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Christianity

The local religious scene in Armenian villages attracted Christian missionaries as early as AD 40, including the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. The adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, the first country in which this happened, is perhaps the single most important event in Armenian history. Although traditionally said to have happened in 301, there is debate over the precise date but it had certainly happened by 314.

King Trdat IV held power, like his predecessors, with the support of Rome against the continuing threat from Persia. The precise date of Armenia's conversion is interesting as it reflects differently on Trdat's motives depending on when it was: ad301 was before the persecution of the Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian in 303 and it was also before the Roman edict of toleration of Christianity in 311 and the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. A later date for Armenia's conversion suggests a much closer alignment with imperial thinking, as adopting Christianity in 314 would have been more than likely to please an emperor who had himself just become a Christian.

There is an account of Armenia's conversion which claims to have been written by a contemporary but in reality it was written c460, a century-and-a-half after the events. In this account, well known and much quoted in Armenia, Trdat had Gregory the Illuminator, who was in his service, tortured to persuade him to give up Christianity. Gregory refused and Trdat additionally realised that Gregorys father had murdered his, Trdat's, father. As a consequence Trdat then had Gregory imprisoned in a snake-infested pit for 12 years at a place now occupied by the monastery of Khor Virap, and he also persecuted other Christians including the nuns Hripsime (whom Trdat tried to rape) and Gayane who were refugees fleeing from Rome. Divine punishment was sent: Trdat is said to have behaved like a wild boar (though in what respect he imitated these rather engaging animals is not clear), while torments fell on his household and demons possessed the people of the city. Eventually Trdat's sister had a vision after which Gregory was released, the martyrs were buried and the afflicted were cured. Trdat himself proclaimed Christianity the state religion, and Gregory became Bishop of Caesarea.

Thus, Trdat IV's moment of epiphany came after being cured of madness by St Gregory the Illuminator, who had spent 12 years imprisoned in a snakeinfested pit. A version preferred by historians suggests that Trdat was striving to create national unity while fending off Zoroastrian Persia and pagan Rome. Whatever the cause, the church has been a pillar of Armenian identity ever since. Another pillar of nationhood arrived in 405 with Mesrop Mashtots’ revolutionary Armenian alphabet. His original 36 letters were also designed as a number system. Armenian traders found the script indispensable in business. Meanwhile, medieval scholars translated scientific and medical texts from Greek and Latin.

Conversion required much change in social customs and this change did not happen quickly. In particular Zoroastrianism permitted polygamy and it promoted consanguineous marriages between the closest of relatives as being particularly virtuous. A Church council in 444 needed to condemn the apparently continuing practice of consanguineous marriage while as late as 768 another needed to emphasise that a third marriage is detestable adultery and an inexpiable sin. The Church also found it difficult to suppress mourning customs including wailing, pulling of hair, rending of garments, slashing of arms and faces, dancing and the playing of trumpets.


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