Located at the flashpoint between the Roman and Persian Empires, “Fortress Armenia” stretched through eastern Anatolia to the Zagros Mountains. Armenia was a kingdom established during the decline of Seleucid control.
Its independence ended with its incorporation into the Roman Empire in the third century c.e. The region was inhabited after the Neolithic Period, and evidence of high culture is evident from the Early Bronze Age. Urartu was an important regional power in the eighth to the sixth centuries b.c.e.
The Indo-Europeans arrived from western Anatolia in this period and formed a new civilization that was Armenian-speaking and based on the local culture. The conversion of Armenia to Christianity is associated with a number of stages or traditions. The most important one was the work of Gregory Luzavorich, the “Illuminator” (d. 325 c.e.). Armenians greatly treasure their heritage as the first nation that converted officially to the Christian faith.
Syriac Christianity first influenced Armenia: The Armenian version of the Abgar legend makes Abgar an Armenian king, and the evangelization of Addai is described as a mission to southern Armenia. The influence of Syriac literature and liturgy on Armenia remained strong even after the Greek influence, primarily from Cappadocia, and increased in the third century c.e.
The Greek tradition states that Bartholomew was the apostle to the Armenians. The Abgar/Addai legend is earlier than that of Bartholomew. The traditions of the female missionaries and martyrs Rhipsime and Gaiane are among the earliest accounts of the conversion of Armenia. Tertullian (c. 200 c.e.) also mentions that there were Christians in Armenia.
The conversion of the royal house of Armenia dates officially to 301 c.e., predating the conversion of the Georgian king Gorgasali and the Ethiopian Menelik by a generation. In that year Gregory the Iluminator persuaded King Tiridates III (Trdat the Great, 252–330) to be baptized.
Gregory is identified as the founder of the Christian Armenian nation and as the organizer of the Armenian Church. Gregory founded Ejmiatsin, the mother cathedral of the Armenian Church, after an apparition by Jesus Christ who descended from heaven at the site of a significant pagan temple (Ejmiatsin means “The Only-begotten Descended”). Gregory’s original church was at Vagharshapat.
The revelation to found the church at Ejmiatsin coincided with changing political circumstances. Politically, Armenians were always at the mercy of the great powers of Persia and Rome, and in 387 the Roman emperor Theodosius I and the Persian emperor Shapur agreed to partition Armenia, thus ending its independence.
As the site of a dominical apparition, the place of Gregory’s Episcopal see, the residence of Armenian Catholicoi, and the most important administrative center of the Armenian Church, Ejmiatsin is for Armenians a holy site on a par with the Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection) in Jerusalem or the Basilica of Bethlehem, where Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth was born.
The second most important event of the formative period of Armenian history was Mesrob Mashtots’s (c. 400) invention of the Armenian alphabet, which resulted in the translation of the Bible and the liturgy into Armenian and a rapid introduction of Christian and classical works, translated from Greek and Syriac into Armenian.
During the Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries, the Armenian Apostolic Church rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and remains to this day one of the non-Chalcedonian churches that adhere to the strict interpretation of Cyril of Alexandria’s “one nature of the incarnate Logos” formula. For this reason, Armenians are often erroneously and polemically labeled “Monophysites.”