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Published: October 2nd 2017
Garni TempleGregory the Illuminator & the Monasteries & Khachkars of Armenia.
3rd millennium BC built upon in 76 AD by the Romans
Punished for the sins of his father...thrown into a pit to die...15 years in that hell hole surviving on scraps from an anonymous woman...removed to pray to heal a mad king...changing the course of history in so doing... me climbing down a skinny hole into that pit where he was imprisoned...they said it was only six metres down...feels like double that...tiny slit in the roof for light and air...am I changing the course of my own history in so doing?
We pass Mt Ararat where Noah's Ark is said to have settled after the flood...snow covering its shoulders...the rest of it like a mirage...Ara our guide fervently demanding attention as he tells us a bit of history...or is it legend...bringing the Apostle of Armenia to life.
He was born in about 257 AD...the son of a Parthian named Anak who killed King Khosrov the First.
While evading capture Anak and all his family...except two of his sons...drowned in the River Araxes (Upper Euphrates area).
One son was taken to Persia but the other a baby was taken by his Christian nurse to Caesarea
(near Cappadocia, Turkey).
The nurse had a vision and following the directives therein baptised the child and called him Gregory and brought him up in Christian ways.
The Armenians say two of Christ's apostles, Bartholomew and Thaddeus brought to Armenia the spear that pierced Jesus's side on the Cross...introduced Christianity to Armenia in the First Century and King Agbar of Edessa was converted.
Some say Edessa was the first Christian kingdom, however, other Armenians followed the old religions...and it is claimed Armenia became the first kingdom in the World to officially adopt the Christian religion in 301 AD.
In about 257 AD, Ardashir I of the Sassanid Persian Dynasty invaded Armenia and ordered Anak (Gregory's Dad) to kill King Khosrov of Armenia and all the Royal Family.
But a son of Khosrov...Trdat (Tirdates to his mates) escaped...was trained in the Roman Army...and later returned to drive out the Persians and restore the Armenian kingdom.
And as it turned out...Trdat had a long memory.
Years pass...Gregory marries and has two sons Aristakes and Bardanes.
Yet his marriage did not last long...his wife became a nun...and Gregory returned to Armenia
where he got into a bit of bother with Trdat who had regained his father's throne.
Gregory got into trouble when he refused to take part in a sacrifice to the king's gods.
When Trdat discovered Gregory was the son of his Dad's murderer...he was in real trouble!!!
Trdat had Gregory's head put in a bag of ashes and had molten lead poured over his body.
But Gregory was a tough dude and survived...so Trdat had him thrown into a pit full of serpents to die.
But he wasn't going that easy.
A pious woman fed him bread and water daily...the serpents died but Gregory did not...surviving in his dark hole for 15 years...some say 12 years...but not one to get in the way of a good story I say 15 years...15 years in prayer and contemplation.
Meanwhile above ground...Ara's voice becoming emotional at this stage of the story.
All good films as you know...have a car chase and a love story...but as this is not a film there is not a car chase (or even a chariot race) but do not despair...there is the intervention of a beautiful woman..a
9th Century - Lake Sevan
woman more beautiful than Helen of Troy...Hripsime.
Diocletan (284 to 305) became Emperor of Rome.
Diocletan fell in love with a beauty from a community of Christian nuns in Rome...so beautiful that he pursued her such that Hripsime and her community fled Rome and turned up in Armenia...where her beauty came to the attention of King Trdat...who then himself pursued her affections.
An Emperor and a King in love with the same girl...a Christian nun...what's a virtuous virgin gotta do?
The various stories of her martyrdom gets a bit unclear here.
One says that Diocletan sent a letter to Trdat to return Hripsime to Rome to marry him or marry her himself.
Being brought before the king she refused his advances and was roasted alive.
Her community of nuns were then killed except for Nune (Marine) who fled to Georgia and as Saint Nino is credited as the founder of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
But this is a story about Gregory...so I prefer the second version of Hripsime's death.
Bit unclear if Trdat insisted she return to Diocletan in Rome or marry Trdat...but either way she said she couldn't marry either
13th Century - Kasakh River Gorge
as she was married to Jesus Christ.
So Trdat ordered that Hripsime be tortured, her tongue cut out, her stomach scourged, her eyes cut out, then killed...kinda think he wanted her for himself.
The other nuns were killed and thrown to the beasts of the wild to be eaten.
But someone was watching...Trdat and his soldiers punished by God for their actions.
The soldiers were beset by devils and ran through the forests like wild animals...gnawing at themselves...tearing their clothes.
Legend says Trdat was turned into a wild boar...the Ethiopians say a bear...but not one to exaggerate, I prefer the version that he was beset by madness...his kingdom thus in jeopardy...his followers desperate for a cure.
Ara's eyes moisten...Denise and MJ fidgetting...Dangerous Dave and I also shedding a tear.
Trdat's sisters have a vision...nothing can save Trdat but the prayers of Gregory...but had not Gregory died long ago?
Eventually they seek and find him in the pit.
Gregory prays over the king...Trdat miraculously healed..then Gregory starts preaching.
Being in a hole for 15 years with noone to talk to...one can understand he had a
9th Century - Vorotan River Canyon
lot to say...so much in fact that his words were published in the 5th Century as the "Confession of Gregory the Illuminator" and is the official creed of the Armenian Apostolic Church ever since.
Trdat converted to Christianity and in 301 AD Armenia became the World's first Christian kingdom...shortly before Ethiopia and Rome.
Gregory was ordained the first Archbishop of the Armenian Church in 302 AD...travelled converting all of Armenia...baptised 4 million people in seven days...sent out 12 apostolic bishops...ordained 400 others and numerous priests.
He even went with Trdat and an army of 70,000 to congratulate Emperor Constantine of Rome on his conversion and baptism by Pope Sylvester..
Hripsime was also not forgotten.
God gave a vision to Gregory where 3 churches were to be built at what is now Echmiadzin about 25 kms from Yerevan, Armenia's present capital...one being St Hripsime's Church.
In Ethiopia, Hripsime is venerated as Arsema, recorded in many prayer books and three churches bear her name, one on Lake Tana known for its miracles.
Gregory's son Aristakes continued his work as head or Catholicos of the church.
The Armenian Apostolic Church adopted the Armenian
language...remained separate from the Catholic and other Apostolic churches to this day...Gregory and Hripsime venerated as saints in the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Georgian, Ethiopian, Armenian, American and other Apostolic churches.
Many monasteries were built in Armenia with fluted witch hat spires...usually in out of the way places so less likely to be pillaged by invading hordes...location., location, location...on the edges of ravines...lakes...perched on mountain tops... St Gregory looking down on us from many paintings as we enter ancient monasteries in Noah's Land.
Each adorned with elaborate crosses carved in stone...so elaborate they became an art form...at their zenith in the 9th to the 13th Centuries...having a revival in modern times.
This art form is known as Khachkar...the art of cross-stones...very numerous...very Armenian.
I climb down the deep narrow hole into the pit...hanging onto the vertical metal ladder for dear life...a tiny slit in the roof for light and air...crosses cut into the stone walls...imagining what it would be like for Gregory...with one's only company being his prayers...and darkness...his only comfort being his relationship with God...bread & water lowered by a pious woman every day...days becoming weeks...becoming months...becoming 15 years.
we travel the ancient Armenian Highlands of Noah's Land...under the shadow of Mt Ararat...what is left after the Armenian Genocide (see my last blog)...I cannot help but think...this is a land not only of a proud people who against all odds have survived...but a people united by their faith...a people who believe God has a place for them in this World...a destiny that is yet to unfold...a path before them yet to tread.
Relax & Enjoy,
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