As we head to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, my local friend Artur offers to take me to an evening sung service at the 5th century Mayr Tachar – the Mother Church – in the town of Echmiadzin.
According to legend, it was here that St Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s national saint, had a vision of a beam of divinely falling light: inspiration to found Armenia’s first church.
Artur has visited Echmiadzin once or twice, he says, but he does not know too much about the other churches here. “Under the Soviet Union, we rarely had school classes on Armenian history or culture,” he says. “Russian history – just Soviet history, really – was far more common.”
Today, those attending the service are almost uniformly young. There are couples holding hands, pregnant women, children scampering and hiding behind pillars. All ignore the “no cameras” sign, snapping photographs through the haze of incense and the glimmer of flame. Even the black-hooded priests, their chant echoing across the dome, all look under 30.
Families buy fistfuls of candles, lighting 20 or 30 at a time in prayer; men in long coats stalk the church’s edges, gathering left-over wax into pails. “I guess it saves them money to re-use it,” says Artur, laughing. A young woman, sporting an “I Love Paris” T-shirt and a covered head, approaches a central altar that marks the sacred spot where Gregory’s beam of light first hit the ground. She kneels before a silver cross and kisses it.
Another family approaches. They place their two toddler girls – twins – in front of the altar, taking a series of photographs before directing the girls to kiss the cross, to move aside the carpet and kiss the spot where Gregory’s light first fell.
Artur watches in surprise. “Everything’s so different now,” he says, whispering. “My parents were scientists – they would never have let me do that. It’s not just the religious aspect. I mean, all those people kissing the same cross. My mother was very big on hygiene.”
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