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7. Armenia |

Armenia is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 187, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

In Armenia’s tradition, the bishop who refused to die heals the murderous king of his beast-like madness and they establish the longest-lived Christian nation

Armenia - History’s most durable Christians

Armenia - History’s most durable Christians
Two enduring symbols of Armenia are visible at this spot about eighteen miles from the capital of the country, Yerevan. The monastery of Khor Virap was built around the pit in which St. Gregory, the evangelist to the Armenians, was held prisoner for more than a decade. Looming over it, but now across the border in Turkey, is the seventeen-thousand-foot volcanic cone of Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s ark is said to have run aground following the great flood.

In the high mountains beyond the Black Sea’s south coast, where the two great rivers of ancient history, the Tigris and Euphrates, find their source, there have lived for something close to three millennia a nation of swarthy, tough and fiercely independent people. These are the Armenians. In the last century and a half, they have migrated all over the world. Armenian surnames–identifiable because they almost always end in “ian,” sometimes “yan”–crowd the telephone books of Fresno in California’s great Central Valley, and appear in the listings of every major North American city. Less familiar to the world at large, however, is Armenian history. They are the first and longest-lived Christian nation; and from the fourth Christian century onward, they have suffered and died for the faith by the tens of thousands.

Armenia is high country; its mountainous plateau averages forty-five hundred feet above sea level, and on nearly every side, it rises above its neighbors like an island of rock. Many of its peaks are extinct volcanoes, which once filled up its plains with flowing lava. This cooled to become a black and pink stone that is a distinctive mark of Armenian architecture. Armenia’s most famous peak, of course, is Mount Ararat, the biblical landing place of Noah’s Ark, and a foothold of faith for Armenia’s generations of tenacious Christians.

Spirituality apart, Armenia is otherwise decidedly inhospitable. On the high plains, winter is bitter, with ceaseless wind and temperatures falling to forty degrees below zero; many mountains are snow-covered year round. Ancient nomads dug underground burrows to survive the lethal cold. Nomads they had to be, for the craggy landscape of ravines and canyons is uncongenial to all but herders and wanderers. It has been estimated that two-thirds of the land is not fit for human settlement. Yet it was inhabited from the earliest reaches of human history, and some archaeologists believe that several Stone Age migrations into Europe began in Armenia. The ancient historian and geographer Strabo says that the land got its name from one Armenus, a companion of Jason and the Argonauts, heroes of ancient Greek mythology.

However forbidding, Armenia’s lands have been a recurrent battleground, not for their potential productivity but for their location. Because of surrounding seas, mountains and deserts, Armenia is a bottleneck in the well-worn human paths from east to west and from north to south.1 Only by crossing Armenia’s rocky terrain and subjugating its people could would-be conquerors securely reach their objectives beyond. Most of those conquerors, people like the Medes and Hittites, have long since faded into history. The Armenians have survived, and surviving is what they do best.

Armenia’s political history emerges from the mists of mythology. In the Iron Age, we’re told, Queen Semiramis of Assyria, lovesick for Armenia’s Prince Ara the Fair, led an army into the land with hopes of making the young man her paramour by force. Instead, he died in battle, defending his honor to the last. The despondent queen then made her way back southward until she came to the shores of the beautiful Lake Van in the nation’s center. There, she built a gracious city, and had a magnificent palace for herself carved into the sheer face of the cliff above it.

History confirms only that a certain King Aramu was indeed a contemporary of Queen Semiramis in the ninth century b.c., and that during his time, the city of Van was founded and the land’s first nation-state, Urartu (note the similarity to “Ararat”), was established. Three centuries later, the biblical prophet Jeremiah mentions Urartu among the enemies of Babylon, but about then the land was overtaken by the Persians, conquerors destined to return many times.

A subsequent Armenian dynasty arose under Orontes I, which was dealt a bitter blow by the invasion of Alexander the Great in the fourth century b.c. About two hundred years later, a third Armenian dynasty brought the nation to its pinnacle of glory and made it briefly ascendant over much of the Middle East. King Tigranes the Great came to the throne about a hundred years before the birth of Christ and spent the next half-century building, and then losing, the greatest empire Armenia has ever known. He seized Syria to the west, and pressed down through Phoenicia to northern Palestine. Parts of Mesopotamia and Parthian Persia to the south, and Iberia to the north, all fell to his armies. Ultimately, he ruled over one hundred thousand square miles, of which only a tenth remains to Armenia today.

Tigranes was his own worst enemy. After he executed a messenger for bringing him bad news, no one dared tell him the truth about other crises as they arose. He executed two sons on suspicion of plotting to unseat him; a third son sought to save himself by conspiring with the king of Parthian Persia to bring an army against his father. Meanwhile, the king found himself surrounded by hostility. He had forced citizens of conquered lands to migrate and populate his new city, Tigranokerta. These were now eager to betray him and escape.

It was Rome, however, that smashed Tigranes’ empire. In 69 b.c., Tigranokerta readily fell to the general Lucullus; and much of the imported population speedily returned to their native lands. Three years later, the general Pompey marched into Armenia to do battle with the Parthian army mustered by Tigranes’ son. Tigranes, now nearly seventy-five, was at the end of his strength. He surrendered and spent his last days as a puppet king, paying docile tribute to Rome.

The fall of Tigranes ended Armenia’s era of worldly glory. Thereafter, and for the next seventeen hundred years, it would play the unenviable role of buffer state between great empires–Persia to the east; Rome, Byzantium and later Turkey to the west; the militant Islamic Arabs to the south; and one day Soviet Russia to the north. But at the dawn of the Christian era, the most dangerous enemy lay to the east, where the Parthian rulers of Persia, who were sometime allies of Armenia, would gradually lose control, to be replaced in the year 226 by far more aggressive successors, the Sassanids. They would set in motion the events that led to Armenia’s conversion to Christianity.

It was Persia, not Armenia, which had long been Rome’s bane. The two empires, so different in faith and culture, remained locked in a battle of East versus West for more than a century before Christ and six centuries after. To the Romans, Persia was a wall that successive assaults failed to bring down. Thus, the Roman general Crassus met his doom at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 b.c. Plutarch finishes the story. A wedding was being celebrated, he writes, between family members of the king of Parthia, Orodes II, and the king of Armenia, Artavazd II (yet another of Tigranes’ sons). The two kings were enjoying a postnuptial performance of Euripides’ “Bacchae,” when a soldier strode into the room, bowed to the monarchs, and tossed Crassus’s severed head into the crowd. This action elicited much glee, and an actress seized the gory object, using it as a prop while dancing and reciting her lines as a passion-deranged bacchante.

For the first two centuries of the Christian era, Armenia remained a disputed territory, with Parthian Persia and Rome each striving to maintain a favored candidate on Armenia’s throne. For much of the time, Armenia was officially a vassal of Rome, while its ruling family was tied by blood to the kings of Persia, the Parthians. However, in 226 the Parthian dynasty fell to the bellicose Sassanids, who had no familial connection with the Armenian royal house. The Armenians now discovered that formerly friendly Persia was an enemy. Henceforth, it must look westward for support.

The Sassanids were to rule Persia for the next four hundred years. They began with a major offensive against Rome, based on an ancient claim. The Romans had seized territory that was properly Persia’s, they said. It was territory conquered by the Persian Darius the Great seven hundred years ago, and it included all the Middle East and all of Asia Minor. For the new Sassanid king, Ardashir, and his son Shapur I, the first objective was the subjugation of Armenia. Beyond Armenia lay a far more tempting prize–luxurious Antioch, jewel of Syria, third largest city in the Roman Empire, and launching site of Paul’s Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Antioch was also headquarters of the Roman army of the East, but that did not impress Shapur I. In 256 or thereabouts, his army crossed into Mesopotamia, defeated the Roman frontier guard, and drew up before the city. It was a frightening spectacle–the nobility on horseback, peasants trailing after as foot soldiers. Then came mounted knights, known as cataphracts; both they and their immense horses were covered with armor from head to foot, the men peering through narrow eyeholes and carrying long lances. Even the horses wore spiked helmets. Faced with such a galloping horde, gleaming in the sun and pounding the ground towards him, the opponent was expected to panic and run, and in fact often did.

But it turned out that Shapur did not need force to take the city. A highborn citizen named Mariades betrayed it into his hands–if betrayal is the right word. The city’s poor were growing increasingly resentful of Rome, and viewed Persia as a deliverer. Mariades himself chafed under the expensive obligation, laid on his family by Rome, of supplying horses for the public entertainments. Some say he had used his position to embezzle, and had been ousted by the Romans in disgrace. Certainly there had been recent unrest in Antioch, so disruptive that the crowds at the chariot races had split into Roman and anti-Roman factions; and the resulting riots had caused cancellation of the events. Perhaps Mariades was in a position to know that the time was ripe for rebellion, and connived with Shapur to surrender to the city.

As Shapur encircled the place, the wealthy classes fled in confusion, taking with them all the valuables they could carry, and leaving the gates unguarded. The poor who remained hoped, no doubt, that Shapur would usher in a benevolent rule. They were to be bitterly disappointed. Shapur’s soldiers rampaged through the city, sacking the houses and temples, raping and murdering, and finally burning much of Antioch to the ground. Mariades, too, was killed–perhaps by his own countrymen, perhaps by Shapur, who figured the turncoat to be just as capable of betraying him as he was of betraying the Romans.

Shapur returned to Persia leading a long line of prisoners. Some were destined for the slavery that usually befell captives of war, but Shapur also took care to abduct whomever he could find of the city’s remaining intellectual and scientific community. He settled these men in Persia, requiring them to produce wisdom for the good of their new home. One of these prisoners was the Christian bishop, Demetrianus.

The Roman emperor Valerian arrived too late to defend Antioch, found the city nearly deserted, and began to rebuild, though trouble erupting on other borders distracted him, and the work was not completed. In the summer of 260, his troops were sick and low in spirits. Then the unthinkable happened. Under circumstances that have remained obscure, the emperor Valerian himself was taken captive, an unprecedented disaster (see chapter 1 of this volume).

Then Shapur returned to Antioch–so suddenly, it was said, that an actor in a play at an outdoor amphitheater looked up toward Mount Silpius and asked the audience, “Am I dreaming, or have the Persians arrived?” The answer came in the form of a shower of arrows raining down into the audience. Shapur’s army immediately swept into the city, and once again looted, burned and took prisoners. Back home, Shapur built himself a city which he triumphantly named “Shapur’s Better-than-Antioch.”

Meanwhile, Armenia had not been idle. Its king, Khosrov I, as notable for daring as for military strategy, harassed and even invaded the Persian kingdom. Shapur repeatedly counterattacked into Armenia. It was in this decade of high tension and uncertainty that events began to unfold that would result in the conversion of Armenia to Christianity. The story has one source, Agathangelos’s History of the Armenians, written in the latter half of the fifth century, a narrative so romantic that the faithful embrace it unexamined almost as readily as skeptics reject it, also unexamined. As far as Armenian Christians are concerned, the events it describes happened.

Agathangelos plunges into the tale with an account of a war council in the Persian court. Dismayed by Khosrov’s continued victories, Shapur decided to attempt his assassination. The person who undertook this deed, the king promised, would be raised to second rank in the kingdom, next only to the monarch himself.

A certain Anak accepted the commission. He was a Parthian, a member of the household overthrown by the Sassanids, who still had blood ties to the Armenian monarchy. Together with his brother, they moved their entire families, their sheep and herds, to Armenia, where they claimed to have revolted against the Sassanid rulers. King Khosrov welcomed his relatives, and included them in his deliberations as he planned a new invasion of Persia.

At an opportune time, Anak and his brother asked Khosrov to step aside with them for a private consultation. Their swords, Agathangelos tells us, were already half-drawn. They stabbed Khosrov and fled; but with his last breath, the king ordered that the families of both men be massacred. The dying order was carried out in bloody detail; even the women and children were slaughtered. One son, however, survived. This infant was spirited away by his nurse, and carried to safety in Caesarea of Cappadocia (see map page 131, F3), which was in Roman territory. He would be known as Gregory.

Shapur rejoiced to see Armenia now leaderless and vulnerable. He immediately marched into the country, seizing whatever he could and annihilating the remnants of Khosrov’s clan. Khosrov’s infant son was rescued, however, and delivered to the care of the Romans. While Gregory was being raised in Cappadocia, Tiridates, heir to King Khosrov, was growing up in the home of Licinius, a Roman who would one day become emperor.

There was one significant difference in the education of the two refugee children. Gregory was raised as a Christian. He “became acquainted with the Scriptures of God, and drew near to the fear of the Lord,” writes Agathangelos. When he learned, as a grown man, that his father had murdered Tiridates’s father, Gregory made a momentous decision. Leaving his two sons, he went to Tiridates, and concealing his parentage, offered himself in humble service to the exiled king.

Tiridates had grown to be a man of immense physical strength. When he accompanied his protector, Licinius, to a battle against the Goths, he performed a feat that astonished his companions. They arrived at the city in the middle of the night, and could find no forage for their horses. Tiridates climbed over a high wall no one else could scale, and threw back armloads of hay until the horses were well supplied, then heaved several useful donkeys over the wall as well.

Licinius had never seen anything like this man. When they came to the place of battle, they found the Roman emperor in dismay; the leader of the Goths had challenged him to single combat, and “because he was weak in bodily strength” Licinius was terrified. He suggested that Tiridates stand in for the emperor. Robed in imperial purple, Tiridates charged the Goth king on horseback and soundly defeated him. He was rewarded with imperial insignia and given command of an army, which he brought to the East, and used it to drive the Persians out of Armenia.

Gregory had accompanied Tiridates obediently all this time. But there was one thing on which he would not compromise–his Christian faith. During Tiridates’s first year as king, he brought his court to the city of Erez to worship at the temple of Anahit (a deity corresponding to the goddess known as Venus or Aphrodite in the Greco-Roman pantheon). After Tiridates had made his sacrifices, he adjourned to his tent for feasting and hearty drinking, then ordered Gregory back to make further offerings. Gregory refused.

Tiridates was confused by this first sign of resistance in one who had served him so well, and Gregory’s explanations did not please him. “Know that you have made useless the services which you have rendered to me,” he declared, threatening his servant with prison and misery for dishonoring Anahit, “the glory of our race and our savior.”

Agathangelos recounts Gregory’s firm reply. He would continue to serve Christ, and would consider even death merely a doorway to his closer presence. As for Anahit, such gods “do not really exist. . . . Your mind is deranged if you worship them.”

Tiridates would not put up with such disrespect directed at himself and his god. He had Gregory subjected to torture, and after each week, brought the prisoner before him to see whether he had repented. Each time, Gregory found opportunity to further expound the faith. Tiridates quickly realized that, for someone dedicated to a God who triumphed over death, threats of execution held no terrors. Instead, he determined to keep Gregory in lingering agony. Gregory was beaten, hung upside down, and his sides ripped open. Tiridates’s servants drove nails into the soles of Gregory’s feet, then dragged him by the hand, forcing him to run.

Yet after each torture, Gregory resumed his patient teaching. Tiridates was pondering a change of tactics, offering Gregory restoration and honors if he would only submit. He would not. Then a member of the court came to Tiridates with startling news. “All this time he has been living among us and we did not recognize him. He is the son of the treacherous Anak, who killed your father.”

These words sealed Gregory’s fate. Tiridates ordered that he be bound hand and foot, and cast down into a cavernous pit below the acropolis in the city of Artashat. There in the blackness Gregory was left to die, utterly forgotten.

Tiridates then busied himself with other exploits, harassing the Persians, and showing himself as a man born to be a warrior. To ensure continued success in battle, he ordered that the gods be duly honored, and that any who behaved toward them with disrespect be turned in for punishment. “He was haughty in dress and endowed with great strength and vigor,” Agathangelos writes. “He had solid bones and an enormous body; he was incredibly brave and warlike, tall and broad of stature. He spent his whole life in war and gained triumphs of combat.”

Meanwhile, Gregory had not died. For thirteen years, he clung to life. Other prisoners were tossed down beside him and died due to the snakes and fetid stench, but he survived. His endurance was assisted by a widow of the city, who had received the puzzling instruction in a dream to bake a loaf of bread every day and throw it into the pit. That meager daily ration kept Gregory on the near side of starvation.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the emperor Diocletian decided to search for a wife of sufficient beauty to equal his status. Portrait painters scoured the empire in search of the fairest faces, and in the course of this quest, broke into a Christian convent where they found women living modest and prayerful lives, who maintained a cycle of worship both day and night. Their abbess was named Gaiane, and the most beautiful of the nuns was named Rhipsime.

Diocletian was delighted with her portrait, and began making wedding arrangements immediately. The nuns, perceiving what was afoot, stole away from the city and made their escape “to a distant land”–Armenia. They settled in the royal city of Valarshapat (see map page 131, G3), and made a shelter in the community winepress. One of the women knew the art of glassmaking, and the community was supported by the sale of her glass beads. Diocletian was not about to let them get away so easily, however, and sent an edict to all his territories urging authorities to search for these defiant women and punish them appropriately.

It didn’t take long for Tiridates’s men to locate the women hiding in the winepress, and within days, gossip about Rhipsime’s great beauty had filtered out to the city. Tiridates wanted to see her for himself. He sent a golden litter to pick her up early one morning, and included as well extravagant clothing and jewelry.

As Gaiane looked at these gifts, she recalled Rhipsime’s childhood in a wealthy, noble family. “Remember, my child, that you have left and abandoned the honor and splendor of the golden throne of your fathers and the royal purple. . . . So why then will you give your holy chastity as food to dogs in this barbarian land?”

Rhipsime had no such intention. She had “put on faith from the years of her youth like an armored cuirass.” She stretched out her arms and prayed “in a loud voice,” putting all her trust in God. The other nuns crowded around to her defense, but they were not able to protect her from Tiridates’s men, who carried the beautiful young woman to the palace.

Once Tiridates was alone with the girl, he was impressed with her beauty, and decided to sample her charms. He “seized her in order to work up his lustful desires,” but Rhipsime was galvanized to feats of strength beyond her natural power, and fought him off vigorously. Tiridates was “worsted by a single girl through the will and power of Christ.”

Tiridates decided to try a different tactic. He sent servants to lock a collar around Gaiane’s neck and drag her to the palace to talk sense into the girl. Gaiane did agree to speak to her, and while Tiridates and Rhipsime remained alone together in the inner chamber, Gaiane was brought up to whisper through the door. But far from giving the advice they desired, she urged Rhipsime to remain resolute and to never give in.

“When they realized what advice she was giving, they brought stones and struck her mouth until her teeth were knocked out, and they tried to force her to tell Rhipsime to do the will of the king.” Gaiane still refused, and continued to exhort the girl to stand firm in her faith. For this, Gaiane received further beatings that shattered the bones of her face.

Inside the chamber, the battle was going the other way. Rhipsime, still endowed with superhuman strength, battered the king to exhaustion. “She struck him, chased him and overcame him; she wore the king out, weakened him and felled him.” She ripped off his elegant clothes and threw away his crown, “leaving him covered with shame.” Then, forcing the doors open, she ran out, “cutting through the crowd, and no one was able to hold her.” She managed to stop by the winepress to inform her companions of events, then fled to a hilltop outside the city.

It wasn’t long before the executioners found her. Rhipsime was stripped and staked to the ground. Torturers then “applied the torches to her for a long time, burning and roasting her flesh.” They used stones to disembowel her; and “while she was still alive, they plucked out the blessed one’s eyes.” Christians from the city hid nearby, hoping to give her body honorable burial; but the torturers caught and killed them as well. They tossed all the remains out as food for dogs and birds.

The next morning, the chief executioner came to the king to learn what he wished done to Gaiane. It seems the events of the day before had unsettled Tiridates’s mind; and he asked that a search be made for Rhipsime and that she be persuaded to come back to him. When the executioner remarked that all the king’s enemies should perish as Rhipsime had, Tiridates fell to the ground weeping. He ordered the execution of Gaiane and the remaining nuns, who were skinned alive, then decapitated. In all, thirty-seven nuns and Christian townspeople were martyred.

The king continued to grieve for Rhipsime for six days, then arranged a hunting trip to distract him from his sorrows. But as he stood in his chariot preparing to leave the city, according to Agathangelos, “an impure demon struck the king and knocked him down.” A scene reminiscent of the madness of the ancient King Nebuchadnezzar was repeated, as Tiridates “began to rave and to eat his own flesh,” then to go on all fours, grazing on weeds and behaving like a boar. His servants were not able to restrain him, “partly because of his natural strength, and partly because of the force of the demons who had possessed him.” This curse spread beyond the king himself, as other nobles and city leaders fell into similar torments, and ruin spread across the country.

Then Tiridates’s sister, Khosrovidukht, had a vision in the night: an angel told her that there was a prisoner named Gregory in the city of Artashat who alone could end the torments. “When he comes, he will teach you the remedy for your ills.”

The people of the city were skeptical about this vision. Surely Gregory had died within days of being cast into the pit; at this point, it would not even be possible to identify his bones. Khosrovidukht acquiesced. But every night she continued to have the same vision, now accompanied with warnings that if these instructions were not followed, the torments would grow worse. “With great fear and hesitation,” Khosrovidukht again brought the message.

This time her words were heeded. A prince named Awtay went to Artashat, where he had a thick rope to be lowered into the depths of the pit. He shouted, “Gregory, if you are somewhere down there, come out. The God whom you worship has commanded that you be brought out.” Far below, a hand took hold of the rope and shook it.

Gregory was hauled up, blackened with filth, but alive. They hurriedly dressed him and took him to the royal palace in Valarshapat. King Tiridates, who had been foraging with a herd of pigs, was also brought to the palace. When he saw Gregory, he ran toward him, foaming and tearing his own flesh with his teeth. Gregory prayed, and Tiridates was returned to his senses.

Gregory then asked to be shown the bodies of the martyrs. They were amazed that he knew about this crime. Gregory found the mutilated bodies intact, unharmed by beasts, and wrapped them in their own tattered garments. He then brought them back to the winepress, where he himself spent all night praying “that the Armenians might be converted and find a way to repentance.” In the morning, the king returned to his right mind, and came to Gregory with his court. They asked, “Forgive us all the evil crimes that we have committed against you. And beg your God on our behalf that we perish not.”

Gregory then began a period of teaching that was to last over two months. “He informed and enlightened them about everything, abbreviating nothing and speaking neither superficially nor hastily,” writes Agathangelos. “Like a wise doctor, he tried to find the appropriate remedy that . . . he might heal their souls.” Thus, beginning with the royal household, the conversion of Armenia was under way.

In neighboring Persia, however, Christian fortunes were reversing. Christianity had made some inroads into Persia during the Parthian dynasty, when the national religion, Zoroastrianism, had fallen into neglect.2 The Sassanids encouraged its revival, developing for it a sacred book, the Avesta. Zoroastrianism was a form of religious dualism that envisions two gods, locked in eternal warfare, and requires Zoroastrian followers to obey the good god, Ormuzd, and worship him in the form of fire. Sacred fire was tended in village temples by priests, or “magi,” hence the English word “magic.”3

During their first century, the Sassanids did not directly persecute Christians, perhaps because they were too busy making war, and perhaps because they presumed that any movement so persecuted by Rome, must be Persia’s friend. But during the reign of Shapur II, which stretched through most of the fourth century, the power of the Zoroastrian priesthood began to be felt against anyone who departed from their faith. The brilliant visionary and syncretist Mani, founder of a faith (Manichaeanism) that attempted to blend every known religion of the time, was among its first victims. His body was skinned and stuffed, then hung on a gate in the city of Gundeshabhur. This event was so memorable that the place was called “Mani’s Gate” for the next eight hundred years.

The persecution of Christians wasn’t far behind, triggered unintentionally perhaps by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. He sent a letter to Shapur II drawing the king’s attention to the Christians in his kingdom who had fled there during the years when Constantine’s predecessors had persecuted Christianity. He now regarded himself as a “bishop of those outside the [boundaries of the] church,” Constantine wrote, and pointed out how many Roman emperors had suffered because they persecuted Christians.

“I heard that the fairest districts of Persia are full of those men on whose behalf I am speaking–the Christians,” Constantine wrote. “Imagine my joy. Because your power is great, I ask you to protect them.”

Shapur’s response was not altogether joyous. He began to harass the Christians, burdened them with exorbitant taxes, seized and demolished their churches, then brought their Bishop Symeon before his court in chains. Despite threats, Symeon refused to worship the sacred fire, and he was forced to watch a hundred other Christians executed before his own head was struck off.

The following year, just before Easter, Shapur declared that all Christians must die. However, Shapur’s beloved eunuch, Azades, was swept up in this annihilation, and the grieving king modified his command. Only those who actually taught Christianity would be executed, he said. Not much of a concession, observes the Christian historian Sozomen, writing in the early fifth century. He estimates sixteen thousand Persian Christians perished under the order.

But in Armenia, Gregory continued his patient, thorough teaching. “He illuminated the hearts and souls of the people by his preaching, seasoning them with divine salt,” writes Agathangelos, winning the cognomen by which he would be known to history, “Gregory the Illuminator.”

On Gregory’s initiative, many pagan temples were destroyed, where for centuries, a confusing array of gods had required bloody sacrifices, including those of human beings. King Tiridates went in person to Artashat to demolish the altar of Anahit, the altar at which Gregory had so persistently, and at the cost of years of imprisonment, refused to make sacrifice.

As well, Gregory told Tiridates that he had had a dream in which the heavens opened and Jesus Christ descended to strike the earth with a golden hammer. A golden pillar emerged, topped by a column of fire and four crosses, which together formed an arch. Above this arch there developed an immense church, with a cupola and a golden cross-topped throne yet above that. On the envisioned site, Tiridates helped Gregory raise an elaborate church. The site was the tomb of the thirty-seven nuns and other Christians whom Tiridates had martyred.

The church was a wonder, but no less so was the transformation in Tiridates. To the end of his days, he never stopped confessing his terrible responsibility for the deaths of these martyrs, and thanking God for his unimaginable compassion in granting him forgiveness and salvation nonetheless.

All the while, Gregory had remained a layman, unable to baptize the hundreds who now sought to commit themselves to Christ. Tiridates and his court urged him to accept ordination to the priesthood. He declined what he considered an undeserved honor. Besought by his people and encouraged by an angelic vision, however, he relented and returned with a company of Armenian nobles to the city where he had grown up, Caesarea of Cappadocia. There he was raised to the rank of bishop by Archbishop Leontius.

On his return to Armenia, Gregory tackled his responsibilities with renewed energy. He traveled throughout the land, preaching and baptizing, ordaining clergy and establishing churches. “The whole land was converted, and with all their hearts they were assiduous in fasting and in the service and fear of God,” writes Agathangelos, who then recounts what Armenian Christians revere as a sacred moment in their history.

On the banks of the river Euphrates just after dawn, Bishop Gregory meets King Tiridates, his queen Ashken, his sister Khosrovidukht, and the rest of the royal court. One by one, they are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This may be taken as the moment, say the Armenians, when their country became Christian, a position from which, despite fire, sword, misery, hostile governments, seductive propaganda and centuries of persecution, they would never retreat. They were the first nation in the world to officially lay claim to the faith.4

In one respect only was Gregory’s work hampered. There was no written Armenian language. In the early days, prayers were offered in Greek or Syriac. Translation into written Armenian was difficult, because there are consonants in the spoken language that cannot be represented by letters in the Greek, Latin or Semitic alphabets. The development of an alphabet to represent the Armenian language would not be completed for another hundred years, the work of a traveling preacher named Mesrop-Mashtots, now honored as a saint. He worked out an elaboration of the Greek alphabet, adding letters as needed and altering the shape of others so that all conformed to a single style. Sixteen hundred years later, Mesrop-Mashtots’s alphabet is still in use, a tribute to his creative skill.

But Armenia’s paganism did not die unresisting or quickly. The priests of its cults and surviving temples undertook reprisals against Christians for decades after the conversion of Tiridates. Even a century later, Christians were being martyred in Armenia.

As Gregory aged, Tiridates learned that he had been married long ago, before he came to Armenia, and that he had two grown sons. The king sent an envoy to Caesarea, who returned with Vrt’anes and Aristakes, the latter a monk reluctant to leave his desert retreat. He was persuaded to come, however, when told Christ had more important work for him to do. On their arrival in Armenia, Vrt’anes was ordained a priest, while Aristakes was made a bishop, and took on much of his father’s burden of work. For many generations, the rank of bishop would be handed down from father to son among Armenian Christians. It was Aristakes who would represent Armenia at the Council of Nicea in 325.

That is the year, it is said, that Gregory died. He had long before slipped away from active life to spend his time in prayer as a cave-dwelling hermit. No one witnessed his death. Sometime later, shepherds found his body and went back to tell the people of the nearby town, Daranalik, that it was enveloped in a beautiful unearthly fragrance. When they returned to take the body to an appropriate place of burial, however, the cave could not be found. Later still, a monk named Amra was told in a vision where he would find the body. Amra transferred it from the cave, and buried Gregory next to his sons, and a magnificent church was built over the site.

Tiridates died a martyr to his faith. He was poisoned, writes Agathangelos, by pagans in the court circle who were irked by his strict Christian morality.

Gregory the Illuminator departed the scene knowing he had introduced Armenia to Christianity. But the Armenians did not live happily ever after. In the following century, the Persians would pass a law requiring every Armenian to convert to Zoroastrianism. They rose in rebellion, a tiny nation against an enormous empire.

This is the end of the Armenia category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 187, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Armenia from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at