When most people think of the first Christian nation, they think of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, that is not the case. The first Christian nation, contrary to popular belief, was Armenia in 301 CE. This small nation prides itself on its Christian culture and unique denomination of Christianity. Despite Armenia’s bordering predominantly Muslim countries (i.e. Azeribaijan, Turkey, Iran), one boardering country, Georgia to the north, has an 83% Christian population. Armenia still boasts an even higher Christian population than Georgia, approximately 95% of Armenians are Christian. The strong presence of Christianity can be felt when visiting this nation.
Unlike other countries, Armenia’s tourism is centered around medieval monastic complexes in the most geographically beautiful locations. With HYUR Service, a tour agency, I was able to see the most well-known Armenian churches and monasteries around the entire country! My favorite monastic complex I was able to visit (which was a tough decision), was Geghard.
Geghard, meaning spear, until recently held the Spear of Destiny, the lance believed to
have pierced Jesus’s side. Furthermore, Geghard is situated at a bottom of a deep hill, with the monastery built into the cave walls at the base. From the picture, you only see a small portion of the complex. Many more rooms are built into the hill-side, elaborate
carvings grace the cave walls, and a stream runs through one room which is believed to be healing water (my friend tried it out, it did not work). Moreover, outside of the monastery’s building, there are smaller caves on the hillside. These caves were used by monks when they wanted to pray or fast in solitude. Now these caves make an interesting hike in the summer due to snakes (I luckily did not see a snake).
While Geghard is absolutely gorgeous and a monastic complex like none other, a favorite for the Armenians and Christians on a pilgrimage in Armenia, the other monastic complex I enjoyed almost just as much, was spectacular because of the view. The most famous monastery in Armenia, and one of the oldest, lies near the Azerbaijan border. This monastery, Tatev, requires a ride across the world’s longest ropeway on the Wings of Tatev. Riding across the ropeway is an experience alone. You are in a crammed cable car, way above the ground, with floor to roof windows. I personally got quite a thrill from the ride. Once the tram goes into the station, Tatev Monastery is about a one minute walk away. The monastery does not seem overly special until you walk around to the backside, there you see how close it is to a straight drop and how spectacular the view is. Then, one sees just how Tatev Monastery is a famous site and just why tourists flock to it. I personally would love to go back and spend more time there. Something about being on the edge and enjoying a view like none other is very relaxing and peaceful.
Another popular tourist location is Etchmiadzin, a cathedral in Armenia’s holiest of cities. It was here that Pope Francis visited, it is here that a museum of Christina relics is found. Armenians of all kinds flock to this cathedral at least once in their lives to view the Holy Cathedral and the various holy relics. I personally felt too overcrowded by the tourists and the Treasury of Etchmiadzin is too tiny to fit all the visitors viewing the relics. However, it was a unique experience. In Etchmiadzin, I was finally able to understand the Armenian Apostolic Church and their line of beliefs. While this gilded hand contains a relic, I believe of the Apostle Paul, it also is a key symbol in the Armenian faith and is how Armenians are blessed. The thumb to ring finger represents Jesus’s two natures, divine and human, while the two natures are present,they are distinctly seperate and never mix. This was something I had heard about in Bible History classes, but had never personally seen relics of this belief. Furthermore, the Treasury also contained a relic of the True Cross (cross Jesus died on), Spear of Destiny (it was moved from Geghard to the Treasury), and Noah’s Ark (Armenian Christian woke up on a mountain in Turkey with the relic in his head and a dream from God).
A short drive from Etchmiadzin is another famous Armenian cathedral, a former cathedral from the 600s. Zvartnots, located north of Etchmiadzin, was a cathedral until it was destroyed by an earthquake (they are very common in Armenia and churches now have special features to withstand earthquakes). The remnants of the cathedral are popular for tourists to visit due to the unique nature of it; Zvartnots is a circular cathedral. During the summer, when the temperatures soar over 100 degrees Farenheit, visits are short and brief due to the intense heat. Moreover, when it is that hot outside, the tufa stone absorbs the heat and will burn through your clothing. But, Zvartnots cathedral is a sight worth seeing.
The last Christian site I recommend seeing, out of the many that dot the rural Armenia countryside, is the monastery at Lake Sevan, Sevanavank. This monastery used to be on a small island, however Lake Sevan has receded so the monastery is now on a peninsula. While it is quite a walk uphill to see Sevanavank, the view is worth the many, many stairs. The monastery itself is quite small, the smallest I visited, but the monastery is in a beautiful location with an astounding view, making it a must see.
Armenia is a beautiful place deeply enveloped in religious history, making it a must see for Christians wishing to visit historical locations and wishing to see important holy relics. I recommend this gorgeous country and cannot wait to visit again!
*side note: inside the monasteries and cathedrals, the Armenians believe in very simplistic decorations as not to distract from worship