Spotlight on the Eastern Churches: The Armenian Apostolic Church

Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history.

Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history. Most have distinguished themselves as conquerors or settlers, eventually passing from the scene and leaving behind as their legacy a tablet, a ruin or a reputation. The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses eastern Turkey, parts of the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years — despite the challenges of living along the East-West trade routes. 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, when far more powerful peoples — Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Ottomans — vanished? Most historians would credit the resolve and resourcefulness of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a powerful faith community that has either defined or impacted all aspects of Armenian society, language and culture.

Incontestably, Armenia was the first nation to adopt the Christian faith. A Roman scribe, known to history as Agathangelos, recorded the events of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of King Tiridates III based on contemporary sources more than a century after the deaths of the principals. What is not documented, however, is the origin of Armenian Christianity. Ancient tradition credits the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the source of the Christian faith in Armenia. Armenian Christian familiarity with Syriac and Greek Christian customs — before the era of Gregory — point to Armenia’s links to the ancient churches of the eastern Mediterranean.

Sunday morning liturgy is celebrated at St. James Monastery in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Sunday morning liturgy is celebrated at St. James Monastery in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

Armenian Christianity prospered, charting its own course as it navigated the troubled waters of neighboring Byzantium and Persia. This quest for independence did not, however, require the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Christian Byzantines or the Muslim world. For centuries, trade flourished. Byzantine emperors and Muslim leaders employed Armenian scribes. Armenians engineered defense systems and restored the dome of Haghia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the architectural sophistication and artistic wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices — such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults — that would later support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depicting kings and catholicoi, saints and angels, birds and crosses, reveal Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.

Even after the Ottoman Turks supplanted the Byzantines, capturing Constantinople in 1453, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire thrived well into the modern era. Armenian catholicoi, patriarchs and bishops guided their eparchies, which until the eve of World War I numbered 52. But the rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, which began in Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians.

The empire’s Armenian communities, whose aspirations were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, were violently targeted, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria.

Click here to learn more about this church, and how it has survived the violence of the last century.

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