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Old time religion

‘Armenians are a people who love to cry,’ says Ani Pakradouni of Beirut and Yerevan. ‘We celebrate five major memorial days a year in church, as well as the death day of each of our loved ones.’ The major holidays are Christmas (Epiphany, January 6), Easter in March or April, the Transfiguration of Christ Day on 19 July, the Feast of the Assumption on 16 August, and Holy Cross (Khatchverats) Day on 14 September.

There has been a revival of churchgoing since Armenia regained independence. ‘Not only elderly worshippers either,’ says Moses Taslakian. ‘In fact, I’d say 80% are under 40 years old.’ Although sleek newcomers like St Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan are popular, the older churches, many of which have been around for 700 years or more, are particularly loved. ‘As comforting as old slippers,’ says Londoner Vartan Armen, after his first visit to Armenia.

Most venerable of all is Holy Echmiadzin, founded in AD 301 by Gregory the Illuminator after a dream in which Jesus selected the site. ‘You can feel the weight of centuries of devotion around you,’ says Ani Pakradouni. ‘The sung Mass at Echmiadzin is the most moving experience,’ says Movses Tchaparian. ‘The Armenian words, icons and candles and even the smell of incense wrap me in an atmosphere of reverence. I truly feel close to God when I stand near the altar.’ Vartan Armen says non-Orthodox worshippers might find the congregation’s comings and goings rather distracting. ‘At Echmiadzin, everyone stands. There seems to be no rule about when you arrive or leave. People were still squeezing past us halfway through Mass, walking around, lighting candles, talking to friends. Actually, I think there’s something charming about it, like being in God’s living room.’

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