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Mysteries of Armenia

The Holder of Relics

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One of the best known monuments of the Armenian medieval architecture, Gandzasar Monastery, is situated on the territory of historic Artsakh. It was first mentioned in the 10th century, although it is well known, that it had repeatedly been reconstructed. The building of St John Baptist’s church began on its territory in 1216. According to the legend, the head of the prophet, which had been brought back from Cilician Armenia, was reburied here. Despite the papacy’s preconceived attitude to the ancient Eastern Christian churches in times of European Renaissance, the country did not cease being called a Holy Land. This was greatly conditioned by the fact that Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity. Special attention was paid to the relics kept on the territory of the country. They were indeed thoroughly protected. There even exists a version, according to which the third crusade served the purpose of handing the Roman Church the head of the Precursor, which had been reburied in Cilicia. Curiously enough, the sudden death of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa I in the Cilician Selif River (June 10, 1190) occurred when the guides of knightly troops were Armenians. In Armenia, the first evidence about the whereabouts of the prophet’s relics dates back to the times of St Gregory the Illuminator, who had buried them in Mush, Ashtishat and Baghavan. During the formation of Cilician Kingdom the residence of the Armenian Catholicos was also moved to the Mediterranean coast. The clergy took part of the relics there, and John Baptist’s head was presumably among the latter.

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