Armenia’s Ancient Christian Heritage & Why It Matters Today
“If I am asked where is the place on earth that one can come across many miracles, I would name Armenia. Involuntarily, you are surprised in such a small place on earth it is possible to meet such monuments and such people, who can be the ornaments and pride of the whole world.”
— Rockwell Kent, American painter
Waiting at a bus stop in downtown Yerevan, capital of Armenia, evidence of its early Christian heritage is everywhere. In the park across the street, I see a khachkar —an ornately designed Armenian cross-stone, facing west so as to greet Jesus when he returns from the east. A woman stops to drink at the nearby pulpulak, an Armenian water fountain that offers a continuous stream of fresh water, a reminder of Armenia’s reverence for water’s biblical significance. When the bus pulls up, it too bears a casual nod to the countries’ ancient Christian roots—the destination sign reads “Next Stop: Saint Gregory the Illuminator Church.”
Armenia was the first country to declare Christianity a state religion, 301 years after Jesus was born. That’s right, years before Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, disciples were in Armenia sharing the gospel and getting thrown in pits (we’ll get to that story).
According to the Diocese of the Armenian church, historical testimonies in Armenian, Syriac, Greek and Latin confirm the fact that the Apostles Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew first preached the Gospel in Armenia around 44 AD. These are men that walked with Jesus—Bartholomew is even mentioned as witnessing Jesus’ Ascension—who traveled through the mountains and eventually gave their lives sharing the Gospel in Armenia.
Over the next three hundred years, those seeds would continue to grow, in spite of ongoing persecution, and eventually lead to King Tiridates III declaring Armenia the first Christian nation in 301 AD.
So, why had I never heard of Armenia’s role in Christendom before? As a Christian myself, I had prided myself on my knowledge of the history of Christian faith; I’d even taken multiple Christian history classes in school. Yet I, and many other American Christians I spoke with, had never heard of Armenia’s role in the story.
I likely never would have if not for a dear Armenian-American friend, Rosemary, who felt God call her to reconnect with her roots and live in Armenia last year. Through phone calls and FaceTimes, she shared with me the feeling of spiritual vibrance in the country; the beauty of the ancient Christian monasteries and cathedrals, the thriving international church, and the rich Christian history that had such a lasting impact.
“God is at work, here,” she said. “It feels special. You can just tell.”
I had to see for myself. In August of last year, I traveled 23 hours by way of Minneapolis, Seattle, and Doha, Qatar to arrive in Armenia—the ancient country of 2.9 million people nestled between Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.
On the flight, I reviewed Armenian history, jotting notes—Persian Empire. Roman Empire. Christianity. Arts. Genocide. Soviet Union. Survival…
The Foundations of Armenian Faith
The spiritual significance of Armenia can be traced back to its origins, 3,500 years ago, to the very peak of a sacred place—Mount Ararat. Genesis mentions “the mountains of Ararat” as the resting place for Noah’s ark. And legend tells that it was a descendent of Noah—his great-great-grandson, Hayk—who was the founder of Armenia.
Hayk was a great warrior and well-loved, settling near Mount Ararat with a family of at least 300. He and his army defended his people through various historic victories, becoming a nation that was called Hayk in his honor. Today, it is called Hayastan by its people—Armenia, in English. Mount Ararat, although now considered part of Turkey, remains the symbolic heart of the Armenian people. On a clear day, it rises like a snow-capped illusion off Yerevan’s horizon.
During its zenith, the kingdom of Greater Armenia was one of the most powerful states east of Rome; its territory included the area that is now eastern and central Turkey, north-western Iran, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. It was a hub for the arts, philosophy, mathematics, and learning, and Zoroastrianism, or paganism, was the central religious practice.
When Batholomew and Thaddeus traveled to Armenia to evangelize in the 40s AD, Lesser Armenia and Greater Armenia had come under Roman rule. According to Greek historian Strabo, around this time, “everyone in Armenia spoke the same language.” This, in addition to a strong Jewish Diaspora in Armenia and an eagerness to hear about Christianity, paved the way for Bartholomew and Thaddeus to share the gospel.
Spreading Christianity, however, was still costly. Thaddeus first arrived in 44 AD, cured an Armenian King from leprosy, and began preaching through Lesser Armenia and Greater Armenia, converting many followers. One of these followers was Princess Sandukht, the daughter of King Sanatruk of Shavarshan. When the king learned of his daughter’s conversion, he tried in vain to convert her back to paganism. Finally, he gave her a choice between Christianity and death, or paganism and her crown. Remaining steadfast in her faith, she chose death, and became the first woman saint of the Armenian Church.
Bartholomew arrived in Armenia after preaching in Persia, during the 29th year of King Sanatruk’s reign. Here he converted the king’s sister Voguhy and many nobles.
By the king’s order, both apostles were tortured and killed for preaching Christianity; Thaddeus was martyred soon after the princess in 66 A.D., and Bartholomew in 68 A.D. Bartholomew and Thaddeus are recognized as saints, and founders of what is today the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Despite their deaths, Christianity continued to grow. Members of the Voskyan and Sukiasian families continued the preaching of Thaddeus, even as the early church was forced to go underground due to the King’s persecution. For two centuries, Christianity was practiced in secret—but it was alive.
It was not until the 3rd century that Christianity could come into the light once again thanks to the efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator.
St. Gregory the Illuminator & The Pit
Gregory was first connected to Armenia through a murder.
When he was a child, Gregory’s father, a man named Anak, was hired by a Parthian King to assassinate the Armenian King. Anak was successful, and the Armenian King was killed—leaving a young King Tradt III to take the throne. Anak was then killed for his crimes, and his family went into hiding; Gregory barely survived, but was kept safe and raised by a devout Christian, Holy Father Phirmilianos.
Decades later, Gregory arrived in Armenia in the hopes of atoning for his father’s crime and reconciling with King Tradt III. At first, the two became friends. But when King Tradt learned Gregory’s true identity, and of his Christian faith, he had Gregory thrown into a pit to die.
But Gregory did not die. A pagan woman, rumored perhaps to have been the King’s sister, was given a message from the Lord to bring Gregory food and water. For thirteen years, she lowered food and water down into the pit, keeping Gregory alive. Meanwhile, the furious King ordered for every Christian to be arrested and anyone hiding Christians to be put to death.
I learned the story of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in a mini-van, bumping over potholes on the road from Yerevan to the old city of Vagharshapat. At the wheel is Rose’s cousin, Craig, an Armenian-American who moved from the United States to Yerevan with his wife Joyce about four years ago with the goal of bringing the gospel to this generation of Armenians, so this generation can reach the nations. Craig occasionally engages in exuberant storytelling about Armenia’s rich history—such as on this particular drive.
“See that area over there?” Craig points towards the looming outline of a snow-capped Mount Ararat. “That’s where Gregory was thrown into the pit. You can still go down there and see it.”
The pit is less than 50 kilometers away from Yerevan, near the (closed) border with Turkey at the foot of Mount Ararat. The prison has since been transformed into a monastery called the monastery of Khor Virab, which means, “Deep Pit.”
We are on our way to another sacred place, Saint Hripsime Church, where Rosemary will be baptized. When we arrive, it is quiet, but for the soft voice of the priest speaking Armenian to a large group of school girls, all in identical black and white outfits and with matching long, black hair. The air is cool and light comes through the windows in sparse streams, creating contrast between the dark stone, the red carpeted floors, and the depictions of the Holy Family on the walls.
I walk down a narrow hallway where no photos are allowed, into a room with a white and gold coffin. On it is a painting of a woman in an emerald green sash, holding a cross. A golden inscription reads, “The Tomb of St. Hripsime.”
The Death of St. Hripsime & A New Beginning for Armenia
Hripsime was a Roman woman known for her beauty, who lived amongst a group of devout Christian nuns. When she attracted the attention of the Roman emperor Diocletian, who vowed to marry her, she and the 35 other women fled to Armenia. For many years, the women lived peacefully in a monastery in Vagharshapat. During King Tradt’s persecution against Christians, however, their presence was discovered, and King Tradt decided he wanted to have Hripsime as his concubine. When she refused, King Tradt ordered all the women be killed. Legend says that Hripsime heard God’s voice speak, “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” The women were then tortured and burned at the stake.
The slaughter of these innocent women caused psychological damage to King Tradt. He fell into insanity and could no longer attend to the affairs of the state; some stories even described him as turning into a wild boar. His sister tried in vain to help her brother—until one day, in a dream, she saw a vision of Gregory coming out from the pit and healing him. The Court immediately sent men to the dungeon to bring Gregory out.
The Armenian Church describes Gregory’s legendary return from the pit: “Out came a man with a long beard, dirty clothes and darkened face. But his face was shining with a strange and strong light.”
Gregory first gathered and buried the remains of the virgin-martyrs. Then he spent many hours preaching the gospel to the King. Just as the sister’s vision had shown, the King decided to convert to Christianity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was healed, and became a new man.
He said to Gregory, “Your God is my God, your religion is my religion.”
After centuries of persecution, King Tradt III proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 301 AD. The entire royal court was baptized. King Tradt and Gregory remained faithful friends until their death, each working together in their own way to establish the Kingdom of God in Armenia.
The decision to become a Christian nation marked a significant step in establishing Armenia’s independent identity, which, today, differentiates it from its primarily Islamic neighbors. It has even been referred to by historian Nina Garsoïan as “probably the most crucial step in Armenia’s history.” In the centuries that followed King Tradt’s decision, Armenia saw a cultural renaissance—including, in the 5th century, the creation of the Armenian alphabet by Saint Mesrop Mashtots so that the Bible could be written in Armenian.
Today, the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is considered part of Oriental Orthodoxy, remains the state religion, has a friendly relationship with the Catholic Church, and influences Armenian culture and tradition. The spiritual practice of Christianity, however, has been persecuted over the past century, a persecution from which it is still recovering.
I spoke with Craig, who has lived, preached, and built relationships with Christians in Armenia for nearly five years, about what Christianity looks like in Armenia today. To understand the context, he walked me back a century to the most impactful event in Armenia’s recent history—the Armenian genocide.