I’m sitting in my living room, peering down through a virtual reality headset into a dirt pit in Khor Virap where legend says St. Gregory the Illuminator was held for 15 years before curing his captor, King Trdat, of an ailment and convincing him to convert to Christianity. Fable or not, by the early 300s AD Trdat had declared Christianity the official state religion, making Armenia one of the first, if not the first, countries to institute a national Christian church.
Armenia’s claim to be the first Christian nation is contested by some—particularly the nation of Ethiopia, which also purports to be the first. The early history of Christianity is murky, but overall, many scholars today agree that Armenia holds this designation.
“Though there were Christians in Ethiopia—a few at least, very early—the same was true everywhere,” Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Berberian Chair of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Fresno State, told Smithsonian.com. “The Armenian Church claims an official conversion of the nation to Christianity in [the year] 301, though many scholars speak of 313 to 314.” Kouymjian says the actual date differs among Armenian historical sources, but researchers prefer to use a date of 314, because it comes after the Edict of Milan, which allowed the open practice of any religion throughout the Roman Empire. Even so, he said, this is still “some decades before Ethiopia, where we learned that a majority of the inhabitants converted after 340.”
Historians believe Trdat’s decision may have been motivated both by a desire to consolidate power over the growing community of Christians within Armenia and as a political move to demonstrate to Rome, who at the time offered protectorate support, a parting of ways with Rome’s region rival, the pagan Sasanian regime.
Regardless of the reasoning, with Trdat’s support, St. Gregory became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church and went about the region spreading the faith and constructing churches on top of pagan temples.
Today, the Armenian landscape is dotted with spectacular churches, the most notable of which date back to the medieval period when the development of communal monasteries transformed these remote locations into centers of art and learning. Today, many of these historic monasteries are still off the beaten path, perched overlooking vast gorges or hidden away in forested valleys.
This is part of what the 360GreatArmenia VR app and website is trying to solve for by making virtual tours available from anywhere. In addition to the Khor Virap Monastery, the project has captured more that 300 virtual reality tours of ancient sites within modern Armenia.
The project’s founder, Vahagn Mosinyan, said seeing a 360-degree image of another town online back in 2012 “triggered…an interest to make the same 360-degree platform for Armenia, because it is a great tool to preserve and to archive cultural heritage.” The resulting stitched images, taken both by drones and photographers on the ground, allow viewers to switch from aerial to street views, navigate through interiors and view relics and historical art. Users are invited to annotate the destinations with information and stories.
Backed by Ucom, an Armenian internet service provider, the project was also recently featured in a special exhibit at the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan that focused on the more than 50 cultural monuments the project has captured in historical Western Armenia, in modern day Turkey.