How did Armenia remain Christian?

Echmiadzin mother cathedral

It’s quite incredible how Armenians remained Christian although powerful Muslim states surrounded them for centuries. How? In this post, I’m going to break this down for you. One would expect that given the political and cultural influence of much stronger neighbors, Armenians would abandon their Christian faith at some point, and would convert to Islam. But that did not happen. Let’s see why.

Christianity is an integral part of the traditional Armenian identity since the Armenian Apostolic Church is separate from the Catholic and Orthodox branches. This distinction is reinforced by having a unique language, alphabet, rich documented history, and arts and culture that are often intertwined with religion. Thus, for many Armenians Christianity is not only their religion, it is also what tells them who they are.

Armenia was the first country that adopted Christianity as a state religion in 302 AD. Armenians have always taken pride in this fact. Perhaps this, and this fact alone, could have played enough of a role in the definition of our identity as a Christian nation. As of today, 97% of Armenians are Christian, and most of them subscribe (at least nominally) to the Armenian Apostolic Church. But before that Armenians were pagan and even practiced Zoroastrianism. If this topic intrigues you, read my blog on history of Zoroastrianism in Armenia.

So, our religious identity is hugely important to us! But we all know that traditional religions often struggle to stay relevant in the modern days. And Armenian Christianity is not an exception to this trend. So, let’s explore the history and the current state a bit deeper. And if you find this text useful, please ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. I love hearing from you!

Being Armenian means being Christian, or not?

For example, I consider myself an atheist. I don’t think the Armenian church represents anything meaningful for me personally. So, one would expect that I won’t ever engage in any conversation to explain to anyone that Armenia is a Christian country, simply because it’s just an irrelevant piece of information in the eyes of an atheist. And you’d be absolutely right from the logical point of view. But even for me, this is a topic where I have an inexplicable inner urge to make sure people know that Armenia is a Christian country. 🙂 I just can’t help myself, I have to mention it.

The running joke is that a true Armenian will always find a way to drop the “random” fact about Armenia being the first Christian nation in any conversation with a new foreign person they meet. And that, within the first 15 minutes of your first conversation. 🙂 Probably this is our way of distinguishing ourselves from our powerful neighbors, which has formed over centuries as a means of protecting a distinct identity and preserving the nation.

So, maybe, it’s not about how we remained Christian despite being surrounded by powerful Muslim empires, but rather that our neighborhood motivated us to remain Christian. In a way, at different times in history, we instinctively felt that our culture was under a threat of assimilation into the Turkic, Persian, or Slavic cultures, which only made us more eager to protect our distinct identity. And associating unique features with it, such as a separate religion, was a way of strengthening that protection.

Now, some would go as far as saying things like “all Armenians are Christian” or “you are not Armenian if you are not Christian” and I think that’s absolute nonsense. First, my pre-Christian ancestors were just as much Armenian as I am. Second, I believe that my Armenianness is defined by the fact I deeply care for Armenian causes and for the prosperity of my people. So, even though I don’t subscribe to this religion, I acknowledge it had a tremendous role in the past in forming the Armenian identity, which I share.

Christian identity and the Armenian language

One of the reasons why Christianity is so intrinsically tied to the Armenian identity is also in its connection with our language. One of the major reasons for the creation of a distinct Armenian alphabet was the need to translate the Bible into a language that would be accessible to the broader population. As soon as we had our own alphabet and the Holy Bible translated into it (in 436 AD), our priests went into masses to spread the teachings of God.

Since most peasants and even some clergy were illiterate back then, priests were the main channel for people to access literature in their own language, and the Bible was what was readily available to them. That’s how in the minds of regular Armenians Christianity became tied to their language, and therefore gained a much stronger significance in forming their cultural identity.

Staying Christian through art and music

The Armenian Christian identity is reinforced by our cultural traditions, art, and music. Religion is a common theme in Armenian paintings, literature, and other forms of art. Khachkars (or cross-stones) are the most prominent Armenian forms of art where religion is at the heart. These are perennial expressions of Armenian craftsmanship and faith. You can see khachkars all over Armenia. Often, you can see them abroad, in the gardens of Armenian churches in Europe.

Music is also a very important aspect of our culture. Christianity has inspired many traditional Armenian songs as they are often based on liturgical texts or biblical passages. Not only groups perform these songs in Armenian churches and monasteries. Also contemporary Armenian musical bands often adapt these old songs in their current music.

The works of Komitas, for example, are prominent pieces of religious music. Armenians love his religious chants and play to this day. We cherish Komitas as our prime composer and we named our most prominent Musical University in Yerevan after Komitas. I wrote a nice overview of Armenian folk music, so check it out to learn more about Komitas and others.

Role of the Armenian Apostolic Church

The Armenian Apostolic Church played an important role in maintaining the Christian identity of Armenians. This was especially true for the periods when Armenians had no sovereignty and their own state. Over the course of centuries, Armenians experienced a very complex and troubling history of being occupied by various powers. At different points in time, we were occupied by Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Russians to name a few.

We managed to maintain our Christian identity during times of occupation because of the early separation of the Armenian Church from the Byzantine Church (or Eastern Roman Empire). This happened at the beginning of the 5th century, much earlier than other splittings during which other branches of the Christian faith emerged. Since it took place so early in our history, it helped us in preserving our unique identity and cultural practices. This includes our own interpretation of the Christian faith.

Church as the state for Armenians

While Armenian communities lived under the occupation of various empires, their rights and opportunities were often limited. In the absence of sovereignty, the Church often took over the role of the state within local communities. For example, Armenian churches and monasteries played a very significant role in providing Armenians with education. Which consequently often opened new opportunities for Armenians, even within the structures of the occupying empires.

So, for example, when we were under Ottoman rule, some Sultans were very benevolent towards Armenians. They were promoting them to various high-ranking positions in areas like diplomacy, trade, and finance. If Armenians of the Ottoman empire didn’t have great education, they wouldn’t be able to play a significant role in the fabric of Ottoman society, This was often enabled only by our Church.

For fairness, it’s also worth noting that there has always been a bit of tension between secular rulers of sovereign Armenia and the Church. Unlike the kings and other secular leaders, the Armenian church has always been more flexible in active diplomacy with occupying forces. So we can say that the Church was there to stay. Thus, it took care of the preservation of local Armenian communities regardless of which empire occupied the land around them.

Armenian church under the communist regime

The Armenian Apostolic Church never abandoned its role. This is true even when the Red Army took over Armenia and incorporated into the USSR. These were the years when science and economy developed rapidly. However, the Communist regime demanded that people ignore their spiritual needs. For example, most of the mosques in Armenia were demolished during the Soviet regime. That’s true that people had a fear to express their religious affiliation openly. But it is also true that they never entirely lost their identification with the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Church was always there even though the state was officially an atheistic one.

The Communists either pressured the Church or released the pressure. This happened depending on how much leverage they needed to have over it at different times. The Soviet regime killed and routinely imprisoned Individual religious leaders when and where they saw the need for that. On the other hand, at large, the Armenian Apostolic Church still managed to show outstanding skills in diplomacy. It managed to survive in between the cracks of the regime’s ideology.

In some periods the Church had to go more into the underground. In others it was more legitimized by the state. This happened when, for example, USSR was hoping to establish friendlier relationships with the Armenian diaspora in the West. So, overall the journey of the Armenian Apostolic Church wasn’t a straight line under Communist rule. But it never really disappeared from the day-to-day life of the Armenians.

Role of the Church in modern Armenia

Over seven decades of the official atheist rhetoric of the USSR did leave a mark on our attitudes towards the Church. For most Armenians of today, religion is something we think of during special events and celebrations only.

If you ask an average Armenian what church they follow, they would say “Armenian Apostolic Church”. But try to ask them when was the last time they attended a mass. They will probably not be able to remember.

Today the image of the Armenian Apostolic Church is quite compromised in the eyes of a regular Armenian. This is due to various controversies and corruption scandals around our Church the first 2 decades of the 21st century. Some may want to be part of that church, but they don’t have trust in religious leaders. This affects the belief in the religious heads of the Church but not as much in Christianity itself.

This all results in what I described earlier, and what I often call being “nominally Christian”. That means most Armenians believe in their God. However, they don’t want to associate themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church beyond what our strongest traditions require.

For example, we choose to baptize our children on the premises of a church. We invite priests to lead religious ceremonies at weddings and funerals, etc. But we don’t typically attend the Church on regular bases. We also don’t reach out to the priests when we need emotional or spiritual guidance.

So, how did Armenia remain Christian after all?

Wrapping up, I’d like to invite you to check out this Armenian Bible app. If Armenian Christianity, or our culture and language interests you, you may find it very interesting. To conclude, I believe in this. Armenians remained Christian not despite being in the neighborhood of powerful Muslim states, but because of that exact neighborhood. Our Christianity has always been one of the ways for us to form our distinct national identity. A means to an end, so to speak.

So, ultimately if you feel Armenian and/or you feel for the Armenian cause, then for me you are Armenian. And this is regardless of your religious affiliation. We are first Armenian and then (some of us are) Christian. But that’s just my opinion. Let me know what you think! Ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips.

Featured image credit: Areg Amirkhanian Adigyozalyan on Wikimedia Commons

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