A Story about the Magi in Armenia

As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and Revelation of Jesus Christ on Jan. 6, I thought you might be interested in an important part of history that involves the Magi who followed the Star to Bethlehem, and then traveled to Armenia.

As Matthew 2:12 confirms, the Magi decided to return to their homeland via a different way. According to the Gontag, the Magi struck northward from Bethlehem and arrived on a plain outside the ancient city of Moush.

In Matthew 2:1–12, we read that when Jesus Christ was born during the days of Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. They told Herod that they had seen the Star, and had followed it with the hope of finding the one who was to be born as the new King. The Jewish scribes confirmed that the Prophet Micah foresaw that the new King would be born in Bethlehem, and so the Magi set out from Jerusalem, following the Star. The Star led them to the place where the newborn Child was, and the Magi entered into the place, and found the Child with His mother, Mary. The Magi bowed down to the earth in adoration, and then, opening their gifts, presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And then, having been warned in a dream not to travel back through Jerusalem and encountering Herod there, the Magi returned to their homeland using a different way.

The Gospel account contains many beautiful facts, but alas, does not provide certain crucial information. We do not know how many Magi there were. Supposition indicates that each Magus presented one of the three gifts, and therefore, there may have been three, but we do not know for certain. Nor do we know the exact location of their ancestral homeland “in the East.” Because the word “magus” may be interpreted as “astronomer” or “astrologer” (from the root “M-G” meaning “star”), many suppose that they originated in either Babylon or Persia, which were famous centers of astronomy and astrology. Again, we do not know for certain. Lastly, the Gospel does not supply the names of the Magi. Later traditions assigned to them the names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and further traditions claimed that Gaspar was the eldest in age and Balthasar the youngest.

In Western Armenian, the names are pronounced Kaspar, Melkon, and Baghdasar.

In the course of one of my arcane research ventures, I stumbled across a rare book that included a history of the Armenian Monastery of Saint John the Baptist (“Sourp Garabed Vank”), outside the ancient city of Moush. I discovered a fascinating document: It was the text of a “Gontag” (an official encyclical from a church functionary, from the Greek word Kontakion), asking for donations for repairs needed for a dilapidated sanctuary outside one of the villages of Moush.

The Gontag, sadly, does not include a date or the name of the official who issued it. Nevertheless, the text, written in Classical Armenian, provides a piece of information that is both beautiful for Armenians and critical for Christianity.

As Matthew 2:12 confirms, the Magi decided to return to their homeland via a different way. According to the Gontag, the Magi struck northward from Bethlehem and arrived on a plain outside the ancient city of Moush. There they set up camp to rest from their weary travels. In the middle of the night, Gaspar, who was apparently the eldest of the Magi, passed away peacefully. Melchior and Balthasar were naturally grieved by the passing of their older friend, and set upon the solemn task of arranging his proper burial.

Local people were commissioned, and Gaspar was buried at the brow of a hill overlooking the plain where they had encamped. The local people then constructed a sepulcher over the burial place. After a respectful period of mourning, Melchior and Balthasar resumed their journey home.

For 300 years, the local people continued to maintain the sepulcher, and passed on the oral tradition that a wise man had seen a great star, traveled to Bethlehem, witnessed the birth of a great king, and had passed away on his return journey.

The tradition of the Magi in Armenia may also have been known to King Abgar (Apkar) of Edessa (Urfa) who, according to church history, wanted to know more about Christianity, and wrote a letter to Jesus Christ, inviting Him to come to Edessa to heal the king and remain in that city (see Eusebius, History of the Church). After the Resurrection, the Apostle Thaddeus journeyed to Edessa, preached about Christianity, healed Abgar, and baptized him, making Abgar the first known Christian king of Armenia.

Before Gregory the Illuminator returned to Armenia after being consecrated a bishop in Caesarea in Cappadocia, he was entrusted by Bishop Leontius with several venerated relics. As Gregory traveled back to Armenia, he stopped outside of Moush. He ordered that a monastery be constructed there to house the great relic of Saint John the Baptist. Until May, 1915, the famous Sourp Garabed Vank stood as a sentinel of Armenian Christianity.

While Gregory was sojourning in the area, the local people told him about the burial place of the wise man. At that time, the vast majority of people living around Moush were still pagan. They understood that the sepulcher contained the relics of an important person, but they were unaware of the specific connection of Gaspar and the Magi to the theology of Christianity. Gregory immediately journeyed to the place, and recognized the sanctity of the sepulcher. He ordered that a monastery be built around the sepulcher in order to preserve and protect the relics of Gaspar. The monastery was henceforth known as “Sourp Kaspari Vank” or “Kasparavank.”

Every year, on Theophany, when the Christmas Star appeared in the night sky, the priests, monks, and pilgrims would gather at Sourp Kaspari Vank would offer the first Holy Eucharist of the feast-day on the altar-table that was constructed over the sepulcher of Gaspar the Wiseman.

In the West, many believe the relics of the Magi were discovered in the fourth century in Milan, Italy, and were later transferred to Cologne/Koln, Germany. To this day, visitors to Cologne may see the beautiful golden shrine inside the cathedral that, according to Western tradition, preserves the remains of the Magi. For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to Cologne at both Christmas and Epiphany to venerate these relics.

But what about Armenia? If the Gontag account is accurate, then it would indicate that the more important relic–the entire body of Gaspar–has been preserved and venerated in Armenia since at least the time of Gregory the Illuminator. How a fragment of this relic arrived in Europe requires serious research, and why Armenia is not accorded a superior place in the Christmas narrative remains inexplicable.

Sourp Kaspari Vank appears to have functioned both as a monastery and a place of pilgrimage for Christians from the 3rd century until the early 19th century. The monastery was still visited up through 1915, although the building was apparently pillaged and ruined in the early 1800’s during a series of raids by Kurdish tribes. Nevertheless, the traditional resting place of Gaspar continued to be venerated by Armenians from all around Moush and the surrounding areas.

As we gather to celebrate Theophany and Armenian Christmas, I hope that you will take a moment to offer a prayer for the Magi. I also hope that you will remember the many pilgrims who traveled to Sourp Kaspari Vank year after year to celebrate Armenian Christmas Eve upon the altar-table that was constructed over the sepulcher of Gaspar. I also hope that when we discuss the issue of genocide, we take into account not only the people who perished, but the precious relics that have been lost or stolen, and the centuries of cherished traditions that have vanished.

To you and for us all come these glad tidings of great joy:

Christ is born and revealed to the Magi!

Blessed is the Revelation of Christ’s Nativity brought to the Armenians by the Magi!

avatar

Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian

Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian graduated in 1982 from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, and with a triple major of Political Science, Economics, and Public Law. He received faculty, departmental, and collegiate awards and honors for his academics. From Claremont, George enrolled in the law school and then the business school at the University of San Francisco, and completed his joint Master’s Degrees with honors in 1985. In 1986, he enrolled in theological studies, and by 1989, he completed both a Master’s and Doctorate in Theology with a specialization in the development of the Lectionary System of the Armenian Church. Upon completion of his doctoral work, George was ordained into the Diaconate by Archbishop Datev Sarkissian. He is currently enrolled in a post-doctoral study, again in theology, and hopes to complete this second doctorate within the next several years. Over the past 30 years, Archdeacon George has served Saint Gregory the Illuminator parish in San Francisco, and has been actively involved with Christian Education programs throughout the Eastern and Western Prelacies of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. He teaches Theology and Liturgics at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and has served at several mission parishes over the past decade. He has developed a particular interest in the interaction between village parishes and local monasteries in historic Armenia, and likewise, an interest in the evolution of Armenian parish life in the diaspora. He is committed to the daily, liturgical life of the Armenian Church, and remains dedicated to continuous education and spiritual renewal within the community.

11 Comments

  1. This is very nice article…
    Please, let us know more about Armenian Inventors Painters…etc
    That we know little…
    By beloved got fed up from my genocide letters…
    He will me to go a place…where he will not hear any genocide word
    and never more

    Read about this painter I never heard before…from Wikipedia

    Harutyun Kalents (Armenian: Հարություն Կալենց), was a prolific Armenian painter, born on March 27, 1910 in the town of Kyurin, present day Turkey.
    [edit]

    Biography

    Kalents was born in Kyurin, Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) on March 27 of 1910. His father Tiratur owned a wool-dying factory which left a profound impression on young Kalents with its vats of bright colors. In 1915, during the Armenian genocide, Kalents’ father was taken away by Turkish soldiers, never to be seen again. Kalents along with his three brothers and mother escaped to Aleppo, Syria. A few days after their arduous trek into Aleppo, Kalents’ mother died of starvation and fatigue. Kalents and his three brothers spent their childhood and youth in an Aleppo orphanage. Despite the hardships of life in the orphanage, Kalents began cultivating his passion for arts in part by encouragement from one of the orphanage sisters. He often escaped the orphanage to roam around the Aleppo markets and paint.
    In 1922, at the age of 12, Kalents left the orphanage to become an apprentice to a lithographer and later received his primary artistic education from Onik Avetisyan in Aleppo. He then followed his brothers to Tripoli, Lebanon where they had opened a photo studio. Kalents painted backgrounds to be used in the photo sessions. From 1929-1933, French painter Claude Michulet was his teacher in Beirut Academy of Fine Arts, where he then taught painting until 1939.
    Kalents was awarded the Medal of Merit by the presidium of International Exhibitions in New York in 1939, and the honorary prize by the government of Lebanon for his bas-reliefs in the Pavilion of Lebanon presented at the New York International exhibition.

    Thanks for reading
    Any one has his painting…?

    Sylva

  2. Thank you for such an interesting and informative article .I enjoyed very much reading it .I will e mail to my friends and relatives to read too .
    Nectar Leylekian Derghazarian from Montreal

  3. Thank you for this news. I read the article to my Armenian wife and she didn’t know about this. As for the Magi’s relics in Cologne, I suppose that they were relics not containing those of Gaspar, but people not knowing of Gaspar’s death in Moush thought they were. We may also suppose that there was a fourth magus traveling with them whose relics were taken for Gaspar’s

  4. Thank you Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian for this piece of research, i would be interested to know the title of the book you found this information from.

    Regards from France.

    .

  5. Enjoyed the Magi story in relation to Armenia – interesting article – precious
    information might be wise to research on – 3 wise men on a mission.
    Thank you for sharing it with us

  6. Very interesting article!

    There were many relics that were taken from Byzantium and other areas of the East to Europe. Often, enterprising businessmen found ways to make money off religious tourists (such as with the relics of St. Nicholas)! So, not quite sure how the relics of the Magi supposedly wound up in Milan and then Germany, but this story sounds rather plausible to me.

    Thank you for the lovely story!

  7. Magi were a privileged and chosen Caspian tribe who lived in the Northern Talysh (part of Midian empire now occupied by Azerbaijan Sultanate) and gave Indo-Europeans many famous prophets including Zarathustra.

    Their country was one of the richest and developed in the world with sophisticated irrigation system that brought waters from Arax and Kur rivers.
    The capital city of this country was called Mygon (near modern Lonkoran) with many other cities surrounding it – Varsan, Barzand, Bajiravan, Balaakh, Zakharkesh, Sadarasg, Sadj (near modern Astara), Duarud.

    After the Turkic invasions this civilization was destroyed and abandoned. Turkic nomads turned their cities into ruins and destroyed irrigation channels so their horses and sheep would feel more comfortable roaming the newly created “steppes” free of the native inhabitants. A small number of Magi escaped to Talysh mountains and became one of the ancestors of the modern Talysh people. The place where this civilization has flourished is still called Mygon which means the Country of Magi in Talysh.

    The current Azeri Turk Sultanate’s policy of forced Turkification of the native peoples resulted in dramatic decrease in “official” number of Talysh minority. Like many other ethnic minorities, Talysh people are not allowed to have their schools, TV, books, etc. and persecuted for speaking their ancient language and raising political concerns. Their lands are being repopulated by tribes close to Sultan Aliyev’s clan coming from Turkey.

  8. Thank-You that was a great article I wish some of the oral stories would be put in a book and anyone with knowledge of such exciting tid bits of our history would put it in the book also but I guess most are dead this was sooo exciting

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Reis Magos: realidade ou lenda? Simbolismo ou convenção?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*