Good Monday morning to this week 40 of 2023
As we try to understand the ongoing developments in the Lachin Corridor, a crucial chapter in history unfolds before us. Here, countless Armenians are relocating from the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region following Azerbaijan’s complete takeover. In this context, it’s good to know the deep historical and religious roots that have shaped the region, especially considering its association with St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint and evangelizer of Armenia.
Armenia, renowned as the first country to embrace Christianity, holds St. Gregory in high esteem. Born around 257, his early life was marked by adversity as his father assassinated the King of Parthia, necessitating his relocation to Caesarea in Cappadocia for protection. Raised as a Christian, he returned to Armenia around 280, initially facing harsh treatment. However, through his unwavering faith and evangelism, he led King Tiridates and a significant portion of the population to Christianity. By 300, Gregory became the first bishop of Armenia, leaving a lasting legacy that Armenians continue to honour.
In the fourth century, after Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, the Kingdom of Albania (distinct from the Balkan country of the same name) also adopted Christianity, thanks to St. Gregory’s efforts. Grigoris, St. Gregory’s grandson, was appointed the head of the Albanian Church in 330 AD. He met a martyr’s fate in 338 while spreading the faith near Derbent in the region that is now part of Russia’s Dagestan. His remains were interred in Amaras, a region that would go on to hold immense significance for the Armenian Apostolic Church and pilgrims alike.
Historical accounts suggest that St. Gregory the Illuminator established the Amaras Monastery at the start of the fourth century. It was in Amaras that St. Grigoris found his eternal resting place, with a tomb constructed beneath the apse of the nineteenth-century Church of St. Grigoris.
However, the centuries were not kind to Amaras. It suffered repeated plundering, destruction, and reconstruction. The Mongols ravaged it in the thirteenth century, Timur’s invasion razed it in 1387, and the sixteenth century saw it demolished once more. In the early seventeenth century, the surviving defensive walls underwent significant alterations. Abandoned for a time, the monastery became a frontier fortress for Russian imperial troops in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Amaras was eventually reclaimed by the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1848. The original monastery church had suffered extensive damage during its occupation, necessitating the construction of a new church dedicated to St. Grigoris in 1858. This undertaking was made possible through the contributions of Armenians from the city of Shushi.
Fast forward to the present day, and we find Amaras Monastery at the intersection of history and modernity. Amid the 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh clashes, reports emerged that the monastery came under Azerbaijani control on September 20, 2023.
Back to St Gregory …
With Gregory imprisoned in a deep pit, King Tiridat launched a brutal persecution of Christians across his realm, beginning with Hripsime, who had rejected his advances. However, Tiridat’s mental state deteriorated, and he exhibited erratic behaviour, even behaving like a wild beast while hunting. This led to the legend that he had transformed into a boar.
Despite the efforts of a beloved king and Tiridat’s sister, Khosrovidought, to restore his sanity, their attempts proved futile. Khosrovidought had a dream in which she saw Gregory emerging from the dungeon and healing her brother. She shared her dream with the royal court, proclaiming that Gregory was alive and the only one capable of curing the King.
As Tiridat’s condition worsened, men ventured to the pit and, to their astonishment, heard a faint “yes” in response to the question: “Gregory, are you still alive?” They lowered a rope and rescued a man with a long beard and tattered clothes. Despite his disheveled appearance, Gregory’s face radiated an inner light. After dressing him appropriately, they presented him to Tiridat.
Overwhelmed by an uncontrollable force, Tiridat knelt before his former prisoner. Gregory placed his hands on the King’s head and prayed. Miraculously, Tiridat was healed and transformed into a new man. He declared, “Your God is my God; your religion is my religion.” Gregory lifted him up and embraced him. From that moment until their deaths, they remained faithful friends and worked together, each in their own way, to establish the Kingdom of God in Armenia, beginning in the year 301 AD.
Gregory initially converted the people in the capital city and its vicinity. However, the severe persecutions by Tiridat had left Armenia devoid of bishops and clergymen. Consequently, Gregory, who was still a layman, had no one to baptize the new believers. The Royal Council made the decision to send Gregory to Cæsarea to be ordained as the bishop of Armenia. By that time, his reputation as a miraculous confessor and a remarkable missionary had already spread far and wide to Cæsarea and beyond.
The story of Amaras Monastery and St Gregory is a testament to the enduring spiritual significance of Armenia and its people, even in the face of historical trials and unprecedented challenges.
I wish you an inspired start to this new week.