The oldest cathedral in the world is in Armenia, the first state where Christianity was the official religion

It is curious that the oldest cathedral of Christianity does not present the simple and primitive beauty of the Romanesque, the exquisite and archetypal majesty of the Gothic, the classical Renaissance evocation or the overwhelming magnificence of the Baroque. It is a building that is difficult to classify due to its very early age and, above all, due to subsequent reforms. I refer to the Cathedral of Ejmiatsin, the holy city of Armenia and seat of the Gregorian Apostolic Church.

This church was built between the years 301 and 303 by order of Gregory I the Illuminator after he had a vision: that of Christ descending from heaven and striking the ground with a golden hammer, thus indicating the place where the building should be erected.

Although in reality there is not just one, but a whole complex made up of the cathedral itself (whose basic external appearance corresponds to the reforms experienced in the 17th century, but which inside preserves splendid samples of Armenian sculpture and relics as bizarre as wood from the Noah’s Ark or Longinos’ spear) and the churches of Santa Ripísima, Santa Gayané, Choghagat and Astvatsatsín (all of them from the 7th century), plus a museum and a seminary. The entire complex is a World Heritage Site.

Relief of the cathedral representing Saint Gregory/Photo: Rita Wilaert on Wikimedia Commons

It is a common belief that the first state to proclaim Christianity as the official religion was Rome, which was done by Constantine. the big one in the year 313 through the Edict of Milan. Obviously, even as it began to break down into successive tetrarchies, triarchies, and diarchies, the Roman Empire was reunited by that emperor and remained head of the world.

However, Constantine did not make the new religion official that year, the seventh of his reign (and he only converted when he was on his deathbed), but limited himself to giving legality to what was already a reality: the diffusion and generalization of the Christian faith among Roman citizens.

The fact is that to find the first country that made Christianity its official religion, you have to deviate geographically to the east, focus your eyes on Armenia and go back a bit chronologically, because the exact date was 301 AD That year King Tridates was baptized III by Gregory I, considered the founder and patron saint of the aforementioned Armenian Apostolic Gregorian Church; the oldest in the world, then.

In other words, the new faith became official twelve years before Constantine signed the Edict of Milan and almost eight decades before its assimilation to the imperial state by Theodosius I in 380.

According to tradition, this area, located to the south of the Caucasus and which had once been a place of fundamental importance in history as it was the land of the Hittites, Mitanians, Phrygians and Seleucids, among others, with important dynasties such as the Orontid or the Artaxid , and which reached its maximum splendor under the government of Tigranes the big one before falling under the influence of Parthians and Romans; That area, I say, was evangelized by the apostles Judas Tadeo and Bartolomé, who spread the word of Christ with rapid success and whose work was continued by patriarchs such as Zemendós, Atrnerséh, Mushé, Shavarsh, Levondios or Meruyán.

In this context appears Gregorio, a descendant of a family of the Parthian nobility – of the Arsacid dynasty, to be exact, the one that succeeded the Artaxid dynasty – who had fallen into disgrace after assassinating Chosroes II. He was educated in Caesarea (present-day Kayseri, in Cappadocia) by a Christian aristocrat named Euthalius, to whom he had been entrusted at the wish of his mother Okohe, who was a Christian and wished to train her son in that faith.

Despite having a deep apostolic vocation, Gregorio married a co-religionist named Miriam and even had two children, but seven years later he decided to give up his family life and start preaching.

The Khor Virap Monastery with Mount Ararat in the background/Photo: MrAndrew47 on Wikimedia Commons

Until then it had gone unnoticed and, therefore, safe from the revenge of Tridates III, the son of Chosroes, who had succeeded his ill-fated father on the throne of Armenia. But when he emerged into public life, he was soon tracked down and taken prisoner, partly to make him pay for his father’s crime and partly for refusing to make a floral offering in honor of Anahit, the goddess of fertility and the most important of the pantheon. Armenian next to Mithras.

After suffering torture and being about to be executed, he spent fourteen years locked up in an underground dungeon -little more than a tomb- at the foot of Mount Ararat; a zulo that was only opened to feed him and where today stands the monastery of Khor Virap.

However, the passage of time turned out worse for his captor, who, after murdering a group of nuns who refused to have carnal relations with him, contracted a strange disease. The history of the Armenians and the History of Tridates, works of his chronicler and secretary Agathangelos in the 5th century and the main source to find out the facts, narrates that the king began to behave like a wild animal -a wild boar, he says-, living in the forest without anyone being able to return him to palace; some researchers suggest that he suffered from clinical lycanthropy.

The fact is that his sister Khosrovidukht had a dream in which the man locked in the Ararat dungeon cured Tridates and, in despair, decided to try. She ordered him released, facilitated his recovery, and brought him before the feral sovereign. Forgetting his enmity, Gregorio ordered that prayers be made to God for his healing and, indeed, shortly after he managed to make him recover his sanity.

Grateful, the monarch not only forgave him but declared Christianity official and state, being baptized in the year 301 and granting Gregory the position of Patriarch of Armenia the following year.

As he grew old, Gregory gave way to his son Aristaces and retired to a hermitage life in a grotto on Mount Sebuh, where he died in 330. His mortal remains were macabrely chopped up and distributed as relics to various locations (one hand is on the other hand). Ejmiatsin Cathedral), but behind it he left a strong and rich church thanks to the fact that the domains of the pagan temples passed to his property.

What’s more, as in so many other places, there was an intense work of syncretism and that is why that Anahit that brought Gregorio so much misfortune was later assimilated to the Virgin Mary, today many Armenian women bear that name without knowing that, paradoxically, it comes from a pagan deity.


Sources

Patriotism and piety in Armenian Christianity (Abraham Terian)/History of the Christian Church (Williston Walker)/Great events in religion. An encyclopedia of pivotal events in religious history (Florin Curta and Andrew Holt)/History of Saint Gregory and the conversion of Armenia (Agathangelos -in English-)/Wikipedia