And Armenia’s religious claim to fame is significant, too. The apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew established Christian communities in Armenia as early as A.D. 40 and the country was the first to adopt Christianity as the official state religion in 301. Since then the Armenians have proven to be a resilient Christian people, despite repeated takeovers by various foreign invaders.
Says Zara Zeitountsian, tourism project marketing consultant at Solimar International, “Armenia is a unique destination for groups interested in faith, adventure and culture. We have a beautiful country covered with mountains and hiking trails, and our sparkling Lake Sevan is great for water enthusiasts.” Interested in history? You can visit more than 25,000 historical monuments in this one small country.
Most important of all, says Zeitountsian, are the Armenian people. “Armenia is known for its hospitality, based on the sincere warmth of the Armenian people and culture. Locals will go out of their way to help tourists, even welcoming you into their homes and offering you an authentic meal! We are an ancient nation with a modern spirit, waiting to welcome you to this cradle of civilization.”
Armenia … The basics
Armenia is about the size of Massachusetts with a population of three million. It is bordered by Turkey to the west, Iran to the south, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east.
Despite its small size, Armenia boasts 4,000 monasteries and churches sprinkled across its stunning mountainous terrain. Many of these historical structures date back thousands of years and have survived destruction by the Soviets, who ruled the Armenians until 1991, and by various earthquakes.
In existence since the third millennium B.C., the Armenian civilization is one of the world’s oldest. Over the years the country has been invaded by the Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Arabs, Mongols and the Soviets. In 1915 during World War I, the Turks committed genocide, killing up to 1.5 million Armenians and causing millions of survivors to flee the country. As a result, seven million Armenians live in 120 different countries today.
Significant religious attractions
Visitors to Armenia will find many important faith-based sites throughout the country.
Temple of Garni
Originally built in the first century by King Trdat I for the pagan god of the sun, Mihra, Garni is the only surviving pagan temple in the Caucasus region. After Armenia became a Christian nation, King Trdat III had all pagan temples destroyed except this one because Garni was his sister’s favorite place to rest. Garni attracts more than 135,000 visitors each year.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 13th-century series of structures was carved from the mountainside. The monastery was founded in the 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside of a cave.
Groups can visit the ruins of this 7th-century circular church and palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and view Mt. Ararat, the Biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark. Although Mt. Ararat now resides in Turkey, the Armenian people view it as sacred and consider themselves direct descendants of Noah.
This monastery in the Ararat region is where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned after refusing to worship a pagan goddess. The first pontiff of the Armenia Church, St. Gregory later cured the pagan King Trdat III of a disease, leading to the king’s conversion to Christianity and his declaration that Christianity be the official religion of Armenia.
Cathedral of Echmiadzin
This cathedral is the oldest in the world and was built by St. Gregory when Armenia was the only official Christian state. It is the spiritual center of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church. Museums on the grounds display important documents and sacred relics, including a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the spear that was used to pierce his side and a piece of Noah’s Ark.
Other tour options
Beyond its rich religious sites, Armenia has many other destinations and attractions for exploration:
National park in Dilijan
Groups can enjoy the beauty of nature at this park, including Lake Sevan, one of the largest fresh-water lakes in the world. Two UNESCO World Heritage sites are located on the shores of the lake, the Hayravank and Sevanavank monasteries.
Zorats Karer: Armenian Stonehenge
Located near the city of Sisian, this prehistoric complex includes hundreds of two-meter stones, or menhirs, arranged from south to north, known to the locals as the Armenian Stonehenge. Scientists have concluded that the stones, believed to be 7,500 years old, were used to create the world’s oldest astronomical observatory.
Yerevan is one of the oldest cities in the world and Armenia’s largest, with a population of 1 million. Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan offers culture and art to entertain and educate. Groups can visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Matenadaran, a famous history and art museum, to learn about the darkest time in Armenian history as well as more uplifting topics. They can climb to the top of the Cascade Stairway for a 360-degree view of the city and snow-capped Mt. Ararat in the distance. And no trip is complete without a visit to the Vernissage Flea Market to find handmade Armenian rugs, jewelry, crafts, clothing and much more. The market is open daily from 7 a.m.–6 p.m.
Armenian wine tasting
Armenians are master winemakers, and they’ve been producing it for more than 6,100 years, as evidenced by the Areni-1 Cave, an archeological site with fermentation vats, a wine press and storage jars on display. In fact, Armenia is known as the cradle of winemaking, and the Bible’s book of Genesis identifies Noah as planting the first vineyard in the mountains surrounding Mt. Ararat. Groups can plan a visit to the Vayots Dzor region, just two hours south of Yerevan, and follow the Wine Route to five different wineries, including Old Bridge, Trinity Canyon Vineyards, Hin Areni, Getnatoun and the Areni Wine Factory.
Enjoy hiking Mount Aragats, the highest peak in Armenia, which is located 25 miles from Yerevan. Hikers can choose the South Summit, considered an easy hike of about 3.5 hours, or the North Summit, which is considerably more challenging and takes one to two days. Looking for an activity that’s less strenuous? Try visiting one of the local festivals held across the country throughout the year. Celebrations are an important part of Armenian culture, and taking part in a festival is a wonderful opportunity for travelers to engage with locals.
Top photo: Zorats Karer
Photo by CC Flickr/Clay Gilliland: bit.ly/2HDG81F