You can’t return to where you’ve never left.

-Cedarwood Road by U2

I return to the Armenian Church on Singapore’s Hill Street. I can’t remember the last time I was here. The moment I walk in, memories return–of playing in the garden with my peers after praying. There is laughter. There is joy. There is a strong connection I cannot put into words.

These memories are from the 90s. They are wavy and incoherent, as though I were watching a film of someone else’s life. Was that me? Details of the memories elude me. There are only vague recollections that resurface from the hidden chapters of my subconscious. The human mind is a truly fascinating instrument. We may scratch the surface or choose to dive deep within.

If we are brave enough to tackle the terrains of our subconscious, there is no limit to what we might find.

The interior of the Armenian Church in Singapore

Zoroastrianism in Ancient Armenia

The Temple of Garni, located in Kotayk Province, was dedicated to the Armenian sun god Mihr. The worship of Mihr is related to a set of beliefs that has its roots in Zoroastrianism. The Temple of Garni survived the destruction of ‘pagan’ temples following Armenia’s conversion to Christianity; as well as the countless invasions and earthquakes that have taken place on Armenian soil.

In 1679 CE, the Temple of Garni finally collapsed. After continuous excavations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Temple of Garni was reconstructed. Today, it is the only free-standing Greco-Roman structure in Armenia and seen by many as a potent symbol of Armenia’s classical past. The reconstruction of this temple reconnects us to the ancient civilisations whose stories remain invaluable in understanding who we were, who we are, and where we are headed.

The Temple of Garni in 2012

Zoroastrianism in Armenia dates back to the 5th century B.C. Like the Zoroastrians of Persia, the ancient Armenians believed in a supreme God, Ahura Mazda; the creator of the universe and all the things in it, being at the same time wise and good. Armenian texts contain names, theological terms and references to rituals and usages–most often loan-words from Middle Iranian–which has enabled scholars to reconstruct an image of pre-Christian Armenian religious life that is similar to the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.

Ahura Mazda carries a long list of titles and characteristics. He is the supreme being in Garothman heaven and represents ‘the uncreated spirit’; without whom there is nothing in existence. Ahura Mazda is changeless, moving all the while but not being moved by anyone. He favours the just man who upholds the truth and emulates proper behaviour. Ahura Mazda created the twin spirits of Angra Mainyu and Spenta Meynu; the destructive and good spirits.

Ahura Mazda was revealed to the prophet Zoroaster through a vision he had when he was 30 years old. When Zoroaster turned 15, he was considered an adult–as per the local custom of the time–and thus took up adult duties. As he was born during violent times, he grew up questioning the concept of righteousness and the conflict of good versus evil.

As a result, he left home at 20 and lived in solitude on a mountain for a decade. At the age of 30, he participated in a spring festival as a member of a priestly family. One of his duties was to draw water from the deepest and purest part of the stream for the morning ceremony. At the Daytia River, he met the angel Vohu Manah.

Vohu Manah asked Zoroaster who he was and what was the most important thing in his life. Zoroaster answered that he wanted most of all to be righteous, pure and wise. Due to this answer, Zoroaster was granted a vision of Ahura Mazda and his archangels; from whom he learned the principles that would later lead to the religion known as Zoroastrianism.

Depiction of Zoroaster in Clavis Artis, an alchemy manuscript published in Germany in the late 17th or early 18th century

Armenia’s Conversion to Christianity

Armenia is a landlocked country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia. Considered one of the oldest civilisations in the world, Armenia is a small mountainous country located between the Black and Caspian seas.

Armenia’s population is now 97.9 percent Christian–most of whom belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was founded in the first century A.D. Christianity first arrived in Armenia as early as 40 CE. Tiridates III (238–314 CE) made Christianity the state religion in 301. According to tradition, a young Armenian prince named Gregory became a refugee from his homeland when his father was executed for attempting to assassinate the King of Persia. The young exile was raised and educated by a Christian and ultimately converted to Christianity.

Upon returning to Armenia, Gregory “the Illuminator” started preaching throughout his homeland. Known as a miracle-worker, Gregory was summoned to heal the ailing Armenian King Tiridates III. Convinced by his miraculous recovery, Tiridates converted to Christianity around 301, a decade before the conversion of Constantine of Rome. Although the population of Armenia still followed Zoroastrianism at the time, Tiridates made Christianity the state religion and Armenia became the first officially Christian nation.

Gregory the Illuminator illustration in 1898 book

Religious and Ethnic Persecution

As a child, my understanding of God and religion was rather simple. I was too young to read the ancient texts or understand the history books that I bury myself in these days. I would frequent temples, churches, mosques and synagogues and not know the difference.

Born-and-bred in the multicultural nation of Singapore, it was not uncommon for me to see places of worship from different religions clustered together on the same street or in the same area. Perhaps I took for granted that this is the way the world is; where people can coexist with respect for each other’s unique differences.

As I walked through the heritage gallery at the Armenian church of Singapore, I noticed a few lines of timeless words etched into the walls of the gallery. In a world full of persecution, division and age-old conflicts whose roots are forgotten; it is my hope that the human race can find it in them to build a bridge and heal the deep wounds of the human soul.

And when we were forced to leave our lands,
Wherever it was and wherever it led…
We left our traces on the bridges we built
And on the arches we connected.
We planted and plowed, and shared with all…
And gave them from our souls:
Knowledge, poems and songs.

We Are Few But We Are Called Armenians by Paruyr Sevak

7 thoughts on “From Zoroastrianism to Christianity | A Brief History of Armenia

  1. Armenians were traders, merchants etc. In Singapore, they were few in number but they left their mark. Many inventions and companies here were founded by Armenians. I look forward to hearing more about this ancient group of diasporic people.

    1. Oh, I have been to the Armenian Church in Singapore many times. It is a peaceful and still place in the middle of a busy district. A valuable gem of Singaporean heritage.

  2. I didn’t know the Armenians were Zoroastrians before they became Christians.

  3. Wow, there is a wonderful story I didn’t know at all!

    People sure can coexist with respect for each other’s unique differences. There are several tales that highlight the beautiful concept of unity in diversity.

    And this is another of such wonderful and timeless tale…

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