Many visitors will be surprised to know that Armenia is not just a Christian nation, but it is the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. It took place in 301 AD. One can find thousands of churches and monasteries in Armenia. Armenians are Apostolic Christians and have their own Catholicos (religious leader, like the Pope for Catholics).
About 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Armenian Christians, having derived their faith directly from Christ's apostles. The Christian faith has shaped Armenian culture so intimately that it permeates the very landscape at virtually every corner of the country. Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD.
Christianity was first introduced in Armenia by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century AD. At this time, paganism was widespread and practiced by the kings of Armenia. Temples dotted the country, and one symbol example of that era, a Greek-style temple in the village of Garni, was restored in the 1960s and still stands.
Pagan practices did not deter Christian missionaries in spreading the word of God to Armenians. Among them was Gregory, the son of Partev Anak, who was baptized a Christian in Caesaria, a city in Cappadocia. Gregory was thrown into a pit by the Armenian king Trdat III, where he survived for 13 years only by the grace of a kind woman who secretly fed him. King Trdat fell in love with a Christian nun named Hripsime. When she refused the king's proposal of marriage, the king had her and her entire order put to death. Thereafter, the king went mad, and only after the king's sister released Gregory from captivity to heal her ailing brother did the king regain his sanity.
King Trdat was baptized by Gregory and converted his entire kingdom to Christianity in 301 AD, making Armenia the first nation to accept Christianity as its state religion. Gregory came to be known as the Illuminator and was named the first Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church. After seeing a vision of the descent of the Only Begotten Son, pointing to a site in current-day Echmiadzin, St. Gregory the Illuminator built the mother cathedral of the Armenian church. In future years, churches were built near the Echmiadzin Cathedral in honor of the martyred nun Hripsime and the head of her order, Gayane, who were canonized. The church of Khor Virap (meaning Deep Pit) was built on the spot of St. Gregory's captivity.
As Armenians began to practice Christianity, many churches and monasteries were erected, some on the foundations of pagan temples. Armenia's innovative architectural traditions can be seen in the church complexes as precursors to the Gothic form.
Although it is a distinct church, the Armenian Apostolic Church is in communion with the church universal and in the family of churches such as the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Indian Malabar churches.
Traditionally, the Armenian Church recognizes the Catholicos of All Armenians as its leader. He resides in Holy Echmiadzin, where St. Gregory the Illuminator established the Armenian Church in 301 AD. A National Ecclesiastical Assembly consisting of lay and clergy representatives of Armenian communities around the world elects the Catholicos.
Vazgen 1st: The Catholicate of All Armenians from 1955–1994
There are four hierarchical Sees in the Armenian Church: the Catholicate of All Armenians in Ejmiatzin; the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia; the Patriarchate of Jerusalem; and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Church entered its most recent era of leadership on October 27, 1999, when Armenian Christians chose His Holiness Garegin II as leader of their worldwide church following the death of Catholicos Garegin I.
Small Roman Catholic and Protestant communities also exist in Armenia. Catholic missionaries began converting Armenians in the Ottoman and Persian empires in the early modern era, and American Protestant missionaries were active in the nineteenth century. The Kurdish population is mostly Yezidi or Muslim. A Russian Orthodox community also serves its community.
From ancient times, Armenians have cherished their artistic traditions, which reflect a unique culture and landscape. Aspects of everyday life are expressed in the most artistic fashion, in needlework, embellishments, carvings and design.
Architecture is one of the most interesting art forms in Armenia, as, for example, churches bear artistic illustrations in frescoes and reliefs. Sculpting is everywhere - in nearly every city, town, and village in Armenia.
Armenians love music, and they have been creating exquisite compositions for centuries. Sharakans are traditional Armenian liturgical songs, which are experiencing a revival today. Distinctive musical instruments are used to play Armenian folk songs. Sayat Nova, Komitas, and Aram Khachaturian are among Armenia's best-known musicians and composers. Contemporary music comes in the forms of jazz and pop. The Sayat Nova Conservatory helps polish future generations of Armenian musicians. Frequent concerts make for delightful evenings at the Philharmonic, Chamber Music Hall, Opera and Ballet House in Yerevan.
Literature has always played a vital role in Armenia's cultural and national identity. Before the Armenian alphabet was developed in the 5th century, Armenian tales were passed down by oral tradition and written in foreign languages. Armenian manuscripts, beautifully illuminated with miniatures, combine Armenia's literary and illustrative traditions. Christian culture and the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots, so thoroughly expressive of the language that it has withstood the centuries without any essential changes, gave new stimuli to the development of unique cultural traditions. There is no better place to view this literary and artistic history than Yerevan's unique Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Manuscripts), which houses an extraordinary collection of 14,000 complete manuscripts, fragments and miniatures. The oldest parchments date back to the fifth and sixth centuries. The majority of manuscripts are research works of ancient scholars on theology, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, geography, history, medicine, poetry and music.
Armenian painting blossomed in the 19th century. Artists from that period, such as the portrait painter Hakob Hovnatanian and the seascape artist Ivan Aivazovsky, continue to enjoy internationalreputation. In the 20th century, Martiros Saryan captured nature's essence in a new light, and Arshile Gorky greatly influenced a generation of young American artists in New York, while Carzou and Jansem found fame and fortune painting in France. A visit to Saryan Park will bring you in touch with today's Armenian artists.
The Caucasus region and Armenia in particular have been cited by scholars as the place where rug and carpet weaving originated. Armenians continue this tradition, and one can find many shops specializing in fine new and old rugs and carpets. At the weekend flea market, rug sellers lay out their eye-catching merchandise filled with appealing colors and designs. At the same market, you will come across loads of charming handicrafts that will be hard to resist purchase. Visitors to Armenia find handmade crafts, Armenian gold, precious and semi-precious stones which inspire jewelers in many regions. Obsidian stone is used for jewelry, desk accessories, and decorative items. Carpet making is not only a fine art, but Kilim weaving, for example, is applied to clothing items, bags, and home furnishings. Wood carvings replicate the ancient stone crosses (khachkars) found throughout the country, and no two are exactly alike. Armenian crafts couple elegant utility and delightful whimsy in textiles, ceramics, metal and woodworking.
Armenia is often referred to as an open air museum. Tourists find over 4,000 historical monuments throughout Armenia, covering various periods of the country's history from prehistoric to Hellenistic times, and from the early to medieval Christian era. The Armenians created their masterpieces during rare periods of peace and relative prosperity over the centuries. Within Yerevan alone there are more than 40 fine arts museums and galleries.
As Armenia straddles Europe and Asia, East and West, so does the culture. Many Armenians refer to Armenia as a European nation, but their social conservatism in some realms hasn't been seen in Europe proper for a few decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened up many of these channels again, and change is coming rapidly, but much more so in Yerevan than in the rest of the country. The small and very homogeneous (about 99% Armenian) population is strongly family oriented. The people across the land are very hospitable, and place a lot of pride in their hospitality. Show up in a village without a penny, and food and a place to stay will flow - along with drinks and endless toasts.