The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses parts of Asia Minor, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years. Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Armenians have outlived more powerful neighbors, who repeatedly and relentlessly sought to subjugate and even obliterate them.
How have the Armenians survived? Most historians would credit the role of the Armenian Church — Apostolic and Catholic. This unique faith community has influenced all aspects of Armenian society, language and culture since the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the state in the year 301.
The events surrounding the baptism of the Armenian king, Tiridates III, by St. Gregory the Illuminator are well known. What remains obscure, however, is the origin of Armenian Christianity. There are a few clues: Ancient tradition credits the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the source of the Christian faith in Armenia. And ancient Armenia’s familiarity with Syriac and Greek Christian customs — before the era of St. Gregory — point to Armenia’s links to the ancient churches of the eastern Mediterranean.
Regardless of origin, Armenian Christianity prospered, charting its own course as it navigated the troubled waters of neighboring Byzantium and Persia. Independence did not, however, require the Armenians to sever commercial or cultural relationships with the Christian Byzantines, the Muslim world or the Catholic West. For centuries, trade flourished. Byzantine emperors and Muslim leaders employed Armenian scribes, most of whom were monks. Armenians engineered defense systems and designed churches, such as the Great Church of the Church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. And Armenian princesses married into European ruling families.
Even after the Ottoman Turks supplanted the Byzantines, capturing Constantinople in 1453, the Armenian Church thrived well into the modern era. Armenian catholicoi, patriarchs and bishops guided their eparchies, founded monasteries and endowed churches with precious manuscripts and bejeweled sacred objects.
The rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, and the decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, exposed the vulnerability of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria.
The Armenian Christian diaspora today numbers seven million people. And while scattered across the globe, all turn to modern Armenia’s Holy Etchmiadzin, the center of the church where according to tradition Jesus descended from heaven and struck with a golden hammer the site of the deaths of two virgin martyrs, Gayane and Hripsime.
Holy Etchmiadzin “is the heart of the Armenian nation,” wrote the 19th-century Armenian poet, Berj Proshian. “Enter inside, kiss the point of descent and you will have kissed the entire expelled nation, dispersed throughout the universe.”