The pre-Christian Era

The earliest mention of an Armenian statehood is in an inscription on a cliff in present-daynorthern Iran, where Persian Emperor Darius the Great (522-485 BC) lists kingdoms that he conquered, including Armenia. Hayk (Armenians) lived on the highlands of eastern Asia Minor, around Lake Van and extending north and east, past the biblical Mount Ararat. The Urartians (1000-600 BC) are to Armenians what Bretons are to the English, and what the Gauls are to the French. The fortress city Erebuni, built in 782 BC, is the predecessor of Yerevan, current capital of Armenia, and arguably the first existing metropolis in the world. Recorded history of the Armenian kingdoms started in 401 BC with the Yervantouny Dynasty, and reached its peak in 95- 55 BC, when Tigran the Great, King of Kings (Ardaxiad Kingdom) extended his empire from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and from the Mediterranean to what is presently known as the Middle East and to the Arabian deserts.

Christianity as the State Religion

While Armenia started to shrink, squeezed between the rival Roman and Persian Empires, two of the apostles of Jesus, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, traveled to Armenia to preach the Word of the Lord. For the next 300 years Christianity flourished secretly and remained underground. When King Tiritades III (287-330) was miraculously cured of a horrible illness by his chief scribe Grigor Bartev, who was a Christian, the king himself converted to Christianity and decreed Christianity as the official religion of the country in 301. Armenians throughout the world celebrated the 1700th anniversary of the declaration of Christianity in Armenia during 2001. The first Armenian Church was built in Etchmiadzin (meaning where the Only Begotten Descended) and St. Gregory the Illuminator became the first Catholicos (head of the Armenian Church, no relation to the Catholic faith) of the Armenian Church. The current Catholicos, H.H. Karekin II, who resides in Etchmiadzin (Armenia), is the 132nd successor of St. Gregory the Illuminator.

Political Demise and Spiritual Revival

In 428 AD the Arsacid Kingdom of Armenia finally succumbed to Persia and Byzantium, who divided the country between them. The first test of ArmeniansA’ resolve and commitment to the Christian faith occurred in 451 AD when the mighty Persian Emperor Yazgerd II attempted to forcibly convert the Armenians to Mazdeism, in order to facilitate the assimilation of the Armenians. The battle of Avarayr (near Nakhitchevan), led by the Armenian commander Vartan

Mamigonian, ended in defeat. Vartan and 60,000 of his soldiers were martyred, but guerilla warfare continued for 30 years until Armenians secured their right of freedom of worship. Vartan and his valiant soldiers were canonized as saints of the Armenian Church, and to the present they are commemorated annually as symbols of freedom of faith and conscience. The sacrifice of Vartanank was repeated over and over again throughout the history of Armenians. In 406 AD the discovery of the 35 letters (later two more were added) of the Armenian alphabet by the learned cleric Mesrob Mashdots initiated an relentless revival of culture and education for centuries to come and laid the foundations of the Armenian cultural heritage and national identity. The Bible was translated into Armenian (described by future scholars as the Queen of Translations), religious services began to be conducted in Armenian and the monasteries became centers of education, where masterpieces of Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Pluto and others), Historians (Herotodus and others), writers (Homer and others) were translated into Armenian. The art of illuminated manuscripts and original architecture flourished, ushering the Golden Age of the 5th century. In the following 1500 years, except for brief periods of independence (the Bakratid Kigdom in 885-1064), and the Rubinian Kingdom in Cilicia in 1080-1375), the Armenian highlands, crossroads between east and west, were successively ruled by Persia, Byzanthium and the Arab governors, the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks. Destpite invasions, carnages and persecutions, the Armenian Church and the Armenian culture endured and secured an honorable position in the history of human civilization. Beside the Holy Translators, intellectual giants such as Movses Khorenatsi (5th century historian), David the Invincible (6th century philosopher), Anania Shiragatsi (7th century geographer and scientist), Grigor Naregatsi (10th century oracle and poet), Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali (11th century poet and ecclesiast), Mekhitar Heratsi (12th century physician), are only a few of the many scholars whose works have partially survived many dark centuries. Over 24,000 manuscripts (many on calf-skin parchment) are now found in libraries and museums around the world (10,000 in the Matenadaran of Yerevan) and in private collections. Thousands of monasteries and churches, mostly in ruins, scattered throughout historic Armenia and Cilicia, remain silent testimonies of a glorious culture and a resolute permanence of the Christian faith.

The Armenian Holy Apostolic Church

The Armenian Church has participated in and recognized the doctrinal and canonical validity of the first three Ecumenical Councils, Nicea (325 AD), Constantinople (381 AD) and Ephesus (431 AD), and has rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) as well as the subsequent Councils. The Armenian Church refused the confusion of the two natures of Christ and recognized in Him a divine and a human nature, adopting the definition A“One nature in the Incarnate God.” Thus the Armenian Church disagreed with the Greek Orthodox (the Byzantine) and the Roman Catholic Church doctrines, and maintained its uniqueness and administrative independence. The Eastern Orthodox churches that also rejected the Chalcedonian formula are the Coptic, the Ethiopian, Indian Malabar and Syrian Jacobite churches.

During 1915-1923 the Armenian Church and the Armenian nation were almost eradicated by the Armenian Genocide in Western Armenia and Cilicia. Religious persecutions by communist atheists in Eastern Armenia further weakened the Armenian Church. Currently, as the guardian of the language and the cultural identity, the church faces new challenges both in the economically ravaged post-independent Armenia and in the Diaspora of Armenians scattered around the world.

The Structure of the Armenian Church

The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, heads the hierarchy of the Sees of the Armenian Church. The Catholicate of Cilicia that was historically located near the city Sis in southern Turkey, was relocated in Antelias, close to Beirut, Lebanon, following the Genocide; it has jurisdiction over the dioceses of Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, established in 669 has jurisdiction over communities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and is the guardian of many Christian holy sites and Armenian treasures in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, established in 1461 has jurisdiction over communities in Turkey. The rest of the Armenian communities throughout the world are organized into dioceses that are under the jurisdiction of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.