
During the Soviet Union’s anti-religion period, beginning in the 1920s, most of the Armenian priests were killed and religious artifacts were destroyed. (Many, of course, were hidden in the caves in the mountains or in people’s homes.) People who spoke for Christianity were imprisoned, and church services could not be held. Interestingly, the Armenian Church was not deterred by this and remained a strong force in people’s lives. Religious leaders held private services in secret, and people gathered in each other’s homes to pray. Eventually, the Soviet Union even called on the church to help rally people to fight in World War II. The Soviet Union also forbade any artists, musicians, and writers to produce religious works. Works that already had been produced were either destroyed or forbidden to be used.
The Armenia Orthodox Church is extremely conservative as compared to Western religions, which the monks and priests consider dangerously liberal. Similar to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church uses its own liturgical calendar, celebrating events such as Easter and Christmas at times other than Catholic and Protestant Churches. The priests dress in elaborate vestments and gilded icons are frequently used in services. They use an early translation of the Bible that pre-dates the King James version by several centuries. As a legacy of the Soviet period, many churches do not hold regular services. People rarely receive sacraments in the churches—such as marriage or even baptism—and often only gather for specific Christian holy days such as Easter and Christmas. In the last decade, though, some churches have become increasingly popular as pilgrimage sites for Armenians. Most of these are churches that have cultural significance, such as the home to a famous Christian author, or are reputed to be the site of miracles.
The great majority of Armenian churches are dedicated to a small number of people or events. Although this guidebook uses English names throughout, visitors will often see an English transliteration of the Armenian name used on the spot. Apart from a few dedicated to Armenian saints, the common ones are:
|Sourb Amenaprkich||Holy Redeemer|
|Sourb Astvatsatsin||Holy Mother of God|
|Sourb Asvatsnkal||Holy Wisdom of God|
|Sourb Arakelots||Holy Apostles|
|Sourb Grigor||St Gregory the Illuminator|
|Sourb Hakob||St Jacob|
|Sourb Haratyun||Holy Resurrection|
|Sourb Karapet||Holy Forerunner (ie: St John the Baptist)|
|Sourb Nshan||Holy Sign (of the Cross)|
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