Magazine article The Catholic World

About Armenia

Magazine article The Catholic World

About Armenia

Article excerpt

Located south of the Caucasus mountains between the Black sea and the Caspian Sea, Armenia is a region of both rugged mountain ranges and semi-arid highlands that embraces, among other things, "the mountain of Ararat"--the point, according to the author of Genesis 8:4, where Moses and the ark finally came to rest after the flood.

About half of the region is more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have their sources in ancient Armenian mountain streams.

Surrounded by Russia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east, Iraq and Iran on the south, and Turkey on the west, Armenia has been Christian for a long time despite successive invasions by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, the Catholic Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, and the Russians.

Western Europeans and Americans tend to think of Constantine as the emperor who first made possible a Christian state, with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.; in reality, however, the distinction is Armenia's, which became the world's first Christian nation some years earlier when the Armenian King Trdat, converted by St. Gregory the Illuminator, led his countrymen in embracing Christianity.

As Father Kochakian points out in the accompanying article, there were many Christians in Armenia before St. Gregory. During post-apostolic times, those attempting to evangelize the country had a difficult time because of the language; Armenian itself is a rare Indo-European language used throughout the isolated mountain and highland villages of the country, but almost nowhere else. There was no Armenian alphabet, and hence no written Armenian language. The early Christian missionaries were forced to use Syriac, Greek, or Persian for the scriptures and the liturgy, meaning that, when the Gospel message was read or sung in those languages, it was largely unintelligible to most of the faithful.

As noted also in the accompanying article, a court linguist, Mesrob, changed all that. Long venerated by the Armenian Church as St. Mesrob, he gave up court life to become a monk. In 406 he completed his work of creating the 36-letter Armenian alphabet (two additional letters have since been added), making possible the complete translation of the Bible into Armenian a few years later.

St. Gregory the Illuminator, another major figure in the development of Christianity in Armenia, has been venerated in both east and west as a saint. Married and the father of two sons, he was at first persecuted by King Trdat, but later converted him, with the result that Armenia became the first state in which Christianity was officially sanctioned as the national religion.

The Armenian Church sent representatives to the first three general councils of the Church and ratified all the conciliar decrees (Nicaea, 325 A.D., Constantinople, 381, and Ephesus 431), and these decrees were then translated into the new written Armenian language St. Mesrob had devised. At the fourth general council, in Chalcedon, in 451, division occurred which has lasted since.

Armenia was then under the control of the Persians, and, along with several European countries, could not send a representative to Chalcedon. That council's decree about the two natures of Christ, human and divine, in one person, was promulgated by the Emperor for Christians in the Roman Empire, but it was never promulgated in Armenia. Shortly after Chalcedon, successive wars with the Persians, and later the Arabs, tended to isolate Armenia from the church in the Empire. …

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