This week: Christianity in the Caucasus

The fortified monastery of Tatev, Syunik Province, Armenia, first built between AD 895 and 906. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Vahag851

These days, the rugged and beautiful Caucasus Mountains – which stretch almost 800 miles between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea – are sadly perhaps most closely associated with the vicious series of ethnic and territorial disputes that have flared up along Russia’s troubled southeastern border since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Historically, too, the wider Caucasus region – which includes the present-day republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – has long been a key geopolitical faultline. It is the place where Eastern Europe and Western Asia have always met – a unique melting pot of languages, ideas, cultures, and religions, in which Romans, Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols have all mixed down the centuries.

As we learn this week on The Past, it was against this complex backdrop that a key moment in the history of Christianity took place – when according to legend, Armenia’s King Trdat IV was converted to the religion by the 4th-century apostle St Gregory the Illuminator, thereby making his country (in AD c.314) the first anywhere in the world officially to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Twenty years later, Armenia’s neighbour Georgia followed suit.

In the new issue of Minerva magazine and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Christoph Baumer tells the extraordinary story of Christianity’s spread through the Caucasus, and reveals how it lead not only to centuries of ecclesiastical conflict but also to the building of many magnificent chapels, cathedrals and monasteries in the region.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve been delving into the archives in search of more early Christian history: we traced the religion’s fluctuating fortunes in western Britain and Ireland in the years after the Roman period; we visited Ravenna to understand how the gleaming mosaics of the city’s churches reflect its unique importance as a centre of early Christian art; and we travelled to Eritrea to uncover the secrets of an extraordinary 6th-century ecclesiastical complex in the ancient Kingdom of Aksum.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week focuses on early Christianity. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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