The cross is the most familiar symbol of Christianity worldwide, but nowhere is this iconography as crucial or entrenched in the culture as it is in Armenia. Thousands of khachkars, or cross-stones, dot the mountains of the world’s oldest Christian nation, revealing both the art of spiritual expression and its modern desecration.
The medieval monk Thomas à Kempis once remarked, “In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness . . .”
Little wonder, then, that the cross could serve as a champion symbol of Armenian national identity and union. The conversion of the Armenian people and the instatement of Christianity as a state religion early in the fourth century ushered in a new era of national consciousness.
This burgeoning perception of Armenia as an entity distinct from the surrounding Zoroastrians was consolidated by several factors of the time: the invention of the Armenian alphabet, the effacement of the former pagan temples, and Gregory the Illuminator’s evangelical reign as the first head of the Armenian Church. The latter (now Armenia’s patron saint) particularly catalyzed the movement. Born into royalty, Gregory managed to convert his persecutor, King Tiridates III, and the nation. To preserve the newfound Armenian identity, he then ordered the creation of giant crosses—the khachkar’s predecessor.
The khachkar resembles other forms of Christian art, namely the Celtic high cross and the Lithuanian Kryždirbyst. A type of relief sculpture, it features a variety of floral, vegetative, and geometric motifs, as well as tableaus of famous biblical scenes. Beautiful, yes—but in order to understand how a medieval stone became so charged with the Armenian spirit, a lesson in iconology is needed.
The cross was not always a well-esteemed symbol; it once represented the basest form of execution, reserved for the disgraceful. The resurrection of Jesus, however, and the persecution of the early Armenian Christians transformed the cross into an image of soteriological victory: an emblem of triumph over the mortal vale.
Prior to and during the conversion, mountain worship was prevalent in Armenian paganism. In the Bible, mountains connote austerity, reverence, and closeness with God. Moses, for example, communicated with God through the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai. For the early Armenians, there was no better way to express their new Christian heritage than through the mountains, with which their land was replete (Armenia’s ancient territory included several biblical mounts). Gradually, the construction of cross-like steles near homes and churches came to replace the pagan worship of mountains.
When Gregory the Illuminator envisioned the khachkar, he believed it would sanctify surrounding areas. Although religious and secular agendas were intrinsically at odds, a symbol incorporating both Christian and pagan elements (a cross and stone) could be a mediator between the two. In turn, the khachkar began to assume various ecclesial functions—as gravestone, hallowed effigy, intervening spirit, talisman, and commemorative shrine of events.
Thus it was only fitting that the khachkar turned into a uniquely Armenian fixture in graveyards, monasteries, cathedrals, residences, roadsides, and eventually, everywhere.
From an artistic perspective, the creative medium of rock boasts a powerful statement. Indeed, the rock has enjoyed several iconic references in the Bible. Psalm 118 speaks of how “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” a phrase echoed by Jesus in the Gospels and by Peter in Acts of the Apostles. Jesus tells Peter (petra being the Latin word for rock) that “on this rock I build my church.” Such strong imagery was necessary for the Armenian Church’s survival; the cross-stone embodied the qualities of permanence, stability, and grounded faith.
Of course, practical considerations would also play a huge role. Armenia, with its vast mountain ranges and dormant volcanoes, would have no trouble sourcing the slate and tuff, both relatively workable, for construction purposes. In a region prone to earthquakes, man-made structures had to prove sturdy. The rock, as a substrate of spiritual expression, signified the eternal and the infinite, amidst an unpredictable future.
But the material, no matter how remarkable, is nothing without the craftsman. In the case of the Armenians, anyone with religious and moral conviction could erect a khachkar. Moreover, khachkars were commissioned for a number of social, spiritual, or individual reasons—anything from the planting of a garden to victory in war. Some were dedicated to saints, but all were a source of pride for the artist and the patron, the country, the church, and ultimately, God.
Today, khachkars (some a millennium old) face destruction in Turkey and Azerbaijan. The last of the largest collections of khachkars, the Armenian Cemetery in Jugha in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, was purposefully annihilated in 2005 after several years of intermittent attacks. Wielding sledgehammers and shovels, Azeri soldiers demolished the last remaining khachkars in the area. Turkey has ordered its own elimination program in Kars and Ani, with khachkars turning up as building stones, gravel, and other debris.
As the late Dr. Armen Haghnazarian, former director of Research on Armenian Architecture, commented after the Jugha cemetery destruction, “The destruction of Nakhijevan’s Armenian cultural heritage at state level is a crime not only against the Armenian nation but against all civilization. The annihilation of such monuments . . . is defilement of sacred tenets of all religions.”
Needless to say, the violence is reminiscent of the larger Armenian Genocide. Some might contend that while unfortunate, the death of these artifacts remains only a cultural casualty. However, it is in fact equivalent to the loss of human life. When something so ingrained with cultural self is forcefully expunged, it is a direct assault against that culture and its humanity. It is in essence declaring, “Those people did not exist—they never have.”
In light of the Turks’ and Azerbaijanis’ wrongdoing, it can be easy to nurture a profound prejudice against them. However, the conflict was never merely an Armenian or a Turkish or an Azeri one: at its very core, it whispers something primal. All types of organizations run the risk of group polarization. Where a population is sufficiently diverse and where freedom and tolerance are prized, this is a lesser danger.
But under tight government censorship like that of Azerbaijan and Turkey, these factors are oppressed, breeding a cult-like system where anything that is unlike the government is against the government.
Why? Nationalism and similar phenomena operate by appealing to the vulnerable self. Offering identity and solidarity, they seem a quick fix for individual shortcomings. But by joining the group, individuals compromise their beliefs and lower their inhibitions in order to gain the benefits of a social network: purpose, protection, and sense of belonging. Those that are marginalized become the new enemies. Thus, the group mindset slowly erodes individual accountability, causing members to commit acts they would hesitate to do on their own. Polarization can make people forget that others, outside of their affiliation, are in fact humans as well. And when they forget, inhumanity abounds.
Once again, the ancient khachkar is summoned as a rallying symbol of Armenian identity, though this time, it is just as much invested in the Turkish and Azeri people. If the last of this cultural cornerstone is destroyed, they too will lose something precious.
Ansel Oommen is a calligrapher, poet, and freelance writer with a keen interest in Christian iconography and medieval illumination. His work has been published in Blueprint, Living Green Magazine, and the Bug Club Magazine.
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