The most familiar symbol of Christianity, as we all know, is the cross. Armenia is full of Cross-stones (Khachkars); large decorative stones with stylized crosses carved into them.
As the medieval monk Thomas à Kempis once said, “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…”
With all these attributes, it is little wonder that the Cross could serve the premiere symbol of Armenian national identity and union. Starting from the 4th century, the conversion of Armenians, and the introduction of Christianity (specifically the Armenian Apostolic Church) as the state religion in AD 301, issued in a new era of truly Armenian national consciousness. This burgeoning perception of Armenia as an entity distinct from the surrounding Zoroastrians, by whom they were in danger of being consumed was solidified by several significant events of the time, namely the invention of the Armenian alphabet, the removal of formerly pagan temples, and Gregory the Illuminator’s reign as the first head of the Armenian Church. It was at this time, by the order of Gregory that the first khachkars were created.
At first glance, the khachkar bears strong resemblance to other forms of Christian art, particularly the Celtic High Cross and the Lithuanian Kryždirbystė. A type of relief sculpture, it features a variety of floral and geometric designs as well as depictions of famous bible stories.
The cross was not always a respected religious symbol, it once represented the lowest and least respectful form of execution, reserved for those who were disgraced. The resurrection of Jesus; however, and the persecution of the early Armenian Christians, changed the cross into a symbol of spiritual victory and transcendence.
At the same time, mountains were finding a place in Armenian religious customs. To the Armenians, the mountain represented austerity, reverence, and closeness with God. For the early Armenians, there was no better way to claim thier new Christian heritage than by utilizing the mountains, of which Armenia has no shortage (Armenia’s ancient territory included numerous mountains mentioned in the bible) Over time, the worship of mountains evolved into using stone stelas that could be erected near the home or church or along the nations roads.