Located in the Caucasus, a meeting point between Europe and Asia, Armenia boasts of being the first state to have adopted Christianity – around the year AD 314 – followed by its neighbour Georgia twenty years later. Various encounters between this region’s indigenous peoples and many other groups, among them Romans, Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, brought new languages to the Caucasus and new religions like Christianity, which led to centuries of building chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries across the landscape of narrow mountain valleys that stretch between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Christianity did not spread in a religious vacuum, but in the Caucasus encountered Iranian beliefs that were strongly adapted to suit local traditions. These local beliefs differed markedly from the purist reforms of Zoroastrianism implemented by high priest Kartir in the second half of the 3rd century AD. According to the Armenian historians Agathangelos (writing around 460) and Moses Khorenatsi (late 8th/9th century), the pre-Christian Armenian pantheon counted eight major deities: the creator god Aramazd (Zeus), derived from Zoroastrianism’s Ahura Mazda; Anahit (Artemis), the goddess of fertility and wisdom; Nanē (Athena), the personification of war and wisdom; Mihr (Hephaistos), the god of truth and the sun, related to Mithra; Vahagn (Heracles), who corresponded to Verethragna, the Iranian god of war, fire, and thunder (in the Svaneti region in Georgia he continued to be venerated by Christians as an intrepid slayer of enemies of the Church under the guise of Archangel Gabriel); Tir (Apollo), the god of oracles who recorded all the deeds of humans; the astral goddess Astalik (Aphrodite); and, lastly, Barshamin, the weather and sky god, who corresponded to Baal Shamin and was venerated in Syria and northern Mesopotamia. The fact that seven of these eight deities bore Iranian and Greek names reflects the political situation of Armenia, which (with interruptions) was a Parthian–Roman condominium, a territory in which these two empires both held power, from the 1st to 4th century AD.
Traditionally, the historiography of Armenia, Caucasian Albania (roughly today’s north-western Azerbaijan), Iberia (also known as Kartli, central Georgia), and Lazica (western Georgia) was influenced by the political conditions in the respective kingdoms and by the ethnically defined church organisations. Early texts ignored the missionary activities from Syria and Cappadocia during the 3rd century, and hagiographies initially focused on the reign of Emperor Constantine (r. 306/324-337). They assigned the leading role in the region’s Christianisation to Armenia and credited missionising the whole South Caucasus to one figure: St Gregory the Illuminator (d. 330/331).
According to legend, this Gregory, the son of a prince of Armenia’s ruling Arsacid dynasty, refused to offer sacrifices to the fertility goddess Anahit. King Trdat IV (r. 298-c.330/331) threw him into a dungeon, over which the monastery of Khor Virap was later built, in 1661-1662, on the ruins of a 7th-century chapel. About 12 or 13 years into Gregory’s imprisonment, St Rhipsime – along with 36 other virgins – sought refuge in Armenia from the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian (or, rather, by Maximinus Daia). When Rhipsime rejected the king’s advances, she and her companions were martyred. Similar to the fate of King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, Trdat was then transformed into a boar. The turning point came when his sister advised him to free Gregory, who promptly healed him. Trdat and his family subsequently converted to Christianity. The king instructed Gregory, who was consecrated bishop in 314, to convert all Armenians and build churches. Moreover, he placed his troops at Gregory’s disposal to ‘convince’ recalcitrant nobles and destroy pagan temples.
The Armenian Apostolic Church sets the date for the conversion of Armenia as the year 301, which is too early. It is highly unlikely that Trdat, a client of Rome, would have dared to adopt Christianity when his overlords Emperor Diocletian, co-Emperor Galerius, and Caesar Maximinus Daia were pursuing a strict anti-Christian policy. Agathangelos confirmed that Trdat was at first an obedient client of Diocletian and Galerius. When their successor Constantine began to embrace Christianity from 313 onward, however, Trdat instrumentalised the novel monotheistic faith to unite his unruly nakharar (nobles) into a single monarchy under the auspices of the new religion. At the same time, the confiscation of the pagan temples’ wealth filled the treasury and financed the construction of churches.
Nevertheless, both Constantine and Trdat failed to anticipate that the hierarchically organised Christian clergy would not only soon refuse to submit to worldly power, but also, once becoming the state religion, strive for supremacy and challenge the rulers’ authority. Trdat was forced to compromise with the nakharar who had often controlled the pagan temples. He agreed to select bishops from among their ranks, which meant that ecclesiastical offices and church possessions remained part of the inheritance for noble families. The Gregorids, for instance, thus became one of the most powerful Armenian families. Bishops did not represent cities or state provinces as in the Roman Empire, but pursued the interests of the landed nobility.
Thirty years after Trdat’s conversion, the smouldering conflict intensified. Armenian kings had chief prelates murdered, while leading nakharars, both Christians and Zoroastrians, betrayed their Christian ruler by allying themselves with Byzantium’s arch enemy, the Persian Sassanids. After Byzantium and Persia divided Armenia in 387, these conflicts came to a head in 428: the leading Armenian nobles entreated the Sassanid Shah Vahram V to depose their king and abolish the Armenian monarchy. Vahram was only too happy to help and installed a Persian provincial marzpān (governor). While it is true that Christianity would eventually emerge as a cornerstone of national identity, the saga of a unified Christian bulwark against first the Zoroastrian Persians and then the invading Arabs is apocryphal.
Another step in the process of Armenian Christianisation came around 406, when the monk Mesrop Mashtots (c.362-440) developed and introduced the Armenian script. This helped to ‘Armenise’ Christianity and further strengthen the Armenian Church vis-à-vis Byzantium. Mesrop’s disciple and biographer Koriun also credited Mesrop with designing the Iberian (Georgian) and Albanian alphabets. The first is improbable, but the second seems plausible.
Initially, the Caucasian kingdoms of Kartli (Iberia) and Albania went along with Armenia’s alleged leadership in converting the South Caucasus. According to Georgian legend, St Nino (considered merely a companion of St Rhipsime in the Armenian tradition) was herself a leading figure and converted Kartli’s King Mirian III (d. c.361), while St Grigoris, grandson of the Armenian Illuminator, supposedly missionised in a region south of the River Kura. More likely, however, the Christianisation of Albania began after 387. This is the year when Shah Shapur III allocated these predominantly Armenian territories south of the Kura to the Albanian King Urnayr, who then adopted the religion of his new Christian population. The proselytisation of Albania occurred in the first half of the 5th century at the time of Mesrop and Bishop Eremia, who helped develop the Albanian script.
As for the Kingdom of Lazica, it belonged to the Roman, later Byzantine, sphere of influence. Stretching along the eastern coast of the Black Sea, the territory was Rome’s bulwark against horsemen and mountain tribes from the north and from Persian attacks from Kartli, which is why Roman garrisons had been stationed along the coast since the 1st century AD. Christianity spread among Roman troops, and in the 5th and 6th centuries the small, three-nave church of Gagra was built within the Roman–Byzantine camp of Nitika.
The religion spread beyond the Roman military in Lazica too. In the first half of the 4th century, Bishop Stratophilos of Pityus, who participated in the First Council of Nicaea in 325, not only missionised along Lazica’s coast, but also in its foothills. Yet into the 5th century Lazian kings typically followed the religion of their overlords, whether it was Christianity or Zoroastrianism. Things were still in flux in the 6th century, when Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) sent missionaries to Lazica and its hinterland to implement the spread of Christianity among people and tribes bordering Byzantine protectorates, without the support of troops. He aimed to integrate these ‘barbaric’ tribes into the Byzantine religious world, partly with the help of gifts to local tribal leaders. One monument from this period is the large central-domed cathedral of Dranda from the second half of the 6th century, which may date from the end of Justinian’s rule. So the spread of Christianity occurred top down in all the kingdoms of the South Caucasus. It was enforced by local rulers and also ‘facilitated’ by gifts. Locals, in fact, resisted the introduction of the new belief, especially in the mountainous regions.
The first Christian churches to be built in the kingdoms of Armenia, Kartli, Albania, and Lazica were small chapels or simple hall churches. They eventually gave way to three-nave basilicas, including the Sioni Church in Bolnisi, Kartli. Inaugurated around 493/494, it is the oldest precisely dated basilica in the Caucasus. Of the same period is the large three-nave basilica of Yererouk, Armenia, constructed in the late 5th/early 6th century on the ruins of a destroyed pagan temple, whose architecture reveals Syrian influence. In the last quarter of the 6th century, tetraconch churches (with four apses, or conches) emerged in Georgia, such as in Ninozminda and Manglisi, and then in Armenia. Many Armenian churches were either built from yellowish and reddish tuff, which gave them a lively appearance, or they were constructed using grey basalt, which conveyed an austere impression and reinforced a strict architectural style. The various architectural concepts were also combined, as in the cathedral of Talin, built in the 7th and 8th centuries. It features a three-nave basilica with a centrally placed dodecagonal drum and three semi-circular conches. In Kartli, meanwhile, according to Georgian tradition, the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers came in the 6th century and founded a series of cave-monasteries such as Shio Mgvimeli near Mtskheta and David Gareja, south-east of Tbilisi.
Within the Church, things were fraught, and by the 5th century the already fragile harmony dissolved. Divergent Christian creeds like Arianism and Marcionism were successfully contained and eventually vanished. Nonetheless, the power struggle between Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople (in office 428-431), and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (in office 412-444), destroyed Christian unity. Nestorius upheld a two-natures doctrine of Christ (that Christ has two natures, divine and human), while Cyril instead defended a miaphysite interpretation of Christ’s nature whereby he has just one nature, but one that is both divine and human. Cyril’s miaphysite stance was seconded by Constantinople’s monks, who feared Nestorius’ severity. At the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), Nestorius was deposed. Both Nestorius and the Church of the East rooted in Persia followed the teachings of Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), and so the Persian Church was also indirectly condemned.
The Armenian Church agreed with Cyril’s miaphysite position and the Iberian (Georgian) and Albanian churches soon followed. At the Fourth Council in Chalcedon (451), in which neither the Caucasian Churches nor the Persian Church participated, the compromise put forward by Bishop Leo I of Rome was accepted, although it was closer to the convictions of Nestorius than to those of Cyril. The Patriarchate of Alexandria rejected the Creed of Chalcedon, which proclaimed Christ was one person in two natures ‘indivisibly’. To win back the Patriarchate, Byzantine Emperor Zeno issued a new formula regarding the natures of Christ in 482 in the Henotikon. This document supported the condemnation of Nestorius but avoided decreeing whether Christ had one or two natures. This time, the Armenian, Iberian, and Albanian Catholicoi accepted the formula, but Acacius, Patriarch of Constantinople, rejected it.
When Emperor Justin revoked the Henotikon in 519, intra-Caucasian church unity fell apart. The Churches of Kartli and Albania welcomed the return to the Chalcedonian Creed, which the Armenian Church strictly denied. In the year 607, the Armenian marzpān Smbat IV Bagratuni convinced the Persian Shah Khosrow II (r. 590-628) to declare the Armenian miaphysite creed compulsory for all Churches of the South Caucasus. The Iberian Church refused to bow and confirmed its adherence to the Chalcedonian Creed, while the weaker Albanian Catholicos acquiesced. Two years later, the Armenian Church formally confirmed the anathematising of the Iberian Church and forbade all Armenians to have any contact with Iberians beyond trade, under threat of excommunication. When the Albanian Catholicos Nerses Bakur (in office 688-705) sought to liberate his church from Armenian tutelage and recognised the Chalcedonian Creed, the Armenian Catholicos Elijah denounced him to Muslim overlords as a traitor and collaborator with Byzantium. Nerses was arrested, his writings were burned, and the Albanian Church was forced to accept to the miaphysite creed again.But Armenia also faced unorthodox religious movements. In the 7th century, the Paulicians emerged in Byzantium’s western Armenia with a dualistic world view that believes in two opposed supreme powers. They rejected the Old Testament, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and the sacraments. From the 8th to 10th century, numerous Armenian Paulicians were deported to Thrace on the western shores of the Black Sea, where they contributed to the formation of the sect of European Bogomilism, allegedly founded by the priest Bogomil. At the same time, the Paulicians remaining in Armenia gave rise to the militant anti-feudal sect of the Tondrakians, which supported peasant revolts. Only an alliance of Armenian nobles, Byzantines, and Muslim rulers managed to suppress the Tondrakians, who were likewise deported to Thrace.
The conflictual relationship between the ethno-national Caucasian Churches about creed, apostolic roots, and autocephaly (the supremacy of the Church’s own head bishop) led to a competition over which Church had been founded by the most respected apostle. Armenian hagiography now claimed apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew as its founding fathers, whereas Albania adopted Thaddeus’ disciple Elisha and even Jesus’ brother James the Just. Iberian hagiography attributed the initial Christianisation to St Andrew and stated that the Mother of God had ordered St Nino to preach the gospel. As for Lazica, it was allegedly assigned at Pentecost to the Mother of God. On her son’s advice, she delegated the missionary task to St Simon the Canaanite and St Andrew; the latter is also credited with having converted the Alans in north-western Caucasus. Some of these saints are venerated in certain churches, for example Bartholomew in the St Bartholomew Monastery built in the ancient Armenian Kingdom of Vashpurakan (in today’s eastern Turkey) on the alleged place of his martyrdom. The monastery was an important pilgrimage site until the genocide of 1915. In Albania (now northern Azerbaijan), the 12th-century church of Kish has been tentatively identified as the church of Gis, allegedly founded by Elisha. In Georgia, murals of St Andrew are found in several churches: a beautiful one in the monastery of Kinzvisi dates from c.1200 and is painted in the famous blue lapis lazuli tone. Simon the Canaanite for his part is especially venerated at the St Simon Church of Anacopia, Abkhazia, built, according to tradition, at the spot of his martyrdom.
Christianity initially spread from the 6th century onward among Alan tribal leaders who received gifts from Byzantium. In the early 10th century, a second Byzantine proselytisation initiative led to the construction of several domed three-nave and cross-domed (where the dome sits above the crossing of four arms) churches in the Abkhazian-Byzantine style, such as Shoana and the three churches of Arkhyz. At the same time, small churches in mountainous Svaneti attest to a major missionary effort there. Their murals, often featuring Roman military martyrs such as St George, St Theodore, St Demetrios, St Mercurios, and St Panteleimon, have been preserved to the present day. St George possessed attributes of the sun god Mihr; Svans living in the region would address prayers and intercessions to him, instead of God or Christ.In the following century, Georgian influence came to dominate among the Alans and their eastern neighbour the As, the ancestors of the Ossetians. The fortified, three-nave basilica of Tkhaba-Yerdy in Ingushetia, dated by an inscription to the office of the Georgian Catholicos Melchizedek I in the early 11th century, echoes medieval Georgian architecture.
Elsewhere, in the second half of the 7th century, a militarily stronger Byzantium strove to reconquer Armenia and to compel the miaphysite Armenian Church to accept a church union. At that time, the pro-Byzantine Armenian Catholicos Nerses III (in office 641-661) commissioned the cathedral of Zvartnots. A tetraconch, the now-ruined building was about 45m tall, probably three-tiered, and surrounded by a 32-sided polygon 37.7m in diameter, all together resembling a circular rotunda. The form of a tetraconch with ambulatory may go back to the Domus Aurea in Antioch and Jerusalem’s Anastasis Rotunda, both from the 4th century. Zvartnots inspired the construction of further such churches in Garni near Yerevan, Ani and Marmashen (Greater Armenia), Vardisubani (Georgia), Bana and Ishkhan (Tao in today’s Turkey), and Lekit in Albania.
Later, a resurgence of small yet thriving Armenian kingdoms led to a new peak of church construction in the 10th and 11th centuries, reflected in the monastic complexes of Haghpat and Sanahin, and the Holy Cross four-apsidal church on the island of Aghtamar. The latter’s outer walls are decorated with reliefs featuring Biblical scenes, such as Moses with the Tablets of the Law, the sacrifice of Isaac, the fight of David against Goliath, the legend of Jonah, and Daniel in the lions’ den. Under the dominance of the unified Kingdom of Georgia, an Armenian Church synod declared in 1204/1205 that ‘icons (and images) of the Saviour and all the saints should be accepted, and not despised as though they were pagan images’. Although the Armenian Church was not iconoclastic, as it allowed faunal and human relief decorations, icons and wall paintings were nevertheless traditionally largely avoided. After the 1204/1205 synod, Armenian churches were also adorned with murals.
Examples of such murals come from the fortified monastery church of Akhtala, which has maintained large parts of its Byzantine-style wall paintings from the first two decades of the 13th century. The church was reconstructed and expanded in the traditionally Armenian region of Lori at a time when Lori belonged to the Kingdom of Georgia; it remains uncertain whether in the early 13th century holy mass was celebrated according to the Armenian or Georgian rite. Painted in its dome is Mary holding Jesus, while below in the apse is the Lord’s Supper, and below that popular saints and Church Fathers. The western wall opposite features the Kingdom of Heaven; the southern one the Nativity and Simeon Stylites; and the northern wall Joachim and Anna bringing the infant Mary to the temple at the top, below a stylite and Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate, and at the bottom Byzantine saints.
Vibrant decorations like these stand as witness of a new phase in the history of the Armenian Church, a complex tale that had been developing under – and at times in resistance to – the influence of Byzantium, Persia, and other kingdoms of the Caucasus, ever since St Gregory the Illuminator was first said to have cured the king.
The History of the Caucasus, volume 1, At the Crossroads of Empires by Christoph Baumer has been published by Bloomsbury (ISBN 978-1788310079; 392pp with 208 colour photos and 10 maps; price £30). The second of two volumes is expected in 2023.
ALL IMAGES: Christoph Baumer, unless otherwise stated.