The First Christian Country

am1 am2 Biblical Mount Ararat provides the backdrop for the Khor Virap monastery. The 5th century monastery is located on the site of a former prison where St. Gregory (301-325) was supposedly encased in a scoprion-filled pit by the Armenian King Trdat. The plains around Khor Virap have served frequently as a battlefield. In 930, two Armenian kings joined forces to defeat an invading Arab army. In 1047, a Byzantine army fought another Arab army. A chronicler mentioned the monastery and shortly after it became a major seat of learning in the region. The church on the site has been built and rebuilt a number of times with the current facilities dating from the 17th century. am3 The entrance to the underground pit of St. Gregory. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in 287 AD by King Trdat possibly for teaching Christianity and spent 13 years in the hole accompanied by snakes and scorpions which are abundant in the area. In 301, Trdat had 37 Christian virgins fleeing Roman persecution stoned to death including Hrispime who refused the king's marriage proposal. According to legend, the King went insane after the murders but his sister, who had a dream, convinced him that he would be cured if he released Gregory. He did and Gregory both cured and baptized the king this making Armenia the first Christian kingdom some 80 years before the founding of the Holy Roman/Byzantine empires. However, Armenia was often under rule of many invading powers including the Persians, Byzantines, Mongols and others. The Armenian church is known locally not as orthodox but rather Apostolic reflecting the early teachings in the kingdom by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholemew, both who were martyred in Armenia some 60 years after the death of Jesus. am4 A priest blesses a sacrificial sheep. The pre-Christian practice of sacrificing animals is still practiced in Armenia. When a fortuitous event occurs, Armenians will slaughter an animal at the church on Saturday. The meat is then given to neighbors and the less fortunate. This is a means of thanking God for watching over them. am5 Worshipers light prayer candles at Khor Virap (Deep Pit) Monastery. amban1 Khachkar details amban2 Details from khachkar am6 Downtown Yerevan. This was once known as Lenin Square. It is now called the Square of the Republic. Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously occupied towns on earth. A stone found in the city limits indicate it was founded in 781 BC. am7 The Astvatsatsin (Mother of God) Church in the Noravank (New) Monastery. Founded in 1205 by Bishop Hovhannes, this monastery was an important center in the 13th and 14 centuries. It includes St. Karapet church (not pictured) and some of the finest examples of khachkars in the country. The church pictured includes a chapel on the second floor and a crypt for the the Orbelian family, the churches main patrons, on the ground floor. am8 Known as a khachkar, these stone carvings were made as either grave markers or for some auspicious event or happening. Many scholars have noted the strking similarity to early Celtic design. My Armenian guide's interpretation was that the far travelling Armenians influenced the Celts. I think, however, that the Celts pre-date the Armenians but who knows. am9 One of the finest examples of khachkars by the artist Momik from 1308 am10 Noravank Monastery. The steps are much easier to get up than to get down. I wonder how many parishioners took the tumble over the years. I found the experience rather unnerving. am11 The 13th century Gerhard Monastery. This fascinating monastery includes a number of chapels carved into the mountain. Known originally as Gerhardavank or am12 The interior of one of the cave chapels at Gerhard Monastery. Armenian churches in general are very plain both inside and outside. Except for the seat of the Holy See at Echmiadzin, none of the churches were painted, plastered or otherwise decorated except for some fine stone carving. It gives them a very simple and plain appearance. am13 Hripsime Church. Built in 618, this is the final resting place of one of the founding saints of the Armenian church, Hripsime. The virgin was stoned to death by King Trdat for being a Christian and refusing to marry him. The king would later convert. The church is one of the oldest on earth. am14 A khachkar at Hripsime church am16 A khachkar at the Noravank Monastery. This monastery is blessed with some of the finer examples of this art form. am15 The Cathedral of Echmiadzin and the seat of the Holy See. This is the mother church in Armenia. According to legend, the site was selected by St. Gregory in a dream. Excavations under the alter show a 3rd century columned construction. Like many Armenian churches, this was destroyed numerous times by the Mongols, Seljuk Turks, Persians and Arabs. In the 17th century it was significantly rebuilt and most of the belfries and towers date from this time. However, an examination of the church shows that it is a collection of many eras of construction and some of the stones may date to the 6th century.

All material Copyright 2003 Drew Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.
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