Ever wondered what it’s like to celebrate Easter in Armenia? Here’s a peek into what it’s like to celebrate the holiday in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
The air was thick with burning incense and whispered conversations, punctuated by beams of sunlight from above, the occasional flash of a camera, a selfie stick that strayed too far. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were facing forwards, looking towards a sight they couldn’t see, an homage to God hidden behind a heavy velvet curtain. Welcome to Easter in Armenia.
The origins of Christianity in Armenia… or Armenia: the origin of Christianity?
Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world, having declared itself a Christian country in 301 AD. Its national church is the Apolistic church, a subset of Oriental Orthodox Christianity. To keep things short, the “Catholicus” is the head honcho of the church (à la the Pope for Catholics), and people consider the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus to have founded the church when they entered Armenian lands in the early AD years.
Prior to that, its inhabitants were mostly Pagan, but as history often goes, when the country converted to Christianity, the first Catholicus, Gregory the Illuminator (sweet name, yo) ripped up all of the Pagan temples and monuments, then built churches and the like on their ruins. A wee bit drastic, but clearly super effective.
Prior to Easter, AKA Lent
In the Armenian church (and many others), Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday.
In Armenia, at the start of Lent, curtains are drawn to hide the altars of churches. It’s a way to signal to the people that the austerity of Lent is coming, which translates to “INDULGE WHILE YOU STILL CAN!” Most people are familiar with this concept–they just know it as Mardi Gras.
For the people that strictly adhere to Lent, this means it’s the last day to gorge on the forbidden fruits of Lent: meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, milk. Basically, Lent time = vegan time. Most people don’t stick to this, but you do see “fasting menus” in some restaurants throughout the region during this time.
Aside from the austere vegan routine, more relaxed Christians will do things like setting out trays of lentils with a bit of water, which will sprout and grow until they look like trays of grass by the time Easter rolls around.
(… if the hungry/hangry Lentvegans don’t get to them first.)
Decorative eggs are also traditionally dyed red, using the skins of red onions. Pay attention, hippies and earth lovers! Armenians clearly know what’s up when it comes to environmentally friendly living.
‘Twas the night before Easter, and all through Yerevan…
The Easter holiday begins at 17:00 on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. People flock to churches and cathedrals, enterprising men peddle candles and flowers at entrances to church grounds, and groups of giggling children walk throughout the city handing out small Easter cards of their own creation to random passers by. As the sun falls, the city lights up not only with street lights, but also the candle lights of people trickling out from the churches, on their way to the homes of others for more celebrations.
We were strolling through the bustling streets, admiring the candle lights while trying to walk off some of the Armenian pizzas we had just consumed, when we heard church music floating through the air from Republic Square. Curiosity being essential to travel, we headed over to see what was going on.
Rows of soldiers and civilians clutching candles were gathered in the square, which contained another square of candles. As the music played on, the rows took turns marching to the center, congregating around the center square. Three short rows of soldiers, one long row of civilians, with passers by flitting in and out of the throng to take pictures and see what was going on.
Not sure about visiting Yerevan during Easter? Here are 8 more reasons you should visit Yerevan!
As the last people stepped into their places, the music stopped, and candles were raised. Voices called out, chanting in Armenian, when suddenly everybody placed their candles on the ground and broke formation. All that remained was a huge, gently flickering cross.
The day itself: Easter in Armenia
And so we return to the incense-filled, divinely-lit, softly murmuring hall of the cathedral. It was about noon, and the cathedral was filled with people, craning their necks to see ahead.
The moment had finally come. Priests walked out as the curtain was pulled back, to reveal the ornate altar and painting of Mary and Jesus that previously had laid hidden behind it. The front of the crowd surged, eager to get in line to receive their communion from the priests.
We sat and watched people for a time. Some were jostling for their chance to join in communion, others were content to sit and observe. Older women sat, heads bowed and covered with lacy handkerchiefs, praying softly. Younger girls donned their headscarves for temporary show as they received communion, only to whip them off moments later to join giggling and gossiping friends in the crowds. Iranian tourists snaked through the crowds, easily spotted due to their selfie sticks poking above the masses like a periscope amid the waves.
As the day went on, the sun emerged, and the crowds moved outside to bask and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Despite the holiday, much of the city was still open and buzzing about, as cities are wont to do. If it weren’t for groups of primly dressed girls, and the occasional Easter treat in a bakery window or street stall, one might not have realized that any holiday was going on at all.
Looking for a place to sleep in Yerevan?
- We recommend Glide Hostel for budget travelers
- We recommend Park Boutique Hotel for mid-range travelers
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