By Raffi Bedrosyan
When someone visits Armenia for the first time, the tour itinerary invariably includes a multitude of churches and monasteries. Modern Armenia is the land of churches. Historic Armenia in Anatolia was also a land of churches, with nearly 4000 churches and monasteries. The Van Lake region alone had more than 300 churches. The ancient city of Ani, dubbed the “City of 1001 Churches,” contained 40 churches. We are proud of our churches, awed at their architectural beauty and intricate construction techniques, amazed at their settings perched on inaccessible mountaintops.
On the other hand, this obsession with churches, when combined with our tragic history, makes me wonder: “I wish we had fewer churches to visit and instead, many more victory monuments like Sardarabad. I wish our Armenian kings, princes, political leaders and wealthy notables in the past had spent less time, talent, resources and money on these churches and instead, more on fortifications and defense of our lands and territories.”
When one delves more into the historic reasons why these churches are built, it becomes apparent that they are not necessarily built to meet the religious needs of the population, but rather to bring glory to the benefactor and perhaps to help him ‘ease into heaven.’ Throughout history, our religious leaders have conditioned the benefactors that there is no better way to serve god, Jesus Christ and its Armenian folk than to build another church. Therefore, regardless of political, economic or social realities and upheavals, Armenians have continued building churches in both historic and modern Armenia, as well as in all corners of the world, often times disregarding other needs and priorities. This has been the case in medieval Armenian kingdoms in historic Armenia, continuing in Cilicia and Eastern Anatolia up until 1915, then in Diaspora and now in modern Armenia.
The tradition continues today. When future generations look back into our present history of 22 year-old Armenia and Diaspora Armenians, they will see the challenges of establishing a new country from the ruins of the Soviet Empire, at the same time fighting the deadly Karabagh war, the closed borders and economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, simultaneously dealing with the disastrous 1989 earthquake, and most critically, the continuing depopulation of Armenia due to lack of employment and investment opportunities.
And yet, despite these monumental tasks, they will also see examples of vast church building activities both in Armenia and Diaspora. In 1997, in the midst of urgent needs to reconstruct Armenia ravaged by the earthquake and Karabagh destroyed by war, Armenians did find the money to build the Saint Gregory Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan. In 2001, Diaspora Armenians in Los Angeles did start the construction of a huge cathedral, while there was and is scarce money to keep Armenian schools open. In 2011, an oligarch donated all the funds to build the St Hovhannes Cathedral in Abovyan, while the starving local population had almost emptied the town.