Friday, August 26, 2005

The First Christian Nation

Armenians are proud that they were the first nation to accept Christianity as the state religion, in 301 AD (Georgia and the Roman Empire followed later). Saturday we set off to Khor Virap, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where St. Gregory the Illuminator first brought Christianity to Armenia. Around 288 AD, King Trdat III threw Gregory in a pit at Khor Virap with the intention of killing him for his Christian proselytizing. For thirteen years, Gregory lived in this pit, fed by the king's sister, and living by little more than his faith. Finally, in 301, Gregory cured the king of a terrible disease (in more extreme versions, he turned into a boar after killing two nuns), and the king accepted Christianity and adopted it as the state religion.

Our delegation went down into the pit, which has been preserved all of these years. A 17th century church (very modern by Armenian standards) sits atop the pit, but on a summer day, it is a pretty miserable place to be. Thirteen years down there is unimaginable.

The Armenian Church is neither Eastern Orthodox nor Catholic, but is a separate branch of Christianity with its own Catholicos (or pope) and liturgy. Saint Mesrop developed the Armenian alphabet in order to spread the Christian Gospels to Armenian-speakers. This was the first of many ancient sites we are to visit, in a country where a 12th or 13th century church is hardly old. Meeting with the mayor of Yerevan the day before, I told him that Los Angeles would celebrate its 224th birthday in two weeks, to which he replied that Yerevan celebrates its 2768 birthday this year. Kind of puts things in perspective.